And in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, with which his spirit was troubled…
There is no function in life which can compare for one moment to that of him who can minister to the perplexities of his fellow-men. The story connected with these words is very simple and well known. The king had dreamed a dream, and when he woke in the morning he could not recall it to his mind. A vague sense of the splendour of that dream haunted his imagination and memory. He felt that there was bound up in it some deep and mysterious truth. He hardly liked to let the whole remembrance of it quite go. He had around him his Chaldeans and his wise men, and he turned to them for aid, and their answer was that their function was limited only to the interpretation of dreams; it was not their function to enter upon a process of thought-reading unless there were present in the mind of him who demanded the interpretation the subject matter of those thoughts. In the emergency the difficulty was solved by a Jewish exile; to him it was given to be the reviver and interpreter of the dream. And we, perhaps, may feel that that ancient story is not wholly lost to us when we cast oar mind upon our own lives, and remember how much we, too, have been haunted by some magnificent dream. When the vision of what life really was, with its deep and solemn significance, was granted to us, we, awaking with the impression of all life's business, lost the vivid force of that dream — we could not recall it, and we turned to the seers about us. They are plentiful to seek, the wise and the unwise, the weak and the strong, the false and the true, and we, haunted by the remembrance of that vision of what life's deep significance is, turn in vain to these. And yet the conditions may teach us what are the real features and the real capacities of the true prophet. If I am not mistaken, the story suggests to us that there are two great elements which are essential in order that a man may be a real helper of his fellow men, the true prophet of his age. The condition which the king insists upon supplies one of these — it is that he should have touch with human nature; and his interpretation of the dream suggests the other — he must have some knowledge of the law and order of life. These two were just those that were vouchsafed to Daniel.
1. The first is knowledge of human nature. Let me ask you to put yourselves for the moment in the position of those who had this somewhat unreasonable demand made upon them. Their answer to his demand was very simple and fair. "We are perfectly ready," they said, "to interpret your dream, but our ministrations extend thus far; tell us the dream and we will tell the meaning." But the king, whose vision was elevated, perhaps, by the dream which he had experienced, began to see that he was surrounded by those who were in a large measure but charlatans; and prompted by this, he perhaps insists all the more pertinaciously on the condition. "You profess to be able to interpret my dreams. How do I know that your interpretations are true? Tell me what the dream was, and I can verify your accuracy. In other words, vindicate your pretensions in a sphere where I can test them, and then I will be able to give you my faith in the sphere where I cannot test them. I cannot verify your interpretations, but I can verify your statement of what passed through my mind. You profess to explain my life to me, and all the destiny that awaits it; if it be in your power to do this, show, first, that you understand me, and then I will believe that you can unfold my destiny." And that, in itself, when you come to study it, is no unfair condition. It may be unreasonable in the circumstances in which it was used, but there is a vein of reason, and there is a vein of fairness in it; for when you reflect upon it there is no power in a man to teach and to speak concerning the future, unless he has a certain knowledge of the present. The man who can read deepest into the circumstances and the situation of the present is the man who is far the more likely to be able to forecast the future. You would not entrust your case to the doctor who had no knowledge of your symptoms. You would believe that the man, and the man only, who could read into your symptoms, would be able to track the probable development of the disease. It is the same in nature. The naturalist cannot predict a harvest except he understands the nature of the seed, and it is just in proportion as he is possessed of the power of insight that he is possessed of the power of foresight. That is taught us in the pages of history. As long as men thought, as it were, to out-manoeuvre Nature, and to read her secrets by ignoring her face, they simply courted defeat. These were the astrologers, the charlatans of science; but the moment they took up the other attitude, and began to scan closely the features of nature, and sought earnestly to understand the meaning of her thoughts, they began to discover her laws, and discovering them they had the power by which they could predict what would be the evolution of those laws. And if that be true in the law and order of nature, has it its counterpart in the moral order also? Place ourselves for a moment in the position of the king. Daniel comes and unfolds to him the vision. That splendid vision, that noble and colossal figure, represented