Babel, Empire, Arrogance

SYNOPSIS - Efforts by politicians to dominate humanity have plagued the world since the Tower of Babel, the first but certainly not the last attempt to seize what belongs to Yahweh alone.

World Power - Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
By Ben White on Unsplash
In the opening paragraph of the book of Daniel, Babylon is called the “land of Shinar,” a deliberate echo of the Tower of Babel incident from Genesis and one that recalls the origin of the ancient city of Babylon. That same incident also lies behind the telling of how King Nebuchadnezzar gathered all the nations to render homage to the great image he “set up” in the plain of Dura - (Genesis 11:1-9Daniel 1:1-23:1-7).

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was not a new political creature - It had an ancient pedigree. The royal city in which Daniel and his Jewish companions found themselves was the latest incarnation of an imperial effort that had been underway since the commencement of human civilization - (See - ‘Shinar’).

In the Tower of Babel incident, Yahweh had intervened to stop the completion of a high tower on the plain of Shinar. He caused the diversification and distribution of language groups across the earth. The story provides the origins of what became the Babylonian Empire from a biblical perspective - (Genesis 11:1-9).

The description in the opening paragraph of the book of Daniel builds on the story from Genesis. The first attempt to establish imperial rule occurred when the “whole earth was of one language and one speech.” The descendants of Noah had migrated to Mesopotamia to dwell “in the land of Shinar.” Quite likely, the Hebrew name rendered ‘Shinar’ is the equivalent to the name of the first known civilization in Mesopotamia, ‘Sumer.’

The people of Shinar began to build a city with a high tower to “reach the heavens and, thus, make us a name, lest we be scattered across the whole earth.” This parallels the Sumerian cities that featured temples built on ziggurats, tiered manmade mounds of mud and clay that formed the highest point in the city. Dedicated to its chief deity, the governmental activities of each Mesopotamian city centered on its central sanctuary.

In the Garden of Eden, God commanded Adam to “multiply, replenish and subdue the earth.” This command was reiterated to Noah after the Flood. Nevertheless, instead of heeding the Divine directive, humanity chose to move to Mesopotamia and build a new civilization centered in Shinar in an attempt to "make a name" for itself. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘Babylon’ is characterized by its presumptuousness - (Genesis 1:289:1, Isaiah 14:13-14Jeremiah 32:20).
If humanity united under one language the wickedness of mankind would know no bounds. By confounding languages, Yahweh caused the nations to spread throughout the earth and thwarted this first attempt at world domination.
The Bible called the city ‘Babel’, the place where “Yahweh confounded the language of all the earth.” The name may be related to the Hebrew word balal or “confusion,” although in the ancient Akkadian language of Mesopotamia, bab-ili or ‘Babel’ meant the “gate of god.”

In the third chapter of Daniel, unwittingly, King Nebuchadnezzar attempted to reverse this divine judgment against ancient Shinar. He gathered different ethnic groups, cultures, and nations so that representatives of each group would be educated in the language of Babylon, the “tongue” of the World-Power. He also commanded all nations to render homage to the image he had “set up in the Plain of Dura” - (Daniel 3:1-7).

Nebuchadnezzar was renowned as a builder who restored temples, constructed city walls and palaces.  His claim to be the builder of “great Babylon” was not an empty boast - (Daniel 4:30).


The story of Nimrod is recorded in the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ in the book of Genesis, a man who was linked to the origins of the Mesopotamian civilization and the founder of several of its chief cities, including Babel, Asshur, and Nineveh. He became “mighty one in the earth.” The “mighty men of name," the so-called gibborim, was a group that existed before the Flood. It was comprised of men with fearsome reputations due to their violent exploits - (Genesis 6:410:1-32).

Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum
Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum

Likewise, Nimrod was labeled a “mighty hunter before the face of Yahweh.” This denotes his opposition to Yahweh, not Divine approval of his hunting abilities. The name ‘Nimrod’ is derived from the Hebrew word mārădor, which means, “we will revolt.” He founded a kingdom in what later became 
Assyria and, possibly, he was an early ruler of the city-state of Babel.  Elsewhere in Scripture, Nimrod typifies despotic rulers who oppress God’s people - (Micah 5:6).

Parallels in the book of Daniel

In the Tower of Babel story, the “whole earth spoke one language” when men began to dwell in Shinar. They built a city and tower of “great height” in the “Plain of Shinar” to mark their achievements and prevent the dispersal of humanity.

Likewise, in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar brought captives to Babylon, the great city he had built, to be educated in the language of the Chaldeans and prepared to serve in the administration of the new (and latest) World-Power.  To an extent, he succeeded where the first rulers of Babel failed.

