The Hammer of the Law & the Beast of Sin
As with most stories, we are continually pursuant of the happy ending. We long for idealized conclusions to our favorite tales and wish there’d be a similar euphoric ending in our own life. This is why the standard fairy tale coda remains “happily ever after.” We want that. We want all the wrongs to be made right. We crave for the day when our fractured lives will be remade. Even if you don’t believe in God, the hope and ache for a happy ending after the broken mess of life is just another evidence that man wasn’t made for himself. “Happily ever afters” are inescapable insignias of the Fall, further exposing us as desperate people crying for relief and groaning for redemption. (Rom 8:22–23)
It would seem by quickly reading the text that such a happy ending is what we get in Daniel 3. This, of course, is the prophet Daniel’s retelling of the fiery furnace, in which his Hebrew brethren (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were cast for their denial of King Nebuchadnezzar and staunch allegiance to Jehovah. Their miraculous deliverance, though, had a powerful effect on not only the kingdom as a whole but the king himself. Nebuchadnezzar ends up promoting those whom he had just condemned a few verses prior. (Dan. 3:30) Nebuchadnezzar was a boastful man, impressed with his own glory. He thought of himself as a God and even commissioned an idol be made in his likeness so that all the people could “fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” (Dan. 3:5) He was a self-aggrandizer that seemingly surrounded himself with yes-men that further fueled his already bloated hubris.
It’s not hard, then, to imagine his fury when such a man of so great self-esteem and self-importance was confronted by three pathetic Hebrew captives and their refusal to obey his decrees. And not only had they called into question his lordship with their disobedience, their continued rejection of his deity filled Nebuchadnezzar with rage. His threats didn’t work on these boys and he was forced to live up to his word and use the fiery furnace on them as a demonstration and reassertion of his dominance. But as we know, the rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by the Lord caught everyone off guard. Witnessing a miracle of this sort should’ve been the awakening Nebuchadnezzar needed. But his faith wasn’t stoked by the miracle of the furnace. God still wasn’t his God. Twice he reiterates that this wonder-working being was the “God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” (Dan. 3:28–29) — not his, but still “theirs.”
And so it is that we come to chapter 4 of Daniel’s prophecy with the unresolved matter of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion. He’s been given two pristine opportunities to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, with his troubling dream resolved in chapter 2 and the vision of the Son of God in the furnace in chapter 3. In both instances, the king is stirred to the core by what he sees, yet he still does not believe. He remains enthroned on the pedestal of his heart, entrenched as the master of his own fate. This, too, is what makes chapter 4 all the more peculiar, as it is essentially Nebuchadnezzar’s own account of the next few years of his life. This passage was written by the king himself, and was preserved and included in the canon of Scripture to “show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done.” (Dan. 4:2) We’re given this testimony to wondrously see both the devastation of the law and the deliverance of the gospel.
Nebuchadnezzar begins by relating another troubling dream he suffered and the inability to find repose from its terror. (Dan. 4:4–7) He was struck by this dream, obviously severely disturbed by the visions he had. Yet again, his magicians and enchanters could not offer any recourse or interpretation. They were stumped, leaving the king to wallow in his dread. Daniel, then, is called in (Dan. 4:8), reminiscent of the scene in chapter 2, where the king’s chief advisers admit that they’re not up to the task of deciphering his dream. Nebuchadnezzar relates his nightmare to the assimilated Hebrew (Dan. 4:9–18), telling him of the great tree he saw, whose height reached to the heavens. This tree grew tall and beautiful, abundant and majestic, an imposing sentinel to which beasts and birds found sanctuary. But as stunning as this tree was, it was not impervious to steel. An angel is summoned to “chop down the tree and lop off its branches” (Dan. 4:14), stripping it of its glory and severing any sense of majesty it once held. This pillar of the wood is cut down to its stump, left exposed and bereft of honor for “seven periods of time.” (Dan. 4:16) The noble tree now cowers, crushed and disgraced.
Upon hearing this, Daniel is similarly troubled and “dismayed,” certainly knowing the right meaning of the vision but not wanting to deliver the sour news. He interprets the dream, though, and warns Nebuchadnezzar of his impending humiliation. (Dan. 4:19–28) In a manner not unlike Nathan, Daniel essentially says, “Thou art the man.” (2 Sam. 12:7 KJV) “The tree you saw . . . it is you, O king.” (Dan. 4:20, 22) The glorious tree that appeared so beautiful and powerful and majestic was Nebuchadnezzar himself. He was the tree that would soon be cut down. He was the pillar that would soon be bankrupt of all royalty. He was that sovereign oak that would soon feel the hammer of God’s humiliating and devastating law. The king would be driven from society to live among beasts. The one who thought of himself in godlike terms would become beastlike so that he might learn that he is merely human after all.
Daniel delivers this sobering explanation to Nebuchadnezzar, with the caveat that grace is still offered to him. (Dan. 4:27) If he humbled himself, God would not need to humble him further. There was still an opportunity for the king to escape this ignominious fate, but he ignored the warnings. And for a whole year, nothing happens, everything’s normal. (Dan. 4:28–29) During this time, Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom doesn’t diminish at all. In fact, quite the opposite happens. Babylon flourishes and the kingdom thrives under his rule. Known for his elaborate building projects, Nebuchadnezzar brings Babylon to the apex of world dominance. But this ascension and expansion of power does nothing but bloat the king’s already swollen ego.
