God’s Government (Dan 4:28-37)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in November 1, 2020*

Sermon Audio: God’s Government (Daniel)

28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,

for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. – Daniel 4:28-37

A Summary of Daniel

Daniel is a book recounting the story of four Hebrew men who have been carried off into exile upon Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon. It is a fascinating book precisely because Daniel and his friends have been selected to work within the upper echelons of the Babylonian political system, but being Israelites (who were taken as captives!), they are peculiar individuals to be working in a pagan government. It is a book that is divided into two halves: chapters 1-6 recount stories of Daniel and his three friends, while chapters 7-12 recount visions Daniel receives of the future. Most interestingly, however, is the fact that the book of Daniel is actually written in two different languages. Chapters 2-7 are written in Aramaic, while the rest are written in Hebrew. Chapters 2-7, thus present a unique block of teaching intended to be interpreted together as a whole, and, as will be demonstrated, serve as the heartbeat of the entire book. 

Chapter one recounts the fall of Jerusalem by Babylon and a selection of prisoners taken to serve in the Babylonian courts. Daniel and his three friends (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) are some who are selected and are to be trained in the literature and language of Babylon, but are also to be given food that was forbidden by the dietary codes of the Torah. Daniel and his friends choose to eat only vegetables and drink water, and God honors their desire for obedience by having them prosper in health and status in Babylon.

Chapter two tells of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, having a dream he wishes to have interpreted, but he demands that his soothsayers and wisemen not only interpret the dream, but tell him the dream itself! None of the wisemen are able to do either, but Daniel prays for wisdom and is given both the dream and the interpretation.

Chapter three is the famous story of Daniel’s three friends and the fiery furnace. After erecting a 90 foot tall statue of himself and demanding all people to worship it Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago (their Babylonian names) refuse, so Nebuchadnezzar has them cast into a flaming furnace. However, God saves them and they emerge from the furnace unharmed. 

Chapter four is a personal letter written by Nebuchadnezzar himself recounting another dream that was interpreted by Daniel that prophesied his own humiliation for his boastful arrogance. This dream comes to fruition with Nebuchadnezzar being driven to insanity and beastliness for seven years before he is restored.

Chapter five tells of Nebucahdnezzar’s son, Belzshazzar throwing an opulent dinner party where the guests are guzzling wine out of the vessels that had been stolen from the temple in Jerusalem, all while they are praising their pagan gods. A dismembered hand appears, writing on the wall a message of doom that (again) only Daniel can interpret. Daniel informs Belshazzar that God has weighed him and found him wanting; that night Belshazzar is assassinated and the Medo-Persian empire overtakes Babylon.

Chapter six is the even more famous story of Daniel and the lion’s den. Darius, the Medo-Persian king is tricked by officials jealous of Daniel’s status into passing a law that forbids anyone to pray to any god other than him for thirty days. Daniel defiantly disobeys and prays on his balcony, forcing the king to reluctantly throw Daniel into a den of hungry lions overnight. However, God, like in the fiery furnace, preserves His saints. Daniel emerges from the den unharmed by the lions.

Chapter seven is a vision that Daniel himself receives that expands further upon the dream of Nebuchadnezzar from chapter two that foretells the rise and fall of four beastly kingdoms before the kingdom of God is established. Chapters eight through twelve provide further sweeping prophecies of what the future holds, zooming in even closer on the four earthly kingdoms as they are finally displaced by the final kingdom of God.

That’s the book of Daniel. As we reflect on the book as a whole today, I want to draw your attention to four themes: (1) God’s sovereignty in human government, (2) beastly government, (3) God’s Judgment and, (4) the path for the faithful.

God’s Sovereignty in Human Government

“The Most High God rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He wills.”

God us ultimately, finally, and decisively in control of the kingdom of men.

