It may be safely said that never did a prouder monarch sway the sceptre than Nebuchadnezzar. None ruled over a wider or richer domain, and never was the word of a despot more irresistible.
His power was not the result of mere fortune, or inheritance, or military success; it was assigned him by God. Let me refer you to Jeremiah 27:4-7, “Thus says the Lord, I have made the earth … and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me: and now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant … and all nations shall serve him,” &c. Now here we have, not only the transfer of royal prerogatives from that favoured nation which God had counselled as His central earthly authority (a counsel yet to be made good), but the Gentile, in the king of Babylon, invested therewith. This, in itself, is most interesting, but, as it is apart from the present subject, it must be passed over. The point is that God placed in the hand of Nebuchadnezzar this supreme universal sway, and hence he stands unrivalled in the list of autocrats and emperors.
Now this man, like Pharaoh in earlier days, but with how different an issue, had very close dealings with God’s people. Pharaoh held them captive with an iron grip, and refused to let them go from his land until compelled to do so by the signal judgment of God. Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, was allowed by God to lead them captive into his land on account of their sins. The first was God’s enemy; the second was His servant. Pharaoh was overthrown in the Red Sea; Nebuchadnezzar, after a bitter lesson of humiliation, is found a worshipper of the Most High. Yet, mark! God may deign to call a man His servant who may have no spiritual qualification for the place. Instance Cyrus, or Balaam, or, in later days, such an one as Judas Iscariot. A servant’s place is certainly not the best. “Make me as one of thy hired servants,” was the formulated petition of one who did not know the grace of the Father; and God may show His sovereignty in acting thus. Hence we shall see how this mighty instrument that God used for the correction of His people was, at the same time, wholly ignorant of the hand by which he was moved, and that he had deep waters through which to pass in order to know the God he unwittingly served.
Flushed with conquest, the captor of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and with him the wealth of Israel and the vessels of the temple of God, we find Nebuchadnezzar settled on the grandest throne in the world, and dwelling in the famous Babylon, with its wall of sixty miles circumference and its infinite luxury. This is the man whom God was about to debase from such dizzy heights of earthly glory to a condition like that of the beasts, so that in measure He might make Himself known, and that the king thus humbled might publish His glory universally, and then receive, from His hand, the kingdom after a different manner. Job, in his bereavement, abasement, and ultimate blessing, may come into the mind as an illustration of this kind of dealing.
Beside the king of Judah certain of the seed royal had also been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, and among them Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, names honourably fixed in our memory. These men, though sharing the common judgment of their people, yet refused to surrender the principle of faith in their God. True, circumstances were sadly altered. Where was the temple? where all the time-honoured insignia of Jehovah’s worship? Had the people not been scattered by Him for national unfaithfulness, and could they now expect aught from Him? Why cleave to Him if He had cast them off? Why incur the odium and violate the religious prejudices of their victors by maintaining the worship of a God unknown in Babylon? All this and much more might have been urged; but faith acknowledges God everywhere, as much in the distance of Babylon as in the favoured precincts of Zion; as much in the shades of captivity as in the sunshine of communion. The experience may differ, the notes of praise may be less full in the former, but yet faith knows that “God is, and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.”
Hence to Daniel and his friends Babylon furnished but a change of place, not of occupation.
Now on turning to the book of Daniel we find accordingly that these four men purposed in heart to act for God. Consequences were of no moment; they refused to eat the portion of the king’s meat, and drink his wine. This would have been “defilement.” His luxuries, though pleasant to nature, were only a bait of the enemy, and the first step of faith is refusal.
But how came they into circumstances of temptation? Well, the king, spite of his exaltation, confessed at least his ignorance by causing the seed royal of Judah to be educated for the office of wise men or magicians. This was an important confession, as we shall see, and, my reader, we must all learn our ignorance of that which alone is truly worth knowing. To be brought to the sense of blindness in things divine is indeed the first step on the road of true wisdom.
Now in the second chapter of this book we have the first of the three Voices addressed by God to Nebuchadnezzar, the remarkable prophetic image of gold, silver, brass, iron, and clay, which was broken to pieces by a stone cut out without hand, and which eventually filled the earth. This revelation was made in the form of a dream. The king demanded of his wise men that they should make known both the dream and its meaning. This none of them could do, and the imperious order went forth that they should be slain. Meanwhile Daniel learns the edict, and goes, with his companions, in prayer to the God of heaven, that He should make known to them the dream. Beautiful faith! and assuredly God could as easily discover the dream to Daniel as He could give it at first to Nebuchadnezzar. So He did, and thus enlightened Daniel went in to the king, and notice his words—“The secret which the king has demanded, cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers show unto the king, but there is a GOD IN HEAVEN that revealeth secrets,” &c.; then follows the dream and its interpretation. The king is satisfied, and more; it dawned upon him for the first time that there was a “God of gods and a Lord of kings”—one greater than himself—and a “revealer of secrets,” to whom indeed everything is naked and opened, introduced now to him as a “God in heaven.”