what had passed through the king's mind, not that night only, but every night. It had been the dream of his life, the splendour and the magnificence of his position; the glorious headship which he held over the empire which he thought his own, from the high 'vantage ground of which he looked down in proud contempt upon human kind. His thoughts were read. The man's heart is read; his vision, and all the subtle play of his thoughts is unfolded to him. "The man that can toll me these secrets of my heart is the man into whose hand I will place my destiny and bid him point the way along the track of my life. He can understand what is the outcome of this career of mine who thus understands me." And wherever men have been in the position of prophets of their age, their strength and power has depended upon their capacity to read the minds and the play of thought of the men of their age. If they are not familiar with this life they cannot have any power to deal with the life that lies beyond. The men who stood in their day foremost had an intimate knowledge of human nature. Take, for example, what, after all, is an illustration in the same direction. This Book of God has found its dominion over the minds and the lives of men because it has always displayed itself as a book well read in the deeps of human nature. "I say," said one, rising from the perusal of it, "the person who wrote that Book knew me." "I believe," said one, who was cut off only too early in his splendid and promising career, "I believe it to be God's Book because it is man's Book;" that is to say, it has such a power to fit into the needs of human kind that it vindicates its divine strength because of the very humanity of its methods. And this is what we may call the divine key to the method which God Himself has adopted in the life and pattern of Jesus Christ. He comes into our midst to be the Divine Teacher. He understands men. "Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig-tree I saw thee — I knew the devout aspirations of thy life," and that breaks down the thought. "This teacher understands me. Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the Judge of Israel." Sometimes we feel ourselves a little disheartened. The cynic turns aside and says, "It is true your Christianity is played out, your religion effete." I say it is an unwise thing for a man to echo these doleful plaints. May it not be the case that we have lost touch with humanity, that we have failed to understand human nature as it is before us in the century in which we live; that we have allowed, so to speak, our Christian teaching to grow fossilised, and the fossilised thing has lost its life and the hands and feet of its movement, and it cannot grasp upon the heart of humanity again?
2. But let us look at this second condition — the knowledge of a Divine order. What was the interpretation of the dream? Here stood this colossal figure, glittering with its varied metals. By-and-by, "without hands," came the stone which smote upon it, and then, as in a moment, all the magnificence dropped into pieces, and these huge masses of metal, which had been the admiration of the world a moment ago, are lifted as things light, as "the char upon the summer threshing-floor," and swept away, and the little stone begins to grow, and to take the place of this great image, and to fill the world itself. Of course, you may say the figure represented the empires which were existing and which were to follow — Persia, Greece, Rome, or, if you will have it so, the Egyptian or the Syrian kingdoms; but whatever the historical interpretation, the ethical interpretation is for you and me. That splendid dream, and that magnificent figure which appeared in the king's dream, is the dream of man in all ages; it is the dream of self-realisation. He who dreams is king. He sees that grand figure bearing human form, dominating the plain; and this is the ambition of men in all ages; but as he beholds he sees it in its glory and in its weakness. He sees it in its splendour — there is the effort of man to realise himself. It was so with all those who endeavoured to establish any solid, single monarchy. From the days of Nebuchadnezzar or Nimrod, if you will, to the days of Napoleon, this has been the same dream, "I will take my idea, and I will impress it upon the world, and I will mould that earth and all the creatures that are in it to my will, and I shall dominate all." That is the ambition; what I want you to notice is, that it is the effort of a man to realise self in some form or other. That is an instinct which does not simply breathe into the hearts of' great conquerors, or great founders of monarchies; there is not a human being created with a soul or an intelligence that had not had the dream that he will realise himself. The artist who seeks to cast his ideas on the canvas so as to speak his thoughts in richness and detail to his follow men — he is seeking to realise himself — his own idea painted there. Even in the home life you can see it. This joy of home life has largely its play and its beauty because it is the very thing in which we see that in our children we live again — we realise ourselves in them. This instinct of self-realisation is at the root of man's best ambitions as well as his worst, and as it is at the root of them you can understand why it is, but the life and