Empires Gonna Empire
I am a Christ-follower. I try to make that very clear through the way I live and the things I talk about. My highest allegiance is to Christ. My citizenship is in heaven. I live under His kingship in His kingdom. Period.
This past weekend I was able to take sixteen students and four other adult chaperones to Gatlinburg, TN, for Winterfest, and annual teen youth conference that brings 10,000+ Christian students together for worship and biblical lessons. The theme this year was timely. The conference centered around the story of Daniel and his friends in Babylon. The main title was "Not Now. Not Ever." We learned about what it means to live in Babylon and how to stay faithful even in the darkness and turmoil of this evil world.
I've always loved the story of Daniel (after whom I am named), but I've grown to appreciate him even more as I've aged and become more aware of the realities around me.
However, I latched onto something new this time through. It's not that I had never noticed this before, but it really struck a cord with me. Read through these verses and see if you notice a theme.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”
Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court.
Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”
At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.”
So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.
Did you notice any sort of theme? Throughout the first six chapters of Daniel (the narrative half of the book) we see kings and emperors honoring Daniel and his friends, promoting them to places of honor, and declaring the praises of the God of Israel.
That should be awesome, right? That's what we want, isn't it?
Not so fast.
Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of the LORD and plundered all the sacred objects from inside. He overthrew Jerusalem and took God's people captive. He forced all the people to worship an image of himself. He became so proud that it drove him mad.
Is Nebuchadnezzar really the one you want endorsing the God of Israel?
His grandson, Belshazzar, was a useless piece of garbage. He was a terrible ruler. His capital city was under siege by the Medo-Persian army and he threw a party that lasted for weeks. During that party he used the sacred objects from Israel's Temple.
Sure, he acknowledged Daniel's God and promoted Daniel to third in command, but it was all an empty gesture. Too little, too late.
Darius allowed himself to be duped by a group of jealous viceroys. They got him to sign a law forcing everyone to pray to the King for a month. What? This prideful folly forced him to sentence Daniel to a night in the lions' den. Only after God's saving miracle did Darius offer any kind of praise or acknowledgement of God.
And let's not forget what would happen during his son's reign (see Esther).
What's my point in highlighting this?
I am not judging their hearts. They may have been sincere (although I get the feeling Belshazzar wasn't sincere about anything in his life). But it was a flash in the pan. There was no real change of heart. Babylon would never be a nation that honored the LORD. Persia had their own gods. These emperors may have said and done some things to appease the Jewish population living among them, but they really didn't care. There was no long-term change.
Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius are all set up in stark opposition to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. God did something big and amazing, so the emperors offered words of praise. God allowed their homeland to be destroyed and their whole lives to be uprooted, and these faithful Jewish men honored God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
They never took the words of these pagan rulers as anything other than words, lip service. It didn't make one ounce of difference to Daniel et al whether the kings acknowledged God or not. They knew that the Empires are going to do whatever is best of the Empire. They never thought, Well everything is great and Nebuchadnezzar is an awesome guy. He's even one of us! Sure, he committed some atrocities, sure he's prideful and arrogant. But don't you remember that time he promoted Daniel? Don't you remember that time he praised our God? The media just wants you to think he's a bloodthirsty tyrant, but we know the real Nebuchadnezzar.
Too many of us are fooled by politicians who use certain buzzwords and phrases that they know will win over religious voters. I am always wary when a politician running for office prays in public or quotes Scripture. They do that for a reason. Too often that reason is to lower our guards and win us over to their side. They don't really want to honor God and put God first. They want votes. They want power. They want authority. They want notoriety. They want honor for themselves.
I'm not here to judge the hearts of men. I am positive there are many sincere, faithful Christians serving in the political sector. The story of Daniel inspires us to care about the cities and nations in which we live. Daniel was a faithful servant to God first and foremost, but he also worked to ensure the peace and prosperity of Babylon. Civil service is not the problem. We need Christians in Washington and in our local court houses.
But we must be more discerning about the ones in power. Jesus told us not to judge, but he also told us that we can know what kind of person someone is by looking at the fruit of their lives. If a politician is making Christian-sounding statements and offering lip service to the Christian faith, be sure to look at the fruit of their lives and their policies. Are they consistent? Or is there a glaring disconnect?
And we must all ask ourselves the same question. Are we consistent? Or is there a glaring disconnect between our religious beliefs and our political stance?
Daniel shows us what it could look like to live faithfully among a people who are increasingly hostile toward our faith. Daniel shows us what a life of integrity and consistency looks like. The Empires of the world are only consistent in that they will do whatever is best for the Empire. Sometimes that means persecuting people of faith. Other times that means pandering to them. May we not be fooled by the ways of Empire and political power.
May we all walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we were called. May we all live faithful, consistent lives as strangers and foreigners. May we never forget that our citizenship is in heaven, that Christ is our King, and that our highest allegiance is to God alone.