Empires Rise and Fall

Imperial hubris is the legacy of the Tower of Babel, humanity’s first but certainly not attempt to establish the World Empire.

Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash
The Tower of Babel incident is echoed in 
Daniel when the ruler of Shinar” gathers all nations to worship his great image in the “Plain of Dura.” His empire was not a new entity, but the latest incarnation of Satan’s plan to control humanity, one that has been underway since human civilization began - [Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash].

In the book of Genesis, God stops the rulers of Babel from completing the “high tower” in the “plain of the land of Shinar” by diversifying the single language spoken at the time and dispersing the resulting linguistic groups across the earth. That story provides the origins of the Babylonian Empire from the biblical perspective - (Genesis 11:1-9).

BABEL


Originally, the “whole earth was of one language and one speech.” The descendants of Noah migrated to Mesopotamia and dwelt “in the land of Shinar,” the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Sumer,’ and they began to build a city with a high tower to “reach the heavens and, thus, make us a name, lest we be scattered across the whole earth.”

In the beginning, God commanded Adam to “multiply, replenish and subdue the earth,” the very command reiterated to Noah after the Flood. Nevertheless, instead of heeding the divine directive, humanity moved to Mesopotamia and built a new civilization to “make a name” for itself. And in the Bible, ‘Babylon’ is characterized by its presumptuousness and idolatrous conceit - (Genesis 1:28, 9:1, Isaiah 14:13-14, Jeremiah 32:20).

If humanity united under one language, its wickedness would know no bounds. By confounding human languages, God caused the nations to spread throughout the earth, and He thwarted the first attempt to form a centralized imperial government.

The Bible calls this Mesopotamian city ‘Babel’, the place where “Yahweh confounded the language of all the earth.” The name may be related to the Hebrew word balal, meaning “confusion.” At that time, the “whole earth spoke one language.” When men began to dwell in “Shinar,” they built a city with a tower of “great height” in the “plain” to mark their achievements and prevent the dispersal of humanity.

NEBUCHADNEZZAR


Likewise, in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar attempts to reverse God’s judgment against Ancient Shinar by gathering representatives from every nation to be educated in the language of Babylon, the “tongue” of the World-Power.

He also commanded all nations to render homage to the “great image” that he had “set up in the plain of Dura,” and then decreed that “all peoples, races, and tongues” should render homage to it.

The whole earth was to be united under King Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, and by the universal use of the Babylonian “tongue” and the worship of the great golden image “set up” by the Babylonian emperor - (Genesis 11:2, Daniel 3:1-7).

But despite appearances, the book Daniel insists from its first paragraph that God reigns over the kingdoms of the world and grants rulership to whomever He pleases. It has a distinctive THEOLOGY OF HISTORY - (Daniel 1:1-2, 2:20-21, 4:17).

The book begins by recounting how Nebuchadnezzar 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.” In the king’s mind, no doubt, a tribute to the superiority of his god.

In fact, the destruction of Judah occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand.” Nebuchadnezzar was Yahweh’s instrument of judgment on His wayward nation.

The subjugation of Judah created a theological dilemma for patriotic members of Israel since the Babylonians had conquered what remained of the kingdom. Moreover, the name of their new overlord, Nebuchadnezzar, includes the name of the Mesopotamian god Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon triumphed over the God of Israel by overthrowing the king of Judah, capturing Jerusalem, and ransacking the Temple.

Furthermore, the latest “king of Babel” was reversing the ancient decree of Yahweh by seizing God’s “house,” gathering scattered nations back to “Shinar,” and imposing his pagan tongue on one and all.  Judah’s tribute included high-ranking exiles sent to Babylon where they would be educated in its culture and language.

All this constituted a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation, yet the book of Daniel declares that it was the Lord who GAVE all this into the hands of the pagan enemy of His people - (Daniel 1:4).

And the Hebrew verb rendered “GAVE” in the book’s opening sentence is applied several more times in the chapter.  First, God GAVE the kingdom of Judah into the “hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” Second, Daniel was “GIVEN favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs.” Third, Yahweh GAVE Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” And fourth, Daniel was “GIVEN” understanding in all visions and dreams.

The Babylonian king put Daniel and his friends to the test and “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm.” Therefore, they were promoted to serve in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Judah, subsequent events demonstrated that God was using the lowly Jewish exiles to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history - (Daniel 1:17-20).

KING’S DREAM


In chapter 2, events occur in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar, well before the completion of Daniel’s Babylonian education. His successful interpretation of the king’s dream is not attributable to his newly acquired Babylonian knowledge base, but to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by God.

