The Sovereignty of God in History
Everyone in my family is convinced that God led a collie named Levi to our door. His name was engraved on the tag hanging around his neck when he arrived. Can you imagine a dog named Levi finding the Strauss house? Our youngest son had been praying for a dog for nearly three years, but we had laid down some stringent requirements. He had to be housebroken. He had to be obedient. And he had to be a gentle, people-dog in order to live in a pastor’s home where visitors come and go regularly.
When my wife returned the dog to its owner, whose address was also engraved on the tag, she said kiddingly, “If you ever want to get rid of this dog, please let us know.” The surprising reply was, “I do. I’m looking for a good home for him right now.” My wife asked if we could think about it overnight. To our delight, Levi got out of his house and found his way to our residence again the next morning. This time we decided he could stay. When the owner brought us his papers, we learned that he had been conceived at the approximate time our son began to pray for a dog, that he was born on my wife’s birthday, and that he was an honor graduate of obedience school. No one will ever convince us that Levi’s coming was anything other than the gracious work of our sovereign God. Incidentally, he did meet the other requirements as well.50
Virtually all Christians give at least verbal assent to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. There are simply too many texts which teach this truth to deny it:
19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all (Psalm 103:19). 3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). 5 For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. 6 Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:5-6).
The meaning of sovereignty could be summed up in this way: To be sovereign is to possess supreme power and authority so that one is in complete control and can accomplish whatever he pleases.
A number of similar definitions of sovereignty can be found in books on the attributes of God:
“The dictionaries tell us that sovereign means chief or highest, supreme in power, superior in position, independent of and unlimited by anyone else.”51
“Furthermore, His sovereignty requires that He be absolutely free, which means simply that He must be free to do whatever He wills to do anywhere at any time to carry out His eternal purpose in every single detail without interference. Were He less than free He must be less than sovereign.
Grasping the idea of unqualified freedom requires a vigorous effort of the mind. We are not psychologically conditioned to understand freedom except in its imperfect forms. Our concepts of it have been shaped in a world where no absolute freedom exists. Here each natural object is dependent upon many other objects, and that dependence limits its freedom.”52
“God is said to be absolutely free because no one and no thing can hinder Him or compel Him or stop Him. He is able to do as He pleases always, everywhere, forever. To be thus free means also that He must possess universal authority. That He has unlimited power we know from the Scriptures and may deduce from certain other of His attributes.”53
Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him. So His own Word expressly declares: ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’ (Isa. 46:10); ‘He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand’ (Dan. 4:34). Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things ‘after the counsel of His own will’ (Eph. 1:11).”54
“God’s supremacy over the works of His hands is vividly depicted in Scripture. Inanimate matter, irrational creatures, all perform their Maker’s bidding. At His pleasure the Red Sea divided and its waters stood up as walls (Ex. 14); and the earth opened her mouth and guilty rebels went down alive into the pit (Nu. 14). When He so ordered, the sun stood still (Josh. 10); and on another occasion went backward ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz (Isa. 38:8). To exemplify His supremacy, He made ravens carry food to Elijah (I Kings 17), iron to swim on top of the waters (II Kings 6:5), lions to be tame when Daniel was cast into their den, fire to burn not when the three Hebrews were flung into its flames. Thus ‘Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places’ (Psa. 135:6).”55
In a world reluctant to acknowledge the existence of God, one should not expect the unbeliever to embrace the doctrine of God’s sovereignty:
“The ‘god’ of this twentieth century no more resembles the Supreme Sovereign of Holy Writ than does the dim flickering of a candle the glory of the midday sun. The ‘god’ who is now talked about in the average pulpit, spoken of in the ordinary Sunday School, mentioned in much of the religious literature of the day, and preached in most of the so-called Bible Conferences is the figment of human imagination, an invention of maudlin sentimentality.… A ‘god’ whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being a fit object of worship, merits naught but contempt.”56
In the church, one can expect the Christian to embrace the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as both biblical and true. This may be done in principle but not necessarily in practice. Our problems with God’s sovereignty most often come where the “rubber meets the road:”
God is truly and perfectly sovereign. That means He is the highest and greatest being there is, He controls everything, His will is absolute, and He does whatever He pleases. When we hear that stated, we can understand it reasonably well, and we can usually handle it until God allows something that we do not like. Then our normal reaction is to resist the doctrine of His sovereignty. Rather than finding comfort in it, we find that it gets us upset with God. If He can do whatever He pleases, why does He allow us to suffer? Our problem is a misunderstanding of the doctrine and an inadequate knowledge of God.57
It is vitally important for every Christian to understand the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. I have chosen to consider the subject in two lessons. The first lesson considers the sovereignty of God over the nations of the world in history, and the next reflects on the sovereignty of God in salvation. The attribute of God’s sovereignty troubles many people; it troubles many Christians. But the sovereignty of God is crucial because it is taught in the Bible and because it is the basis for godly living. We must look to the Word of God and the Spirit of God to teach us what we need to know about God’s sovereignty.