the form of that which was given him from God; for God Himself, if we may in reverence say it, has made His world but the picture of the same principle in Himself. The world is God realising Himself in material beauty; the page of history is God realising Himself in moral order, and this Christian revelation is God realising Himself in spiritual splendour to humanity; and I am not surprised if this, the very impulse of God, be self-realisation that He may manifest His greatness and His love, that therefore we, drawing our life from His hand, should be filled with a like instinct. But while this colossal figure in the vision is shown in its splendour, it is also shown in its weakness. This little stone, without hands, should demolish the whole; man's best and noblest dreams, man's most brilliant ambitions, are destined to be overthrown. And why? This stone represents precisely that unseen, that handless power which has not its origin in the conceptions of man, but in the nature of things; it is just the picture of what you see in nature. Man builds his noble shrines, he rears his sumptuous palaces, he spreads abroad the magnificent tokens of his power; but law, re-written deep down in the heart of nature, lays its hand upon all these creations of man's genius, and overturns all that man creates. In the precincts of moral order the law will overturn also; under this condition, all that is up built disregarding God's eternal law must perish. It is not merely because man made it that it must die, but it is that man made it in violation of eternal law. Three laws were violated in its erection — the law of time and growth, the law of righteousness, the law of solidarity. The law of time, because this is that which is built up, made — it does not grow in contradistinction to the stone "without hands." That grows, this is made. That which is made, as it were, is merely built and at variance with the law of growth. The things which are alive grow, and in those things in which there is any moral life there is the capacity of growing. All the best things of this world grow, but the impatience of man hastens them onward. God will make a kingdom, but men with their impatience say, "We will make it in our own time," and therefore at all costs — at the cost of blood, at the cost of righteousness, the kingdoms are made. These empires have perished. Why? Because they violated eternal laws of God; and as surely as the power of natural law can overthrow every shrine of human erection, so surely must every kingdom, every monarch, every race, every nationality, every church die and perish, if it tries to construct itself out of God's due time and out of God's due order. And as it thus violated the law of growth, by the very impatience of its construction, you know that it violated the law of rectitude. Men often imagine that they can do the right thing, but that they can do it in any way they please. There are two sentinels that stand at the outgoing of the temple of God; the one is the sentinel of a right way and the other of a right thing, and you are not permitted to build where God builds for all eternity, unless you be directed by the right thing and also by the right way. The weakness of life, as we often see it, is that men are passionately devoted to some great and noble enterprise, but they undermine the very foundations of their own edifice, because, while they seek the right thing they miss the right way, and that is the secret of many a failure. It sinned also against the law of solidarity. If you look at the construction of this image, you will find that it is merely a piling together: there is no homogeneity about it, it is heterogeneous; I am of gold, and I will be the head of all; I am of silver, and I will be the strength of all; I am of brass and I will be power of fertility to all, and my iron heel shall be planted upon all. Christ has made all men to be of one blood upon the face of the earth, and the kingdom which He establishes shall be built up not with materials which shall represent the dignity, the glory, or the pre-eminence of one nation or one people over another, but that wider and better glory, which is the organisation of humanity unto a loving, living whole. "Then, if that be the doom, as it were, of this dream of humanity," we begin to say, "is it not, then, a sad close to it all?" If the instinct to realise self, that is, to leave some impress of our own upon the world ere we die, be a great and a God-given impulse, and if what we see is the constant overthrow of all our schemes, are we, then, to settle down into a miserable pessimism and say, "It is vain ever to expect the realisation of human dreams?" Nay, not so. This little stone "without hands" takes the place of this overthrown image; it grows; it is the empire of heart, the kingdom which cannot be shaken; and, therefore, there has never passed through human mind a noble and a true dream that God does not see the way to realise. He breaks down our little efforts to realise it that He may substitute His own. Never let us think, then, that we are to be for ever disappointed by incessant and perpetual failures. The world grows old, but with it there grows, also, the everlasting and the ripening purposes of God.
(Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, wherewith his spirit was troubled, and his sleep brake from him.