The God Who Dwells with Flesh
January 28, 2024

The God Who Dwells with Flesh

Series:
Passage: Daniel 2:1-49
Service Type:

The God Who Dwells with Flesh
Daniel 2:1-49
by William Klock

 

It’s annoying when you can’t remember a dream, isn’t it?  You’re sleeping, you dream a very vivid dream, then you wake up, and in that state in which you’re still half asleep and only half awake your brain tells you that whatever it was you were dreaming about was vitally important.  But then you wake up—all the way—and it’s all gone—all, that is, except that urgent feeling that whatever it was you were dreaming about was so incredibly important.  That’s really annoying, isn’t it.  But then you brush it off.  It was only a dream.  You probably just ate too much pizza before bed.  Dreams seem important when you’re in the middle of one, but we all know that they really aren’t.  At most, maybe it’s just the subconscious trying to work something out while we sleep.  We move on.  But not everyone thinks—or has thought—of dreams that way.  The Babylonians, for example, thought of dreams as communication from the gods.  They made a science out of their interpretation.  They had voluminous texts that explained what the symbolism of dreams meant.  This was the sort of thing that Daniel and his friends were taught in their three years of training in Babylonian “wisdom”.  You can imagine that if Nebuchadnezzar had such a dream, he’d be more than annoyed that he couldn’t remember it when he woke up.  That’s how the second chapter of Daniel begins.  It’s a long chapter, so let’s get straight into it.  Here’s what we read:

 

In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him. Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.” They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm—if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.” The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

 

Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. (Daniel 2:1-12)

 

Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest emperor the world had known.  We can only imagine how many wise men he had at his court, but the text makes a point of piling them up: He had magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans.  Here’s the greatest king, to whom the gods gave the greatest dreams, and who had the greatest entourage of wise men to tell him what those dreams meant.  And so he summons them and you can imagine them streaming through the halls of the palace in all their finery, all ready to tell the king what he wants to know.  But then Nebuchadnezzar drops a bomb: “Tell me what I dreamed,” he commands.  And they look at him nervously and say, “Your Majesty, that’s not how it works.  You tell us the dream; we tell you what it means.”  And the king rages at them, “Tell me or I’ll have you all ripped limb from limb!”  And again they plead with him, “That’s not how it works.  That’s not how it’s ever worked!  No king has ever asked his wise men to reveal such a thing, you know that!  What you ask is impossible.  We can tell you what your dream means, but only the gods can reveal a dream—and the gods do not dwell with flesh.”  The gods do not dwell with flesh.

 

There it is.  The gods do not live with men.  That’s the setup.  Everyone in the world—or at least everyone in the pagan world—everyone knew that the gods were distant.  There were ways to get access to them—through temples and idols and offerings—but everyone also knew that the gods were notorious capricious when it came to answering.  They might.  They might not.  Usually not.  That’s why the king had magicians.  Magic is the “science” of figuring out the right formulas: what offerings, what incantations or prayers, what actions worked in the past so that we can try them again.  Sometimes it worked.  Mostly it didn’t.  Because the gods were far off and fickle.  If and when they spoke, the wise men were ready to apply all their learning to tell you what it meant, but first the gods had to speak.  If the king couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them what the gods had said, well, there was nothing they could do.

 

Maybe Nebuchadnezzar was a violent and capricious man—although the historical record doesn’t seem to indicate that—or maybe he sort of knew, deep down, that all the things they did—divining the will of the gods from the movement of the stars or the flight of birds or the entrails of an animal or the blobs made by oil poured into wine—maybe Nebuchadnezzar suspected it was all nonsense—that this whole enterprise of magic and dream interpretation and mantic wisdom was all really useless.  The gods were distant and silent and these guys gave the illusion of bringing them near, but it was all lies, all a sham. Maybe that’s why he lashes out at these men.  Whatever the case, the wise men can’t tell the king his dream, so he sentences them to death.  If it doesn’t work, burn it all down.  Maybe the gods will send someone wiser.

