A grumpy king means trouble for everyone, and in the second chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is out for blood on account of a bad night’s sleep. Actually, sleep deprivation isn’t the cause of his tirade (though it probably didn’t hurt); it’s what caused the sleep deprivation that has him so upset. He had some dreams (though the chapter only mentions one dream) he didn’t understand.
What’s the big deal, you ask. Aside from pizza at midnight, who understands why they dream what they dream? Most of us would say dreams are the brain’s way of sorting out things that happened while we were awake; there’s not much to understand about them, and there’s even less about them that merits sleep loss.
Not so in the ancient Near East, especially if you were a king. Dreams were messages from the gods, and if the gods were bothering to send you a message, it was probably pretty important – and worth understanding. Your life and your kingdom may very well depend on a proper understanding. (Consider Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis 41 and the significance of Joseph’s interpretation for the land of Egypt.)
Why would people think dreams were messages from the gods? It’s simple, really. People in the ancient world were deeply religious and believed that the gods were involved in every facet of the way the world worked. The gods had a grand plan for the world, a plan they had written into the very fabric of the world. Nature contained messages about the plan, circumstances included messages, and, for our purposes here, dreams included messages.
However, the problem for the average Joe (or maybe the average Lu-Ulu Nu-Mu, which might mean “the man with no name,” depending what Sumerian scholar you ask) or even the average King Lu-Ulu Nu-Mu was that the gods didn’t write in a language they understood. Instead, the gods had encoded their messages in language only experts (we’ll meet them another day) could decipher. So the experts decoded divine messages. This decoding is known as divination – that is, accessing knowledge about the future. If the message itself didn’t tell the recipient what to do, at least having knowledge about the future might help the person decide what to do.
Divination, of course, is strictly prohibited in the Bible. For the most part, God’s not in the business of giving us a great deal of information about what’s going to happen in the future. Instead, He requires that we have faith – faith that He knows what’s going to happen and that He’s in control of it. I suggest that maybe, for the most part, He’s also not in the business of telling us what we should do in the future. He doesn’t give us the inside scoop on whether we should choose A or B, or maybe even C. Instead He calls us to be wise and discerning in our decision-making. Frankly, learning wisdom is a whole lot more difficult than receiving “signs” about what we should do.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying God can’t or doesn’t ever communicate through signs, circumstances, or even dreams. I am saying that it takes hard-learned wisdom to know the difference between what might really be divine direction and indigestion.