Inauguration Week Lessons from Nebuchadnezzar 

One of the lingering news stories following November’s election revolves around the question, “How did 81% of White Evangelicals support Donald Trump?” There are many answers to this question (I’ve tried to contribute my share). These range from people being staunchly anti-Clinton, to focus on abortion jurisprudence, to why evangelicals like strong male leaders, to concerns of nostalgia voters, to fears about incursions on religious freedom, to the idea that this relationship may be largely spurious (because both identifying evangelical and Republicanism are correlated with other factors — this is the argument I’ve been advancing).

There is, of course, another answer — God did it and evangelicals were open to God’s leading. As the Religion News Service reported yesterday, folks believe God must have been involved because a) Trump beat 17 challengers against the odds (although I’d point out that his polling all the way along made those odds better than supporters imagine) and b) the national polls were so wrong (except they weren’t although some state polls didn’t pick up late movement).

“God raised up, I believe, Donald Trump,” said former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann after he won the GOP nomination. “God showed up,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said to cheers at a post-election rally.

For those who share this view, Trump’s victory was nothing short of miraculous, especially given that he beat out 16 others in the Republican primaries — some of them evangelical Christians with long political resumes.

“For me, that has to be providence. That has to be the hand of God,” said Paula White, an evangelical pastor Trump has tapped to pray at his inauguration.

God raised up Trump in the same way that God used other Old Testament figures, whether religious leaders or pagans. Today, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Kirkwood An posted a quiz on the Washington Post “Acts of Faith” page allowing readers to guess which Biblical figures President-Elect Trump had been compared to. They range from (spoiler alert!) King David to King Jehosophat to King Cyrus to Daniel to Paul. I somewhat facetiously responded via Twitter that perhaps Nebuchadnezzar should have been on the list. Then I went back and read the first four chapters of the book of Daniel and was amazed.

We usually read the book of Daniel from Daniel’s perspective and not from Nebuchadnezzar’s. It’s useful to reverse that perspective in light of our contemporary events (it’s not the capital dome in the picture to the left but its fun to imagine).

The first chapter begins with King Nebuchadnezzar overrunning Judah and taking the residents captive. More importantly, he takes sacred items from the Temple to use for his own benefit (using religious language or props has been part of many political campaigns!). He selects Daniel and his friends as leaders in training and mandates a diet that the people are to follow. This puts Daniel in a position to interpret the coming dreams and sets the three Hebrew children up for their coming confrontation with the fiery furnace.

Nebuchadnezzar has his first dream at the beginning of chapter two. He calls his advisors in to tell him what the dream had been and what it means. He expects them to be able to understand what’s in his mind. (Remember, Kellyanne Conway, said that we needed to not pay attention to Trump’s words but his heart). The King threatens any of his advisors who cannot respond to his demands that they “will be chopped up and your houses torn down”.  Lesson One: Don’t put your people in impossible situations.

They tell him that what he asks just isn’t that simple. So the King gives orders to kill every wise man in the kingdom, including Daniel and friends. Because, I suppose, only the King knows best.

Daniel, realizing that time is short, prays to God that the dream and its meaning be revealed. He intervenes on the King’s execution order and interprets the dream. The first dream involves “a huge and terrifying statue” made of gold, silver, and bronze. He goes on to interpret the dream as it relates to the coming generations of rulers on Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar likes this answer and promotes Daniel and his friends. He recognizes God above all else, at least for the moment.

But by the beginning of chapter three, that changes dramatically. Nebuchadnezzar orders a statue to be built in his likeness. It is to be made of gold and measures 90 feet high and 9 feet wide. It is truly a monument to his vanity. Everyone is expected to bow down and worship whenever the music plays.

The president-elect likes big flashy things. And his new advisor Omarosa, Director of African-American Outreach, actually said that Trump’s critics would “bow down and worship him“. Lesson Two: It’s not about you.

Of course, Daniel and friends won’t bow down. That leads to the confrontation in front of the fiery furnace. The King is angered that they would defy him and demanded immediate action. When the three Hebrew children are saved, Nebuchadnezzar again praises God. Although he’s still shaky on the concept, since he suggests that anyone who goes against their God should be chopped to pieces and their houses torn down (this seems to be a pattern with Nebuchadnezzar). Lesson Three:  Sometimes repentance means really changing.

Chapter Four involves Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. This time he shares with Daniel what it’s about. The mighty tree seemed to grow to the heavens and then a voice came from Heaven ordering that it be cut down. Then “this ruler” will live like the animals, having the mind of an animal for seven years. He will be struck from power until he “learns that God Most High controls all earthly kingdoms and chooses their rulers.” Daniel ends their interaction by encouraging Nebuchadnezzar to “start living right” and “have mercy on those who are mistreated”. Lesson Four: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (for others).

At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar has gone through his animal phase and returned to rule. He closes his letter as follows:

“Praise and honor the King who rules from heaven! Everything he does is honest and fair, and he can shatter the power of those who are proud.”

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar seems to be a story about self-sufficiency, hubris, power, and vengeance. Those traits do not serve him well and leave him exiled from his throne. He does come to his senses at the end, although the family reign ends at the beginning of chapter five as Belshazzar is replaced with King Cyrus.

If some see God’s hand in Trump’s election, they would do well to study these chapters from Daniel very carefully. They remind us all that power is a fleeting thing and depends less on the strength of the leader than his or her compassion.

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