I once taught the book of Daniel in Vacation Bible School. I expected to learn a lot from Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the stories. But what surprised me, as I was preparing to teach, was just how much I learned from King Nebuchadnezzar.
King Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful man with a short fuse—far from the model of emotional health. In Daniel 2, he’s ready to put every one of his advisors to death just because they can’t read his mind (Daniel 2:8-9). And it seems that the only thing more powerful than Nebuchadnezzar’s temper is his pride. But God didn’t give up on Nebuchadnezzar. He sent faithful men into captivity in Babylon, and he humbled the king. You can see his amazing testimony unfold in three stages:
At first, Nebuchadnezzar is delusional (Daniel 3:4-6).
In a fantastic dream, God revealed to king Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom would not last. Another king would succeed him. Ultimately God’s forever kingdom would crush Babylon and every other human dominion (Daniel 2:44-45). But somehow that powerful message was lost on Nebuchadnezzar. He completely missed the point. Instead of reacting to God’s vision of the future with humility, he only remembered that he was the “head of gold.” So, the king set up a 90-foot-high image of himself and summoned all of his royal leaders as well as all nations and peoples of every language to come and bow down. He led the people in an idolatrous direction, and he led them there with threats: “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”
Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of God’s goodness and greatness (Daniel 3:29).
After God delivers the three friends–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego–from the fiery furnace, it seems that Nebuchadnezzar has his first major realization. The friends refused to bend or bow, and the king was enraged. So, he heated the furnace seven times hotter and threw them in. At that moment, Nebuchadnezzar witnessed God show up. He was amazed. There was a fourth man in the fire–someone like a son of the gods (Daniel 3:25).
The king inspected the men and discovered the fire hadn’t touched them. They didn’t even smell like smoke! So, he immediately issued another decree. Once again, he wrote to the people of any language or nation. Now he was leading the people toward the true God. But he was still leading with threats: Anyone who “says anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will be cut into pieces and their houses will be turned into a pile of rubble (Yikes!), for no other god can save in this way.”
Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of his sin (Daniel 4:1).
Daniel chapter 4 begins with another decree from the king. Again he writes to the nations and peoples of every language who live in the earth. The opening reminds us of the king’s two earlier attempts at directing the people’s worship. But this time the threats are gone. As commentator Ernest C. Lucas observes, “He no longer relies on the power of physical force but the power of personal testimony.” In light of what’s happened before, the king’s words are amazing: “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.”
Nebuchadnezzar was humbled. He’d stood on the pinnacle of power and the roof of his palace and he bragged about all he’d done for his own glory and fame (Daniel 4:30). Then he broke. God drove him from men. Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind. He lived in a field and ate grass like an ox until he acknowledged God’s sovereignty and his own weakness: “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” (Daniel 4:37).
Too often I lead like young Nebuchadnezzar. I’m short tempered and proud. I might lead in the right direction, but I don’t lead in the right way. And I don’t think I’m alone. Sadly, Christian leadership often looks more like the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 3:29 than the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 4:1—using what power we have in a coercive way to our own ends. May the Lord help us grow in self-awareness. May he help us see both the greatness of his salvation and the depth of our own need and sin. I thank God that he humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble.