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16 April 2019

The Tower of Babel, World Empire, and Human Presumption

SYNOPSIS:  Presumptions of global empire are a legacy of the incident at the Tower of Babel, the first attempt at universal rule, and the backstory of Daniel’s Theology of History

World City - Unsplash.comThe book of Daniel begins by presenting a key theme that is demonstrated in history: God reigns over the kingdoms of the world. It also looks back to the first empire that set the pattern for all subsequent attempts at global rule, the Tower of Babel incident. Despite appearances, God governs history. Every human attempt to seize sovereignty is presumption upon God's prerogative (Genesis 11:1-9).
(Daniel 4:17) – “The Most-High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he will, and sets up over it the lowest of men.”
The king of Babylon overthrew the king of Judah and removed the golden vessels from the Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar,” a tribute to the superiority of his god. The destruction of Judah occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand” (Daniel 1:1-2).
This created a theological dilemma for members of God’s chosen nation, for the Neo-Babylonian Empire had destroyed what remained of the kingdom of Israel.  The Hebrew text repeats “house” three times and “his god” twice for emphasis. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel (Isaiah 46:1).
“Shinar” is the ancient name of Mesopotamia and the site of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis, mankind was united by a single language and attempted to unite into one kingdom. Yahweh thwarted this first attempt at global empire by confounding human language and scattering the resultant groups across the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
The new “king of Babel” was apparently reversing Yahweh’s earlier decree by seizing God’s “house,” gathering scattered nations back to Shinar and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  Israel’s tribute included high ranking Jewish exiles sent to Babylon to be educated in the wisdom, language and laws of Babylon, and then to serve it as civil servants (Daniel 1:4).
This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation; it lost its independence and, in a few short years, the kingdom and the dynastic rule of the house of David came to an end, Jerusalem was destroyed, and its population deported to Mesopotamia.  Yet Daniel declares it was the Lord who gave all this into the hands of a pagan enemy of Israel.
The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied this same way two more times in the first chapter of Daniel.  In verse 9, God gave Daniel “favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs,” and in verse 17, He gave Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” Further, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.
The king put Daniel and his friends to the test; he “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm.” Therefore, they were promoted to serve the king in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrate that God used the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history (Daniel 1:19-20).
In chapter 2, events occurred in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar; that is, before the completion of Daniel’s Babylonian education. This infers that his successful interpretation of the king’s dream in chapter 2 was not attributable to his Chaldean education; rather, it was due to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by Yahweh (Daniel 1:17).
Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed a dream that troubled him and, therefore, he commanded the wise men of Babylon to reveal its contents and their significance. This they were unable to do; “there is not a man upon the earth who can declare the matter of the king…there is none who can declare it before the king except the gods whose dwelling is not with flesh.”
The enraged king ordered the destruction of the wise men. Daniel requested a time when he could make the interpretation known to Nebuchadnezzar, then prayed for the revelation of “this mystery” (Daniel 2:13-18).
Yahweh responded in a night vision and revealed the king’s dream. Daniel then praised the God who “changes times and seasons, removes kings and sets up kings…He is the One Who reveals the deep and hidden things…for the matter of the king have you made known to us.” Daniel revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation. Thus, God showed Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days” (Daniel 2:19-45).
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a large image with a head of gold, breast, and arms of silver, belly, and thighs of brass, and legs of iron with feet partly of iron and partly of clay. A stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and broke it into pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and golden parts were broken in pieces and became like chaff blown by the wind, but the stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar to whom God had given the kingdom. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed his domain, likewise, the brass belly and thighs would “rule over all the earth,” each in its turn. The stone carved “without hands” represented a final kingdom established by God, one that would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding ones. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things” (Daniel 2:37).
Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel, gave him gifts, and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon. The king declared Yahweh to be “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” The mighty pagan ruler thus acknowledged His sovereignty over nations and history.
Thus, the God of Israel reveals the future of kingdoms; He sets up and removes rulers to achieve His purpose. Through Daniel, God laid out the future course of the global empire until its final overthrow by the kingdom of God. The rise (and fall) of empires is under the firm control of the God of Israel.
