I’m almost at the end of the Old Testament, which means that I’ve been wallowing in the prophets for a few months. And I do mean wallowing.
It’s been tough to read the many and detailed promises of destruction for faithless Israel and its arrogant neighbors. There have been some lovely moments, and some rather awful moments, but on balance, it isn’t exactly uplifting reading. Not that all Bible reading needs to be uplifting, but day after day after day of gloom and doom wears on a person.
Of course, this endeavor has brought its surprises, one of which was the portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar. We meet this King of Babylon most personally in the book of Daniel, after he had conquered all the lands near Babylon, including Judah. From Judah, he absconded with treasures of the Temple, as well as people, including Daniel. He educated Daniel and other Israelite men, as well as many men from the other countries he’d conquered. But none of that is why I want to be more like him.
It’s because Nebuchadnezzar was teachable.
When he had a troubling dream and Daniel was able to tell him what he had dreamed and then interpret it for him, Nebuchadnezzar said, “Truly, your God is the God of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret” (Dan. 2:47, NLT).
Until that time, all he might have known about this god was that he was the god of one of those tiny countries he’d just crushed. But he immediately recognized that there was something different about Daniel’s God.
Contrast this with Ramses II, who may have been grossed out and irritated by the stunts Moses’s God pulled, but he was never impressed, never figured out or learned that this God might have more power than him.
I loved that bit about me being gold
I admit that my multisyllabic friend may have taken the wrong lesson from that dream and interpretation. Daniel told him that, in the dream about a statue with a head of gold, chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, feet of clay, he was the head of gold. To his credit, he didn’t freak out upon hearing that his kingdom would end. But the next we hear, he’s built a huge golden statue of himself to which he ordered people to bow and worship. Which leads to the exciting story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to it, being ratted out, and being thrown into the furnace — and surviving. Nebuchadnezzar praises their God and orders that anyone saying anything against their God be torn limb from limb, because “There is no other god who can rescue like this!” (Dan. 3:29).
Not that I’m recommending the tearing from limb to limb part, but Nebuchadnezzar recognized God when God acted in front of him.
Contrast this with me. I don’t always manage to do that. At least not right away. There have been many times when I’ve asked for help with a specific problem and a solution arrived, sometimes in show-offy short order … and it still took me awhile to remember, “Hey, I prayed about exactly that!” And to recognize that God acted right in front of me. And to be grateful. Wendy Van Eyck of I Love Devotionals has a great post on just this, Sometimes the best miracles look like nothing.
Listening the first time around is way better
Daniel 4 is taken from a proclamation of Nebuchadnezzar himself, writing in his own words about how Daniel’s interpretation of a doozy of a dream came to be.
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a huge and life-giving tree that gets cut down, although the stump and roots remain, bound with bands of iron and bronze. He was that tree, and the dream was a warning: “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past by being merciful to the poor” (4:27). Otherwise, he will be cut off from human society and spend seven periods of time as an animal, living in the open, eating grass like a cow.
Although the king doesn’t freak out and jail or banish Daniel (I infer this because the Bible does love a good jail rescue story and we don’t have one here; also because Daniel serves future Babylonian kings), he doesn’t learn right away. One year later, while he’s standing on the roof of his palace, having a self-satisfied “everything here is mine” moment, a voice from heaven announces that the prophecy was now beginning and would not end “until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses” (4:32). Indeed, Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity left him and he lived in the wilderness until “his hair was as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails were like birds’ claws” (4:33).
Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar receives his sanity back, as well as his kingdom. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honor the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble those who are proud” (4:37). He accepts the humbling, and puts the glory where it belongs, with God.
Contrast this with the people of Israel — God’s own special treasure. It was hard to choose sample passages of God condemning his people, because there are so many.
These people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay any attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the prophets, “Shut up! We don’t want any more of your reports.” They say, “Don’t tell us the truth. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. We have heard more than enough about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’ We are tired of listening to what he has to say.”
This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly. It will be like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. You will be smashed like a piece of pottery–shattered so completely that there won’t be a piece left that is big enough to carry coals from a fireplace or a little water from the well.” (Isaiah 30:10-14)
“Your ancestors would not listen to [my call to justice and mercy]. They turned stubbornly away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the law or the messages that the Lord Almighty had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. That is why the Lord Almighty was so angry with them. Since they refused to listen when I called to them, I would not listen when they called to me.” (Zechariah 7:11-13)
I am having a humbling season. And I do not want to harden my heart or plug my ears or fail to recognize when God is acting right in front of me. I have asked God for help, and he has given it — repeatedly. Has given it even when I ask for guidance and I don’t want to listen his answer, when what Anne Lamott calls my princess self has a hissy fit, stomping her foot, pouting, and saying, “But I don’t want to.”
That never goes well for me.
But God keeps giving me chances to be obedient. So I am trying. I’m saying yes to things I wanted to say no to, and no to things I already said yes to. I’m moving forward in trust. Learning. Listening. Looking around for God’s guidance. Taking more of my cues from Nebuchadnezzar than from God’s people.