The news in 2021 is a litany of disasters. Forest fires on the North American continent under ‘heat domes’ from western Canada to California, incinerating whole communities. Towns and villages suffer sudden ‘unpreparable’ floods in Europe, from Germany to Belgium, and now in London, where a month’s worth of rain fell all at once blocking roads and transforming tube stations into swimming pools. Though you didn’t know that both Copernicus Sentinel satellites surveyed land surface temperatures on June 20th across Arctic Siberia finding the ground temperature at Verkhojansk to be 48C. Or that Somalia, Ghana, Chad, Uganda and Nigeria have all been hit by flooding in June and July, following the vast locust swarms which plagued east Africa in earlier months, ravaging food supplies. The headline international news did report that an entire year’s worth of rain fell in Henan province in China all in just three days. We will remember that September 2019 to March 2020 saw the worst ever bush fires across Australia. Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest is continuously burning because Jair Bolsonaro’s government says its OK to turn one of the principal biodiversity hotspots and lungs of the planet into more substrate for utterly unsustainable agribusiness.
For those of us fortunate not to find our houses sinking in the melting permafrost, our livelihoods disappearing in flood or fire, basements filling with water or houses demolished by the ‘unpredictable’ arrival of mud and rocks, there is still COVID. On July 7th 2021 WHO announced that the reported death toll has passed 4 million.
What sort of response would qualify as being theologically responsible? It is easy to reach for hyperbole and, indeed, apocalyptic language in such circumstances. When our collective house is burning down, that is surely justified. ‘Apocalypse’ in biblical terms does not mean the big bad stuff that happens, but, as Bart Ehrman puts it, ‘A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities’, such as found in the Book of Revelation (or ‘The Apocalypse of St John, RSV) (Italics my emphasis). In particular, I find it interesting to note that the imagery of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6 is rather ambiguous, and so also inevitably are the interpretations that have followed this first century prophecy of the End of All Things. What John wrote was itself not original, drawing inspiration from the Jewish prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel, who each described the horsemen in different terms, but crucially, Christian commentators through the centuries following St John of Revelation couldn’t decide if the rider of the white horse was with the good guys or the bad guys. The four dread foals are released, you may recall, by the action of the Lamb of God who opens the first of the seals of a scroll seen in John’s heavenly vision. Which agencies are supposed to be at work here, I wonder? Are the references meant to be definitive? Possibly not.
Following Biden’s arrival in the White House, and the rejoining of the Paris Climate agreements by the USA, there is a bit less arguing about whether something should be done, and a renewed focus on what should be done, and by when. I will confess here to grimly welcoming the recent news of fires and flood, with their deadly consequences, for the reason that I hope that these ghastly events ‘at home’ in the US, Canada, Europe and China will finally concentrate minds in government and the places where, apparently, money talks loudest. Vast hectares of trees planted in the US to offset past and current carbon costs in business have now gone up in smoke, while London’s Thames Barrier could not protect the underground transport system from flash flooding. The damage done to coral reefs in the distant oceans has not commanded attention in the capitals of the G20, but the wailing of voters and jittery corporate investors might yet have the desired effect.
Not that its worked out this way in Russia or Brazil, where ‘the system’ has been sequestered by pseudo-elected leaders perhaps better described as totalitarian dictators, supported by oppressive networks of billionaire oligarchs whose business is, so often, in making piles of money from the pillage of the resources of our single shared planet. The Chinese Communist Party is trebling down on its efforts to exclude western influence from the internal affairs of their country, to the extent of undermining foreign investments in China to avoid regulatory scrutiny, and by ejecting BBC journalists who might suggest to their citizens that the Henan floods, to pick the most recent example, might actually be the result of global climate change rather than unfortunate and random fluctuations in the climate. No ‘schoolgirls on climate strike’ in Shanghai, thank you very much.
Then there is the fine democratic example of Australia, where a democratically elected government is in full climate change denial even after the country has literally gone up in smoke. How much more iron ore can be blasted from the culturally sensitive lands of the pre-Captain Cook Land Down Under? How much more coal can be sold to the Chinese who, for the moment at least, are making steel and cement at such a prodigious rate?
