Nebuchadnezzar and the Prodigal: An Israel-Christ Perspective


It occurs to me that there is a Nebuchadnezzar "feel" to the story of the "Prodigal Son" in Luke 15, and in both cases the story of Israel, and therefore of the Christ and his Church, is being told. Try it out.

Both Nebuchadnezzar and the prodigal begin in a place of privilege and relative wealth. (As did Israel, elect from the nations of the earth and redeemed from Egypt, and as did the eternal Son in glorious communion with his Father in the Spirit.)

Both descend from that place as a result of some kind of pride or arrogance prompted by perception of that place of privilege: the king says "this great Babylon that I have built" (and later names his sin as pride) and the son says "give me my share." (As did Israel, forgetting her origins and her God in idolatry - forgetting, in essence, the whole of Deuteronomy.  Christ, too, assumes the identity of fallen Israel in abject humiliation but does so with self-conscious recognition of what he is choosing not to hold on to: his equality in glory with the Father. Here is a beautiful note of redemptive reversal of the story.)

Both squandered or lost what was given: the king his kingdom, the son his inheritance. (As Israel lost the land, and Christ descended from heavenly glory by grace.)

In both cases, descent and humiliation takes isolated, bestial, and culinary forms. In isolated form: the king is driven away from other human beings and the son is left alone in a pig sty. (And Lamentations is the mourning of Lady Zion who has lost everything, including her comforters, and suffocates in isolation. Christ, too, is isolated even from his Father's loving presence on the cross, absorbing the furthest dimensions of loneliness.)

And in bestial form: the king becomes boanthropic (boanthropy being the delusion that one is an ox) and the son meanders among the pigs, not human beings. (Israel, in exile without land or temple or priests, may be said to have become the dog-Gentiles they knew as such, and Christ is the Isaianic Servant who, in his suffering, did not resemble a human being. Was he, in appearance, as he became sin, perhaps more beast than man?)

And in culinary form: the king eats grass like the ox and the son longed to eat the food of swine. (As did Israel in exile indistinguishably distributed among the unclean nations and no longer able to participate in her annual, identity-reinforcing feasts. Jesus, too, is known as one who eats with the Gentiles and sinners.)

For both, the movement of return begins with a sobering "aha!" moment of crisis-born clarity starting with the deepest point of their respective depths: the king says "my understanding/reason returned to me" and Jesus says the son "came to himself." (In which case the parallel in Israel and Christ would be the resurrection of the Son from hellish judgment in death as the turning of the ages and the passage from death to life.)

In both, their return to status prompted immediate confession of sin and of faith: the king's first words acknowledge the sovereignty of the true God, and the son's words are of his own sin. (Israel's resurrection from the dead in the empty tomb was a vindicating declaration by the Father of the righteousness of the Son and a revelation of his own faithfulness, which faithfulness in Christ becomes the core content of the Church's proclamation.)

Finally, for both figures repentance led to restoration: the king to his kingdom and the son to his father. (The Israel of God, in Christ, presently though provisionally possesses the kingdom of the Father, originating as it does at the Father's right hand where the faithful Son was received by his Father in ascension and exaltation.)

You will recognize other parallels here as well, such as in the stories of Adam, Moses, and David. Jonah's story includes many of these features (though with important differences): descent, beasts, turning point in the depths, resurrection, confession/proclamation.