As I searched the Scriptures for a concise definition of divine sovereignty, I was surprised to learn where the definition was found. It was not in the New Testament, not from the pen of the apostle Paul, not from Moses in the Law, and not from one of the great prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. The clearest definition of God’s sovereignty comes from the lips of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. There we find not a begrudging acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, but an expression of worship and praise:
34 “But at the end of that period I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward 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 And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35).
This acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God is made by a man who knows more of human sovereignty than any American ever could. Among the kings of history, this king is “the king of kings” (Daniel 2:37). He is the “head of gold” (Daniel 2:38). In comparison with his kingdom, the remaining world empires are described as “inferior” (see 2:39-43). When Daniel spoke to Belshazzar of the kingdom of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, he described the extent of his dominion:
18 “O king, the Most High God granted sovereignty, grandeur, glory, and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father. And because of the grandeur which He bestowed on him, all the peoples, nations, and men of every language feared and trembled before him; whomever he wished he killed, and whomever he wished he spared alive; and whomever he wished he elevated, and whomever he wished he humbled (Daniel 5:18-19).
In our world, we have no political leader or ruler who even approaches the kind of human sovereignty we see in Nebuchadnezzar. The Office of President of the United States is a position of great power, but it is not an example of sovereignty. Former President Richard Nixon was not free to run the country as he saw fit. His role in the Watergate conspiracy cost him the White House. Presidents may be criticized (if not removed from office) for sexual or moral improprieties. They certainly do not find it possible to pass every bill, create every program, or appoint every official that pleases them.
Nebuchadnezzar was a man of great military and political power. He ruled the nation (Babylon) with an iron fist, and Babylon dominated all other world powers of that day. He was the commander who defeated and destroyed Jerusalem and who led most of the Jews into Babylonian captivity. The people of Judah seemed insignificant and impotent against such a great man as Nebuchadnezzar, and indeed they were. But the God of the Jews is the One true God and the One great God. God chose to demonstrate His sovereignty over history and over all the nations of the earth by bringing Nebuchadnezzar to his knees in submission to and the worship of Himself.
This lesson will focus on Daniel 2-4, three chapters which describe the three events which brought Nebuchadnezzar to his knees in submission to the God of the Jews. We will see from these events how God demonstrated His sovereignty over the nations of the earth, and we shall see how God is sovereign in history.
As a result of Israel’s persistent rebellion against God and her failure to heed the warnings of the prophets, God raises up Babylon to defeat and destroy Judah and Jerusalem through a series of military campaigns:
9 Jehoiachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem, and he did evil in the sight of the LORD. 10 And at the turn of the year King Nebuchadnezzar sent and brought him to Babylon with the valuable articles of the house of the LORD, and he made his kinsman Zedekiah king over Judah and Jerusalem. 11 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. 12 And he did evil in the sight of the LORD his God; he did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet who spoke for the LORD. 13 And he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar who had made him swear allegiance by God. But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel. 14 Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations; and they defiled the house of the LORD which He had sanctified in Jerusalem. 15 And the LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; 16 but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. 17 Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm; He gave them all into his hand. 18 And all the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon. 19 Then they burned the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its fortified buildings with fire, and destroyed all its valuable articles. 20 And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete (2 Chronicles 36:9-21; see also Jeremiah 25:1-14; 29:15-20).