 

Enter Daniel and the God of Israel.  They stands in contrast to all the wise men and the gods of Babylon.  We get a sense of the frustration of the Babylonians.  Notice that they don’t even try.  They know it’s hopeless.  Their gods aren’t going to help them.  But Daniel—notice how different he is.  Picking up at verse 13:

 

So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them. Then Daniel replied with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to kill the wise men of Babylon. He declared to Arioch, the king’s captain, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Then Arioch made the matter known to Daniel. And Daniel went in and requested the king to appoint him a time, that he might show the interpretation to the king. (Daniel 2:13-16)

 

Notice how confident Daniel is in the Lord.  Before he’s prayed, before he’s spoken with his friends, Daniel tells the executioners to hold up and he makes an appointment with the king.  He’s absolutely certain that when the time comes, he’ll have the answer.  Remember that in the last chapter, the Lord gave wisdom to Daniel.  And now, in light of that wisdom, Daniel discerns that this is what he has to do.  It’s not mechanical or formulaic like it was for the Babylonian wise men.  He still goes back to his friends and tells them to pray for God to have mercy on them.  But in his God-given wisdom, Daniel knows what needs to happen.  To be clear, this doesn’t mean that God will always intervene in this way for his people.  This is an issue that crops up throughout the first half of Daniel.  The Lord will speak to Daniel.  The Lord will rescue Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the fiery furnace.  But that doesn’t mean the Lord will always speak or that he will always rescue his people from martyrdom.  Sometimes godly wisdom is to recognise when not to make this sort of commitment before God has spoken.  Sometimes godly wisdom is to prepare for martyrdom.  The point is that, in contrast to the gods of the pagans, the Lord, the God of Israel, is present with his people and he equips for each and every situation.  This is the God who dwells with men.  Continuing:

 

Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. Daniel answered and said:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,

         to whom belong wisdom and might.

He changes times and seasons;

         he removes kings and sets up kings;

he gives wisdom to the wise

         and knowledge to those who have understanding;

he reveals deep and hidden things;

         he knows what is in the darkness,

         and the light dwells with him.

To you, O God of my fathers,

         I give thanks and praise,

for you have given me wisdom and might,

         and have now made known to me what we asked of you,

         for you have made known to us the king’s matter.” (Daniel 2:17-23)

 

Notice how all of this stands in stark contrast to the Babylonian wise men, whose gods are distant and silent.  Israel’s God—despite seemingly having been defeated by the gods of Babylon, his temple vessels stored away in their treasury—Israel’s God has wisdom and might, he directs the seasons and raises up kings, he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the understanding.  In this case, he has given wisdom and might to Daniel that he might save the lives of the pagan wise men.  What a potential witness to the pagans this is.  The Lord acts through Daniel on behalf of these men who think themselves wise, but who are really fools committed to false gods.

 

Therefore Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon. He went and said thus to him: “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.”

 

Then Arioch brought in Daniel before the king in haste and said thus to him: “I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who will make known to the king the interpretation.” The king declared to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.  (Daniel 2:24-30)

 

All the things Daniel listed in his song of praise now come out in his explanation to the king.  This is Daniel’s moment to be light in the darkness, to make known the glory of the God of Israel.  This is why the Lord gives wisdom—so that the wise will put his glory on full display.  Brothers and Sisters, wisdom is not ultimately for us.  The Lord gives wisdom so that we can glorify him and so that we can lead others to glorify him.  Now, on to the dream itself, picking up at verse 31:

 

“You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

 

“This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” (Daniel 2:31-45)

 

We can imagine Nebuchadnezzar listening intently to Daniel and saying, “Yes!  Yes!  That was the dream!”  A great statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a middle of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay.  And Daniel explains that these are successive kingdoms.  That’s how the ESV translates it, at any rate, but the Aramaic word isn’t that specific.  It could refer to kingdoms or empires or to the reigns of individual kings.  The great Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold, but those who come after will gradually diminish in their glory.  Not that they won’t be strong in their own rights, but nothing will be the same after Nebuchadnezzar.  And that final reign or kingdom, steel and clay, mixed and brittle, it will be ripe for a fall.  And that’s exactly what will happen.  A fifth king or kingdom will come, but this one will be different.  The other kings are the work and glory of men, but this stone is not cut by human hands.  It will strike the feet of the statue and bring it down.  It will fall to pieces and blow away like chaff in the wind—all but forgotten—while the stone grows and grows until it becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth—the only thing that matters.

