This past Sunday, as we continued in our series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is, we were confronted with the fact that if our words and lifestyle don’t match each other, our words will be robbed of any power they might have otherwise held. This matters because speaking the truth is something we are called to do as followers of Jesus. Let’s talk about all of this through the lens of the next episode of Daniel’s story. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Live as You Speak; Speak as You Live
Imagine for a minute that you are sitting in an audience waiting for a comedian to come out on stage. When the guy finally walks out, he looks like a huge nerd. What’s more, behind him comes a stage crew member pushing out a big screen TV. When the audience looks a little inquisitive about the screen, the supposed comedian speaks up and says, “Oh, that’s for my PowerPoint slides.” Now, without knowing anything else, how excited are you about this comedian? Probably not very much. Somewhere inside you are thinking something along the lines, “I have seen comedians before, and you, Sir, are no comedian.” We don’t really want to listen to someone we don’t believe knows what they’re talking about. We’re terribly judgmental like that. And as much as we tell ourselves stories about not judging a book by its cover, we do it anyway. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. If you are presented with someone who does not appear to have any knowledge of the subject he is preparing to address, you’re going to start tuning him out before he even gets started. Now, maybe he earns a hearing in the few seconds you give him to grab your attention, but the odds aren’t in his favor.
This scene actually played itself out in this summer’s season of America’s Got Talent. During one of the initial televised audition episodes, out walks this goofy-looking guy named Don McMillan with a big screen he told the audience would be for his PowerPoint. Then he said he was a comedian, and you could hear the groan spread through the room. Most of them were prepared to tune him out or otherwise start booing him as soon as words started coming out of his mouth. Now, as it turns out, he was hysterical. Just last week he narrowly missed getting sent to the finals. But with his background in electrical engineering—indeed, he was on the team that designed the very first 32-bit microprocessor—no one expected that out of him. And, you know, the same thing kind of goes for all of us, but especially if you would claim to be a follower of Jesus. Just like no one was interested in listening to a comedian who didn’t look the part, people aren’t interested in listening to professed Jesus followers who don’t look the part either.
Well, this morning, we are in the fifth part of our teaching series, How to Be Faithful When No One Else Is. For the last few weeks, we have been talking about the fact that our culture is changing. The days when we could comfortably claim Christ and not worry about what the people around us might be thinking are fleeting and almost gone. While there are still vital Christian communities scattered across our nation numbering quickly into the tens or even hundreds of thousands, by force of sheer numbers, the odds that we are standing alone when we make a stand for the Gospel are far higher than they once were. But all of that as a matter of fact isn’t what needs any attention from us together. It doesn’t get any attention from the various guys who contributed to the Scriptures either. Instead, what matters a great deal more and what does get attention in the Scriptures is how we go about standing on our faith when we feel like we’re alone in doing it in such a way that we don’t give up our witness
Guiding us in this journey have been the stories of the Old Testament character Daniel and his friends. This remarkable group of young men were taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon after his initial conquest of the city of Jerusalem. Rather than simply giving up and blending in with their new surroundings, though, they made the decision to stand out in their commitment to God even if it meant they were standing all by themselves—and they often were. From their incredible faith commitment, we have learned some powerful and powerfully important lessons to aid us in our aim. Faithfulness always requires courage. It takes courage to stand on our confession of faith when we’re standing alone and doing so might carry consequences. Faithfulness also requires carefulness. Our words must always be chosen wisely and well in such circumstances. Putting those two pieces together, we learned that sometimes being faithful means taking a Gospel stand even when it’s costly. Far from looking like we might normally expect it to, though, and as we talked about last week, Gospel faithfulness doesn’t often mean swinging a big sword of truth to knock our enemies down to size. Instead, it means following Jesus’ lead in loving sinners well. Gospel faithfulness means loving sinners well.
Yet while love certainly means showing compassion and grace to those who are struggling under the weight of the consequences of sin, it also means being honest with them. And while our honesty must always be wrapped in a garb of civility, there are occasions when we have to lean a little bit harder in the direction of conviction. We talked about a warning Daniel gave the king last week, but it was really a message about the attitude we are to have toward the people around us who do not share our faith commitment. This morning, as promised, we are going to take a closer look at another warning Daniel gave. But, kind of like last time, while the warning was important and features a great deal more prominently, the warning isn’t the most important thing for us to see here. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Daniel 5, and let’s take a look at this together.
