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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Daniel 4

 

 

Verses 1-37

THE BABYLONIAN CEDAR, AND THE STRICKEN DESPOT

THRICE already, in these magnificent stories, had Nebuchadrezzar been taught to recognise the existence and to reverence the power of God. In this chapter he is represented as having been brought to a still more overwhelming conviction, and to an open acknowledgment of God’s supremacy, by the lightning-stroke of terrible calamity.

The chapter is dramatically thrown into the form of a decree which, alter his recovery and shortly before his death, the king is represented as having promulgated to "all people, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth." But the literary form is so absolutely subordinated to the general purpose-which is to show that where God’s "judgments are in the earth the inhabitants of the earth will learn righteousness," [Isaiah 26:9] -that the writer passes without any difficulty from the first to the third person. [Daniel 4:20-30] He does not hesitate to represent Nebuchadrezzar as addressing all the subject nations in favour of the God of Israel, even placing in his imperial decree a cento of Scriptural phraseology.

Readers unbiassed by a priori assumptions, which are broken to pieces at every step, will ask, "Is it even historically conceivable that Nebuchadrezzar (to whom the later Jews commonly gave the title of Ha-Rashang, ‘the wicked’) could ever have issued such a decree?" They will further ask, "Is there any shadow of evidence to show that the king’s degrading madness and recovery rest upon any real tradition?"

As to the monuments and inscriptions, they are entirely silent upon the subject; nor is there any trace of these events in any historic record. Those who, with the school of Hengstenberg and Pusey, think that the narrative receives support from the phrase of Berossus that Nebuchadrezzar "fell sick and departed this life when he had reigned forty-three years," must be easily satisfied, since he says very nearly the same of Nabopolassar. Such writers too much assume that immemorial prejudices on the subject have so completely weakened the independent intelligence of their readers, that they may safely make assertions which, in matters of secular criticism, would be set aside as almost childishly nugatory.

It is different with the testimony of Abydenus, quoted by Eusebius. Abydenus, in his book on the Assyrians, quoted from Megasthenes the story that, after great conquests, "Nebuchadrezzar" (as the Chaldean story goes), "when he had ascended the roof of his palace, was inspired by some god or other, and cried aloud, ‘I, Nebuchadrezzar, announce to you the future calamity which neither Bel, my ancestor, nor our queen Beltis, can persuade the Fates to avert. There shall come a Persian, a mule, who shall have your own gods as his allies, and he shall make you slaves. Moreover, he who shall help to bring this about shall he the son of a Median woman, the boast of the Assyrian. Would that before his countrymen perish some whirlpool or flood might seize him and destroy him utterly; or else would that he might betake himself to some other place, and might be driven to the desert, where is no city nor track of men, where wild beasts seek their food and birds fly hither and thither? Would that among rocks and mountain clefts he might wander alone? And as for me, may I, before he imagines this, meet with some happier end!’ When he had thus prophesied, he suddenly vanished."

I have italicised the passages which, amid immense differences, bear a remote analogy to the story of this chapter. To quote the passage as any proof that the writer of Daniel is narrating literal history is an extraordinary misuse of it.

Megasthenes flourished B.C. 323, and wrote a book which contained many fabulous stories, three centuries after the events to which he alludes. Abydenus, author of "Assyriaca," was a Greek historian of still later, and uncertain, date. The writer of Daniel may have met with their works, or, quite independently of them, he may have learned from the Babylonian Jews that there was some strange legend or other about the death of Nebuchadrezzar. The Jews in Babylonia were more numerous and more distinguished than those in Palestine, and kept up constant communication with them. So far from any historical accuracy about Babylon in a Palestinian Jew of the age of the Maccabees being strange, or furnishing any proof that he was a contemporary of Nebuchadrezzar, the only subject of astonishment would be that he should have fallen into so many mistakes and inaccuracies, were it not that the ancients in general, and the Jews particularly, paid little attention to such matters.

