The Writing on the Wall

The picture you see is by Rembrandt, a famous Dutch artist in the 17th century and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It depicts King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel. Belshazzar decides to throw a feast and invites a 1000 of his nobles to attend. And what is the occasion? So everyone can see how manly he is, out-drinking everyone else in the room without falling under the table. And then, when he’s well and truly sauced, he gives orders to bring in the sacred vessels that were taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, fills them with wine, and offers a few toasts to his pagan gods. It’s a blasphemous act of arrogance and defiance that would cause his grandfather, king Nebuchadnezzar, to turn in his grave.

It’s an act however, that doesn’t go unnoticed. Heaven is watching. Suddenly the blood drains from Belshazzar’s face as he sees a hand appear out of nowhere and begins to write on the wall. It spells his judgment. Before the night is over Belshazzar will be dead.

The lesson is a simple one and is made clear by a simple reading of the narrative: God will not be mocked. He will not allow any human power to exalt itself above him. For any human government, institution or individual that exalts itself above God, the writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered.

The setting: party time!

Some time has passed since the end of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar has been dead 23 years and it is nearly 70 years since Daniel was deported from Babylon. Daniel is now an old man in his 80’s. Babylon is only a few hours from enemy invasion and collapse. The Medes and the Persians are just outside the city gates, ready to breach the city wall. We can even precisely date the events because Persian military records tell us that Darius’ armies marched into Babylon on 16 Tishri (October 12), 539. According to Daniel 5, the king’s banquet occurred the very night the city fell to Darius. Belshazzar, in his drunken partying state, has only a few hours to live.

“Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar gave orders to bring in the gold and silver vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, wives, and concubines could drink from them.” (Daniel 5:2)

Nebuchadnezzar had at least a measure of religious respect to recognize that these were sacred objects. After capturing them he put them in the temple of his own god. Belshazzar has no such respect. He’s in charge now and will do whatever he jolly well likes.

What happens next causes Belshazzar and everyone with him to turn cold.

God crashes the party

“At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand. As the king watched the hand that was writing, his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together.” (Daniel 5:5–6)

There’s humour here and it’s not accidental. The Aramaic literally says that the “knots of his joints were loosened.” This could refer to his legs giving way but it more likely means a loss of control of bodily functions as the CSB renders it – “he soiled himself.” With the appearance of God’s fingers on the wall a dark patch appears under Belshazzar’s chair.

Lord Byron, a famous 19th century poet, put the stuttering of the king to verse in Vision of Belshazzar:

The King was on his throne,
The Satraps thronged the hall:
A thousand bright lamps shone
O’er that high festival.
A thousand cups of gold,
In Judah deemed divine —
Jehovah’s vessels hold
The godless Heathen’s wine!

In that same hour and hall,
The fingers of a hand
Come forth against the wall
And wrote as if on sand:
The fingers of a man: —
A solitary hand
Along the letters ran,
And traced them like a wand.

The monarch saw, and shook,
And bade no more rejoice;
All bloodless waxed his look,
And tremulous his voice.
“Let the men of lore appear,
The wisest of the earth,
And expound the words of fear,
Which mar our royal mirth.”

But as the passage reads, no one could. No one, that is, until the Queen mother turns up. She reminds Belshazzar of one in his kingdom who has, “an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and intelligence, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems” (Daniel 5:12). Literally – to “loosen knots”; it’s a pun on Belshazzar’s loose bowels. Daniel has the ability to solve messy and knotty problems. “Therefore,” she says, “summon Daniel, and he will give the interpretation.”

And with that Daniel is called in. Belshazzar promises Daniel great rewards if he is able to give the interpretation, but Daniel waves him off.

Instead Daniel reminds Belshazzar how God dealt with his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. He had absolute power and he did whatever he pleased. He gave life and he took life. He promoted whom he chose and demoted whom he chose. But when his heart was lifted up he became arrogant. God brought him crashing to the ground. Then he chides Belshazzar for not doing the same. It’s a very bold move that could have ended up with his head rolling to the ground. But that’s the kind of man Daniel is.

First Daniel translates the writing on the wall: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN.  Then he gives the interpretation:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

Sorry Belshazzar, but it’s all over. You won’t be here in the morning. Goodbye.

