The Humbling of Nebuchadnezzar
The narrative of Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream occurs some years after the incident of the fiery furnace. The dream relates to the step-by-step process that God has been taking Nebuchadnezzar through.
- Step one was Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the image, and Nebuchadnezzar saying that God is the “God of Gods” (2:47).
- Step two was after Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were rescued from the fiery furnace, and Nebuchadnezzar praises God for rescuing the young men (3:28).
Nebuchadnezzar has had two powerful revelations that God is the true, and only God, yet Nebuchadnezzar has yet to humble himself before Yahweh. So, God gives him some assistance. God strikes Nebuchadnezzar with a mental illness, which takes place twelve months after the king’s dream of the image of a man, that was interpreted by Daniel. The dream is in connection with the completion of Nebuchadnezzar’s extensive building program, and the great pride he had in the achievement (4:30).
“King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you!”
Two important facts are revealed in verse one:
- It is not Daniel recording these words it is Nebuchadnezzar himself. Kings and high government officials don’t usually write their own speeches and documents, but amend and approve what their skilled speech-writers have written for them. The form is as a kind of open letter of confession, giving praise and glory to God and speaking of His wondrous acts. This is indicating that something remarkable has happened since chapter 3, a further step in Nebuchadnezzar’s spiritual development has taken place.
- It is not the private records of King Nebuchadnezzar, but it is recorded for all the people in his empire. The event that has happened is so momentous that all need to hear it and understand. It is not a letter about taxes, or call up to service, as normal communication from a king to his people would be, it is an open letter. A herald would be required to go to every town and city in the kingdom and read the letter aloud. This was a record of a personal testimony, a humbling of the king at the hand of God. Something so great had happened to Nebuchadnezzar, that he had to tell everyone in his kingdom. The document is evident of the success of God’s work in his heart, it would expose Nebuchadnezzar weakness of character, his demeaning punishment and that the king, contrary to what many in the empire would have believed, is not divine.
Pride had been Nebuchadnezzar’s downfall, now as part of his restoration he humbles himself before the whole empire, even before the lowest street urchins and beggars, so that they too could benefit from his experience. In our spiritual warfare as believers, we overcome the enemy through the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11), Nebuchadnezzar is giving us clear evidence of a repentant heart. He had been humbled in the most dramatic way, and been shown grace in restoration, so now he wanted all to know how great God is.
There is no contemporary corroboration of Nebuchadnezzar’s mental illness outside the Bible. But this shouldn’t surprise us. It isn’t the kind of thing that chroniclers would record to build national pride.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (4:1-10a; 10b-17)
The letter begins with an introduction written by Nebuchadnezzar:
“King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2 It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. 3 How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation. 4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7 Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. 8 At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods and I told him the dream, saying, 9 “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. 10 The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these:
Nebuchadnezzar then reveals the content of the dream:
“I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it. 13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14 He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men’”.
The first part of the dream is about an enormous tree. The Mesopotamian area is very flat, with no tall trees, so the tree must have been very impressive to Nebuchadnezzar. The second part of the dream is angelic. Note that the angel speaks of the tree as a person – “let him”.
God raises the humble
The angel makes clear the purpose of the dream: “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men”. The message is clear, God who establishes kingdoms, sets their boundaries, chooses their kings. God loves to appoint the lowliest and put them in charge. Nebuchadnezzar will be taken to the bottom of the totem pole of humanity, there will be no one lower.
Evidence of this can be seen repeatedly in scripture:
- Abraham was a nomad with a barren wife.
- Joseph was raised from a dungeon.
- Moses was chased out of Egypt and was just a shepherd in the wilderness.
- David was the youngest son, who was a lowly shepherd in Bethlehem.
Isaiah 53 and Philippians 2:1-11 record that the humblest of all is Jesus, He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! And for this God will establish Him over all. Daniel 4 is revealing God’s plan to humble, then restore Nebuchadnezzar, who will then rule from a place of humility, rather than dominate through a position of pride.
