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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verses 1-3


1-3. On Nebuchadnezzar see Introduction, III, 3, (1); for his “decrees,” note Daniel 3:29; on “peoples, nations, and languages” see Introduction, III, 2. A great quantity of Nebuchadnezzar’s inscriptions have been recovered. The form of address, “Peace be unto you,” so common even to this day in Arabic, has not been found in Assyrian (Prince). Of course, however, in repeating speeches or “decrees” all ancient historians, and even modern writers down to the middle of the nineteenth century, usually gave them in their own language and not verbatim. On the term “Most High God” (Daniel 4:2, R.V.) see notes Daniel 3:13-15; Daniel 3:26. If an official letter or decree such as this should be found among the cuneiform records, in which under his own royal seal the “King of the Four Quarters of the World” should declare his own mistakes and ignominy, how it would amaze our Assyriologists! (See Introduction, II, 3, 4.) The noblest prophets of Judah could hardly voice more clearly the loftiest Hebrew hopes than does this Babylonian king. “Nothing less than a real change of heart could cause such a confession as this” (Wesley).

Indeed the central thought of the entire Daniel apocalypse is here put in the lips of Nebuchadnezzar and later repeated by Darius (Daniel 6:26; compare Daniel 2:44).

Verse 4

4. In the original text this is the beginning of chapter 4. For the palace of Nebuchadnezzar see Introduction, III, 3, 4.

Verses 5-7

5-7. See notes Daniel 2:1-2. In the coronation decree of Nabonidus recently found in the ruins of Babylon (see Babylonian and Oriental Record, September, 1896) this king, the father of Belshazzar, tells how Nebuchadnezzar appeared to him in a night vision accompanied by the Babylonian high priest carrying a drawn sword. Nabonidus tells Nebuchadnezzar a dream which had troubled him greatly, and Nebuchadnezzar interprets it for him, the high priest being, as it seems, the “medium” through which this conversation between the living and the dead king was carried on. In another night vision mentioned in the same decree the goddess “who can raise to life the dead” appears to him.

Verse 8

8. How remarkably similar is this to the account in chapter ii! Brown, in his recent Hebrew Lexicon, objects to the connection of the name Belteshazzar with Bel, as “inexplicable;” but see note Daniel 1:6-7. Vigouroux ( Dictionnaire, 5:1893) gives a number of abbreviations precisely similar to this in which the first term the divine name is omitted. The express statement of this verse, that Daniel was named after Nebuchadnezzar’s favorite god, seems to exclude such derivations as those of Strassmaier, and others, who would make the first term Belit or Balat. Most of the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar were written in glorification of Bel, whom he calls “the joy of my heart.”

Verse 9

9. Daniel is here recognized as master of the magicians. (See note Daniel 2:48.) The otherwise unaccountable failure of the king to call on him first of all, instead of sending out a decree (Daniel 4:6) to bring before him all the other magicians, may perhaps be explained as a mere matter of literary form on the part of the narrator, the effect of Daniel’s success being heightened by the previous unsuccessful attempts of all the other wise men. However, if the king, through an attempt to centralize the worship (Sayce) or for any other reason, was at this time an enemy of the priests (Daniel 2:5; Daniel 2:24-26), this might possibly have been a scheme of his. It should also be remembered that one version, which was probably the original LXX., omits Daniel 4:6-7, which were evidently, therefore, not in the original text which it translated. This version says that immediately upon having his dream the king called Daniel and told it to him. It also gives an entirely different address to Daniel, although the phrase “the spirit of the holy gods is in thee” is not unnatural in a heathen ruler. (Compare Genesis 41:38, Hebrews)

Verses 10-12

10-12. The king saw in his dream a lofty tree rising as it were out of the very center of the world, and continuing to grow until it reached the clouds and could be seen to the end of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant and good for food, and it was a protective shelter for all living creatures. This, of course, is a picture of the Babylonian empire which culminated in Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:20-22; compare Ezekiel 31:3-14; Isaiah 14:12), who was absolute lord and guardian of this great world-empire (Introduction, III, 3). It is interesting to note that a “tree of life” is often seen in the religious pictures of Babylon.