This story picks up several years after the conclusion of the last one. Nebuchadnezzar’s time has come and gone. He was followed by a trio of kings—a son, a son-in-law, and a grandson—none of whom ruled for very long in those chaotic days when there was much internal turmoil over who would be the right and lasting successor of his great empire. Finally, another son-in-law, Nabonidus, murdered his nephew and brought stability and strength once again to the empire. Nabonidus, though, spent much time away from his capital city and so appointed his eldest son, Belshazzar, as his co-regent. During this period of national unrest, the Persian Empire to the east was growing stronger, and was beginning to set their sights on knocking Babylon from its perch and installing themselves as the new big dog on the block. By the year 539 BC, the main Persian army led by King Cyrus, had laid siege against Babylon. The only trouble was, Babylon was basically impregnable. It was built on either side of the Euphrates River and so had an endless water supply. That water supply provided not only for the people, but for crops and herds sufficient to prevent starvation. For a time, Persia could do little other than wait for something to fall in their favor.
Then, in what had to be an act of utter defiance, Belshazzar decided to throw a party. This wasn’t a party to celebrate anything, but rather a show of strength and confidence to inspire his people to continue trusting in his leadership during these tense and uncertain times. Look at Daniel 5:1: “King Belshazzar held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine in their presence. Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar gave orders to bring in the gold and silver vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines could drink from them. So they brought in the gold vessels that had been taken from the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised their gods made of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”
And again, this party wasn’t about celebrating anything. It was about declaring to themselves and the Persians surrounding the city that they were so secure and confident in their fortress city they were going to have a party and forget all about the invaders waiting at the gates. Their confidence, though, was in themselves and the false gods who could do nothing to help them. And the way this confidence was expressed matters. Ancient peoples viewed all military contests like the one they were facing as religious conflicts. This was not simply a looming battle between the Persians and the Babylonians, but of the Persian gods and the Babylonian gods. The side that won was the side that had the greatest, most powerful gods. The reason Belshazzar commanded the vessels from the temple in Jerusalem be brought out and used was not because he wanted the party to be a bit fancier. This was a political and religious statement: Babylon is so great and powerful that we are eating off of the plates that were once used by the Israelites to honor their God. We conquered those people and their God, and now the plates that were once used for worship, we are using for a party. Just like we conquered them and demonstrated the superiority of our god, so also will we do to the Persians and their gods. Although the text doesn’t mention as much, there’s a good chance Belshazzar had also brought out his grandfather’s collection of statues from the various temples of the gods of the peoples he had conquered during his long reign.
Unfortunately for Belshazzar, he picked the wrong God to exploit to make himself look good in front of his people. Babylon had been tallying up a long list of sins for which judgment was coming due. As it turns out, in fact, it was coming due right now. As the drunk partygoers were rocking along and having a great time, something happened which sobered them up instantly. Verse 5: “At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand.” Take just a second to put yourself in that room. One second everyone is laughing and carrying on, the next second, a disembodied hand appears like Thing, the faithful servant of the Addams Family, and starts scrawling a message on a prominent wall in the great hall. Was it a huge hand, or a normal-sized one? How big were the letters? I wonder if anyone noticed it at first. Did one of the concubines first spot the activity, and in a scene that seemed like it was scripted by a careful director (which, of course, it was), utter a shrill scream that got everyone’s attention? There are many things we don’t know about what happened here, but one thing is clear: it left everyone utterly terrified.
Pick back up with me in the rest of v. 5: “As the king watched the hand that was writing, his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together.” This young, drunk, overly-confident king was facing an enemy he could not conquer by mere bravado. In fact, he didn’t have any idea what to do with this. For all his blustering and bluffing, he didn’t have the slightest clue what to do with this disembodied hand. That, perhaps more than anything else, terrified him. It terrified him so much that he lost all control of himself. All he could do was to call for everyone who might be able to make some kind of sense out of the words this hand had written on the wall of his throne room. “The king shouted to bring in the mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. He said to these wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever reads this inscription and gives me its interpretation will be clothed in purple, have a gold chain around his neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom.’” (He was just the second highest ruler in the kingdom, so the third seat was the most he could give.) Yet in spite of this incredible motivation, nobody could make heads or tails of what was on the wall. This only served to deepen Belshazzar’s terror and the utter bewilderment of all the nobles gathered in the room. To say the least, the party was over.