The king “set up” a golden image of exceptional “height” in the “Plain of Dura,” then decreed that “all peoples, races, and tongues” should render homage to it.  He gathered representatives from every province and nation “to the dedication of the image.” All the political powers of the earth were to be united under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar.

The literary parallels to the Genesis story are deliberate.  Just as the earlier inhabitants of ‘Babel’ united to build a city and high tower, so this later Babylonian ruler presumed to unite all humanity under his dominion by worshiping an idolatrous image of “great height” (Daniel 3:1-7).

Likewise, at the height of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar boasted how his own might “built” the great city, Babylon. Immediately, an angelic figure pronounced judgment on him for his presumptuousness. For “seven seasons” he was driven from Babylonian society to live like an animal. Only when he acknowledged the sovereignty of the “Most-high God” was he restored to his throne - (Daniel 4:1-37).

A Theology of History

The book of Daniel begins with a key theme it develops through the dreams and pronouncements of Daniel -  God reigns over the kingdoms of the world and grants rulership to whomever He pleases. Note the following passages:
  • (Daniel 2:20-21) – “Daniel responded and said, Let the name of God be blessed from age to age — in that wisdom and might to him belong, And he changeth times and seasons, removeth kings and setteth up kings — giving wisdom to the wise and knowledge to them who are skilled in understanding.”
  • (Daniel 4:17) – “By the decree of the watchers is the thing, and by the mandate of the holy ones the matter: to the intent that the living may get to know that the Most High hath dominion over the kingdom of men, and to whomsoever he pleaseth he giveth it, and one low among men he setteth up over it.”
The king of Babylon subjugated the king of Judah and removed the golden vessels from the Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar,” a tribute to the superiority of his god, or so he thought. But the destruction of Judah occurred because the “Lord gave it into the king’s hand” - (Daniel 1:1-2).

The overthrow of Judah created a theological dilemma for patriotic members of God’s chosen nation. The Neo-Babylonian Empire had destroyed what remained of the kingdom of Israel.  The Hebrew text repeats “house” three times in the opening declaration in the book of Daniel, and “his god” twice for emphasis. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the name of the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over Yahweh by conquering Judah and ransacking His Temple and the beloved "City of David" - (Compare - Isaiah 46:1).

Apparently, the latest “king of Babel” was reversing the ancient decree of Yahweh by seizing His “house,” by gathering scattered nations back to Shinar, and by imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  The tribute of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar included high ranking Jewish exiles sent for their education in the "wisdom" of Babylon. This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation, yet Daniel declared that it was the Lord Himself who gave all this into the hands of the pagan enemy of His people - (Daniel 1:4).

The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied several more times in the first chapter of Daniel:
  • First, God gave Daniel “favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs.”
  • Second, He gave Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.”
  • Third, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.
The Babylonian king put Daniel and his friends to the test and “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm.” Therefore, they were promoted to serve the king in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrated that God was using the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history - (Daniel 1:17-20).

In Chapter 2, events occurred in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar before the completion of Daniel’s education. This means his successful interpretation of the king’s dream was not attributable to his newly acquired Chaldean knowledge; rather, it was due to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by Yahweh.

Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed a dream that troubled him. He commanded the wise men of Babylon to reveal its content and significance. Naturally, this they were unable to do - “There is not a man upon the earth who can declare the matter of the king…there is none who can declare it before the king except the gods whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

The failure of the Chaldean soothsayers and stargazers enraged the king, who then ordered the destruction of all the wise men of his court. Daniel intervened and requested a time when he could make the dream AND its interpretation known to Nebuchadnezzar. Next, the prophet prayed for the revelation of “this mystery” - (Daniel 2:13-18).

Yahweh responded to Daniel in a night vision and revealed the king’s dream. Daniel then praised the God who “removes kings and sets up kings…He is the One Who reveals the deep and hidden things…for the matter of the king have you made known to us.” Then Daniel revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation. Thus, through a powerless Jewish exile, the God of Israel showed Nebuchadnezzar “What things must come to pass in latter days” - (Daniel 2:19-45, Revelation 1:1-2).

Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a large image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet, part iron and part clay. A stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and broke it into pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and golden parts were broken in pieces and became like chaff blown by the wind, but the stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

The golden head represented King Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler to whom God had given the World-Power. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed Nebuchadnezzar, likewise with the brass belly and thighs. The stone that was carved “without hands” represented a final kingdom that would be established by God, one that would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding regimes. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things” - (Daniel 2:37).

