(i) meaning, derivation and usage


Daniel chapters 3,4 amd 5

We will begin, however, perhaps rather unexpectedly, in the Book of Daniel, as translated into Greek in the LXX - in these chapters, exceptionally, from the Aramaic original. This passage will introduce us to some important points and some significant related words, which we will meet again regularly in the NT. Chapter 2 begins with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream - or it would do if the king had not forgotten it. He is so troubled by it that he summons all his “magicians, astrologers and sorcerers and the Chaldeans”, and tells them to reveal to him what it was that he had dreamt. They, reasonably enough, reply that there is no one on earth who can tell the king his dream except “the gods whose dwelling is not among men” (v.11). In a rage, the king orders all his ‘wise men’ to be put to death - which would include Daniel. He asks the king for time to meet his demand, and goes home to share this challenge with his three Jewish friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (a.k.a.. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), and “they sought mercies from the God of heaven concerning this mystery” (v.18) - perhaps the first prayer meeting in scripture. Their prayer was answered: “Then in a dream during the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel” (v.19). The verb here is ‘apokaluptō’, to ‘reveal’, from which ‘apokalupsis’ is derived, ‘revelation’, or ‘apocalypse’. Daniel then “blesses the God of heaven” in a wonderful prayer of thanks and praise, of which I will quote some edited highlights: “Blessed be the name of the Lord, for --- he gives wisdom to the wise and insight to those who know understanding; he reveals the hidden depths, knowing what is in the darkness, with him is light --- you have given me wisdom, and made known to me the king’s vision” (vv. 19-23). Before the king once again, Daniel begins his address as follows: “The mystery which the king is asking about is not within the power of wise men or magicians or enchanters or soothsayers to declare to the king. But there is indeed a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (27-8). He then reveals and interprets the dream, the statue with a head of gold but feet of clay, which leads Nebuchadnezzar to respond: “Of a truth, your God, he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords who reveals mysteries, so that you were able to reveal this mystery” (47). So when, in chapter 4, the king has another troubling dream, he sends for Daniel straight away, because “I know that the Holy Spirit of God is in you, and no mystery is impossible for you” (v.6). This dream, too, a warning of judgement upon Nebuchadnezzar himself, Daniel interprets. Chapter 5 is perhaps the best known of all the examples of mystery revealed, though the word ‘mustērion’ does not occur in the LXX version. This is the account of Belshazzar’s feast. This time, God’s judgement comes in the form of mysterious writing on the wall, and once again all the ‘wise men’ of Babylon are unable to read the message - until the queen, who probably remembers the previous episodes, urges Belshazzar to summon Daniel, “for there is an excellent spirit in him, and insight and understanding” (v.12). Once again, Daniel is able to reveal God’s judgement plainly to the king - a judgement which is executed that very night, as Babylon is captured by Darius the Mede, and Belshazzar is slain.

The mystery of the future and the mystery of the human heart
Psalm 111.10

These three episodes constitute a microcosm of our central theme, the progress of mystery via revelation to knowledge - the journey from darkness to light, a journey in which mystery is, in fact the second stage. Complete ignorance, or ‘unknown unknowns’, is no mystery at all; if it is bliss, it is the bliss of a fool’s paradise! A crossword puzzle is, perhaps, a mystery; but a crossword with a completely blank grid and no clues is not a mystery, it is an impossibility. In the same way, it is only when God begins to reveal his purposes that we are confronted with a mystery - a ‘known unknown’. Mystery is ‘revelation part 1’. Revelation, in fact, could be defined as ‘mystery + interpretation’, and these three chapters of Daniel illustrate this perfectly. They show that God is the sovereign Lord of history - which is, indeed, ‘his story’ - and that the march of time is guided by his route-map. It is a truth only seldom acknowledged that when God created the world, his first creation was time: “In the beginning, God ---”. From that initial moment, the whole of God’s subsequent ( that word now has a meaning) creation was bound inescapably on the ever-moving continuum of time, utterly blind to what the next step might bring, let alone the next bend in the road. Only God knows what lies ahead. All those “magicians, astrologers, sorcerers and Chaldeans” who claim to foretell the future are reduced to impotence when God sheds a glimmer of light on what is to come. Only Daniel recognised his own impotence, and thus his reliance on “the mercies of God”. Here was the Socratic paradox two centuries before Socrates! Socrates came to the conclusion that he was indeed the wisest man in Athens, as the Delphic Oracle had declared ( how it knew is a mystery we will not explore!) because he alone knew that he knew nothing, while all the so-called ‘experts’ deluded themselves that their knowledge made them wise. This profound truth is expressed more simply by the Psalmist: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (111.10, repeated - for emphasis? - in Proverbs 9.10). So Daniel was wiser than all the ‘wise men’ of Babylon because he alone recognised that ‘God alone knows’ what lies ahead. Two of these mysteries concern God’s judgement, upon Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar; these show that ‘God alone knows’ what lies within the human heart, so that he alone can justly judge. We are all ‘mysteries’ to ourselves, much more to each other; only God “reveals the hidden depths, knowing what is in the darkness”. Since Daniel’s day, much more of God’s truth has been revealed to us, supremely through Christ and by the illumination of his Spirit; but, as we will see later, the dark secrets of the human heart will only be fully revealed on the most awesome day of human history, when time finally comes to a full stop: judgement day.

