Sunday, September 22, 2013

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

If you remember back to the start of the summer, we were finishing off our series in 1 Peter, and Robbie Robinson helped us to see that ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ (1 Pet 5:5). Now when you think of the proud, who comes to mind? Who is it leaps into your mind when you think of the category marked ‘proud people?’

From what we’ve seen so far in the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar could certainly fit the bill. In chapter 1, he came and captured Jerusalem. He then threatened to kill all the magicians who couldn’t tell him his dream of the statue in chapter two. And last week we saw how he threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace for not worshipping his golden statue. He seems to be proud as he rules over the whole kingdom.

Yet, if you were listening carefully, you’ll have realised that this chapter is written by none other than King Nebuchadnezzar himself. Just imagine! Alongside David’s Psalms and Peter’s letters and Matthew’s gospel sits this chapter written by the enemy - King Nebuchadnezzar!What is going on here? How come Nebuchadnezzar gets to write in the Bible? In verse 2 he writes: ‘The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to recount.’ Nebuchadnezzar, the foreign, enemy king is giving his testimony! He’s telling how he was going astray, how God dealt with him, and turned his life around.

And the presenting issue is the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar. [A few years ago a film came out charting the history of King George the Third’s situation - except the movie was called ‘The Madness of King George’ rather than ‘The Madness of King George the Third’ in case American audiences thought they had missed out on seeing the first two films in the series...]. As we read his story, you might think it’s easy to see his madness. It’s right there in verse 33. ‘He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagle’s feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.’ He leaves his palace and lives in the fields. We obviously don’t recommend such a lifestyle. It’s very peculiar.

And yet it’s not the only madness we see in Neb’s life. The story begins with another dream. This time, it’s not a statue, but a tall tree, which is cut down. Again, those magicians can’t help interpret, so Daniel is brought in. He explains the dream - Neb is the tree, ruling over all, but he will be felled, driven out. This proud one will be brought low - until he knows that ‘the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will.’ (25)

Daniel goes on to say that there’s a way to avoid this - ‘atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.’ (27) There’s an escape route - an early warning system to stop it happening. It’s the same message of John the Baptist and Jesus to ‘repent and believe’. Yet Neb ignores the warning signs, and carries on in his foolish madness. It is madness to ignore the warnings given by God.

A year later, the warning was fulfilled, the very thing he was told about actually happened. Neb’s madness was to ignore God’s call to repent, and instead to be boastful and proud. Verse 30: ‘Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious 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, seven years, Neb 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, Neb, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives for ever.’ (34)

That lifting his eyes to heaven was him recognising that God is God and Neb isn’t; that heaven rules (26). Neb recognises his place, and gives God his due - that God rules, and gives as he chooses. In seeing the fate of Neb, 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. As Neb reminds us, ‘he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.’ (37) God humbles the proud - this is the clear message from Daniel chapter 4. He humbled King Neb, 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 had the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders 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 what your farm has achieved, building up from nothing; or coming top in the exams; being the best knitter or baker in the county; or in your work for the church. We’re all liable to pride from time to time.

But even worse is the pride that says: ‘I can work hard enough or pay in enough or achieve enough or be good enough to get into heaven by my own strength.’ Are you too proud to become a Christian? Too caught up in your own achievements, thinking you can save yourself? In whatever form or fashion it may appear, God opposes the proud.

It’s the message that rings out loud and clear from this passage. It’s the message that I hammered home a few years back when I preached this same passage in Dundonald. But as I’ve been studying the passage, I’ve seen that the other half of Peter’s declaration is not only true, but it’s what we also need to hear. ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’

God’s grace is the reason that Neb is writing this part of the Bible. This pagan king has had his life transformed by God’s grace, when he came humbly before the God of grace. And if Neb, even Neb, could come and find grace, then why not you and me?

You see, Neb was responding to the announcement that the Lord Jesus is the King of Kings. Look at verse 17. The watcher in the dream says that ‘the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.’ This is, I believe, the declaration of the good news of Jesus - Jesus is the lowliest of humans, the one who gave up all of heaven’s glory and went down, down, down to the death of the cross. Jesus who said ‘I am gentle and humble in heart’ (Matt 11:29) and invited us to lay down our burdens.

If you will come humbly to him, he will receive you, having done all that is necessary. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.’ Come to the God of grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

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