Week 18 – The Story
God Rules and Overrules
Daniel 1:1-8; 5:12-14; I Peter1:15-16
Not too long ago my wife and I visited with friends in Williamsburg, Virginia. While tourists of the Old Historical Colony we learned a lot of history of our country. For instance, from May to September 1787, the American Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to develop a system of government for the new nation. By June 28, progress had been so slow that Benjamin Franklin stood and addressed George Washington, president of the convention. Among the things, he said: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men.” He then moved that they invite some of local clergy to come to the assembly to lead them in prayer for divine guidance. The motion would have passed except that the convention had no budget for paying visiting chaplains.
Though not a professed believer, Franklin (a deist) was a man who believed in a God who is the Architect and Governor of the universe, a conviction that agrees with the testimony of Scripture. Abraham called God “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25), and King Hezekiah prayed, “Thou are the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15). In Daniel’s day, King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men” (Daniel 4:32, NIV).
For decades, the prophets had warned the rulers of Judah that their idolatry and injustice toward the poor and needy would lead to the nation’s ruin. The prophets saw the day coming when God would bring the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take the people captive to Babylon. A century before the fall of Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed this message (Isa. 13:21; and 39), and Micah his contemporary shared the burden (Mic. 4:10). The prophet Habakkuk couldn’t understand how Jehovah could use the godless Babylonians to chasten His own people (Hab. 11), and Jeremiah lived to see these prophecies, plus his own prophesies, all come true (Jer. 20: 25, 27). God would rather have His people living in shameful captivity in a pagan land than living like pagans in the Holy Land and disgracing His name.
In Daniel we read that King Belshazzar held a feast for a thousand of the nobles of his realm. From the description in the fifth chapter of Daniel, it sounds like an affair that the Playboy paparazzi would have liked to cover, apparently the only women present were the king’s concubines and a number of call girls. We’re told that there was a lot of liquor flowing, and all in all, it sounds pretty much like a good old-fashioned orgy.
After Belshazzar has been drinking for a while, he reaches out for a grand climatic gesture, a display that will really raise his celebration to the next level. He orders the gold and silver vessels from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought in.
This would be like using the communion chalices of the church for beer mugs at a fraternity initiation, only this is a whole lot worse because this is a king doing it. The God of the Jews, Belshazzar clearly believes, is impotent. Who could expect the king to believe in a God who apparently was unable to protect either the honor of his people or his own honor? Why not make a public display of the powerlessness of such a god? Why not humiliate him and his people by putting his consecrated vessels to sacrilegious use? And so Belshazzar the King summoned his servants to pour wine into the cups, and the nobles began quaffing Babylonian vintages from the vessel of the Holy One of Israel.
Immediately, the Scripture tells us, the king saw “the handwriting on the wall.” A disembodied hand – or rather, a hand that is attached to and set in motion by a Power invisible to Belshazzar – appears and writes mysterious words on Belshazzar’s palace wall; and the king, drunk as he is, begins to tremble. Such is the artistry of the story that we are not yet told what the writing is; instead, we hear the king hollering for the cryptographers, for the CIA and the FBI, for the consultants and the pundits and the psychics. But nobody can tell him anything about the handwriting. The king becomes panicky, and the whole company is in confusion. At this dramatic moment the one person who has access to the king without invitation comes sweeping into the hall, having heard the uproar – namely, the queen mother.
“O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts alarm you or your color change. There is in your kingdom a man in who is the spirit of the holy gods . . . Let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation” (5:10-12).
“There is a man!” what sort of man was Daniel? The queen mother remembered him from the days of her husband, Nebuchadnezzar. There is a man! A man who would not eat Nebuchadnezzar’s non-kosher food; a man whose friends would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s gods; a man who stood before Nebuchadnezzar and said:
“No wise men. . . or astrologers can show to the king the mystery which the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known. . . what will be in the latter days” (2:27-28).
There is a man! A man who, because he would not compromise in the lesser things, could be trusted with the greater; a man who would continue to pray to Yahweh in public, though all the officials of Persia were watching in order to trap him; there is a man!”
Daniel is brought before Belshazzar. It has been many years since Nebuchadnezzar’s time, many years since Daniel has had anything meaningful or rewarding to do, many years since he has received the praise of men. “Look, uh, Daniel,” says the King, “if you can read that handwriting on the wall, I’ll give you a Mercedes Benz with a chauffeur and set you up in the corner office right down the hall from me.”
The Daniel utters one of the great speeches of the Bible:
“[O King], let your gifts be for yourself, and your rewards for another; nevertheless I will read the writing. . . You have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven, and the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you. . .. have drunk wine from them, and you have praised the gods of silver and gold. . . which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand in your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored. From his presence the hand was sent. . .” (5:17, 23-24).
And this is what it wrote:
And Daniel interpreted:
“God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighted in the balances and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (5:26-28).
And that very night Belshazzar the Chaldean was slain, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom.
Let’s pause for a moment to let this sink in. can you imagine the effect of this story when it was first told in the days of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (Greek king to come, 175-164, a vicious enemy of the Jews)? Despite all the appearances to the contrary, the God of Israel is the God of all nations of the globe. God’s power cannot be thwarted, no matter how much the mighty of the earth may swagger and boast and lift themselves up against the Lord of Heaven. “We are in the presence of the ultimate judgment on history.” YHWH, he is God! The future belongs to him. The empires of this world belong to him:
“The Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men” (4:17; 5:21).
The lowly, humble servant of God is more than all the kings and generals and presidents and dictators of the world. No follower of the living God of Israel would fail to understand; Antiochus, with all his worldly power and pomp, was doomed. What really mattered, what really lasted, was the faithfulness of God’s people even unto death.
In a very real sense, Daniel represents all the people of God, to whom God has revealed his mysteries, to whom God has made known what will be in the latter days. You understand that it was no easier to resist cultural pressures in those days than it is in our own time. After all, what was a single Jew, or a handful of Jews, in the vast sweep of empire? Was it so terrible to skip a couple of Sabbath services? Couldn’t a person simply go private with his faith and wait until the danger was past? For countless Christians in our own time, the book of Daniel has been a towering bulwark for faith under extreme pressure. Its readers have trusted the message and known what the end would be. God would vindicate the loyalty of his servants, though all the fury of a Nero or a Hitler, or an Idi Amin or a military-industrial complex be unleased against them.
Knowing the Most High God is to see things that cannot be seen by the unaided eye. The things of God can be seen only by faith, faith in the God who revealed to Daniel that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed” (7:14). In this world, the Christian community lives and acts in the dark, defended by a power that the “the rulers of this age.” (I Cor. 2:8) is invisible and nonexistent. For those whose eyes have been opened, it is God’s invading grace that enables us to see in the dark, to become children of light (Eph. 5:8), to do battle in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:3). To “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
May we bear our witness to the Son of Man in such a way that it will be said of us all, “There was a man! There was a woman!”