Saturday, 22 March 2008

Daniel 1-7: God's incredible sovereignty

Here's the script of a talk I gave at the University of Cumbria CU in Lancaster this week, overviewing Daniel 1-7. I was helped by Mark Dever's overview. Comments, as ever, are very welcome.

And so we come to the end of our series in the book of Daniel 1-7 – perhaps a book that some here won’t really have looked at since Sunday School. Over the past weeks, we’ve looked at some of the famous passages – the fourth man in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions’ den – and some more obscure passages too. I wonder what the big lesson that you’ll take away is.

Often the way that we read Bible books like Daniel is that we make heroes of the main characters. It’s often the way that things are taught in Sunday School. When we come to a book like Daniel, we look at the main character and see the main message as being something like this: be like the main character. In the case of Daniel, that means stand up to peer pressure, just like Daniel did. Standing for truth under pressure is something we see Daniel doing time and again in the book. In Chapter 1, Daniel stands up for his diet; for uncomfortable truth in Chapter 2; in Chapter 6, he’s standing up for his faith; his friends take a stand against the king in Chapter 3. In other words, Daniel and his friends stay faithful to God when it seems that just about everyone else has given up on him. There’s no doubt that Daniel is a real hero of faith. But such an approach to the book of Daniel falls into the trap of making a common mistake when coming to the Bible. The stories are misunderstood. Because, of course, the book isn’t just a story about Daniel, it’s about God. God is the great hero of the book of Daniel, just as he is throughout the whole Bible. Behind the scenes, God is the great hero orchestrating everything.

Let’s see an example of this in Chapter 1. It opens in 605 BC with Judah having been carted off into exile in Babylon. On the face of it, it was a humiliating defeat for the people of Judah. Not only that, it’s inevitable that in Babylonian society this would have been interpreted in religious terms. Babylon thrashed Judah. And the Babylonians would certainly have seen this as their gods having triumphed over the God of Israel. Meanwhile, in Babylon, Daniel – who’s probably student-aged at the time – is brought into an educational system designed to indoctrinate the cream of Israelite society with Babylonian ways. How will he survive? Well, you’ll probably remember that Daniel refuses to eat the meat given to him – perhaps to avoid being made ceremonially unclean – and so persuades the official to give him vegetables. Yet, against the odds, Daniel knuckles down, becomes the high flier on his course and out-performs all the others, eventually ending up in an influential position. You can see that, from his human perspective, this might lead us to thinking that Daniel is basically a biblical tract on ‘how to say ‘no’ to bullies under peer pressure.’

But look again at Chapter 1, and we see that it’s written not only from a human perspective, but also from God’s perspective. Why did Judah end up in Babylon? Have a look at verse 2: ‘And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand.’ How did Daniel end up being allowed to refuse the Babylonian food? See verse 9: ‘Now God caused the official to show favour and sympathy to Daniel.’ How were the young men from Judah so successful in their education? Verse 17: ‘To these young men, God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.’ Do you see what is going on? God is the chief actor behind all events. In other words, Babylon has taken Judah over, but it’s clear that the Lord has allowed Babylon to take over. God made an official show Daniel favour and, ultimately, through giving him the gift of interpretation of dreams and visions, God gave Daniel an influential position as one of the top politicians and advisors in Babylon. 1:21 tells us Daniel held this position for 70 years! It would be like one of the advisors to Winston Churchill still being an advisor to Gordon Brown today – quite extraordinary!

Chapter 1 shows us that, far from the way he would have been spoken about by the Babylonians, he was alive, active and completely in control of everything.

We get the same idea repeated in Chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar has been dreaming about a giant statue which is a mixture of great glory and crazy instability. The statue is full of contradiction – it’s made partly of costly and valuable and strong materials, but it’s feet are made partly of brittle pottery. And then in the dream – verse 34 – a rock appears, which has not been cut out of a quarry by men, only to smash the feet of clay of the statue, and causing the whole thing to crash down. And then everything is reduced to dust and blown away by the wind. But not the rock, this takes on a life of its own – it keeps expanding and expanding until it fills the whole horizon.