Ah, what a soul-subduing experience to be placed in the presence of God’s omniscience! How appalling, how overwhelming, just to find yourself before one who knows all about everything, and all about you, your “thoughts afar off,” and who counts the hairs of the head! Well may the sinner tremble, and the saint rejoice! And, notice, He is not only a “revealer of secrets,” but, as Romans 2 tells us, He is the judge of them too. God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ. Would that we all woke up to this startling fact, and gave it due place in the minutiæ of our daily lives.
The immediate result in Nebuchadnezzar was that he promoted Daniel, making him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of all the wise men. Thus far was God’s power witnessed by his faithful captive servant. Through him the king is brought to learn the wisdom of the God of heaven. But this is not all. The image in vision of chapter 2, appears to have suggested to him the golden image of chapter 3. In the vision he understood that he was the head of gold, and now, inflated with pride and self-esteem, he rears an image before which all in his dominions must bow. He forbids the worship of all beside. Now this golden god became the test of faith, and we find the three friends of Daniel resisting the king’s wicked command. They had learned how to refuse his meat, and now they know how to reject his blasphemous order. Their fidelity cost them everything. They were cast into the fiery furnace, but they had there the company of the Son of God. Allowed to be proved unto death, they received what was better than deliverance from the trial—the presence of God, His peace, Himself in it.
And what was the effect upon the king? In fury he had ordered the heating of the furnace, and had gloated his rage in witnessing the casting into its flames of the three dear men of God; but now he sees a fourth in that very furnace, whose form is like that of the Son of God, He had heard of His wisdom in the previous chapter; he sees Himself in this, not in the execution of judgment, but in that of tender, faithful sympathy with His beloved suffering witnesses. Faith can say, “Just like Him.”
What a voice must this have been to the king! “Why persecutest thou me?” might in measure have been said to him as to another persecutor in a later day. But the sight of the Son of God in the furnace convicted him of his folly, and led him to bless that God who had so signally interposed on behalf of His servants, and to publish a decree that none should speak a word against Him. In a negative way he takes sides with God. He has learned His omniscience, he has seen Him in an assumed human form acting in sympathy with His sufferers, and delivering out of his own cruel hand; but yet there is no personal dealing, none of that direct and immediate discipline which alone can lead the soul to a true knowledge of God. Many may admit His omniscience, many may accredit His omnipotence, and own the miraculous nature of His works, and yet be totally ignorant of Himself. An external evidence may affect the senses, but, in order to faith, there must be a conscience work that leads to self-judgment and this, I submit, we find in the following chapter.
Finally, then, the king proclaims God’s personal dealings with him. Let us quote: “Nebuchadnezzar the king unto all people … I thought it good to show the signs and wonders that the high God had wrought toward me.” Notice this; it is a broad and bold confession of the judgment that had befallen him on account of his pride. He had passed through deep waters under God’s correcting hand. He had seen the mysterious premonitory vision of the tree that was hewn down, with only the stump of its former greatness left, bound with iron and brass, and wet with the dew of heaven, a beast’s heart given, and seven times passing over him. “All this came upon Nebuchadnezzar … At the end of the days I lifted up mine eyes unto heaven,” (proper action of every burdened soul), “and mine understanding returned unto. me; and I blessed the Most High; and I praised and honoured Him … He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say unto Him, What doest thou?” What a lesson for earth’s proudest potentate to learn! And hence—“I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth and His ways judgment: and those that walk in pride He is able to abase.” Remember that this is the effect of personal humiliation, “toward me,” said the once proud monarch. But he had been abased, emptied, brought to the dust, and now, revisited with mercy, his lips are full of the praise of his Corrector.
More cannot be said; only let us remember that he did not live in New Testament times, when the gospel carries the knowledge of salvation, and makes that the basis of worship. But he had learned the wisdom of God from the lips of Daniel, he had seen the sympathy of God with His suffering people in the fiery furnace, and he had bowed to His will—that irresistible will that commands the army of heaven—in the seven years of sore abasement—three deeply important lessons. Nor is he ashamed to publish all, as with trumpet tongue, so that God might be glorified. This, at least, is no small evidence of what is called “conversion.”