One of the undertones of the book of Daniel is humility.
There is humility in Daniel’s refusal to eat the king’s food. He doesn’t make demands. He requests that he be tested and trusts God to be faithful as he seeks to honour him in a country far from his home (Daniel 1:8-16).
When Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, rather than taking credit for its interpretation, he gives God the glory (Daniel 2:27-30). As a result of this Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and praises God. His humility is, unfortunately, short lived but God doesn’t give up on him and relentlessly pursues Nebuchadnezzar and twice more humbles him until he truly repents of his pride (Daniel 2:47; 3:28-4:3; 4:34-37).
It is immensely encouraging to know that God is committed to the humility of the people he chooses for himself, even through our repeated failures to really grasp it.
In chapter 5 king Belshazzar is punished for his pride and idolatry. He, unlike his predecessor, finds no chance for repentance – or so it seems – because he is killed the very same night God pronounces judgement against him. Daniel comments that Belshazzar should have known better, knowing, as he did, the story of Nebuchadnezzar (5:17-23). “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven.” (vv. 22-23a).
The story of the life and experiences of Nebuchadnezzar were a warning to subsequent kings. In his life they could see that there is a God in heaven who humbles the proud. Yet his life also encouraged humility in others because Nebuchadnezzar became even greater after his humiliation (Daniel 4:36b cf. Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). Knowing this Belshazzar should have chosen humility because he had heard, if not seen, the destructive and humiliating consequences of exalting one’s self above God Most High.
God was not under obligation to treat Belshazzar exactly as he had Nebuchadnezzar. He was not obligated to be merciful to either. But he was merciful to each in his own way.
He was merciful to Nebuchadnezzar by humbling him through humiliation, certainly not how Nebuchadnezzar would have chosen to learn humility I’m sure. But he was also merciful to Belshazzar in giving Nebuchadnezzar as an example.
Like the Israelites whose grandparents had settled in Canaan and who had not experienced the first Passover and the Exodus, or the crossing of the Red Sea, or even the conquest of Canaan as well as the countless moral failures of their ancestors and God’s consequent judgements upon their sin. They, and Belshazzar, were meant to learn humility from the past acts of God in history and the lives of people just like them. They should have been humbled by a God who is not content to remain aloof but who condescends to being involved in the lives of people. Those people and their stories of humility through humiliation stand as a witness against them and us, indictments on their and our unlawful and unjustified pride against God himself.
It is into this repetitive story that Jesus comes. He came to kill our pride through the humiliation of his death on the cross and to grant us the gift of humility through the exaltation of his glorious resurrection.
I love this ironic juxtaposition!
Humility is often misrepresented as though it means we need to be self-deprecating, helpful to others but never allowing others to help us and never being seen to accept the praise of others. This is not true humility because it remains centred on ourselves.
“Humility,” says Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”
There is only one Person upon whom we can think that will produce in us humility (Philippians 2:1-11). If we make anyone else the highest object in our thoughts and affections it will invariably lead to pride because if we make a family member, a spouse, a friend, or anyone (or anything for that matter) our greatest concern then as we love and serve them we will come to believe them to be indebted to us for all the love we have shown them. We will tell ourselves that we have shown them more love than they have shown us and so we will begin to feel they owe us. Just wait until the person you love most does something to disappoint you or fail you and you’ll see.
However, if Jesus is the one we set our greatest affections and thoughts on then humility is guaranteed for the simple reason that we can never love Jesus more than he loves us.
We can never pay him back for the love he has shown us by living the perfect life we can never hope to live. By dying as our substitute, absorbing God’s wrath in our place, so we no longer have to. And by rising again to secure not only our present joy in him but also our even greater future joy that we have yet to experience with him in his renewed creation.
Jesus has freed us from the vicious cycle of self-love that ends only in misery to a humble, life-giving, self-forgetful, others-focused love that brings inexpressible joy.
We will live this way to the degree our thoughts and affections are taken up with him.