Aware, then, of some dim traditions that Nebuchadrezzar at the close of his life ascended his palace roof and there received some sort of inspiration, after which he mysteriously disappeared, the writer, giving free play to his imagination for didactic purposes, after the common fashion of his age and nation, worked up these slight elements into the stately and striking Midrash of this chapter. He too makes the king mount his palace roof and receive an inspiration: but in his pages the inspiration does not refer to the "mule" or half-breed, Cyrus, nor to Nabunaid, the son of a Median woman, nor to any imprecation pronounced upon them, but is an admonition to himself; and the imprecation which he denounced upon the future subverters of Babylon is dimly analogous to the fate which fell on his own head. Instead of making him "vanish" immediately afterwards, the writer makes him fall into a beast-madness for "seven times," after which he suddenly recovers and publishes a decree that all mankind should honour the true God.

Ewald thinks that a verse has been lost at the beginning of the chapter, indicating the nature of the document which follows; but it seems more probable that the author began this, as he begins other chapters, with the sort of imposing overture of the first verse.

Like Assur-bani-pal and the ancient despots, Nebuchadrezzar addresses himself to "all people in the earth," and after the salutation of peace. [Ezra 4:7; Ezra 7:12] says that he thought it right to tell them "the signs and wonders that the High God hath wrought towards me. How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation."

He goes on to relate that, while he was at ease and secure in his palace, he saw a dream which affrighted him, and left a train of gloomy forebodings. As usual he summoned the whole train of "Khakhamim, Ashshaphim, Mekash-shaphim, Kasdim, Chartummim," and "Gazerim," to interpret his dream, and as usual they failed to do so. Then, lastly, Daniel, surnamed Belteshazzar, after Bel, Nebuchadrezzar’s god, and "chief of the magicians," in whom was "the spirit of the holy gods," is summoned. To him the king tells his dream.

The writer probably derives the images of the dream from the magnificent description of the King of Assyria as a spreading cedar in Ezekiel 31:3-18 :-

"Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of a high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters nourished him, the deep made him to grow Therefore his stature was exalted above all the trees of the field; and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long by reason of many waters. All the fowls of the air made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him nor was any tree in the garden of God like him in his beauty Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Because thou art exalted in stature I will deliver him into the hand of the mighty one of the nations And strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off, and have left him. Upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are broken and all the people of the earth are gone down from his shadow, and have left him…I made the nations to shake at the sound of his fall."

We may also compare this dream with that of Cambyses narrated by Herodotus: "He fancied that a vine grew from the womb of his daughter and overshadowed the whole of Asia The magian interpreter expounded the vision to foreshow that the offspring of his daughter would reign over Asia in his stead."

So too Nebuchadrezzar in his dream had seen a tree in the midst of the earth, of stately height, which reached to heaven and overshadowed the world, with fair leaves and abundant fruit, giving large nourishment to all mankind, and shade to the beasts of the field and fowls of the heaven. The LXX adds with glowing exaggeration, "The sun and moon dwelled in it, and gave light to the whole earth. And, behold, a watcher (‘ir) and a holy one (qaddish) came down from heaven, and bade, Hew down, and lop, and strip the tree, and scatter his fruit, and scare away the beasts and birds from it, but leave the stump in the greening turf bound by a band of brass and iron, and let it be wet with heaven’s dews,"-and then, passing from the image to the thing signified, "and let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him, and let seven times pass over him." We are not told to whom the mandate is given-that is left magnificently vague. The object of this "sentence of the watchers, and utterance of the holy ones," is that the living may know that the Most High is the Supreme King, and can, if He will, give rule even to the lowliest. Nebuchadrezzar, who tells us in his inscription that "he never forgave impiety," has to learn that he is nothing, and that God is all, -that "He pulleth down the mighty from their seat, and exalteth the humble and meek."

This dream Nehuchadrezzar bids Daniel to interpret, "because thou hast the spirit of a Holy God in thee."

Before we proceed let us pause for a moment to notice the agents of the doom. It is one of the never-sleeping ones-an ‘ir and a holy one-who flashes down from heaven with the mandate; and he is only the mouthpiece of the whole body of the watchers and holy ones.

