What makes a nation great or weak? There are many answers to that question, but I believe the best one is found in Proverbs 14:34. It says, “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Let me ask you. By that standard, how great do you think our nation is today? Or are we in danger of losing God’s blessings?
Let me read to you what Edward Gibbon wrote 225 years ago now, in 1788, just 12 years after our great nation was founded. That was the year he finished his classic work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Maybe you have heard of it. In it, he pinpointed 5 basic reasons why that great empire collapsed. See if you can find any parallels between their kingdom and our nation today.
1) The undermining of the dignity and sanctity of the home, the foundation of human society. Gay marriage, divorce, abortions, young couples co-habiting before they get married—do these things have any impact on the stability of the family, which Gibbon ways is the very foundation of human society?
2) Higher and higher taxes and the spending of public money for free bread and circuses for the populace. Do the $47 million people on food stamps in this country fall into that category? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want anyone with a genuine need to be deprived of public assistance. My question is: Is everyone on public assistance truly disabled and unable to provide for themselves?
3) The mad craze for pleasure with sports and plays becoming more exciting, more brutal, and more immoral. Have you seen the trailers for video games lately? Can’t get more brutal than that! Add to that our movies, TV shows, and the internet, and Rome didn’t have anything on us when it comes to exciting, brutal, and immoral entertainment, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t repent.
4) The building of great armaments when the real enemy was within—the decay of individual accountability. What do you think? Has there been a decline in the work ethic and individual responsibility in recent years? Or are folks as industrious as they’ve ever been saying to themselves: “If I want something good to happen in my life, I’m going to have to work for it!” Or are people looking to the government to solve their problems? Remember what Ronald Reagan said: “Government isn’t the solution to our problems. Government is the problem!”
5) The decay of religion, its leaders losing touch with life and their ability to guide others. I call it “Cotton Candy Christianity”—sweet and sugary but without much substance to it—preachers preaching, “God loves you and wants to bless you. All you have to do is bow your head, say a quick prayer to Jesus, and your life will magically get better. But where’s the teaching on discipleship and taking up your cross daily if you want to follow Christ? I love how Dietrich Boenhoffer, the German pastor who was executed for standing up against Hitle and his anti-Semitic policies, put it. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
So how do you think we are doing today? Not so well? Well, here’s the good news. It’s never too late to start doing what is right, and with Christ every day can be a new beginning as individuals, as families, and even as a country because “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people!” To see that played out in Scripture, please turn with me to Daniel chapter 5 where we witness the collapse of another great civilization, the greatest civilization the world has ever seen which fell in just one night because of one man who refused to humble himself before God. The nation in view is Babylon, and the prideful ruler was Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.
You’ll remember in chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had a nightmare in which he saw a great huge representing four world empires to come—Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The most glorious was Babylon, the head of gold. Nebuchadnezzar enjoyed more power and glory than any of the rulers that followed him. And yet, in fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, his kingdom falls in just one night and is instantly replaced by Persia—all of which was ordained and orchestrated by our Sovereign God who may appear to be silent at times, but is always at work behind the scenes spinning the events of earth to their rightful conclusion. That’s what we saw in our study of Hanukkah last week. And if you haven’t heard that message, I hope you’ll pick up the CD and listen to it, because it is something you need to know as a Christian.
But tonight our focus is on Babylon, and the passage before us is Daniel 5 where we find 3 ways sin seeks to undermine us and destroy us from within. The first way is—
1. Sin deadens our fear of God.
Chapter 5 opens with these words: “Belshazzar the king,” and right away the critics of the Bible begin to wag their tongues. “After all, the ancient historians never mention a king named Belshazzar,” they say. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus, not Belshazzar! See! That’s just one more reason not to trust the Bible!” And they’re ready to throw out the entire Word of God because of one historical error they think they’ve found.” Are they right? Did the Bible get it wrong? No, what critics of the Bible need to learn is to keep quiet until man’s knowledge catches up with divine revelation. Because what archaeological discoveries in Babylon have proven (documents like the Nabonidus Chronicle), is that there were two final kings of Babylon who ruled together as co-regents—Nabonidus, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar his grandson.
For example, some of you will notice in the margin of your Bibles that the word “father” in verse 2, where it says Nebuchadnezzar was the “father” of Belshazzar, can actually be translated “forefather or grandfather.” And that’s what archaeology has now proven—that Nabonidus the son of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar his grandson ruled the kingdom of Babylon together from 553 to 539 B.C. That’s why we read later in this chapter that Belshazzar could only promote Daniel to the position of third ruler in his kingdom. It’s because positions number one and two were already taken. Nabonidus his father was responsible for the military and Belshazzar his son was in charge of domestic policies. That’s probably why we don’t read about Nabonidus in this chapter. He’s out fighting a war while his son is at home throwing a kegger.
Kids do that, you know. I’ll never forget the time I dropped by my folks’ house one Friday night when my little sister was still in high school and my parents were out of town. There must have been 100 teenagers in their house drinking it up and doing other things my parents wouldn’t have approved of. So I threw all of them out before the neighbors called the police.