Some of us met to pray this month, and it had been decided that the leaders of Australia, Russia, China and Brazil should benefit from our special and prayerful attention. There are now (as of Thursday 22nd July) under 100 days to the global climate summit ‘COP26’ in Glasgow this November. I will reserve comment on the UK and our own government for another post, though you may have noted Boris bumping elbows with Scott Morrison (heading gallery).
What might we co-create with God in prayer regarding the leaders of these four nations?
Let’s consider the case of the exiles of Judah in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Daniel and his three friends- probably many others as well- have been trained and deployed in high office in the capital and in connected places of influence. This is not God’s people living according to God’s ways and instructions in God’s promised homeland. Yet these young people are still God’s people who can find how to live in God’s ways- difficult though that may prove- and can demonstrate that what is not their homeland is still part of the world that the true God made and has plans for. Daniel is a son of Abraham, who has indeed been exiled from the land of the first Promise, and yet is now at home within the scope of a larger Promise. We find testimony that there is a tightrope-wide tolerance for Daniel and his faith in Babylon, on which he is seen to teeter-totter his way along, day by day, even decade by decade, until one king passes to another*. So Daniel establishes a principle for believers in God’s world: we need not await the full rule of God in the world before we can act as those who ‘tend and watch over it’ (Gen 2:15 ESV). We certainly should not despair of God’s co-creation of righteousness and justice with us as His people just because the godless presently have so much of the world under their control.
Let’s look at this one chapter in some detail to see what lessons and possibilities might emerge:
4 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2 It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.
3 How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and his dominion endures from generation to generation.
4 [b] I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7 Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. 8 At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the Spirit of the holy God—and I told him the dream, saying, 9 “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the Spirit of the holy God is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. 10 The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its leaves were 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 heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.
13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14 He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ 18 This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the Spirit of the holy God is in you.”
All too often it seems that our leaders, even ones who rise from common stock, end up in isolated bubbles, possessed by terrible delusions of their own grandeur. At moments of crisis and disaster this comes into public view, as their ghosted speeches and miniscule actions have us collectively wondering aloud, ‘Can’t they see what must be done? What on earth are they thinking? What kinds of monsters have we elected?’ Nebuchadnezzar is credited with writing his own speech as recorded here in Daniel 4, with his personal prayer thrown in for good measure. What sort of experiences have wrought such profound changes in this great dictator, that he now speaks with such transparent self-awareness? How exactly have his eyes been opened? Perhaps there are secrets here for us to apply to our present near-apocalypse predicaments.
Nebuchadnezzar shares his first person diary report. In it we can see that none other than the Most High God Himself has been the prime Agent in rectifying Nebuchadnezzar’s entire world view. This is a significant contribution to the insights afforded in scripture for what a ‘biblical world view’ consists in, especially in regard to the place of all human leaders under God, and of their place and responsibilities regarding all creatures on earth. It also suggests that however entrenched human earthly leaders may appear to be, and however godless their regimes, that there is scope for radical transformation of both leader and government.
The chapter begins with a new and unabashed acknowledgement of the true God of the cosmos by the non-covenant king Nebuchadnezzar, the previously unquestioned ruler of the Judahite exiles in Babylon. He confesses the sense of ease that his privilege enabled, summing up his ability to do whatever he likes with the riches of the entire empire in this pithy phrase: ‘I was … prospering in my palace.’ Unless invited, no one would have questioned the king’s will: they could only expect an immediate and sticky end! Professors of the ancient Near Eastern cultures tell us that kings like Nebuchadnezzar would have believed in his own god as one local god/ one of the gods of his homeland, who was the superior rival to the gods of neighbouring lands. He now realises that whatever divinities there may be, there is One of particular note, whom he names as the ‘Most High God’. As for himself, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that he can no longer behave like a god over the country, thus redefining what it means to be a king. He addresses the whole world to speak peace under heaven, which suggests positive implications for the future of the exiles presently held in benign captivity.