That very night Darius the Mede took over the kingdom and king Belshazzar was killed. And history records how they did it. The walls of Babylon were massive and considered impenetrable. The Babylonians had also stock piled up to 20 years of food so there was no starving them out. But they had an Achilles heel. The river Euphrates ran underneath the wall giving the city a constant source of fresh water. So what the Medes and Persians did was dig up river an alternative channel for the water to flow. This reduced the amount of water flowing under the walls enough so that they could simply walk in under the walls of Babylon and take it over without firing a shot.


What can we take away from this chapter? What is it that God would have us learn? I think there are two ways in which this can be applied.

The Global Application

There is a message here to nations. There is a message to kings and presidents and prime ministers of every age. Any human government or institution that tries to exalt itself above God will be called to account. The writing is on the wall. Its days are numbered. What would it take, do you think, to bring any one of the world’s super-powers of our day crashing to the ground? What would it take to bring the powerful Kim Jung-un and his regime to its knees? The very one who says, “We don’t do God here.” What would it take?

Four words.

And it is the same for every other superpower, regime and institution in the world.

The Personal Application

What about personal application? There is a warning against complacency. Of thinking we are safe when we are not. Of thinking we are good with God when we are not. “Consider the kindness and severity of God,” Paul warns in Romans 11:22. We must not presume on the mercy of God. We must not be deceived into thinking that because God showed grace to our parents or grandparents, that he is indebted to show grace to us also.

Heed God’s warning from his Word, before it’s too late. Everyone who comes to God, recognizing that they have nothing to offer him in return, crying out to him for mercy and grace that is found in His Son Jesus, will find it. They will cross over from death to life. And they will eat one day at a great banquet God will hold for all those who believe. The only writing on the wall there will be, “Salvation is of the Lord.”

This post was based on a sermon called “The Writing on the Wall.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.


The Insanity of Pride

People who are in positions of power have a habit of making bold and arrogant statements that they often regret. Whether it’s a case of overstating things, exaggerating the facts, slighting the truth or just plain lying, sooner or later the facts are revealed, and they find themselves with egg on their faces. And we don’t have to look very far to find examples of those kinds of individuals today. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Politicians are notorious for this behaviour.

But they are not the only ones. We all tend to overstate things, talk about our accomplishments, and claim we are the authors of our own success.  When we do this, we are putting ourselves in the place of God, declaring we can do what he can. God is the only One who can rescue us from ourselves, by humbling us until we recognize that he alone is King, and we are not.

King Nebuchadnezzar is a perfect case in point. God has to teach him a very hard lesson – a lesson we can all benefit from. It is all recorded for us in Daniel chapter 4.

I. The Dream Described (1-18)

You will remember that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in Daniel chapter 2 which greatly troubled him. Well, this one terrifies him. As in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar calls in his wise men to come and interpret the dream for him. But they are incapable of doing so. Finally Daniel appears.

The king then tells Daniel the dream. He saw a great tree, with leaves and branches stretching as far as the eye could see. Birds nested in the branches and animals found shade under its leaves. But then the tree was suddenly cut down and stripped and the stump bound with iron and bronze. Halfway through it switches from the tree that would be cut down to a person who will be brought down.

The beautiful, great, strong tree represents a powerful person. He will be cut down—just a stump left. He will completely lose his mind and become like an animal, exposed to the elements. The message concludes with these words, which we find repeated throughout the chapter.

“This is so that the living will know that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms. He gives them to anyone he wants and sets the lowliest of people over them.” (4:17)

II. The Dream Explained (19-27)

Then the king looks at Daniel and says, “Now Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation.” Daniel, with some reluctance summarizes the content of the dream and then gets to the bottom line:

“This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree of the Most High that has been issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals. You will feed on grass like cattle and be drenched with dew from the sky for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (4:24–25)

Then Daniel implores the king that there is a way out; divine judgment can be avoided. “Separate yourself from your sins by doing what is right, and from your injustices by showing mercy to the needy. Perhaps there will be an extension of your prosperity.” (4:27)

III. The Dream Fulfilled (28-33)

We are not told in the text how the king responded. We know that he highly respected Daniel – perhaps he listened. Perhaps he amended his ways and bought himself more time. All we know is that 12 months later the King is walking on top of his palace declaring to the world that he is God.

“Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” (4:30)

Nebuchadnezzar, at this point, has completely lost his mind. He’s speaking like a madman. Wait a minute, you say, didn’t Nebuchadnezzar oversee the building of Babylon? Wasn’t he responsible for many of its beautiful temples and huge walls and its famous hanging gardens? On a small-scale, perhaps yes. But when we step back from it all, the answer is no.

Think about it: where did Nebuchadnezzar get his wisdom and his abilities? Where did he get his great leadership skills? Did he choose to be born into a royal bloodline? Did he choose to be the son of a great King at the height of the Babylonian empire?

Pride blinds. Pride warps our thinking. Pride looks at our success and achievements and says, “I’m the author of that.” But we’re not – God is. It is God who created us and gave us intelligence and skill and ability to reason. He chose the country we were born in and the century we were raised in. He gave us the opportunities for our talents to grow and flourish in. He determines our appointed times and boundaries of where we live in (Acts 17:26). Pride overlooks all of his and says, “No, it’s all because of me. I’m the author of all this.”

That’s insanity, to any sane person.

Imagine if I went around today and claimed that I discovered electricity because I turned on the light. You’d say that is insanity. Yet we do the very same thing when we claim to be the author of the gifts God has given us.

So what did God do in Nebuchadnezzar’s case? He humbled Nebuchadnezzar by making him less than human. He turned him into an animal.

“While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared that the kingdom has departed from you. You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals, and you will feed on grass like cattle for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” (4:31–32)

Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity is actualized. One moment he is surveying his royal kingdom, the next he is ripping off his clothing, making strange snorting noises, and running on all fours, totally naked and stark, raving mad. But God was gracious to Nebuchadnezzar. His insanity was only temporary. It was only for a season – to teach him a vital lesson. Eventually, he came to his senses:

“But at the end of those days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever” (verse 34)

The once proud and prosperous pagan king now openly praises the Living God. The chapter concludes with these words:

“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of the heavens, because all his works are true and his ways are just. He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” (verse 37)

This story serves as a warning for us all. Pride affects our ability to reason. Pride distorts our perspective of the world. It prevents us from seeing clearly and thinking objectively. And once we have succumbed to it, we are completely at the mercy of God to be rescued from it. We can’t repair our own pride. God must do it for us. Humility must be given to us.

But there is a part we can play in it. We can avoid the path of Nebuchadnezzar. And that is by simply accepting, with gratitude, everything we have as a gift of God. We were nothing until God made us something. And we only got to the place where we are because of God good provision and kindness. We did not earn nor deserve any of the good gifts that we have. They came to us purely by grace.

Let us learn from the pride of Nebuchadnezzar. It would be insane to do otherwise.

This post was based on a sermon called “Nebuchadnezzar and the Tree of Doom” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Faith in the Furnace

We return to the story we were looking at from Daniel chapter three. King Nebuchadnezzar made a gigantic statue (of himself, most likely) and then forced everyone in his kingdom to pay homage to it. When they hear the sound of the horn, flute, base-guitar, pipe-organ and drum (not quite, but it fits with the story), every man and his dog is to fall facedown in front of it.

It might sound completely ridiculous until we consider what is happening in our world right now. Take North Korea for example, and Kim Jong-un’s farcical parades, with people in their thousands bowing down to his image. Or consider what is happening in our own backyard, with the forced veneration of the great god secular humanism and it’s empty rhetoric. It’s forced compliance of the populace. Bow down or else. And it is amidst these difficult circumstances God’s people have to make a choice: serve God or serve the system. Bow to King Jesus or a man-made substitute.

We are told in Daniel chapter 3 verse 7 when all the people heard the cacophony of noise they fell down on their faces. Nebuchadnezzar got the result he wanted.


Three were left standing. And it was Nebuchadnezzar’s cronies who spotted them. This is where the story really heats up (excuse the pun). The king’s cronies come slithering before the king and dob them in.

“There are some Jews you have appointed to manage the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men have ignored you, the king; they do not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” (vv. 11–12)

These are serious charges. This is high treason. So Nebuchadnezzar drills them; “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I have set up?” Picture in the background, in full view of all the furnace of blazing fire, belching smoke into the clear, blue sky.

“Now if you’re ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, fall down and worship the statue I made. But if you don’t worship it, you will immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire—and who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (verse 15)

It is right at this juncture that we come to the very heart of things. King Nebuchadnezzar is asserting his power over and above all other powers, including Almighty God. Yet these three young men calmly, confidently and courageously take their stand. They reply to the king,

“Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then he can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (vv. 16–18)

This is beautiful, isn’t it? For three 17-year-olds, this is absolutely brilliant. Notice two things:

  1. Their absolute confidence in the power of God. “Our God… is able to deliver us.” We are utterly confident in God’s power. Nothing is too hard for him.
  2. Their complete submission to God’s will. “Even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve our god or ship the statue you have set up”.

Note that they don’t promise more than God promises (unlike many TV preachers of our day). They don’t presume to know God’s will in this matter. They don’t put words in God’s mouth. If God wants to deliver them, he can do it. But he may not. He is free to do as he pleases. “Either way, we want you to know, O King, we’re not going to do it. Read our lips. No. N-O.”

At this point, Nebuchadnezzar completely loses it. We’re told the expressions on his face changed (I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t smiling) and gave orders to heat the furnace seven times hotter than normal. Then he has the elite of his soldiers tie them up. Then he has them throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in. The furnace is so hot, they are incinerated in the process. Look what happens next:

“Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in alarm. He said to his advisers, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?” “Yes, of course, Your Majesty,” they replied to the king. He exclaimed, “Look! I see four men, not tied, walking around in the fire unharmed; and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (vv. 24–25)

So what’s going on here? Who is this fourth figure? Many are quick to declare this is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus – the second person of the Trinity. We need to be careful at this point. The text does not actually say that. It could just as easily have been an angel. What is important here is to see when it came to the furnace – when we are in the midst of a fiery trial, God is with his people. The king then rushes to the furnace door and he calls out,

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you servants of the Most High God—come out!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out of the fire.” (verse 26)

He calls his officials to come and examine them. “Not a hair of their heads was singed, their robes were unaffected, and there was no smell of fire on them” (verse 27). They are utterly amazed.

God has shown King Nebuchadnezzar who is really in charge. The king had boasted, “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” The God of Israel delivered them out of his hands.


So what is the main lesson of this chapter? Simply this:

The Living God is able to deliver his children who refuse to serve other gods.
He is able to deliver them not just from the fire, but in the midst of the fire itself.

And how does it end? It ends with Nebuchadnezzar exclaiming loudly,

“Praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! He sent his angel and rescued his servants who trusted in him. They violated the king’s command and risked their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (verse 28)

It’s hard not to read that with a sense of scepticism, isn’t it? We know you Nebuchadnezzar, and those like you, whose lips don’t always line up with their life.

“Therefore I issue a decree that anyone of any people, nation, or language who says anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will be torn limb from limb and his house made a garbage dump. For there is no other god who is able to deliver like this.” (verse 29)

From fiery furnaces to being drawn and quartered. I fear that nothing has really changed for Nebuchadnezzar at all.

But I hope it has for you, after reading this story. I hope that you see that no matter how good you think you are, you are not good enough to save yourself from the furnace, the furnace of God’s judgement. I hope you see your need for a Saviour, and willingly give your life to him. And I hope that when the day comes when your faith is on trial, it will be the kind of faith that will enable to make you stand.

Having the Courage to Stand

Daniel chapter 3 has to be one of the most well-known and most loved chapters in the Bible. It is not only interesting, it is full of satire. The author is having the time of his life poking fun at a king with an ego the size of an elephant and his pathetic little minions, who all bow down to his silly statue like puppets on a string. The only ones willing to stand up to him are three Judean teenagers who look him straight in the eye and say, “Sorry Neb, but we ain’t going to bow.” In the end, they are rewarded for their faith and God delivers them from the flames. “Hurrah for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego,” we say and then tell our kids to be good little boys and girls like them.

But is that really what the author wants us to take away from this? If we were to put the comedy and heroics to one side, we are left with some challenging questions. What if God decided not to deliver Daniel’s three friends from the flames? What if they were all incinerated – what would we tell our kids then? 275 Protestant leaders were burned to death under Queen Mary. What about them? Thousands of faithful Christians are burned, tortured and murdered in various places today. What about them?

