Who Is In Control?
Message for the Centenary Service of Remembrance, November 11th 2018, International Church of Vilnius. Remembrance Day is observed in many countries to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on that date in 1918.
In autumn 1918 two European monarchies collapsed: November 9th the abdication of William II was proclaimed in Berlin, two days later, exactly one hundred years ago, Austrian emperor Charles I had to step down. Another emperor, Nicholas II of Russia, was forced to leave his throne more than a year before. They were all quickly wiped away.
Even powerful empires are much more instable than we often think. The superpower of the sixth century BC was the Babylonian empire. King Belshazzar, being confident in the power and grandeur of his reign, “gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them”, reads the opening of chapter 5 in the Book of Daniel. While a hostile army was besieging Babylon the aristocratic elite was partying. Yet being drunk they went too far: The king gave orders to get the holy cups from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem which was destroyed decades before. Drinking more wine from these dishes, consecrated to God, the Babylonians praised their pagan gods, made “of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan 5:4).
Suddenly a mysterious handwriting on the wall appeared. The deeply frightened king demanded an explanation of the meaning of the text but no one could even read it. Daniel was called and brought before the king. He had served king Nebuchadnezzar many years ago. This is what he said to Belshazzar:
18 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. 19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled.20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. 21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. 22 But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. 24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” Then Daniel explained the meaning of the words on the wall – a message of imminent, harsh judgement.
Like the Remembrance Day this story teaches us several lessons and calls us to remember them.
First, human kings and rulers are often very powerful. They can, like Nebuchadnezzar, put single people to death, commanding big armies even millions may die. For centuries now modern states have accumulated enormous powers of destruction. In the Great War 1914–18 roughly ten million soldiers died on the battle field, almost the same number of civilians perished. We have to be aware of these powers, fear them and use them with utmost care.
Second, though the demonstration of power may be impressing or frightening, human beings are ultimately not in control of them, not in control of history and not even in control of their own life. King Belshazzar did not foresee his own end the very same day. In August 1914 all European empires stumbled into World War I and unintentionally unleashed hell. If they could have taken a glimpse into the carnage soon to come, they certainly would not have entered the battlefields so enthusiastically. A true March of Folly (Barbara Tuchman‘s great book on the foolishness of those in government!). Until today we tend to grossly overestimate our abilities to foresee results of our actions and to control events.
Third, though evil often seems to triumph, God is in control and sets limits to Satan and all wicked forces. Evil seemed to be control in 587 BC too when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. Thousands were killed or taken into captivity. But it was God Himself who used the Babylonians as instrument to punish his people. He was still in control.
One of the exiled was the young Jew Daniel. Even under much pressure Daniel did not compromise his belief in God. He excelled in wisdom and courage because he kept his faith that “the Most High is sovereign over all the kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes” (5:21).
Finally, when empires are weakened or collapse, God sometimes gives reign to those who could only dream about freedom and sovereignty. November 11th was not only the day of the armistice; that day, one hundred years ago, the first government of independent Lithuanian was formed, could finally come into power more than half a year after the Declaration of Independence. Two members of the cabinet of Augustinas Voldemaras were the brothers Jonas and Martynas Yčas, members of the evangelical reformed church of Lithuania (see the photography of the first government). The same day Marshal Jozef Pilsudski assumed control in Poland (therefore National Independence Day in this country). November 9th 1989 the Berlin Wall wholly unexpectedly came down. Some month later, in spring 1990, God granted freedom to the Lithuanian people which through its members of parliament proclaimed a sovereign and independent state on March 11th.
We know all this, as Belshazzar knew everything God did do to his father. Therefore let us be wiser than the last king of Neo-Babylonian empire and let us “honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.”