In the worst case scenarios, which as I described above may well be what we are facing in the world today, there is one last line of defence of justice in God’s cosmos, and that is Godself. Nebuchadnezzar, apparently impregnable in his rule, is nevertheless not isolated from the voice of the Almighty. If no one else has the opportunity or courage to speak truth to power, God can certainly do so. What might influence the timing of such an intervention? We should inquire of the Lord on this matter.
The king is at his ultimate ease, and then out of nowhere he is troubled by dreams, fancies and visions. What are the means by which the wetware of our creaturely brains are accessed by the Spirit of the Cosmos? Christian folk who are expert in the matters of quantum physics and/or neuroscience have spilt some ink in this regard over the few decades we have known anything of both disciplines of study, and have reached two conclusions: we don’t know enough about the workings of the human mind to say very much at all about how our thoughts are nevertheless both free and meaningful, and secondly, that what we do know presents no obstacle at all to the proposition that we can have a communicative relationship with the Divine. God created, say the theologians, ex nihilo, so it should not surprise us that He yet speaks from the void.
As with Joseph who was summonsed by Pharaoh in Egypt long before, Daniel is brought to the king’s audience chamber as the last possible interpreter of this heaven sent vision. Whatever God has to say directly to the self-styled and would-be ruler of the earth, God does not deliver alone, but opens the king’s will and enables His human creature to perform the role of priest to the pagan king. God’s word, will and way will be facilitated in human terms, for this is God’s creation ordinance.
Nebuchadnezzar describes the vision he has been dwelling on in his mind to Daniel, and it is a picture of cosmic dimensions. Babylon is fabled for its hanging gardens, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, no doubt replete with plants of every kind that could be collected as far as the empire had extended, though not as complete as we can enjoy today at Kew Gardens, in London. In a royal garden that has been planted by generations of kings, there will be mature trees, but this ‘fancy’ exceeds any that grows even now at Kew or Wakehurst Place or Bedgebury, arboreal collections all found just a few miles from my home in the South East of England, thanks to the Victorian globe trotting plant collectors who stocked these sites that are now living museums of the world’s trees. Wakehurst is home to the largest growing ‘Christmas tree’ in England, a 35m giant redwood, though the UK’s tallest is a 44m native Beech tree on a private estate in West Sussex. However, the vision given to the king is of a great tree that reaches from earth to heaven (recalling the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9) which forms the habitat and food supply for all manner of creatures. Animals find shade under it, birds nest in it, and as any ecologist will tell you, even a single tree can be the home for many hundreds of species and myriad individuals. This tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind is another version of the royal garden planted in Genesis 2, and the vision is immodest in its assertion: the Watcher from heaven addresses the tree, and Daniel explains- it represents you, O king!
In this iteration of the familiar garden trope, the king himself is depicted as the mighty Tree of Life, combining two messages: affirmation that it is the proper place of the ruler to shoulder responsibility for the supply of all the needs of humans and all creatures in the land. Quite properly, in this sense: everything depends on him- he is the vital connection between the needs of community and creatures on earth with heavenly supply and sustenance from above. And interwoven with this truth is also the judgement of God on Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris- he has not acknowledged that the God of Creation is the absolute and ultimate source of the riches that he sequesters from the resources of empire and the labour of all its citizens.
The Jewish scriptures are a rich ground of prophetic judgments, but not many are delivered in person by the man of God direct to the ear of the one being given his ‘unsatisfactory’ school report. How is Daniel to go about this? It is not uncommon to hear modern day Christian folk getting carried away with their denouncements of ungodliness, though it is absolutely right that we call out the injustices and cruelties meted out by the influential on the vulnerable. Too few seem aware of Jude’s instructions for spiritual warfare in Jude v9: even fallen spiritual personalities are not to be slandered, purely out of respect for Godself. We can almost hear Daniel’s heart beating out of his chest as the realisation of what he is being asked to say to Great Nebuchadnezzar dawns on him in full-orbed intensity.