Word of all this commotion eventually began to spread through the palace complex. Eventually, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s wives who was still living and had taken on the role of a sort of elder stateswoman known as the queen mother heard about it and came to offer what help she could. Verse 10: “Because of the outcry of the king and his nobles, the queen came to the banquet hall. ‘May the king live forever,’ she said, ‘Don’t let your thoughts terrify you or your face be pale. There is a man in your kingdom who has a spirit of the holy gods in him. In the days of your predecessor he was found to have insight, intelligence, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your predecessor, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. Your own predecessor, the king, did this because Daniel, the one the king named Belteshazzar, was found to have an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems. Therefore, summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.’”
So, the king sent word and brought Daniel who was about 80 by now, out of retirement to serve his empire once again. When Daniel entered the room, Belshazzar made a big show of promising all the rewards he had just guaranteed to whoever could make sense of the message. Daniel promptly turned all of this down and told the king he would make sense of the inscription for him. Before he does, though, Daniel essentially gives Belshazzar a review of chapter five. He reminds him of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatness, but also his arrogance and pride. He retells the story of the former king’s judgment which must have become one of those royal legends that everyone knew, but no one talked about. Surely there were some gasps in the room as Daniel related the ugly details of Nebuchadnezzar’s…condition. Landing on the former king’s eventual grasp of the glory of God, Daniel finally lands on a warning in v. 22: “But you his successor, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this. Instead, you have exalted yourself against the Lord of the heavens. The vessels from his house were brought to you, and as you and your nobles, wives, and concubines drank wine from them, you praised the gods made of silver and gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or understand. But you have not glorified the God who holds your life-breath in his hand and who controls the whole course of your life. Therefore, he sent the hand, and this writing was inscribed.”
The inscription, which read, “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin,” was indeed a message of judgment for the king. God had numbered the king’s days and their end was near. His kingdom had been weighed in the balance and found lacking. And in the end, his kingdom was going to be given to the Persians. And, even as Belshazzar moved quickly to lavish on Daniel all the rewards he had refused, the words of the warning came true. “That very night Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of sixty-two.”
You see, some number of weeks before this night—the night of October 13, 539 BC—the Persian generals had finally concocted a plan to take Babylon. They had sent a contingent of soldiers up river from the city. They traveled far enough to find a place where the broad and mighty Euphrates could be dammed up enough to lower the level of the water flowing through the city. This wasn’t with the goal in mind of cutting off the city’s water supply, but to bring the top of the water below the level of the walls that extended down into the water so that the Persian soldiers could slip beneath the walls under the cover of darkness, open the main gates, and at long last take the city. The very night this divine hand scrawled a message on a wall in the throne room was the night the water level had finally fallen low enough to allow the Persian soldier access and God’s promised judgment came swiftly.
So, once again, we have another story about a warning. And this warning features a great deal more prominently in the unfolding of events. Daniel goes on at some length about what Belshazzar had and had not done to mimic the ultimate humility of his grandfather. His refusal to learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s experience was an indicator of a hard heart ripe for judgment. In all of this, there’s definitely a lesson here for us to learn if we are going to be faithful when no one else is. The first thing to note here is that we cannot be afraid to speak the truth when given the chance. There will be occasions when, as a follower of Jesus, you are afforded the opportunity to speak Gospel truth into a hard situation in such a way as to point the people in it in a direction that will lead to life instead of death. Do not miss those opportunities. Like Ezekiel, if God positions you to speak and you don’t speak, the harm that comes to a people who were never given a chance to hear the truth and avoid it will be on your head. No one may ever know but you, but that’s not a weight you want to bear.
That all being said, just because you speak doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is going to listen. If God calls you to speak, and you obey His command, the people you warn may not heed your counsel. They may choose to ignore you and continue down their dangerous path. If you’ve been faithful, that’s not on you. Another thing to keep in mind is that the people you warn may not simply ignore you. They may actually come after you. Your word of warning represents a threat to them and they don’t appreciate it. Because of that, you just might be persecuted for offering up the warning in the first place. Make sure to carve out some mental space for that possibility.
