Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers…
If, with his slender knowledge of God, Nebuchadnezzar supposed that the erection of this colossal statue would be pleasing to God, as a visible expression of the monarch's allegiance, or would serve to remind men of their religious obligation, so far the deed. would be in itself praiseworthy. But when he proceeded further to compel a rigid conformity to his mode of offering worship, he trenched upon the rights of Deity - he invaded the sacred territory of conscience.
I. COERCION IN RELIGION PROCEEDS FROM LUST OF POWER, It may, in a few cases, arise from a mistaken idea of personal duty; but if the motive be searched to its source, it will be found to spring from this corrupt fount - the lust of power. Nebuchadnezzar, like an Oriental despot, had complete control over the persons, the property, and the lives of his subjects; but this lust for power grew by what it fed on. Like the horseleech, it was ever crying, "Give, give!" He craved to have control over the thoughts, beliefs, and religious acts of his people. He would carry his sceptre, if he might, into the inner realm of conscience, and sway the nations as he pleased. Hence he commanded the attendance and the religious homage of all who held any authority under him, to the end that these might, in their turn, exact a similar obedience from the people. The sovereignty of love is always a boon; the sovereignty of personal will is more or less a bane.
"... man, proud man!
Drest in a little brief authority... .
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep."
II. COERCION IN RELIGION IS A USURPATION OF DIVINE RIGHTS. "The powers that exist are ordained of God," yet only for limited and well-defined ends. Monarchs and judges stand in God's stead to preserve society from anarchy and injury; but over the interior life - over thought and affection and worship - they can have no dominion whatever. To bind and to loose men's beliefs by authority is an impossibility. There is another sceptre before which heart and conscience are constrained to bow. There is another tribunal before which kings and subjects must alike appear. No verdict of acquittal which a human monarch can give will serve as a passport to the favour of the Most High! Every one of the human race must give account "of himself unto God." "To our own Master we stand or fall."
III. COERCION IN RELIGION DEGRADES THE TRUE DIGNITY OF RELIGION. True religion is nothing less than the purest love of the human heart pouring itself out, in service or in speech, unto the living God; and if love must ever be spontaneous and free, in order to be love at all, so must be the piety of the human soul. Spontaneity is a necessity in religion. If compulsion be employed, its essence evaporates, its spirit disappears. It degenerates into formality. In the hands of an ambitious monarch, religion becomes a piece of state machinery; it is draggled in the mire of kingcraft. The pomp of state ceremonial - scenic splendour, displays of music - only degrade Religion, under pretence of doing her homage. The atmosphere in which she most flourishes is not the heated atmosphere of royal palaces, but the atmosphere of tranquil liberty. You may cast (lead metals into moulds, and fashion them into what shape you please; but life refuses to be moulded after the caprice or art of man: it follows laws which are enshrined within itself. You may clip and cut a dead tree into any form you like, but a living tree will soon laugh at all your attempts to give it shape. True religion is the outgrowth of the truest life of the soul. To make it conformable to human law is simply to destroy it.
IV. COERCION IN RELIGION MAKES MEN BIGOTS, HYPOCRITES, OR MARTYRS. You will find in every empire, men and women who are ready to yield compliance to royal mandates in the sphere of religion: but these are always persons of slender faith, or persons having no faith at all. Unworthy motives in crowds act upon the mind to induce servile obedience. All the motives which appeal to present advantage, and to self-interest in its lower forms, will be ranged upon that side. To retain official rank, to secure royal favour, to gain emolument, multitudes have always been ready to hide their real opinions or have forbidden convictions to mature in the conscience. They have stultified their manhood, starved their soul, and sold their immortal birthright for a mess of pottage. This has been the effect of coercion upon one class of the community. On another class the effect has been to produce unbelief in all religious truth - cold, blank atheism. If religion (say they) can only be propagated by the lash and the sword, it is not worth propagating at all. If the treat God cannot maintain his own authority and rule without the aid of human violence, surely it is best to believe that there is no God! Such is the argument of many whom coercion has hardened and embittered. And on a third class of society the effect of coercion is martyrdom. Men and women who prize truth more than present convenience, who honour God more than they honour men, - these firmly decline the mandates of human authority in the sphere of religion. Come what may, they must be obedient to conviction and to conscience. They are bound by a prior obligation to follow the Spirit of truth whithersoever it leads. A voice speaks to them direct from heaven; and, let kings rave and storm as they please, they yield their first deference to the heavenly command. After all, a human king is but a fellow-worm, and it is an ignoble thing to steer our life-course according to the changing whims of pompous princes. And the result of honest resistance to religious tyranny has always been suffering - the rack, the flame, the prison, the gibbet. - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellers, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.
WEB: Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the satraps, the deputies, and the governors, the judges, the treasurers, the counselors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.