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The King’s Boast and His Madness
(Chapter 4 verses 1-37)
A basic message of this book is that Israel’s God is superior to the idols of heathen nations. Chapter 4 emphasizes this same truth. The God of Israel is the God of the whole universe, and even heathen nations and heathen kings are subject to his will. But what is different about this chapter is that here the testimony to the true God is placed into the mouth of a heathen king. Remember too that this chapter belongs to that portion of the book written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Empire. This chapter contains a message that heathen people needed to hear. God let them hear it in their own language. It is, indeed, a message for all people of all times.
Daniel chapter 4 verses 1-3
To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world:
May you prosper greatly!
It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.
How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.
This superscription presents the message of the chapter as an edict, a royal proclamation issued by great King Nebuchadnezzar. The royal author addresses his edict “to the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world.” Even though Nebuchadnezzar knew that there were regions of the world over which he had no authority, yet as the preeminent ruler of his day, he claimed to be ruler of the world. And now he had an important message for everyone in his vast realm.
The most powerful king in the world had just had a shattering experience. He had exalted himself; he had proudly claimed for himself credit that belonged to God, and God had humbled him properly and publicly. The royal edict acquaints the citizens of Babylon with the details of what had happened in the preceding months and ends with a hymn of praise to the Most High God:
How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation
Many Bible scholars refuse to take this superscription at face value. One commentator actually expresses this opinion: “As an edict the document is historically absurd” (James A. Montgomery, International Critical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, page 222). According to this critic, the language of the edict is not that of a Babylonian but betrays its Jewish author. To be sure, the royal announcement shows familiarity with biblical thought. But could this not be due to the instructions and influence of Daniel, the child of God and foremost statesman of the empire, under whose guidance Nebuchadnezzar told his story? It has been suggested that Daniel may have been the royal scribe who later wrote down the king’s recollections after his unusual experience. At any rate, the Spirit of God saw to it that Daniel incorporated the king’s story into this book. And what a story the king has to tell!
Daniel chapter 4 verses 4-7
I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me.
The writer takes us to the palace in ancient Babylon, where we see a picture of tranquility. King Nebuchadnezzar’s years of fighting were over, and now he was enjoying years of peace. He had wiped out his enemies and consolidated his power, and he describes himself as relaxed and free from care. What happened to him, therefore, was totally unexpected. Nebuchadnezzar could not possibly have anticipated the humbling experience that lay immediately ahead for him.
“I had a dream that made me afraid.” From Daniel’s explanation we learn that God sent Nebuchadnezzar the dream that frightened the great king and ruined his sleep. The man before whom kings trembled, the king whose command had destroyed Jerusalem’s walls and burned her temple and blinded her king, now shook with fear. Even though Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know the exact meaning of the dream, he sensed that it was bad news.
You will recall that earlier in Nebuchadnezzar’s life, God had given the king a dream of a huge statue. Through that dream God predicted the rise and fall of nations, including Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar himself had been symbolized in that dream by the statue’s head of gold. Daniel’s interpretation of the vision pointed out to King Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom would fall and be replaced by another kingdom. Unfortunately for King Nebuchadnezzar, over the years he had forgotten God’s warning. God here repeated it, in an attempt to turn the king from his proud and godless ways.
The king called in his royal advisers, to hear the details of his strange dream and to tell him what it meant. These wise men—“magicians, enchanters, astrologers, diviners”—were specialists trained in the secret arts, the men who were kept at the king’s court to advise the king in all matters pertaining to the nation’s welfare.
This was the second instance that Daniel records of King Nebuchadnezzar calling all his wise men into emergency session. Many of them undoubtedly recalled the first time, perhaps 20 years earlier, when the king’s wise men were threatened with death if they couldn’t give the king the information he desired. On that occasion the wise men had pleaded with the king, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it” (chapter 2 verse 7). This time, however, the king told them all the details, but they were still unable to tell him what the dream meant.
For some reason Daniel was the last of the king’s advisers to be called. We don’t know why he was called last. Had he been busy assembling the king’s advisers from their stations throughout the empire? Or did King Nebuchadnezzar have a short memory? Didn’t he remember that at the time of his earlier dream his magicians and wise men had been unable to help him and only Daniel could tell him the details of his dream and interpret them? Or did Nebuchadnezzar deliberately turn first to his own Babylonian wise men, hoping to get along without the help of Israel’s God? Some have argued that Daniel may purposely have stayed out of the picture until Babylon’s finest had their opportunity to interpret the dream and were forced to admit their helplessness. In that event Daniel would have an additional opportunity to demonstrate publicly the superiority of the God of Israel.
There may have been quite another reason why Daniel was not called in at first. It seems unlikely that the king, trembling with fright at the dream he had had, would forget that he had placed Daniel in charge of all of Babylon’s wise men. Nebuchadnezzar may have remembered all too well how Daniel’s God had prophesied Nebuchadnezzar’s downfall and the collapse of his empire. Nebuchadnezzar may very well have understood from his present dream that he was going to suffer further humiliation and that this would most likely be caused by Daniel’s God, a God with whom Nebuchadnezzar as yet wanted no dealings. It was only when Nebuchadnezzar’s gods and his wise men had failed him that he was forced to call on Daniel for help.
Daniel chapter 4 verses 8-12
Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. These are the visions I saw while lying in my bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
Finally, Daniel came onto the scene. He was called Belteshazzar, the name by which he was known to the king’s Babylonian subjects, to whom this royal edict was addressed. The king addressed Daniel as one in whom “the spirit of the holy gods” was present. The king continued to think and speak like the heathen he was. He was a man who worshiped many gods.