In one of the early attacks on Jerusalem, Daniel was taken captive (Daniel 1:1-7). Daniel and his three friends recognized their captivity was God’s judgment on the nation for its sin, and they knew that after 70 years God would once again restore the people to their land (see Daniel 9:1-2). They committed to keep themselves pure from the idolatry of Babylon, and they did not eat of the normal provisions of food for captives like themselves (Daniel 1:8-16). These four young men were thus distinguished from the others for their wisdom, and Daniel was able also to interpret dreams and visions (1:17-21).
One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream he did not understand which caused him much distress. When he summoned the wise men of the land, he wanted to be certain the interpretation they gave him was genuine, so he required them to first tell him what his dream was and then give him the interpretation. The response of his wise men is significant:
10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean. 11 Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh.” 12 Because of this the king became indignant and very furious, and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they looked for Daniel and his friends to kill them (Daniel 2:10-13, emphasis mine).
How God loves to reveal His sovereignty against the backdrop of man’s weaknesses and limitations! The king did not know the meaning of his dream, and the wise men of the land knew it was humanly impossible for them to know what the king had dreamed. He was asking of mere men that which only the “gods” could perform. This was a task for the “gods.” The king was pressing his sovereignty too far by asking mere men to do what only “gods” could do. But Daniel was a servant of the Most High God, the sovereign God of the universe. His God could reveal the dream and its meaning.
Daniel was placed in a situation where he must act, for all the wise men were condemned to die. Daniel and his three friends first prayed that God would reveal the dream and its meaning. All of this is directly related to verses 17-21 in chapter 1. Daniel prayed to the sovereign God and then praised Him for the revelation of the dream.
19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven; 20 Daniel answered and said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. 21 And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to men of understanding. 22 It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, And the light dwells with Him. 23 To Thee, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, For Thou hast given me wisdom and power; Even now Thou hast made known to me what we requested of Thee, For Thou hast made known to us the king’s matter” (Daniel 2:19-23).
The dream was not the product of Daniel’s wisdom alone; it was revealed by God (2:28). Daniel then reveals the dream to Nebuchadnezzar, along with its meaning:
31 “You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. 32 The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and crushed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
36 “This was the dream; now we shall tell its interpretation before the king. 37 You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory; 38 and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. 39 And after you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. 40 Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. 41 And in that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. 43 And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. 45 Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy.”
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and did homage to Daniel, and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense. 47 The king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:31-47, emphasis mine).
The king’s words indicate his recognition that the God of Daniel is a sovereign God. Daniel’s “god” is not just “God,” but the “God of gods.” He is the God who is sovereign not only over heavenly powers, but over earthly powers as well. And so he also refers to God as “Lord of kings.”
In addition, Nebuchadnezzar praises Daniel’s God for being “a revealer of mysteries.” Daniel’s God enabled him to know the king’s dream and its interpretation. But more is involved because of the subject matter of the dream. The dream, as revealed and interpreted by Daniel, was about Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom and about others which would follow it. His was the greatest of these kingdoms, but it was a kingdom that would, nevertheless, end. Other inferior kingdoms would follow. In the end, an eternal kingdom would be built, as it were, on the ashes of all the preceding kingdoms. The “head of gold” was great, but the “stone made without hands” (2:34-35, 44-45) was the greatest. The kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar was great, but the kingdom of the future was one that would “endure forever” (2:44).
Nebuchadnezzar recognized that his kingdom was inferior to the eternal kingdom which would be established later and that he was inferior to the “stone” who would establish that kingdom. He also realized that the God who made known these future kingdoms was the God who was sovereign over history. Only such a God could reveal future kings and kingdoms, for only a God who controls history can foretell that history centuries in advance.
9 “Behold, the former things have come to pass, Now I declare new things; Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you” (Isaiah 42:9). 5 “Therefore I declared them to you long ago, Before they took place I proclaimed them to you, Lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them, And my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’” (Isaiah 48:5).
Nebuchadnezzar seems to have recognized that only a God who is sovereign over history can foretell that history before it has come to pass. But there is still more for him to learn about divine sovereignty.
