On a Search for Significance
(Seventh in a Series)
by O.S. Hawkins (June POL)
There’s an amazing transition taking place among the baby boomer generation in American culture today. It is a move from success to significance. This generation has acquired more possessions, more power, and more positions than any generation in human history. It set out to find success in life and found it. But guess what? This generation still has an emptiness inside. This generation also leads every generation in human history in such things as divorce, suicide, drug addition and loneliness.
Therefore, a significant segment of American culture is on a search today. It is a search for significance, fulfillment, a sense of purpose and authenticity. It is not a new search. By the world standards one of the most successful men in history made his transition from success to significance and recorded it here in the fourth chapter of Daniel for all prosperity. There are a lot of people in our culture on the same search today. The problem is that many still think significance is found in the successes of the worldly culture. Most men and women are still looking in all the wrong places. Some think that if they can do something better than anyone else they will find significance. So, they try to sell more policies, live in a bigger home, drive a fancier car, get their kids in better schools, and build bigger kingdoms.
Our culture is filled with the success syndrome. Most of the books we read are designed to make us the greatest. They tell us the way up is up! But in Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar found the fallacy of this philosophy. In fact, he tells us that the way up is down!
Our culture says, “build up self-confidence.” Our Bible says, “. . . put no confidence in the flesh . . .” (Philippians 3:3) Our culture says “promote yourself.” Our Bible says we are to crucify ourselves. (Galatians 2:20) Our culture tells us “we must increase.” Our Bible tells us that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Our culture tells us to “never be satisfied.” Our Bible tells us that we are to learn “whatever state I am, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) Our culture tells us to “put ourselves out front.” Our Bible tells us we are to deny ourselves. (Luke 9:23) Our culture tells us, “you’re number one!” Our Bible tells us we are to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6)
What is your particular goal in life? Is it success . . . or significance? Do you want to be a successful parent or a significant parent? Do you want to be a successful member of society or a significant member of society? As we come toDaniel 4 we see one of the most successful men in all of world history. Nebuchadnezzar had achieved wealth, power, and everything else that goes with it. Daniel 4 is his own story. It is his own journey from success to significance. Nebuchadnezzar came to the conclusion that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men . . .” (Daniel 4:17) This realization, that the Most High rules over the affairs of men, is what brings true significance to life. As the verses unfold in this chapter we see an amazing transition in King Nebuchadnezzar. He journeys from his boasting in Daniel 4:30, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?, to concluding with these words, Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down. (Daniel 4:37) What happened? These are the last words of one of the most ingenious, creative, productive and successful men who has ever lived. He left us his legacy here. Do you see it? He passed from successful to significance and in this one chapter shows us the way to this valuable discovery of life.
What will it be for us? We have a choice. We can base our self worth on success, our ability to achieve or to please others. Or, we can base it upon significance, our sense of self worth that’s found in our identity with the Lord Jesus Christ who set us apart before he formed us in the womb. We can pick one of two goals in life. We can search for significance, or we can search for success. In this volume we have heard from Daniel, we have heard from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and now it is time for us to hear from King Nebuchadnezzar himself. He has quite a testimony to share with us. He knows from experience the way from success to significance. He says two simple things to us. The way down is up and the way up is down.
I. The way down is up (Daniel 4:1-31)
The way down is up. Most of our current, contemporary culture does not think this is true. They think the way up is up. But Nebuchadnezzar testifies to us in this chapter that indeed, the way down is up – “is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) But our Lord reminds us that whoever exalts himself will be humbled. (Matthew 23:12) It was his way of saying the way down is up. Nebuchadnezzar was a man geared and governed by the success syndrome for most of his life. The more he had, the more he craved. In the third chapter of Daniel we see him building a golden image of himself with his prideful desire to have everyone bow down to worship his image. He ruled not only his nation but also himself by pride and was convinced that the way up was up for most of his life. That is, until he had a confrontation with the living God.
