If you were here last week, you will know that we have started a new series of studies in the Old Testament book of Daniel. And you will have realized that this book, ancient though it is, is very relevant for us in the 21st century. So look straightaway at Daniel chapter 2 verse 1.
"In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep."
Who was Nebuchadnezzar? Well, if you were living in Jerusalem nearly six hundred years before Christ - you would know who Nebuchadnezzar was. His army was besieging your city and the results were horrific. There was terrible famine. And many Jews were taken away as captives in exile to Babylon - in modern Iraq - the magnificent capital of king Nebuchadnezzar's empire.
All this happened because God's people, the Jews, had been ignoring the one true God and going after other false gods. Their prophets warned that if they did not repent they would suffer God's judgment. They didn't repent. So before long God's judgment came in the form of the 6th century super-power - the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. And we today are to learn from this experience. For according to the Bible, Babylon still exists.
That may surprise you. Nor am I talking about modern day Iraq. No! In the Bible Babylon comes to stand for any state or power or human system that is organized against God. In New Testament times Rome was seen as Babylon. For example, when the apostle Peter was writing his first letter, from Rome - pagan, metropolitan Rome - he ends by signing off with these words: "She who is in Babylon ... sends her greetings." That was code for the church in the city of Rome. The early Christians saw Rome as the contemporary Babylon - for like the original Babylon Rome was anti-God and decadent.
Undoubtedly we are living in a modern-day Babylon in the West. Harry Blamires writes of the 21st century like this:
"Christendom faces formidable hostility, not least in those developed Western countries once regarded as bulwarks of Christian civilization. Looking around us, we Christians cannot but be aware of how powerful and insidious is the assault on the faith we hold, the faith we have assumed to be the foundation of Western culture ... There is a campaign to undermine all human acknowledgement of the transcendent, to whittle away all human respect for objective restraints on the individualistic self. The hold of this campaign on the media is such that the masses are being brainwashed as they read the press, listen to the radio or watch TV."
One of our greatest modern philosophers, Alisdair MacIntyre speaks of "new dark ages" of moral decay. So let's learn from Daniel in ancient Babylon lessons for living in 21st century modern Babylon.
Now Daniel had been exiled a little earlier than the final collapse and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. And chapter 1 of Daniel tells us, as you discovered last week, how he was being groomed for the Babylonian Civil Service. Right at the start he was tempted to compromise - to go with the crowd against his conscience. But Daniel put God first and not the crowd. The result? - he and the other three men with him who also took a stand - came out with flying colours. Look at verse 20 of chapter 1:
"In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom."
So much by way of introduction. I now want us to look at chapter 2 and under three headings: first, PANIC IN BABYLON, secondly, "A GOD ... WHO REVEALS MYSTERIES", and, thirdly, THE BIG PICTURE.
First, then, PANIC IN BABYLON (vv 2-23)
Look at verses 2-3 (verse 1 has told us that Nebuchadnezzar had been troubled by a dream) - verse 2:
"So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, he said to them, 'I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.'"
As with modern superpowers Nebuchadnezzar would have had a vast array of advisers and consultants. Religion, astrology and the occult were big in Babylon. So the King had many occult professionals in his civil service. Nor is this totally different from our modern Babylons. The wife of former US President Reagan used to consult an astrologer and she influenced the President. One member of the congregation told me not so long ago that the building of a huge power station they were involved with in India was held up because of a local fortune teller. All these things the Bible says are totally wrong - but they go on today and they were going on in ancient Babylon.
Well, Nebuchadnezzar wants these "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers" to interpret his dream. He seems to have realized that this dream was special - and it was. Sometimes God has used dreams to communicate his word. These are rare occasions. But it happened at the time of the people of God settling in Egypt at the time of Joseph - as we saw this time last year. It is happening at the time of the Exile. And it happened at Jesus' birth and in the time of the apostles. But such dreams needed interpretation. So look at verse 4:
"Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, 'O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.' The king replied to the astrologers, 'This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble ... (verse 9b) So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me. The astrologers answered the king ... (verse 11) 'What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.' This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon."
The king wanted to make sure that the interpretation was right. So he put a test to these Babylonian "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers". They themselves were to tell the king what his dream was. Maybe he had forgotten it. But they knew (verse 11) ...