It seems the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was the “head of gold,” revealed to the king in chapter 2, went to his head. The king seems to have focused only on his greatness, not on the greatness of God and the kingdom yet to be established on earth. He made an image of gold and commanded all to fall before it in worship (2:1-6). All who were given the musical cue fell down in worship of the image, except those faithful Jews like Daniel’s three friends who were accused before Nebuchadnezzar (2:7-12). In a rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned the three and gave them one final chance to avoid his wrath (2:13-15). His final statement sets the stage for him to learn yet another lesson concerning the sovereignty of God:
14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe, and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you will not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:14-15, emphasis mine)
Nebuchadnezzar had apparently forgotten that his sovereignty was relative and that it had been divinely bestowed. Among men, Nebuchadnezzar had no superior and not even an equal. As king of Babylon, his power was unchallenged by men. But when he erected the golden image and commanded men to worship it, he stepped beyond the realm of authority God had given to men. If he was not seeking the worship of himself as a god, he was certainly compelling men of all nations to worship his gods. He seems to be linking his greatness and his power to his gods. In so doing, he denied the One true God, the God of Israel, the God whom he previously acknowledged as a “God of gods” and “Lord of kings” (2:47). While Daniel’s three friends were willing to obey Nebuchadnezzar as the king whom God had placed in authority over them, they were not willing to worship his gods or to worship him as a god. They had to obey the One true God, even if it meant disobeying such a powerful king as Nebuchadnezzar:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis mine).
The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to Nebuchadnezzar is instructive concerning the sovereignty of God and submission. When they chose to disobey this king, they did so as an act of submission to the One who has absolute sovereignty, the God of Israel. And even when they must “obey God rather than men” (see Acts 5:29), they still speak to the king with due respect. Their response to Nebuchadnezzar reveals the depth of their understanding of the sovereignty of their God. Their words express their confidence in God’s absolute sovereignty. He is able to do whatever He wishes. He does not take orders from men; He does as He pleases:
3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
5 For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. 6 Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:5-6).
Because the sovereign God is able to does as He pleases, these three servants of God are not about to pronounce just what God will do. That is a matter of His good pleasure. He will do with them as He pleases. They are convinced that He can and will deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, but this deliverance could take different forms. He could deliver them from being cast into the furnace. He could deliver them through the furnace (as He does), or He could deliver them through death, raising them in the last day. How He will deliver they do not know. Their deliverance is within God’s sovereign purpose, and they make no effort to indicate what this might be. That is God’s business, for He is sovereign.
Nebuchadnezzar was enraged by the response of these three men who dared to defy his “sovereign” decree. He ordered his servants to heat the furnace seven times hotter and then throw the three men into it (3:19-20). The fire was so intense the king’s servants attending it were themselves killed by the heat. Once the men were in the furnace, what the king saw when he looked into the furnace completely astounded him:
24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he responded and said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “Certainly, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:24-25).
Would Nebuchadnezzar command these Hebrews to bow down to his golden image and worship his gods? The fourth person in the furnace with these three men appeared as one of the gods! Obviously, the “God” of these three men was greater than the “gods” of Nebuchadnezzar. What “god is there who can deliver them out of the king’s hand?” Nebuchadnezzar challenged (2:15). Their God, the God of the Jews, did deliver them.
Seeing the hand of God deliver the three men he had attempted to intimidate with his power, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the men released. When they emerged from the furnace, he observed that these men were not harmed or even affected by the fire in any way. The intense heat and flames which smote the king’s servants (3:22) did not so much as singe a hair on one of these three Hebrews. Not even the smell of fire was on them. Now Nebuchadnezzar speaks of their “god” (see verse 15) as the “Most High God.” He once again acknowledges the God of Israel to be the sovereign God, the “God of gods” and “Lord of kings” (2:47).
28 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore, I make a decree that any people, nation or tongue that speaks anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego shall be torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap, inasmuch as there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way” (Daniel 3:28-29).
The fourth chapter of Daniel is the final crowning event in God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. You will notice that this chapter is told in part by king Nebuchadnezzar himself (see verses 1-18). Nebuchadnezzar confesses his arrogance and pride and his humbling by the sovereign hand of God. The chapter begins with Nebuchadnezzar’s praise of the sovereign God of Israel:
1 Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language that live in all the earth: “May your peace abound! 2 It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me. 3 How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:1-3).
