“Be careful what you wish for!”
Perhaps that is what someone should have said to Nebuchadnezzar when he was pining to know his dream (Dan. 2:1-6). It probably would not have helped. Nebuchadnezzar was not a person to take “no” for an answer. He was convinced that his dream had an important message, and he was determined to know it. He told his counselors that unless they deliver the goods, “you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins” (Dan. 2:5). That’s how autocrats talk. Nebuchadnezzar was an autocrat who could operate without constitutional constraints.
His wish was fulfilled. God revealed the dream to Daniel, and Daniel revealed the dream and its interpretation to the king (Dan. 2:19, 30-45). The result was salutary. The Bible says that the king “fell on his face, worshiped Daniel, and commanded that a grain offering and incense be offered to him” (Dan. 2:46). He exclaimed that Daniel’s God “is God of gods and Lord of Kings and a revealer of mysteries” (Dan. 2:47). A promotion to higher office followed. The king “promoted Daniel . . . and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48).
What happens next can be called a severe case of buyer’s remorse on the part of the king. We cannot dissociate it from the dream. Nebuchadnezzar made a statue—as in the dream. But his statue is different. It is “a statue of gold” from head to toe (Dan. 3:1). It is not rocket science to understand the difference. Instead of succession of empires there will be only one: Nebuchadnezzar’s empire. Instead of transience, he seeks permanence. Instead of fleeting greatness, he aspires to greatness that will last. And—in the last analysis—instead of mortality he wants immortality.
Nebuchadnezzar’s statue is a competing representation to the message in the dream. People in our time have heard the term “alternative facts.” It is an interesting concept that has a significant following. Nebuchadnezzar is moving in that direction. From an alternative representation he seeks to win the case for an alternative reality.
It is not easy to make something into what it is not and what it cannot be, but Nebuchadnezzar tries. He creates his statue (most likely an image of him), and he invites the members of the government, the judiciary, and the legislative body (if they had one) to the dedication (Dan. 3:1-2). When the goal is to create a fictitious alternative reality, public support is essential. It must be broad; it should be unanimous. Indeed, unanimity is essential so as not to run the risk that someone will call the bluff. A free press, an independent judiciary, a nation of laws, separation of church and state: all of these would be undesirable obstacles to Nebuchadnezzar’s scheme.
When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up” (Dan. 3:3-4).
So far, so good from Nebuchadnezzar’s point of view. The choreography is impressive. Grandeur can be a handmaid to greatness even though the two are not the same. (It is perfectly possible to have grandeur without greatness). Nebuchadnezzar was good at it. The Romans were extremely good at it. The Renaissance popes were good at it. Napoleon was good at it. Hitler was good at it. Stalin was good at it. Mao was good at it. These figures are ideological cousins of Nebuchadnezzar. All have in common that they want a statue of gold from head to toe; no one is inclined to admit to finitude and transience. And all of them harness religion to make the political power ploy more successful. Daniel 3 puts it unsubtly, but we should not allow more subtle versions to obscure the shared ideological ground.
Nebuchadnezzar is swimming against the current with respect to reality, and he is in flagrant denial with respect to the message of the dream. But he is not ignorant of the means with which to create popular support for the goal of making Babylon great again. Patriotism and nationalism are often enough to achieve a high level of support for projects of this kind. Add religion to the mix, and popular resistance is likely to weaken. Now find a way to denigrate those who might oppose you. Call them unpatriotic. Say of them that they are un-Babylonian. Find a nasty term for the critical journalist, if there is one, then call him a purveyor of fake news in the failing Babylonian Times.
If these are not enough, show that you are determined to put your opponents in their place. Nebuchadnezzar is unsubtle, but his point is to silence dissidents. “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire,” says the announcer (Dan. 3:6). Coercion will do the trick in the few cases where persuasion fails.
The proceedings start. National anthem. Bands playing. Flags waving. Pledges, speeches, all of them extolling Nebuchadnezzar as God’s gift to the nation. There are not supposed to be dissidents. When three are found, we see that they are brought to the king’s attention by the court sycophants. “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” they tell him. “These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Dan. 3:12).
I cannot read this text without thinking of the many times similar scenes have been repeated. “Certain Jews.” Indeed. They were the target of lies and false testimony in the wake of the Black Death in Europe in 1348-50. They were the target of the Spanish Inquisition under Ferdinand and Isabella in the fifteenth and sixteenth century in Spain. They were Hitler’s target in the twentieth century when he bent the resources of Germany to the task of solving “the Jewish Problem.” Envy and resentment played a part in some of these dark chapters in history. There is an element of envy in this story, too.
Nebuchadnezzar is enraged at the report. Dissidents? Protesters? People who refuse to do obey the call? Citizens who do not put their hands reverently over the heart when the anthem is sung? Or, as here, three individuals who do not “worship the golden statue” (Dan. 3:14)? When Nebuchadnezzar discovers who they are, he wants to give them a second chance (Dan. 3:15). In fact, it almost seems as though he is unhappy to have their protest reported to him. Kings have a lot on their minds; they can’t remember everything or everyone. But the king has surely not forgotten the dream, given that he has constructed a statue that contradicts its message. And he is not likely to have forgotten Daniel and the three friends that made the dream known and explained its meaning.
