I am a little late in reading The Derision of Heaven by Michael Whitworth. But as many friends recommended it to me, and I went to school with this talented writer and preacher, I knew I owed it to him. So here goes.
Whitworth’s book comes at a time when many Christians worry that their “rights” are shrinking, that a huge persecution is coming, that the privileges that we have long held are going to soon be lost, and that we just won’t know what to do about it. The Derision of Heaven, which takes applied scholarship and shares it in a very understandable, relevant language, points to the book of Daniel as a source of answers for the questions we might be having—not questions about what will happen through the reading of “secret prophecies”, but about what is supposed to happen and what it means when it happens. Daniel’s book is about kings—all kings—and how God laughs at derision when they refuse to acknowledge his majesty (recalling the 2nd Psalm). America included.
“Are we upset that God is no longer honored?
Or that we are no longer a powerful majority?”
Whitworth opens with this sobering question for Christians in America anxious over possible exile. Maybe, he says, America has become drunk on her own power, and maybe God is humbling us. He uses Daniel as a model for dealing with an overwhelming society: “Conviction, not compromise. We never flaunt our piety like a sash before a raging bull,” and yet we should exalt God no matter the circumstances.
Whitworth uses pointed scholarship to demonstrate the significance of the details of Daniel’s story, but pointing out as well the significance of what they mean to us:
- The colonization of the minds of Israel’s young men by indoctrination and forced name changes
But also the reminder that a Christian can attend public schooling and remain faithful
- Daniel’s fast from the King’s feast
not merely kosher eating, but a subversive gesture of disloyalty to the ugly teat of empire.
- The symbolism of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream
Not so much which kingdoms are prophesied, but the focus on the rock (Christ) that subverts them.
But Daniel is not the hero of the story, Whitworth reminds us. God is. Even Daniel knew this, as he credited God for his powers, prayed to God for thanksgiving, and acknowledged God as ruler of the very stars the king’s wise men could not read. The proper response to troubling national and global events, Whitworth reminds us, “is not indignation and social media rants, but appealing to God for mercy.” David was humble in his faithfulness, not prideful.
Whitworth hammers this crucial point in, that Daniel and his friends are examples of the balance of faithful discipline in the midst of changing cultural currents, neither giving in to cowardice or pride. He highlights again and again the manner in which we should face such adversity:
- Daniel and co. “never engaged in verbal gymnastics, nor were they hostile..”
- “We are not to be rude, condescending or otherwise make more obnoxious the fragrance of Christ to those perishing.”
- “Instead of inflating a false sense of martyrdom and proudly playing the victim”, we should focus on serving God.
- Daniel is neither devoid of compassion for Neubchadnezzar, nor is he flattering.
- “When persecution comes our way, we shouldn’t panic or scream about our ‘rights’.”
- Daniel didn’t pray more discretely or pray more openly after Darius’s decree; he just kept praying.
- “We would be better served worrying less about how Liberals, Conservatives, Muslims, Atheists, or others not like us are destroying America.”
- “The church should realize that any persecution that comes our way might be intended by God as discipline to purify and sanctify us—a realignment of our priorities.”
A large portion of America’s churches would do well to take in these wise words.
Whitworth really gets a handle on how God is working in the story. He advances the reality that Babylonian captivity was God’s way of ironically purging idolatry from Israel. When they learn their lesson, he delivers them, and often he does so through the example of wise, devout followers, and even prophets. Riddles like the statue and the meaning of “mene mene tekel uparsin” (you’re numbered, you’re numbered, you’ve been found wanting, you’ll be divided) are handled well, and without a know-it-all sense secret knowledge of by the author. His casual, but reverent tone encourages to understand the basics of these sometimes cryptic events, and shines lights on details that place the story in a relevant context.
In humility, Whitworth openly admits that handling the vision of Daniel frightened him, because of it’s mystery, and the conviction with which many people have differing interpretations of the vision. But he does not avoid the vision. He heeds his own warning, that one should not be literal with apocalyptic writing, or become too dogmatic with interpretation, or get so wrapped up in the details that we miss the vision. He unashamedly decries the slanderous lies of false prophets like Edgar Whisenant and William Miller. In General, Whitworth sticks to the common, well-supported general interpretation that the mutant beasts in the vision represent empire, likely the empires of Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and Rome, but is open to variation of that running motif. What is certain, he concludes, is that the Christ is the end of the vision, and his victory is forever.
Whitworth also reminds us that Daniel’s story is not mean to teach us that will always save us from physical harm if we pray hard and obey him, but rather to teach us that God is always in control, always with us, no matter what befalls us. “[God] did not deliver [Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego] from the fire, but in the fire.” Prayer, says Whitworth, is not a last minute resort, but our greatest weapon against false empire and against persecution: “Rebellion acknowledges the power of the state, while prayer appeals to a higher power whose ultimate will cannot be thwarted.” Prayer is not primarily meant to get us out of horrible situations, but to get us through them.
The human psyche is a fascinating study, and Whitworth’s is not a book on the subject, he touches on the psychological aspects of God’s followers and enemies alike. The “putting to death of the ego” is a theme he rehearses in a way that appeals to laymen. The demented ego of the rulers that Daniel faces are speculated on with the angle of God’s punishment for their self-absorbed attitudes, their decadent bravado.
The flaws in his book are minor: He does at times lean more toward the idea that God “created” human governments, and seems too certain that humanity has progressively gotten worse and worse since Creation, whereas to many it also seems that humanity goes back and forth. Also, some of the jokes seem a little goofy and out of place, but this does not detract from the studious, reverent content.
Time is spent on some of the textual and historical debates surrounding Daniel, but Whitworth keeps the major focus on the meaning of the story itself (as well as addressing common misconceptions) as we should too. This book is not a book for scholars, but it is a scholarly book for “lay readers”.
“Daniel’s enemies had incited the derision of Heaven and were now made to drink the cup of God’s wrath.” Yes, with a great eye for irony Whitworth lays the story out for us in memorable, relevant, powerful accounts. I recommend this book for your “Bible study book shelf”. It’s refreshing and reassuring. And it gives us a good handle on an entire Old Testament book: Daniel.