This week as we continued our series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is, we are turning with Daniel’s story in a direction that may be unexpected. When we imagine ourselves standing in faithfulness as the world around us turns away from such a path, we are often tempted to think in very much cultural terms. We imagine ourselves as warriors battling back the forces of evil. Yet being faithful after the way of Jesus looks very different from this. Let’s talk about how and why as we look at another story about a king and a dream.
Loving the Hurting
Let’s do a quick vocabulary poll this morning. This one is definitely a fifty-cent word. How many of you have heard the word “schadenfreude”? Anyone want to throw out a definition or use it in a sentence. It’s actually a really good word to have in your back pocket. It’s probably worth quite a few points in a game of Scrabble. I don’t think I’ve ever actually played a game of Scrabble in my life, so I could be wrong, but it at least has a lot of letters. Schadenfreude, as you might have guessed, is a German word. While a more robust definition is probably available in German, in English it basically translates to taking pleasure at the misfortune of others. We live today in a world where schadenfreude is a common feeling for a lot of people.
For instance, have you ever helped someone who made a poor decision? I’m talking about a situation where you saw the whole thing played out right in front of you. You saw what they were doing. You saw that it wasn’t going to end well. You cautioned them against continuing down the path they were taking. You watched them ignore your counsel and take it anyway. You watched in technicolor as the bad end you knew was coming arrived. Then, you helped them pick up the pieces. Or did you? In that kind of a situation, helping isn’t exactly the first thing on our mind. We are much more likely to drift in the direction of schadenfreude. We may not do it out loud, but inside we are absolutely tickled to see them crash into the walls of reality.
Schadenfreude is everywhere we look these days. This is especially true in the political sphere. We love making tea from the tears of our ideological opponents as they cry themselves to sleep at night when they realize we were right and they were wrong all along. Mocking the misfortune of others generates all kinds of memes that make the rounds on social media. Liberals loving hating on dumb conservatives who discover their restrictive policies are ruining the lives of the people they purport to serve. Conservatives have a party when liberals’ feelings get hurt because reality hasn’t played along with their wokist nonsense. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth we go. We don’t really care about helping anyone who is in a hard time of their own making. It’s much more fun to laugh at them before moving on to another target. But while there’s certainly something sinisterly cathartic about all of this, it doesn’t stand up very well if something more like the way of Jesus is our aim. Jesus didn’t tend to mock His enemies in their misfortune. He tended to take an entirely different path.
This morning we are officially to the halfway point in our teaching series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. For the last few weeks and with a few more to go, we have been talking about the fact that our culture is not the same as it was when many of you were growing up. It’s not the same as it was when I was growing. (Although with 40 on the very near horizon, I’m getting closer and closer to that “many of you” category all the time.) Most of us—especially if it happened anywhere in this region—grew up in a time when the Christian faith had a pretty high and respected standing in the broader culture. We got pretty used to life in the cultural catbird seat too. But the world is changing. We are heading quickly in a direction that many of us don’t like, but which is steadily putting us in a place that is more on par with what has been the normal experience of followers of Jesus across the centuries. More and more, when we take a stand for faithfulness to Christ, it can feel like we are standing all on our own. But you already knew that and that’s not what you need to hear about from me. What we are talking about in this journey is how to stand in such a place without giving up our faith or losing our witness.
Guiding us in this journey have been the incredible stories of Daniel and his friends. This quartet was part of the original group of exiles King Nebuchadnezzar took with him back to Babylon when he first conquered the city of Jerusalem. Rather than merely merging with their new milieu, though, these four friends made the decision to maintain their faithfulness no matter the cost. In doing so, they left a powerful example for us to follow. So far on our journey we have seen their courageous faithfulness in refusing the king’s food in order to maintain their commitment to the Law of Moses. Nate walked you through Daniel’s careful words in a tense situation when the king wanted a mind reader as well as a dream-interpreter. Then, just last week, we marveled at the stubborn faithfulness of Daniel’s friends and the Gospel stand they were willing to take in spite of the costs it was going to carry.
So far in Daniel’s stories, he and his friends have filled the role of the persecuted minority. They’ve been small actors on a big stage and the rest of the cast hasn’t been very supportive. Now, the Director has had their backs, and so their roles have been hits, but by the time we get to chapter 4 we see something different. In fact, chapter 4 on the whole is very different from what came before it. For starters, it wasn’t written by Daniel. It’s a letter from King Nebuchadnezzar to his subjects relating a wild experience he faced. And Daniel’s role in this story isn’t the persecuted minority any longer. He’s the guy the king intentionally seeks out for help. That also means his response to his circumstances is going to look a little different.