The king is cornered, and he knows it. His prestige and authority are on the line. The three dissidents’ disrespect is devastating—and more so because their stance has an audience. For an analogy, think of Jesus in the presence of Pilate or of Martin Luther before the imperial diet in Worms in 1521. “O Nebuchadnezzar,” they say knowingly, “we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter” (Dan. 3:16). The facts speak for themselves, with or without the dream you are trying to suppress. Translations diverge at this point. The KJV lets the hypothetical “if” refer to the king’s action, not to God’s. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king” (Dan. 3:17, KJV). This is the option of unshakable faith, but it is probably a misreading of the hypothetical “if.” The option favored in most commentaries make the hypothetical “if” refer to what God is able or not able to do. “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us” (Dan. 3:17, NRSV). This may be theologically less impressive—they should not doubt God’s ability, should they—but it is not less impressive with respect to their decision. “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Dan. 3:18). Deliverance does not need to be part of the deal to make them conscientious objectors. Unconditional disobedience with respect to the king—unconditional loyalty with respect to God: this is what we have.
One must admire the author for making Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction so vivid. The text says that he “was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted” (Dan. 3:19). If he cannot bring them to heel by persuasion and threats, he will silence them with fire.
I will forgo the privilege of telling the rest of the story here—the appearance of a fourth figure in the fiery furnace.
“And After You—Another”
I have said in a previous submission that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 is diagnostic and not only predictive. It can do no harm to repeat it. Or to read again the disclosure most offensive to the king. “After you,” Daniel tells him, “shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth” (Dan. 2:39).
It is not easy to tame Nebuchadnezzar’s delusions of grandeur. Daniel tries to sweeten the deal by telling him that the kingdom that will arise after him will be inferior to his (Dan. 2:39), but it does not help much. Perhaps the decline from gold to silver to bronze and to iron is mostly a pedagogical concession to his ego. “You are the head of gold,” Daniel tells him (Dan. 2:38). He is the greatest—isn’t that enough? The others will be inferior (Dan. 2:39)—isn’t that a consolation? I am not convinced that these representations match reality in historical terms. The Greek-Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great etched itself much more deeply on civilization than Babylon or Persia, and the Roman Empire lasted much longer, till the fall of Constantinople in 1453 if we count the survival of the eastern part of the empire as a significant historical datum.
Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold represents his quest for permanence. It was replicated by many rulers after him—with the Thousand Year Reich of Adolf Hitler fresh in our memories. The Reich lasted twelve years, fifty-eight years less than the Babylonian head of gold. In the world of politics, Paul Biya in Cameroon has been prime minister and then president for a total of forty-four years. Teodoro Mbasogo has ruled Equatorial Guinea for forty years. Ali Khamenei has been the supreme leader of Iran for thirty-eight years. Denis Nguesso has ruled the Republic of Congo for thirty-five years. Hun Sen has been the prime minister of Cambodia for thirty-five years. Yoweri Museveni has been the president of Uganda for thirty-three years. Let there be no doubt: Political longevity is not proof of ability or merit. They are better seen as examples of the Nebuchadnezzar Syndrome, a psychological affliction that will not let go of power. It is unable to say “after me,” and it does not have plans for a succession. As I am writing this, there are signals in Russia that its president is planning to stay in power indefinitely, and China has already made it possible for its president to serve for life. Orderly transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy. In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected four times. Two times too many, people said after his death. Since his time, no one can be president of the United States for more than two terms, a total of eight years. Overall, the Nebuchadnezzar Syndrome is common in the politics of the world.
What of the rest of us? Is there anything for us in the transition from the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to the statue of gold in Babylon? If we were doing this live, in church or in a class, we could say it loud together three times: “After me—another.” “After me—another.” “After me—another.”
Let me say it to myself when I get up in the morning, “After me—another.” Let me not crave permanence when transience is written on every cell in my body; let me not fail to facilitate the transition to those who will take over after me.
Let us say it at our places of work and in our institutions, “After us—another.” It will remind us that we are only stewards passing through. We do not own our place of work; we do not own the institution in which we serve. Let us do a better job. And then—deliberately and explicitly—let us plan our succession. Let nothing be more the hallmark of good leadership than the leader who has plan for his or her succession. And if the leader turns out not to have it in him or her to do it, let the board do it for him or her.
Let it be said at church headquarters, “After us—another.” Let not the message of Daniel 2 be for naught. Manuals on leadership draw the line at ten years, and some advocate explicit term limits. Will the current leaders, now at the ten-year-mark and no longer young, find inspiration in Daniel 2 to say the courageous words, “After me—another”?
Let the oldest candidates for president in the United States say the same; let them say “another” even if it means that they won’t get to say “after me.” Let them not miss the message in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: there is a time to let go, and the time is sooner rather than later.
Singed by the Fiery Furnace
Before we leave these two chapters (Daniel 2 and 3), let us retire the fiery furnace from our theology. Nebuchadnezzar threatens to burn alive those who oppose him; the threat of punishment is his final incentive with which to bring about obedience and conformity. He gets angry when he does not get his way. He orders the furnace heated seven times more. That’s what he does, the angry autocrat.
Does God do the same? Does the God of these stories burn his opponents alive and, as some see it, keep them burning for all eternity?
There is much that is good in these stories; they have underused and untapped potential. One corrective at the end of this chapter (Daniel 3), long overdue, is to send the fiery furnace into permanent retirement in our theology.
Sigve Tonstad is Professor of Theology at Loma Linda University's School of Religion.
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