19 Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! 20 The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, 21 whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived— 22 it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. 23 And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. 26 And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”
Nebuchadnezzar is doubtless quite smart enough to know that any serious interpretation of this vision is going to involve a bluntly confrontational message, and he encourages Daniel not to hold back. Daniel manages to compose himself and finds a form of words to address the king with sufficient dignity as well as doing justice to the sobering word from heaven’s messenger. How extraordinary that God’s message of judgement is not simply, ‘You have been tried and found wanting; your reign and life are now over!’ That will come to another king on another day in this book. Nor even, ‘You have been tried and found wanting, so now your rule is at an end- it will pass to another while you depart in ignominy.’ Despite that Nebuchadnezzar has no part in the covenant of the lineage of Israel, God does through Daniel what Jeremiah instructed the exiles: He brings peace and prosperity to the land in which God’s people are found, without distinction. What does this look like? It means that God’s desire is to redeem Nebuchadnezzar, even to do righteousness and mercy in that land through him! It means that God is bringing the measuring rod of righteousness as revealed in part to Israel even to the nation of Babylon. It means that God in interested in the character and fruitfulness of the pagan king as ruler of that country. As with any of the other sons of God, discipline is the constant companion to those who would grow in character. To lead the king in the way of chastening, the following steps are announced:
- Ultimate pruning- all limbs and leaves removed, denoting Nebuchadnezzar’s removal from the kingship and all its privileges and responsibilities.
- Destruction and binding of the tree stump in two kinds of metal, signalling the ultimate winnowing of this king who nurtured an arrogant image of his own status and significance. This is an appraisal and judgement of Nebuchadnezzar personally, and yet…
- The bound stump is not dead; what is more, it is mysteriously nurtured amongst the tender grass, as a newly sprouted seedling in the open space in which it first germinated many years previously. The plant, which is the king, is neither dead, nor is it finally removed from relationship from other human creatures in the world. And, as the metaphorical imagery shifts…
- ‘Let him be wet with the dew of heaven,’ says the Watcher in the vision, recalling the way in which Genesis describes the Edenic water cycle, before the beginning of rain, when water condensed from the air in each daily cycle, thus watering each plant and tree with its necessary aqueous nutriment.
- As for food, it will be the same as the beasts. This continues to acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar’s physical, biological nature, which as Genesis told us, is one with the biological organisms, and yet is dramatically reduced from the luxuries of creative diets and cookery that he would have been accustomed to. [Note that the tree-man metaphor is stretched to breaking point now, as the man needs food, while a tree makes its own by photosynthesis. This is entirely acceptable prophetic storytelling, which does not transgress modern scientific boundaries with any harm to the meaning.]
- This verdict and sentence is not at all permanent- it is a time limited judgement, for ‘seven periods of time’. What mysteries are hidden in the Genesis account of the creation week? What exactly is the nature of the completing seventh Day, before it becomes known as ‘Sabbath’? Some wonder whether it makes sense to talk of the eighth Day in the Genesis context. While a day is a unit of time in which we can accomplish significant things, some tasks are larger and require more sustained attention. Nebuchadnezzar is to leave the company of human beings temporarily, for a kind of week of spiritual time, but at the completion of this season, there is a healing, with hope for reconciliation, for that is what the completion of a week by Sabbath promises. And then, in the grace of God, it may even be possible to start again. What does the grace of God mean? Even that the kingship will be kept on hold- things can be put right and go back to the way they were. Such are the extraordinary dimensions of God’s redemption- far beyond all we can think or imagine, as another bible author later puts it. Right now, there are several things it would be good to see put back to the way they were.
