Monday, February 08, 2010

Sermon: Daniel 4: 1-37 The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

It was a political scandal that rocked the nation to its core. Rumours were rife, people were talking about it all the time. Jokes were being texted and emailed, and people were looking for the person in question.

Did you hear the rumours about King Nebuchanezzar? Word is that he has gone mad - left his palace, living out in the fields, eating grass, almost becoming like a beast himself. What’s it all about? What’s going on?

As we’ve been progressing through the book of Daniel, we’ve so far met Nebuchadnezzar in every chapter. As I said last time, it seems to have been one step forward, two steps back with him. He hears about the living God, acknowledges something about God, but then goes back to denying God. He was the one who threatened the magicians for not telling him his dream and the interpretation in chapter 2, and then put Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace for not worshipping his statue.

So it might surprise you then, in this chapter, to find that it was written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. What is this pagan king doing writing a small part of the Bible? This is Nebuchadnezzar’s own testimony, his own story of how God dealt with him, and turned his life around. As he says himself ‘it has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.’ (2) As we think about the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar, and the sanity of King Nebuchadnezzar, we’ll also see the goodness of the King of heaven.

As we read the account of this episode, you might think that it’s easy to see Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. It’s right there in verse 33: ‘He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.’ He leaves his palace and lives in the fields. How very peculiar!

And yet it’s only a part of the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. You see, the chapter begins with another of the king’s dreams. This time, not a statue, but a tall and great tree which is felled. Once again, the wise men and magicians can’t help, so Daniel is brought in to interpret the dream.

Daniel (or Belteshazzar) was dismayed and alarmed - the tree stands for Nebuchadnezzar - and he will be ‘felled’, given the mind of a beast and driven out. Nebuchadnezzar, the great one, the king and emperor will be brought low. There is a purpose in God’s decree: ‘till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.’ (25)

Daniel goes on to say that there’s a way to avoid this terrible situation - verse 27: ‘break off your sins by practising righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.’

The dream is a warning from God as to what will happen, but there’s a way to escape. It’s the equivalent of ‘repent and believe’ - John the Baptist’s cry to ‘bear fruits in keeping with repentance.’ (Luke 3:8) The warning is clear, the appeal is there, yet Nebuchadnezzar follows his path of foolishness and madness.

It is madness to ignore the warnings given by God. Nebuchadnezzar knew what would happen, but went on regardless. Is there a possibility that we also forget the warnings given to us by God? The Lord Jesus spoke most often of hell, yet for many it is written off, laughed off, ignored. Are we wise or mad?

One year later, the warning was fulfilled, and the fate befell King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (alongside ignoring God’s warnings) was to be boastful and proud. Look at verse 30: ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence for the glory of my majesty?’

It’s all about me, myself and I - Babylon is his own, built by him, to display his glory. There’s no thought of the Most High God who gave him the kingdom, nor of anyone but himself. At that very moment, as the words were still in his mouth, he hears the voice of the great King of heaven - and he is driven out.

His madness of ignoring God’s warnings and his madness of being proud leads to his punishment of proper madness.

After the set period of time, Nebuchadnezzar was restored to sanity, and to his kingdom. But what was it that brought the change? Why was he sane again? As his testimony continues: ‘I lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever.’ (34)

That lifting his eyes to heaven was him recognising that God is God and Nebuchadnezzar isn’t God. That heaven rules (26). Notice the repeat chorus at the start and end of the chapter: ‘His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.’ (3) and ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.’ (34)

Nebuchadnezzar recognises his place, and gives God his due - that God rules, and gives as he chooses. In seeing the fate of Nebuchadnezzar, we see that just like him, we aren’t the centre of the universe - God is - that we must give him the glory and the praise.

The very last words of Nebuchadnezzar help us to understand the whole chapter - the whole point of the episode. Neb praises the King of heaven ‘for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.’ (37)

God humbles the proud - this is the clear message from Daniel chapter 4. He humbled King Nebuchadnezzar, who was very proud.

But what about us. You might be thinking, well, of course he was proud - he was the king of a mighty nation, he had conquered most of the world, he might have been proud, but I’m all right - after all, I’ll never be king of anywhere, so I don’t need to worry. This is only a message for kings, not for ordinary people like me.

But you don’t have to be a king to be proud. You don’t have to be a ruler to think highly of yourself and your achievements. You don’t have to be the boss to puff yourself up with what you have done. Perhaps it’s in working yourself up to get that bigger house than your friends, or in being able to afford the massive new car, or in your children’s achievements, or in your first class honours degree, or coming top of the class in the spelling competition. Perhaps it’s in having the best garden in the street, or whatever it is. We’re all liable to pride from time to time.

By drawing attention to ourselves and our achievements, we lessen the glory of God. We fool ourselves into thinking that we have achieved it by ourselves. But God is still God - he doesn’t change, he is always the same. God continues to humble the proud - both Peter and James say ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6).

The humbling of the proud is a sign of the Kingdom - remember Mary’s song ‘he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.’ (Luke 1:51-52). Pride is a stumbling block, a barrier for some - ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called... Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor 1:22-24).

Are you too proud to become a Christian? Too caught up in your own achievements, thinking you can save yourself? Thinking that you are the centre of the universe, that the world revolves around you? God opposes the proud - he reigns. One day every knee will bow, just like Nebuchadnezzar, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord - that God is God - will you do that willingly, or will it be by force?

But if you are a Christian today - there is still a message for us as well. God is able to humble the proud. It is possible that after conversion we are still proud, there are still things that we puff ourselves up about. Things that we still need to change, to become more like Jesus. We have been justified, but are still being sanctified.

So the Lord disciplines us, exposing the faults that need to be made right, removing those things that are not like Jesus. Perhaps as individuals and as a congregation, we are being humbled as we face our particular financial situation - not resting on what we have done, making us cry out for mercy, looking to the Lord for what we need, depending on him, and not ourselves.

The discipline may not be pleasant at the time, but it produces Christlikeness and praise. Are there ways in which we are proud and need to be humbled? May all the praise be to God, the King of heaven, whose works are right and whose ways are just, and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th February 2010.

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