“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.”
In yesterday’s piece we saw that the composite image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision represented four successive empires – Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian and Roman –, yet the fact that they are presented as one image means that although the centre of power shifts, we are to see it as one continuous empire – pagan for the most part –, which increases in strength over time. In today’s piece, we look at the destruction of this composite empire, and its replacement with one that is utterly unlike it.
Yet before we get there, we need to ask a question: why did God send his people into this pagan empire and instruct them to submit themselves to the pagan king? The answer usually given to this question is that God was punishing his people for their sins. That of course is true. Over the centuries, the children of Israel had been increasingly disobedient and rebellious, culminating with God declaring through the prophet Ezekiel that the sins of Judah were more than the sins of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:48).
Yet there is another reason too. God is using the disobedience of Judah to spread his kingdom, and to prepare for the coming of the Saviour-King and the spread of the Gospel. In captivity, the Jews are meant to be prophetic witnesses, and we see in the likes of Daniel and his three friends, and later Nehemiah, that many indeed were.
Not only this but at the end of the captivity, many actually remained living outside Judah, dispersing throughout the empire. So much so that in the days of Esther, there were Jews living throughout all 127 provinces of king Ahasuerus’ kingdom (Esther 9:30), and by the time we get to New Testament, there are not only synagogues throughout much of the Roman empire, but many gentiles have been taught by those Jews and actually came to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh (John 12:20). The upshot of this? That when the fullness of time had come, the Gospel spread throughout the whole of the Roman empire after Pentecost in rapid time.
Which brings us on to the end of the composite empire. It was struck on the feet, which were a mixture of iron and clay. I have no definite opinion on what the clay represents, but I think James Jordan is pretty convincing when he says it refers to the Jews who aligned themselves with Rome against Jesus: “We have no King but Caesar”. In favour of this view, he points out that Israelites are often referred to in the Bible as clay (Isaiah 64:8, for instance), and that the text says that the two do not stick together properly (for instance, “And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” Luke 23:12).
To those who might think it ridiculous that the tiny and seemingly insignificant province of Judah should be included in the image with mighty Rome, the answer is that the Bible is always God’s-covenant-people-centric, rather than mighty-empire-centric.
What is it that strikes the feet? Daniel tells us that it was a stone that was cut from a mountain by no human hand. There is both similarity between the composite image, and a vast difference. The composite mountain is made of metals which are dug out of the earth. Likewise, the stone comes from the earth, being cut out of a mountain. And so the new kingdom is one which springs out of the earth and which goes on to cover the earth.
Yet there is also a huge difference. Although it springs from the earth, it is not made by human hands, but of divine origin. The stone that was “cut from a mountain by no human hand” seems to connect back to the law, which was given on Sinai, and originally inscribed on stones that were cut out of the mountain by God: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’” (Exodus 24:12). Back then, those original stones, cut without human hands, but rather by God, were smashed by Moses when he saw that the Israelites had made themselves a golden image. The image was subsequently ground to powder. Although the stones were then remade, with Moses this time instructed to cut the stone from the mountain himself, nevertheless, the law still stood and not a jot or tittle of it would pass.
In the vision given to Nebuchadnezzar, another metallic image is smashed and ground to powder. Like the image at the foot of Sinai, it too is judged by the stone cut from a mountain without hands – the Law of righteousness and justice. In its place, a new kingdom, one of righteousness and justice arises. It is not a continuation of the composite kingdom, but rather a repudiation of them. Unlike them, it will grow to cover the whole earth. Unlike them it will last forever. Unlike them, it is not the kingdom of earth. It is the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.