Daniel’s Interpretation (4:18-19)
“18 ‘This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the spirit of the holy gods is in you’. 19 Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, ‘Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you’. Belteshazzar answered and said, ‘My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies!’”
Nebuchadnezzar was disturbed by this second dream from God. His wise men – most likely the same group from chapter two – are unable to interpret the dream. Nothing in their dream manuals comes close to defining the dream. Nebuchadnezzar then summons Daniel, he understands Daniel’s God was different – holy, unique – but he is still at this stage a pagan, and the God of Daniel is not fully defined in his thinking. Once Daniel hears the dream and God reveals to him its meaning, he is concerned with what to do. He is “greatly perplexed” and “terrified.” Some Biblical scholar interpret this as Daniel fears for his life, as those who brought bad news to an absolute monarch were often put to death. More likely Daniel, as Chief Administrator has grown close to the King, there is a bond of friendship, and the consequences of the dream for his friend are dire indeed. Daniel was also greatly concerned for what would happen to the kingdom once the judgement falls – the turmoil that can result from an unoccupied throne.
Note: There is a distinct difference between Daniel’s relationship with Nebuchadnezzar and Balthazar. Daniel is disturbed by the dream, he is fond of Nebuchadnezzar, there is a relationship of respect there. In Daniel 5, if Daniel had witnessed an assassin staking Balthazar, he would have pull up a chair to watch the outcome.
You Are that Tree (4:20-26)
“20 ‘The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, 21 whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived— 22 it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth’”.
Having interpreted the meaning of the tree for Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel now turns to the difficult part – the angel’s message:
“23 ‘And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. 26 And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules’”.
The angel’s message is striking, the king represented by the tree will be cut down to a stump – he will be humbled. Nebuchadnezzar is sentenced to a life in the wild, for “seven periods of time” (4:25, 32). There is no clarification on whether the length of time is months or years, most commentators believe the term represents years. Seven in scripture symbolises perfection and completeness, the time allocated by God is therefore revealed to be the perfect length to complete the change required.
Despite God revealing Himself to Nebuchadnezzar in two remarkable ways, Nebuchadnezzar remains an arrogant pagan king. He refuses to recognize the sovereignty of God, and subordinate his will to the will of Yahweh. Nebuchadnezzar, like all sinful men has allowed his achievements to go to his head, and Nebuchadnezzar the king over a vast territory, who had completed a building program that was a marvel for its day, had a lot to be proud about. Added to his achievements was that when a person is surrounded by sycophants, whose flattery and adulation was a daily, if not an hourly occurrence, they are no longer grounded, and lose perspective. Reality and truth are withheld from them, and they come to believe they are infallible in their judgements. Examples of those that have fallen into this snare, range from political leaders such as Adolph Hitler to celebrities like Michael Jackson.
The Tower of Babel was built as a symbol of pride for mankind, in their rebellion to God, it was to elevate man to the heavens, a marvellous achievement. Unfortunately for the Babylonians of the time, the tower was not high enough, God had to “go down” to view their achievement (Gen. 11:7). Now, Nebuchadnezzar, in the shadow of the refurbished tower, was elevating himself as a god among mortals, and God came down to observe a king, who believed himself to be superior to all mere humans. Nebuchadnezzar went from being the greatest in the kingdom, to the lowliest in the kingdom. He had to learn a costly lesson, he had to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, and recognize that it is the Lord who gives, and so the Lord is also able to take away (Job 1:21).
Daniel 4 is an important end times chapter, as it points to the ultimate sin of man that God will judge – pride. Nebuchadnezzar reflecting on his achievements felt like a god among men, mankind in their rejection of God, is now elevating themselves as a superior being – Friedrich Nietzsche’s super human. Nebuchadnezzar was humbled in a seven-year period of testing; mankind will be humbled in seven years of Tribulation. Man during the Tribulation is handed over to a reprobate mind for seven years (2 Thess. 2:11; Romans 1:28). God, as He did to Nebuchadnezzar, brings accountability through madness.