Verses 13-14

13, 14. A holy one from heaven (compare Zechariah 4:10, where “ seven eyes” should probably read “seven watchers”) the “guardian angel” of Babylon (compare Daniel 10:13-14) pronounces the death doom of this empire, declaring that what has been the protection of the nations will now be their destruction if they do not flee away from it. Perhaps this watcher took the form in Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes of one of the colossal cherubim who were called the “guardians” or “watchers” in front of the palaces. (See notes Ezekiel 10:0.)

Verses 15-16

15, 16. The destruction of the tree is nearly absolute, since only a “stump” remains, not rooted solidly in its former place of life, but under a most strange and unnatural form of restraint. This stump represents Nebuchadnezzar (compare Isaiah 11:1), and the dreamer now sees the king rather than the tree, constrained and restrained by some unnatural compulsion, unprotected from the night dews, eating grass like the beasts of the field, and having the inner consciousness of an animal rather than of a man, until “seven times pass over him.” These times (literally, periods) may be “years” (Greek) or “months” (Lenormant), or, more in accordance with the literal meaning of the word, “seasons.” Thomson refers to J. Rendel Harris for the statement that “summer and winter are the only seasons counted in Babylonia,” which would make this expression parallel to the “times and time and half a time” of Daniel 7:25. “Seven” was, however, a round number with all the orientals. Gunkel sees in this figure a reference to the Babylonian world-tree, whose height reached to heaven, but whose roots were bound to the earth.

Verse 17

17. “The sentence is by the decree of the watchers” (R.V.). These are the angels referred to in Daniel 4:13, who are messengers of Jehovah, and are empowered to announce his decree (Daniel 4:24). The reference to these “watchers” (compare Daniel 4:23) is omitted from the LXX., and sounds very much like the late Talmudic distinctions between various classes in the angelic hierarchy. Thomson, therefore, considers this verse an interpolation. He thinks the statement that the kingdom is to be taken after Nebuchadnezzar by the “lowest of men” is a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes, the “vile person” of Daniel 11:21. This entire section, however, insists upon the superiority of Nebuchadnezzar and the comparative and increasing degradation of all his successors (Daniel 2:38-39; Daniel 5:25-27). Ewald has an interesting practical remark on this verse, saying that any man who resists the divine will is, after all, ultimately but an animal (Psalms 32:9-10), having fallen from his original glory to the beastly level.

Verses 18-19

18, 19. Compare Daniel 4:8 and Daniel 2:17-26. Daniel is at first greatly troubled and “astonished as it were for a moment” (Bevan), but when Nebuchadnezzar encourages him he replies that he is troubled not so much because of his inability to interpret the dream as because the interpretation will trouble the king. The words of Daniel here are in the highest degree diplomatic and courteous, and in agreement with current usage at the Babylonian and other courts, while at the same time no jot or tittle of the truth is omitted or glossed over for fear or favor.

Verses 20-22

20-22. See Daniel 4:10-12, and for the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, Introduction, III, 3, 4. One ancient Greek version gives as a reason for Nebuchadnezzar’s fall, “because thou hast laid waste the house of the living God.” This seems like a stroke at Antiochus Epiphanes.

Verse 25

25. Kuenen ( Onderzoek, 2:487, note 5) discredits entirely this story of Nebuchadnezzar’s temporary insanity, but most modern scholars, including some of the leading Assyriologists, believe, notwithstanding the silence of cuneiform documents, that some tragedy such as is described here clouded the end of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Josephus, quoting from the Babylonian historian, Berosus, refers thus to the illness of Nebuchadnezzar: “Nebuchadnezzar falling into a state of weakness, altered his (manner of) life when he had reigned forty-three years, whereupon his son, Evil-merodach, obtained the kingdom.” Eusebius also, quoting an earlier author, says: “On a certain occasion the king went up to the roof of his palace and after prophesying the coming of the Persian, Cyrus, and his conquest of Babylon, suddenly disappeared.” Professor Prince, a reliable Assyriologist, after quoting these statements, points out that they all agree that Nebuchadnezzar was at one time seriously afflicted, either bodily or mentally, while the two non-biblical records agree in the statement that this disturbance was directly followed by his “disappearance,” that is, his retirement from public life. “Nothing is known regarding the death of Nebuchadnezzar, nor indeed is there any record in the cuneiform literature of his son, Amel-Marduk (Evil-merodach), except three contracts which are dated in the first year of the reign of this king” (Prince, Daniel, 1899).

