Judgment and Grace in Babylon

The book of “Daniel” in the Bible divides neatly into two parts. The first six chapters give us narrative accounts of the adventures of Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as they interact with the kings in Babylon. Then the last six chapters give us prophetic visions of the future, a future that covers the time of Daniel till the end of time. In the narrative section, two of the kings we encounter are King Nebuchadnezzar and King Belshazzar. It is these two kings that I want to consider, particularly exploring their relationship with the Most High God of the Hebrews (whom we know elsewhere as Yahweh, the LORD).

BACKGROUND

The best way, of course, to gain a grasp of the background of these two men and to understand the context of their stories in the Bible is to read the accounts of their lives in the respective sections of Scripture. So then, be sure that you have read “Daniel” chapters 1-4 about Nebuchadnezzar and “Daniel” chapter 5 about Belshazzar in preparation for this article.

Several things are obvious from the pages of Scripture. The most significant feature of both these men is that they are pagans. The word is not to be understood as judgmental, but as factual, because the word “pagan” just means “a worshiper of any god or gods other than the God of the Bible.” These men lived far away from Israel and Jerusalem and were completely ignorant of the God of the Hebrews. So, they did not know or acknowledge “the Most High God” or “the God of heaven.” This ignorance of the LORD and of His Law means that the Babylonian culture had no moral standards, and so Babylon was marked by the immorality and the idolatry that inevitably follow such a worldview.

Since this article is exploring their individual relationships with the Most High God, it is necessary to describe how the Most High God, the LORD, viewed these pagan kings. As is true for all those who violate His holy Law and who live immoral and defiant lives, so it was true for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, that their transgressions and their sins brought them under the judgment and wrath of God (Romans 1:18). As we have already mentioned, when they are first introduced to us in the book of “Daniel,” it is obvious that they both kings know nothing about this “Most High God.” Nevertheless, from the LORD’s perspective, they have each violated His holiness and broken His holy laws and are thus both subject to His wrath and judgment. This means that, according to the clear teaching of the Bible, unless something changes in their lives, both these men deserve eternal punishment and will spend eternity in what the Bible calls “hell.”

JUDGMENT FOR BELSHAZZAR

We will first look at King Belshazzar. It becomes clear from Daniel 5 that Belshazzar is not only completely ignorant of the God of the Hebrews, the Most High God, but he is also defiant in his attitude toward this God, in essence treating Him as just another petty pagan deity of a defeated people. In the midst of his drunken party (Daniel 5:1-4), he calls for the vessels from the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, to be brought out so that he and all his pagan partiers may drink wine from them and use those vessels to praise the pagan gods of Babylon, “but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored (5:23).” This is clearly dangerous business, and, in the end, this final act of rebellion seals the doom of Belshazzar and his Chaldean kingdom, as the LORD brings judgment. Thus, Belshazzar dies and perishes (5:30).

Before we move on to an examination of Nebuchadnezzar, it would be good to digest what happened to Belshazzar. Tragically, he perished; that is, he remained under the judgment of God until the day of his death, and therefore, he will be punished forever in what the Bible calls “hell.” I mentioned above that something needed to change in Belshazzar’s life, or he would be judged and condemned. Well, nothing changed. Belshazzar continued in his rebellion against the Most High God and did not repent or worship the God of heaven. He, therefore, received his deserved judgment.

GRACE FOR NEBUCHADNEZZAR

There is a grand mystery in how the Lord, the Most High God, deals with the children of Adam. The Bible makes clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” The Bible also makes clear that “the wages of sin is (eternal) death (Romans 6:23),” thus making plain that every single one of us deserves God’s terrifying judgment. But the Bible also makes plain that not all receive God’s judgment. God will certainly punish all sin, but not all people will be punished: this is the mystery. Indeed, Job asks the question, “But how can a man be in the right before God? (Job 9:2)” In Job’s way of thinking, if a person sinned, there must be punishment. Sin meant a person was no longer “in the right before God.” So, how could they be reconciled? This is the mystery.

The solution to this mystery has now been revealed in the Scripture, and it is summed up in one word: grace. Grace has been described as God’s “unmerited favor,” favor that He freely chooses to bestow on certain undeserving sinners, with the result that those so chosen are delivered from His wrath and judgment and are instead forgiven of their sins and are adopted by God as His very own children and are guaranteed an eternity in heaven with Him. God’s grace and mercy and love were supremely demonstrated in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cruel cross.