There’s a lot that could be said here. But the main point is this: God shows – again – that he is alive and active and completely in control of everything by helping Daniel to interpret the dream, even though Nebuchadnezzar refuses to tell anyone the details of the dream. And what’s the content of the dream? The lesson is this: the very same point. History isn’t the result of a series of random events. It’s not even primarily the out-workings of the plans of political leaders and the movers and shakers of this world, although their decisions are real and personal; it’s the arena in which the God of heaven works out his plans for the good of his people and for the glory of his name. Behind the scenes of human history is God’s invisible hand.

Empires come and go at God’s bidding. "You are not in control," says God. "I am." God is the King behind all of the other kings. God uses the real decisions that political leaders make to achieve his purposes. So after the Babylonian Empire came the Medo-Persian Empire, then the Greek Empire and then the Roman Empire, which is the iron and clay legs. Since then there have been other Empires – the British Empire, the German Reich, the Soviet Empire, and I suppose today the American Empire. All come and flourish for a while, and then they go. They all come and go, as ordained by God. Sometimes it may seem like things have spun out of control – as they do today in Zimbabwe and North Korea and elsewhere – but the situations in these places have not caught God by surprise. God is alive and active and completely in control. (And I know that that is a massive comfort to many of the Christians in Zimbabwe). God has the whole world in his hands.

Well, let’s begin to think about the implications of God’s sovereignty. What does it mean for each of us today that God is in control?

Firstly, I think we have to realise that as those who live in God’s Universe, he is in complete control of our lives. The book of Daniel shows that God cares about and is in control of the big things – like nations and politics – but also that he cares about individuals, like Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and Nebuchadnezzar.

Recently, I was reading Psalm 121 – and unfortunately the thrust of the passage is lost by the English language. In English, we only have one word for the word ‘you’. So if I said, ‘I’m really mad with you!’, it wouldn’t be obvious whether I was just mad with one person or with everyone.

In Psalm 121, both of those ‘you’s are employed. In verses 3-4, the psalmist says, ‘He will not let your foot slip’ – this is the plural ‘you’. The Message puts it like this: ‘He won’t let you stumble. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep.’ In other words, the verses are saying that God is in complete control of his people as a whole.

And yet, in the verses that come, we see that God is also sovereign over individuals. He’s not just bothered about the nation as a whole, but the individuals that make up that nation. Often we can think that God is in control of the Universe – yes – but it seems like in our own lives things are still spinning out of control. And so it’s particularly precious that the psalm continues, with the singular ‘you’: ‘The LORD watches over you (individually) – the LORD is the shade at your right hand’. Each of God’s people is cared for individually, and God is sovereign over all of our individual circumstances. If God is the Good Shepherd then, so to speak, he shepherds his flock in ones.

This is a word to those that are suffering. Sometimes it can feel like we might have somehow squirmed out of God’s hand and away from his care. The book of Daniel reminds us God is big enough. He has you in his hands. More than that, God uses all of our circumstances – even awful things – to work out his plans. We see that at the cross: the most heinous crime of all time is used by God to bring about ultimate good. And he promises to use all circumstances of a Christian to make us more like Jesus, relying all the more on God and being freed from the power of sin in our lives. As Romans 8:28 puts it, ‘God works all things out for the good of those who love him.’ Perhaps you’re hurting today and you’re working whether God’s really there. Well you need to know that we’re not always able to unravel why certain things happen. But the Christian faith is a relationship with a God known to be wholly trustworthy – he is in control and he is kind and he uses even our sufferings to bring us to experience our relationship with him more deeply.

God’s sovereignty over our lives also says something to the rest of us, too, and it’s this: God’s way is always best. If we think that God isn’t in control, then sometimes we’ll find ourselves in circumstances and think that God’s way may not be best. However, if we’re convinced not only that God made us and knows us inside out, but also that he is in complete control, then we can know that his word for our lives is completely trustworthy. If I think God isn’t in control, sometimes I’ll compromise on what he asks me to do when it’s hard and costly and sacrificial. But if I’m convinced he’s good and in control, I’ll surrender my life to him. Let’s each be convinced of God’s sovereignty in our lives.