Nebuchadnezzar’s “fall” takes place some time after he was warned of his humbling by God in a dream which greatly troubled him (4:5). All the wise men of Babylon were unable to interpret the dream even though he related it to them (4:7). When Daniel was brought before the king, Nebuchadnezzar described his vision:
10 ‘Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew large and became strong, And its height reached to the sky, And it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it. 13 I was looking in the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed, and behold, an angelic watcher, a holy one, descended from heaven. 14 He shouted out and spoke as follows: “Chop down the tree and cut off its branches, Strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit; Let the beasts flee from under it, and the birds from its branches. 15 Yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, But with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field; And let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, And let him share with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man, And let a beast’s mind be given to him, and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, in order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men.” 18 This is the dream which I, King Nebuchadnezzar, have seen. Now you, Belteshazzar, tell me its interpretation, inasmuch as none of the wise men of my kingdom is able to make known to me the interpretation; but you are able, for a spirit of the holy gods is in you’ (4:10-18).
When Daniel heard the dream the king had received, he was greatly troubled also for he recognized that the vision was a warning to the king of a most humbling sentence God would bring upon him in the future. It is clear Daniel is submissive toward his king and desires his best interests. He does not delight in what will happen to the king. Nebuchadnezzar encouraged Daniel to speak freely about the meaning of this vision. Daniel then proceeded to inform the king about the dream. The great tree which the king saw represented him, the great king of Babylon. Its size and strength and the creatures which it sustained all symbolized the power and majesty of his kingdom. These images spoke of his “sovereignty” over the earth:
22 “It is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth” (4:22).
As was evident to the king by Daniel’s alarm over this dream, there was a message of warning, the threat of a dramatic fall:
23 “‘And in that the king saw an angelic watcher, a holy one, descending from heaven and saying, “Chop down the tree and destroy it; yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, but with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field, and let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him share with the beasts of the field until seven periods of time pass over him”; 24 this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: 25 that you be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, …’” (Daniel 4:23-25).
Just as the king’s position of greatness was given to him by God, it was also to be taken away and the king thereby humbled for seven years. The majesty and splendor the king once enjoyed would be exchanged for the humiliation of beastly appearance and conduct. All of this was to be for the king’s good, to teach him humility. He was to learn that human sovereignty is bestowed upon men through divine sovereignty:
25 “. . . until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Daniel 4:25b).
Whatever sovereignty the king of Babylon possessed was a limited sovereignty and a delegated sovereignty. The king’s position and power was not due to his greatness but rather due to the greatness of God who gave him his position of power.
In this word of warning, there was also a two-fold message of hope. First, the king was told how he might avoid the fate of which his dream warned.
27 “‘Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity’” (Daniel 4:27).
This instruction is hardly different from that which the prophets Amos and Micah gave to the nation Israel:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
The nation Israel had been promised sovereignty over the nations of the world (Genesis 18:17-19; 22:17; 24:60; 27:29; Deuteronomy 15:6; 28:7-14; see also Isaiah 66). Power was given to Nebuchadnezzar (and to Israel) so he might deliver the oppressed and care for the helpless. In his vanity and pride, Nebuchadnezzar seems to have gone the way of the world, using his power to oppress the helpless rather than care for them. If he would repent of his pride and use his God-given power as God would have him do, then there would be no need for the humiliation of which this dream warned. He might avoid God’s chastening if he would repent and rule righteously.
There is a second message of hope. Even if Nebuchadnezzar were to ignore this warning, and even though he might be humbled by becoming beastly, this was only for a time—for seven years. This humbling work would then bear the fruit of repentance, and thus the king’s former sovereignty would be restored. Nebuchadnezzar was offered the hope of restoration if he repented—at the time of his warning or after the time of his humiliation.
By Nebuchadnezzar’s own confession, he did not heed the warning God gave him through the dream and Daniel’s interpretation. A year later, he foolishly took pride in his sovereignty as though he were the one responsible for his success. As a result, the dream came true:
29 “Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’ 31 While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, 32 and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes.’ 33 Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:29-33).
