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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 4

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-3

The Madness of Nebuchadnezzar (4:1-37)

Confession by Nebuchadnezzar (4:1-3)

This story depicts the king as a beneficent and friendly ruler, whose relationship with Belteshazzar (Daniel) and the Jewish community was most harmonious. Doubtless the narrative is drawn from a source much earlier than the Maccabean period, probably the neo-Babylonian period itself. Even in its present form it reflects neither tension nor conflict. Hence we may assume that it came out of the earlier period. Nevertheless, the material must have been thoroughly reworked to suit the purposes of the author.

Nebuchadnezzar addresses himself to "all peoples, nations, and languages" with the salutation: "Peace be multiplied." He is represented as a world ruler whose power is unlimited and whose will toward all men is "peace." His reason for this proclamation was to make known in humility "the signs and wonders that the Most High God" had wrought toward him. Having introduced the subject, the Chaldean ruler breaks into a poetic and lyrical confession of faith ( vs. 3 ) .

Verses 4-18

The Dream of the King (4:4-18)

The king explained how he had gained his understanding of and appreciation for the Most High God. Once more, as in chapter 2, a dream alarmed him, but on this occasion he remembered the content of the dream. As in the narrative recorded in chapter 2, the wisest of the wise were called to interpret, but none among them was able to give the needed interpretation. Finally, much to the relief of the king, Belteshazzar arrived to interpret the dream.

Having gone through the usual amenities, bestowing the expected compliments, the king related his dream. In substance it centered in a great tree in the center of the earth, reaching up to heaven, visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, providing food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds roosted in its branches. This symbol of a great tree representing a vast empire is used also by Ezekiel in several places (see, for example, Ezekiel 17, 31). It also forms part of the background for Christ’s parable of the mustard seed which became a huge tree (Matthew 13:31-32).

"A holy one" — that is, a heavenly "watcher" — came down from heaven with orders that the tree be cut down, its branches cut off, its leaves stripped, its fruit scattered, and that the animals and birds depart. These "watchers" are God’s heavenly emissaries, frequently mentioned in the Qumran Scrolls.

Only a stump of the tree will be left with roots in the ground, but the stump will be bound. In verse 15 the stump suddenly becomes a person who is banished to dwell in the fields where dew shall gather upon him. His mind is to be changed from that of a man to that of a beast, which condition will last for seven years.

Nebuchadnezzar was told that the decree of heaven was made by God and delivered by "the watchers" to the end that the living should 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." Of course this is the major message of the entire book, in stories and visions alike. Having related the substance of his dream, the king — showing strange humility for an oriental monarch — asked that Daniel interpret it for him.

Verses 19-27

Interpretation by Daniel (4:19-27)

Daniel spoke in most solicitous tones to Nebuchadnezzar, explaining that the dream, together with its interpretation, ought to be turned against the king’s enemies. Repeating the long description of the huge tree, Daniel explained that the tree was Nebuchadnezzar himself: "It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong." Recounting how the watcher came from heaven with orders that the tree be cut down, the dream interpreter explained that Nebuchadnezzar would be driven from among men and would live as a beast of the field for seven years. But "the stump" would remain and the tree would grow back, after the king learned the lesson that "the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will." A call for Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance completes the section, which was obviously written in its present form long after the Chaldean king ceased to be a flesh-and-blood person. In point of fact, the tradition about a king who returned to nature and to madness was circulated about Nabonidus, not about the great Chaldean emperor, Nebuchadnezzar. This tradition also came into written form long after the death of Nabonidus, but probably arose in oral form during his lifetime. It doubtless originated because of that ruler’s frequent visits to the desert center of Tema. This section with the following fulfillment is probably directed in particular at Antiochus Epiphanes, who was popularly called Antiochus Epimanes ("madman").

Verses 28-33

Fulfillment (4:28-33)

After twelve months Nebuchadnezzar was surveying the splendor of Babylon while walking on the roof of his palace. The narrative in the next few verses is related not in the first but in the third person (see also vs. 19). With the egocentricity which goes with the divine right of kings Nebuchadnezzar looked at Babylon, ". . . which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty." In fact, archaeology confirms the king’s claim to be the builder of magnificent Babylon. According to this story his complete lack of humility before the true King of kings caused Nebuchadnezzar to be banished from his kingdom and made to live among the beasts of the field. His sentence continued until he learned that "the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will" (vss. 17, 25) . The sentence is given and immediately carried out. Then with finality the author completes the action of the drama: "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."

Actually Nabonidus, who ruled after Nebuchadnezzar, spent much of his time at Tema in the desert and was probably considered a "nature boy." Extra-biblical evidence from several sources confirms the fact that the story was originally told of Nabonidus. But the point here is that a man who tries to rule apart from or against God is mad. The Most High has power to reduce earth’s most splendid king to the status of an ox and then restore him to his former glory. Antiochus Epiphanes was nothing in comparison with the great Nebuchadnezzar. Man’s ultimate madness is the belief that he, man, is God.

Verses 34-37

The Resultant Sanity (4:34-37)

Even as madness arose on account of faulty faith, so sanity returned when faith came back in focus. Nebuchadnezzar lifted up his eyes "to heaven" and his sanity returned. What a contrast to the proud bravado recounted a few verses earlier, when he had walked upon a roof boasting in his own accomplishments apart from God! When his reason returned, he blessed the Most High "and praised and honored him who lives forever." Then in a rare outburst of poetic beauty the author confessed his faith (vss. 34- 35). After the king had become sane once more, he returned to the majesty and splendor of his kingdom. In fact, his kingdom was even greater than before. The obvious intent here is to demonstrate that so great a king as Nebuchadnezzar recognized and depended upon God’s power, and that when this recognition of faith came his power was increased. The lesson is simple: human egotism always leads to madness, and simple trust is evermore the key to genuine sanity.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Daniel 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/daniel-4.html.
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