Judgement and Mercy

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Do you believe that some people are hard cases that God cannot change? Perhaps there is someone you have been praying for to become a Christian and truly committed to Jesus Christ. But you have almost given up hope. You are doubting there can be any change. Or what about people like Saddam Hussein? What about people like the vicious thieves who stole those millions of pounds in Tonbridge last week? Is God able to change such people? King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon proves that he can and that he does. The change in Nebuchadnezzar's life is recorded for us in Daniel chapter 4. And my headings for tonight. They are first, THE EVENTS; secondly, LESSONS LEARNT; and, thirdly, JUDGEMENT AND MERCY.


First, THE EVENTS

For any visitors tonight, let me say that over recent weeks on Sunday evenings we have been going through the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. It is about the period when God's people, the ancient Jews, were in exile in Babylon. They had consistently disobeyed God, so they suffered his judgment. It came in the form of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon - the head of the world's greatest super-power at the time. Nebuchadnezzar and his army came and sacked Jerusalem and destroyed its great temple in 587 BC. Much of the nation was then taken away captive to Babylon - one of the richest but most pagan and immoral of cities. And Nebuchadnezzar was certainly a brutal tyrant.

In chapter 1 we are told that the chief of the court officials lived in fear of his life if Nebuchadnezzar found that Daniel and his friends were not fit and healthy. In chapter 2 we are told that Nebuchadnezzar was going to kill all his "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers" if they couldn't interpret one of his dreams. And in chapter 3 (as we heard last week) Nebuchadnezzar agreed to Daniel's friends being burnt alive for not worshipping his great golden idol. So that brings us to chapter 4. Maybe we have to fast forward from chapter 3 if this chapter refers to a time near the end of Nebuchadnezzar's reign. In verse 4 of chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar himself writes: "I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous."

Nebuchadnezzar is not away having to fight any war. He has built his palace. And this is the last incident recorded about him. So Nebuchadnezzar may be quite old. But whatever the time, this chapter is quite unique. It is first hand testimony of one of the world's most powerful men who is in the process of being changed by God. He had been a megalomaniac - like a number of dictators and tyrants. They think they can rival the creator of the universe. But in Nebuchadnezzar's case at the end of the day, to quote old Matthew Henry, the Puritan commentator, here Nebuchadnezzar "fairly owns himself conquered and ... [admits] that the God of Israel is above him." So my prayer is this. It is - that if anyone here tonight still thinks they are greater than God and can ignore him and his will (now revealed in Jesus Christ), they, like Nebuchadnezzar, will submit to him. Let's look then at verses 1-3:

"King Nebuchadnezzar, To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world: May you prosper greatly! It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation."

How has Nebuchadnezzar come to write that? Well, it is all there for you in verses 5-34. Nebuchadnezzar had a terrifying dream. His occult advisers could not interpret it. Daniel, however, could interpret it. The dream was about a cosmic tree that clearly represented a world empire that reached far and wide and provided for all. Then a heavenly messenger pronounced judgment on this tree - verse 14:

"He called in a loud voice: 'Cut down the tree' ... But (verse 15) let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field."

But then this angelic messenger personalizes the tree into a man, and he goes on (verse 15b and verse 16):

"'Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him."

Daniel had no trouble interpreting the dream. It was telling Nebuchadnezzar the truth that troubled him. What do you do when you can see a major problem and you know the answer, and someone asks you for the truth; but telling the truth will be like letting off a nuclear bomb? Well (verse 22) Daniel told the truth unambiguously: "you, O king, are that tree." And verses 25 and 26:

"You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules."

And not only did he speak the truth - he had the courage to say what also was unacceptable but would be of great help to Nebuchadnezzar. Look at verse 27:

"Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue."

Daniel is saying that Nebuchadnezzar has to stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right. He has to start being moral - and in Babylon that probably, as today in the West, included sexual morality. And he has to start "being kind to the oppressed" - the poor whom he was probably ignoring in his greed for more and more splendour in Babylon. Such a change would delay or reverse God's judgment. And it seems there was a stay of execution for twelve months. But Nebuchadnezzar's repentance was short lived. Look at verses 29-31:

"Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, 'Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?' The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, 'This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you.'"