So often when we think about being faithful when the people around us aren’t, we think in very aggressive, schadenfreude-laden terms. To put it another way, we think in very cultural terms. We imagine ourselves as lonely warriors, fighting against the forces that would seek to overcome us. And when we think like this—this us-versus-them mentality—while we may pursue something that looks like faithfulness, we’re not going to be accomplishing much to truly advance the Gospel into the hearts and minds of the people around us. And if we’re not doing that…we’re really not being nearly so faithful as we claim. Being faithful to the way of Jesus looks very different from this. And we get a glimpse of this different way in action in the next part of our story. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Daniel 4, and let’s dig into this together.
Like I said, this chapter is actually a letter from Nebuchadnezzar that was apparently intended to be read throughout his empire. He had experienced something profound and he wanted everyone to know about it. More specifically, he has had a profound experience with God and wants to share it.
Nebuchadnezzar’s little adventure began, as do so many of the adventures in this story, with a dream. Look at this with me in Daniel 4:4: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and flourishing in my palace. I had a dream, and it frightened me; while in my bed, the images and visions in my mind alarmed me. So I issued a decree to bring all the wise men of Babylon to me in order that they might make the dream’s interpretation known to me.” Apparently he had gotten wise enough to not demand these folks tell him both the dream and its interpretation. Yet all of his vaunted wise men were simply not up to the task he had assigned them. “When the magicians, mediums, Chladeans, and diviners came in, I told them the dream, but they could not make its interpretation known to me.”
So, the king is in a pickle that should feel all too familiar to him. And what do you do when you find yourself in a hard spot you’ve seen before? You look to the solution that worked before. “Finally Daniel, named Belteshazzar after the name of my god—and a spirit of the holy gods is in him—came before me. I told him the dream.”
Nebuchadnezzar goes on to relate a pretty wild dream to Daniel. It starts with a tree. There’s this giant tree that is lush and beautiful and everything a perfect tree should be. It nourished all the land around it with its produce. It provided shelter for all kinds of different creatures. It was incredible. But then everything comes undone. “As I was lying in my bed, I also saw in the visions of my mind a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven. He called out loudly: ‘Cut down the tree and chop off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it, and the birds from its branches.’” This seems like just a shocking waste. Why would someone do something like this to such a beautiful tree? Yet the destruction of the tree was not to be total. “But leave the stump with its roots in the ground and with a band of iron and bronze around it in the tender grass of the field.” Interestingly, I just heard a story about some environmentally-conscious Christians who are working with farmers in Africa to regrow cut down trees from the remaining stumps in such a way that replaces trees and also helps crops around those trees grow more effectively. It was a pretty cool story. The point here, though, is that there will be some hope and possibility that the tree will make a comeback.
But here, the dream changes. No longer is this watcher talking about an impersonal tree. Now the language shifts to “he.” Look at the rest of v. 15: “Let him be drenched with dew from the sky and share the plants of the earth with the animals. Let his mind be changed from that of a human and let him be given the mind of an animal for seven periods of time. This word is by decree of the watchers, and the decision is by command from the holy ones. This is so that the living will know that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He gives them to anyone he wants and sets the lowliest of people over them.”
Like I said: this was a pretty wild dream. No wonder the king couldn’t make much sense out of it. Fortunately, Daniel could. Unfortunately, the sense Daniel could make wasn’t all that good for the king. In fact, listen to just how much his understanding of the king’s dream disturbed Daniel. After the king tells him not to be bothered by the interpretation, whatever it happened to be, Daniel says, “My lord, may the dream apply to those who hate you, and its interpretation to your enemies!” Perhaps he was just blowing political smoke here because he knew he was supposed to talk like this, but I tend to think that over the course of time, Daniel had come to genuinely care for the king. Now, he surely wasn’t thrilled about his initial capture and forced emigration to Babylon, but he had achieved levels of success in his new home that he wouldn’t have been able to touch had he been back in Jerusalem. Daniel was wise enough to understand that even though Nebuchadnezzar certainly deserved the blame for his situation, he also deserved credit for it.
