The danger of not learning from history

When Daniel was called into Belshazzar’s banquet hall to interpret the writing on the wall, he was no longer a young man. He was probably a little over 80 years of age.  Nebuchadnezzar had died more than 20 years ago, and apparently the current king Belshazzar no longer valued or had need of Daniel’s wisdom and experience.

But when the writing on the wall appears, and no one can interpret its meaning, the queen mother recommends that they call Daniel, who under a previous king, had proven to be a man of “insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods.”

Daniel is called, and in front of the nobles, the king praises him for his wisdom and intelligence and promises him a major promotion if he would be able to interpret the writing. But Daniel is not easily flattered or intimidated. Nor does he seek to impress the king after having been forgotten and off the public stage for such a long time.

Rather Daniel takes the opportunity to give the king a history lesson. He reviews the glory and accomplishments of one of the king’s predecessors, the great King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was probably not Belshazzar’s father, but rather his grandfather or some other ancestor. Then he reminds Belshazzar that Nebuchadnezzar became proud, but was humbled and stripped of his throne and his glory. This all happened about 30 years ago.

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. – Daniel 5:21

So what does all this history have to do with the present need for deciphering the mysterious inscription on the wall? Daniel gets right to the point:

But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Daniel 5:22

Both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were proud and thought they could flaunt their power and disregard the sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that he was badly mistaken, spending 7 years in insanity.  But he was given an opportunity to repent after he was humbled. Belshazzar doesn’t get this second chance and dies that same night as the Babylonian empire falls. He should have learned from what his predecessor had experienced.

Note that Daniel and more importantly, God Almighty consider Belshazzar to be fully culpable for not learning from Nebuchadnezzar’s experience. Since he disregarded what happened to a previous king about 30 years ago, he was now to be judged.

Now how does this apply to us? God’s discipline is not just for the person going through it, but also for those around them or who hear about it.  We are are expected to learn from history. When God teaches our parents or our organization or our country a hard lesson, we are expected by God to learn from it and not repeat those mistakes (sins).

God does give second chances – and third and fourth and fifth ….. The whole story of Christmas is about another amazing offer of grace to the Jews and to all of us, after we have repeated the mistakes and sins of our ancestors for generations.

But a good disciple of Christ learns from God has taught previous generations. We don’t take God’s grace for granted.  Paul makes this clear in his first letter to the Corinthians when he recounts what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness – 1500 years prior to his writing.

They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. – 1 Corinthians 10:2–6

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! – 1 Corinthians 10:11–12

Let’s study history – not just to know the facts but more importantly to learn to walk humbly in dependence on our God and to not trust in human strategies or heroes. I recommend reading biographies, maybe even including them in your Individual Growth Plan for 2017.

I was recently amazed to hear that John Piper had recently finished listening to the audio version of Manchester and Reid’s 3000-page, multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion).  That is over 131 hours of audio, and he completed it over a period of 5-6 months! Quite a commitment to learn from history from someone who doesn’t need to study it to complete a degree or finish a paper.

Piper says about this experience:

What an education in reality, insights into natural challenges of leadership, insights into the horrors of war, insights into the fickle nature of public approval, insights into sexual insanity of upper-class philandering, insights into the complexities of what justice looks like in public policy, insights into the value of never giving up, though there is enormous opposition, and on and on and on. What an education.

Let’s also make sure that we record and review our own history of what God has been teaching us. I find that my journal of what I am learning from my Bible reading has been an invaluable record of what God is doing in my life.  I would recommend the SOAP method for journalling. I review my journal entries regularly – every time I re-read a passage of Scripture, I also re-read  journal entries that I made about verses in that passage.

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