Moreover, whenever we place ourselves in stories like this, our tendency is to align ourselves with the three young heroes. We prefer to see ourselves as faithful and courageous like them, and not like the mad king who erects idols of his own making. But when we look at reality – the things we buy, the things we love, the things we live for and are infatuated with, well – we see something quite different. These idols of ours are no laughing matter. They put us on the wrong side of God and make us objects of his fury. When faced with a different kind of furnace – the furnace of God’s wrath, who will save us then?

Let’s take a closer look at the story. Back in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a statue made of different materials, which represent earthly kingdoms. Daniel interprets the dream and tells him he is the head of gold and other kingdoms will surpass him. Eventually, God’s kingdom – the stone cut without hands, would replace them all. The chapter ends with the king declaring to Daniel, “Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47).

Well, it looks very much like he’s changed his mind on all that because here we find that he has made a gold statue – of himself. His jaw-dropping 90-foot image, with the sun’s rays dancing off its gold surface, dazzled the minds of his subjects. They are all enthralled and don’t need much encouragement to fall flat on their faces in front of it.

It’s state-sanctioned idolatry. It’s forced veneration – of man and the things he has made. And we’ve seen many forms of it throughout history: communism and fascism and all forms of totalitarianism. Control the economy, restrict free speech, prohibit all opposition parties, and force every individual to comply. And they all have their venerated leaders – whether its Rome’s Caesar, Soviet’s Stalin, Germany’s Hitler, China’s Mao, Japan’s Emperor, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Any religious practice that takes place in these regimes is either outlawed or very tightly controlled. Christians are permitted to worship freely in China for example – but only in the state-sponsored and state-regulated churches. Underground house-churches remain heavily persecuted. It is similar in some parts of the former Soviet Union.

And don’t think we safe from it here in the West. Belief in the God of the Bible is tolerated, as long as you keep your beliefs private. Keep it out of the public square, otherwise we’ll shun and mock you. We don’t want any of that prayer nonsense in our Parliament or Bible in our schools. In fact, we don’t want to hear anything about the bible at all – especially that rubbish about God creating us male and female. Talk to us about spirituality and getting in touch with your inner self. But don’t tell us there’s one way to God or in fact, that there is only one God. We simply won’t have it.

It might not be a 90-foot statue, but it’s forced compliance all the same. In the clash of kingdoms – the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of men, we are left asking: “who has the courage to stand?”

From my vantage point in this safe little corner of the world in New Zealand, I’m really not sure. All I know is that most of us are lying low and trying not to attract too much publicity. I don’t think we’ve been tested severely enough yet. When we are, I have to ask myself, will I have the courage to stand? Will I be prepared, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to stand my ground and say, “Sorry NZ, but I will not bow to your state-sanctioned, atheistic secularism.”

Think of the excuses Daniel’s three friends could have made:

“God knows the pressure we’re under. We don’t want to lose our witness. Let’s just pretend to bow”

“Sometimes you’ve got to compromise a bit otherwise people will think we’re too narrow”

“Imagine the good we can do if we keep our jobs. We can help people”

“Hey, everyone else is doing it. It can’t be that bad.”

Sound familiar? The call of Jesus seems pretty clear:

“If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)

There’s not a lot of wiggle room here. Jesus is calling us to thorough, uncompromising loyalty and devotion. So, when it comes to a choice between Jesus and the world, between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of men, and between biblical Christianity and human secularism, what will it be?

As one of my favourite lines of Bob Dylan goes, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua said to the people of Israel (who remained uncommitted and undecided, sitting on the fence). “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15)

In my next post, we’ll look at what happens when three brave teenagers face the flames, for the glory of God. The results, as you will see, are quite encouraging.

This post was based on a sermon called “Faith in the Furnace.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

How long should a sermon be?

It’s a question that comes up in churches often: what is an appropriate length of a sermon? The conversation is usually sparked by someone in the congregation who has made a complaint that a sermon was too long. Complaints like these are a reasonably regular occurrence for the average pastor. Not once in my 25 years of ministry have I heard a complaint that a sermon was too short!

There are a few variables that need to be considered: what the church is used to, the maturity of the preacher, the spiritual maturity of the audience (believers or unbelievers?) and the particular culture. When visiting churches in Russia there appeared to be no time limit. In certain parts of the world where Christians are persecuted, people are starving for truth and you could probably preach all day.