This is brought up over and over and over again, to the point of ad nauseam in this book. This is the painful lesson that Nebuchadnezzar has to learn in chapter four when he is driven to madness for his arrogance, pride, and sin. It is God and God alone who both “rules” over the kingdom of men and who gives it to “whomever He wills.” It is seen perhaps most potently in visions of the future in Daniel 2 and 7, and the expansions on those in chapters 8-12. In each of these chapters, Daniel is given in-depth details about what is going to happen in the future regarding the successive kingdoms of the world. But God doesn’t have this information because He merely knows the future, like a crystal-ball reader—God knows what will happen in the future because He is the one who is determining what happens in the future! “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings,” Dan 2:21a

So, why will Persia overtake Babylon? And Greece Persia? And Persia Rome? Because the Most High God rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He wills. Why will Donald Trump or Joe Biden become President of America? Because the Most High God rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He wills. Friend, whatever the outcome of this week’s election, be comforted that everything will go precisely according to God’s plan. “The Most High God rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He wills.”

Beastly Governments

While God is sovereign over who sits on the emperor’s throne, this does not mean that He approves of everything that emperor does. God warned Israel that if they violated the covenant, God would hand them over to brutal, pagan nations who would dominate them and exile them from their land. God is not endorsing their brutality, but uses them like a club in his hand to punish Israel (see Isa 10). Just because God places Nebuchadnezzar or Belshazzer on the throne or Donald Trump or Joe Biden in office does not by mean that He approves of everything that nation does. In fact, Daniel’s visions in chapter two and seven reveal that most often human governments tend to be savage and rebellious and in need of judgment.

In chapter two Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant statue made of four different kinds of metals: “You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay,” (Dan 2:31-33). These different metals we are told represent four different kingdoms. Daniel explains that the head represents Babylon now (Dan 2:37-38). The next kingdom (silver) is the Medo-Persian empire, which we actually see take over Babylon in chapter 5-6. The next kingdom (bronze) we learn is the Greek empire in chapter eight, which, led by Alexander the Great, will overtake the Persian empire in 334 BC. The final kingdom (iron, which crushes everything), most scholars agree is Rome, which overtakes the Greek empire in 146 BC. 

Typical of Hebrew prophets, we are given this same vision, only now from a different perspective. In chapter seven we are given Daniel’s vision of four terrifying beasts arising out of the metaphorical sea of chaos, each of them following along the same lines of chapter two. “The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. 5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ 6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.” (Dan 7:4-8). Later we are told that these four represent four distinct kings (Dan 7:17).

What is interesting to see here is the progression of the beasts. Like the metals of the statue, which go from valuable to less valuable (gold to iron/clay), the beasts go from more humane to less. The first beast, representing Babylon, is transformed from a beast to something like a man; it is described as a lion with wings, whose wings are plucked off, stands on its feet like a man and is given the mind of a man. This is intended to represent the story of Nebuchadnezzar who is acting beastly, till he is humbled by God (by being turned into a beast!) and repents. The subsequent beasts become more and more deformed and terrifying, till we arrive at the macabre spectacle of the final beast. This progression shows us that the normal progress of human government is it become more inhumane, more barbaric over time. There are certainly good that progresses along side the bad, but Daniel wants to emphasize the bad. 

We should be grateful for the many blessings that human government has given us. The posture of All government is pointless and stupid because it is so corrupt smacks of naivete and can only be said from the vista of one already enjoying the benefits of government, like the angsty teenager who spends all day complaining about how lame her parents are, but still counts on mom and dad making dinner for her every night. There are many good things—but where the good increases, evil abounds all the more. The most advanced, scientific, literate, and enlightened countries in the world killed more people in the 20th century than the previous 19 centuries combined. America, a beacon of so-called tolerance and progress kills 3,000 children a day through abortions and enshrines a sexual ethic as praiseworthy that Romans one tells us awakens God’s wrath. Our society as a whole thrives on outrage, suspicion and incentivizes leaders who stoke the fires of division through their own arrogance, machismo, and vulgarity, who use political smoke screens, blame-shifting, half-truths and false virtue to disguise their own corruption and moral bankruptcy. The rot and rancor run deep.