The story in Chapter 3 of Daniel is the sequel to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. The king next attempted to implement that dream by “making an image of gold.” However, the entire image that he “set up” was covered in gold, not just the head. The king had determined to magnify his achievements and to declare to all mankind that his kingdom was an everlasting realm.
At the command of the king, all the “satraps, nobles, pashas, chief judges, treasurers, judges, lawyers, and all provincial governors were assembled to the dedication of the image…and they stood before it.” All were commanded to “render homage to the image that the king had set up”; any who refused were cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:3-6).
The image represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian ruler over all the “peoples, races and tongues” of the empire. Presumptuously, he demanded that all men venerate his image he had “set up.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in chapter 2 for the God who “sets up” kings (Daniel 2:21, 2:44).
In Daniel 3:1-18, nine times the text states that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image, a deliberate contrast to the claims of God in the preceding chapter. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar claimed authority that belonged only to Yahweh (Daniel 3:1, 3:2, 3:3 [twice], 3:5, 3:7, 3:12, 3:14, 3:18).
Some of the “wise men” of Babylon used the situation to settle scores for their earlier loss of face. Though loyal to the king, the Jewish exiles could not worship the image because of their greater loyalty to Yahweh.
When Nebuchadnezzar heard that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego “refused” to worship his image, he gave them a stark choice:  give allegiance to the image or suffer a fiery death. After all, “Who is the god that shall deliver you out of my hand?” The three exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one described he described as “like to a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:13-25).
With trepidation, the king summoned the three men to exit the furnace and addressed them as “servants of the Most-High God.”  Because they had survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego,” because He “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants who trusted in Him.” Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree to “all peoples, nations and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of the God of Israel would be cut in pieces.
As in the account of Chapter 2, praise and acknowledgment of God were heard on the lips of a powerful pagan king. Nebuchadnezzar previously described Daniel as a servant of the “God of gods and Lord of kings.” He next acknowledged the three Jewish exiles to be servants of the “Most-High God.” Once more, the ruler of the global empire acknowledged the sovereignty of Yahweh and its universal extent.
As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and, thus, the command of Yahweh over historical events was demonstrated. The presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His Divine purposes.
Chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the world empire, acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh over history, thus, reiterating the central theme of the book.
Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that caused him anxiety. He summoned the wise men of Babylon to interpret it. As before, only Daniel could do so.  In the dream, a large tree in the center of the earth grew until its height reached heaven. It was visible from the extremities of the earth. Animals were fed by it and the birds of the air sheltered in its branches. The tree represented the king and his sovereignty.
Nebuchadnezzar then saw a “holy watcher” descend from heaven who commanded the complete removal of the tree.  It was “cut down,” its branches “lopped off,” its leaves “stripped,” and its fruit “scattered across the earth.” Only the “tip of it root” remained in the earth (Daniel 4:4-18).
A year later, “All this came upon Nebuchadnezzar.” At the height of his power, he boasted of his accomplishments: “Is this not Babylon the Great that I myself built by the might of my power and for the dignity of my majesty?”  Immediately a voice pronounced: “O Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom has departed from you…until you come to know that the Most-High has dominion over the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever he pleases.”
The king’s understanding left him, and he was expelled to live like an animal for “seven seasons,” just as the dream foretold. After his restoration, just as the dream also foretold, Nebuchadnezzar declared:
Blessed is the Most-High who lives forever! I praise and honor the One whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Before Him, all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and according to his own pleasure, He deals with the Host of Heaven and the inhabitants of the earth.
History remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a great builder and military conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding kingdom. In contrast, Scripture remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends despite the plans and whims of the pagan king. Babylon symbolizes the world kingdom set in hostility to God. The fourth chapter of Daniel is an object lesson in the hollowness of the claims of empires and kings; God installs and removes rulers as He sees fit.
Chapter 5 of Daniel is set on the last evening of the final ruler of Babylon, Belshazzar. The chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom to his own and established the empire of the “Medes and Persians.” That development set the stage for the conflict with Babylon and the eventual demise of the empire “set-up” by Nebuchadnezzar.
On a fateful night in 539 B.C., Belshazzar threw a feast during which his retinue drank wine from vessels previously removed from Yahweh’s Temple, all while “praising the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” In that same hour, a hand began to write on the wall. Disturbed, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing. No one was able to do so.