Nebuchadnezzar shared with Daniel the details of the frightening dream. In his dream the king had seen a huge tree. We know from Daniel’s interpretation that the tree symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself, a man whose power and prestige were unrivaled in his day. The tree continued to grow until its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. The effects of King Nebuchadnezzar’s rule were felt all over the world at that time. Just as birds and beasts found food and shelter in the tree of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, many people were benefited by the empire Nebuchadnezzar headed. God had a purpose in establishing the Babylonian Empire, as he has for any government he establishes. The Lord of nations has a good purpose in letting rulers become powerful, and that purpose is to benefit people and, specifically, to further the course of the gospel. In God’s plan kings don’t rule for their own benefit. Governments exist to help people, to provide the conditions that will enable people to lead quiet and peaceable lives (Romans chapter 13 verse 4; 1st Timothy chapter 2 verse 2).
Daniel chapter 4 verses 13-18
“In the visions I saw while lying in my bed, I looked, and there before me was a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.
“‘Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.
“‘The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.’
“This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”
In his dream King Nebuchadnezzar saw a messenger, an angel, come down from heaven. The word used for “messenger” here is an unusual one. It describes the angel as “waking” or “watchful,” a “watchman,” alert to the will of God. The Scripture has much to say about how eager the angels are to serve the Lord by serving his people. The Bible offers many examples of how angels provide physical protection for God’s children. Angels are interested also in the spiritual welfare of God’s children. It was God’s angels, for example, who preached the first Christmas sermon, as well as the first Easter sermon.
The Bible does not spell out in as much detail how God uses his angels as he rules over those who are not his children. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream does show us that God also uses his angels to control earthly kingdoms. The magnificent tree that the king saw in his dream was to be cut down. In other words, there was to be a mighty overthrow, and the angel served as God’s agent of judgment. When he rendered this kind of service to the Lord, the angel acted as a “watchful one.” He alertly observed all things, including the persistent wrongs of a great king. This called for God’s judgment.
The angel announced God’s judgment: “Cut down the tree. . . . But let the stump and its roots . . . remain in the ground.” Here was the judgment that faced the proud king. Up to this point there had been no clear indication of what the tree symbolized. Now, however, the angel made it quite clear that the huge tree symbolized a person: “Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals.” Here we begin to understand why the king had trembled with fear when he had that dream. The dream was God’s way of announcing an awesome judgment. The proud king was going to be brought low. His power to think would be taken from him. “Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal.” For a definite period of time, the man on whom this judgment would fall was going to have to live like a beast of the field.
The dream also included the explanation why this judgment of God would strike the king: “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men.” Human beings were designed by the Creator to live under him as creatures, not alongside him as equals or even rivals. God never designed human beings to be independent creatures, existing all for themselves. When any human being refuses to live to God’s glory but instead rebels against the will of his Creator, he invites God’s judgment down upon himself.
In case the king was inclined to dismiss this message as “just a bad dream,” the angel added this solemn postscript: “The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict.” This assured the king that his dream was no idle and meaningless nightmare. God was revealing the judgment that would strike the king.
“This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means.” Once again the king’s official interpreters had failed him, and he had to turn to the man whom God had placed in the royal court of Babylon for just such a time as this. Unfortunately, the superstitious mind of Nebuchadnezzar recognized only that Daniel had supernatural wisdom. The king was not interested in the God who had given Daniel that wisdom.
Daniel chapter 4 verses 19-23
Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”
Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air—you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
“You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live like wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.’
With the understanding the Lord had given him, Daniel realized immediately that the dream was directed against the king. There is a delicate irony here in repeating Daniel’s Babylonian name (“also called Belteshazzar”). Remember that Nebuchadnezzar had originally given Daniel the name Belteshazzar (“May Bel protect you”) to show the superior power of Bel, the chief god of Babylon. And now this young civil servant, with power given him by the true God, interpreted the dream that the representatives of Babylon’s gods had been unable to understand.
Daniel’s reaction when he heard the king’s dream gives us a good view of the big heart of this man of God. On the one hand, he knew that Nebuchadnezzar deserved the judgment God was announcing through the dream. Yet Daniel was concerned about the king and grieved over what he had to tell him. For a long time he was upset at the prospect of telling his royal master the bad news about what was going to happen to him.
The king encouraged Daniel to speak up, and he did, although reluctantly. “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies . . . !” He then repeated the dream in almost the identical words the king himself had used. He made the interpretation of the dream as brief and as clear as possible: “You, O king, are that tree!” The tree in the king’s dream represented the king in all his greatness. At the moment, Nebuchadnezzar was at the peak of his greatness. His empire reached from its capital, near the head of the Persian Gulf, to Asia Minor, in the west (present-day Turkey); in the north it included Armenia and Syria. At one time Nebuchadnezzar also controlled Egypt.
The king had asked to hear the bad news about the dream; now Daniel spelled it out in detail. “You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree.’” Although Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful king of his day, God was going to remove him from his throne. In the language of the dream, the enormous tree, whose top touched the sky and was visible to the ends of the earth and from which birds and beasts were fed, would, under God’s judgment, come crashing to the ground.
The stump of the tree was not to be destroyed but was to remain in the field, bound with iron and bronze. Daniel did not explain the significance of the iron and bronze bands, and opinions concerning this aspect of the dream vary.
Some have thought that after the king’s fall from his throne—and from his sanity—he actually had to be restrained with chains to keep him from destroying himself or harming others. This seems an unlikely explanation, since in speaking to King Belshazzar some years later Daniel recalled that Nebuchadnezzar had “lived with the wild donkeys” (chapter 5 verse 21), animals that are not chained but run free. Other scholars think the bands of iron and bronze refer to the special care the royal courtiers would give their master while he was temporarily incapacitated.
The End of Part 4.1