Daniel 2: 7: Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come.
Did you hear what just happened in today’s passage? Did you hear the heavenly trumpets sound the call to prayer? A new name for God was uttered, first by Daniel, and then repeated by King Nebuchadnezzar. Whenever that happens in the unfolding history of salvation and God’s self-disclosure, there is an invitation to pause, to ponder, and to meditate. Even to pray, using that name to call upon God. That’s what I sometimes do in my prayers: simply name God and call on God using the names by which he has revealed himself to us. This morning I’ll start by sharing some meditations on the name for God that is revealed for the first time in this chapter of Daniel, God as, “The Revealer of Mysteries.” Then I hope to tell us what difference that makes, how it affects us and what we can do about it.
Of course, this is not the first time in the Bible’s unfolding that it occurred to anyone that God was all-knowing and more intimate with all our thoughts and knowledge than are we. Nor is it the first time we read that God had access to the minds of kings and gave them dreams, and then revealed their meanings. There was Joseph, after all, who insightfully interpreted the God-given dream of the Pharoah. And there was David, who prayed in Psalm 139, “ You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O LORD. “ This would prompt St. Augustine to say that “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.”
But I find it quite touching and important that this name for God, “The Revealer of Mysteries,” was given to the God of Joseph, David and Daniel when Daniel and God’s people were in Babylon, away from their temple, and on the official turf of Babylon’s gods and goddesses. Babylon’s official imperial state religion was all about mysteries and secrets. That’s what the king’s official priests and priestesses were discerning and hatching and proclaiming atop their imposing pyramids, by charting the stars and the planets, or watching how smoke disappeared into the air, or when they cut up a sacrificial animal and looked at its liver. As crazy as that sounds to us, it must have seemed convincing to many people at the time, because those were pretty big and imposing pyramids they were working on, after all, and, as an empire, Babylon was Number One in the world. These arts were so secretive and so mystifying that even King Nebuchadnezzar appears to have been wondering, “Are you guys pulling one over on me? If you’re so clever, then don’t just tell me what my dream means, tell me what it was.”
So there in Babylon, in the heart of the occult and the magical arts, a game of Twenty Questions begins, and Babylon’s experts on all things hidden and mysterious strike out. Actually, its a game of Two Questions: Guess my dream; and Tell me what it means. Babylon’s high priests had this excuse for their failure: “only the gods can reveal that, and they don’t dwell with us mortals,” they said. Of course. That’s why they built those twenty-story pyramids, to get closer to the heavens, where it might be easier to catch the gods’ attention and be heard.
With that admission–”the [Babylonian] gods don’t dwell with us mortals–” we see a major, major difference between Marduk, Ishtar and other Babylonian deities, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. According to their stories and scriptures, Marduk and Ishtar would never have walked with people in the garden during the cool of the day, like God did with Adam and Eve in Eden. Never would Babylonian religion have them dwelling with the rank and file Babylonians like God did with all the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, nor in a portable, mobile Tabernacle in the desert, nor over the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments and the Mercy Seat in the Temple. And certainly never would they have done so as God did through Jesus, the Word become flesh, who dwelt among us. To the Babylonian gods, ordinary mortals were too many, too noisy, too dirty, too unimportant, too cheap and expendable to be anything other than their soldiers or their slaves. When push came to shove, when it became a matter of personal survival, even Marduk’s own priests despaired about hearing from their gods on demand.
In contrast, Daniel’s God is not only all-knowing, the Revealer of Mysteries, he’s accessible, even to captives, prisoners and exiles like Daniel, or especially to captives, prisoners and exiles like Daniel.
Personally, I confess to having mixed feelings about God being “The Revealer of Mysteries.” If God can reveal all mysteries, it stands to reason that God also knows all mysteries. That aspect of God’s nature is both comforting and scary. Scary because it means that no private life is really completely private. Not to God, at least. Like those angry, vengeful thoughts that cross my mind while driving down the expressway, when I signal to make a lane switch, and the truck behind me peels out, without signaling, to race me for the space. I might be glad I didn’t say the irreverent and not-so-non-violent words that crossed my mind. But they were no secret to God. Or the angry and doubting thoughts that went through my mind as a friend recently died and left three young children and a husband and parents behind. Those thoughts were no mysteries to God, either.
And yet the road did not open up before me and swallow the car. Nor did lightning strike me, for that matter. Not that I have noticed, at least. God must have recognized those passing, private thoughts as temptations, rather than as my basic life orientation. Indeed, facing and naming and confessing those those doubts, angers and thoughts is when God seemed most present and re-assuring.
The spiritual life is really about making the most of the fact that our private selves are not really so private, and learning that there, in our innermost selves, even in the realm of our most troublesome secrets, is precisely where we meet someone else who knows us better than we know ourselves, and therefore who cannot be fooled. That’s the scary part.
But there is also where we meet someone who loves us better than we love ourselves, and therefore, there’s nothing we can do to drive him away or make him love us less. Nothing is hidden to him, but nothing is shocking or will send him away, either. That’s the comforting part.
Its like when someone goes to a Twelve Step meeting for the first time, and has to say aloud, for the first time, “Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m an alcoholic.” But then, no one says, “Get outta here, ya bum!” Everyone says, “Hi Mike,” and in a most welcoming manner.” On top of that, other people talk about their addiction, and soon no one feels so alone, nor so hopeless and helpless any more. Those private feelings of isolation, secretiveness and loneliness are what give evil and addictions half their power. But with God, isolation and secretiveness are not only impossible, they’re pointless.
