The Captivity
Fang was a ferral street dog. His pack had caused a great deal of harm to the people of the city. When the people could take no more, the pack was rounded up and impounded. Since Fang was still barely more than a puppy, the judge ordered that he be placed into a rehabilitation program. He was to be trained by the warden himself. Unfortunately, the warden didn't really care about fang. He had only taken the job for the pay.
Then, one horrible day, a prison riot broke out. The guards were preparing to shoot the inmates before they burnt the pound to the ground. Fang and the warden were forced to work together to talk both sides out of killing one another.
After their ordeal, Fang and the warden became closer. Fang taught the warden about loyalty and duty while the warden taught Fang about obeying the law. Once they had reformed each other, their new attitude spread among the guards and prisoners. In a few years, Fang and his pack were released and became productive members of society.

Two weeks ago, we talked about how Israel's cycle of idolatry and repentance had degenerated into a terrible downward slide into chaos. The nothern kingdom hadn't had a single good king since Solomon. They had gone first into the worship of the golden calves, then to the baals, and finally to the worship of the caananite pantheon. They had gotten so bad that they were worse than the caananites. The southern kingdom wasn't a whole lot better. If Israel was to be saved as a nation, something drastic would have to be done.

For most people, a significant emotional event can drastically alter behavior. For a number of people, spending time in jail is sufficient to make them repent. Some require a great loss. Still others need physical pain. All too many won't respond to anything at all. So how do you get an entire race, comprising two nations, to experience a significant emotional event. Invasions had stopped working. They had to lose something. Something important.

What was important to the hebrews? Their God was no longer important to them. Withholding food hadn't worked. But the land! That was the key. The two things more important than anything to the hebrews were the land and their posterity, and given the amount of Molech worship going on, even the children weren't very important anymore. But the land, that was the secret.

God sent Assyria, first, to haul off the Northern Kingdom into exile. A few years later, he delivered Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

Now Nebuchadnezzar is an interesting case. He was a man given to a violent temperment and very used to getting his own way. He is the primary example of an absolute ruler. No king after him had as much power as Nebbuchadnezzar.

And if you don't mind, I'm going to call him Nebby. It's a lot easier to type.

When a person is sentenced to jail, it's a pretty good bet that he isn't completely evil. There's no such thing as absolute evil. Now we can't extract the good part and leave him free while the evil part stays in prison. (Hey, there's a story idea!) But even if you could, it would be a terrible idea. If your only concern is justice, it's all right, but if you want him to learn something, you need that element of good in there. You want to nurture it while driving out the evil. The same is true of Israel. That is why Nebby was allowed to haul the faithful off with the unfaithful.

Enter the faithful foursome. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, renamed to Belteshazar, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego, respectively. It is from these four men that the seed of goodness in Israel would germinate. However, it would not do so in the way one might imagine. It would travel through Nebby himself.

Now all in all, King Nebby wasn't a bad man. He was just a little confused, as Phil Vischer would say. The first thing he would have to learn was that Jehovah was real. This was accomplished when our foursome, by following the laws of their God, turned out to be more intelligent, more physically fit and more reliable than all the rest of the king's slaves. The next thing he had to understand was that God was serious. This happened when God gave Nebby a map of the future.

Of course, Nebby could not understand the dream. He only knew that it meant something significant, and this troubled him. (sound familiar?) None of his mages could interperet the dream, but Daniel was given the interperetation, and was careful to explain that it came from God.

If you look at your bulletin covers, you'll see a representation of Nebby's dream. A gigantic statue with a head of iron, arms of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay. In the dream, a boulder, not cut with human hands, smashed into the statue and detroyed it from the bottom up. The stone then grew into a mountain that filled the whole earth. We're going to pause for a moment here and look at the meaning of this dream because it relates to the overall theme of this series, the River of History.

In human history, there are seven empires which rule the known world. The first two, Egypt and Assyria, had passed, and so were not included in the dream. The head of the statue represents Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon. Gold is a precious metal, but not very strong. Babylon was a magnificent nation, but it would fall in a fairly bloodless invasion, giving way to the Meado-Persian empire. Represented by silver, a metal which is less precious but much stronger than gold, Media and Persia were not as flashy as Babylon but much stronger militarily. The thighs of bronze are the greek empire. More common, but also much stronger. The legs of iron are the Roman empire. as iron is a common metal but extremely strong, so the Romans would be short on cash but long on military power. No one would conquor the romans. They would be divided from within. The feet of iron and clay represent the last human empire, the European Union, known for many years as the "revived Roman empire". As iron and clay do not mix and become weak when this is attempted, so the EU, when it is completed, will be a mixture of disparate countries which do not share a common language, culture, religion or system of ideals, and so while a few retain the strength found in the Roman empire, the mixture will make the overall structure too weak to prevail for very long. It is when the EU is in power over the world that God will strike, bringing human government to a resounding end. The rock is not part of the statue because it is not a human government. It is the reign of God upon the Earth. This is not a very detailed map, of course, but it serves to demonstrate the authority of God, both to us, and to the king of Babylon.

