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The Education of a Heathen

Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise, and extol, and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and His ways judgment; and those that walk in pride He is able to abase.--DANIEL iv. 37.

We read for the first lesson to-day two chapters out of the book of Daniel. Those who love to study their Bibles, have read often, of course, not only these two chapters, but the whole book.

And I would advise all of you who wish to understand God's dealings with mankind, to study this book of Daniel, and especially at this present time.

I do not wish you to study it merely on account of those prophecies in it, which many wise and good men think foretell the dates of our Lord's first and second comings, and of the end of the world. I am not skilled, my friends, in that kind of wisdom. I cannot tell you what God will do hereafter. But I think that the book of Daniel like the other prophets, tells us what God is always doing on earth, and so gives us certain and eternal rules by which we may understand strange and terrible events, wars, distress of nations, the fall of great men, and the suffering of innocent men, when we see them happen, as we may see any day--perhaps very soon indeed.

The great lesson, I think, that this book of Daniel teaches us is, that God is not the Lord of the Jews only, or of Christians only, but of the whole earth; that the heathens are under His moral law and government, as well as we; and that, as St. Peter says, God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him. For the history of Nebuchadnezzar seems to me to be the history of God's educating a heathen and an idolater to know Him. And we must always remember, that as far as we can see, it was because Nebuchadnezzar was faithful to the light which he had, that God gave him more. Of course he had his sins; the Bible tells us what they were; just the sins which one would expect of a man brought up a heathen and an idolater; of one who was a great conqueror, and had gained many bloody battles, and learned to hold men's lives very cheap; of one who was an absolute emperor, with no law but his own will, furious at any contradiction; of a man of wonderful power of mind--confident in himself, his own power, his own cunning. But he seems not to have been a bad man, considering his advantages. The Bible never speaks harshly of him, though he carried away the Jews captive to Babylon. In all that fearful war, Nebuchadnezzar was in the right, and the Jews in the wrong; so at least Jeremiah the prophet declared. Nebuchadnezzar saved and respected Jeremiah; and Daniel seems to have regarded the great conqueror with real respect and affection. When Daniel says to him, "O king, live for ever," and tells him that he is the head of gold, and prays that his fearful dream may come true of his enemies and not of him, I cannot believe that the prophet was using mere empty phrases of court-flattery. He really felt, I doubt not, that Nebuchadnezzar was a great and good king, as kings went then, and his government a gain (as it easily might be) to the nations whom he had conquered, and that it was good that he should reign as long as possible.

And we may well believe Daniel's interest in this great king, when we consider how teachable Nebuchadnezzar showed himself under God's education of him, so proving that there was in him the honest and good heart, which, when The Word is sown in it, will bring forth fruit, thirty-fold or a hundred-fold, according to the talents which God has bestowed on each man.

This first lesson we read in the first chapter of Daniel. He dreamt a dream. He felt that it was a very wonderful one: but he forgot what it was. None of the magicians of Babylon could tell him. A young Jew, named Daniel, told him the dream and its meaning, and declared at the same time that he had found it out by no wisdom of his own, but God had revealed it to him. Nebuchadnezzar learned his lesson, and confessed Daniel's God to be a God of gods and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing that Daniel could reveal that secret; and forthwith, like a wise prince, advanced Daniel and his companions to places of the highest authority and trust.

But Nebuchadnezzar required another lesson. He had learned that the God of the Jews was wiser than all the planets and heavenly lords and gods whom the Babylonian magicians consulted; he had not learned that that same God of the Jews was the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He had learned that the God of heaven favoured him, and had helped him toward his power and glory; but he thought that for that very reason the power and glory were his own--that he had a right over the souls and consciences of his subjects, and might make them worship what he liked, and how he liked.

Three Jews, whom he had set over the affairs of Babylon, refused to worship the golden image which he had set up, and were cast into a fiery furnace, and forthwith miraculously delivered, and beheld by Nebuchadnezzar walking unhurt and loose in the midst of the furnace, and with them a fourth, whose form was like the form of the Son of God.

So Nebuchadnezzar was taught that this God of the Jews was the Lord of men's souls and consciences; that they were to obey God rather than man. So he was taught that the God of the Jews was no mere star or heavenly influence who could help men's fortunes, or bestow on them a certain fixed destiny; but a living person, the Lord and Master of the fire, and of all the powers of the earth, who could change and stop those powers at His will, to deliver those who trusted in Him and obeyed Him.