This disease, which is generally acknowledged to have been “insania zoanthropica,” is well known to physicians. Sir Resdon Bennett, in his small but valuable book on the Diseases of the Bible, affirms the accuracy with which the symptoms of the disease commonly known as lycanthropy are here described; the demented person always imagining himself to be some animal the voices and actions of which he will attempt to imitate. David Yellowlees, M.D., lecturer on insanity in the University of Glasgow, believes, however, that this illness was not lycanthropy, but an attack of acute mania, which in its extreme forms “exhibits all kinds of degraded habits such as stripping off and tearing of the clothes, eating filth and garbage of all sorts, wild and violent gesticulations, dangerous assaults, howling noises, and utter disregard of personal decency. The patient often is liker a wild animal than a human being. These symptoms merely show the completeness of the aberration, and do not at all indicate a hopeless condition. On the contrary, they are seen most frequently in the cases which recover” ( Pulpit Commentary, 1897). Dr. Yellowlees states that, when uncomplicated, recovery usually takes place “in seven months” which is a remarkable parallel to the “seven times” of Daniel 4:32. (See note Daniel 4:15-16). Another specialist on insanity has pointed out that the best possible treatment for such melancholia is the one indicated here, namely, to let the patient live out-of-doors, without employing any restraint whatever, mechanical, chemical, or manual. He states that the few hints given here concerning Nebuchadnezzar’s recovery and expression of excessive thankfulness afterward are all true to life, this narrative containing “one of the most beautiful and concise descriptions of the premonition, the onset, the course and the termination of a case of insanity that is recorded in any language” ( Popular Science Monthly, 1895, pp. 416-429). The cuneiform records contain no statement concerning Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. However literal this account may be, such mention ought not to be expected. There is not an insane or wicked king mentioned in all the royal records of Egypt or Babylon. Certain old Jewish commentators suggested that Daniel, as chief of the Magi, probably reigned during the king’s madness, and they sometimes indulge in strange stories of Nebuchadnezzar falling from the palace roof after hearing God’s voice and being miraculously guided to the wilderness, where he remained until Daniel, seven years after, sent the army and his nobles to hunt for him. Such stories are purely imaginary.

Verse 26

26. Rather, so soon as thou shalt recognize that the heavens do rule. This is the first time in Jewish literature that “the heavens” is used for the “God of heaven.” (Compare Daniel 3:1.) In the Mishna this is a common form, as also in the Apocrypha (for example, 1 Macc. iv). It might be added, however, that Bel is addressed in the inscriptions as the “great heavens.”

Verse 27

27. Break off Or, R.V., margin, “redeem.” The LXX. translates righteousness by almsdoing and in Ecclesiasticus (second century B.C.) the word is used constantly in this sense. Prince, however, justly remarks that the injunction to give alms to the needy would not be appropriate in this connection, and translates “break off (that is, cast away) thy sins by kind acts, and thy iniquities by showing mercies to the wretched ones (of Jehovah).” Kautzsch’s rendering is very similar.

If it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility Better, as Bevan, If haply there may be a lengthening of thy prosperity. (Compare Acts 8:22.) Like almost all prophecies of woe (compare Jonah) its fulfillment might be averted by repentance. The chief sin of Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in this connection is his pride, because of which he exalted himself above the God of kings, from whom he had received the kingdom (Daniel 4:25-26), and which also caused him to be imperious and harsh to his Jewish subjects. (Compare Daniel 2:15.) For remarkable examples of pride punished when at its height see Farrar’s Book of Daniel, pp. 198, 199; and for modern instances of mad kings, ibid., pp. 201, 225.

