There are a number of important lessons in Daniel beyond the lesson of the Bible’s reliability (see last week’s “Heads Up”). Today, please let us give them briefly and then apply them in a slightly wider way.
First, sin is not static. That is, the one who sins never remains on a plateau. The path of sin always leads downhill, as we saw two weeks ago. In the case of Belshazzar, because he would not learn from the example and experience of his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar sank not merely to Nebuchadnezzar’s insane bestiality, which was a punishment for his arrogance, but lower still. Nebuchadnezzar sinned by boasting, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). He took to himself the glory due God and was punished by God by the loss of his reason. Belshazzar went further. He blasphemed God by desecrating the vessels of God taken from the temple at Jerusalem and by praising idols in the true God’s place. He was punished not merely by the loss of his reason (though his actions were a true insanity) but also by the loss of his kingdom and his life.
This is the biblical pattern. It was the pattern of Gomer, who left Hosea to live with other men. It was the pattern of Jonah, whose rejection of God’s call led to near disaster. The pattern is enunciated clearly in Romans 1: “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity … to shameful lusts … [and] to a depraved mind.” (verses 21–24, 26, 28). This is exactly what Daniel told Belshazzar. “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” (Daniel 5:22).
Second, sin makes us impervious to danger. Karl Marx said that “religion is the opiate of the people.” He meant that religion puts us to sleep so that our oppressors have less trouble maintaining their supremacy. But Marx got it exactly backward. It is not religion that drugs us; it is sin. True religion wakes us up by turning us from sin to the righteousness of God that is in Jesus Christ.
Belshazzar’s final fling is an example of this stupidity (or shall we say real insanity). Darius was outside the walls. That very night he would dam up the river and enter the city through the space provided when the water dropped and exposed the portals through which the river entered Babylon. At the moment of this greatest of all dangers, Belshazzar was drugging himself at his party. Yet it is not only Belshazzar who has done this. Our culture is doing it as well. Some time ago a book by Neil Postman, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, appeared in American bookstores. It was about television and its pernicious effects on our country. It might well have been written about culture at large and have voiced alarm at our spiritual condition. By refusing to think, especially about eternal realities, and by filling our days with entertainment, particularly sin-oriented entertainment, we lose sight of danger and plunge into the abyss.
Third, God is not static. I have said that sin is not static, but I need to say also that God is not static. There are times in history when sin abounds and God does not seem to intervene – at least not spectacularly. But we must not think that God is unaffected by sin or that He will ignore it forever simply because His judgments are postponed. In times like these the wrath of God accumulates, like waters rising behind a dam. The time eventually comes when that great accumulation of wrath is poured out against sinners. This happens to nations at the moments of their greatest arrogance. It happens to individuals. It happens when the judgments of God are least expected.
I think of how Jesus spoke in his Olivet discourse just before his crucifixion. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. … Be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:37–42, 44).
The only thing more certain for us than death and taxes is the final judgment. Until next week, Lord willing – Maranatha!