In reaction, Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon. The king declared Yahweh “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” Thus, the mighty pagan ruler acknowledged His sovereignty over nations and history. In this way, Yahweh revealed the future of the World-Power. The rise of empires was and is under His firm control.

The story continues in Chapter 3 - The king attempted to implement his dream by “making an image of gold.” However, the entire image that he “set up” was covered in gold, not just the head. Nebuchadnezzar determined to magnify his achievements and declare to all the earth that his kingdom was an everlasting realm. Had he not dreamed it?

At the command of the king, all the “satraps, nobles, pashas, chief judges, treasurers, judges, lawyers, and all provincial governors were assembled to the dedication of the image…and they stood before it.” All were commanded to “render homage to the image that the king had set up”; any who refused were cast into a fiery furnace - (Daniel 3:1-6).

The “great image” represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian ruler over all the “peoples, races and tongues.” Presumptuously, Nebuchadnezzar demanded that all men venerate the image that he had “set up.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in Chapter 2 for the God who “sets up” kings - (Daniel 2:21, 2:44).
In Chapter 3, the text declares nine times that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image, a deliberate challenge to the claims of God. Thus, he claimed authority that belonged only to Yahweh.
The learned “wise men” of Babylon used the situation to settle scores for their earlier loss of face. Though loyal to the king, Daniel and his three companions could not worship the image because of their greater loyalty to Yahweh. When Nebuchadnezzar heard that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego had “refused” to render homage to his image, he gave them a stark choice -  Give allegiance to his image or suffer a fiery death - After all, “Who is the god that shall deliver you out of my hand?

Consequently, the three exiles were cast into the furnace. However, miraculously, all three survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one described he described as “like to a son of the gods” - (Daniel 3:13-25).

With trepidation, the king summoned the three men to exit the furnace and addressed them as “servants of the Most-High God.”  Because they had survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego,” for He had “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants who trusted in Him.” Nebuchadnezzar then issued a decree to “all peoples, nations and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of the God of Israel would be cut in pieces.

As in the account of Chapter 2, praise and acknowledgment of God were heard on the lips of the powerful pagan ruler. Previously, Nebuchadnezzar had described Daniel as a servant of the “God of gods and Lord of kings.” In Chapter 3, he acknowledged the three Jewish exiles as servants of the “Most-High God.” Once more, the ruler of the World-Power acknowledged the universal sovereignty of Yahweh.

As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. In this way, the sovereignty of Yahweh over historical events was demonstrated (again). The presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His purposes.

Likewise, Chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the Word-Poweracknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh over history, and thus reiterating the central theme of the book.
  • Blessed is the Most-High who lives forever! I praise and honor the One whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Before Him, all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and according to his own pleasure, He deals with the Host of Heaven and the inhabitants of the earth.
History remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a great builder and military conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding one. In contrast, Scripture remembers him as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans and whims of the pagan king and his pagan retinue of astrologers and soothsayers.

In Chapter 5, the Empire comes to the end determined by Yahweh. The chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom to his own and established the empire of the “Medes and Persians.” That development set the stage for the demise of the empire that Nebuchadnezzar had “set-up.”

On a fateful night in 539 B.C., the last Babylonian ruler, Belshazzar, gave a feast during which he and his companions drank wine from vessels removed by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple of Yahweh, all while “praising the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” In that same hour, a hand began to write on the wall. Disturbed, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing. No one was able to do so.

As so often before, Daniel was summoned to interpret the writing on the wall:  Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin.’ The clause uses Aramaic words concerned with monetary weights - Mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” Tekel related to the Jewish shekel, and Peres (from upharsin) for “half-pieces” or the “half-mina.” The last term was a double wordplay, first on the name “Persia,” the imperial power about to overthrow Babylon, then on the Aramaic verb for “divide” (from the consonantal stem prs).

The Aramaic phrase signified that “God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end” (mene), “you are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (tekel), “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres). Yahweh’s sovereignty was on full display in Daniel’s pronouncement; the World-Power was now transferred from Babylon to the Medes and Persians.
That very night, the Medes and Persians captured the city and slew Belshazzar. The first World-Power fell - The next became ascendant. Through the words of a Jewish captive, Yahweh deposed one mighty empire and established another of even greater magnitude.
Thus, the first half of the book of Daniel demonstrated that Yahweh, the God of Israel, ruled over the kingdoms of men and the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful rulers cannot thwart His purposes, and the defeat of His people by a pagan power is no impediment to His rule. God uses both good and evil rulers to achieve His ends. Rulers of any persuasion who assume they rule and conquer through their own wisdom and power ignore history and presume prerogatives that belong to God alone.


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