In the context I was trained in (an educated, middle-class church in Southern California), 45-50 minutes was the standard fare. That’s what the church was accustomed to and what was modelled. But that doesn’t necessarily fit all contexts, and it certainly didn’t fit the context of my first church back here in New Zealand. I received immediate push-back from the congregation. But I was young and stubborn (as newly graduated, hot-headed pastors tend to be), and refused to budge. After a number of warnings from the elders I was finally given an ultimatum not to go over 35 minutes. I thought the world had come to an end.

But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to sharpen my messages, reduce content and be clearer and more concise. Introductions and illustrations were crafted more carefully, sentences were shortened, and vocabulary simplified. The result was my preaching got better and my listeners were happier.

Kevin de Young posted some thoughts on this subject a few days ago (in fact it was the impetus to write this blog – you can read the entire article here). Here are a few extracts from what he wrote:

“While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. His advice was tongue-in-cheek. But it was also partly serious. He went on to add that he’d rarely heard a sermon that couldn’t have been better by being five minutes shorter…

We honour good preaching in our circles. And we should. Preaching is the lifeblood of the church. There is no greater calling than to herald the riches of Christ. But good preaching is not the same as long preaching. We love to hear of the Puritan preachers who turned over the hourglass and settled in for a second hour of sermonizing. Many of our heroes from ages past preached long, dense, wonderful messages. What we forget is that those congregations often complained about those sermons too!

More importantly, we overlook the fact that today’s congregations have books and podcasts and small groups and Sunday school classes and book studies and a host of opportunities to be instructed in the Word. The Puritans were preaching to many people who couldn’t read and who received all their Bible teaching from Sunday services (or pastoral catechizing). So a 30-minute sermon is not necessarily a capitulation to short attention spans. We live in a different time with different avenues for good Bible teaching.”

John Piper preaches for 30 minutes and I would consider him one of the best preachers in the world. There has been some great preaching that has come out of the Sydney Anglicans over the past years and seldom do their messages go over 35 minutes. I’m not talking about clever little homilies here with lots of stories to keep people entertained. I’m talking about well-formed, clearly presented expository sermons that unpack the meaning of the text.

As for myself, I have settled for messages between 35 and 40 minutes. I try not to go over 40 and find that my sermons are better when they don’t. That’s just me. Every pastor and preacher will find his own optimum length. And every congregation, over time, will get used to them.

I’ll conclude with the closing remarks of Kevin de Young. I don’t think I can say it better:

“Here’s the bottom line: there’s no need to preach for an hour when 40 minutes will do. The truth is most people will be glad for a shorter sermon. The parents with children in the pew certainly will be. Your wife just might be too. And the nursery workers will rise up and call you blessed.”

Bad Dreams – part II

In my last post, we were in Daniel chapter 2 looking at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. In the dream, he sees an enormous statue made of four different metals: a head of gold, a chest of silver, a belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet and toes of iron mixed with clay. Suddenly a stone, like a flying meteor strikes the statue at the feet, shattering the entire image. The pieces are blown away by the wind, leaving only the stone, which becomes a mountain which fills the entire earth.

The King gives orders and summoned the magicians, mediums, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to tell him the dream. But none of them could. Here is the most powerful king in the world, with all his wise man around him, in a fix. And it is the God of Israel who has put him in this fix, so the king might see that the gods and great men of Babylon ultimately know nothing and can do nothing. Only the Living God is all-wise and all-powerful.

But he needs Daniel to tell him that.

Daniel makes himself known to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard. Arioch informs the king and the king calls Daniel in. “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and it’s interpretation?” Daniel replies,

“No wise man, medium, magician, or diviner is able to make known to the king the mystery he asked about… As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but in order that the interpretation might be made known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.” (Dan 2:27, 30)

Daniel recalls the king’s dream and then he provides the interpretation. He tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is the head of gold. God has given him sovereignty, power, strength, and glory. Wherever people live—or wild animals, or birds of the sky—he has handed them over to Nebuchadnezzar and made him ruler over them all (verse 37–38).

After Nebuchadnezzar, another kingdom will rise, inferior to his. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others (Daniel 2:39-40).

The statue represents four successive world kingdoms. Only the first one is identified: Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire. We learn from Daniel chapter 8 that the next two are the Medo-Persian and the Greek empires (ruled by Alexander the Great). The fourth kingdom—the mightiest of them all—is never identified. It is simply described as possessing the strength of iron and having the ability to crush its enemies. Historically, the legs of iron must refer to the Roman empire.