Nebuchadnezzar dreams a dream that troubles him, and therefore, he commands the wise men of Babylon to reveal its contents and meaning, which they are unable to do. Enraged, the king orders the destruction of all the wise men of Babylon.

But Daniel intervenes by requesting a time when he can make the dream’s interpretation known, then he prays for the revelation of “this mystery.” Yahweh responds by revealing the king’s dream and its interpretation.  In response, Daniel praises the God who:
  • 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 next reveals the dream and its interpretation to Nebuchadnezzar. Thus, through the prophet, God shows Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days” - (Daniel 2:19-45).

The king dreamed of a large image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet, part iron and part clay. Then a stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and shattered it into pieces, after which the stone became a “great mountain that filled the whole earth.”

The “golden head” represents Nebuchadnezzar. The silver breast symbolizes an inferior kingdom that will succeed him, likewise, the brass belly and thighs. The stone carved “without hands” represents the final kingdom established by God, one that will “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding regimes. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things” - (Daniel 2:37).

In reaction, Nebuchadnezzar prostrates himself before Daniel and exalts him to rule over the province of Babylon. He declares Yahweh as “the God of gods, Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries.”

And so, the mighty pagan ruler acknowledged God’s sovereignty over nations and history. His own sovereignty was derived from the “Most-High God,” and in this way, Yahweh revealed the future of the World Empire. THE RISE OF EMPIRES IS UNDER HIS FIRM CONTROL.

IMPERIAL IDOLATRY


In chapter 3, the king attempts to implement his dream by “making an image of gold.” However, the entire image that he “sets up” is covered in gold, not just its head. He is determined to magnify his achievements and declare to all mankind that his kingdom is an everlasting one. Had he not dreamed it?

At his command, 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,” and anyone who refused would be cast into a fiery furnace - (Daniel 3:1-6).

The “great image” represents the presumed absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian emperor over all the “peoples, races and tongues.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in chapter 2 for the God who “SETS UP” kings. Nine times the text states that Nebuchadnezzar “SETS UP” his image, a Babylonian challenge to the sovereignty of the God of Israel.

Some of the Chaldean “wise men” 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. When Nebuchadnezzar heard this, he gave the three men 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?

And the three exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived its overheated flames. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one he described as “like a son of the gods. With trepidation, he summoned the exiles to exit the furnace and addressed them as the “servants of the Most-High God.”

Because the exiles had survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego,” for He had “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants.” The king then issued a decree to “all peoples, nations, and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of Yahweh would be slain - (Daniel 3:13-25).

As before, praise and acknowledgment of God were heard on the lips of the powerful pagan ruler who also acknowledged the three Jewish exiles to be the servants of the “Most-High God.” Once more, the ruler of the latest World Empire acknowledged the sovereignty of the God of Israel.

And so, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and thus, the sovereignty of Yahweh over historical events was demonstrated once more. The presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His purposes.

Similarly, chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the Empire, acknowledging the sovereignty of God:
  • 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 conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding one.

In contrast, Scripture remembers him as an instrument employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans of the Babylonian king.

RISE OF PERSIA


Chapter 5 begins on the last evening of the Babylonian Empire prior to its conquest by the kingdom of the “Medes and Persians.” Babylon’s last king, Belshazzar, gave a feast in which his retinue drank wine from the vessels that had been removed from Yahweh’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, 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, but none could do so.

Persia - Photo by Stefano Vigorelli on Unsplash
[Photo by Stefano Vigorelli on Unsplash]


As before, Daniel is summoned to interpret the writing - ‘Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin.’ The clause represents Aramaic words associated with monetary weights - Mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” Tekel from the Jewish shekel, and Peres from upharsin for “half-pieces,” the “half-mina.” The last term provides a double wordplay – First, on the name “Persia,” the power about to overthrow Babylon, and second, on the Aramaic verb for “divide” which is from the consonantal stem p-r-s.

The Aramaic phrase signifies that “God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end” (mene), “you are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (tekel), and “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres).

Thus, Yahweh’s sovereignty is on full display as imperial sovereignty is transferred from Babylon to the “Medes and Persians.”

That night, the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew Belshazzar. Through the words of the Jewish exile, Yahweh had deposed a king and cast down his empire while causing another realm of even greater magnitude to assume the imperial role.

Thus, the book of Daniel demonstrates that Yahweh rules over the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful ruler cannot thwart His purposes, and the defeat of His people by a pagan power is no impediment to His plans.



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