God’s Judgment

But what is most shocking is God’s response to these kingdoms of men. In Daniel two we are told: “A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth,” (Dan 2:34-35). Daniel goes on to explain, “And in the days of those kings (the iron/clay kingdom) the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever,” (Dan 2:44). This is telling us that during the time of the Roman kingdom a “stone…cut out by no human hand,” will hurtle towards the kingdoms of men who oppose God, utterly obliterating all of them, so much so that there won’t even be the dust from these empires around. And then, this stone grows into a mountain that fills the whole world. The cosmic mountain is a picture of God’s kingdom which brings restoration, peace, and healing to the nations (Isa 2)—this is what will be established with the demise of the kingdoms of men, and unlike the ever-changing kingdoms of men, this heavenly kingdom “shall never be destroyed.”

“Jesus identified himself as the “stone” from Daniel’s interpretation in a parable about wicked tenants. In Luke 20:17, he cited Psalm 118:22 (“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”; cf. Isa. 8:14; 28:16) and then said, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Luke 20:18), alluding to Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45.” (Mitchell Chase, Daniel, ESVEC)

In Daniel 7 this “stone” is identified both with the “Ancient of Days” and the “Son of Man.” After the fourth super-beast is revealed, Daniel then sees God Himself (described as the “Ancient of Days”) take His throne and open up the books of judgment.  “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed,” (Dan 7:11-14). God judges and delivers the beast over to be destroyed, and the Son of Man is given the eternal kingdom.

Jesus identified Himself as the “Son of Man” repeatedly in His ministry, specifically referring to the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of Heaven.” Sometimes He speaks about this referring to His second coming where He will gather His people and judge the wicked (see Matt 24:29-31; cf. Rev 1:7), and other places He speaks about it referring to His ascension where He will, just as in Daniel, come to the “Ancient of Days” on the clouds of Heaven (Acts 1:9). Jesus, while speaking with the Sanhedrin explicitly tells them that they will see this happen (Matt 26:64). So the New Testament presents the “Son of Man” riding on the clouds of heaven something that happens in two installments: at Jesus’ ascension and at His second coming. 

Daniel, however, sees the “coming on the clouds of Heaven” as one event. But this is typical of the prophets who see into the future, but often cannot discern gaps of time between certain events happening (prophetic foreshortening). Time won’t allow a further investigation of this, but this is telling us that when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, at that moment the kingdom was transferred to Him, Satan was decisively crushed, and the stone crashed into the kingdoms of men. 

Now, while Jesus is king over all and has authority over all kingdoms of men by right (de jure), we do not yet see this authority manifested in totality (de facto) (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-28; Heb 2:5-9). There is a day where we will be able to say at the final trumpet blast, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever,” (Rev 11:15), but we are not there yet. Imagine a man standing on top of a barstool who is punched in the chest. If you set up a slow-motion camera at the moment he is hit, you could watch him lurch backwards and slowly lose his footing, flying backwards as he falls. That is how the New Testament describes the fall of Satan and the beastly kingdoms of men—they have been beaten through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords has taken His throne and now commands all men everywhere to repent—we are waiting for God’s enemies to hit the floor, but they do not have the same standing they had before. But while we wait, we can be confident that “All authority in heaven and earth has been given” to Jesus (Matt 28:18). The kingdom of God has arrived (Mark 1:14-15)! Where do we physically see the kingdom of God now made manifest? In the church. We have been made into “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20) and a “kingdom of priests” (1 Pet 2:9)—Jesus describes salvation itself as being brought into the kingdom of God (John 3:3; cf. Col 1:13-14). Daniel explains that the kingdom that Son of Man receives isn’t kept to Himself, but is also given to His people: “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever,” (Dan 7:18; cf. Dan 7:27). 

In sum: Daniel teaches that every government of men that opposes God is obliterated by the work of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross and rose again, He dealt the decisive death blow to these kingdoms by establishing His everlasting kingdom in the church, and will one day return to consummate this kingdom in its fullness.