The introduction to Daniel 4 is in fact the conclusion. “Nebuchadnezzar the king, To all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you. I thought it good to declare the signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me.” (Daniel 4:1-3) These words actually came after his humbling and humiliating ordeal in Daniel Chapter 4. This chapter really reveals to us his personal testimony. He speaks of peace in Daniel 4:1. One thinks immediately of Paul’s own epistles. These are the words of a man who’s been transformed. Remember, this is the same man who spent his life at war. He conquered one nation after another after another. He engaged in one war after another. This is the same man who had taken millions of slaves for the sole purpose of building a world empire to satisfy his own pride in his own search for success. This is also the same man who uprooted families and nations, all to satisfy his own prideful success. This is the same man who in a rage of anger heated the fiery furnace seven times hotter than normal for the three Hebrew young men. This is the same man we read about in 2 Kings 25 who slew King Zedekiah’s sons in front of him and then put out Zedekiah’s own eyes so that the last thing he ever saw was the death of his boys. This is the man who stepped over anyone and anything to satisfy his own pride. This is the man that thought the way up was up in his search for success. Now we hear him speaking of peace.
What happened? In Daniel 4 Nebuchadnezzar made a journey from success to significance. But, he had to learn his lesson the hard way. He says to us across the centuries today that the way down is up. Note his testimony, “I thought it good to declare the signs and wonders that the most high God has worked for me.” (Daniel 4:2) He gave credit where credit was due. God had done these wonderful things. He goes on to say, “How great are His signs, and how mighty His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation.” (Daniel 4:2-3) Nebuchadnezzar had finally realized that the Babylonian kingdom was only temporary. God was in control and it is His kingdom that is the only everlasting kingdom. Now he wants the whole world to know what God had done for him.
What happened? How did it happen? Let’s trace together Nebuchadnezzar’s own journey from success to significance. It all began in Daniel 4:4 – “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at rest in my house and flourishing in my palace.” Look at him. He is at rest. He is flourishing. This is the only time this Aramaic word is used in the Bible. It corresponds to the word meaning green or to grow luxuriantly. Nebuchadnezzar was testifying that his kingdom was the epitome of success. I can almost see him now. His feet are propped up on his desk. He says, “I’ve got it made!” He is flourishing. He leans back, dozes off to sleep, and has a dream. His dream frightens him. The dream was of a tree that grew until it was very big and spreading its branches. It was an awesome sight. Then it was cut down and hauled off. However, the stump of the tree was left. A band of iron and brass kept it from being uprooted.
Troubled by this dream Nebuchadnezzar needs an interpreter. So he calls in the same losers that failed to interpret his dream in the second chapter of Daniel. A man ruled by pride and worldly success never learns. He is destined to repeat the same mistakes. None of Nebuchadnezzar’s “wise men” could interpret the dream. But Daniel comes through with the interpretation. He has some good news and some bad news for the king. The good news is that the king is great and strong like the mighty tree of his dream. But then came the bad news. He is going to be cut down. Daniel left no doubt that this tree was Nebuchadnezzar himself. He says, “The tree that you saw . . . it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong . . .” (Daniel 4:20-22)
Daniel’s interpretation was that this mighty tree will fall. However, it will not die. It will spring to life again. This tree describes a man who would lose all reason and behave like an animal for a period of time. He will be driven from men and his dwelling will be with the beast of the field and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. (Daniel 4:25) Daniel’s interpretation revealed to Nebuchadnezzar that he was about to lose his mind. He would go through temporary insanity after which he would be restored to his sanity and to his kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar was about to find out the hard way that the way down is up. God was about to reveal the truth that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men . . . (Daniel 4:25) God has His own way of moving us from success to significance. The kingdoms of men all rise and fall but the Most High rules in the kingdom of men.
