October 31, 2004

THE MOST HIGH

The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. Daniel 4:32

When Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, they will vote on who gets to be the most powerful man in the world for the next four years. The President of the United States commands the mightiest military machine on earth. He presides over the world’s wealthiest economy. His policies and decisions affect not only Americans but people worldwide.

But let’s keep the American presidency in perspective. On June 5 of this year, a friend of mine was supervising a group of teenagers on an outing. My friend heard a news flash and passed it along to the group: “Hey kids, I just heard that Ronald Reagan died!” The teens replied, “Who?”

That shows how little some youth are learning about history, but it also shows that fame is fleeting, that power doesn’t last. Just twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan was re-elected to a second term as president, winning 49 of the 50 states. Could anyone be more famous or more powerful than Reagan? He was a sports broadcaster. He appeared in more than fifty movies. He was a TV personality. He governed California, the largest state, for eight years. He was twice elected president by two of the biggest landslides in history and governed the United States for eight years. Reagan changed American politics and economics, and he changed the world. His popularity rating when he left office was higher than any president in the history of opinion polls. But the man who dominated the news twenty years ago is dead. By the time his life ended, many young people did not know who he was. Indeed, Ronald Reagan himself no longer knew who he was. Alzheimer’s disease had destroyed his mind.

The men running for president are big news at the moment. But the loser of the election will pass out of sight and out of mind almost instantly, and even the winner will probably not be remembered in a few generations by anyone except a few scholars. This Tuesday’s election seems very important to Americans and to people in other countries who are affected by American policies, but even the most powerful man on earth does not have much power and does not last very long. The voters’ choice of a president won’t matter nearly as much as their relationship to God.

God’s Errand Boy

In Daniel 4, the Bible takes us back in history to a king who was the most powerful man on earth for not just four years but forty years. In fact, he may have been the most powerful man who ever lived. Nebuchadnezzar: his name was huge, his army was huge, his empire was huge, his ego was huge. Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonian empire.

In Nebuchadnezzar’s early years, Babylon had two main rivals for world supremacy: Assyria and Egypt. But in 612 B.C. Babylon destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and absorbed Assyrian territories into the growing Babylonian Empire. Only Egypt remained as a serious challenger. In 605 B.C. the armies of Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar’s personal command, crushed the forces of Egypt in the great battle of Carchemish.

From there it was just a matter of mopping up and taking over lesser powers. Among these was the nation of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar took over the nation and when they still wouldn’t submit, he destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtered many people, and exiled many others. Babylon stood unchallenged as the only superpower in the world, and Nebuchadnezzar stood unchallenged as absolute ruler. For the next forty years, he was the most powerful man on earth.

Nebuchadnezzar was a military genius and a mighty monarch, and that wasn’t all. He revitalized Babylon’s economy and launched amazing building projects. He surrounded the city with massive walls. He constructed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It’s no wonder, then, that Nebuchadnezzar looked out over the city and said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30).

With Nineveh, Egypt, and Judah defeated, Nebuchadnezzar gloated over Babylon’s greatness and his own role in it. He didn’t realize that long before Babylon destroyed Nineveh, back when Nineveh was still the strongest city on earth, the prophets Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah had declared that Niveveh would be destroyed as God’s punishment. Nebuchadnezzar thought Babylon’s victory over Egypt was his own military achievement. He didn’t realize that several different prophets had long ago declared God’s judgment on Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar thought that his unstoppable armies had crushed Judah and Jerusalem. He didn’t realize that Habakkuk and Jeremiah and other prophets had predicted Jerusalem’s destruction long before it happened, as God’s judgment against its wickedness. Nebuchadnezzar was proud of his power, but he was only God’s errand boy. Already years earlier God had declared his intentions through his prophets, but the boastful king knew nothing of those prophecies. He thought he had done it all himself. He ignored God Most High and fell for the lie of “I most high.”

It’s easy for a politician to think that way, and it’s easy for an entire nation to think that way. The United States stands unchallenged as the world’s only superpower, supreme in missiles, money, and influence. That kind of power easily leads to pride, with no gratitude to God and no sense of obligation to God. Many who hear this program don’t live in the United States, but you can still think you’re the greatest. I know from my years in Canada that many Canadians consider their country superior to all others. A nation like Nigeria is on the rise, with abundant natural resources and the largest population in Africa, and Nigerians may be proud of their status among the nations of Africa. It’s fine to love your nation and to thank God for blessings, but it’s quite another thing to boast and claim all the credit and ignore God.

