We have just one more message in our series on the book of Daniel. All the eschatology and apocalypticism we’ve encountered along the way has us thinking about the return of Christ. The soul craves rapture, doesn’t it? Christian musician Mat Kearny captures this deep desire in his song “Rochester,” which portrays a rough family life here on earth. “Knowing one day you’re gonna take me out of here.” Maybe you can relate.
Prophecy. Persecution. Tribulation. Antichrist. Hope. Perseverance. Victory. The book of Daniel features all these realities and more. In the second half of chapter 2, God shows the young prophet something only God himself can know—namely, another man’s dream. The dreamer was King Nebuchadnezzar, and the contents of his dream was the unfolding of history from Daniel’s day. God also gave Daniel the dream’s interpretation, and he passed it onto the king, who came to see that Daniel’s God “is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries” (Daniel 2:47).
A fascinating aspect of the Book of Daniel is that it’s written in two different languages. It starts and ends in Hebrew, which was the language of the Jews, and the middle section is in Aramaic, which was the language of the nations. When we look at the Aramaic section as a whole, we discover the stories are arranged chiastically. That is, they have thematic correspondences front to back. (See notes in the sermon PowerPoint file). Chapters 2 and 7, then, are intentionally matched.
What that means is chapters 2 and 7 speak of the same prophetic vision, albeit from two different perspectives. Chapter 2 gives us the kingdoms of this world from a human perspective—precious metals growing stronger over time. Chapter 7 gives us the kingdoms of this world from a divine perspective—freakish monsters growing more destructive over time. The dazzling statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream can be understood as follows:
The head of gold = the Babylonian Empire (605–539 B.C.)
The chest and arms of silver = the Medo-Persian Empire (539–331 B.C.)
The belly and thighs of bronze = the Grecian Empire (331–63 B.C.)
The legs of iron and feet of clay = the Roman Empire (63 B.C.–476 A.D.)
Surprisingly, Daniel says the colossal image is going to collapse because all nations of the world are built on a foundation of clay. In fact, the mere touch of a tiny stone is all it takes to shatter it. That stone—“a rock cut out of the mountains without hands”—will strike the statue on its feet of iron mixed with clay and smash the world’s empires, but the rock that struck the statue will become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth (Daniel 2:34-35).
This sermon shows that Daniel’s rock is none other than Jesus Christ, and the mountain filling the whole earth is the kingdom of God he brings. Moreover, the entire dream corresponds to the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7, which Jesus quotes and applies to himself while standing before Caiaphas, the high priest, while on trial for his life. Jesus is the “son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13).
The message of Daniel 2 and 7 is clear: earthly kingdoms will come and go. Some of them may wield great power. They may even persecute the people of God for a time, but God’s people should remain loyal to him, come what may, because his “rock” is more powerful than all earthly kings. Indeed, earthly kingdoms are “bad dreams” that inevitably collapse and disappoint. God’s kingdom is a hope-filled reality that grows and blesses.
Daniel shows that vibrant faith can not only survive but thrive in a hostile, pagan world, provided one has great confidence in the final victory God. That victory is sure, for as it says in Revelation 11:15: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” Amen.
While in Babylon, Daniel and his three friends walk the same tightrope every believer has to walk today in a fallen world—avoiding isolation on the one hand, and avoiding assimilation on the other. They did it well. In fact, in Daniel 2 these remarkable Jewish teens continue living out the command God previously gave the exiles—to live for the good of a bad city (Jeremiah 29:4-7). They did this by serving their unbelieving neighbors and helping them flourish.
In many ways, Daniel 2 gives us a collision between the wisdom of this word and the wisdom of God. Nebuchadnezzar is the portrait of a man who faces life with worldly wisdom. Daniel, however, is the portrait of a person who faces life with godly wisdom. Quite significantly, this collision is not a fistfight. It’s not a heated debate. It’s not a military battle. It’s a ministry.
Specifically, Daniel has a ministry to a man in crisis. And in that ministry to his royal neighbor, the wisdom of God is displayed. The lesson for us today is instructive: God’s faithful people can help connect faithless people to God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s problems are not unlike our neighbors’ problems today. For example, some of our neighbors may be consumed with worry, anxiety, and insecurity (v. 1). Some may seek professional help for their deepest troubles (vv. 2-4). Some may become suspicious of the world’s best experts (vv. 5-9). Some may hear the world’s experts admit their own limitations (vv. 10-11). Some may grow increasingly insecure and perhaps even violent (vv. 12-13).
Daniel’s ministry to the king is anchored in his knowledge of who God is. Indeed, he has a lofty view of Yahweh, which is helpful to God’s people today when we seek to help our neighbors who are in crisis. Specifically:
Because God is gracious, his people can approach a neighbor’s crisis with wisdom and tact (vv. 14-15).
Because God is missional, his people can view a neighbor’s crisis with a sense of divine purpose (v. 16).