"... no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men."
The fact was - all their horoscopes and occult practices, were hot air and couldn't deliver. Nebuchadnezzar knew that it needed a supernatural, genuinely God-given, interpretation. He wanted the truth and was not going to get it from the religion of his Babylonian advisers. Nor can you rely on the religions on offer in our modern day Babylons. Listen to Michael Green:
"It really is ludicrous to suppose that all religions lead to God, when Buddhism does not believe that there is any God at all, when Islam makes him so far removed, when Hinduism offers extinction after many incarnations and in the meantime sanctions idolatry on a massive scale. How can all religions lead to God when they have such different beliefs about God, the afterlife and how one can attain it?"
But at the failure of these religious people, Nebuchadnezzar flipped and, like some modern day dictators, ordered the execution of all his advisers including Daniel - verse 13:
"So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death."
Just imagine being Daniel. There is a knock on the door. It is a senior Babylonian police officer - and he says that you are to face an execution squad or the gallows or whatever. That sort of thing may not yet happen in our modern Western Babylons. But last month an elderly couple, 73 year old Joe Roberts and his wife 68 year old Helen had a knock on the door and there were two policeman accusing them of making "homophobic telephone calls". In a telephone conversation lasting no more than 10 minutes they had complained to their local council about gay rights' policies; and then asked if they could display Christian leaflets alongside gay leaflets. As a result, the policemen visited and quizzed this elderly couple for over an hour and told them that their actions were close to a "hate crime" and warned them they were walking on eggshells. They must have been in something of a panic. Happily they took legal advice and were told that there appears to have been a clear breach by the police of Article 9 (freedom of religion) and Article 10 (freedom of speech) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
So what did Daniel do when he got a knock on the door and was told he faced execution? First, he showed "wisdom and tact" - verse 14:
"When Arioch, the commander of the king's guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. He asked the king's officer, 'Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?' Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him."
"Daniel spoke ... with wisdom and tact." Jesus said that in a hostile world we are be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Mat 10.16). Remember that.
Secondly, Daniel prayed - that is often the last thing people do. But with Daniel it was among the first - verse 17:
"Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon."
And God answered that prayer - verse 19a:
"During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision."
And God does answer prayer in these "panic" situations. My wife is a paediatrician and involved in adoption and fostering work. She once received a letter threatening her job because she believes, apart from it being immoral, that homosexual parenting is not in the best interests of children in terms of actual outcomes. But prayer was answered. She, too, pointed out that this was an infringement of the European Convention of Human Rights and there was a climb down.
Notice that when Daniel's prayer was answered, he praised God - verse 19b:
"Then Daniel praised the God of heaven and said: 'Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him. I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers: You have given me wisdom and power, you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king.'"
Do you praise God when your prayers are answered - or do you just go on to pray for the next thing? As a church we must continue to praise God for that wonderful financial response to the Gateshead project. Praising God - the one true God - reminds you that he is in total control of all circumstances - from the big global issues to smaller personal issues. And remembering his sovereignty increases your faith. So much for "Panic in Babylon". Let's now move on to the dream itself and our second heading.
Secondly, "A GOD ... WHO REVEALS MYSTERIES" (vv 24-30)
Look at verses 24-28:
"Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, 'Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.' Arioch took Daniel to the king at once and said, 'I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can tell the king what his dream means.' The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), 'Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?' Daniel replied, 'No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come.'"
The need in Babylon (in ancient Babylon as in our modern Babylons) is not for religion but "revelation" - verse 28, for "a God ... who reveals" - a God who actually and truly communicates with people. The need is for a God who speaks. To show you why, let me do an experiment. I want you now to try to work out what I am thinking about as I stand here and remain silent for 10 seconds starting now:
10 seconds silence.
What was I thinking about? You have no idea. I was thinking about the service last Sunday morning in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. The Archbishop of Rwanda, Emmanuel Kollini was preaching at the conclusion of the conference of the American Mission in America that I was attending as a Reform representative. That is what I was thinking about. The mere fact that you know that I exist, didn't help you one bit. I needed to speak to you to tell you what was in my mind. It is the same with God.