So for my first recommendation from today’s Bible story, I’d say, “Meditate upon this name of God—Revealer of Mysteries—and call upon God as the Revealer of Mysteries to guide you and to make himself known to you. Learn to live with God as the non-stop inner friend who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Like Brother Lawrence, the chief cook and bottle washer in a French monastery during the 15th Century. In the devotional classic, Practicing the Presence of God, his biographer recounts how Lawrence kept up a constant life of prayer with God throughout the day, communing with God even while he washed dishes, stirred soups and cleaned up the tables after the monks. I guarantee that this growing friendship with the God within us will yield lasting fruits of peace, love and a sense of being loved, whatever’s happening outside ourselves.
But I can’t guarantee that we’ll thereby come to know the kinds of secrets that Daniel revealed to the king. That was a life and death matter that figured into the survival of God’s people. But this morning we’re talking about Christian discipleship, and not mental parlor tricks. The most important part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was such an easy thing to interpret, that Daniel would not have needed any special revelation to interpret it. Not like the first three parts, about the statues, and the metals, the gold, bronze and iron. In Daniel’s time and setting, the golden head applied to the empire of ancient Babylon, the silver arms and chest to the Medes and Persians who replaced Babylon, the bronze belly and thighs maybe to the empire of Alexander the Great, and then the iron and clay feet, maybe, maybe to the Roman Empire. But I’m getting in over my head.
Occasionally I come home to find literature on my doorstep from the Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other group with full color comic book type images from Daniel or John’s Revelation, with notes and explanations telling me who this stature or that beast represents, and an invitation to a seminar to learn more about what they tell us about the future. The pictures are pretty cool: a seven-headed leopard or a dragon with horns over its head, all biblical images. But every few years the explanations of these images change. One decade they are said to refer to the Soviet Union or the United Nations; another year they are Al Qaeda, the World Bank or the New York Yankees (that was for any Red Sox fans among us). To them I want to say what I had Daniel say to the Babylonian magicians, sorcerers, diviners and soothsayers charting the stars and poring over a sheep’s liver: You really don’t have to be so clever to be wise.
Because the most important part of Daniel’s prophecy, the part we really have to know, is also the easiest to understand, and required the least amount of divine intervention to explain: the last part, when Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
This is something Daniel would already have known if he had heard or read anything from other Prophets of Israel, like Isaiah or Jeremiah, and from those Psalms he would already have sung and prayed: that God will have the last word in human history, and that word will be his kingdom. Israel was starting to hear, to sing, and to pray this even before their exile, when they were a pitifully small remnant surrounded by the Egyptian and Assyrian empires. And, oddly enough, they continued to hear, sing and pray it, all the louder and stronger, during and after their time of Exile. In fact, they began to get their clearest vision of God’s kingdom once they had finally lost their own kingdom.
But it wasn’t just because they read about God’s kingdom. Daniel and his friends went to prayer, and there they found not only the substance and the meaning of the dream, through prayer they found the courage and the strength and the spirit by which to communicate the dream and its meaning to the king. Notice how Daniel’s approach to the king’s challenge is framed in prayer: it begins with a prayer for insight, and closes with a prayer of praise and worship. It was after praying that they found the king ready to hear what they had to say.
Prayer does that. Its one thing to read about God’s kingdom and to explain the idea of it. But for God’s kingdom to become such an intimate part of ourselves that we share it freely and powerfully and convincingly, for it to become our perspective and to frame our outlook on the world, and our conduct in the world, so that nothing else blinds or bedazzles us, prayer is a key ingredient. Without this element of prayer, Daniel may have been knowledgeable, but he wouldn’t have been wise. Not in the biblical sense.
Daniel’s words to the king, about a coming, final kingdom, are effectively the very gospel that we preach, the good news that Jesus proclaimed, when he said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus’ audience understood him to be saying that, then and there, with him and his ministry, the rock that King Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream has been cut from the mountain and is now growing until it removes and replaces all human kingdoms. We’re even in that vision: somewhere in the rock’s growth into a mighty mountain, as it incorporates new multitudes of people from every human tribe and kingdom. Again, we don’t need special dreams, visions or some clever, magical, mysterious insight into the future to understand that. It has already been prayed for in Israel’s Psalms, promised by Israel’s prophets, and seen in Jesus, and guaranteed by his resurrection.
That’s what we need most to know, in order to be wise in the biblical sense: to see life from God’s big kingdom perspective, and, in light of that, to know what finally, really counts. Biblical wisdom is not about knowing what all the future holds; its about knowing the One who holds the future. Its about knowing the One who already knows us better than we know ourselves. More than that is more than we are guaranteed to know, or usually even need to know.
Daniel saw God’s big picture, and that big picture perspective, blazed into his soul through prayer and worship, kept him from being bewitched, bedazzled and befuddled by all the passing pomp, pageantry and power of Babylon. Get the big picture in focus, of God’s eternal kingdom, and the rest is just details. Stay near to the God who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and we’ll be ready for anything the future holds. We don’t have to be so clever to be wise, either. Just pray, and trust that the God who knows all will be able to deliver all that he has promised. When life hands us surprises and mysteries that we cannot decode, cling to the fact that there are no surprises or mysteries to our God, the Revealer of Mysteries.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.