The Nebuchadnezzar Syndrome
Editor’s note: This is an adaptation of a message delivered during the European Pastors’ Council, held in DeBron, Netherlands, September 11–16, 2007.
He has showed you, O man, what is good.And what does the LORD require of you?To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God—Micah 6:8, NIV.
A nervous theology student stands outside my door. He raises his hand to knock on the door then has second thoughts; he knows what awaits him inside. Just a few days before, he’d preached his heart out in the homiletics class to a room full of his classmates as well as to a video camera. And now, on the other side of that door judgment will be passed. For beyond that door is a monitor. And a video player. And me.
Even the most self-confident knocks timidly at the door. Once seated in front of the monitor, I run the tape for a few minutes and invite the student’s self-assessment. Some have gripped the arms of their chair as if they were being executed. One held his head in his hands. One actually yelled, “That is not me!” Such occasions as these produce almost universal humility.
But one day a young student, full of the joy of the Lord, sat down to engage in self-assessment. He was there, experiencing his own sermon on the monitor, nodding his head. He responded with several “Amens” to his own preaching. He was clearly blessed. Then I asked, “So how would you assess that?” He turned to me, beaming, and said, “Excellent! Absolutely excellent!”
Switch now to another scene of proud self-assessment. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon stands in his favorite spot—on the rooftop garden of his sumptuous palace just beside the phenomenal Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And as he stands there his eyes scan the horizon. The double outer wall of the city runs for 27 kilometers1 around his capital. From the palace his eyes wander down the sacred processional way; one kilometer long, its walls covered in highly glazed, reflective blue tiles, decorated with 575 mythological beasts. And then on to the great citadel of Esagila, the temple of the high god Marduk, the ziggurat of Etemenanki rising 90 meters2 into the air. A bridge 130 meters long spanning the Euphrates. Not to mention another 3 palaces and 53 temples.
“He said, ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’ ” (Dan. 4:30, NIV).
And, surely, you might think, it’s difficult to make any connection between that and ministry in the church. But the stories in the early chapters of Daniel present the significance of spirituality for leaders who are used by God. In other words, stories signifi cant for pastors.
The Nebuchadnezzar Syndrome
Nebuchadnezzar takes Jerusalem. Or, rather the Lord gives Jerusalem into his hands, as Daniel puts it. But Nebuchadnezzar can’t see it because at this stage he hasn’t met the Lord. Rather, he believes his power, his effort, brought him success. He’s filled with the pride of self-achievement.
Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a huge awe-inspiring, frightening metal idol. Sitting atop this idol resides a head of gold. The gold of Babylon. But then the whole idol of human achievement is smashed to smithereens by a small stone. The stone of the kingdom of God. But at this stage, Nebuchadnezzar has only heard of the Lord. Nothing more. And the crushing of the idol of human pride means little to him.
Nebuchadnezzar’s resistance to humility continues. So he builds an idol made entirely of gold. At 30 meters high, it is second only to the legendary Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world, which stood 35 meters high. Its size matches Nebuchadnezzar’s pride. But as he peers into the furnace and sees the three friends walking in the flames with another figure who looks like a son of the gods, the truth begins to dawn on him. But nothing more.
Where does God deal His final hand? Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a tree. A tree that represents Nebuchadnezzar himself. Its size matches Nebuchadnezzar’s ego. The tree is enormous—its top reached to heaven, visible to the ends of the earth and that explains Nebuchadnezzar’s pride. “ ‘Is not this the great Babylon?’ ” In previous episodes, Nebuchadnezzar, as he besieged Jerusalem, was ignorant of God, then he heard of God when Daniel interpreted his dream of the metal idol, then he saw the workings of God when the three friends walked alive in the flames. But here, he experiences God. And what is it that brings him to experience God? Humility.
A sobering thought for us, as pastors. Being pastors, we can lurch between two extremes. On the one hand, self-congratulation and pride. The Nebuchadnezzar syndrome. Are not these my baptismal candidates, my congregation that I have built up and nurtured? Is not this my church?
But, on the other hand, depression— we’re just not achieving what the church expects of us. Few Bible studies and few baptisms, doubts about our calling, awkward members, demanding conference presidents. The antidote for both extremes of pride and depression is humility. The humility of Nebuchadnezzar and his tree.
The tree represents Nebuchadnezzar, great suzerain of the empire of Babylon. And the first thing to hit you about this tree is its size (Dan. 4:10, 11). It is huge. Just like that massive metal idol representing human superpowers back in chapter 2. But the humble rock of the kingdom of God smashed the towering kingdoms of this world. For in the kingdom of God, size is not important.
Which might be what Jesus had in mind. “ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches’ ” (Matt. 13:31, 32, NIV).