It is no use just believing that he exists. Until he reveals himself to you and speaks to you, you have no idea about his love or his purposes or his good plans for you. That is why God's word is so vital. And the good news is that the true God does reveal, and has, revealed, himself and has spoken to us all. And today you have access to that revelation in the pages of the Bible. It is this true revelation that proves the inadequacy and folly of all these other religious people in ancient Babylon. And today it is the same. Yes, there is "general revelation" in creation open to all - although through sin we even distort that. But the vital revelation on life, salvation and eternity, you only have in God's "special revelation" through prophets (like Daniel), apostles and, of course, Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God. And you have all that in the Bible. So look at verse 29:
"As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind."
So Nebuchadnezzar is going to hear God's word - not Daniel's - but through Daniel. What, then, was this dream? Answer: it gave ...
Thirdly, THE BIG PICTURE (vv 31-45)
You've got it there in verses 31-45. The dream was about (verses 31-32) an ...
"... enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance."
Its head ...
"... was made of gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay."
Then (verse 33) ...
"a rock ... cut out but not by human hands ..."
... smashed the entire statue to pieces - and (verse 35) it was ground down so finely that the wind blew the material away. And in its place the rock ...
" ... became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth".
Daniel then goes on to explain that Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold - and verse 37 ...
"... the God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold."
The rest of the body made of silver, bronze and iron, says Daniel, represents succeeding kingdoms after Nebuchadnezzar's time. What you have got here - with Daniel's interpretation - is a total philosophy of history. The dream is teaching that all rule is under God's sovereign control - whether it is Nebuchadnezzar's or George Bush's or Tony Blair's or whoever. In the British Coronation Service there is a wonderful moment when the Orb (one of the crown jewels - a globe with the cross set on top of it) is given to the monarch. In 1953, as a schoolboy, I saw on TV the Archbishop of Canterbury give the Orb to the Queen. And he said these words: "Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer."
This is what this dream is saying. That rock, the New Testament tells us, is Jesus Christ. Nebuchadnezzar's "dominion and power and might and glory" (verse 37) is only what "the God of heaven had given " him. So he is subject to that "[true] God of heaven". So are succeeding kings and rulers who are over God's people as the years go by. These kings and rulers are simply God's temporary agents. One day their empires will come to an end when that "rock" - the kingdom of Christ - will become "a huge mountain" that will fill "the whole earth". You see, the kingdoms of this world only, at best, give you external peace and good political order. They do not deal with the root problems of life - these are to do with the human heart and result from men and women, like those Jews who suffered exile, rejecting God. Jesus said ...
"... from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark 7.21-22).
Christ alone through his death for us on the Cross can secure the forgiveness for that rejection and disobedience. And through his resurrection and by his Holy Spirit give new power and new life to live as God intended. Who needs to ask for that tonight?
The Bible says that the Christ who is the king is also the Lamb who was slain. That is the one who is on the throne of the universe and will bring to an end all other kingdoms one day. All this is what verse 44 points to:
"... the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever."
So this is the "Big Picture". And, first, it reminded God's people in ancient Babylon (and it should remind us) that God somehow is in control over all the affairs of this world - whatever comes our way. And that is a huge encouragement when life is hard. I like the illustration of a tapestry - on one side, our side, it can look like a tangled web of threads. From the other side - God's side - there is a beautiful picture. Secondly, this Big (and from God's side beautiful) Picture reminds you that history as we know it will not go on for ever - there will come an end to this imperfect world order and a day when God's perfect kingdom will be established "forever". That day began with Jesus first coming - it will be consummated at his second coming "forever".
I must conclude. Look at (vv 46-49)
"Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honour and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, 'Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.' Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel's request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court."
Because Daniel was faithful he was able to influence the pagan Babylonian culture for good. That is what God's people should be doing today in this modern Babylon. Daniel was in a significant position in Babylon. Many here tonight are in significant positions in this region. Many of you who are students will, in all probability, be in significant positions later on in life. So be like Daniel.
Be like Daniel in those panic situations; be wise and tactful, pray and then praise God for his goodness and his answers to prayer. Then remember that you need God's revelation and God's true word - for us that is in the Bible. Don't be seduced by other religions. And be encouraged by that "Big Picture": for God actually is in control - even in Babylon.