There is then a massive gap in the narrative. We are left to speculate entirely on what happens next- immediately next, that is. What does Nebuchadnezzar say? How is Daniel treated? What is the effect of this revelation on king and kingdom? In the short term, we do not know, for nothing is said. What we do know is that the man of God has carried out his joint-working with God – earth and heaven have worked prophetically together, and the earthly ruler has been told in plain terms what the Truth is. God put the ha’adam (humankind) into the Garden ‘to till and watch over it’, as Claus Westermann translated Gen 2:15, and so Daniel has been anointed as joint watcher with The Watcher from heaven. Both man and divine Speaker have uttered the word for this time to the earthly ruler, in concert and in harmony. What will this double spoken Word accomplish? In the field of garden metaphors, we have to wait and see, for these things take time. Nebuchadnezzar still has free will, even in this season of divine confrontation. And his response is all that the rest of this episode has to record. We will hear no more of Daniel’s involvement in this narrative, which we can take as a comfort in this respect: while God clearly does look for our partnership in watching and doing, we can expect that God will continue His sovereign action at significant scale and with precision of timing that are, well, Divine! And Nebuchadnezzar will come to say this himself.
28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
King ‘Neb’ isn’t content with his ornate throne or the sycophantic attentions of his attendants. He’s on the roof of his great palace, as near to the heavens as he can climb, and in a futile attempt at avoiding any embarrassing contradictions, he is talking to himself. Most of us comfort ourselves with similar intentions, but Neb has been served notice, and God is listening very attentively. Were the king to be feeling pleased with himself on account of the efficiency of his rule, his attention to the needs of the peoples under his influence, and especially the directives that Daniel gave him personally exactly twelve months previously, then there might not have been cause for alarm. Might we speculate that Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel’s counsel seriously at first, perhaps making radical changes to plans and procedures in the kingdom? Might there have been a change of heart in regard of the weak and oppressed amongst his citizenry, at all levels of society. Many a leader has stood up at such moments and declared their intentions to adopt a more inclusive and generous attitude, turning their attentions to service of their community. But after the ink dried on the newspapers, or should I say, the cuneiform tablets baked solid under the Middle Eastern sun, these trumpeted intentions can drift all too easily, as entrenched and powerful interests have their subtle influence behind closed doors. Whatever leadership is about, it pivots crucially on unswerving long-term commitment to the primary mission, and God made it abundantly clear to Neb what this mission should consist in. In what terms does the meditative Neb now address himself? 1: The power he has exerted in creating a palatial home for himself, and; 2, his own personal glory. If we were to define the ambitions that constitute hubris- arrogance that challenges the nature and status of the Deity- then Neb’s words hit the target dead centre.
In his first letter to Timothy, St Paul commends the saints of God to attend to prayer for all leaders that we can live quiet and peaceful lives in godliness (worship) and reverence (gravity) [1 Timothy 2:2]. The emphasis here needs to be on our work as worship and adopting a sober minded attitude, rather than on quietness and peace, I think. Which is how leaders should really behave, treating human beings as the creatures of dignity that God made us to be, treating God’s world with similar respect, and handling time and opportunity wisely. All these messages come through in the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul did not suggest to Timothy, or at any other time, that we should ask God to remove deficient leaders, and that is not what God does with Nebuchadnezzar in this case. The mission field has been Nebuchadnezzar’s mind, pure and simple. The word of God came to him with divine imperative and in partnership with examples of human integrity, but he refused this reasoning, and so his human mind is taken from him for a season. William Blake’s evocative picture gives some insight into what this purgatorial experience could have been like. But then, most wonderfully, Neb’s reason is returned to him. What might be suggested here in the ways of God as He stoops to our creaturely level to beckon us toward heaven’s Light? It must remain a mystery.
34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendour returned to me. My counsellors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Daniel 4 ESV
Again, we are only given a partial view of the outcomes. What might be implied by Nebuchadnezzar’s confession that he ‘honoured’ God? Does this point to an inward religious observance, where the secular has been divided from and relegated beneath the spiritual? Frankly, we cannot tell, but the point is moot for us. If we and our leaders are to come to our collective senses in this most urgent season, our honouring must be practical and very much orientated to the implications of what we say we believe; the implications of our faith in the One Whom we confess.