 

If what we want to know is the identity of the kings or kingdoms, Daniel’s explanation isn’t all that helpful.  The gist of it—successive kings or kingdoms that are eventually brought down—that’s easy.  But if we want to know who or what they are, well, Jews and Christians have been speculating for two thousand years.  I strongly suspect that it referred to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian kings who would succeed him, the stone being Cyrus, who would conquer the Babylonians, establish the Persian Empire—which would last far longer than that of the Babylonians.  Most important, Cyrus would send the exiles back home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.  Jeremiah prophesied exactly the same thing.  And that’s what happened.  But one of the interesting things with prophecy is that it often has a broader application.  It’s a bit like a collapsible telescope.  In fact, that’s the word—telescope—that bible scholars use.  We see it fulfilled in the historic events in which it was prophesied.  But sometimes, as much as the prophecy is obviously fulfilled—in this case with the fall of Babylon and return of the exiles—there are aspects of the prophecy that aren’t “fully” fulfilled.  The exiles return, the temple is rebuilt, but the presence of the Lord never returns, neither do the great glory days of Israel.  And so the prophecy, even though fulfilled, still points out into the future.  And I think that’s how the author of Daniel, writing in the years of terror under Antiochus Epiphanes applied it.  He saw not individual kings, but whole kingdoms.  And it’s remarkable how well those legs of iron and the feet of mixed iron and clay represent the kingdoms of Alexander the Great and then the squabbling generals who carved up his empire amongst themselves.  The Jews in those days were waiting for that stone—not cut with human hands, but sent by the Lord, like another Cyrus, maybe even this time the Messiah—they were waiting for it to come, to destroy the pagans, and to restore God’s kingdom.  And it did.  But again, as much as the prophecy was fulfilled, it wasn’t “fully” fulfilled.  It revealed the faithfulness of God, but pointed to the future and said, “There’s more and there’s better to come.”

 

And so the New Testament writers do the same thing, but in the feet of iron and clay they saw the Roman Empire, and in the stone not cut with hands, they saw the stone that the builders rejected, they saw Jesus the Messiah, and that mountain that filled the whole earth was his kingdom, the church, Christendom.  Now, how does Nebuchadnezzar respond?  Look at verses 46-49.  (I told you it was a long chapter.)

 

Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

 

The Lord does not give his wisdom to his saints in vain.  Nebuchadnezzar’s gods were silent and his wise men were miserable failures, but through Daniel the God of Israel spoke.  Imagine the king’s surprise.  This was the god of a tiny, conquered people.  He’d taken that god’s sacred vessels and put them in the temple of his own gods.  And yet this God speaks.  His wise man, his prophet has wisdom like none the king has ever seen.  And so the great Nebuchadnezzar falls down at Daniel’s feet and worships.  We’ll miss the point if we get bogged down in worrying that the king is offering incense to Daniel.  He was a pagan and this is what pagans did.  The point is that in Daniel he saw this God of might and wisdom, this God who is present with men, in Daniel he saw this God at work and he gave him glory.  Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego now—are sent off to oversee the provinces and Daniel is elevated to a high position in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

 

Now, what does this mean for us?  Brothers and Sisters, Daniel reminds us to stand firm in faith, to trust the Lord, knowing that he is sovereign and that he is with us.  The world we know may be collapsing around us, the church and the gospel may be falling out of favour, fellow believers may be apostatising, the pagans may be coming for our children, they may come for us, but God is still in control.  He raises up kings and empires and he brings them down.  Whatever happens is a call to us to be faithful, to pray for wisdom, and to listen for what the Lord is teaching us so that the church might come out the other side of these events stronger, purer, and more beautiful.  Whatever happens we can know that our God is the Lord of all, maneuvering history towards its final goal of new creation.  And with that lesson, Daniel reminds that the Lord is always with us.  In contrast to the gods of the pagans, the God of Israel is near.  The stone that the builders rejected stands in solidarity with us.  He has given his life for us, he has risen from the grave for us, he has poured out his Spirit into us.  He has made us his very temple.  This Emanuel is God with us as no other people have ever known.  Think on that this morning as you come to his Table.  Eat the bread and drink the wine and know his death and resurrection for us.  Here we meet the stone not cut with hands.  Here we’re reminded that we are part of that great mountain that will fill the whole earth.  Here we know that God is with us—not only that our God dwells with flesh, but that in Jesus, our God has taken on our flesh himself.  Be encouraged and strengthened that you might stand firm and that you might be—like Daniel—a witness to the glory of God for the sake of the people around you.

 

Let’s pray: Gracious Father, we live in difficult days with the temptation to compromise and to give up all around us.  Remind us, we pray, that you are sovereign, that you are the Lord of history and King of kings and that you are with always present with us.  Take away our fears and our anxieties and fill us with your grace that we might stand firm in faith as a testimony to your goodness and your faithfulness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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