The World According to God
November 21, 1999
This is one of the pivotal chapters of the Bible. Daniel 2 contains important truth about world history from God’s point of view. You won’t learn what this chapter teaches at any secular university, yet it is entirely trustworthy.
One writer calls Daniel 2 “the Prophetic Alphabet” because in it you find the ABCs of Bible prophecy. Many people are wondering if we are living in the Last Days. A recent poll reveals that 45% of Americans believe that there will someday be a Battle of Armageddon between Jesus Christ and the Antichrist. Although most people don’t expect Jesus to come in the year 2000, large numbers believe he will come in their lifetime.
This resurgence of interest in Bible prophecy is a good thing if it leads people back to the Word of God and away from useless speculation. In times like these we need to know exactly what God says about the future. And with that in mind, I can’t think of a better place to begin than Daniel 2. This chapter paints a panorama that begins 600 years before Christ, stretches across all the centuries since then, and moves into the unknown future to the moment of Christ’s return to set up his kingdom on the earth.
To make matters even more interesting, this sweeping revelation was given not to a prophet but to a pagan king in a dream. You might call Daniel 2 a Dream of Destiny because it reveals the rise and fall of four great world empires.
I. A Dream Forgotten
The story begins one night in Babylon when mighty King Nebuchadnezzar had trouble sleeping.
In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed (Daniel 2:1-2).
Evidently it was one of those nights we all have from time to time. The king took his troubles to bed with him and could not sleep. He tossed, he turned, he had strange dreams, and when he awoke he could not remember them. This should not surprise us. After all, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Very often the common man sleeps like a baby while the man at the top finds no rest. The pressures of life rise as we gain power, and all too often, leaders find they cannot sleep but instead lay awake solving problems, writing memos, firing workers, and wondering how to beat the competition.
High rank is no guarantee of peace, is it? Money, power and acclaim cannot calm the troubled soul. Though he was the mightiest man in the world, Nebuchadnezzar could not sleep.
When he awoke, he remembered his dream, or perhaps only a part of it, but he did not know what it meant. Calling his sorcerers, enchanters, magicians, and astrologers, he commanded them to tell him the dream and the interpretation. They replied that if he would tell them the dream, they would give the interpretation. In this respect they were like those 900-number psychics who pry a few details out of you and then weave an ambiguous story capable of many meanings.
But the king wasn’t buying their dodge. He ordered them to tell him his dream and then to give the meaning. They told him that was simply impossible.
“Is that your final answer?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied. “Fine. You’re all going to die.” So he ordered all his wise men put to death—a number that was at least in the hundreds, if not much higher.
When Daniel heard about the death sentence (which included him and his three friends plus all the other young men from Jerusalem), he personally asked the king for more time. Then he and his three friends prayed for guidance. God answered by revealing the dream and its meaning in a night vision. Daniel praised the God of heaven who knows all things and who had revealed the dream to his servants (vv. 20-23).
This part of the chapter reveals several important truths:
A. The inability of human power
Though Nebuchadnezzar was the mightiest man on earth, he was helpless to understand his own dream. Money and power and worldly success may gain many things, but it avails nothing in the realm of the spirit.
B. The inability of human wisdom
By this episode the enchanters are debunked once and for all. A thousand years of pagan religion could not produce what the king wanted. Historians tell us that the Babylonians wrote books about how to interpret dreams but they were utterly unable to retrieve the dream itself. In the words of Joseph Seiss, “If these men failed, it was the laying prostrate of all the wisdom, power, and art of man.” Write over their failure the verdict of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”
Thus a crisis exposes the futility of the world in the things that matter most. It reveals the true condition of the human heart apart from God. Without divine revelation human wisdom and power can never discover the way of salvation. That must “come down” from God above.
C. The hunger of the human heart
We see this hunger in the king’s desperate attempt to understand his own dream. Somehow he knew that this dream was sent by God as a revelation of things to come. His anger at the enchanters reveals his inner emptiness. Does this not correspond with the “God-shaped vacuum” inside every heart?
In many ways verses 27-28 might be taken as the theme of the whole chapter: “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” Human inability is fully met by God’s almighty power. For nothing is impossible with God.
II. A Dream Revealed
The dream itself takes only a few verses to describe:
You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth (Daniel 2:31-35).
The dream is both simple and strange. The king saw an enormous statue made of four different metals: head of gold, chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet and toes of iron mixed with clay. The statue isn’t “doing” anything. It’s not moving or speaking. Clearly, the unique feature is the different metals. What could that mean?
Suddenly a stone strikes the statue at the feet, shattering the entire image. The pieces are blown away by the wind, leaving only the stone, which becomes a mountain and then fills the earth.
Pretty weird dream. No wonder the king felt uneasy. No wonder he wanted an interpretation.
Note two facts about the metals in the statue. There is a progressive deterioration in value from top to bottom: Gold, silver, bronze, iron. By the same token, there is a progressive increase in strength. However, the statue is clearly weaker at the bottom than at the top since the iron is mixed with clay, an inherently unstable combination.
