February 12, 2012
“Delusions of Power”
One of my friends shared a great cartoon panel on Facebook this week. The picture shows a crowd of people standing on the end of a broad board, near the edge of a cliff. The board extends out, off the edge of the cliff, so that the other end of the board hangs in mid air. Standing behind a podium on that suspended board end, is a man in a suit giving a speech. The title of this panel is “Power.”
For those characters within the picture, the perception is that the man behind the podium has the power. Those of us viewing the picture, though, realize that it is the group of people keeping the board in the air that really have the power.
The guy behind the podium does not represent any particular person, as far as I can tell. Just your generic middle-aged white male politician. And I’ll be honest with you, with all of the presidential primary coverage, I’m about at the end of my tolerance for politics and politicians right now. Which is troubling since the general election is still nine months away. Nine more months of people jockeying for power with money and personal attacks and misrepresented facts and short-sighted slogans and all kinds of fits if they don’t get their way. Sometimes I despair for the stability of our country and, frankly, for the state of our collective soul.
And then I read a passage like Daniel 3. They say that misery loves company, and I have to admit that it is somewhat comforting to know that 20th-21st Century United States culture did not invent the power-hungry politician. I find an odd sort of comfort in reading about King Nebuchadnezzar.
He is presented here almost as a caricature, a ruler so insecure that he has to make up rules for people to obey just to prove he can make people obey rules. Maybe you’ve had a new boss or a young teacher like this–making up new rules just because they can. I heard recently of a pastor that came into a church, and her first Sunday there she completely rearranged the order of worship that the congregation’s worship committee had developed through months of prayer and study. Her message to the church was, “I’m the one in charge now.” And, as you might imagine, she wasn’t pastor there for very long.
Nebuchadnezzar is one of these types of people–only instead of being in charge of an office or a classroom or a congregation, he has power over an entire nation.
Almost everything about Nebuchadnezzar is exaggerated. The statue he commissions is 90 feet tall. There is a list of seven different groups of people plus “all the officials of the provinces” who are compelled to come to the statue’s dedication. The sound that signals people to fall down and worship the statue consists of ” horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble.” And those who do not fall over in worship will be “thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” It’s all overkill.
Scholars have spilled a lot of ink over questions about this statue. Who did this statue represent? Was it a statue of the Babylonian national god, Marduk? One of the other gods popular at the time? Perhaps it was it a statue of Nebuchadnezzar himself?
While, for the sake of curiosity, it would be nice to know who the statue represented, that detail isn’t really important for the story. Nebuchadnezzar’s fixation on this statue, and his insistence that “whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire” is not really about the statue or about any kind of god. It is about Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to make people bow down to a statue. It might have been a statue of Marduk. It might have been a statue of Nebuchadnezzar. It might have been a statue of a giant hot dog. Whatever it was, people fell down and worshiped it because the king said so.
Thus the intensity of Nebuchadnezzar’s anger when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship this statue. They are shattering his delusions of power. They step off the end of the board, and Nebuchadnezzar wavers dangerously over the canyon. The scripture says “he was so filled with rage . . . that his face was distorted.” You can almost hear the Howard Dean scream, can’t you?
Nebuchadnezzar is so furious he doesn’t even know what to do with himself. He orders the furnace to be made seven times hotter than usual–as if a hotter furnace will make the three men more dead. This proves a ridiculous, petty, and ultimately dangerous command. The furnace is so hot that the poor guys who dumped Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into it were killed by the “raging flames.”
Is it even possible to heat a furnace up to seven times the normal temperature? For it to be so hot that the men who threw things in would be burnt alive? I don’t know, but it makes for a great story; and it proves the point. Nebuchadnezzar, this man who so desperately wants to have power over an entire nation of people, cannot even exercise power over himself.
Theoretically, the king does have power to kill people. Often, I would say usually, the power to kill someone translates pretty easily into the power to make them do what you want them to do. That’s why bank robbers point guns at the tellers instead of, say, bananas.
But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego messed up the power system, because they were willing to die. It is important to remember that these three men have no guarantees about coming out of the furnace alive. They tell Nebuchadnezzar that whether their God saves them or not, they refuse to bow down to his statue.
That is the heart of a martyr. They refuse to let the fear of death control their lives. And perhaps you’ve noticed that people with martyrs’ hearts tend to disrupt power structure after power structure.
We’ve had the earliest Christian church and the protestant reformation and those pesky Anabaptists.
We’ve heard stories of people like Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Rigoberta Menchu, Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela.
I’ve read about a Bible study group made up of women who lived in a very violent neighborhood in East L.A..1 Gangs ruled the street and the residents basically cowered inside their houses at night, fearing for their lives. One day when these women were studying the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea, one of them said, “If we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid” of the gangs. And so the women agreed to come outside and all sit on their porches at the same time that week. The gang members weren’t too keen to have an audience of mother’s, so most of them left the neighborhood.
The reality of power is often very different from our perceptions of power. The guy at the podium, wavering on the end of the board, may have no idea how many steps just a few of the people in the crowd would have to take to send him plummeting.
And so Nebuchadnezzar, like rulers who came before him, and like plenty of rulers who would come after him, has his delusions of power shattered by these three Yahweh-worshipers who are willing to die. And the king realizes with a sudden and infuriating flash that if they are not afraid to die, he has no power over them. So he uses the power he does have to make his servants heat up the furnace to a ridiculous level.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are bound and thrown into the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar is astonished to see four figures in the furnace walking around. The three men and some heavenly being sent by their God to save them. That seven-times heated furnace did not even manage to singe a hair on any of those men’s heads. Even Nebuchadnezzar’s power to kill people has been thwarted.
Yet rather than being further enraged, the king calls them out of the furnace and marvels at their unharmed state. He says, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”
Let this be a lesson to all of us. The power we perceive in this world–the power of coercion, of political clout, of violence–is not the ultimate power. Ultimate power rests only, always, with God.
Surely, after this long ordeal with the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar has learned something. Surely he is at least somewhat relieved of his delusions of power. Well, we can hope, for about one second.
Immediately after commending Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for their faithfulness to their God, Nebuchadnezzar says, “Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins.”
Ah. That’s the Nebuchadnezzar we know and love to hate. He is willing to change the rules, but he’s not willing to quit making the rules.
And so it goes. Our human desire for power is deep. Our delusions of power are strong. It is easy to get sucked into the power plays that go on all around us. And it is easy to let our fears put us under the power of other people.
Here is my encouragement for you; encouragement from this Hollywood-worthy story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:
When you find yourself in a position of power over other people, I pray that you will submit your power to God’s power and act in love, act toward justice.
When you find yourself afraid to make the faithful choice because of those who have power over you, I pray you will remember that God alone holds the ultimate power; I pray you will step out in faith, rather than fear, trusting God’s love.