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Spirits in Scripture and Life

Though I do not make any mention in my sermon of the curious role of the “watcher” in Daniel 4, I really couldn’t move on without saying something. Beginning his section on the doctrine of angels and demons, Joel Beeke says, “We live in a world full of unseen spirits. Everywhere we go, we live in the presence of God, the infinite, internal, and unchangeable Spirit. A human spirit animates the body of every man, woman, or child that we encounter. Furthermore, angelic and demonic spirits move invisibly about us as they strive to advance or defeat Christ's kingdom.”[1]

However, sometimes angels, these invisible spirits, are made visible as they execute their service to God. In those instances, the rich world of the invisible breaks through into the visible and reminds us that we are not the only sentient creatures of God’s good creation.

And sometimes, those angels are made visible to pagans like Nebuchadnezzar. Commenting on the king’s presentation of his dream, EJ Young says this: “The king speaks as a pagan, and the Aramaic word which Daniel employs is one consciously chosen to represent the thought of the king. This pagan thought is that which was common both to Babylon and Persia. … The king is probably referring to the angels which were known to him through the Babylonian religion.”[2]

Specifically, Zoroastrianism, a religion that developed in the seventh or sixth century BC, describes “watchers” who were tasked with keeping an eye on the things of this world. One example comes from the Zendavesta: “The seven Amhaspands received their name on account of their great, holy eyes, and so, generally, all the heavenly Izeds watch in the high heaven over the world, and the souls of men, and on this account are called the watchers of the world.” And from another text: “Ormuzd has set four watchers in the four parts of the heavens, to keep their eye upon the hosts of the celestial stars.”[3]

The point is that the world of unseen spirits was not unknown to other religions. Thus, when pressed to give expression to what he experienced, Nebuchadnezzar grabbed onto the only handle he had to describe the temporary manifestation of this unseen world of spirits. That this chapter is the only place that angels are called “watchers” in the Bible simply reinforces the genuine nature of the material. Daniel related what Nebuchadnezzar saw in the language that Nebuchadnezzar had available to him.

As we think more about the fact that an angel was made visible to a pagan like Nebuchadnezzar, this shouldn’t surprise us for three reasons. First, God is Lord of creation and the ruler of the kingdoms of men. He has an interest in the affairs of pagans because he is working all things to the praise of his glory, including the affairs of pagans. Since he uses angels to execute his plans, it’s not all that surprising that one visited this king.

Second, angelic activity in this world is as old as creation. Cherubim were set at the entrance to the garden of Eden to guard it, for example. Since all people share a common ancestry and history, it shouldn’t be surprising that angels are a part of world religions that are rooted in the general revelation of the past. Even without ongoing angelic activity, that common history has impacted all later aberrations of the truth.

Third, not all angelic activity is good and God-honoring. It shouldn’t be surprising that fallen angels would be active in pagan religion to distort the truth. Satan is the father of lies, and demonic activity is frequently characterized by deception.

Nevertheless, even as demonic activity tries to lead humanity to worship the creation rather than the creator, its manifestation in pagan religion reinforces the truth that there is a world full of unseen spirits actively working among us. In fact, the commonality with respect to angelic activity between Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar is key for Daniel pointing the king from the watcher to God and the necessity of repentance.

From this we learn something helpful. Because we all live in God’s world, whether we acknowledge it or not, a judicious engagement with other expressions of common experiences is a useful avenue for pointing people to the one true God.

[1] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019), 1:1109. [2] Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 103. [3] Quoted from Albert Barnes, The Book of Daniel (London: Knight and Son, 1853), 259.

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