And all that was predicted happened - verse 33:

"He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.

But the stump was still in the ground - the tree was not dead. For after seven years - and this is the key verse - verse 34: "At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High." He acknowledged that God was God. Well, they are the events. All this happened. The dream came true. Let's move on now ...


Secondly, to LESSONS LEARNT

There was an amazing change that came over Nebuchadnezzar. This terrible experience of living for years in the wild taught Nebuchadnezzar at least four important lessons about God that are confirmed elsewhere in the Bible. Look at verses 34 (again) and verse 35.

First, he learnt that the true God of Daniel (and the Bible) is eternally self-existent - verse 34: ""Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified him who lives forever."

That is the message of the greatest of all visions - the last book of the Bible, the New Testament book of Revelation (Rev. 4.9&10). There the one on the throne is the one "who lives for ever and ever". And in the Old Testament the great biblical name of God is "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3 verse 14). It is not "I WAS", implying that in some way he had ceased to be what he was. Nor is it "I WILL BE", implying that he is not yet what he will be. No! God is always constant and the same. So Jesus Christ, the divine Son, is always constant and the same "yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13 verse 8). That is why Jesus Christ is not only unique but final. He not only has no equals. He also has no successors, neither Mohammed nor later Hindu teachers nor modern secular philosophers – no one. The God of the Bible, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the only underived, self-existent, and self-sustained Being. Nothing else can exist or continue to exist without his sovereign will. Psalm 90 verse 2 says "from everlasting to everlasting you are God" and Nebuchadnezzar had learnt that lesson.

Secondly, Nebuchadnezzar had learnt that God does not only exist eternally but reigns eternally. Look at the second part of verse 34: "His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation." King David had famously said (1 Chronicles 29 verse 11):

"Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all."

Our God is the ruler of the universe and so our place is to obey him. Never imagine for one moment that God is infinitely great and powerful, but not exerting his greatness and power. God is not like a spectator sitting high up at St James' Park with no involvement in what is going on below. No! Our God is totally involved and affecting the game, so to speak. Jesus says we are to pray to our heavenly Father on the basis that his is "the kingdom, the power and the glory ... now and for ever." When you say those words in the Lord's Prayer, are you confident that God is in control?

Nebuchadnezzar knew what power meant. He could say, "do this" and people did it without question. But he now had learnt that God's power is infinitely greater than any power he had or ever would have. He knew that dynasties come and go - and his was soon to go as we learn in Daniel chapter 5. Today Babylon is now simply part of the tragic chaos that is Iraq. Human kingdoms get corrupted and lose their authority. But God is infinitely holy and just, without dishonesty or greed, and faithful and loving. So, as Nebuchadnezzar said: "his kingdom endures from generation to generation."

Thirdly, Nebuchadnezzar had learnt the "nothingness" of mankind. Look at the first part of verse 35: "All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing." This is quite extraordinary, coming from Nebuchadnezzar. He doesn't say, "some of the peoples" but "all the peoples of the earth". Yet he knew full well what could be done by human beings. He himself had not only conquered large tracts of the globe but built amazing buildings. He built temples, canals, defensive fortifications, the gateway of Ishtar, the great ziggurat and the sacred processional way in Babylon. But in spite of all that he echoes the prophet Isaiah who said: "all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by God as worthless and less than nothing" (Isaiah 40 verse 17).

Notice again that word "all". It is not just the poor and the disadvantaged who are nothing. But so are the rich; the presidents and prime ministers; the great scientists and philosophers; the great artists and musicians; and the Torvills and Deans who score perfect 6s in their Winter Olympics. Of course, that doesn't mean that what human beings do is worthless. Nebuchadnezzar says it is "regarded as nothing". In the same way as all we have comes from God, so all we are and all we do is from him. We are nothing in, and of, ourselves. Before you were the size of a full stop on a piece of paper - before (that is) you were first conceived - you were certainly nothing. You had no say in your conception. And if you are a believer in Christ, you had no say in your redemption: that was from the work Christ did for you on the cross where he died for your sins. And you had no say in your new birth. That was from the work of the Holy Spirit in you to give you new spiritual life. The dead cannot give themselves life. So Nebuchadnezzar learnt about the "nothingness" (apart from God) of human beings.