Babylon, and certainly its king, have had a Great Reset. The prophetic message of Daniel leaves us to speculate on what the effect of all this on the king, his court, country and empire, and for the Judahite exiles. Not merely the questions we have posed but many others unspoken remain unanswered, and perhaps that is the nature of apocalyptic prophecy. Heaven holds a store of answers to matters that may not yet have transpired on earth. In our ecological and environmental crisis, it is surely the truth that the heavenly Watchers address all of us in the privileged West, where so many of us are, frankly, at ease, and prospering in our homes, blessed with technologies for life and leisure beyond the dreams and fancies of the ancients. At the scale of population as it now stands on our earth, these habits are no longer sustainable or just, and change is needed. Indeed, urgent pruning. It is a commonplace in scriptural commentary to observe that ‘one stands for many’, though it may be a shock to discover that this message addressed all of us as much as for Vladamir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison or Xi Jinping.
Such are the truths and revelations that emerge when a biblical narrative has reached its climax and conclusion. The whole account of Nebuchadnezzar’s ‘comeuppance’ with Almighty God, YHWH of Daniel and Judah of Israel serves to show us that God is willing and able to bring leaders and those with the greatest power to account, and, most mercifully, not to treat them as they deserve at the first count. This king discovers that God is God of Justice and of Grace, of Judgement and of Mercy. And because Neb has told us his story in retrospect, we see other aspects of his rectified worldview. At the start, when Nebuchadnezzar summoned his trained servant Daniel, we were reminded that Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar, which is a direct reference to the god Bel, ‘my God’, says Neb, to begin with. We never hear Daniel voice his disapproval at this. Furthermore, Neb calls on his proven wise servant, saying that he knows ‘the spirit of the holy gods is in you.’ This is how most English texts give the translation, and doubtless this is appropriate to the original sense. Daniel does not get to protest about this gross heresy either. But a footnote in the ESV makes clear that an alternative rendition is also accurate, and that is the one I have given in the quotations above. With hindsight, Neb now recognises that he understands Daniel’s God better now, by personal experience, and he also understands that Daniel is a man, a fellow creature, who nevertheless has a particular relationship with the Most High God whom he has just had such profound dealings with. So it is accurate and appropriate to say that Neb now understands the meaning of the translation as I have given it: Daniel is sought for his wisdom because in him is The Spirit of the Holy God. This stems from the radical commitment Daniel shows as a man of complete spiritual integrity. In the prophecy of his own exile, Nebuchadnezzar receives the simple grace of daily dew from the sky, while Daniel remains, as Psalm 1 puts it, a Tree planted by streams of Water… whatever he does prospers.
It is surely the business of God’s own present day prophets to consider what the divine Watcher has to say to all, leaders and laity, CEOs and citizens, presidents and peasants alike. This is what coppicing does, for while some stalks grew up to grasp more sunlight, and so grew taller, overshadowing their neighbours, when the chainsaw comes, they are all cut down to the ground, and start again. When the new stems grow together in the next season, they more or less keep pace with each other, and all gain sufficient water and light. In our new ways of doing things, we will need such lessons to apply to the continued growth and prosperity of a global population of seven billions. This will require the concerted efforts of many minds, the collective exercise of reason, and also the fruit of the infilling Spirit of the Holy God. May we join together to pray in this regard.