Belshazzar did something similar while his father out of town. Verse 1 says: “Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.” The most significant thing about this is when it took place. History says the very moment he was toasting his guests, the Persian army was encamped outside the city laying siege to it. But was Belshazzar worried? Not for a moment! No one could touch him. Not even the God of heaven!
To prove it, what did he do in verse 2? It says, “When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, so the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.” And as they drank the wine,” verse 3 goes on to say, “They praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.”
So I had to ask myself. What would make a man arrogant enough to shake his fist in the face of God? Two sins explain it. The first was pride. Like Nebuchadnezzar before him, Belshazzar had an over-inflated opinion of himself and a sinfully small view of God. In his mind, Babylon was invincible—safe, secure, and self-sufficient. And there was good reason for that opinion. Herodotus the Greek historian says the walls of the city were 350 feet high, 50 feet thick with 250 watchtowers guarding it, each one reaching 450 feet into the sky, and surrounded by a huge moat fed by the Euphrates River and providing all the water they needed, so the city was able to grow all its own food from within. And by now, Herodotus says that Cyrus the Great had been trying to conquer it for months and was all but ready to give up. So Belshazzar felt very secure.
The second reason for his foolishness was drunkenness. James Graham, another historian, says as the banquet progressed and Belshazzar offered toast after toast to Bel and the other Babylonian gods, everyone reached an advanced stage of inebriation until the party degenerated into a wild orgy in which everyone was so drunk “they shamelessly indulged all their lusts in the brilliant light of the banquet hall itself.”
That’s what alcohol does. It makes us feel free to do things we’d never dream of doing when we’re in our right minds. That’s why Paul commands us in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not be drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit.” Excess means you lose control and give yourself permission to do things you’d never do when you’re sober. You drink too much. You talk too much. You spend too much. Give someone a big glass of wine, a credit card, and a computer with online shopping, and you won’t believe the things they’ll buy. We say things we shouldn’t say. We’re more selfish than when we’re sober. And we get angrier faster when we’re drinking than when we’re not.
If that’s not enough, here are a few more facts to quench your thirst. 6 billion gallons of alcohol are consumed in this country every year with these results: 90% of all reported cases of child abuse and sexual molestation involve a drinking family member. 80% of those in prison have had a drinking problem. 77% of sexual crimes and 70% of domestic violence is alcohol-related. Half the 30,000 fatal car crashes in America each year caused by those driving under the influence. So given all the heartache it causes, why take a chance on it? Like Belshazzar, all you have to do is mix those two together—an inflated opinion of yourself and a bottle of wine, and what do you get? A fool without fear of anything, including God, just waiting to reap destruction on himself and others!
By the way, someone once asked Thomas Edison, the great inventor, “Why don’t you drink?” He very simply replied, “I have a better use for my brain!” And so do you and me! It shouldn’t have surprised me, but this week I went back and looked at my notes from when I first preached on this passage 30 years ago, and you know what I wrote? I said, “It makes me shudder when I think of what this country will be like 35 years from now if our younger generation doesn’t wise up, wake up, and get sober and clean. They won’t have to attack us from the outside. As Khrushchev warned, ‘We will drop from within like an overripe plum!’” So what do you think? Has my prediction come true? Is America better than worse than we were 30 years ago in 1983?
Sin is subtle. It doesn’t set off any noisy alarms. It quietly eats away at the foundation of our lives while telling us that we’re safe, secure, and that nothing can go wrong! But it’s lying to you. As Moses warned in Numbers 32, “Be sure your sin will find you out!” Sin deadens our consciences like the leprosy bacteria deadens the fingers and toes of the leper, so he burns himself without even knowing it. And danger #2—
2. Sin blinds us to the truth of God.
Verse 5 describes the destruction that fell upon Babylon. It says as Belshazzar and his guests drank to Babylon’s gods, “Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. Then the king’s face grew pale and his thoughts alarmed him, and his hip joints went slack and his knees began knocking together.” So like Nebuchadnezzar before him, he calls for all his wise men and counselors, but no one is able to interpret the handwriting until the queen mother remembers that there is an adviser on the king’s staff by the name of Daniel of whom Nebuchadnezzar said, “The Spirit of the Holy God dwells in him.”
So Daniel is brought before the king who explains the situation to him and promises him great riches and the position of third ruler in his kingdom if he can tell him what the vision means. But Daniel isn’t impressed. At age 80, he’s seen many great rulers rise and fall. And he himself has served in many positions of great honor and authority. So instead of being polite, he’s very blunt with the king. He says in verse 17: “Keep your gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else; however I will read the inscription to the king and make the interpretation known to him.”
At which point Daniel goes on to remind the king of the great power and riches enjoyed by his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar. But instead of giving God the glory for it, he gave in to pride, so that his glory was taken away from him and he was forced to eat grass like an ox. And yet, as great as his punishment was, Daniel says, “Yours is going to worse!” Why? Because he knew better! His sin was not a sin of ignorance. It was a sin of wilful defiance, for “even though you knew all this,” Daniel says in verse 22, “you have not humbled your heart, but have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven.”