Another significant part of this, though, is that the tone of our warning matters. Perhaps God has called you to speak, but if you speak with anger and hostility, with disrespect and derision, people aren’t likely to listen…or like you. Every single time we see Daniel and his friends interacting with the various representatives of the Babylonian government throughout the collection of their stories, the interactions are consistently respectful and courteous, thoughtful and kind. If we are anything less than this, people aren’t going to listen.
And we need them to listen because there are a whole variety of places where our culture is heading off in directions that won’t lead to good ends. The list is long and growing. You can just about pick the place you want to focus your attention. We could talk about the foolishness of the proliferation of drugs—particularly marijuana—across our culture. We could talk about various questions regarding gender and sexual identity. We could talk about the primacy and importance of marriage as a bedrock institution of our culture. We could talk about the value and worth of godly singleness when marriage isn’t our current call. We could talk about respecting life at every point along its continuum from beginning to end. We could talk about the vital importance of robust religious liberty for the proper functioning of a free society. We could talk about our lack of care for the least, last, and lost of our culture. On and on this list goes.
Yet while we don’t necessarily have a platform to address all of these ourselves, this does not give us an excuse to throw up our hands and walk away from the problems. Instead, even when we can’t speak like perhaps we would like to be able to do, what we can do is to be sure we are living our own lives in such a way that when someone is seeking real wisdom on one of those or other equally challenge topics, they recognize we are the kind of people who will be able to bring it because we keep getting things right with respect to all of these issues and more. The simple, but challenging reality here is that if we are going to be able to effectively speak the truth in the world around us, we must first be living the truth in our own lives. And note well that I didn’t say anything about living “our” truth. There’s no such thing as “your” truth and “my” truth. Our culture is utterly, disastrously wrong on that idea. There is only the truth. We must first be living our lives in a manner that is consistent with the witness of Scripture in all of these areas and more. We must not be giving control of ourselves over to any foreign substances. We must have a healthy, biblically-informed understanding of God’s designs for gender. We must have a high view of marriage, making sure we don’t treat any other living situation that isn’t marriage as if it were the same thing. We can celebrate godly singleness rather than ignoring it or treating it like something inferior to marriage. We must defend and speak out for life every chance we get. We must embrace a broad and strong understanding of religious liberty. We must serve like Christ everywhere we go. If we are going to speak the truth, we must be actively living the truth. Speaking the truth requires living the truth.
Indeed, this is what Daniel did and is what won him the invitation to speak in this frightening moment. When the queen mother heard the commotion and came to help, do you remember what she said? She said, “There is a man in your kingdom who has a spirit of the holy gods in him. In the days of your predecessor he was found to have insight, intelligence, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods.” She said he “was found to have an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems.” In other words, Daniel’s consistently living the truth is what allowed him to speak the truth in this moment. Speaking the truth requires living the truth.
We spoke a few weeks ago about truthbombs. Sometimes we think that simply throwing a truthbomb at someone is enough to be faithful when no one else is. It’s not. If our lives don’t match our confessions, our words won’t be sought, heeded, or even respected. Speaking the truth requires living the truth. You may be surrounded by situations in which you wish you could speak the truth. Make sure you are living the truth and you just may get your hearing. Speaking the truth requires living the truth.
So then, where do your life and your confession need to come more into harmony with one another? Where are you pursuing a path Scripture doesn’t support, but for which you don’t want to let go of your will because of pride or fear or selfishness? Where are you forfeiting your ability to speak Gospel truth into the situations around you because of the choices you are making? Speaking the truth requires living the truth. And here’s the thing: If you are a follower of Jesus, you have been called to speak the truth. If you are going to be faithful when no one else is, that is going to require you to speak the truth. But if you aren’t living it, you won’t be able to with the power and effectiveness you desire. Speaking the truth requires living the truth. Let us together make sure we are so that we can. There’s a world around us very much in need of hearing it, and there’s no one but the church to deliver it. Live well, then, so you can speak truth. Speaking the truth requires living the truth.