Titian, Christ and the Good Thief
Not exactly the world’s typical picture of a king. A man–scourged nearly to death, a crown of thorns on his head, nailed to a cross–conferring an honor upon a supplicant. And not exactly the typical royal favor, either. Not a dukedom, or a large purse, or a military command. “Today,” this unlikely crucified king said to the repentant criminal, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
The second chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel recounts a dream of the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar. The Lord revealed the dream and its meaning to young Daniel, who then praised God, saying, “He reveals deep and mysterious things!”
Daniel knew that Nebuchadnezzar had seen in his dream the image of a man. “The head was of fine gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, the legs of iron, and the feet partly of iron and partly of clay.”
Daniel interpreted the various parts of the figure’s body as a succession of kingdoms: gold for Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom, silver for an inferior succeeding kingdom, then bronze, iron— and then a final, brittle kingdom of iron and clay.
Not sure if the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration fits into this anywhere. But that’s not my point. Because: After the prophet Daniel has described all this, another, completely foreign element enters the picture.
Daniel in the Sistine chapel
So far, we have the figure of a man. Yes, it’s strange that this figure is composed of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay. But the form itself—a man standing—that form easily finds a home in our imagination. Anyone can picture a man standing.
But Daniel continued, describing Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: “As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand.” A stone cut out by no human hand. Sounds like a big avalanche, or an asteroid falling from the sky. Impossible for us to imagine clearly. Then what happened?
“It smote the image of the man on its feet, and broke them in pieces, then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold all together were broken to pieces, and became like chaff on the summer threshing floor, and the wind carried it all away, so that no trace could be found.”
Again, not exactly easy for us to picture in our imaginations. For me, it calls to mind the spectacle of the shiny Twin Towers in New York collapsing into a huge, noxious pile of dust. The human figure in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream–“mighty Man,” the kings of history, man dominating the earth—it all disintegrates into nothing.
Then Daniel continues: “The stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” Daniel interprets this: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all the other kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”
Now, of course, we must understand this Old-Testament revelation as a prophecy of the reign of Christ. God Himself intervening directly in the political organization of mankind, establishing a unique community, His chosen people, united under our unique king. The Christian Church, united in the faith and love of Christ, has fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy.
The fact that no human hand cut the rock that became the mountain: Surely this represents the absolute “otherness” of God. The fact that He exercises His omnipotent power on his terms alone. No human idea, no human conception, no human image can represent the divine sovereignty. No wise man would ever pretend to grasp the inevitable divine plan. We can only submit ourselves to His rule with humble faith, saying “Our Father in heaven, Your kingdom come; Your will be done.”
But the revelation of Daniel 2 does not completely disclose the kingdom of Christ. One crucial aspect of the eternal kingdom only got revealed later, when the fullness of time had come.
The rock not cut by human hand does indeed represent the transcendent awesomeness of God Almighty. God’s sovereignty nullifies every human conceit, every presumption on our part to understand on our own terms the ultimate meaning of the events of history.
But: in the fullness of time, God revealed that this crushing rock is, in fact, a human being, a man. A humble man. A man of gentle love, Who does not break even a bruised reed or quench even a smoldering wick.
The divine rock that crushes every delusion of grandeur in man came as a man with no delusions of grandeur. He submitted to scourging and crucifixion even though He committed no crime. He promised paradise to the penitent man dying beside Him—an impossible, laughably preposterous promise, which this perfectly honest king then proceeded to fulfill.
Christians, rejoice! It turns out that the rock that crushes the pride of man and establishes the endless domain of God has fallen from the sky as nothing more violent that the king Who died for us on the cross so that we could reign with Him forever.