Daniel begins to plead with King Nebuchadnezzar. “Therefore, O King, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (Daniel 4:27) Daniel warned Nebuchadnezzar that if he did not break from his sin he would ultimately be broken by his sin. Our culture today is filled with broken, wasted lives and people who refuse to break away from their sins. King Nebuchadnezzar was certainly successful by the world’s standards, but it was a success without any real significance in life. It is so much better to break from our sin than to be broken by our sin. I’ve seen men and women from all walks of life broken by their sin. I’ve been with men who once were so proud and heard them weep when they lost their family to their own pride or promiscuity. If only they had broken from their sin. Now, they were broken by it. They, like Nebuchadnezzar, learned that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men.
For those who are caught up in the success syndrome of today’s contemporary culture and think the way up is up, this is a warning. For those who do whatever they have to do to become successful, Daniel’s warning to Nebuchadnezzar is as fresh to you today – break off your sins. Daniel’s challenge was for Nebuchadnezzar to practice righteousness and show mercy. That is, get into a right relationship with God and with man.
Judgment did not fall on King Nebuchadnezzar at once. Daniel 4:29 tells us that 12 months passed. God’s grace was extended to him for 12 months, the whole year. But Nebuchadnezzar did not do anything about it. In fact, he strutted like a proud peacock on the roof of his palace saying, “Is not this the great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) And then judgment came suddenly. When he least expected it, Nebuchadnezzar found out that the way down was up. “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: King Nebuchadnezzar to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you!” (Daniel 4:31) Yes, our Lord reminds us that whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Since Nebuchadnezzar would not break from his sin, we find him broken by it. He speaks across the centuries to bear testimony to us today. He thought the way up was up. But he was wrong. As he put it, “those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:37) The way down is up!
II. The way up is down (Daniel 4:31-37)
Success says, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:29) Significance says, “I Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the most high and praised and honored Him who lives forever . . . all of His works are true and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:34-37) Yes, the way up is really down! He that truly humbles himself will eventually be exalted.
The way to true success in life is through the search for significance. James, in the New Testament, reminds us that, “God resists the proud . . .” (James 4:6) He chooses a Greek word, which we translate resist, that means to battle against or to oppose. It is a military term. In other words, God is set against the proud. God has His own way of taking a stand against the proud. On the journey to significance we find that not only is the way up down, but also the way down is up.
The narrative unfolds with King Nebuchadnezzar stepping out on his roof and looking over the city he had built. Its walls were 40 feet across and 80 feet high and extended for 15 miles. The city contained 50 temples with a temple built in pyramid form 600 feet high with a statue on top extending almost another 50 feet. There were palaces and hanging gardens. The beautiful Euphrates wound its way through the city. What a sight! It is said there was never a city before or after Babylon quite like it. As Nebuchadnezzar looks over this view he exclaims, “Is not this the great Babylon that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) There are a lot of people in our contemporary culture today who have this attitude. They think they are really in control and running their own lives. In their own way they’re exclaiming, “Is not this the great Babylon which I have built?” Remember what Nebuchadnezzar had just seen in Daniel 3. He had seen God deliver the three Hebrew young men from the burning fiery furnace. He exclaimed, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who sent his Angel and delivered his servants who trusted in Him . . . There is no other God who can deliver like this.” (Daniel 3:28-29) But talk is cheap. King Nebuchadnezzar forgot about this and went on his way unchanged like so many today.
As he stood on his rooftop boasting about the great Babylon he had built, his demise came suddenly. In the words of Scripture, “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom is departed from you!” (Daniel 4:31) Yes, the way down is up. Nebuchadnezzar had built his great wall. He had shut out his enemies. He was at rest. He was flourishing. He was prancing around the palace in self-exaltation. He had shut everyone out . . . except the Lord God who rules in the kingdom of men. (Daniel 4:32) God’s judgment fell upon Nebuchadnezzar. It is a horrible thing to see. This once proud king ended up on all fours walking around like an animal. He lost his mind. The Bible tells us he was eating grass like an animal. Before he was clothed in regal robes and now he wallows in insanity. After awhile his hair begins to mat together and his nails become like birds’ claws.
