Laughing at leaders
Making fun of those in authority has been long a way of disguising political criticism. In our day, little effort is made to hide the criticism such as Saturday Night Live, but in the times of autocratic rulers, open satire could bring banishment, imprisonment or death. Setting the events in long ago and far away provides additional disguise for the criticism of contemporary rulers. There is Biblical precedent for laughing at rulers. For the Hebrews who suffered under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE) the choices were accepting suffering in silence, accepting the Antiochus’ brutal efforts** to make them become like the Greeks or join the guerilla activity leading to active rebellion. The later leaders of this rebellion were known as the Maccabees. Making fun of leaders was part of the scheme by the Daniel editor to bring down the oppressive ruler. One group of Jews relied on the stories and visions of Daniel for guidance. That guidance included ridiculing the rulers; showing the examples of faithfulness to the Torah of Daniel and friends; and affirming the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the teaching of wisdom. Hope in the resurrection completed their arsenal of weapons against the oppressor.
In Daniel one food offered to idols brought wisdom according to the king. Vegetables, Daniel’s health food, God’s food, did just as well. The lack of details about the connection between details here and in the Levitical Code suggests that this was more than faithfulness to the food code of Leviticus.
Why would the king kill all of his of his advisors? Did this ruler decided to fire (kill) all his advisers instead rather than being embarrassed by his forgetfulness? The experts listed in chapter two were the king’s chief advisors, religious experts, the spokesmen of the king’s gods. The king later praised the God whose diet gave more wisdom to the dream’s interpreter than the king’s diet.
Arrogant and boastful leaders seem to be present in all ages. The Babylon king had been warned about taking credit for the blessings of God and the accomplishments granted him. Our Hebrew writer (chapter three) sees God reducing this braggart to a cud-chewer for a year to help him learn humility.
Simple worship characterizes Hebrew ritual. In chapter four, the odd statue and the variety of participants, plus the repeat in naming of them suggests that this is a weird, highly complicated worship setting. The Hebrews would find this amusing. This contrasts with the simple presence of the four in the furnace. The humor of the contrast of the wild commands of the kings—contradicting his earlier threats—versus the silent power of the fourth one in the furnace is clear.
Chapter five brings the five-finger terror to the ruling classes of Babylon. The Babylonians desecrated the temple vessels by using them in a pagan banquet. (This paralleled the pig sacrifice at Jerusalem in 168 BCE.) The overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty affirmed the message of the visions that God would overthrow the evil empires. Violent revolt such as the Maccabees promoted was not necessary.
The foolish Babylonian leaders jealous of Daniel thought that the “god for a month” plan (Chapter 6) would bring down their enemy. The Babylonian leaders sought the rank and status that Daniel was given. But if they could trick the king, Daniel would be fed to the lions. Daniel’s prayers to the eternal God continued, so, it was the schemers that the lions consumed.
How God works
Throughout these accounts we see God exposing the arrogance and foolishness of lords and kings. God exposed and defeated them by various means. Faithfulness to God (and in chapter 11, the teaching wisdom), not violent action was required of Daniel and friends. Whether violence was an option is not the question here. The reality was that God showed how puny and helpless rulers were in the presence of God’s power. The Daniel writer used humor (as well in the later chapters visions of God’s power) to remind his fellow sufferers that God would defeat their enemies.
(*My speculations about humor in Daniel were provided some scholarly support when I discovered an article on court jesters. David M. Valeta, Court or Jester Tales? Resistance and Social Reality in Daniel 1-6, PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 32(2005) 309-324.) On Daniel and opposition to Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, see Apocalypse against empire: theologies of resistance in early Judaism. Portier-Young, Anathea, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011
What model do we have for understanding what a leader should be? This psalm provides important principles. In the New Testament Mary confirms these principles in her prophecy before Elizabeth.
Actions worthy of respect:
4 May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
5 May he endure[a] as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
6 May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
7 In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.
8 May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.
Respect will come
9 May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.
More actions worthy of respect
12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.
15 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.
Respect and prayer
This Psalm was likely written for David, a military man and apparently a ruler with administrative ability. The book of Samuel and Kings detail his battles and efforts to establish control over Israel and the areas conquered. But military and administrative skills are not mentioned here. Compassion is the main theme for which the King is praised. We will want to respect leaders who achieve greatness by caring for the poor and helpless. These verses should also be the content of our prayers for our leaders.