David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
Daniel 4 - The Fall and Rise of Nebuchadnezzar
A. Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the tree.
1. (1-3) The opening of Nebuchadnezzar's decree.
Nebuchadnezzar the king, to all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you. I thought it good to declare the signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me. How great are His signs, and how mighty His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation.
a. Nebuchadnezzar the king: This unique chapter is the testimony of a Gentile king and how God changed his heart. In this, Nebuchadnezzar is a good example of a witness (one who relates what he has seen and experienced).
b. I thought it good to declare: It is good to declare what God has done for us. Satan has a huge interest in keeping us unnaturally silent about the signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for us.
c. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom: Nebuchadnezzar was a great king, but in this chapter he recognized that God's kingdom was far greater and His dominion was completely unique because it is an everlasting kingdom.
2. (4-9) Only Daniel can explain the dream to Nebuchadnezzar.
I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at rest in my house, and flourishing in my palace. I saw a dream which made me afraid, and the thoughts on my bed and the visions of my head troubled me. Therefore I issued a decree to bring in all the wise men of Babylon before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. Then the magicians, the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers came in, and I told them the dream; but they did not make known to me its interpretation. But at last Daniel came before me (his name is Belteshazzar, according to the name of my god; in him is the Spirit of the Holy God), and I told the dream before him, saying: "Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the Spirit of the Holy God is in you, and no secret troubles you, explain to me the visions of my dream that I have seen, and its interpretation."
a. Was at rest in my house, and flourishing in my palace: Nebuchadnezzar's rest was the false peace of the ungodly. God soon shook him from his false security.
b. I told them the dream; but they did not make known to me its interpretation: This is not the same dream as in Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar readily told his counselors this dream, but they did not tell him what it meant. The dream was fairly easy to interpret; the wise men probably lacked courage more than insight. Nebuchadnezzar said they did not make it known, not that they could not make it known.
c. At last Daniel came before me: "And why 'at last'? Why was he not sooner sent for? If the soothsayers and sorcerers could have served the turn, Daniel had never been sought to. This is the guise of graceless men; they run not to God till all other refuges fail them." (Trapp)
d. His name is Belteshazzar, according to the name of my god: Before Daniel interpreted the dream described in this chapter for Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon considered the Babylonian deity Bel his god.
i. This means that what he saw previously with Daniel and the three Hebrew young men was enough to impress him, but not enough to convert him. Being impressed with God isn't the same as being converted.
3. (10-17) The content of the dream: the rise and fall of a great tree.
These were the visions of my head while on my bed: I was looking, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong; its height reached to the heavens, and it could be seen to the ends of all the earth. Its leaves were lovely, its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, the birds of the heavens dwelt in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it. I saw in the visions of my head while on my bed, and there was a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven. He cried aloud and said thus: "Chop down the tree and cut off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts get out from under it, and the birds from its branches. Nevertheless leave the stump and roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field. Let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let him graze with the beasts on the grass of the earth. Let his heart be changed from that of a man, let him be given the heart of a beast, and let seven times pass over him. This decision is by the decree of the watchers, and the sentence by the word of the holy ones, in order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men."
a. A tree in the midst of the earth: The tree in Nebuchadnezzar's dream was noted for its size, strength, prominence, beauty, fruit, and shelter.
b. He cried aloud and said thus: The watcher (presumably an angel) explained the fate of the tree. He noted that the tree was to be chopped down, and it would lose its size, strength, prominence, beauty, fruit, and shelter. He also said that the tree represented a man who would be changed and given the heart of a beast.
i. Bound with a band of iron and bronze: These were either for the tree stump's confinement or protection. The tree would no longer be free and great.
c. In order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men: Nebuchadnezzar heard these words in his dream. In light of this, the dream wasn't hard to interpret - it clearly dealt with the humbling of a great king. No wonder none of Nebuchadnezzar's counselors wanted to interpret the dream for him.
i. Like most kings - ancient and modern - Nebuchadnezzar wanted to believe that he ruled instead of God or anyone else. "Both the Assyrian and the Babylonian kings thought of themselves as rulers over all the earth, so describing themselves in their inscriptions." (Wood)
4. (18) Nebuchadnezzar asks Daniel to interpret the dream.