Wise Counsel (4:27)
“27 ‘Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity’”.
Daniel has been elevated to a very senior position in the king’s throne room, he has not only attained the position of chief interpreter, he has earned the respect of the king and is also able to advise and council the king. There had been no more important time for Daniel to use His influence and exhort the king to recognize that he needed to repent of his sins and humble himself before God.
Daniel goes even further and suggest that the repentance should not only be verbal, but also practical. Michel de Montaigne is famous for his quote “actions speak louder than words,” Daniel is echoing the much-repeated phrase, encouraging the king not only to repent in prayer, but show his repentance by humbling himself to be merciful to the down trodden of society. Daniel’s hope is that God will see the repentant heart and stay His hand of judgement, he knows God is merciful, and will hold back the punishment, if the warning has had an effect (Jonah 3:6-10; 1 Kings 21:29; Joel 2:14).
The Dream’s Fulfilment (4:28-33)
“28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’ 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.’ 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws”.
Daniel’s wise council fell on deaf ears, Nebuchadnezzar does not have a change of heart, but continues on as normal. Nebuchadnezzar, while standing on the palace roof one day, scans his capital city – Babylon, with its magnificent hanging gardens, and allows himself to wallow in hubris. God had given Nebuchadnezzar a year of grace to change, but now the sand had run out of the hour glass.
The early years of the king revolved around war and the establishing of his empire, the later part of his reign was given to extensive building projects, and this is where we find Nebuchadnezzar according to the narrative. He was admiring all he had achieved through his building projects, and his thoughts at the zenith of his power are how great a king he must be – he was the head of Gold after all.
The focus of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride was on his building program at the moment he was struck down by God “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30). Babylon was listed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the hanging gardens of Babylon are spoken of in wonder and amazement – a gift for a home sick queen. “In addition to its size,” wrote Herodotus, a Greek historian in 450 BC, “Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world. “Inside these double walls, through the mighty Ishtar gates, were fortresses and temples containing immense statues of solid gold. Rising above the city was the famous Tower of Babel, a temple to the god Marduk, that seemed to reach to the heavens. Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar was a marvel for the ancient traveller, no city came close to rivalling it.
Nebuchadnezzar’s pride was not standing on one leg, there were other supports for his hubris:
- Achievements: The building program was not his only achievement, Nebuchadnezzar was a conquering king, who established a vast empire, he was a king of kings.
- Authority: Nebuchadnezzar was the supreme authority in the land, there was no one superior to him, he had the power of life or death over all his subjects.
- Invariably: As was mentioned earlier, this brought him under the negative effect of sycophants, who worked tirelessly to increase the king’s narcissism and pride, in order to gain favour.
Joel James in his teaching on Daniel 4, entitled “God humbles the proud,” gives an insightful look into the sin of pride:
“Pride is both the first and the worst of sins. It was pride that made Lucifer think he could contend with, and conquer The Almighty, it was the first angelic sin. It was pride that made Adam and Eve wish to rival God, and so it was the first human sin as well. Pride is the first of sins, and there is a sense in which it is the worst of sins, because it is in fact the motive of so many others, it motivates perhaps all others sins in some sense or another. It is pride that causes us to strike back with retaliation when we are offended, we even say ‘my pride was hurt’. It is pride that moves us to say that ‘I deserve to have this, even when I did not work for it, even though it is not mine’. It is pride that causes us to say, or think demeaning things about others, the Pharisee in the temple said ‘I am glad that I am not like other men (Luke 18:11)’. It is pride that keeps us from admitting that we are wrong, pride is the spring from which the waters of impatience and anger so richly flow: I deserve not to be inconvenienced, not to be spoken to unkindly, not to be cut off on the freeway, not to be ignored, or whatever it is. It is pride that leads us to talk about ourselves, to interrupt others, or to clam up in silence. Pride causes us to fear men and love ourselves, rather than fear God and love others. Pride is the first and the worst of sins” (1).