What lessons emerge from our study of Daniel chapter four? The God of Creation finished His first work in the figurative Creation Week of Genesis 1, and then passed over significant responsibility for ongoing creation of the future in ‘working and watching’ to us, specially called ‘human becomings.’ Initially this work of naming and tending applies within the bounds of a royal garden in Eden, where creature and Creator continue in daily fellowship, encompassing reflection on the ongoing work as well as their intimate relationship. But beyond Eden- the whole world is the LORD’s and everything in it, so Daniel works through every obstacle to find the means to thrive as a co-creator of a better future for his own people and even for the people amongst whom they are exiled. Despite that the might of the Babylonians overshadows their entire lives- Daniel’s name and the identity of his God are alike trashed and squeezed into an idolatrous mould by Nebuchadnezzar- Daniel proves that Yahweh God will come to fellowship with him in this exilic wilderness. And the wild-ness can be tamed, together. This is absolutely not an equal task. But the partnership is real, and God decrees that it is crucially so: co-working is part of Creation, as a Creation Ordinance, for God determines it to be so. It remains God’s Good Purpose. Make no mistake, God made and maintains the cosmos, in every respect- the span of space and every particle filling it, and the moments in which it exists. I cannot tell you where God’s creation ends and God’s providence begins. Yet when God speaks in judgement directly to Nebuchadnezzar, this is not a complete work of God. There is a crucial partnership role for His creature, His faithful bond-friend Daniel, whose real name He knows (Daniel, which means ‘Judge of God’, or better, ‘God-is-Judge’!) Inevitably, the king seeks out Daniel, in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God, who speaks in human terms to complement what the divine Watcher speaks in divine terms, and so the judgement and ultimatum are brought into being. In time. The seed of the Word is allowed to grow. Daniel’s work in this season is done.
We are given privileged insight into what happens next. What was at first co-created between YHWH God and covenant son Daniel is then completed by God alone, in God’s own sovereign will and power. Even as the God-bestowed freedom of his humanity has been respected, divine judgement finally comes to Nebuchadnezzar and the kingship of Babylon, a living enlivening judgement which is mysteriously carried forward to completion by God. Who can say what literal events transpired, as described in this exotic narrative? The important claim is that God can, whatever we may think, and even more importantly, that God will do as God pleases with us, but God has determined to only do so with us. Neb was not living as a partner with the True God, but Daniel was- he was the co-creator who God partnered with to tend the plants and creatures God has instantiated. Thus Neb is brought, by the grace of God facilitated by the co-working of Daniel, into a greater human fulness, and the kingdom of Babylon is touched with the reality of the kingdom of heaven.
In the beginning, God created… and then we are brought to the opportunity to co-create with God. Without our partnership, there is no immediate answer to the growing ills of the world. But more of us are discovering God’s intent to bring us into intimate involvement with making a better future, a Good future, through co-working with the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. ‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ For sure, the challenges we now face are beyond any one of us, and probably beyond us collectively as well. But not if we allow that ‘us’ includes God. Jesus continued, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.’ We can draw nearer to God to enter this partnership, and trust that what God starts with us, God will certainly finish.
As I conclude this article at the start of August 2021, there are reports of larger than usual summer wildfires breaking out around the Mediterranean, in Greece, Rhodes, Italy and Sardinia, and now in Spain. The earliest reports were from Turkey, where one hundred wildfires were burning across the country by 1st August. Apparently the Turkish government is repeating rumours that some fires had been started deliberately, rather than by lightning or other natural causes. Which is rather to miss the point. The ‘house’ that we have built for ourselves turns out to be flammable, and through a mixture of sins of omission and commission, fire is now breaking out all over. The responsible way forward, as God’s people in God’s world, is not the black and white of political struggle between opposing factions orientated to earthly power and influence. It is good to ‘speak truth to power’, be that the principled stand of a striking schoolgirl on the pavement at her nation’s parliament, or an underdog politician calling out the egregious excesses of a ruling dictator. But God has taken Daniel on a deeper journey in God’s Spirit, that opens living channels of communication between earth and heaven, initiates a dialogue of prayer into the heavenlies over globally significant situations, and directs his Spirit-filled life into counsel and watchful insight at crucial seasons of change, even, at divinely appointed moments, into the most secret and senior offices of state and power. The invitation implicit in this scripture is that God intends for us to be there too.