All of us are in danger of pride and of an “I most high” attitude whenever we taste success, whether in national affairs or in personal achievements. If you succeed as a military leader, an intellectual, or an artist, if you make it big in sports or finance or business, you’re tempted to think, “I’m a self-made person. I did it all myself, and I’m entitled to do whatever I want.” But who gave you your abilities and opportunities in the first place? God did. Your success is just a small part in a much bigger plan. Your job is to trust the Lord, honor him, and please him, not to congratulate yourself on what a marvel you are.

If you insist on thinking of yourself as “I most high,” then you need to hear what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. He found out the hard way who is really the Most High. It’s one of the most fascinating and funny stories in the Bible.

Dreadful Dream

Daniel 4 records what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar in his own words:

“I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. I had a dream that made me afraid… So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. (v. 4-6)

None of them could make any sense of the dream. Finally God’s prophet Daniel was brought in. Daniel understood what the dream meant: it meant big trouble for the king. Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar,

My Lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries. The tree you saw [in your dream], which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air–you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to the distant parts of the earth.

You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, “Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live like the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.

This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that heaven rules.

Nebuchadnezzar would have to acknowledge God’s rule, but that’s hard for someone who thinks he can do whatever he pleases without answering to anyone. British statesman Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nebuchadnezzar had absolute power. “Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; those he wanted to humble, he humbled” (5:19). The king’s word was law—or so he thought. Daniel spoke of a higher law and warned the king to turn from sin and do right.

Nebuchadnezzar loved the glory of conquest, regardless of how many troops and civilians perished in his campaigns. He loved the splendor of grand building projects, regardless of how many slaves toiled miserably to make them. Daniel told the king to be kind to the crushed, to stop boasting of victories and start caring about victims, to stop gloating over his opulence and start helping the oppressed. Daniel said that if the king would heed his warning, his prosperity might continue. Otherwise, the dreadful dream would surely come true.

Heaven’s Laughter

Did Nebuchadnezzar repent of his pride and change his ways? No, he ignored God’s warning and went on with business as usual. A year went by, and nothing happened. Then suddenly his life became a nightmare.

Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. (v. 28-33)

Just imagine it! The king goes out to the palace lawn for lunch, and he starts eating the lawn. The only command he can give is “Mooooo.” If you’re one of the palace officials, what are you supposed to do? Sure, he’s been a strong military leader, a skilled administrator, and a master builder, but when your king starts acting like cattle, it’s time to put him out to pasture!

Psalm 2 says that when politicians stand against the Lord and try to break loose from the rule of Christ his Son, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (vv. 2,4). The Lord certainly had a good laugh at Nebuchadnezzar’s expense. One moment the man was a proud political genius; the next he was a lunatic. He had to trade in his royal robes for a straitjacket—the palace staff had to chain the madman so he won’t hurt anyone, and they drove him away from people so he could live like the animal he thought he was. He was not fit to live anywhere but the wild. He couldn’t make up his mind what he was. Was he a bull or a bird? Getting down on all fours and chomping grass, he was bullheaded. With hair matted like feathers and fingernails like a bird’s claws, he was a birdbrain. Nebuchadnezzar was half bull, half bird, totally crazy.

Sanity Restored

The Lord laughed at Nebuchadnezzar for a good, long while, and at last, when God finally stopped snickering, he allowed this bullheaded birdbrain to regain his sanity and his kingdom. Daniel 4 records what happened in the king’s own words:

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble. (v. 34-37)

Notice how Nebuchadnezzar regained his sanity. He says, “I raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.” It was in acknowledging the supremacy of God Most High that Nebuchadnezzar became sane again. You see, if being insane means being out of touch with reality, then Nebuchadnezzar had been insane long before he started thinking he was a bull. His real insanity was in thinking that he himself was the most high, accountable to no one. His failure to recognize the Most High God was just as crazy as thinking he was a bull or a bird. In both cases, he was completely out of touch with reality. His sanity returned only when he looked up to heaven.