I know of no greater humiliation than what this great king had to undergo nor of another human being who has undergone such a malady. Some still attempt to find an instance in history when such a malady occurred, as though we might then be assured of the accuracy of the Bible’s description. (They also try to find a man who was swallowed by a great fish!) I am inclined to think this was a unique, one-time phenomenon, which points all the more to a sovereign intervention of God into human history. The exact ailment is hard to fully understand because the description of Nebuchadnezzar is spoken of in terms of what he looked like, not what ailment he actually had. He did not grow feathers; his hair was long and bushy so that it looked feather-like. His nails were not bird’s claws; they were so long they were like bird’s claws. On top of all this, the king ate grass, like cattle, and was obviously out of his mind.
Whatever the king’s ailment, it accomplished its divine purpose in the precise time frame indicated—seven years. The king looked heaven-ward, and his sanity returned. He immediately praised God as the Most High. He confessed that He alone is sovereign and that He does what He wills so that no one should dare to challenge His deeds (verses 34-35).
We have been considering the sovereignty of God as taught in chapters 2-4 in the Book of Daniel. The sovereignty of God was a truth the disobedient Jews in Babylon needed to understand, and it is also a truth desperately needed today. Let us consider how the sovereignty of God related to the Jews in the Babylonian captivity, and later, how God’s sovereignty applies to us today.
God is sovereign over secular governments. Throughout the history of Israel, God used the pagan nations to accomplish His purposes. God used Egypt to preserve and proliferate the nation Israel for 400 years before they were to possess the promised land. God used the hard-hearted Pharaoh to display His greatness and power. He used the surrounding nations to chasten Israel when the nation fell into sin and disobedience. He used the nations of Assyria and Babylon to lead the Jews into captivity. Nebuchadnezzar was even called God’s “servant” (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). The sacking of Judah and Jerusalem was no fluke of history; it was no mere fate. It was the outworking of the plan and purpose of the sovereign God of Israel to achieve His purposes, to fulfill His promises and prophecies.
The sovereignty of God was important to the Jews, as it is to us, because it is the basis for our assurance that God’s prophecies concerning His future kingdom will be fulfilled. The vision God gave to Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 2 was of the coming of the eternal kingdom, which Christ, “the stone made without hands,” would establish. It was to be established by abolishing the present kingdoms of men. Only a God who is sovereign over history could fulfill the prophecies of the coming kingdom of God. No wonder the sovereignty of God is such a prominent theme in Daniel. Daniel is a book of history and prophecy. In the historical portions, God’s sovereignty is demonstrated. In the prophetic portions, God’s sovereignty is not only necessary; it is assumed. The God who has shown Himself sovereign over the nations is the God who promises to establish His kingdom over all nations.
Here is a lesson we need to learn and be constantly reminded of in our twentieth century. We live in a day of chaos and change. The USSR has virtually dissolved before our eyes. The Berlin Wall has been torn down. Nations are in civil war, and thousands of innocent lives are being sacrificed as we look on, helplessly it would seem. Christians seem to be shaken when a Democrat is elected to the highest office in the land. It is as though God’s sovereignty is not believed.
Our problem is not new. It is the problem of assuming that God is powerless to work out His plan and purposes where pagans are in power. This was the error of Abraham which prompted him to lie about the identity of his wife, passing her off as being merely his sister:
10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?” 11 And Abraham said, because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife. 12 Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife” (Genesis 20:10-12, emphasis mine).
Not only did God use Nebuchadnezzar to chasten His people, God actually brought this pagan king to his knees. God “subjected” this sovereign king to Himself. God brought him to faith. This nation Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles.” They were to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, for God’s salvation was not for Jews only. They refused to do so, and so God brought about the evangelization of the Gentiles through the unbelief and rebellion of the Jews. The sin of the nation led to their subjugation and captivity in Babylon. There, godly saints like Daniel bore witness to the God of Israel, and even this sovereign king came to bow the knee to Him in worship and adoration. God is not only sovereign among His people and in the land of Canaan, God is sovereign over all the earth and heaven as well!
This must mean that God is sovereign over the decisions of the President of the United States, over the laws passed by Congress, and even over the decisions reached by the Supreme Court. God is even sovereign over the Internal Revenue Service. God is sovereign over kings and kingdoms. If this is true, then we need to believe that every king, every person in a position of political power, is there by divine appointment (see Romans 13:1-2). This means that we owe such authorities our respect, our obedience, and our taxes, unless any of these specifically require us to disobey God (Romans 13:1-7). It means that the laws, decisions, and decrees they make—even those which punish or persecute the saints—have a divine purpose. We may be required to disobey government, like Daniel and his three friends, but only when obeying that government would require us to disobey God. In the chaos and wickedness of our day, let us not lose sight of the fact that God is sovereign in history, and sovereign even over pagan powers.