Then fourthly, Nebuchadnezzar learnt that God not only reigns but he gets everything done as he wants. He is not like a school teacher who cannot keep order or like a lame duck President or Prime Minister. Look at the second part of verse 35:

"He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: 'What have you done?'"

Perhaps you can believe that God gets what he wants done in heaven. You can believe that God has his way with supernatural beings. But what about "on earth"? When you pray "your will be done on earth as in heaven," do you believe that that prayer is ever really answered? Perhaps you can believe that good men and women enable God's will to be done on earth. But the vital truth the Bible teaches is that God's will is done somehow even at the same time as people are not doing his will but as they are disobeying him. Take the Crucifixion of Christ. That was due to the action of wicked politicians, wicked secular leaders and wicked religious people. They acted quite freely and with no compulsion and were, therefore, responsible and guilty for what they did. But mysteriously they were doing just what God had planned. Listen to how the early Christians put it in Acts 4 verses 27-28:

"Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen."

Yes, God has made us quite free. But he is still totally in control at the same time. It is hard to understand God's sovereignty and our complete human freedom. And the Bible admits the problem. The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans (chapter 9 verse 19): "One of you will say to me: 'Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'" Paul's answer was simple. He goes on in verse 20 of chapter 9 to say: "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" Paul is saying you just have to accept this mystery. But although mysterious, it is believable because so true to life. Bad things happen. Then somehow you see that God has woven them into his good purposes. But you know they are still bad things that shouldn't have happened. That happens in the church, where heresies have given rise to good thinking about the truth. It happens in the world, where good developments come for injustices and wrongs. And it happens in personal life, where you may fail at something, but God makes the outcome good. If God is God and infinite, of course, you can't understand all his ways. Listen again to Paul - this time in 1 Corinthians 13 verse12: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

And what we now know partially (but not fully) is this. However hard to understand, God does work providentially and sovereignly, while we are still free. But that is good news. It means we can trust him in good times and bad. You may have failed that exam. You may not have got that job. Something may be going wrong at home. Don't despair - trust and then obey God. Often in later life you can see why God didn't allow some things to happen that you wanted to happen. God's will is always for your good. He never does anything that is unjust, unkind, ungenerous, unloving or ungodlike. So be encouraged and remember, as Nebuchadnezzar said: "He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: 'What have you done?'"


Thirdly, and finally, JUDGEMENT AND MERCY

How did Nebuchadnezzar change? There are many human factors in how a person comes to be converted to the God of the Bible, who is, we now know, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we heard in our New Testament reading there is a basic awareness of the true God that everyone can have - Romans 1 verse 19:

"what may be known about God is plain ... because God has made it plain ... For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature -have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

True, that basic awareness can be suppressed. But when Nebuchadnezzar met Daniel and his friends and saw their integrity and courage, it may have been re-awakened. Daniel was a man of prayer. We are told that in chapter 6. No doubt he was praying for Nebuchadnezzar. The Bible tells us to pray for those in authority. And as we can see in chapter 4, God began to convict Nebuchadnezzar through a mixture of the dream and Daniel's straight talking. But it was those seven years in the wilderness that finally brought about a change in Nebuchadnezzar. This was indeed God's mercy working through his judgement. Nor are things different, in that respect, now that Christ has come. Hebrews 12 verses 6 and 10 say, "the Lord disciplines those he loves ... [and] for our good, that we may share in his holiness."

So God still teaches us through allowing us to go through bad times or wilderness experiences. I wonder who tonight is going through such a time or such an experience? Perhaps God is wanting to teach you the lessons Nebuchadnezzar learnt. They were: one, that God exists as the only supreme self-existent being "who lives for ever;" two, that he not only exists but is reigning and in control of this universe; three, that by comparison you and I are so insignificant - in fact we are nothing without him; and, four, that his will is irresistible - but his will is good. That is even clearer now than it was in Daniel's time, since the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Practically that means you should be encouraged; and so, of course, you should trust God when things are difficult. And then, relying on the power of his Holy Spirit, obey his word and his will, for they are good.

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