In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed such dreams that his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him. So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king, he said to them, ‘I have had such a dream that my spirit is troubled by the desire to understand it.’ The Chaldeans said to the king (in Aramaic), ‘O king, live for ever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation.’ The king answered the Chaldeans, ‘This is a public decree: if you do not tell me both the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. But if you do tell me the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honour. Therefore tell me the dream and its interpretation.’ They answered a second time, ‘Let the king first tell his servants the dream, then we can give its interpretation.’ The king answered, ‘I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see I have firmly decreed: if you do not tell me the dream, there is but one verdict for you. You have agreed to speak lying and misleading words to me until things take a turn. Therefore, tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation.’ The Chaldeans answered the king, ‘There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! In fact no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.’ Because of this the king flew into a violent rage and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. The decree was issued, and the wise men were about to be executed; and they looked for Daniel and his companions, to execute them. Then Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon; he asked Arioch, the royal official, ‘Why is the decree of the king so urgent?’ Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. So Daniel went in and requested that the king give him time and he would tell the king the interpretation.
A clever thing happens in the book of Daniel, from 2:4 until 8:1: the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic!
Hebrew is the mother tongue, the language of YHWH. Aramaic was the global language, the language of Empire and trade. Most of the enslaved Hebrews after a time would have been more fluent in Aramaic than their mother tongue.
At the moment the language shifts to acceptable language, one hears the other holy men say: “tell your servants to interpret the dream”. The king challenges the holy men to ‘guess’ what he is dreaming, then interpret it. There is a big difference between knowing what to say and knowing what needs to be said. Nebuchadnezzar already knows the representatives of popular religion are ill-equipped to see his anguish. He is set to put popular religion to death because it is not deep enough to see through him.
When religion reaches the zenith of its popularity at best and at worst is obvious to everyone, it loses public trust and its prophetic edge. Let’s be honest: sometimes our lament on the decline of the Church is really a lament on the loss of Christian superiority in public life: Victorian buildings no longer are easily filled; stadiums don’t overflow like the Billy Graham days; children can no longer recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory. We say, “The church is dead.” We give up on faith. We tell folks things they want to hear. We water down worship. We stop preaching. We never liked doing it anyway, so why bother? We ask, “What are we doing wrong and how can WE fix it?” When religion is popular and obvious, we go into ‘survival’ mode.
This episode teaches that prophetic wisdom opens communication and saves lives. It is a language that sets captives free and even brings monarchs to their knees. It is a language that can see through the emperor’s dreams, yet speaks clearly in any language.
Tune our ears and defrost our hearts, Ground of our Being. Tune our ears to your heartbeat, Your music, Your song. Cause compassion to burn in deeply frozen hearts made cold by the politics of survival. Make out of us a people who will hear, live, and feast on Your Wisdom. Amen.
The Rev’d William Young, Minister, Essenside URC Glasgow and Morison Memorial URC Clydebank.