III. A Dream Explained
The key to understanding the four parts of the statue is in the last phrase of verse 38 and the following few verses. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar, “You are the head of gold.” That explains the top of the statue. But what about the other three metals?
After you, another kingdom will rise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others (Daniel 2:39-40).
This means the statue is a symbolic representation of four successive world kingdoms. Only the first one is identified: Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire. We learn from Daniel 8 that the next two are the Medo-Persian empire and the Greek empire (ruled by Alexander the Great). The fourth kingdom—the mightiest of them all—is never identified in Daniel. It is simply described as possessing the strength of iron and having the ability to crush its enemies. Historically, the legs of iron must refer to the Roman empire.
The historical outline looks like this:
Head Gold Babylon (612-539 BC)
Chest Silver Medo-Persia (539-331 BC)
Belly/Thighs Bronze Greece (331-63 BC)
Legs Iron Rome (63 BC-476 AD)
Verses 41-43 explain the feet and toes made partly of iron and partly of clay. I believe this refers to the breakup of the Roman Empire into the countries that now make up Europe and the Mediterranean basin—some strong and some weak.
It is highly significant that no world empire ever arose after the Roman Empire broke up. It is out of the old Roman Empire that what we call “Western Civilization” arose. In a sense though the Roman Empire no longer exists, its influence is still felt through all the nations that came out of the territory it once ruled. And “Western Civilization” itself (which includes the United States in a broad sense) traces its history in large part back to ancient Rome and Greece.
Again, note that when the stone hits the statue, it doesn’t hit the head, the chest, the thighs, or the legs, but strikes the feet and toes of iron mixed with clay. I believe this means that the stone (which represents Christ coming back to the earth to establish his kingdom) will smash the governments of mankind as they are allied together in the Last Days under the leadership of the person the Bible calls the Antichrist.
Daniel 2 and Daniel 7
You may ask, How did you get the Antichrist out of Daniel 2? Fair question. The answer is, I got it out of Daniel 7 (which we will discuss in more detail later in this series), which itself contains a depiction of these four great world kingdoms in the form of four animals. So in a sense I’m reading ahead in Daniel but I think it is justified since Daniel 2 gives us the introduction to these four empires and Daniel 7 gives us the rest of the story. (And for that matter, Daniel 8 and Daniel 11 give us additional details.)
The key thing to note at this point is that when Christ returns all earthly empires will be totally destroyed. Remember, in the dream not only did the stone smash the statue, it causes the pieces to be blown away like chaff in the wind. Christ’s coming will bring an end to everything built by the hand of man.
If man built it, it’s coming down in the Last Days. You can take that to the bank. Every building. Every monument. Every stadium. Every house. Every monument to man’s bloated ego.
Everything built by human hands will become dust in the wind.
Then Jesus will establish his kingdom on the earth. Note what Daniel says about that final kingdom.
1) It is not made by human hands. Here is the final rebuke to secular humanism. It is also the end of evolutionary optimism and the vain dream that the world can be saved by positive thinking. When Christ sets up his kingdom, he won’t need any help from you or me.
2) It will smash all earthly kingdoms. Today is a day of grace when God permits opposition to his program in order that sinners might have more time to consider their ways and turn to the Lord. But a day of judgment is coming when the Lord Jesus will crush all his enemies under his feet.
3) It is universal and eternal. To borrow a phrase from Charles Wesley, “Jesus shall reign, where’er the sun doth its successive journeys run. His Kingdom spread from shore to shore, and moons shall wax and wane no more.”
4) It is immutable. Daniel 2:44 plainly says the final kingdom will not be left to another people. His kingdom is the final kingdom. He will never be replaced by anyone else and no one will ever overthrow him.
Lessons For Today
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Let’s wrap up our study of Daniel 2 by considering its message for us today.
1) History is not determined by earthly rulers but by the hand of God.
Every great ruler thinks that he is calling the shots. But as we shall see in Daniel 4, the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Psalm 75:6-7 teaches us that “no one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” The powers that be are ordained by God. In some sense that we can’t fully understand God works through the free choices of his creatures to bring to the forefront the people he has chosen. As I write that sentence I am keenly aware that I don’t really know what it means but I am persuaded that it is entirely correct. The great statue of Daniel 2 teaches us that God is in control of the flow of history. Empires rise and fall in accordance with his divine purpose.
I think this helps us keep our perspective regarding the world around us. I know many Christians are rightly concerned about the 2000 elections. Who will sit in the White House? Who will choose the next Supreme Court justices? These are vital questions, and we ought to be concerned about them. But let us not forget that God works in, with, through, and sometimes in spite of our decisions (and our votes) to see that his will is done. This fact ought to help maintain a sense of spiritual balance during the next 12 months.
2) Even the most evil empire serves God’s eternal purposes.
Nothing happens by accident. In himself Nebuchadnezzar was a brilliant, volatile, cruel man who had little regard for human life. Yet God used this pagan ruler to reveal his plan for human history. God can make even the wrath of man to praise him. When we are being mistreated by evil people, it is hard (if not impossible) to see God’s hand at work. Daniel 2 reminds us that God stands in the shadows working out his plan even in the darkest moments of life.