Generally, no doubt, the phrase means an angelic denizen of heaven. The LXX translates watcher by "angel." Theodotion, feeling that there is something technical in the word, which only occurs in this chapter, renders it by alp. This is the first appearance of the term in Jewish literature, but it becomes extremely common in later Jewish writings-as, for instance, in the Book of Enoch. The term "a holy one" {Comp. Zechariah 14:5, Psalms 89:8} connotes the dedicated separation of the angels; for in the Old Testament holiness is used to express consecration and setting apart, rather than moral stainlessness. {See Job 15:15} The "seven watchers" are alluded to in the post-exilic Zechariah: [Zechariah 4:10] "They see with joy the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel, even those seven, the eyes of the Lord; they run to and fro through the whole earth." In this verse Kohut and Kuenen read "watchers" (‘irim ) for "eyes" ( ‘inim ), and we find these seven watchers in the Book of Enoch (chapter 20.). We see as a historic fact that the familiarity of the Jews with Persian angelology and demonology seems to have developed their views on the subject. It is only after the Exile that we find angels and demons playing a more prominent part than before, divided into classes, and even marked out by special names. The Apocrypha becomes more precise than the canonical books, and the later pseudepigraphic books, which advance still further, are left behind by the Talmud. Some have supposed a connection between the seven watchers and the Persian "amschashpands" The "shedim," or evil spirits, are also seven in number, -

"Seven are they, seven are they! In the channel of the deep seven are they, In the radiance of heaven seven are they!"

It is true that in Enoch (90:91) the prophet sees "the first six white ones, and we find six also in" Ezekiel 9:2. On the other hand, we find seven in Tobit: "I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One." The names are variously given; but perhaps the commonest are Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, and Raguel. In the Babylonian mythology seven deities stood at the head of all Divine beings, and the seven planetary spirits watched the gates of Hades.

To Daniel, when he had heard the dream, it seemed so full of portentous omen that "he was astonished for one hour." Seeing his agitation, the king bids him take courage and fearlessly interpret the dream. But it is an augury of fearful visitation; so he begins with a formula intended as it were to avert the threatened consequences. "My Lord," he exclaimed, on recovering voice, "the dream be to them that hate thee, and the interpretation to thine enemies." The king would regard it as a sort of appeal to the averting deities (the Roman Di Averrunci), and as analogous to the current formula of his hymns, "From the noxious spirit may the King of heaven and the king of earth preserve thee!" He then proceeds to tell the king that the fair, stately, sheltering tree-"it is thou, O king"; arid the interpretation of the doom pronounced upon it that he should be driven from men, and should dwell with the beasts of the field, and be reduced to eat grass like the oxen, and be wet with the dew of heaven, "and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou shalt know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will." But as the stump of the tree was to be left in the fresh green grass, so the kingdom should be restored to him when he had learnt that the Heavens do rule.

The only feature of the dream which is left uninterpreted is the binding of the stump with bands of iron and brass. Most commentators follow Jerome in making it refer to the fetters with which maniacs are bound, [Mark 5:3] but there is no evidence that Nebuchadrezzar was so restrained, and the bands round the stump are for its protection from injury. This seems preferable to the view which explains them as "the stern and crushing sentence under which the king is to lie." Josephus and the Jewish exegetes take the "seven times" to be "seven years"; but the phrase is vague, and the event is evidently represented as taking place at the close of the king’s reign. Instead of using the awful name of Jehovah, the prophet uses the distant periphrases of "the Heavens." It was a phrase which became common in later Jewish literature, and a Babylonian king would be familiar with it; for in the inscriptions we find Maruduk addressed as the "great Heavens," the father of the gods.

Having faithfully interpreted the fearful warning of the dream, Daniel points out that the menaces of doom are sometimes conditional, and may be averted or delayed. "Wherefore," he says, "O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; if so be there may be a healing of thy error."

This pious exhortation of Daniel has been severely criticised from opposite directions.

The Jewish Rabbis, in the very spirit of bigotry and false religion, said that Daniel was subsequently thrown into the den of lions to punish him for the crime of tendering good advice to Nebuchadrezzar; and, moreover, the advice could not be of any real use; "for even if the nations of the world do righteousness and mercy to prolong their dominion, it is only sin to them."

On the other hand, the Roman Catholics have made it their chief support for the doctrine of good works, which is so severely condemned in the twelfth of our Articles.