And this lesson, too, Nebuchadnezzar learned. He confessed his mistake upon the spot, just in the way in which we should have expected a great Eastern king to do, though not in the most enlightened or merciful way. He "blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent His angel, and delivered His servants who trusted in Him. Therefore I make a decree, that every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort."

But there was still one deep mistake lying in the great king's heart which required to be rooted out. He had learnt that Jehovah, the God of the Jews, was a revealer of secrets, a master of the fire, a deliverer of those who trusted in Him, a living personal Lord, wise, just, and faithful, very different from any of his star gods or idols. But he looked upon Jehovah only as the God of the Jews, as Daniel's God. He had not yet learnt that God was HIS God as well as Daniel's; that Jehovah was very near his heart and mind, and had been near him all his life; that from Jehovah came all his wisdom, his strength of mind, his success, and all which made him differ, not only from his fellow-men, but from the beast; that Jehovah, in a word, was the light and the life of the world, who fills all things and by whom all things consist, deserted by whose inward light, even for a moment, man becomes as one of the beasts which perish. In his own eyes Nebuchadnezzar was still the great self-dependent, self- sufficing conqueror, wiser and stronger than all the men around him. He thought, most probably, that on account of his wisdom, and courage, and royalty of soul, the God of heaven had become fond of him and favoured him. In short, he was swollen with pride.

God sent him again a strange dream, which made him troubled and afraid. He told it to his old counsellor Daniel; and Daniel, at the danger of his life, interpreted it for him; and a very awful meaning it had. A fearful and shameful downfall was to come upon the king; no less than the loss of his reason, and with it, of his throne. But whether this came to pass or not, depended, like all God's everlasting promises and threats, on Nebuchadnezzar's own behaviour. If he repented, and broke off his sins by righteousness, and his iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, there was good reason to hope that so his tranquillity might be lengthened.

But the lesson was too hard for the proud conqueror; he did not take the warning. He could not believe that the Most High ruled in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will. He still fancied that he, and such as he, were the lords of the world, and took from others by their own power and cunning whatsoever they would. He does not seem to have been angry, however, with Daniel for his plain speaking. Most Eastern kings like Nebuchadnezzar would have put Daniel to a cruel death on the spot as the bearer of evil news, speaking blasphemy against the king; and no one in those times and countries would have considered him wicked and cruel for so doing; but Nebuchadnezzar seems to have learnt too much already so to give way to his passion.

Yet, as I said before, he had not learned enough to take God's warning. The lesson that he was nothing, and that God is all in all, was too hard for him. And, alas! my friends, for whom of us is it not a hard lesson? And yet it is the golden lesson, the first and the last which man has to learn on earth, ay, and through all eternity: "I am nothing; God is all in all." All in us which is worth calling anything; all in us which is worth having, or worth being; all in us which is not disobedience and shortcoming, failure and mistake, ignorance and madness, filthiness and fierceness, as of the beasts which perish; all strength in us, all understanding, all prudence, all right-mindedness, all purity, all justice, all love; all in us which is worth living for, all in us which is really alive, and not mere death in life, the death of sin and the darkness of the pit--all is from God the Father of lights, and from Jesus Christ the life and the light, who lighteth every man who cometh into the world, shining for ever in the darkness of our spirits, though that darkness, alas! too often cannot comprehend, and embrace, and confess Him who is striving to awake it from the dead and give it light. Hardest of all lessons! Most blessed of all lessons! So blessed, that if we will not let God teach it us in any other way, it would be good and advantageous to us for Him to teach it us as He taught it to Nebuchadnezzar--good for us to become with him for awhile like the beasts that perish, that we might learn with him to lift up our eyes to heaven, and so have our understandings return to us, and learn to bless the Most High, and not our own wit, and cunning, and prudence; and praise and honour Him that liveth for ever, instead of praising and honouring our own pitiful paltry selves, who are in death in the midst of life, who come up and are cut down like the flower, and never continue in one stay.

"All this came upon the King Nebuchadnezzar." It seems that after he or his father had destroyed the old Babylon, the downfall of which Isaiah had prophesied, he built a great city, after the fashion of Eastern conquerors, near the ruins of the old one; and "at the end of twelve months he walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon. The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty? While the word was in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken, The kingdom is departed from thee. And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will. The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar."

What a lesson! The great conqueror of all the East now a brutal madman, hateful and disgusting to all around him--a beast feeding among the beasts: and yet a cheap price--a cheap price--to pay for this golden lesson.

