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The Lord of Empires

Christ, the Second Adam, will perform the task assigned to the First Adam, causing the Holy Mountain to grow and encompass the entire world.

—David Chilton, Paradise Restored (1985)

. . . But the kingdom of Christ shall break other kingdoms in pieces and shall itself stand for ever.

—Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (1712)

nebuchadnezzar dream

image credit lds.org

The Dream of a King

King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream. It was simple, but powerful. In his dream, he saw a great image, bright and terrible. It was human in form, but composed of four metals. The head was gold, the breast and arms were silver, the thighs were brass, and the legs were iron. The feet were iron and clay (ceramic).

As Nebuchadnezzar watched, a Stone was cut out of a mountain without the aid of human hands.  It struck the image on the feet, shattering the whole thing and then grinding it to powder. The wind carried away the fragments as if they were chaff, and the Stone grew to become a great mountain that filled the whole earth. (vv. 31-35).

When he awoke, Nebuchadnezzar sensed the urgency and importance of the dream. He wanted an interpretation, an accurate one. So he summoned all the magicians, astrologers and sorcerers of Babylon. He demanded an immediate interpretation. He threatened horrible punishments for failure and promised great rewards for success. He did not, however, actually tell them the dream.

The magicians were shocked and frightened. Didn’t the king know that their “magic” didn’t work that way? What he asked was impossible. “There is not a man upon the earth that can show the king’s matter!” Only the gods could do that.

Nebuchadnezzar was angry. He had no patience for charlatans, not when God Himself had drawn so near. He ordered all of Babylon’s wise men executed.

Daniel’s Interpretation

Daniel intervened. He promised an accurate interpretation of a dream he knew nothing about. Then he and his three friends turned to Yahweh in fervent prayer. God revealed the dream to Daniel in a night vision, and in the morning Daniel stood before the king and explained the course of empire for the next 500 years and beyond.

Daniel repeated the king’s dream. Then he explained the meaning. The four metals represented four kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar himself was the head of gold. After his time, an inferior kingdom would arise, and after that, another, less glorious than second. The fourth kingdom would be as strong as iron, but lacking even more in glory. The ceramic stood for a mixture, a mingling of peoples, that would weaken the iron.

The Stone was the kingdom that the God of heaven would set up “in the last days.” It would destroy and displace the other kingdoms and grow to fill the whole world. Unlike Babylon and its successors, God’s kingdom would endure forever.

Filling in the Blanks

Now we need to fill in the names of the four empires. It’s not that difficult. Daniel identifies Babylon, or more specifically Nebuchadnezzar, as the head of gold. A later prophecy in chapter 8 recognizes Babylon’s successor as “the kings of Media and Persia” (8:20), and their successor as “the king of Grecia,” that is, Alexander the Great (8:21). From secular history, we know that the Hellenistic Age inaugurated by Alexander and those who eventually divided up his kingdom was brought to an end by the Roman Empire. The Gospel writers agree, for when Rome ruled the world, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent ye:  for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus used the same words as He preached the good news of the kingdom (Matthew 4:17, 22). So Rome was the fourth empire, the one that would be succeeded by the kingdom the God of heaven would set up.

The first four empires were cast in human form: They belong to human history, though God would use each in turn to protect and preserve His people. Each empire was inferior to the one before it, not in military power or conquered territory, but in true glory — in faith towards God and service to His kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar would soon learn to submit to God and seek His honor. He would even write Scripture, a rare honor for a God-fearing Gentile. The early Persian kings also feared God and subsidized rebuilding the Temple, but those who came later lost interest in the things of God. Alexander the Great protected Jerusalem and even sacrificed at the Temple, but he never trusted in Israel’s God.  He basically sought his own glory. His successors treated the Jewish people decently enough for a while, but Antiochus Epiphanes ended that and provoked the Maccabean Revolt. Rome gave the Jews civil justice, but little more. They had no interest at all in Spiritual truth (cf. John 18:38; Acts 26:24).

Significant by its absence was any kingdom for Israel. Israel obviously wasn’t one of the last three, for these were all to be less glorious than Babylon. But it couldn’t be the fifth kingdom, either. That kingdom, the Stone cut out without human hands, came from outside humanity and human history. It was completely different from the first four in origin and nature, as well as duration. Yet it was clearly God’s kingdom. That the Stone was untouched by human hands suggested that it was an altar stone (Exodus 20:25). In other words, God’s kingdom was concerned with worship through sacrificial blood. To Daniel’s readers, that wouldn’t sound at all like the sort of kingdom Israel had been promised, unless, of course, the Jewish people had seriously misread their own prophets.

Of course, they had.

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ

When John and Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, they called for repentance. They warned against any confidence in natural descent. They told men they needed to be born of the Spirit (Matthew 3; John 3). They spoke of a kingdom that ruled in men’s hearts but that transformed their character, actions and lifestyles (Matthew 5-7). This kingdom would be founded on the blood of the Lamb, for, Jesus said, “. . . if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). Jesus, crucified and risen, would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2).  The kingdom He thus inaugurated would transform the world. Matthew Henry writes:

The gospel-church is a kingdom, which Christ is the sole and sovereign monarch of, in which he rules by his word and Spirit, to which he gives protection and law, and from which he receives homage and tribute. It is a kingdom not of this world, and yet set up in it; it is the kingdom of God among men.

And so Jesus reigns in grace and truth, subduing His enemies by either conversion or judgment (Psalm 2; 72; 110). Paul tells us that He must reign “till he hath put all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). This is the fruit of His first coming, not the consequence of His return.

This is in accord with Daniel’s prophecy, which tells us that fulfillment will be gradual. The kingdom begins as a Stone; it grows to become a mountain. Christ used the figures of a mustard seed sprouting and growing into a tree and of a small amount of leaven leavening a whole batch of dough (Matthew 13:31-32). The prophets, too, saw the historical glory of Messiah’s kingdom, not as something that arrived in a moment, but something that blossomed as Messiah poured out His Spirit and worked His judgments in the earth, as nations repented and flowed into His kingdom (Isaiah 2; Micah 4; Zechariah 14).

Conclusion

When Nebuchadnezzar heard the interpretation of his dream, he was amazed and excited. He gave Daniel great gifts and made him ruler over the province of Babylon. He also promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged Daniel’s God as a “God of gods, and a Lord of kings” (v. 47). He was beginning to understand, however vaguely, that the God of Daniel was the Lord of history and of empires.

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