One evening, though, as Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his palace, overlooking the glorious empire he ruled, he delighted in his accomplishments. “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” he says. (Dan. 4:30) Confident in his own might, he ascribes all the glory to himself. He had accomplished this great wonder. He had made this kingdom great. It’s almost as if he said, “Look at what I’ve done. I am God.” But no sooner had the words escaped his mouth than all authority and dignity was taken away. Immediately — “while the words were still in the king’s mouth” — Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the tree, the vision of himself, came true. A voice cried out from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you.” (Dan. 4:31) He was driven out of the palace, away from all human interaction. He began eating grass like cattle and his hair “grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.” (Dan. 4:33) From royal king to wild man, Nebuchadnezzar raced out of Babylon, crushed and disgraced, naked and humiliated. The pride of his heart transformed this once noble ruler into a savage monster. And pride has been doing the same thing ever since.
You see, this is what happens when we try and usurp God’s throne. When we think our ways are better than his. When we think we can do a better job than he can. When we think we can be like God. This is what happens when pride rules the heart and wins the day. It drives us into isolation. It devolves our senses to know nothing but cruelty and selfishness. Pride is the killer of all relationships. It stunts intimacy and hinders all extensions of grace. It seeks its own glory at all expenses. It is the root of all sin. As Charles Spurgeon says, “Pride is the mother of soul ruin; self-confidence is next door to self-destruction.” (31)
This fall from grace and power and dignity is reminiscent of another fall, the Fall. Genesis 3 recounts the events of mankind’s disobedience and disgrace. It tells the story of how sin came into the world through an ignoble upward fall. Adam and Eve tried to be “like God.” (Gen. 3:4–5) They weren’t seduced by the grit and grime of some disgusting, loathsome thing, but by the promised glitz and glamour of deity. They were given the pledge of divinity but ended up with nothing but depravity. With Paradise in their hands, the gave it up for hope of being “like God.” Now they, and all mankind, are left with the emptiness of sin.
This is the essence of sin, after all. It’s a disbelief in God’s goodness and a fabrication of your own. By distrusting the fact that God is good, we start looking for other ways to find the satisfaction we crave. The crux of sin is man substituting himself for God. It’s finite man believing he can make a better God than God can. He takes upon himself the mission of finding the peace, hope, and meaning only found outside of himself. He carries the burden of salvation upon his shoulders, a mantle he was never meant to bear. Pride is an abomination to God. (Prov. 6:16–17; 16:5) It’s an attempted invasion of God’s rightful place as sovereign ruler of your life. It’s an upward rebellion. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we’re often tempted to take stock of our lives and determine that we are responsible for it. We look at the job we have, the wife we have, the family we have, the house we live in, and think, “Look at what I’ve built for myself. I make a good God.” And so it is that we continue the coups d’état of heaven with the sin of pride.
But like the king of Babylon, our humiliation is never that far off. God won’t stand idly by and let ruinous man rob him of the glory he’s due. As thieves we try to steal the honor God deserves. And in so doing, the hammer of the law is quick to strike. For mankind’s representatives, this meant exile. For the king of Babylon, this meant a wretched trip into animalistic madness. For us, the means by which God humbles us may be varied, but there’s no question that he will humble us. “Those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan. 4:37) The hope of this story, and the hope of the gospel, is seen in Nebuchadnezzar lifting his eyes heavenward and seeing his reason return to him. (Dan. 4:34–37) He learned firsthand that his kingdom isn’t forever — his life, like the rest of mankind, is temporary and fleeting. Only God’s Kingdom endures forever, “his dominion is an everlasting dominion.” (Dan. 4:34)
The beauty of this story is that Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself in the eyes of God. He knew he was nothing and that all sovereignty and majesty belonged to God. From being a persecutor of the faithful, Nebuchadnezzar becomes a witness to the faith. This is a testament to God’s “violent mercy.”
In love, he has worked to dent and deface my glory so that his glory would be my delight. He has plundered my kingdom so that his kingdom would be my joy. And he has crushed my crown under his feet so that I would quest to be a good ambassador and not crave to be a king. In this violent mercy there is hope for every person. (Tripp, 181)
The violent mercy of our Heavenly Father acts as a divine lumberjack, cutting down the pillar of pride. His perfect law destroys any sense of self-salvation and humiliates any notion of self-aggrandizement. Pride, the beast of sin, is humbled in the dirt of the law. In grace, God offers a better way. Where sin is is man substituting himself for God, salvation is God substituting himself for man. The assurance of redemption is Life given to you. Instead of spending our days eternally seeking and earning and winning and striving and working, instead of a life consumed by the treadmill of merit, the gospel affords us the rest and relief of a life spent in the shadow of the cross. God humbles us to make us his sons and daughters. He leads us to repentance by wrecking our pride and razing our personal kingdoms to the ground. And so it is that our Father devastates in order to deliver. We would never believe in the deliverance of the gospel if not for the devastation of the law. In both, God is working in grace to bring you close, to bring you home.
Charles Spurgeon, Storm Signals (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885).
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).