Luke 2.15,17, Gen 3.15,21

In Daniel, then, we have an object lesson in the process of divine revelation. The God who holds in his hands the whole of human history lets a small fragment of the future slip through his fingers, like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; but the dream is a picture without a caption, and so is a mystery, both to the king and to all his ‘wise men’: revelation is still only partial. The second stage comes when Daniel prays, and both the details of the dream and its interpretation are revealed to him. The next stage is just as important: Daniel “makes known” this meaning to the king. This verb, ‘gnōrizō’ in Greek (the ‘gno-’ root gives us ‘diagnosis’ and ‘agnostic’) is one we shall meet frequently in the NT, for Paul realises that God has revealed the mystery of the gospel to his “holy apostles” not so that they may become a privileged elite of ‘those in the know’, but so that they should make the good news known to “all nations”. It is, I think, significant that 18 of the 26 occurrences in the NT of ‘gnōrizō’ are Pauline. Two of the others come in quick succession in Luke’s nativity narrative, where there is a lovely little cameo of Paul’s principle in action, and our exemplars are humble shepherds. “The angel of the Lord” reveals to them a great truth, the birth of “a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord”. After the angelic choir has sung its anthem, the shepherds say to one another: “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this great event which the angel has made known to us” (2.15, ‘gnōrizō’). When they had seen for themselves the truth of the angel’s message, they themselves then “made known” (‘gnōrizō’ again) the good news they had been told and had witnessed: the gospel is made known in order to be passed on. Daniel, too, is an exemplar of this principle, as well as a model of spiritual wisdom, perhaps even more so than Solomon. He begins in humble ignorance (he doesn’t even know why he faces the death-sentence, 2.15), but his ‘fear of the Lord’ drives him to his knees in prayer, and wisdom is given to him (cf. James 1.5). But this was not just a one-off: it was “the beginning of wisdom”. By chapter 5, now probably in his 80’s, he is described by the queen as having “understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods” (v.11). When it comes to wisdom, it is a profound truth that “whoever has it, it will be given to him and multiply; but whoever does not have it, even what little he has will be taken away from him” (Matt. 13.16). We will come to this passage in a moment, when (at last !) we come to the NT; but to prepare for that we will look at one other respect in which these events in Daniel are characteristic of OT prophecy as a whole. God’s revelation comes both in words (chapter 5) and in pictures (chapters 2 and 4), words that cannot even be read, let alone understood, and pictures which cannot be interpreted. This pattern was foreshadowed at the very beginning of Genesis, in the first act of judgement in scripture. To the serpent, God says: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between her seed and thy seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (3.15, AV). At first sight, it seems as though this is just natural history: snake bites man, man treads on snake. But in fact, as will eventually be revealed, it is future history, and sacred history, to be fulfilled in Christ. Then, after God’s words of judgement, comes his act of mercy. Adam and Eve had tried to cover their guilt by making themselves aprons out of fig leaves; God makes “coats of skins, and clothed them” (v.21). Animal skins imply the shedding of blood, without which “there can be no remission of sins” (Heb. 9.22): guilt can only be covered by sacrifice, not by our own good works. The rest of the OT is full of both prophecies and pictures which together constitute the ‘mystery’ of God’s plan of salvation, a mystery not fully revealed until the coming of Christ.

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