Jesus is our example of humility, everything He did was motivated by the desire to serve others, an agape love. Mankind tends to live at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Jesus, we are motivated to serve self first because of pride, pride is self-love. Jesus reduced the burden of following the 10 commandments down to two: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these.”
Scripture (22 times) says God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble, and Daniel’s narrative describing Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream emphasises this. The final verse of the chapter gives us the theological point of the chapter, “and all those that walk in pride He is able to humble” (Vs. 37) It is a powerful message to all mankind whose first and foremost sin is pride, it is also an important lesson for Christians in their walk with God, pride effects our relationship with God. The message of Daniel 4 is also relevant for understanding Daniel 7, where the Antichrist, the little horn, will be the image of arrogance and pride and God will dispose of him with ease – where will his pride be then?
- (1) Joel James recorded teaching series on the book of Daniel; Joel James Ministries, Daniel 4, “God humbles the proud.”
The King is Restored (4:34-35)
“34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'”
After the time of humbling, Nebuchadnezzar is blessed with a new perspective on himself, and a new appreciation of God. The final stage of God’s plan for Nebuchadnezzar has been reach, he now acknowledges God as “the Most High.” Daniel as a servant of God has played a key role in Nebuchadnezzar’s salvation and his attaining some of these insights.
Philippians 2:13: “For God is the One working in you both to will and to work according to His good pleasure.”
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson gives an excellent account of Nebuchadnezzar’s insights after recovering from his dementia (2):
Previously, Nebuchadnezzar believed himself to almost be a god, but now he learns things about God:
1. God is eternal. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that God himself is eternal (4:34).
2. God’s kingdom never ends. God’s kingdom is eternal as well (4:34), not one that must be maintained by constant warfare and protected from every threat.
3. God cannot be compared with human beings. Nebuchadnezzar thought of himself as great; now he acknowledges that human beings are “as nothing” compared with God (4:35a).
4. God is sovereign. As Daniel related to Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar has killed, humbled, or promoted whomever he pleases (5:19). Now he acknowledges that God “does as He pleases” (4:35b [NIV]).
5. God is the “King of heaven” (4:37). Yahweh is not just a god among gods, he is the God of gods, he is King of kings, he is King of heaven.
6. God is accountable to none. As an absolute monarch, Nebuchadnezzar had felt that he didn’t need to answer to anyone, but now he discovers that he has to answer to God’s humbling. Only God has no need for accountability (4:35c). God doesn’t have to explain himself to us when we are angry at what we perceive he has done. As God said to Job:
“‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it’. 3 Then Job answered the Lord and said: 4 ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. 5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’” (Job 40:2-5).
- (2) Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, Jesus Walk Bible Series Audio (33:51): Humbling the Proud (Daniel 4-5). http://www.jesuswalk.com/daniel/4_humbling.htm.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Sanity and Position are Restored (4:36-37)
“ 36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counsellors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (4:36-37).
Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance had cost him dearly, but God is gracious in restoring him to his throne, and enabling him to exceed past achievements. In the cut throat world of pagan palace politics, a throne being left vacant for seven years is indeed rare. God has been given His rightful place in Nebuchadnezzar’s life, and the king of Babylon gives glory and honour to “the King of heaven,” who is able to humble “those who walk in pride.”
- The focus of Daniel 4 is on pride – God hates pride – it is “the first of sins and worst of sins”. Personal pride, i.e. self-love, is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Jesus.
- God loves to elevate the humble.
- The sovereignty of God over kings and nations is very evident, He is all powerful and able to do what He pleases.
- God is gracious to those that repent.
- Repentance should not only be in our prayers, but also evident in our actions.
- From Nebuchadnezzar’s confession we learn that God is eternal (4:34), his kingdom never ends (4:34b). He is incomparable (4:35a), sovereign (4:35b), the King of Heaven (4:37), and accountable to none (4:35c). (Dr. Ralph F. Wilson’s list on Nebuchadnezzar’s insights).