© Stephen Thompson 2021
- Jair Bolsonaro 22 11 2018 CC BY NC 2.0 Jeso Carneiro; AustralianPMScottMorrisonPMJohnson14062021 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tim Hammond; President Xi Jinping of China Kigali, 23 July 2018 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Paul Kagame; vladimir-putin-president-of-russia-2374090 pixabay 17 11 2016 Joenomias
“The world is at a perilous point in this pandemic. We have just passed the tragic milestone of 4 million recorded #COVID19 deaths, which likely underestimates the overall toll”-@DrTedros— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) July 7, 2021
FIRE pexels-izaac-elms-8722621 LIGHTNING Guy Corbishley FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY pexels-pixabay-257703 DEAD CORAL REEF pexels-jeremy-bishop-2397651
https://www.ft.com/content/3f89c759-eb9a-4dfb-b768-d4af1ec5aa23 “We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning,” Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme manager, told attendees at an event hosted by Carbon180, a non-profit organisation that focuses on carbon removal. The tech giant was assessing how the disaster might affect how it buys offsets in future, Willmott said at the Carbon180 event. “We don’t want this to force us to pull out of investing in nature-based solutions,” she said. Instead, buyers must “get really smart about what the risks are”. The offset programmes carry a “buffer” of credits that are not sold to any companies but are available to cover any shortfalls resulting from problems with a project. The Colville project has generated more than 14m credits since 2016, about 5m of which have been used by buyers, according to data compiled by the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project.
FOREST TIMBER pexels-pok-rie-6038224 BRAZILIAN CATTLE Bernard Dupont https://flickr.com/photos/65695019@N07/28059238281 cc-by-sa-2.0 DEEP MINING pexels-francesco-ungaro-6105984 OIL REFINERY pexels-pixabay-327041
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/05/rio-tinto-blames-misunderstanding-for-destruction-of-46000-year-old-aboriginal-site https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/11/bhp-to-destroy-at-least-40-aboriginal-sites-up-to-15000-years-old-to-expand-pilbara-minehttps://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/16/rio-tinto-repeats-apology-for-blasting-46000-year-old-rock-shelter-to-expand-mine https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/wa-must-toughen-laws-after-revelation-rio-tinto-dumped-priceless-indigenous-artefacts-heritage-expert-says https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/may/24/a-year-on-from-the-juukan-gorge-destruction-aboriginal-sacred-sites-remain-unprotected
‘Four Equines of the Apocalypse’ from https://pixabay.com/ko/illustrations/%eb%ac%b5%ec%8b%9c-%eb%a7%90-%eb%9d%bc%ec%9d%b4%eb%8d%94-735994/ by Jeroným Pelikovský (?)
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse Accessed 26 07 2021]
[Here is a document I found in research, where the author deploys this biblical imagery in his commentary on the COVID crisis in the US. Note I am not endorsing his opinions. https://add.albertadoctors.org/issues/may-june-2020/fourth-horseman-apocalypse-meets-babylon-health/ ]
If ‘Daniel’ is understood to be one literal character all the way through the book, then he served five different kings in exile: Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. As we reflect on the behind the scenes role of our avowed Christian Queen Elizabeth II, Daniel shows it is possible for just one of ‘God’s servants’ to exert multigenerational influence in the corridors of power.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56007943 ‘Putin’s palace’: Builders’ story of luxury, mould and fake walls. By Anastasia Napalkova, Timur Sazonov, Anna Pushkarskaia BBC News Russian Published 12 February 2021 https://news.artnet.com/art-world/putins-palace-luxury-1939501
Putin denies that the palace at Cape Idokopas on the Black Sea is connected with him in any way. There is an FSB Air exclusion zone around the site, as referenced on the current wikipedia page. See also https://www.dw.com/en/is-russia-distorting-gps-signals-to-protect-vladimir-putin/a-56484479
PHOTO A massive tree in the “Teufelsgraben” near Bayreuth. dominic-vogl-6r5-GU0ikPc-unsplash
PHOTO 1280px-Felled_chestnut_coppice_at_Flexham_Park wikimedia commons
‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ John 14:15 Lexham English Bible. And verse 16 following.
PHOTO Firefighter in California 2021 https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jerqe/download/1280×1024
https://inews.co.uk/news/world/fires-map-turkey-rhodes-greece-italy-wildfires-where-europe-heatwave-latest-1131620 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/04/turkish-town-evacuated-as-wildfire-reaches-power-station https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/05/the-photo-that-has-come-to-define-turkeys-wildfires