Because God is all-knowing, his people can take a neighbor’s crisis to him in prayer (17-19a).
Because God is sovereign, his people can praise him in the midst of any crisis (vv. 19b-23).
Because God is revealing, his people can offer wisdom for a neighbor’s crisis when needed (vv. 24-28a).
Because God is good, his people can serve neighbors in crisis even if they believe differently (vv. 28b-30).
By the time Nebuchadnezzar leaves the stage in the book of Daniel, he comes to recognize that Yahweh is the Most High God of the universe. May that likewise be the result of our ministry to the people around us today.
Believers are resident aliens in this world. Three times in 1 Peter, the followers of Christ are called “strangers” or “aliens.” The Apostle Paul concurs, reminding the Philippians that their “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). In other words, the believer’s primary residence is not planet Earth. Someday we’re going home to a world of heavenly perfection.
As great as that truth is, it creates a challenge for the people of God. How do we interact with the world while we’re here? What is our relationship to unbelievers supposed to be until we finally go home? This issue has always been a struggle for the covenant community.
When Daniel and his three friends were aliens in Babylon, they faced a similar challenge. They discovered quickly that the art of being a believer in this world is to love God and love your neighbor—in that order. King Nebuchadnezzar tried to shape their thinking, their identity, and their convictions. But the four teens from Israel resisted a secular brainwashing at Babylon University. They refused to allow themselves to be intoxicated by the glamour that comes from eating at the king’s table while trying to guard their own hearts against personal compromise. They survived in a culture that was hostile to their faith by drawing some lines in the sand and refusing to cross them.
But there’s a way to draw those lines and a way not to draw them. Daniel didn’t lead a march, a sit-in, or a protest rally. He didn’t engage in hate speech. He didn’t walk around Babylon with a placard saying, “Thou shalt not eat non-kosher food,” or “Prepare to meet thy God.” Instead, he practiced cooperation without compromise. Daniel was sympathetic to the king’s official and didn’t want him to lose his head because of his faith. So, Daniel wound up cutting a deal—and it was a deal that God honored.
One can’t help noticing that Daniel had a genuine respect for the unbelievers around him. He wasn’t a religious snob with a holier-than-thou chip on his shoulder. There was an ease with which he moved in secular circles. He wasn’t edgy around people who didn’t share his faith. He wasn’t uncomfortable around people who worshiped idols. He didn’t treat them like they had spiritual cooties. Rather, he was kind and deferential to them. He also accommodated them—but only in so far as his own faith would allow him to do so. God was always his first loyalty.
Jesus, of course, was the ultimate resident alien. He didn’t arise from within the human race; he came from outside it. That’s what Christmas is all about. In his life and ministry, Jesus was totally loyal to his heavenly Father. He never compromised, and he never sinned. Yet he moved freely and easily among the people who were far from God, leading them to see more clearly his truth and love for everyone.In his death on the cross, Jesus became alien-ated by bearing in his own body the sins of the world in himself. He did that so that everyone could become undefiled by faith, and believers could someday go back home with him.
Spiritually speaking, much has changed in America during our lifetime. From a Christian perspective, some of these changes are sad, revolting, depressing, and even scary. As a nation, we’re far from God, and the church at large is in a funk because of it. Older evangelicals especially can’t believe the changes they’ve witnessed. It is depressing. Like Israel in exile, we’re tempted to lament the situation, curse the darkness, and “hang up our harps on the poplar” (Psalm 137:2). But while these reactions are understandable, it’s vital to remember that God has a plan for his people even in spiritually dark times. Especially in dark times.
Jeremiah 29:4-11 provides some much-needed encouragement. This famous passage of Scripture is often ripped from its context, but the context is vital to understanding its message and contemporary relevance. The “plans” that God has for his people are not individual recipes for success, but plans for effective corporate witness and an eventual end to the exile. “But until then,” says God, “don’t run from the pagan culture; settle down in it. Live among your neighbors and love them. Help them flourish. Seek their welfare. Live for the good of a bad city.”
In other words, his marching orders for believers are to live out the wisdom of God in their neighbors’ midst, captivating them with the reality of who God is. The unbeliever’s eternal destiny is God’s business, but the believer’s business is to be a good neighbor and stay loyal to God in the process. It’s to be in the world but not of it.
And because God is “beautifully sneaky,” he’s always up to something good in the midst of something bad. Magi attended the birth of Christ precisely because the nation of Israel went into exile. Had the covenant people stayed in their familiar and comfortable land, the messianic prophecies never would have reached the Gentiles. But they did, and that’s likely how the Magi knew to connect the astronomical phenomenon with the birth of the new king. God’s love is truly for the whole world.
And so it is today. It’s the scattered church that can plant seeds for the harvest. When a culture is spiritually dark, God’s people can graciously turn on the light. That’s part of what it means to be “excellent in exile.” The book of Daniel shows us how.