It happened while he spoke. God warns a man for months, maybe years. He gives him time to repent. Then suddenly judgment falls. The Bible says, “He who is often rebuked, and hardens his neck, will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” (Proverbs 29:1) God’s judgment fell upon Nebuchadnezzar suddenly. This is the way it happens. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) God’s grace was extended for several months to Nebuchadnezzar but he did nothing about it. It was pride that caused Lucifer to be cast out of heaven. (Isaiah 14:12-15) Yes, the way down is up. It was pride that caused Adam and Eve to fall from Eden’s Garden. And, it was pride that caused Nebuchadnezzar to end up in the shape he was. And, it is that same pride that causes so many men and women in our contemporary culture, who think they’re indestructible, to find out that the way down is up.
But the mighty matchless monarch gets a second chance. (Daniel 4:34-37) The one who conquered the world now humbles himself. The old arrogance is now gone. The old egotistical pride has left. What a scene as he humbles himself and glorifies the living God. The arrogance of Daniel 4:30 is replaced with the adoration of Daniel 4:34, “I lifted my eyes to heaven and my understanding returned to me: and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who is forever.” The verbs in Daniel 4:34 indicate a continuous action. That is, this attitude became a lifestyle for King Nebuchadnezzar. He continued to bless God, and to praise and honor Him habitually for the rest of his life. Pride had been replaced with praise. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are true, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:37) Yes, he’s saying to us that the way up is really down.
The first thing Nebuchadnezzar did in his journey to significance was to lift his eyes to heaven. (Daniel 4:34) Crisis experiences of life can point us to God if we will allow them to do so. The Psalmist said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good, and do good; teach me Your statutes.” (Psalms 119:67-68)
Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony is that “my reason returned to me . . .” His reign also returned to him, for the glory of my kingdom. His reputation returned to him, I was restored to my kingdom and excellent majesty was added to me. (Daniel 4:36) God has a way of keeping His promises. In the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream Daniel reminded the king that “the tree would not be completely destroyed but the stump and the roots of the tree would remain so that your kingdom shall be restored to you after you come to know that Heaven rules.” (Daniel 4:26) God is being faithful to his word.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s last words were recorded for all prosperity. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:37) These are his last words and we never hear from him again. He leaves us his legacy – those who walk in pride He is able to put down. Yes, the way down is up, but the way up is down!
The search for significance is one of the most basic pursuits of life, even more so than the pursuit of money and pleasure. We are all involved in a constant search for significance. Many of us think significance is found in what our culture calls success. Many in our world today are searching for significance in all the wrong places. We think if we can just do something better than anyone else it will bring us significance. If we can just close more deals, get more acceptance, perform at a higher level, win more legal cases, and on and on. This search permeates our current culture in America. The very first page of the Bible reveals that we are people of significance. Why? Because we were created by God. We are not part of some random evolutionary cycle. Significance is something that is ours from the beginning. Most all of our attempts to regain significance today are futile because most men and women are searching in the wrong place. Significance is found in God, not in us.
Man did not always struggle with this halting feeling that he was insignificant. We were created with significance! An interesting thing happened on the sixth day of creation. All through the early verses of Genesis God was involved in His creative activity. The fact that you were the last thing He created shows you are the most significant thing of his creation. He crowned all his creation by creating you and me. (Genesis 1:23-27)
The Bible says, “And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Not only did God create you last of all creation, but differently. He had been about what we call fiat creation. That is, God spoke and it was so. He speaks the world and all His other creation into existence with the spoken word. Then He gets to you and me and a change takes place. He did not speak us into existence. He could have, but He did not. He took existing material that He had, the dust of the ground, and formed man. This word formed in Genesis 2:7 is the same word that is used for the potter and the clay in other places in the Old Testament. That is, God himself became an artisan. He was about the business of meticulously shaping man. And then He gave us animation by breathing into us the breathe of life. Can you see this great Creator God hovering over us in this creative process? Everything else He spoke into existence. But He took time and effort when He began to work on you. We are different than all the other created order. We have significance! We are unique. We were created in the image of God. That is, He is a spirit and those who worship Him worship Him in spirit and in truth. We have significance. It is not found in what we accomplish or in our abilities. It is found all the way back in the creation process. He placed us in a garden and gave us dominion over it.