Daniel goes on to unpack the rest of the dream. The heart of the interpretation is that the king is the tree. Verse 22: “…that tree is you, Your Majesty. For you have become great and strong; your greatness has grown and even reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to the ends of the earth.” Yet because he was the tree in its glory, the king was also the tree in its destruction. And when the watcher spoke directly to the tree in personal terms, the king was the one he really had in view. “You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals. You will feed on grass like cattle and be drenched with dew from the sky for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.”
So, before we go on to the rest of the story, what is going on here? To put it simply: The king has received a word of judgment from the Lord. He’s basically going to lose his mind for “seven periods of time.” That’s a bit of a crass way to put it, though. Most scholars understand Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment here as his being afflicted with a diagnosable psychological condition called boanthropy. This is where a person begins to believe he is an animal, more specifically, a cow.
Now, this raises a really interesting and difficult question of whether God would really use mental illness as a form of punishment for sin (which, in this case, was pride). That is a really difficult and interesting question for which we do not get any firm or clear answers here. What we can say from this story as well as the Scriptures on the whole is that God does indeed appear to allow people to experience bouts of mental illness as a direct consequence of sinfulness. That being said, this does not in any way, shape, or form, allow us to conclude anything like that all mental illness is the result of a person’s sin. Now, all illness in general is a result of the brokenness of sin in the world, but it is not correct to say that a single individual’s struggle with a specific mental illness is necessarily the result of their sin. Now, let me pause for a moment to make sure you’ve gotten your head around what I’m saying. I don’t want you to be hearing something I haven’t said. Nebuchadnezzar’s condition here was clearly an act of judgment, but that does not allow us to make such a conclusion about anyone else. Furthermore, Nebuchadnezzar was afflicted with this condition with the expressed goal of repentance in view—something he was told about ahead of time such that this was not a surprise when it happened—and as soon as he repented of his pridefulness, his full sanity was restored.
Something else worth noting here is that most people understand his punishment to last for a period of seven years, but that’s not necessarily what the word here means. As my translation makes a bit clearer, the punishment here isn’t going to go on for seven years, but seven periods. What those periods are isn’t clear, but as seven consistently represents a sense of wholeness or completion in the Scriptures, the idea here is that the judgment is essentially going to last for the right amount of time. And what will be the right amount of time? Verse 26: “…your kingdom will be restored to you as soon as you acknowledge that Heaven rules.”
And don’t miss this part about Heaven ruling because it’s pretty significant. Nebuchadnezzar is generally recognized as one of the greatest rulers from the ancient world. He oversaw the construction of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. His empire was enormous and he ruled over it for a really long time—more than 40 years. And throughout his reign, God was working consistently and patiently to get him to recognize that no matter how great he was, God was greater still. God is sovereign over all of His creation from the smallest thing to the biggest one. Nothing happens that He does not ordain or allow and that includes the rise and fall of entire empires. Nebuchadnezzar had been allowed to experience the absolute heights of human achievement and greatness. God wanted him and Nebuchadnezzar needed to recognize where that greatness came from, though, if he was ever going to be able to really enjoy it. And God wanted him to enjoy it. So he gave him the opportunity to humble himself and acknowledge his limits. Within those limits he would be able to achieve even more that he had thus far in his life.
This understanding actually brings us to the climax of our story. About a year after his dream and this conversation with Daniel, the king was out walking on the roof of his palace in Babylon, overlooking the great city. And as he did he once again leaned into this delusion that he was the real power behind all of the greatness he could see. “The king exclaimed, ‘Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?’” Writing later, Nebuchadnezzar tells us that while those words were still in his mouth a voice from heaven announced the judgment was coming now. “At that moment the message against Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people. He ate grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky, until his hair grew like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.” It all happened just as God had warned him it would through both his dream and Daniel. But, at the end of the right amount of time, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever. For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, and he does what he wants with the army of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can block his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” And, like Job experienced, his end was even more glorious than his beginning. This glory, though, came because he was willing to acknowledge God as Lord rather than exalting in his own glory.