And what of the feet and the toes? Some commentators believe that refers to the break-up of the Roman Empire into the countries that now make up Europe and the Mediterranean basin – some strong and some weak. But we must be careful we don’t push things too far. When we push things beyond what we should we end up missing the point the author is wanting to make. And that point is this:

The kingdoms of this world will come to nothing;
God’s kingdom will last forever.

But it doesn’t end there. Look at what Daniel says next:

“In the days of those kings, the God of the heavens will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not be left to another people. It will crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself endure forever. You saw a stone break off from the mountain without a hand touching it, and it crushed the iron, bronze, fired clay, silver, and gold. The great God has told the king what will happen in the future. The dream is certain, and its interpretation reliable.” (verses 44-45)

The Bible speaks of a day of a stone that would be rejected by the builders but would become the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). Isaiah prophesied that this stone would become a sanctuary for some but a rock of offence for others – it would cause them to stumble and be broken (Isaiah 8:14-15).

Some five hundred years later, Jesus comes to earth. The kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece are long gone. Rome now rules the world. The angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to Mary: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:33) Some thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry. He proclaims “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” But the kingdom of God does not come fully during Jesus’ lifetime. When Roman soldiers crucify Jesus, it looks like the kingdom of God has failed.

But it has far from failed. God raises Jesus from the dead, overcoming sin and death. When the disciples meet the risen Lord, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t realize that God’s kingdom will come in two stages: first as Saviour, then as King. Jesus sends his disciples on a mission: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The kingdom of God begins to spread to the ends of the earth.

At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he asks the crowd, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone… Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.” (Matt 21:42–45) In the dream, the stone struck the feet of the statue so that the whole statue toppled and fell on the stone and was broken to pieces. The stone is Jesus. But it is also his kingdom. Through the proclamation of the gospel, the kingdom of God is growing. One day it will fill the whole earth, replacing all human kingdoms.


What was Nebuchadnezzar’s response when he heard Daniel’s interpretation? He fell facedown and declared aloud,

“Your God is indeed God of gods, Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, since you were able to reveal this mystery.” (Daniel 2:47)

The king who ordered Daniel’s execution now bows down to him, for Daniel represents this God of heaven. The king calls Daniel’s God “a revealer of mysteries.” Where Babylon’s wise men had failed, Daniel came through. Where Babylon’s gods were blind and inept, Daniel’s God revealed the mystery. Therefore, the king calls Daniel’s God, “God of gods.”

He is greater than the Babylonian gods.

This post was based on a sermon called “Bad Dreams.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Bad Dreams

Nobody enjoys bad dreams. I experienced some terrifying ones as a child. As I grew older, rather than diminishing they only escalated. This was partly due to a ritual of watching a late-night show called the “Sunday Horrors.” I would sit on the couch with a pillow nearby. Whenever the terror of what I was watching became overwhelming, I would cover my face with the pillow and then peep around the corner to see if the scene had finished. I watched this show week in and week out, not seeming to make the connection with the increased level of bad dreams I was experiencing and what I was watching.

One night King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, and it wasn’t because he was watching too much bad TV. He woke up in a sweat. Nebuchadnezzar was a very successful general and the most powerful man on earth at that time. But here he is, deeply troubled. What is the meaning of these awful dreams? He saw a huge statue of a man. The man had a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Suddenly a stone, like a meteorite smashes the statue into powder. The wind blows the powder away. No trace of the statue is left.

What is this about? In the Ancient world people believed that the gods often spoke through dreams. Are the gods trying to tell him something? Were they telling him that he was that giant statue? Is there some enemy out there who wants to grind him to dust? What’s going on? So the King gives orders and summoned the magicians, mediums, sorcerers, and Chaldeans to tell him the dream.

Here come the wise men – those who are experts when it comes to dream interpretation. They are falling over each other to be first in line. It was an opportunity that was ripe for the picking. Once he told them the dream, they would spin some interpretation and cash in on his insomnia. They say to him in verse 4:

“May the king live forever. Tell your servants the dream, and we will give the interpretation.”