Another implication of the fact that God is alive and active and in control of human history bring us to our second and final point: that history is heading to a particular point. Without God, life is hopeless. If God didn’t exist, then we would find ourselves as meaningless people as part of a meaningless human race living in a meaningless universe that will just keep expanding forever. If God doesn’t exist, then our lives don’t matter and nor do our actions. Nothing has any ultimate value.

That’s the way that King Belshazzar lived, without reference to God. Remember the scene? As Chapter 5 opens, Belshazzar and his cronies are toasting each other using the LORD’s goblets, the world seemingly at their feet. But then everything changes as the writing comes on the wall. Belshazzar had been living without God. And, then, just six hours later, there he is, lying dead on the palace floor. It’s such a tragic ending to the chapter: Belshazzar lying dead amidst the temple goblets from Jerusalem, the dregs of the wine still in his stomach and spilled upon the floor. What was his life with its drinking, feasting and all its pleasures - what was that worth when it was weighed by God? Found wanting. Empty, noisy, and quickly over.

I wonder if that idea makes you feel slightly uneasy; the idea that God will judge and that he will have the last say in his Universe. Unfortunately, I think the biblical teaching about God’s judgement is unhelpfully caricatured. But one of the things that the book of Daniel reminds us again and again is that God alone has the right to rule over each of us and judge us. To those that struggle with this idea, I want to ask this question: how wide do you think that God’s reign is? The God revealed in the book of Daniel is the Lord of history, the God of every individual and he is passionately good – which means that he will not let evil have the last say in his Universe.
And so that means this: history won’t just keep rumbling on forever. The fact that God’s kingdom is coming is repeated throughout the book of Daniel, but particularly in Chapters 2 and 7. It’s heading to a fixed point: a point where God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, where God will end all the suffering, where he will cleanse everything, when all wrongs will be righted and everything will be put right. The fullness of the kingdom of God when God’s perfect rule is perfectly made known to all is the reality to which human history is heading. God’s word is as sure as his character – which means that we are closer to Jesus’ return and the end of history as we know it than we were at the beginning of this talk.

And so that brings us, very topically, to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we remember Good Friday tomorrow, we’ll remember of the just judgement of God that we rightfully face. But we’ll also remember God’s mercy and grace and love for us, through which God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life. God in human form died on the cross for the punishment of our sins; the punishment that was rightly ours fell upon Jesus, our voluntary substitute.

On Sunday, we’ll remember Jesus resurrection. We’re reminded that Jesus is alive, that death could not hold him – the ultimate proof that God is alive and active and in perfect control of his world. The resurrection shows us that Jesus really is the King and Judge of the Universe, just as we see in Daniel 7 – not even death is outside of his control. And the resurrection shows that God’s wrath really has been exhausted by Christ on the cross – which means that those trusting in him have no fear of condemnation when he returns to Judge. Those who are trusting Jesus are forgiven because Christ was forsaken on the cross.

I think a couple of things have particularly struck me this year as I’ve been preparing for Easter. One is the fact that God has been able to find a way for sinners like me to be part of his perfect new creation, where I won’t mess it up having been given a completely fresh start and having been made new. We receive Jesus’ perfect record and have been transformed.

And the other thing that has struck me is that every other religion tells you to live better so that God will accept you. We can never live good enough lives for God. But, amazingly, God has seen us in our need and come and lived a good life for us, then through the cross credited it to us. And that is why Jesus’ life and death is our only hope. God, in Jesus Christ, can accomplish what we in our own faithlessness cannot – again, something that the book of Daniel has underlined for us.
So let’s draw to a close. Let’s look back on our studies in Daniel and not see them as just a guide of what to do when times of peer pressure come. But let’s open our eyes to the amazing God that is revealed: completely sovereign and in control and not dead but alive. As we finish, let’s listen to how Cyrus described God in Chapter 6:

"He is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions."

Our God is the living God, he is the Lord of history. He is the rescuing God who, not only rescued Daniel, but has rescued us too from our sin and our judgement. This Easter, let’s live again in the light of what God has revealed about himself.

1 comment: