These Three Remain.. Hope

I have to start this by saying I don’t feel particularly hopeful right now as I look around and hear all that is happening. There are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, even depressed. Riots, plague, disasters, anger, death, and evil surround us at nearly every turn. I can say that my Faith sustains me, and it does, but I still feel beaten down and exhausted by all the chaos and hurt and anger and misunderstanding.

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In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul talks about things that are temporary– possessions, knowledge, gifts, prophecies– and three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love. Last time, I wrote about Faith. But Hope is a more difficult and more nebulous concept. The writer of Hebrews defines Faith for us– “the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But there is no substance or evidence for Hope. Hope is not an anchor; it is not a realization. It is a wish, a dream; at best, it is an expectation. Yet Paul says it “remains,” even when other things pass away.

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How is this possible– that a Christian should Hope after all else has been lost, abandoned, or destroyed? Isn’t Faith more solid, more important, than Hope? Aren’t knowledge, obedience, and perseverance more important and more tangible? Isn’t hope wispy, fleeting, and conditional? Lately, it sure seems so. I say that I hope we all get through these tough times; that we will come through all this stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more just, more prepared, etc., but what am I really hanging on to? Where is my Hope?

My Hope DOES have substance and a sure foundation–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I may have wispy dreams and half-formed wishes of what I would like to see in my life or in the world around me tomorrow, or next year. I may have dreams and visions of what Peace and Justice and Health look like– and I may never see them materialize in my lifetime. I may have to adjust my vision within the temporary world of possessions, and gifts, prophecies and human systems of government and society. But I can remember the life of Christ; in spite of His circumstances, He remained true to His purpose. In His death, He remained compassionate, humble, and loving toward those who hated Him. In His resurrection, He brought eternal Hope to all who choose to trust Him. I can Hope because He brought Hope. I can be inspired by the dreams and hopes of other Christians throughout the years, even if their dreams have not been realized. I can be inspired by the prophecies of others, even if they don’t match my visions. And I CAN see beyond the darkness of the moment (or the year) to see that people (even I) can change; situations can change; circumstances can change; rhetoric and tone can change for the better. Painful valleys and unexpected upheaval may not be what I would want, but sometimes, it serves to clear out the “sinking sand” where dream houses would otherwise be built.

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And Hope is necessary to Prayer– Faith tells us that God hears, even when we can’t see Him or hear His answer. Hope tells us that God cares. He is not aloof in hearing our prayers. He doesn’t answer us out of some worn sense of duty or obligation. He doesn’t just give us His law or even His forgiveness– He gives us restoration and Hope and abundant life! Hope for change in our own lives; hope for progress and healing in our world; hope for victory over sin and evil. Most of all, hope for eternity. God is just and merciful, but He is also gracious and loving beyond all measure. I can cry out when all other hope is gone– His Hope Remains! His Hope is a Solid Rock. His Hope comes with an eternal guarantee.

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The Hand of God

We’ve been going through the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar played a prominent role in chapters one through four, but he suddenly disappears from the narrative, and a distant successor, Belshazzar, comes to prominence for the space of a single chapter. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+5&version=ESV

The Book of Daniel is a series of stories, disjointed, and filled with signs and wonders. Many scholars and critics over the years have suggested that these stories cannot be true; that they are legends created centuries later and added as Jewish propaganda. The story of Belshazzar in chapter five was a perfect example, they claimed. There was no written evidence for the kingship of Belshazzar. The last king of Babylon was a man named Nabonidus, so how is it that this story assumes that Belshazzar was the king giving a feast on the very night Darius would invade and conquer the empire? Recent discoveries, however, show that Daniel is more accurate in detail than the ancient historians, who were writing about the “big picture.” (For more explanation, visit this site: https://creation.com/archaeology-belshazzar). Belshazzar would have been the ruler/crown prince/regent of Babylon on that night. Not only that, he would have been young, spoiled, and eager to establish his own authority and prominence. This fits with the actions and reactions of these two men–the fact that Belshazzar would casually raid the storehouses for golden goblets that had been untouched in the days of his more powerful predecessor; that he could only offer Daniel the position of “third highest ruler”; the fact that, while Daniel is not contemptuous, he shows less deference to this “king” than he did to Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, he refers more to the glories of Nebuchadnezzar and the judgments of God than he does to the current state of Babylon or ANY of its other rulers.

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There is a huge time gap between the earlier chapters and this one. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was long; his son and grandson reigned after him (though both their reigns were much shorter). Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, reigned for over 15 years before losing the empire. The young Daniel of chapters one and two is now likely to be in his 70s or 80s! He has served faithfully under at least five rulers, but he is still considered an “exile” (see verse 13 of chap. 5), a foreigner, and a captive. In Daniel’s life of faith, service, and prayer, he has seen the “hand of God” working in his life and in the lives of those around him. Daniel has learned to trust in God’s provision, to submit to God’s direction, and to wait expectantly for God’s wisdom.

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Belshazzar is terrified of the “Hand of God” as it writes on the wall of his father’s royal palace. He is the son of privilege and mysticism–the Babylonians were known for using signs and wonders to plan campaigns, seek power and wealth, and predict success. Their gods were capricious and full of wrath. But Belshazzar had never been visited by the God of the Universe. He had never taken the time to “number his days”, or consider his ultimate destiny.

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Compare the judgment of God against Belshazzar (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres–God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting; your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians) with this psalm of Moses (Psalm 90)https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+90&version=NIV. Two take-away points:

  • Belshazzar’s days were numbered and he was found wanting. Daniel’s days were numbered, too. Daniel waited years, living as an exile and second class citizen, serving kings and powers who ignored, or even scorned his God. His life was prolonged, yet he continued to serve with no freedom or personal reward in sight. And his trials and oppression are not over yet! (There is a den of lions in Daniel’s future!) But God doesn’t look at our lives in terms of power, success, wealth, health, position, or other outward factor. God sees the small acts of service, the daily discipline of worship, the humble trust and dependence we place in Him. Daniel’s story has not been about accomplishment. Daniel never built anything; he never accumulated anything; he never preached mighty sermons, or wrote beautiful songs of worship. And even though God used him to solve riddles, interpret dreams, and prophesy, Daniel had nothing to put on a scale. Yet he was not found wanting, as Belshazzar was.
  • Daniel was not afraid of the Hand of God because he had learned to number his own days (See Psalm 90: 12-17), and he was able to gain wisdom, satisfaction, peace, and hope in knowing that the Lord God would establish even the smallest works of Daniel’s hands and make him glad for as many days as he had been afflicted. May we pray for, praise, and pursue the Hand of God in our lives today.
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From Fiery Furnace to “The Dew of Heaven”

God is all-powerful. He is sovereign over all the universe for all eternity. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Yet, in His majesty, He is merciful; unwilling that any should perish.

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In the book if Daniel, we encountered the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to a giant statue commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar. The mighty king of Babylon was an absolute ruler, and failure to obey one of his decrees could result in death. That it did not end in death for the three young men baffled and impressed their king. But it didn’t change him.

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The very next story in the book of Daniel is one that is less familiar– it is another curious interjection into a book of (seemingly) disjointed stories. In chapter three, Daniel narrates his friends’ story, in which he is curiously absent. In chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar is the narrator, Daniel is one of the characters, and his three friends are never mentioned. (Because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, he uses Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.)

The chapter begins almost as a mirror image of chapter 2, except the writing style is very different–more formalized, and written more as a proclamation. (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%204) Nebuchadnezzar is being troubled by a recurring dream. Once again, he calls in all the astrologers, sorcerers, etc., to interpret the dream. However (whether because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, or because he has learned a little self-control), this time there are no threats involved, and when the lesser wise men fail, Nebuchadnezzar himself sends for Daniel, confident that Daniel can provide an answer. Nebuchadnezzar actually flatters Daniel as he asks for an interpretation, but Daniel is still cautious. This dream is more disturbing than the first, because it is more personal and immediate. God is warning Nebuchadnezzar directly that his pride has gotten out of control and God is about to step in a pronounce judgment on it. God will teach Nebuchadnezzar about humility by causing him to lose everything, including his mind!

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Daniel carefully gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation and the warning from God, and adds his own wish that his king might escape punishment by humbling himself before the Almighty God. But in a year’s time, Nebuchadnezzar forgets. In the very act of praising himself, Nebuchadnezzar hears the voice of God, who drives him away from his kingdom, from society, and from rationality. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar lives as a beast, eating grass, roaming outdoors, and covered with “the dew of heaven”. At the end of that time, he comes to his senses and is restored to his mighty kingdom a wiser, humbler, and grateful monarch.

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What a contrast between these two rulers! Nebuchadnezzar demanded total loyalty and obedience. When it wasn’t given, the reaction was instant fury and a sentence of death. God is the One who ultimately deserves our total loyalty and obedience. When it isn’t given, the sentence is death (Romans 6:23a). But God, who has the complete authority to pronounce the death sentence, is more interested in deliverance than in destruction. Make no mistake, God will punish Sin; God will destroy those who persist in evil and rebel against Him. But God’s heart is reconciliation and redemption. God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar; He didn’t strike out at him in fury and cast him immediately into the fiery furnace of Hell–though He had the power and authority to do so. God had given Nebuchadnezzar his life, his power and his kingdom. He took it away. And then he restored it. God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to reason– and he restored that too. And while Nebuchadnezzar was living as a brute beast– in the middle of his punishment– he was covered with “the dew of heaven.”

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Curiously, this phrase, “the dew of heaven” is used all the way back in the book of Genesis. It is used by Isaac as he blesses his son Jacob (disguised as Esau). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+27%3A+27-29&version=ESV Even as Jacob was practicing deception that would have dire consequences, God’s blessing was being poured out on him by his father. And centuries later, in his midst of punishment, Nebuchadnezzar was blessed by God, who provided for his needs, and ended up giving back all that had been lost because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.

God punishes– He punishes those He loves! He teaches, humbles, and disciplines. But He is not in the business of destruction. He was with Nebuchadnezzar throughout his period of madness and humiliation, ready to restore (and even increase) all that he had lost.

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May we honor this God of grace and mercy– his mercies are greater than his wrath, and his grace is greater than all our sin! Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to praise, worship, honor, and obey the “Most High God.” May we do the same.

Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure (part 2)

Last time, we looked at the story from Daniel Chapter 2 (see text here:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=ESV ) Daniel, his friends, and the entire court of magicians, sorcerers, wise men, and counselors of Babylon are under threat of death if they cannot tell the mighty Nebudchadnezzar the meaning of his dreams– dreams he refuses to disclose to them! The power and wrath of the king of Babylon is imposing. The threat is real and very dire.

But today, I want to look at the larger picture, just as Daniel was able to do so long ago.

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Nebuchadnezzar looms large across all his empire– he is the supreme ruler, a despot, and a madman. But he is not God. Even as he strikes fear in the hearts of his counselors, he causes Daniel and his friends to seek help from a higher power. Already, the other learned men, sorcerers and astrologers have come to Daniel for help. Even though he is young, and a foreign captive, there is something about his character that has earned the respect of others in authority. Daniel could easily have become arrogant and proud. Or he could have folded under the pressure, knowing that he had no answers to give the king.

Instead, he did two key things– first, he asked for help from his friends. He asked for their support in prayer. Never discount the power of prayer– especially the prayers of others on your behalf. So often, we worry and wallow in our problems, waiting for God to work, praying in isolation and silent anguish. God wants us to seek His face; He wants to hear our prayers. But He also wants us to seek help and prayer support from those who are close to us. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked for support from His three closest friends. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+14%3A32-42&version=ESV) He went off alone to pray and pour out His deepest anguish, but He took His closest friends to “keep watch”. Daniel would face Nebuchadnezzar one-on-one, but he would not be “alone.” Not only would he know that God was with him, he would know that his caring friends were “keeping watch,” and providing faithful support. We should do the same.

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In weight training, there is a practice called “spotting”, in which another person stands ready to help a weight lifter as s/he attempts to lift a heavier weight than normal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotting_(weight_training)) Daniel is preparing to shoulder a big weight. He expects to face Nebuchadnezzar, and, while he doesn’t know (yet) the content of the king’s dreams, he knows that they are disturbing and mysterious. Whatever he says to the king, however tactfully he says it, his life (and the lives of many others) may be at stake. Spotters “keep watch”, and offer to step in and help if the weight is too great to bear. In this instance, Daniel’s friends were there, ready to help. They were not required to step up and face Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. But their time will come soon enough! As Christians, we need to be prepared to be a Daniel– but we also need to be prepared to be a “spotter” for our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to “keep watch,” ready to step in with prayer, action, and faithful support.

Secondly, Daniel waited with hope and expectation. The Bible does not tell us what Daniel prayed before God sent His answer, but it does record Daniel’s response to God’s vision. And his prayer is not one of selfish relief– “Thank you, God for giving me what I need to save me from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar…”–instead, Daniel rejoices in God Almighty; the one who causes kings to rise and fall, the one who gives wisdom and who knows the future. It is this God Daniel has trusted, and this God Daniel will honor when he goes in to meet with Nebuchadnezzar.

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Today, may we follow the good example of Daniel. Let’s share our concerns with others, and gladly offer to pray for each other, pray with each other, and “keep watch” for each other. And let us expect great things from our great and faithful God– even if we are living –and praying–under pressure!

Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )

First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.

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Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.

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We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.

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The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.

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No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.

The Road to Hell…

I started down the boulevard,
Freshly paved, smooth and gleaming,
Its lanes clearly marked and a gentle rise
Toward a glorious horizon.

New construction sites caught my eye;
Here was progress– here was the future!
I drove on, excited in my new course,
Dreaming of destiny and fulfillment.

view of city street
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Gradually, the scenery changed.
Construction gave way to abandoned projects:
Half-finished high-rises, silent storefronts,
Driveways leading nowhere, weedy parking lots.

Now the road, so smooth at the beginning,
Twisted and turned without purpose.
Gravel and broken pavement lined with
Abandoned cars and broken glass.

white and black house painting
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Frightening thoughts intruded–
I had seen no open stores, no gas stations,
No houses, or other cars for miles.  I was alone.
There were no crossroads; no places to turn around.

The road that had begun with so much promise
Was now a rutted path going nowhere.

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I woke up in a cold sweat– it had been a dream.
More– it had been a warning.

I had “good intentions” for my journey.
But the easy road, the appearance of future success
Had lured me away from the path marked with suffering
And paved with ancient truths.

I had packed no maps, ignored the GPS, and trusted to “instinct”
To lead me, not to a fixed destination, but to “discovery.”

I drifted back to sleep, and dreamed that I was back at the beginning.
Roads branched out all around me.
The gleaming new boulevard no longer held any appeal.
But now I studied the other roads.

aerial photo of buildings and roads
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There were so many; roads leading to “enlightenment”;
Roads offering “fame” and “immortality”;
Narrow paths promising “mysticism”;
Superhighways advertising “happiness.”

Off to the right, there was a tiny filling station–
The old fashioned kind, with a service man.
He offered to fill my tank, but then he said,
“They all end up in the same place, you know.”

abandoned business classic dirty
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I looked up into his eyes–eyes that held in them
The wisdom of the ages and boundless love.
“Enter in at the narrow gate…”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…”
“This is the way, walk ye in it…”

He turned and walked through the back door
And I followed him down a sunlit path,
Up a small rise, and into glory.

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