How Then Should We Live

Maintain Our Integrity at All Costs

The story of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den and his three friends being thrown into a fiery furnace provide us excellent models of what faithful living looks like under the shadow of a beastly government. It would have been very easy for Daniel’s three friends to simply bow the knee to the statue, and convince themselves that in their hearts they weren’t really bowing. I’m sure many other Hebrew captives there were doing that very thing. How easy would it have been for Daniel to just pray in his closet? I’m sure they felt the temptations of compromise: Your faith is a personal matter between you and God, you don’t need to make a big fuss so long as your heart still honors God. This is a choice of the lesser of two evils—it would be selfish to throw your life away when you could maintain your position to try to do good for your fellow Hebrews! Doesn’t God want you to be submissive to the governing authorities any way? But these men maintain their integrity to the point of death. The theological message of the book of Daniel is the invincible kingdom of God overwhelming any human kingdom that seeks to oppose Him—and we have now been made a part of that kingdom, so we are now confident in the face of any state-sanctioned persecution. We can follow our Lord and Savior Jesus with the same rock solid confidence that Jesus exhibits after Pilate exclaims: “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (John 19:10-11). 

Friend, in today’s explosive world we are living in today, are you tempted to compromise your convictions? Where in Daniel’s day the people were forced to bow down to a statue, today we can be forced to bow down to our culture’s definition of sex, tolerance, identity, and intersectionality. What are you going to do when you work makes you sign a “tolerance” document that states that you affirm an individual’s gender identity is fluid? Or that you should be identified, judged, and condemned by the color of your skin or socioeconomic status?

 Are you tempted to justify sin for a political outcome? I do not believe that a vote for a candidate necessarily means an endorsement of everything that candidate stands for or represents. I could understand why a Christian, out of a desire to love their neighbor, could make a calculated decision to vote for either the Democratic or Republican ticket, believing that it would result in the greatest good, while acknowledging what is sinful and deplorable in the candidate or party platform. But, dear Christian, we must never compromise our integrity by praising and approving of what God hates. God hates the oppression of the poor, the widow, and the immigrant. God hates the murder of children. God hates the perversion of his good design for gender, sexuality, and marriage. God hates boastful arrogance. God hates when people praise him with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. And God holds kings of all nations accountable. Belshazzar had his kingdom stripped from him because he walked in unrepentant pride and arrogance. And friends, maybe God will sink America because of the unrepentant sin of our nation’s leaders.

Submit to Imperfect Governing Authorities

Though the beastliness of government is displayed in Daniel and the stories of Daniel and his friends defiantly disobeying government orders to worship false gods stand out, what is amazing is that throughout the story Daniel and his three friends work within the Babylonian and Persian courts, submitting to these imperfect, inhumane governing authorities. When Daniel is thrown into the den of lions by Darius, the first thing Daniel says to Darius after emerging from the den is, “O King, live forever!” (Dan 6:21). Daniel speaks with respect to a king who just had attempted to feed him to lions! While Paul is writing Romans 13, the classic exhortation for Christians to submit to governing authorities, he is writing under the wicked emperor Nero, who would viciously persecute the church. Nevertheless, Paul explains, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God,” (Rom 13:1). Those that exist have been instituted by God! Which is really just another way of saying, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He will.” 

Friends, this week as our nation’s election takes place, I want to exhort you. Due to the amount of mail-in ballots and the widespread accusations of voter fraud and voter suppression from both the Right and the Left, there likely will not be a clear winner announced right away. It will likely take time, and the results may seem murky and unclear, and there is a chance that a winner will be announced amidst much criticism over the results. My encouragement to you is to not let your response to whatever that outcome might be telegraph to others around you that you think the Most High does not rule the kingdom of men and does not give it to whomever He will. But, those people are ruining our country! They are taking our freedoms! They are promoting what God hates!

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let God deal with the destruction of the kingdoms of men. You focus on loving your enemy, even your political ones. 

 And while Daniel anticipates the fourth beast (Rome) being the final beast, the book of Revelation describes its beast—the embodiment of wicked governmental power—as an amalgamation of all four of these: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority,” (Rev 13:1-2). Thus, I think Revelation is trying to show us that the devolvement of government into wicked, inhumane abuses of its power is something that did not conclude with the Roman empire, but rather marks all of human history till Christ returns. 

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