3) The mightiest empires are but temporary. None will last forever.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It seems as if I have been living with death the last few weeks. First my friend Gary Olson died and then this week Stan Utigard went to be with the Lord. Gary’s death was a great shock, Stan’s a relief since he was in his late 70s, had suffered with cancer, and was fully ready to meet Jesus. But death whenever it comes is always a challenge to our faith.
I recall that just three Sundays ago I remarked on the sudden death of golfer Payne Stewart and how the world had heard so much about his recent commitment to Christ. Shortly before his death, he explained his faith this way: “I’m not going to be a Bible thumper. I just want everyone to know it’s Jesus.” Then I said these words:
This week I meditated on what God might be saying through the recent string of Christians who have died in tragic ways. I’m thinking about the children killed in Paducah, Pearl, Jonesboro, the massive publicity given to the killings in Littleton, and the seven people killed at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth. And now Payne Stewart. In every case these tragedies have resulted in the news media helping to spread the gospel around the world. People who would never go to church are hearing the gospel through the deaths of God’s children. What is God saying to us and to the world? I believe he is saying what Payne Stewart said: “It’s Jesus.” He’s the only answer. Apart from him there is no answer to the great problems of life.
During the second service that day Gary Olson sat near the back of the sanctuary and nodded his head as I spoke those words. Little did he know that two days later he would be in heaven. God has used his death to shake up this community and to open doors for the gospel that have been closed for years. Suddenly people are openly talking about eternal issues. Jesus has returned to the high school.
When death knocks, the world has no answer. When death comes and takes away a man in the prime of life, people without Christ don’t know what to say or what to do.
Sudden death reveals the emptiness of modern life and the aching void inside every human heart. We can cure almost everything these days but we can’t cure death. We can answer every question but the most important one: What happens when we die?
I think of what Payne Stewart said and what Gary believed: “It’s Jesus!” He’s the answer. He’s our hope. He’s the reason we can face the future with confidence.
He is the Way—without him there’s no going.
He is the Truth—without him there’s no knowing.
He is the Life—without him there’s no living.
If the events of the last few weeks have not made that plain, then I don’t know what God will have to do to get through to us.
Life is a losing game. Yesterday I pondered that thought as we laid Stan Utigard to rest. Do you what how this world rewards you? When you die, you get a hole in the ground and a piece of granite above your head. On the granite they chisel your name, date of birth, date of death, and guess how they sum up your life? You get a little “—”. That’s it. 1924-1999. And the “—” represents 75 years.
A hole in the ground and a dash. That’s it. That’s all this world gives you. But what if you’re famous? A hole in the ground and a dash. What if you live to be 90? A hole in the ground and a dash. What if you die young? A hole in the ground and a dash. What if you are a good person? A hole in the ground and a dash. What about criminals? A hole in the ground and a dash. Rich, poor, old, young, nice people, total jerks, solid citizens, rock stars, faithful missionaries, axe murderers. It’s all the same: A hole in the ground and a dash. That’s the way the world rewards you.
As I drove to the cemetery I said to my wife, Marlene, “I’m looking for a place where we don’t have to say goodbye. All I know is, wherever that place is, it’s not in this world.” Hebrews 11:10 says that Abraham was looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. The same chapter tells us that people of faith are aliens and strangers on the earth.
People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:14-16).
I think I said this last week but I’ll go ahead and say it again. Better days are coming. But they aren’t here yet. Until then, keep looking up. And don’t build your life around the things of this world.
One of my favorite spots at Moody Bible Institute is a plaque on a wall near the bookstore that says something like this: “Near this spot Dwight L. Moody knelt and asked God for land to build a Bible training school for young men and women.” Underneath is his life verse, 1 John 2:17 (KJV), “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
4) Jesus Christ is the center of history.
In just a few days we will enter a new millennium. Why do we call it the year 2000? Because it is approximately 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. All history is divided by his coming—BC & AD. History is His Story!
His first coming changed the world. His second coming will bring history to its God-ordained climax. Which leads me to say that if you know all the facts of history but don’t know Jesus, you’ve missed the very point of history itself.
When we come to the end of Daniel 2, the question that we must ask is, What is your relationship to the Rock of Salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ? In the Bible he is called the Stone that the builders rejected. God has ordained that he will become the Cornerstone of the universe. Where do you stand in relation to him? You are either on the Rock or under the Rock. He is either a Rock of stumbling and a Stone of offense to you or he is your Rock of Salvation.
Readers of these sermons know that I often urge people to run to the cross. Let me change that slightly. If you want to be saved, run to the Rock! Build your life on him and you will never be disappointed.
When he comes, will you be glad to see him? Or will you discover that he destroys all that you worked so hard to build? What a challenge this is to all of us. If we have spent our days building only for this world, we will discover that all we have done has counted for nothing. But if we have been building for eternity, when Christ comes, we can meet him with rejoicing.
How wise are the words we heard long ago: “Only one life, ‘Twill soon be past; Only what’s done for Christ will last.” This world is crumbling and will soon be gone. God help us to build for eternity. Amen.