Probably no such theological questions remotely entered into the mind of the writer. Perhaps the words should be rendered "break off thy sins by righteousness," rather than (as Theodotion renders them) "redeem thy sins by almsgiving." It is, however, certain that among the Pharisees and the later Rabbis there was a grievous limitation of the sense of the word tzedakah, "righteousness," to mean merely almsgiving. In Matthew 6:1 it is well known that the reading "alms" has in the received text displaced the reading "righteousness"; and in the Talmud "righteousness"-like our shrunken misuse of the word "charity"-means almsgiving. The value of "alms" has often been extravagantly exalted. Thus we read: "Whoever shears his substance for the poor escapes the condemnation of hell" ("Nedarim," f. 22, 1).

In "Baba Bathra," f. 10, 1, and "Rosh Hashanah," f. 16, 2, we have " alms delivered from death," as a gloss on the meaning of Proverbs 11:4.

We cannot tell that the writer shared these views. He probably meant no more than that cruelty and injustice were the chief vices of despots, and that the only way to avert a threatened calamity was by repenting of them. The necessity for compassion in the abstract was recognised even by the most brutal Assyrian kings.

We are next told the fulfilment of the dark dream. The interpretation had been meant to warn the king; but the warning was soon forgotten by one arrayed in such absolutism of imperial power. The intoxication of pride had become habitual in his heart, and twelve months sufficed to obliterate all solemn thoughts. The Septuagint adds that "he kept the words in his heart"; but the absence of any mention of rewards or honours paid to Daniel is perhaps a sign that he was rather offended that impressed.

A year later he was walking on the flat roof of the great palace of the kingdom of Babylon. The sight of that golden city in the zenith of its splendour may well have dazzled the soul of its founder. He tells us in an inscription that he regarded that city as the apple of his eye, and that the palace was its most glorious ornament. It was in the centre of the whole country; it covered a vast space, and was visible far and wide. It was built of brick and bitumen, enriched with cedar and iron, decorated with inscriptions and paintings. The tower "contained the treasures of my imperishable royalty; and silver, gold, metals, gems, nameless and priceless, and immense treasures of rare value," had been lavished upon it. Begun "in a happy month, and on an auspicious day," it had been finished in fifteen days by armies of slaves. This palace and its celebrated hanging gardens were one of the wonders of the world.

Beyond this superb edifice, where now the hyena prowls amid miles of debris and mounds of ruin, and where the bittern builds amid pools of water, lay the unequalled city Its walls were three hundred and eighty feet high and eighty-five feet thick, and each side of the quadrilateral they enclosed was fifteen miles in length. The mighty Euphrates flowed through the midst of the city, which is said to have covered a space of two hundred square miles; and on its farther bank, terrace above terrace, up to its central altar, rose the huge Temple of Bel, with all its dependent temples and palaces. The vast circuit of the walls enclosed no mere wilderness of houses, but there were interspaces of gardens, and palm-groves, and orchards, and corn-land, sufficient to maintain the whole population. Here and there rose the temples reared to Nebo, and Sin the moon-god, and Mylitta, and Nana, and Samas, and other deities; and there were aqueducts or conduits for water, and forts and palaces; and the walls were pierced with a hundred brazen gates. When Milton wanted to find some parallel to the city of Pandemonium in "Paradise Lost," he could only say, -

"Not Babylon, Nor great Alcairo such magnificence Equall’d in all their glories, to enshrine Belus or Serapis their gods, or seat Their kings, when Egypt with Assyria strove In wealth and luxury."

Babylon, to use the phrase of Aristotle, included, not a city, but a nation.

Enchanted by the glorious spectacle of this house of his royalty and abode of his majesty, the despot exclaimed almost in the words of some of his own inscriptions, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my treasures and for the honour of my majesty?"