I bring up the subject of grace now because here in Daniel chapters 1-4 we see a demonstration of God’s grace through the spiritual journey of King Nebuchadnezzar. We have already seen how Belshazzar received his deserved judgment. But by contrast, as we read of King Nebuchadnezzar, we see that he receives amazing patience and grace from the God of heaven. Make no mistake about it: Nebuchadnezzar starts out fully as ignorant of the Most High God as any other Chaldean would be. The king has serious anger issues, demonstrated in his flying into a tirade because his magicians cannot tell him his dream (Ch. 2) and then in getting furious when the Hebrew men will not bow down to his golden image (Ch. 3). Finally, in chapter 4 we see Nebuchadnezzar’s immense pride as he congratulates himself for all that he has accomplished in Babylon. Ignorance and malevolence and arrogance make a pretty nasty brew, but such is the Chaldean king.

But in the midst of all these theatrics, we must not miss what God is doing by His providence. Instead of bringing judgment upon Nebuchadnezzar for his many and great sins, He graciously uses a series of providences to draw the king to Himself, so that, in the end, he not only knows about the LORD, but he also praises Him as his God. Notice the progression:

  • In Chapter 1, since Nebuchadnezzar is so far from Jerusalem and is so distant from the knowledge of the LORD and of His Word, the LORD providentially arranges to have four “ambassadors” (Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael) sent from Jerusalem to Babylon to begin to live in the very court of the king himself. Now, through the means of a conquest and an exile, there are four messengers of the LORD in close proximity to the pagan king.
  • In Chapter 2, the LORD gives Nebuchadnezzar a dream about a multi-metallic statue. The dream cannot be told by the Chaldean magicians and so, providentially, Daniel comes into the presence of the king to tell the dream and its interpretation. In the course of telling the dream, Daniel introduces Nebuchadnezzar to the “God of heaven.” In Daniel 2:46-47, Nebuchadnezzar declares to Daniel, Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries.” At this point, then, Nebuchadnezzar knows about the “God of heaven” and is impressed with His power, although certainly the king is not a worshiper yet.
  • Chapter 3 is the well-known story of the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. When confronted with certain death as the price of their obedience, the Hebrew men politely defy the king and tell him that their God can deliver them from his furnace. Nebuchadnezzar is astounded by what the “God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” does in “sending His angel and delivering His servants who trusted in Him (Daniel 3:28).” Now Nebuchadnezzar not only knows about the existence of the Most High God, the God of the Hebrews, but he also knows that this God is able to save from the fire. This God is more powerful than a blazing fiery furnace and this God will act to deliver His servants from the flames. This God is a saving God. Do you see how the LORD is slowly, graciously drawing Nebuchadnezzar to Himself?
  • Chapter 4 is the culmination of the grace of the LORD toward Nebuchadnezzar, as we see him both at the beginning of the chapter and at the end giving praise to the Most High God, the King of heaven (4:2, 34, 37, etc.). In fact, Chapter 4 could well be considered Nebuchadnezzar’s personal testimony, for in this chapter the king talks about “the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me (4:2).” He describes how, through the means of another dream interpreted by Daniel, he went from being  a proud king to a man humbled to the level of a beast, to then being restored to his kingdom, but with a new perspective on the King of heaven, whom he praises, extols, and honors. Through God’s providence and grace, the Most High God has become HIS GOD.

As the Bible so often does, here in Daniel chapters 1-5 the Scripture illustrates for us theological principles through these narrative stories. Here we see the grace of God that patiently leads King Nebuchadnezzar to become a worshiper of the Most High God. And we also see the justice of God demonstrated in King Belshazzar that subjects to judgment those who do not repent and who do not bow the knee to worship the LORD.

REFLECTIONS

The story of the justice of God and the grace of God continues to this day and will continue until the Lord Jesus returns. This is a story that touches every single human being, for it should be clear that, as both these kings deserved God’s judgment because of their sin, so every one of us deserves God’s judgment because of our sin. But the grace of God has provided a substitute for those chosen by God who will take our punishment in our place. Jesus Christ is our substitute and the greatest picture of God’s grace.

For those who are already followers of Jesus, another point of reflection is to try to grasp the grace of God that has been given to you, for it is crystal clear that your salvation was entirely undeserved. The only thing that we are able to merit is condemnation and judgment. Yet God, for reasons known only to Him, has decided to lavish His grace on you and to reckon you as righteous because of the work of Christ. He would have remained perfectly righteous and just to have cast you headlong into an eternal hell, but He chose instead to give you His grace, His unmerited favor. His grace included His patience and His providence as He carefully crafted the steps of your journey to faith in Him. Like His grace toward Nebuchadnezzar, He guided you every step of the way so that you would arrive at repentance and faith and would become His adopted child.

SDG                 rmb                 7/17/2020

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