Note that Jesus calls the mustard plant a “tree.” Now that is an exaggeration. It isn’t a tree. But He calls it a tree because His eye is on the Old Testament. And particularly, perhaps, on Daniel 4 and other places where trees represent kingdoms. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he represents the kingdom of Babylon like a great tree with its top in the heavens and birds in its branches. In Ezekiel, the kingdom of Assyria is like a huge cedar of Lebanon with birds in its branches (Ezek. 31:3–6, NIV). And Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a mustard tree with birds in its branches. But the kingdom of God’s mustard tree stands pretty insignificant next to Nebuchadnezzar’s tree, which could be seen from the ends of the earth, or Assyria’s towering cedar. Just as the humble stone of the kingdom of God was dwarfed by the huge metal idol. That is the surprising thing about the kingdom of God. It will arrive in a surprising form, not as a mighty tree, but as a humble garden plant. For the kingdom of God is no crushing human empire, built on might and power, but rather, a humble venture of faith.
Many of us are pastors of small churches. So, we might be tempted to say, “Listen. I know all about humility!” The first congregation in my ministry numbered three. Three old ladies. One to play the piano. One to take up the offering. And one to sleep through every one of my sermons. I’d just arrived with a spanking new MDiv, and I thought I was learning humility. But the story of Nebuchadnezzar is more profound, more significant than that.
The tree in his dream was “great and strong.” That’s what Nebuchadnezzar said. “ ‘Is not this the great Babylon?’ ” He took in the full glory and power of his kingdom in a moment of time.
Someone else did as well. He, too, stood on a high place and saw all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. He surveyed the imperial glories of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, the Aztecs, the Zulus, France, Britain, and the United States of America. He was tempted to accept the principles of the kingdoms of this world. “Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, ‘I will give you all this power and their splendour, for it has been handed over to me, for me to give it to anyone I choose. Do homage, then, to me, and it shall all be yours’ ” (Luke 4:5–7, NJB). “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” ’ ” (Luke 4:8, NIV). Christ’s response showed that His gospel is based not on human ambition or pride but on humble faith in God.
Which is, of course, what Nebuchadnezzar finally learns. He learns it when his pride is humbled. This experience of Nebuchadnezzar’s sets the pattern for the rest of the book of Daniel. Great cities fall, huge idols are destroyed, awesome beasts are slaughtered, boasting horns plucked up. And massive trees chopped down. And they all get what is coming to them. Because they never learned the lesson that Nebuchadnezzar finally did. The gift of humility.
The humble God
But what is the point? What is the point of humility? What is the point of humility for Nebuchadnezzar? For us as pastors? The point of humility is not, I think, simply to acknowledge God’s eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, and to be overwhelmed by how great He is. We might do that, of course. However, humility means more. Because one of the most prominent attributes of God, and one of the most forgotten, is God’s humility, for God is a humble God. And when we exercise humility, we experience something of God. When we exercise humility, we come close to the heart of God.
Of course, the Bible does present the majesty of God. Isaiah sees the Lord seated on a throne, and the hem of His robe fills the temple. But such passages merely make the humility of God all the more breathtaking.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:2, 3, NIV).
By His actions, Christ exemplified humility. “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet” (John 13:3–5, NIV).
Which was, finally, the lesson learned by Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar II, great suzerain of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, learned humility by taking on the form of a cow (Dan. 4:33–37). But Christ “though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6, 7, NRSV). When Nebuchadnezzar experienced humility, he came close to the heart of God.
And this gospel of humility needs pastors of humility. Because when pastors experience humility, we too, come close to the heart of God.
Some years ago, I attended a small church on the East Coast of the United States. About 50 members. In our Sabbath School class we occasionally had a visitor. An older fellow. He wasn’t a church member, but he knew the Lord. Soft-spoken. Unassuming. Would contribute quietly and thoughtfully to the Sabbath School discussion. John was his name. We normally just talked about spiritual matters in class. But after church one day, we got to talking. The Olympic Games were on at the time. I asked him if he’d seen any of it.
“Oh, a little, you know.”
“Do you enjoy athletics, John?”
“Oh, yes. Did a bit myself when I was younger.”
“Really? Did you ever run competitively?”
“Oh, a bit.”
“So, what was your best achievement?”
“Well, I suppose,” he said, “when I won the gold medal at the Olympics.”
John. John Woodruff, 1936 Olympics. Berlin. Eight hundred-meter final. In a time of one minute, 52.9 seconds. John Woodruff: Sabbath School member and Olympic champion. And if I hadn’t asked an ignorant question, I would never have known.
As mentioned, I teach homiletics. I’m frequently asked, “What is the most important quality you need to become a good preacher?” I never know what to say. There are so many qualities needed. But the most important? Recently, however, I realized what it is—humility. Humility to take preaching seriously. Humility to accept the authority of Scripture. Humility to accept that the Holy Spirit works more through the sweat of study and preparation than He does in the shower on Sabbath morning. Humility to accept that what our congregations need is not our cleverness, our trivial anecdotes, our threadbare clichés, but the fruit of our wrestling with Scripture and the fruit of our spiritual experience.
There is more to ministry than preaching. But by whatever means, as pastors, when we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, we proclaim the triumph of humility over pride and status. We need to pray for the triumph of humility in our own ministry.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8, NRSV).
Maybe that’s why Micah put it the way he did. He has shown us. He has shown us what is good. And what does the Lord require of us? To do justly. To love mercy. And to walk humbly, walk humbly, with our God.
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1 A kilometer is six-tenths of a mile.
2 A meter is slightly more than a yard.