Seven times past over him in his madness. What those seven times were we do not know. They may have been actual years: or they may have been, as I am inclined to think, changes in his own soul and state of mind. But, at the end of the days, the truth dawned on him. He began to see what it all meant. He saw what he was, and why he was so; and he lifted up his eyes to heaven; and from that moment his madness past. He lifted up his eyes to heaven. That is no mere figure of speech: it is an actual truth. Most madmen, if you watch them, have that down look, or rather that inward look, as if their eyes were fixed only on their own fancies. They are thinking only of themselves, poor creatures--of their own selfish and private suspicions and wrongs--of their own selfish superstitious dreams about heaven or hell--of their own selfish vanity and ambition-- sometimes of their own frantic self-conceit, or of their selfish lusts and desires--of themselves, in short. They have lost the one Divine light of reason, and conscience, and love, which binds men to each other, and are parted for a while from God and from their kind-- alone in their own darkness. So was Nebuchadnezzar.

At last he looked up, as men do when they pray; up from himself to One greater than himself; up from the earth to heaven; up from the natural things which we do see, which are temporal and born to die, to moral and spiritual things which we do not see, which are real and eternal in the heavens; up from his own lonely darkness, looking for the light and the guidance of God; for now he began to see that all the light which he had ever had, all his wisdom, and understanding, and strength of will, had come from God, however he might have misused them for his own selfish ambition; that it was because God had taken from him His light, who is the Word of God, that he had become a beast. And then his reason returned to him, and he became again a man, a rational being, made, howsoever fallen and sinful, in the likeness of God; then he blessed and praised God. It was not merely that he confessed that God was strong, and he weak; righteous, and he sinful; wise, and he foolish; but he blessed and praised God; he felt and confessed that God had done him a great benefit, and taught him a great lesson--that God had taught him what he was in himself and without God, that he might see what he was with God in its true light, and honour and obey Him from whom his reason and understanding, as well as his power and glory, came, that so it might be fulfilled which the prophet says: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the mighty man in his might, nor the rich man in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness IN THE EARTH; for in these things I delight, saith the Lord."

And so was Nebuchadnezzar's soul brought to utter, in his own way, the very same glorious song which, or something like it, is said to have been sung by the three men whom, years before, he had seen delivered from the fiery furnace, which calls on all the works of the Lord, angels and heaven, sun and stars, seas and winds, mountains and hills, fowls and cattle, priests and laymen, spirits and souls of the righteous, to bless the Lord, praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.

And so ends Nebuchadnezzar's history. We read no more of him. He had learnt the golden lesson. May God grant that we may learn it also!

But who tells the story of his madness? He himself. The whole account is in the man's own words. It seems to be some public letter or proclamation, which he either sent round his empire, or commanded to be laid up among his records; having, as it seems, set Daniel to write it down from his mouth. This one fact, I think, justifies me in all that I have said about Nebuchadnezzar's nobleness, and Daniel's affection for him. He does not try to smooth things over; to pretend that he has not been mad; to find excuses for himself; to lay any blame on any human being. He repents openly, confesses openly. Shameful as it may be to him, he tells the whole story. He confesses that he had fair warning, that all was his own fault. He justifies God utterly. My friends, we may read, thank God, many noble, and brave, and righteous speeches of kings and great men: but never have I read one so noble, so brave, so righteous as this of the great king of Babylon.

And therefore it is; because this letter of his, in the fourth chapter of the book of Daniel, is indeed full of the eternal Holy Spirit of God; therefore it is, I say, that it forms part of the Bible, part of holy scripture to this day,--a greater honour to Nebuchadnezzar than all his kingdom; for what greater honour than to have been inspired to write one chapter, yea, one sentence, of the Book of Books?

My friends, every one of you here is in God's school-house, under God's teaching, far more than Nebuchadnezzar was. You are baptised men, knowing that blessed name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which Nebuchadnezzar only saw dimly, and afar off. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is striving with your hearts, giving to them whatsoever light and life they have. You have been taught from childhood to look up to Him as your King and Deliverer; to His Father as your Father, to His Holy Spirit as your Inspirer. Take heed how you listen to His voice within your hearts. Take heed how you learn God's lessons; for God is surely educating you, and teaching you far more than He taught the king of Babylon in old time. As you learn or despise these lessons of God's, will be your happiness or your misery now and for ever. Unto the king of Babylon little was given, and of him was little required. To you and me much has been given; of you and me will much be required.


Charles Kingsley