This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, have seen. Now you, Belteshazzar, declare its interpretation, since 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 God is in you.
a. Declare its interpretation: Nebuchadnezzar knew he could get an honest answer from Daniel, even when the truth was hard to bear.
b. You are able, for the Spirit of the Holy God is in you: Though Nebuchadnezzar recognized Daniel as a man filled with the Spirit of the Holy God, Nebuchadnezzar had not yet yielded himself to the Holy God.
B. Daniel's explanation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
1. (19-26) Daniel explains the rise and coming fall of Nebuchadnezzar.
Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was astonished for a time, and his thoughts troubled him. So the king spoke, and said, "Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its interpretation trouble you." Belteshazzar answered and said, "My lord, may the dream concern those who hate you, and its interpretation concern your enemies! The tree that you saw, which grew and became strong, whose height reached to the heavens and which could be seen by all the earth, whose leaves were lovely and its fruit abundant, in which was food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt, and in whose branches the birds of the heaven had their home; it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong; for your greatness has grown and reaches to the heavens, and your dominion to the end of the earth. And inasmuch as the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, 'Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave its stump and roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze in the tender grass of the field; let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let him graze with the beasts of the field, till seven times pass over him'; this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: They shall drive you from men, your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. They shall wet you with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses. And inasmuch as they gave the command to leave the stump and roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that Heaven rules."
a. His thoughts troubled him: Daniel genuinely cared for Nebuchadnezzar and was clearly affected by the meaning of the dream. He didn't want it to be true of his friend Nebuchadnezzar.
b. It is you, O king: Daniel applied the point without ambiguity. Instead of reaching for a general point (such as saying, "We all could use a little more humility") Daniel brought the truth in love. This was similar to what the prophet Nathan said to King David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7).
i. "Great men and princes are often represented, in the language of the prophets, under the similitude of trees, see Ezekiel 17:5-6; 31:3 and following; Jeremiah 22:15; Psalm 1:3; 37:35." (Clarke)
c. Drive you from men . . . make you eat grass like oxen . . . wet you with the dew of heaven: When Daniel explained this to Nebuchadnezzar, the king probably couldn't guess just how literally it would be fulfilled.
d. After you come to know that Heaven rules: This was God's intended purpose for Nebuchadnezzar. The king could have avoided this humiliating fate if he genuinely humbled himself.
2. (27) Daniel, a good preacher, presses home the application: repent; perhaps it is not too late.
Therefore, O king, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.
a. Break off your sins: The right reaction to the threat of judgment is a humble repentance. Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar did not do this. He should have followed the example of the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3).
i. We might think that Nebuchadnezzar had more reason than most to be proud - after all, he was a great king. Still, he should have remembered the principle Benjamin Franklin put forth in one of his proverbs: "The greatest monarch on the proudest throne, is obliged to sit upon his own rear end."
b. Break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor: Nebuchadnezzar was not only counseled to stop sinning, but also to practice righteousness and generosity.
C. Fulfillment of the dream.
1. (28-33) Nebuchadnezzar is stricken with madness, and humbled.
All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of the twelve months he was walking about the royal palace of Babylon. The king spoke, saying, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?" While the word was still in the king's mouth, a voice fell from heaven: "King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses." That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws.
a. At the end of the twelve months: God gave Nebuchadnezzar twelve months to repent, and he probably forgot about the dream during that time - but God didn't forget.
b. Is not this great Babylon: Babylon was truly one of the spectacular cities of the ancient world, which included the famous hanging gardens built by Nebuchadnezzar.
i. Daniel knew that the new Babylon was the creation of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:30), something previously thought untrue and only verified by recent archaeology. Nobody in the Maccabean period (second century b.c.) thought Nebuchadnezzar had built the new Babylon.
ii. In the British Museum, there are six columns of writing recovered from Babylon with describe the huge building projects of Nebuchadnezzar and his zeal to enlarge and beautify the city.
iii. Most of the bricks found in the excavations of Babylon carry this stamp: "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, supporter of Esagila and Ezida, exalted first-born son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon."
iv. Late-daters of Daniel (who say that it was written in the times of the Macabees, around 167 b.c.) can't explain how a late writer would know to accurately attribute the spectacular buildings of Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar. One liberal Bible commentator, R. H. Pfeiffer, said of this problem: "We shall presumably never know."
c. They shall drive you from men . . . eat grass like oxen: The announcement came to Nebuchadnezzar in the same words he heard in his dream. This showed him that the dream was about to be fulfilled, and he would be reduced to the existence of an animal - specifically, an ox.