The point is this: God expects us to respond to the light He’s given us and learn from the mistakes of others. Jesus stated the principle like this in Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” That’s why He also pronounced such awful judgment on the cities of His day. He said it would be worse for them in the Day of Judgment than for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, not because they were more wicked than Sodom and Gomorrah, but because they knew better. They had received more light.
So what does that mean for this country? Do you know of any other nation in the history of the world that has been given more light than us? Did you know, for example, that according to the Yearbook of American Churches, there are over 600,000 ministers in America with another 100,000 students enrolled in Bible college or seminary and 4.5 million enrolled in Christian high school or grade school. That’s a phenomenal amount of Bible teaching. We also have more Christian radio and television stations than the rest of the world combined, millions of hotel rooms where the Gideons have planted Bibles, and more Christian literature in English than all the rest of the world’s languages put together. For example, did you know that we have over 500 versions of the Bible in English? In fact, I was surfing the net this week and found a site offering access to more than 100 translations of the Bible for free!
And we ought to be thankful for these things, but we also need to remember that we are more accountable than any other people who have ever lived and make sure we don’t neglect the truth we’ve been given, for what God said to Cain so long ago in Genesis 4:7 is still true today: “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” What sin hopes to do is to deaden your fear of God and make you forget everything you’ve learned about good and evil.
Maybe I can liken it to ketchup. Believe it or not, I read an article the other day which said the ketchup you and I use to flavor our food is actually burned, that when companies first began producing it years ago, they scorched it so often that American consumers got used to the taste and began to like it, so much so that when it was cooked the right way, they wouldn’t buy it. Their tastes got twisted, so the manufacturers had to include the scorched taste in their recipe. That’s what sin does to moral senses. It twists our values little by little until we’re no longer aware that we’re sinning. And it does so very effectively. Think about it. Is your personal definition of sin growing narrower with time or are you giving yourself permission to do things today you’d have never considered doing 5 or 10 years ago? If so, that’s a problem, because the goal of our lives is not to be better than the world; it’s to become as holy as Jesus Himself. Sin deadens our fear of God; it blinds us to the truth of God; and danger #3—
3. Sin inspires rebellion against God.
That’s the second charge Daniel levels against the king. Not only did he fail to learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s mistakes, he deliberated set himself against the God of heaven. Verse 23: “You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone which do not see, hear or understand, but the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified.”
This wasn’t a case of somebody sinning ignorantly. Belshazzar knew exactly what he was doing. His desecration of the Temple vessels was a deliberate act of blasphemy on his part saying, “Yahweh, you may have intimidated my grandpa, but you aren’t going to intimidate me! I reject any claim you make on my life.” And as a result, what happens? A hand mysteriously appears writing on the wall of his banquet hall, and the inscription read, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” which translated means, “Numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.” Daniel gives the explanation in verse 26: “‘Mene’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. ‘Tekel’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. ‘Peres’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.” In other words, “Your number’s up!” And what Belshazzar and the Babylonians thought impossible, happens that very night.
Verse 30: “That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.” What happened? Herodotus says while the Babylonians were carousing in the palace, Cyrus the King of Persia and his men, including Darius whom he later appointed Governor of Babylon, temporarily diverted the course of the Euphrates River, which flowed under the city walls, and guided by two Babylonian traitors, the Persia army marched into the city on the dry riverbed, killed Belshazzar, and Babylon the Great was fallen in one night.
He ended and his passing foot was heard, but none made answer, not a lip was stirred. Mute the free tongue and bent the fearless brow—the mystic letters had their meaning now. Soon came another sound—the clash of steel, the heavy ringing of the iron heel, the curse in dying, and the cry for life, the bloody voices of the battle strife. That night they slew him on his father’s throne; the deed unnoticed and the hand unknown—crownless and scepter-less Belshazzar lay, a robe of purple round a form of clay.
That’s what sin does to every man and women, boy and girl, if left unchecked. It deadens our fear of God, blinds us to the truth of God, and like Belshazzar, makes us want to shake our fists in the face of God. And as a result, not only did Belshazzar lose his throne and his life, he lost his soul forever, which brings to mind Jesus’ warning: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” So let’s not be arrogant thinking we’re safe from Belshazzar’s sins. Let’s “be sober and vigilant knowing that our adversary the devil is constantly prowling about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And that someone could be you or me if we don’t continue to resist him firm in the faith.
Let me finish with this illustration—“the stinging tree,” which is a monster nettle found in Australia. When first pricked by it, you feel no pain at all! But give it a minute and you’ll soon be writhing in agony. In fact, even months after the initial wound heals, the slightest touch can bring excruciating pain. For example, they say if a dog is pricked by its thorns, it’ll begin to whine and howl and bite away pieces of its flesh from where it’s been stung. Thankfully, the tree also gives off a horrible odor, so that both man and beast are able to avoid it, if they’re careful.
That’s how the Bible describes sin. It appears harmless at first. But once it takes root in a life, a home, a church, or a nation, it destroys everything that was once good and pleasant, bringing great pain to everyone it touches. For God’s Word cannot be broken! It says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” So let’s make sure we’re on the right side—Jesus’ side who said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and what’s the promise if we do? Everything we need will be added to us.