The next thing Nebby had to learn was that God was the one God who had the power to punish, to protect, and to override the king. Probably inspired by his dream, King Nebby comissioned the creation of a giant statue of gold (probably just overlaid, but it hardly matters.) When his musicians played, everyone was to bow and worship the idol. Daniel must have been somewhere else at the time, but the other three members of the foursome got caught standing. They knew where the ultimate authority lay, and refused to obey the king's law if it meant opposing God. Nebby was so enraged that anyone would dare to defy him, he ordered Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah to be burned alive. The furnace was so hot, it killed those who got close enough to throw them in. It's a comforting thing to know that Jesus is with you when you're going through a trial. How precious it must have been for these three men to have Jesus standing there with them in the middle of the fire, physically protecting them from the flames. I myself am deeply jealous. When they emerged from the fire without so much as the smell of smoke, Nebuchadnezzar was forced to recognize Yaweh as the ultimate power and authority. He proclaimed Jehovah as God to all the people, both Babylonian and captive. This would go a long way toward making the Hebrews turn back to God. However, it was not the end.

Nebby still had one major flaw. He was full of himself. For there to truly be room for God in his life, the king would have to suffer a significant emotional event. He would have to lose the one thing that was precious to him- himself. After being warned about his ego, Nebby looked out at Babylon and praised himself for building it, giving God the shaft. As the words left his lips, God pronounced judgement on him. Nebby lost his mind and became an animal. Not the cute, fuzzy kind you see before you, but a mute, stupid wild creature bearing the rough likeness of Nebby's former self. Seven years he lived like that. When he came to his senses, he was quietly restored to his position as king. He was even allowed to write a very small portion of the bible.

The lessons God taught to King Nebby, explained by the prophet Daniel, percolated throughout the empire. The Hebrews, having been broken, were being rebuilt using their captor's experiences. This is not to say that Israel never again had spiritual troubles, but this would be the end of en masse idolatry among God's chosen people. And they would be Yaweh's people from now on. This would get them through some very dark times, and it would give them strength to endure hardships which no other people or nation in the world would ever be able to endure. But first, Israel's renewed faith would have to be refined. We'll learn all about this next week when we cover the story of Esther, and after that, Nehemiah.

So what have we learned? In the river of history, the captivity itself was a waterfall. What purpose do waterfalls serve in nature? They may be deadly to boaters, but to a thirsty wanderer, they mean clean water. The more violently water flows, the less harmful microbes like to live in it. They also mean oxygenated water. Very important if you're a fish. The captivity was a cleansing experience for the jews. During the time of the kings, all of the idol worship had come to the surface like dross comes to the surface of melted silver. Now it was being skimmed away and the silver would be allowed to cool, forming a metal which was far more pure and precious.

From this, we can see that God cares, even about those who are under his wrath. He could have utterly destroyed Israel. He had threatened to do so repeatedly. But He didn't. He had the northern kingdom scattered and the southern kingdom imprisoned. He did this not to exact vengance, but to purify them. This is not an act of aggression. This is tough love.

It is also interesting to note that while in other cases, God punished those He used to punish Israel, God did not do this with Nebuchadnezzar. Instead of slaying him for his arrogance, God used the same tough love on him as he did on Israel. He turned Nebby into the kind of king, the kind of person he should have been. Back in the era of the judges, we saw God's favor on Ruth, who married into Israel. In this case, God demonstrates his love of Nebuchadnezzar while allowing him to remain a gentile. From this, we see that God's love has always been available to everyone, not just the Hebrews.

Many people see God as a doddering old grandfather who spoils his children by giving them whatever they ask for. Others see Him as a violent cuss who lives to smite people. The truth is that God doesn't like to hurt anyone, but He'll do it if that's what it takes to get his children on the right path. So next time it seems like God is coming down hard on you, remember that He only chastises the ones He loves. When the experience is over, you'll find yourself better, stronger, more like God, more enlightened and more spiritually mature.

Next week: Esther.

Today's reading:
Daniel 4:28-37
28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar.
29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon,
30 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?"
31 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.
32 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."
33 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.
34 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.
35 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?"
36 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.
37 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.