“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.”
In yesterday’s piece, we saw how the Davidic kingdom failed, through the disobedience of Judah, with Nebuchadnezzar laying siege to Jerusalem and destroying it in 586BC. The king, Zedekiah, was carried away into captivity in Babylon, and his sons put to death. Once again, it seemed that God’s promises had failed.
Although Judah is obviously being punished for her serial disobedience, having been warned time and time again by prophets that she faced calamity if she carried on unrepentant, one of the really odd things is that God, through the prophet Jeremiah, had told Zedekiah that rather than resisting Nebuchadnezzar, he should humbly agree to serve him, and if he did so all will be well with him and with Judah:
“To Zedekiah king of Judah I spoke in like manner: ‘Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?’” (Jeremiah 27:13)
What is God doing? He is basically setting up a pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar, as the head of a new empire, and telling his people to recognise this and obey him. If they refuse, which they do, that same king will come and destroy their land and carry the people away into captivity. Which he does.
Furthermore, once in the land of Babylon, rather than resisting the rule of the pagan king, God, again through Jeremiah tells them quite the opposite:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
The echoes of the Egyptian captivity are clear. When Jacob and his sons were forced through famine into Egypt, they were instructed to dwell peaceably and serve faithfully in the land of Goshen. They were also instructed to have lots of children. And just as God raised up a man to act as a prophet and prime minister to Pharaoh – Joseph –, in the Babylonian captivity, God raises up another man to be a prophet and prime minister to the king. His name is Daniel.
Unlike Zedekiah, who refuses to put himself under the Babylonian king, Daniel obeys. He recognises his situation, his station, and where God has placed him, and he dutifully serves. However, far from compromising his faith, Daniel openly continues the worship of the true God, refuses to eat the king’s meat, and later under the Darius the Mede, disobeys an instruction not to worship, something that costs him a night with the lions. And he also wastes no opportunity to tell King Nebuchadnezzar that he himself is just an underling, and that he owes his kingship and his dominion to the God of Israel. In chapter 4, this comes to a head when Nebuchadnezzar, under the prophetic witness of Daniel and the sovereign judgement of God, is brought to repentance and – it appears – to true faith in Yahweh.
In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar is given a vision. He calls for the wise men of Babylon not only to tell him what the dream was – since he can’t recall it – but to interpret it as well. An impossible request, but nevertheless one which comes with a death sentence attached to it if they fail. But when Daniel hears of the request, and the subsequent order to kill all the wise men of the land – including himself and his companions – he steps forward to say that he will tell the dream and interpret it. Or rather God would do this, and Daniel – as God’s prophet – would reveal all to the king.
Daniel interprets the vision of the image as a series of great kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are the first, represented by the head of gold. Although the names of the others are not revealed, their identity is made clear by subsequent history. The arms and chest of silver is the Medo-Persian empire, which swallowed up the Babylonian empire in 539BC. The belly and thighs of bronze is then the Grecian empire, which swallowed up the Persian empire in 331BC. The iron legs are then the Roman empire, which swallowed up the Grecian empire in 149BC.
I have used the words “swallowed up” for a reason. The image is a composite statue, with each empire not just superseding the one it defeats, but actually incorporating the culture of the previous one into itself. In other words, although there are different centres of power and different rulers, the whole image is to be treated essentially as one continuous empire, or what Luke refers to in his Gospel as the “times of the gentiles” (Luke 21:24).
What to make of the metallic shift in the image from gold to iron? In terms of preciousness, gold is obviously at the top, with iron at the bottom. This may be a reference to the fact that Nebuchadnezzar did acknowledge the true God and wrote to “all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth” witnessing to them of the greatness of the Most High God (Daniel 4:1-2). Darius the Mede did the same (Daniel 6:25-27). However, there is no evidence that the leaders of the Grecian and Roman empires did likewise, and so there is a progressive decline.
But there is also a progression in strength. Gold may be more precious than iron, but iron is far stronger and more abundant. And so each successive kingdom is not only stronger but also larger than its predecessor. Yet as we’ll see in tomorrow’s piece, this composite empire is smashed and superseded by one utterly different from the four that made up the image.