Daniel was summoned. Belshazzar offered him rewards if he could interpret the sign. But Daniel retorted that he would interpret it regardless of any proffered gifts. He reminded the king that Nebuchadnezzar had received “the kingdom, greatness, glory and majesty” from the Most-High God, and authority over “all peoples, nations, and tongues.” But when that king’s heart was lifted up, he was deposed, deprived of his glory, and driven from the sons of men, “Until he came to know that the Most-High God rules over the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he pleases.” 
In contrast, Belshazzar had not humbled his heart, “though he knew all this”; instead, he exalted himself against the Lord of heaven by profaning the vessels from His Temple. Rather than honor the Most-High God, he praised false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”
The supernatural writing read, ‘Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin,’ representing Aramaic words that have to do with monetary weights; mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” tekel of the Jewish shekel, and peres (from upharsin) for “half-pieces” or the “half-mina.” The last term was a double wordplay, first on the name “Persia,” the power about to overthrow Babylon, then on the Aramaic verb for “divide” (from the consonantal stem prs).
The Aramaic terms signified that “God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end” (mene), “you are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (tekel), “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres). Yahweh’s sovereignty was on full display; the global empire was now transferred from Babylon to the Medes and Persians.
Despite his dark prediction, Belshazzar ordered Daniel to be arrayed with purple and a gold chain. He was proclaimed the “third ruler in the kingdom.” That very night, the Medes and Persians captured the city and slew Belshazzar. The first global empire fell; the next became ascendant. Through the words of a Jewish captive, Yahweh deposed one mighty empire and established another of even greater magnitude.
Darius the Mede” appointed Daniel to be the first among three ministers of state tasked with managing the governors and finances of the province of Babylon. But certain officials envied Daniel and sought to discredit him. Unable to find fault with the execution of his duties, they fabricated a charge of disloyalty to the Persian regime based on his religious practices by devising a law that forbade anyone from petitioning any “god or man for thirty days,” except Darius. Flattered, he signed it into the “law of the Medes and Persians.” According to the Persian custom, once written, the law could not be altered by anyone, not even by the king. Thus, the trap was set (Daniel 6:1-3).
Daniel did not alter his daily routine and his accusers “found him making petition and supplication before his God.” They informed the king, “Have you not signed an edict that every man who shall petition any god or man within thirty days, save you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?” The king acknowledged this to be so, “according to the law of the Medes and Persians that alters not” (Daniel 6:12).
The trap was sprung. Daniel’s enemies accused him of disloyalty. This distressed Darius who valued Daniel, so he determined to save his life if he could find a way. Despite his vast political power, he was only able to postpone the execution until sunset, being constrained by the “law of the Medes and Persians.” The Prophet was thrown into a den of lions and the pit was sealed shut. The king passed the night anxiously, rose early the next day, and hastened to see if Daniel had survived: “Is the God whom you serve able to deliver you from the lions?
Indeed, Daniel remained alive and answered the king. God’s angel had shut the mouths of the lions so they could do him no harm. Daniel was found “blameless” before God and Darius. Daniel was removed from the den and his accusers cast in to die an immediate and horrible death. The ferocity of the lions demonstrated that Daniel had not been spared because they were not hungry. Only Divine intervention had saved his life.
    Darius issued a decree to “all the peoples, nations, and tongues that dwell in all the earth,” that men ought to fear and revere the “God of Daniel.” He is the living God and His “kingdom shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.” As a result, Daniel prospered even more under the reigns of Darius and Cyrus than he did in the Babylonian empire (Daniel 6:25-28).
Darius had altered the unalterable Persian law because of Yahweh’s intervention. The plot to exploit the law of the “Medes and Persians” for evil ended, instead, in the demise of the plotters. The previous edict that compelled all subjects of the empire to petition no god or man other than Darius, but Yahweh caused Darius to command all his subjects to acknowledge His everlasting sovereignty.
The first half of the book of Daniel demonstrates that Yahweh, the God of Israel, rules over the kingdoms of men and the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful rulers cannot thwart His purposes and the defeat of His people by a pagan power is no impediment to Him. God uses both good and evil rulers to achieve His ends.

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