That’s the story, but what does this have to do with our being faithful when no one else is? At a quick glance, you might conclude that it has to do with the warning God gave the king through Daniel. Yet while that’s not an insignificant thing—and a thing to which we’ll give more direct attention next week, Lord willing—I don’t think that’s the main thing here. The story in chapter 5 about the literal hand writing on the wall of the king’s palace focuses our attention a great deal more on the warning Daniel gives Nebuchadnezzar’s son. Daniel’s interaction with the king, though, is only a brief feature in this story. This story is about Nebuchadnezzar’s finally getting the message that the God of Daniel and his friends really is someone he needs to countenance and whose glory far exceeds his own. It was about God’s helping him to understand that the difference between the king’s glory and God’s glory is a little like the difference between the king’s glory and the glory of a cow, except that’s probably way too generous an attitude to take toward the cow. The king was quite literally delusional about his perceived greatness, and so God let him experience that delusion in a way that helped him come to a greater grasp of the truth of the situation.
Okay, but what does that have to do with us? Well, come back to Daniel’s role in the story for just a second. What did Daniel do? He prophetically warned the king of the coming judgment. There you have it. It is about our warning the world against its sinfulness. Yet what Daniel offers the king, while yes a warning, was not just a warning or even mostly a warning. It was more a word of compassion. And I think that’s the thing we can’t miss here when it comes to our efforts to be faithful even when no one else is.
We spent the week at VBS this last week talking about how we can “make waves” for God’s kingdom. One of the ideas the material our fantastic directors chose emphasized so well is that fact that God made people with a purpose, that this purpose is to show the world who He is, and that the best way to fulfill this purpose is to help the world see and experience His character. God’s character and the world’s character are not the same. Had Daniel been a man of the world, his discovery of the king’s looming misfortune would have been a moment rich with potential schadenfreude. After all, think about all the evil the king had committed toward Daniel and his friends and their people. If there was ever a time to delight at the humiliating downfall of an enemy, this was it. And yet, there was no delight here for Daniel. You can hear in his words and their tone that his heart was broken for the king. He didn’t want him to have to face what he was going to have to face if he didn’t get off the path he was taking through life. This was not schadenfreude, this was compassion; godly compassion; Gospel compassion. This was a beautiful reflection of God’s own character of love, love for sinners. If we are going to show the world who God is, then we’ve got to show Him as He is. And while, yes, God is perfect in righteousness and hates sin with properly bridled passion, He is also the God about whom the apostle Paul declared, “but God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
If we are going to be faithful when no one else is, the schadenfreude-laden approach we are so often encouraged to take by our culture, as well as by folks within the church who have bought into the culture a bit too much in their thinking and outlook toward the world, isn’t going to cut it. That’s not who our God is. That’s not who He has called us as His people to be. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well. If we are going to be faithful when no one else is, we’ve got to follow His example…because no one else is. And a world in which sinners aren’t loved well isn’t a very pretty world to live in because there are a lot of sinners, and in that kind of a world, there wouldn’t be a lot of love. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well.
I’ve got to be honest with you here: I don’t have a specific application of all of this for you this morning. Now, I could have come up with one. This was not just a writer’s block moment that I tried to creatively cover up with a convenient excuse. I don’t have a specific application of this for you because I don’t need to have one. You already do. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well, and you have someone in your life you can fairly say is a “sinner.” I suspect you already have a picture of this person in your mind’s eye. Your being faithful to the Gospel means loving that person well…in spite of their sin…which might be having a negative impact on your life such that you don’t want to have anything to do with loving them well. You’d much rather take the path of schadenfreude, all things considered. And yet, if you would seek to make a meaningful claim to be living your life in faithful obedience to the God who demonstrated His own love for you and me when we were still sinners, you really can’t do anything but to follow suit. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well.
Now, that doesn’t mean you enable them. That’s not loving. It doesn’t mean you try to excuse or downplay the severity of their sin either. It certainly doesn’t mean you try to define their sin out of existence by inventing a way to call vice virtue. All of those paths have been taken before by people confusing accountability and hatred and calling cowardice love. It may mean you have to have a hard conversation with them rich with both conviction and civility, with charity and clarity, in which you lovingly and humbly lay out the possible consequences of their sinful path and invite them to join you in taking another, like Daniel did here with Nebuchadnezzar. Loving them well means you don’t reject them. It means that even after the consequences you warned about come to pass—and even when those consequences affect you—you get down in the mess with them to help them back out of it when they are ready to leave it behind. You don’t write them off. You invite them onward. You show Jesus to them in all His sinner-loving glory; a love expressed best by His dying on a cross in their place. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well. And if you want to be faithful when no one else is, this is how you do it.