Text: Daniel 4:28-37
Location: Timbercrest Community, North Manchester, IN
The book of Daniel is a fascinating piece of ancient literature. It contains snapshots in the form of stories and dreams spanning the rise and fall of three empires. (Babylon, Persia, and Greece)
The fourth chapter is especially intriguing, as king Nebuchadnezzar is given a voice in the story. Much of this chapter is written in first person, from the perspective of this Babylonian ruler.
It is an episode that stands out. Mostly because it is written from Nebuchadnezzar’s perspective. But it also functions as a footnote to the first three chapters.
You may recall the exploits of Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; The king’s golden idol and the fiery furnace. Like in many iconic Sunday school Bible stories, the powerful are humbled and the faithful are vindicated. Moses and Pharoah; David and Goliath; Elijah and Ahab; Esther, Mordechai, and Haman. Just to name a few from the Old Testament.
This is also a theme that New Testament writers draw on. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings about God bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, shortly after learning that she is chosen to bear God’s son, Jesus. In some theological interpretations of Jesus, his messianic mission is precisely to humble the powerful and vindicate the faithful. And Paul writes passionately that the faithful will be saved through God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ.
Apocalyptic literature, like the book of Daniel, is often dripping with the theme of the powers of the world crumbling to reveal a reality where only the faithful stand. King Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation and subsequent utterance of God’s praises drives home this theme. It is God’s sovereignty, God’s just reign, that brings down the unjust powerful and lifts up the suffering faithful.
This is a theme that touches the deep longing of the human soul for justice, for things to be made right. And it captures the human imagination in many different expressions.
It is a story that is played out frequently in sporting events. Faithful fans root for their team, even when the odds are stacked against them. Sports writers are always on the lookout for the next big story.
The Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years is perhaps the greatest sports story of this past year. Generations of fans finally reached the promised land… vindication.
Of course, the Cleveland Indians and their fans have a different story. They came oh so close in a heart-stopping deciding game 7. Like 28 other teams, vindication is postponed until next year… maybe.
The humbling of the powerful and the vindication of the faithful is a driving theme in myth and story. There are endless examples, but the theme is fairly explicit in one modern story set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, an epic space opera featuring a powerful empire bent on galactic supremacy and a rebel alliance held together by faith in the Force. It is a fairly easy parallel to draw between this rebel alliance and the Hebrew people in exile in Babylon (as depicted in the book of Daniel). Both follow a general narrative of resisting empire and relying on faith to do so.
Empires throughout time (and space) exercise power in numerous ways. Military force is the primary tool for exerting influence and control over territory and people. Nebuchadnezzar presided over the height of the Neo Babylonian Empire and engaged in many military campaigns. He is primarily known for conquering the kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem, and forcing many into exile.
The Galactic Empire in Star Wars is another classic example of a primarily military empire. Legions of soldiers and a full arsenal of weapons of mass destruction enforce the Empire’s hold over the galaxy. But not even the Death Star, with the power to destroy worlds, is enough to deter rebellion and resistance. An empire must be able to use tactics beyond military might to maintain order in its particular sphere of influence.
Assimilation is a word that can describe one of these alternatives. It can describe the response of conquered people to adapt to the culture of the conqueror rather than risk violent conflict. Assimilation can also be used to describe the efforts of empire to adapt to the variety of cultures of those who are conquered. It is a more diplomatic way of seeking favor with the people rather than with the threat, “join us or die.”
Assimilation was a big part of Nebuchadnezzar’s agenda. He captured the best and the brightest to serve in administrative capacities. He wanted to establish a cultural and political center for his empire.
Another science fiction franchise that provides opportunity for exploring empire is Star Trek. “To seek out new life and new civilizations” is part of the starship Enterprise’s primary mission. I am often amused when those “new” cultures and civilizations resemble human ones. Empires like the Klingons and Romulans are quite similar to the empires of earth’s history. But there is one Star Trek civilization that takes the concept of assimilation to the extreme.
The Borg instantly assimilate intelligent species and technology into a collective consciousness. They even use a catch phrase: “you will be assimilated, resistance is futile.” Of course, in the many episodes that feature the Borg, Starfleet crews manage to resist, much like Daniel and his companions in Babylon.
The book of Daniel gives many accounts of resistance to assimilation. Daniel and his companions refuse to eat the food that the king provides. They also refuse to worship in the way that the king wants. The message is fairly clear: Resistance to empire, especially in matters of faith, is ultimately not futile. Empires eventually fall. God reigns eternally.
It is an ironic twist in the story that Nebuchadnezzar’s assimilation program ultimately backfires in the case of Daniel and his companions. The king sings God’s praises and recognizes God’s sovereignty.
It is unclear if this is a story of genuine conversion, or a satirical commentary on a ruler paying lip service to the Most High. The possibility of conversion is a compelling story to tell.
This is the angle taken in Nabucco, the operatic dramatization by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Temistocle Solera. Nabucco is a shortened Italian of Nebuchadnezzar.
The opera is loosely based on biblical accounts of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian exile. Liberties are taken with the text to give added dramatic flair to the theme of the powerful humbled and the faithful vindicated.
It is quite possible that Verdi and Solera had resisting empire on their minds as well, as political tensions between Italy and the Austrian Empire were high. Nabucco’s premier in 1842 was held in Milan, an Italian city under Austrian control.
Va Pensiero, also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from the opera’s third act, became an anthem of Italy’s unification movement, which formed the nation as we know it today.
Resisting empire is a powerful theme.
The words of this chorus resonate profoundly in politically charged and complicated times. The following is an English translation of the Italian text.
“Go, thought, on wings of gold; Go settle upon the slopes and the hills, Where, soft and mild, the sweet airs Of our native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan And Zion’s toppled towers… Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost! Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers, Why dost thou hang mute upon the willow? Rekindle our bosom’s memories, And speak to us of times gone by!
Oh you akin to the fate of Jerusalem, Give forth a sound of crude lamentation, Oh may the Lord inspire in you a harmony of voices Which may instill virtue to suffering.”
Perhaps in part inspired by the words of this lament, Nabucco frees the Jewish exiles and promises to worship God and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This is quite a bit different than the historical and the biblical Nebuchadnezzar.
Cyrus of Persia is the one who gets historical credit for allowing the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He is known as one of the more tolerant rulers of the ancient world.
Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel does seem to have a change of heart. He does at the very least learn some tolerance, if not experience a complete conversion (only God really knows).
The story does help to give us some perspective in our own time, as many stories do. A modern democratic republic may be a bit different than ancient empires. But there is always a tension between the powerful and the faithful.
May we learn to hold to our faith in every circumstance, and may the stories of the faithful ever inspire us.
May those in power learn tolerance, rather than lean on forceful domination and assimilation.
And may we find the humility to use our own power in ways that build up those around us, rather than tear them down.
May God bless us and Christ go with us as we walk toward a new day of hope, where the powerful are humbled and the faithful are vindicated. Amen