The king replies:

“My word is final: If you don’t tell me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be made a garbage dump. But if you make the dream and its interpretation known to me, you’ll receive gifts, a reward, and great honour from me. So make the dream and its interpretation known to me.” (Daniel 2:5–7)

Nebuchadnezzar was no fool. He knows any one of them could fabricate an interpretation once he told them his dream. So, he calls their bluff. They claim to be in touch with the gods – well come on now, prove your stuff. They begin to sweat. This was not going to plan. It’s not just their positions and salaries which are in jeopardy, it’s their heads. They answer him,

“May the king tell the dream to his servants, and we will make known the interpretation.”

The king answers in verses 8-9

“The king replied, “I know for certain you are trying to gain some time, because you see that my word is final. If you don’t tell me the dream, there is one decree for you. You have conspired to tell me something false or fraudulent until the situation changes. So tell me the dream and I will know you can give me its interpretation.”

He’s not going to back down. Now they are getting desperate. The king’s demand is completely unreasonable. They are not diviners and prophets. They have no direct access to the gods. They exclaim in verse 10:

“No king, however great and powerful, has ever asked anything like this of any magician, medium, or Chaldean. What the king is asking is so difficult that no one can make it known to him except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.”

We find here, at this point in the chapter, where the tension is at its highest, the author makes the first of two important points. And the first one is this:

The gods of Babylon know nothing and can do nothing;
the Living God is all-wise and all-powerful.

The Babylonians were the most philosophically and scientifically advanced society of their age and believed the gods had ultimate control of events, so they employed a great army of analysts and consultants and what you might call ‘futurologists’ – those who have might have knowledge of such events. These men were experts not only in examining the skies for unique stars and comets but also the shape of animal livers and strange phenomenon, such as the birth of a two-headed calf or a shark without a fin. We actually have today stone inscriptions that have been found describing such interpretations. They would look back in the annuals of former kings and say, “Well back here the shape of the liver meant such and such so we can predict with reliability that now it now means such and such.” “We can see back here that this king had a dream; your dream is similar so therefore we can see that your dream means that such and such is going to happen.”

We find the same kind of ruse going on today, don’t we? We have our financial experts and analysts, the trend-spotters and political analysts and the management consultants who predict, with equal confidence and certainty, things that are going to happen.  Sometimes they get it right but most times they don’t. When something completely unexpectant happens they say, “we had no way of anticipating that” – which goes to show that ultimately they don’t know anything at all.  They are just as ignorant and powerless as the “wise men” in Daniel’s day.

When Daniel hears about the decree, he is not troubled; nor does he panic. He calmly and quietly approaches Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard and says, “why is the decree of the king so harsh?” Arioch explains the situation and Daniel goes to the king and asks him to give him time. Then he goes to his house and tells his three friends about the matter, urging them to pray and ask for God to intervene.

Daniel has bought himself a day’s stay of execution: 24 hours. Now everything rests on God mercifully and graciously providing the answer to the king’s problem. Daniel and his friends pray and then Daniel goes to bed. It’s now in the Lord’s hands. We are then told in verse 19, “The mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night”

Daniel responds with a prayer of thanksgiving. It is a remarkable prayer and gives us a glimpse into the heart of this young man and his view of God. It begins with:

“May the name of God be praised forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to him” (verse 20)

Daniel prays that the name of God, that is, God himself, may be praised from age to age and generation to generation because “wisdom and power belong to him” Next, he explains and clarifies God’s wisdom and power.

“He changes the times and seasons; he removes kings and establishes kings” (verse 21)

In short, God is to be praised from age to age because he controls the seasons of nature as well as the history of this world. Next, he elucidates on this divine wisdom,

“He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals the deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him.” (verses 21-22)

God knows what is in the darkness. He knows what is happening now and what is going to happen. And God not only knows but also has the power to do something about it. That gives us great confidence and hope for the future.

There is a famous quote from A.W. Tozer that goes like this: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Great thoughts of God lead to great faith in God.

Big view of God = big faith.
Little view of God = little faith.

This prayer of Daniel tells us something about his view of God.  His following actions tell us something about his faith. It’s the kind of view of God we all need today, not just in the face of trials and suffering, but in everything.

In my next post we are going to learn the meaning of this dream of Nebuchadnezzar and the mysterious statue. It has huge implications not only for Daniel and his three friends, but for everyone today.

This post was based on a sermon called “Bad Dreams.” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.