If we are so significant then why do we not sense it? Because we lost our significance. That is why we are on a search for it today. And where did we lose it? All one need do is read Genesis 3 to find out. Satan is not always in diabolical form. God created him as an angel of light. He too had significance. But he thought the way up was up and said, “I will be like the Most High.” (Isaiah 12:14) He sounds a bit like King Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t he? Then he invaded our lives in the Garden of Eden. Pride entered the picture. We bought in to it and in so doing we lost our significance. Ever since then men and women have been searching for significance that was lost. We’ve looked for it in anything and everything the world has to offer. Our loss of significance is directly related to our loss of identity and relationship with our Creator.
Paul wrote about this in Romans 5:12 – “. . . through one man sin entered the world and death through sin and thus that death spread to all men for all sinned.” Everyone born since Adam and Eve has been born spiritually dead. You may gain all the material things that life can afford. You may have homes and cars and clothes and jewelry. But having all those things you can still be longing for significance. Some of us in our contemporary culture think, “If I could just gain wealth I’d find significance.” King Nebuchadnezzar was wealthy. He had power. He had it all. Like Solomon he, too, found out that it was all vanity. Solomon concluded that without a relationship with the Creator, everything under the sun was insignificant. There is no end to the search of significance unless it ends in your relationship with God.
We began in the Garden with significance. But we lost it. And, we have been on a search ever since. Men and women all around us are searching for significance in life. Only God can restore it. Yes, “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men . . .” (Daniel 4:17) God made provision for us through the Lord Jesus Christ. The search for significance is not found in seven habits of successful living or winning friends and influencing people or of any of the modern, positive-thinking techniques. Significance is only found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The way up is still down, to humble ourselves before God.
God gives us a plan to recover the significance we once had and lost. What is it? Jesus Christ came to this earth to restore our lost heritage. In fact, He is the one on a search today. He set aside his glory. He emptied Himself. He clothed himself with human flesh. And He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He took our sin on Calvary’s cross that we might take His righteousness. He died our death that we might live His life. If we’re looking for significance today we’ll never find it looking horizontally. King Nebuchadnezzar lifted up his eyes to heaven. Our search for significance can be over today. We can reclaim at the foot of a Roman cross what we once had and lost.
Daniel is teaching us how to thrive in a culture that’s foreign to our value system and truth claims. Through the pages of this volume he has challenged us to not give up, to not give in, and to not give out. His three Hebrew friends have challenged us to learn to live with pressure, principle, perspective, and protection. Now, King Nebuchadnezzar himself testifies to us that the way down is up and the way up is down.
Daniel 4 leaves us with a word about pride “. . . those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Daniel 4:37) God hates the proud. In fact, the Bible says God resists the proud. Pride leads to a parade of sins which God tells us in Proverbs 6:16 that He hates. Daniel also leaves us with a word about procrastination. At the end of the twelve months he was walking about the royal palace of Babylon. (Daniel 4:29) Nebuchadnezzar reminds us that there’s a danger of forgetting God in the midst of long continued blessings and unheeded warnings.
Not only is there a word about pride and procrastination but there’s also a word about presumption to be found here. Nebuchadnezzar says, “is not this the great Babylon that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) There will not always be adequate time to make things right. We presume there will be, but there will not be. If we don’t break from our sin we will most likely be broken by it.
Finally, there’s a word about providence. Yes, “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men . . .” (Daniel 4:17) One way or another God will ultimately show us all that He is in control.
If we are ever going to address our culture today we must learn some valuable lessons. The way down is up. But thank God, the way up is down! Our culture is waiting to see us practice what we preach. And, they need to be reminded that those who walk in pride He is able to put down.
O.S. Hawkins is president and chief executive officer of the SBC Annuity Board. He is a Contributing Editor to Preaching.