Part 1

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Introduction to the Nebuchadnezzar Cycle

For 25 years one of my joys has been to write and read an advent poem each Sunday of Advent for the people of Bethlehem. The poems aim to speak truth about God and his ways with man, but they are imaginative reconstructions behind figures of the Bible of what may have been, but probably was not. Historically, my aim is not to create anything that could not have been or that in any way contradicts what the Bible says.

I write them because the effort to say things differently helps me see things more deeply and love God more deeply. And I hope they help you in that same way.

This year my plan is to read a four part cycle on Nebuchadnezzar. We know him mainly from the books of 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Daniel. He was the king of Babylon who came and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC and carried the exiles away to Babylon. At one level his behavior seems inexplicable, and it is an open question in the Bible whether he really was a true convert to the worship of Yahweh. My own imagination is that he was entangled in a secret cult of moon worship. But what becomes of him, I will save for the last poem.

Nebuchadnezzar, Part 1

Nebuchadnezzar hated night
But loved the dark. It is the plight
Of every king and every soul
Who cannot sleep but plays a role
That he is not, and must conceal
The truth with artificial zeal
For what he does not love, and hide
His secret passion—like a bride
Adorned in white, who does not prize
The happy man before her eyes.

Before his rise to power on
The throne of Babylon, the dawn,
In spite of light, had been for years
A sweet relief. And with the tears
Of weariness, but not remorse,
He welcomed day, and blessed the course
Of heaven’s blazing sun for slight
Relief; and then began the bright
And hollow masquerade of fear
And holy rev’rence, to appear
As if his gods were treasured or
Esteemed—as if this cult was more
Than Babylon’s devout charade,
And Bel could speak, or Nebo made
A sound.

This would-be king had found
The secret of the ancient mound
From when Sumerians first walked
The sands of Babylon and stalked
Their prey at night four thousand years
Before, so when the moon appears,
They might with blood appease Raku,
The moon god, long forgotten through
The centuries—except by some,
Who wake in fear at night, and come
To secret shrines and offer beasts,
Or men, and long for bogus priests
And silent gods—and day. This was
The darkness where he lived, because
He bound himself for life with both
A sacrifice and solemn oath:
“I live by blood and by the moon,
And vow by these not to impugn
The name, Raku, nor be released
Till I myself become a beast.”

And when with guile he took the throne,
Nebuchadnezzar brought (unknown
To all his court, his nobles, and
His wife) the secret of the band
Of midnight worshipers, who met
At full moon ev’ry month to wet
Their trembling knives with blood and chant
Their spells and beg Raku to grant
Them dreams of what their fate would be.

This was the source of all his rage
Against Jerusalem. The stage
For siege and plundering was set
With bloody sacrifice. The debt
Was paid this night with human life,
And Jewish blood dripped from the knife.
At full moon, when the worshipers
Believed that Raku never errs,
A voice was heard: “The temple for
The Most High God, whom I abhor,
Stands unassaulted on a hill
Called Zion in the west. Who will
This night heed my command and go
Destroy that happy place, and throw
Those people in my net, and bring
Them bound to me? If they can sing
Beside the Chebar, let them make
Their melodies of death and slake
Their thirst for home and land upon
The bitter streams of Babylon.”

A bloodstained silence followed these
Dark words, and all agreed, the keys
To Zion had been given to
The king of Babylon. They drew
The manifest conclusion: So!
The moon god was at war, and though
Jerusalem should boast the Most
High God, this cult knew well the host
Of Babylon, led by the king,
With venom from the moon, would sting
Jerusalem and paralyze
Her armies with the painful cries
Of poison from the lunar pot—
Or so they thought—of Raku. Not
Until two decades had gone by
Would all of Babylon espy
The truth—that, in the plundering
Of Zion’s wealth, another King,
Unseen, would triumph in the loss
Of his own holy place, and toss
His rebel governors away
Like chaff before the wind, and pay
Their sin its portion by the hand
Of enemies, just as he planned.

And so without a clue what he
Would now achieve—the fatal key
To Zion in his hand—the king
Of Babylon sealed with his ring
The solemn declaration that
Nebuchadnezzar would combat
The Most High God of Israel,
Break him, and bring him bound to dwell,
A trophy and phenomenon,
Beneath his foot in Babylon.

For reasons he could see, and some
That he could not, he put his thumb
On Israel more gently than
At first he planned. He made the man,
Jehoiachim, his servant, just
A puppet king, until the dust
He licked could no more be endured.
So he rebelled, and thus ensured
His own demise in chains, and saw
Nebuchadnezzar put his claw
Through Temple rings and carry home
To Babylon, beneath the dome
Of Bel and Nebo, holy things
Not meant for use by any kings
But one. And then his son, in three
Months after he was dead, showed he,
Just like his father, was a fool:
A king, eighteen years old, with cruel
And final chains carried away
For thirty-seven years to stay
Behind the bars of Babylon.
And then his kinsman had to don
The puppet robes eleven years
And dance to foreign tunes and fears
Until the day that he could bear
No more, and cut his strings to dare
The king of Babylon to try
And take Jerusalem, the high
And Holy City of the Most
High God.

Now, finally, the boast
Of Babylon felt no restraint
From any source, and ev’ry taint
Of insolence he recompensed
With brutal siege until he sensed
The saints were eating afterbirth.
And then he lashed the mighty girth
Of this great city’s walls, and brought
Them to the ground. And then he thought,
“I will teach this High God, and all
His starving worshipers to fall
Before the gods of Babylon.”
And so he put his torch upon
The altar in the Holy Place
And burned, without a single trace,
The House of Israel’s God, and took
The sacred vessels home to cook
The sacrificial meat he ate
In honor of the moon. The great
And small of all the Jews were sent
In bonds to Babylon and went,
As if a monster swallowed them
Alive, and wept, “Jerusalem!
Jerusalem! Where is the Lord,
Our mighty God, before this horde
Of blind idolaters?” The king
Could hear their cries and felt the sting.
“Bring me their puppet king, and all
His sons,” the king declared, “and call
These weeping exiles now to see
Just who is blind and who is free
To worship as he please, and smite
His foe to live in endless night.
With memories so dark and clear
He daily cries, ‘O death, come near!’”
He turned to Nebuzaradan
The captain of the guard, “I can,”
He said, “create the darkness and
The light.” And at his nod, the hand
Of Nebuzaradan slew all
The sons of Zedekiah, small
And great. And as the monarch wailed,
They stabbed him in the eyes, and jailed
Him till the day he died. And then
The mighty throng of exiles, men
And women, old and young, went east
To Babylon.

And at the feast
Of victory year after year
The king would try to hide his fear,
Because the moon was full and he
Could not control what soon would be.
Would his dominion be increased,
Or would he be a mindless beast?
What had he done? A mighty blow
At God? How little did he know!

O kings of earth, and presidents,
Do you have any notion whence
There blows the wind that moves your mind?
Or whither any bill you’ve signed
Will lead? Or what ten billion waves
And ripples are unleashed in caves
And mountains, slums and palace halls,
When you make your decrees? What walls
Are built or fall? What bridges stand
Or, full of men, collapse? What lands
Live happily and well, or cling
To pleasant scorpions and sing
Of death unwittingly? Do you,
The kings and presidents, see through
Ten thousand days, and know the end
Of your intent, or comprehend
The outcome of your peace, or wars
Or even if your plan is yours?

This is the light of candle one:
God governs everything you’ve done.
You never take him by surprise,
The dark is bright before his eyes.
All kingly ways are in his hands,
And all your deeds fulfill his plans.
And if you make a war on God,
You find that you are but his rod.