i. The form of insanity in which men think of themselves as animals and imitate the behavior of an animal has been observed. Some call it generally insania zoanthropica and more specifically in Nebuchadnezzar's case, boanthropy, the delusion that one is an ox.
ii. Walvoord quotes a Dr. Raymond Harrison of Britain, who in 1946 had a patient suffering from boanthropy, just as Nebuchadnezzar suffered.
d. He was driven from men and ate grass like oxen: There is no corresponding record of this seven-year (seven times) period of insanity in the secular historical records of Babylon - exactly as we would expect, considering the customs of that time. Nevertheless, Abydenus, a Greek historian, wrote in 268 b.c. that Nebuchadnezzar was "possessed by some god" and that he had "immediately disappeared." (Wood)
i. Some dismiss this account of Nebuchadnezzar's madness as unhistorical, but there is no historical record of his governmental activity between 582 b.c. and 575 b.c. This silence is deafening, especially when we keep in mind how Near Eastern leaders liked to egotistically trumpet their achievements - and hide their embarrassments.
ii. "Although critics have imagined a series of incredible objections to accepting this chapter as authentic and reasonably accurate, the narrative actually reads very sensibly and the objections seem trivial and unsupported." (Walvoord)
iii. Nebuchadnezzar was given the opportunity to humble himself, and he did not. Now God humbled him, and the experience was much more severe than it would have been had Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself.
2. (34-37) A repentant Nebuchadnezzar is restored, and praises God.
And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, "What have You done?" At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my honor and splendor returned to me. My counselors and nobles resorted to me, I was restored to my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.
a. At the end of the time: Nebuchadnezzar could not break free from his madness until God appointed the end of the time. Then he had the opportunity to humble himself and lift his eyes to heaven.
i. Nebuchadnezzar knew the principle Spurgeon later explained: "The God whom we serve not only exists, but reigns. No other position would become him but that of unlimited sovereignty over all his creatures."
b. I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him: Nebuchadnezzar could only see the truth about himself when he first saw the truth about God. The Babylonian King did see who God was, and he eloquently praised His sovereignty. After this his reason returned.
i. This return of reason results in worship. "We do not worship enough, my brethren. Even in our public gatherings we do not have enough worship. O worship the King! Bow your heads now - bow your spirits rather, and adore him that liveth for ever and ever. Your thoughts, your emotions, these are better than bullocks and he-goats to be offered on the altar: God will accept them. Worship him with lowliest reverence, for you are nothing, and he is all in all." (Spurgeon)
ii. This return of reason results in prayer. If we believe what Nebuchadnezzar believed about God, it will certainly show in our prayer life. We will know that God can change the heart and mind of man, the course of rivers, the flow of the oceans, the distribution of resources, and the assignment of angels.
iii. Spurgeon suggested the proper response of the believer to the greatness and sovereignty of God:
Have a heart of humble adoration.
Show a heart of unquestioning acceptance.
Exercise the spirit of reverent love.
Let your spirit have profound delight.
c. I was restored to my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added to me: God wanted to restore Nebuchadnezzar. The goal wasn't to bring him low, but to bring him to his proper place before God and among men. Truly, Nebuchadnezzar learned that those who walk in pride He is able to put down.
i. The abiding lesson is plain: God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). There have been many who rise from humble origins to great glory, and then fall. Perhaps it is better to have never been raised up than to rise and then fall. Most, if not all, fall through pride; and a proud look is number one on the list of God's most hated sins (Proverbs 6:16-19).
ii. We also see that God will glorify himself among the nations. When Nebuchadnezzar took some of the treasures of the Jerusalem temple and put them in the temples of his gods, he had reason to believe that his gods were stronger than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By the end of Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar knew which God was the true God. And when Nebuchadnezzar knew it, he wasn't shy about telling people what he had learned - he was a true witness, giving testimony to God's great works.
iii. Some find prophetic significance in this account. Since Babylon is used in the Scriptures as a figure of the world system in general, we can say:
Nebuchadnezzar's madness foreshadows the madness of Gentile nations in their rejection of God.
Nebuchadnezzar's fall typifies Jesus' judgment of the nations.
Nebuchadnezzar's restoration foreshadows the restoring of some of these nations in the millennial kingdom.
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