The Greatest Illusion – Meditations on Daniel

As I read through the Bible, I continually see that earthly power is an illusion. That is not to say that earthly powers are not real. Rulers wage war and kill. Authorities create laws and enforce them. Societies create culture and apply pressure. In every sphere of life, we are under and exercising varying degrees of power and authority.

Earthly power is an illusion in this sense: any power or authority that we may exercise is not our own – we don’t actually possess it. If we have it, it is only because the God of heaven has seen fit to give it to us, not to possess, but to exercise in just and righteous ways. God will judge us based on how we have exercised the power and authority that he gives us.

Therefore, recognizing that power and authority comes from God, we should be humble and use whatever power and authority we have to serve and bless others. Our sinful nature, however, will always idolize power and authority and make it a reason to boast and to be served in various ways.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is a great example of sinful pride. As the king of Babylon, he was regarded as “king of kings” (Daniel 2:37). His armies were as vast as his empire and his wealth. Nebuchadnezzar was great and mighty on the earth, yet, as he slept in his heavily guarded palace, nothing could keep him safe from the God of heaven. Night after night, Nebuchadnezzar was terrorized by a dream from God. “In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him” (Daniel 2:1).

What strikes me in this verse is how easily and effortlessly the God of heaven is able to shake earth’s mightiest king and bring him to his knees. All God had to do was place a dream in his mind as he slept, just as he did with Pharaoh (Genesis 41:8).

To us, earthly power seems so great and mighty. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Revelation 13:4). But God is not impressed and he certainly does not fear it. How could he fear what he has given to those whom he has created?

God confused the language of the people of Babel so that their self-glorifying efforts were put to shame (Genesis 11:7). God saved his people in battle by throwing the Philistines into a “great confusion” so that they fought each other instead of Israel (1 Samuel 14:20). God demonstrated what he promised in Deuteronomy 1:30, “The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes.” God subdues the mightiest kings and nations with dreams and confusion.

He can do this, not merely because He is more powerful than kings or nations, but because any power that they exercise comes from him. Daniel recognizes this as he praises God in Daniel 2:20-21, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings…”

Nebuchadnezzar’s rise to power was by God’s hand. He may have thought he was carrying out his political and militaristic campaign, but in reality, he was God’s servant, carrying out God’s purpose (Jeremiah 25:9).

The irony of God using a dream is that now Nebuchadnezzar is waking up to reality. He had been living in a dream world, believing that he possessed power and authority, but God showed him that he is in actuality frail and foolish. Nebuchadnezzar is not free, he is not autonomous, he is not the master of his fate, and he does not hold his destiny in his hands. All he really holds is an illusion.

The dream shakes him and terrorizes him so greatly, that he realizes his frailty and folly. We all have moments like this where we realize how powerless we are to control our lives. Maybe we are fired or betrayed. Maybe our children rebel or our loved ones get sick. We realize in these moments that we are not only powerless, we are unable to make sense of what is happening and why it is happening. It doesn’t take long in life to experience our absolute frailty and folly.

This may be over-simplistic, but I have found that there are two basic responses to our frailty and folly and to the reality that God is all-powerful and all-wise. The first and most common response is fury. When we realize we are not in control and we are not able to understand, our natural response is to become angry and ultimately bitter.

This is the response of Nebuchadnezzar. Finding no solutions or answers, “the king was angry and very furious.” (Daniel 2:12). Many direct their fury towards God, offended that they are not free, or disappointed that their life has not gone as planned. Yet, even in their fury, they inadvertently or reluctantly confess that God is all-powerful and all-wise!

In contrast to fury, the second basic response is faith. Instead of holding onto the illusion that we are powerful and wise, faith embraces our frailty and folly and takes ahold of and rejoices that wisdom and might belong to God.

This is Daniel’s response. Daniel acts in faith (Daniel 2:16), then he seeks mercy from God (Daniel 2:18); asking God to reveal the dream and its interpretation to him so that his life and the life of his friends may be spared. When God gives mercy to Daniel and reveals the dream, Daniel praises God, “I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might” (Daniel 2:20).

Daniel accepts his frailty and folly and trusts in God. The God of might and wisdom is also the God of grace, for he is glad to give his wisdom and might to those who trust in him.

God is teaching us this lesson every day of our lives. As our bodies age and fail us or as our plans crumble or as our minds are unable to comprehend, we realize that our strength and wisdom are insufficient, much less all-powerful and all-wise. Learning this is painful, but the initial prick of that pain gives way to joy if we trust in and worship the God of heaven.

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:3-4).

How will you respond, friend?

Click here to listen to sermons in Daniel.

* Picture: Mattia Preti – early 1670s