That’s the only way any of us can be truly sane, truly in touch with reality: we need to look up to the Most High. We need to get rid of the crazy idea that we are in charge. We’ve seen that the most powerful man who ever lived wasn’t really all that powerful compared to God Most High. At his best Nebuchadnezzar was just God’s errand boy, fulfilling the words of the prophets. At his worst he was a joke that God laughed at. The Bible says, “‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up” (1 Peter 5:5-6).

King of Kings

Recognizing God Most High gives us a sane, humble knowledge of ourselves as individuals, and it gives us a sane, humble perspective on big elections and major world events. These things are all under God’s rule. God is not merely the God of warm feelings and private prayers. He is the Most High. Jesus is not just an inspiring teacher. He is the King of kings, the Lord of Lords, the ruler of presidents and potentates, the master of history. The Lord has demonstrated this time after time.

We’ve seen how God brought about Nebuchadnezzar’s rise to power, his fall into insanity, and his restoration. And that’s just one example. The Bible tells again and again how God raised up various rulers and nations and how brought them down. Some people find the writings of the biblical prophets boring. The prophets speak so many fierce words against cities and nations you’ve never heard of. But you want to know why you’ve never heard of those cities and nations? Because they’re gone. They fell under the judgment of God Most High.

God’s power over the nations and rulers is not limited to ancient times. Just look back over the past twenty years. When Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, hardly anybody would have predicted that so many dictators would fall from power. Hardly anyone thought that in the Philippines Marcos would fall; that in Panama Noriega would fall; that in South Africa the apartheid regime would fall; that in Poland Jaruzelski would fall; that in Bulgaria Zhivkov would fall; that in Romania Ceaucescu would fall; that in East Germany, Honecker would fall along with the Berlin wall itself; that the Soviet Union would cease to exist; that Saddam Hussein would fall. If someone twenty years ago had predicted these things, everyone would have laughed.

Now, with the advantage of hindsight, some people talk as though all of this was quite predictable, almost inevitable. They may even try to give credit for these developments to Reagan or to the pope or to some other famous leader. But whatever role humans might have played, the hand that brought down those proud leaders was the hand of the Almighty.

As the voice from heaven told Nebuchadnezzar, “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” The superpower of today may be gone by tomorrow. And I’m not just talking about communists or dictatorships. The United States could fall apart just as easily. The chief threat to a nation’s future wellbeing is not an enemy nation or terrorist organization; the chief threat to any nation is its own sin.

God has blessed the people of North America with enormous privileges. It’s tempting to think to ourselves, “Is not this the great society we have built by our mighty power and for the glory of capitalism?” But that’s an echo of the last thought Nebuchadnezzar had before he went stark raving mad. Any nation that becomes proud of its accomplishments, that misuses its privileges, that laughs at the thought of divine judgment–any nation like that is on the brink of judgment and ruin.

The sins of North America are piling up before the face of God. The poverty, the immorality, the blood of more than 40 million aborted babies—all are crying out to heaven. Our survival as a nation depends on repentance. It doesn’t depend first of all on economic strength or military power, and it doesn’t depend on who gets to run the government for the next four years. Our survival ultimately depends on the mercy and blessing of God.

More than anything else, we need to be right with God. Meanwhile, whoever you are and wherever you live, no matter who gets elected, no matter what government you have, you as an individual must choose to walk with Jesus. Trust in him as your only source of strength, your only comfort in life and in death. Humble yourself. Ask him for forgiveness. Worship him. Place your life in his hands. It is insane to reject him or ignore him.

When you trust in the Most High, you realize that the latest headlines aren’t nearly as important as the eternal Word of God. You realize that choosing who gets to be the most powerful man in the world for the next four years is not nearly as important as choosing to serve the Lord who rules the universe from everlasting to everlasting. Your ultimate destiny doesn’t rest in the hands of any president or prime minister or any other person. It rests in the hands of God Most High.

PRAYER

We praise you, Most High God, and rejoice in your mighty power and eternal glory. Work your purposes in our lives and in the lives of our leaders. Guide citizens in their voting, and guide leaders in their governing. Humble us under your mighty hand, and move us to trust and honor you as God Most High. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.