Verses 29-30

29, 30. This picture of the king walking on the roof garden of the royal palace in Babylon and praising himself for his magnificent building enterprises finds an echo in almost every one of his inscriptions which have been preserved. [See Introduction, III, 3, (1); 4.] He was the greatest builder of all the Babylonian kings, rebuilding the capital city almost from its foundations. Again and again he records how “silver, gold, precious stones, copper, precious woods, all kinds of valuable things, the produce of the mountains, the fullness of the seas, rich presents, splendid gifts, to my city of Babylon into his [Bel-Marduk’s] presence I brought.”

Verses 31-32

31, 32. See note Daniel 4:25. This description is intensely dramatic, and many things unmentioned here are brought vividly before the eyes of anyone acquainted with the life of a Babylonian palace. If this, indeed, represents an attack of insanity, how the physicians and “magicians” must have tried every art known to them to deliver this greatest king of earth from his illusions. There was no disease known to the ancients which was regarded as so mysterious and so directly the result of the touch of the divine hand as this. Many of the magical texts have specific reference to the warding off of demoniacal powers and to deliverance from the “sickness of the head.” As one text states, “The disease of the forehead proceeds from the infernal regions; it is come from the dwelling of the lord of the abyss.” Think of the exorcisms against demons such as the following, accompanied with strange ceremonies, which must have been chanted over this afflicted monarch:

They are 7! They are 7!

They are the agents of the vengeance of the gods,

Raising up difficulties, obtaining power by violence.

The enemies! The enemies!

They are 7! They are 7! They are twice 7!

Spirit of the heavens, may they be conjured!

Spirit of the earth, may they be conjured! Chaldean Magic.

Or this:

May the bad demons depart!

May they seize upon one another!

The propitious demon, the propitious giant,

May they penetrate into his body.

Professor Sayce ( Hibbert Lectures) gives a specific spell against madness, which was in the great classical work on medicine used by all the physicians in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, closing with the pathetic wail:

Let the madness of his head be removed,

May the malady of the head which has descended

like the rain of the night be driven away.

He also translates this oracle from Nebuchadnezzar’s favorite god, Marduk, to some one in sickness:

In the night he was in grief,

in the day he was troubled,

And in a dream he sent unto him a warning;

Revealing it in a vision, he did not direct him

* * * * * * * * * *

His sick neck was not quiet in the yoke.

The with pure means did not soothe him.

Like an ox in the was he.

Like a lamb among the bricks was he confounded,

and at the mouth of the camp was he laid.

King, in his Babylonian Magic (1896), gives many of the ceremonies connected with the driving away of these demons and the cries of those in bondage to them:

And again:

May the sickness of my body be torn away!

May the groaning of my flesh be consumed!

May the ban be torn away!

Because of the evil magic, the demon,

Free me from my bewitchment! Loosen my sin!

Verse 33

33. The king is here represented as driven away into the wilderness by this inward insane compulsion, and permitted to roam there unmolested (note Daniel 4:25) until he became as wild in appearance as the creature he thought himself to be; with his hair matted and his nails grown long as the claws of birds. (See note Daniel 4:27.)

Verses 34-35

34, 35. This is a dramatic representation of the king’s thankfulness. It is not to be regarded as literally a royal and public proclamation by Nebuchadnezzar of his own insanity and vanity. (Compare note Daniel 4:1-3). The LXX. differs in this entire passage in a marked degree from the received text. One of the few notes in Wyclif’s Bible discusses the question whether or not Nebuchadnezzar was damned. Isaiah 14:15, is thought to answer the question in the affirmative, but the confession recorded here “proves that Nebuchadnezzar repented and God reversed the judgment.”

Verses 36-37

36, 37. Compare notes above.

This chapter contains a picture of royal pride brought low. This is also illustrated by the condition of Babylon to-day. Only a solitary tree now grows in the ruins of the terrace of that palace where the great king once stood and on every brick of which may yet be read his name. As Babelon says, “Nothing is now left of the palace and towers which threw a challenge in the face of heaven except a heap of dust and crumbling statues and a shroud of ashes.”

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Daniel 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/daniel-4.html. 1874-1909.
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