The sovereignty of God is a truth not quickly or easily learned. God’s sovereignty is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, but it often takes a sequence of adverse circumstances before it becomes a part of the fabric of our thinking and behavior. In these three chapters (2-4) of Daniel, God progressively convinces Nebuchadnezzar of His sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar professed to believe in God’s sovereignty in chapter 2, after his dream was revealed and interpreted by Daniel. But in chapter 3, we see the king attempting to compel those under his authority to worship an idol, an affront to the sovereign God of Israel. When God delivers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar once again proclaims that God is sovereign. But in chapter 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar exalting himself in pride and God having to humble him through his seven-year insanity.
In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar saw the relationship of God’s sovereignty to future world history. In chapter 3, the king was shown the relationship between God’s sovereignty and his power to pass laws and to punish men. Now, in chapter 4, king Nebuchadnezzar begins to see how the sovereignty of God relates to his personal attitudes and actions as king of Babylon. The king began to view his position and power as the measure of his personal greatness. He became puffed up with power and pride. It would seem that he began to abuse his power, taking advantage of the weak and the vulnerable rather than using his power to protect them and provide for them. God taught Nebuchadnezzar that one’s position and power is God-given and a manifestation of His greatness—not man’s. God indeed lifts up “those whom He wishes,” and He “sets over it the lowliest of men” (Daniel 4:17). Power and position are God-given privileges; they are also stewardships of which we should not be proud but employ for the benefit of others.
Many wish to be leaders today for reasons all too similar to those of Nebuchadnezzar. They wish to rule. They do not wish to serve others but to be served. They are not unlike the disciples during the earthly ministry of our Lord. They are not unlike many Christians today who seek to lead, not to serve but to have status and to be served. Those who are given positions of power and prestige need to beware of pride, being constantly reminded that leadership is both God-given and a manifestation of His greatness—not ours.
Lest we think king Nebuchadnezzar was different from any of us, we should consider that ours is a day in which individuals seek to be sovereign. They want to be autonomous and independent, the captains of their own souls, the masters of their own fate. Perhaps more than any other age, self-hood prevails. This is the age of self, as the Scriptures foretell (2 Timothy 3:1,2a). A friend handed me a brochure for a seminar which promises to teach ten steps to success. Every single step is dominated by the word “self.” We, like Nebuchadnezzar, and like his predecessor and ours, Satan, want to be “gods.” We wish to dethrone the one true God and to enthrone ourselves. Let Nebuchadnezzar be our teacher, and let us humbly bow the knee to Him from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things).
36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).
1 Samuel 2:1-10
2 Kings 19:15
1 Chronicles 29:11-12
2 Chronicles 20:5-6
Job 9:12; 12:13-25; 23:13; 33:12-13; 41:11; 42:2
Psalms 2 (all); 22:27-28; 37:23; 75:6-8; 76:10; 95:3-5; 103:19; 115:3*; 135:5-18 (5-6)
Proverbs 16:1-5, 9, 33; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1
Ecclesiastes 3:14; 9:1
Isaiah 14:24-27; 40:12-15, 18, 22, 25; 44:6,24-28; 45:5, 7, 9-13; 46:9-11
Jeremiah 18:6; 32:17-23, 27; 50:44
Daniel 2:21, 37-38; 4:17, 32, 34-35; 5:18; 7:27; 6:26
Matthew 11:25-26; 20:1-16
Acts 2:22-24; 4:24-28; 17:26
Romans 8:28; 11:36; 14:11
Ephesians 1:11; 4:6
1 Timothy 6:15
50 Richard L. Strauss, The Joy of Knowing God (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1984), p. 118.
51 Ibid., p. 114.
52 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 115.
53 Ibid., p. 116.
54 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Swengel, Pa.: Reiner Publications, 1968), p. 27.
55 Ibid., p. 25.
56 Ibid., pp. 23, 24.
57 Richard Strauss, The Joy of Knowing God, pp. 114-115.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)