The Bible always represents to us that pride and arrogant self-confidence are an offence against God. The doom fell on Nebuchadrezzar "while the haughty boast was still in the king’s mouth." The suddenness of the Nemesis of pride is closely paralleled by the scene in the Acts of the Apostles in which Herod Agrippa I is represented as entering the theatre at Caesarea to receive the deputies of Tyre and Sidon. He was clad, says Josephus, in a robe of intertissued silver, and when the sun shone upon it he was surrounded with a blaze of splendour. Struck by the scene, the people, when he had ended his harangue to them, shouted, "It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!" Herod, too, in the story of Josephus, had received, just before, an ominous warning; but it came to him in vain. He accepted the blasphemous adulation, and immediately, smitten by the angel of God, he was eaten of worms, and in three days was dead.

And something like this we see again and again in what the late Bishop Thirlwall called the "irony of history"-the very cases in which men seem to have been elevated to the very summit of power only to heighten the dreadful precipice over which they immediately fall. He mentions the cases of Persia, which was on the verge of ruin, when with lordly arrogance she dictated the Peace of Antalcidas; of Boniface VIII, in the Jubilee of 1300, immediately preceding his deadly overthrow; of Spain, under Philip II, struck down by the ruin of the Armada at the zenith of her wealth and pride. He might have added the instances of Ahab, Sennacherib, Nebuchadrezzar, and Herod Antipas; of Alexander the Great, dying as the fool dieth, drunken and miserable, in the supreme hour of his conquests; of Napoleon, hurled into the dust, first by the retreat from Moscow, then by the overthrow at Waterloo.

"While the word was yet in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven." It was what the Talmudists alluded to so frequently as the "Bath Qol," or "daughter of a voice," which came sometimes for the consolation of suffering, sometimes for the admonition of overweening arrogance. It announced to him the fulfilment of the dream and its interpretation. As with one lightning-flash the glorious cedar was blasted, its leaves scattered, its fruits destroyed, its shelter reduced to burning and barrenness. Then somehow the man’s heart was taken from him. He was driven forth to dwell among the beasts of the field, to eat grass like oxen. Taking himself for an animal in his degrading humiliation he lived in the open field. The dews of heaven fell upon him. His unkempt locks grew rough like eagles’ feathers, his uncut nails like claws. In this condition he remained till "seven times"-some vague and sacred cycle of days-passed over him.

His penalty was nothing absolutely abnormal. His illness is well known to science and national tradition as that form of hypochondriasis in which a man takes himself for a wolf (lycanthropy), or a dog (kynanthropy), or some other animal. Probably the fifth-century monks, who were known as "Boskoi," from feeding on grass, may have been, in many cases, half maniacs who in time took themselves for oxen. Cornill, so far as I know, is the first to point out the curious circumstance that a notion as to the points of analogy between Nebuchadnezzar (thus spelt) and Antiochus Epiphanes may have been strengthened by the Jewish method of mystic commentary known in the Talmud as "Gematria," and in Greek as "Isopsephism." That such methods, in other forms, were known and practised in early times we find from the substitution of Sheshach for Babel in Jeremiah 25:26; Jeremiah 51:41, and of Tabeal (by some cryptogram) for Remaliah in Isaiah 7:6; and of lebh kamai ("them that dwell in the midst of them") for Kasdim (Chaldeans) in Jeremiah 51:1. These forms are only explicable by the interchange of letters known as Athbash, Albam, etc. Now Nebuchadnezzar = 423:-

n= 50;

b= 2;

w= 6;

k= 20;

d= 4;

n= 50;

a= 1;

x= 90;

r= 200 = 423.

And Antiochus Epiphanes: 423:

a=1;

n= 50;

f= 9;

y= 10;

w= 6;

k= 20;

w= 6;

s= 60

a= 1

p= 70;

y= 10;

p= 70;

n= 50;

s= 60.

Total = 423

The madness of Antiochus was recognised in the popular change of his name from Epiphanes to Epimanes. But there were obvious points of resemblance between these potentates. Both of them conquered Jerusalem. Both of them robbed the Temple of its holy vessels. Both of them were liable to madness. Both of them tried to dictate the religion of their subjects.

What happened to the kingdom of Babylon during the interim is a point with which the writer does not trouble himself. It formed no part of his story or of his moral. There is, however. no difficulty in supposing that the chief mages and courtiers may have continued to rule in the king’s name-a course rendered all the more easy by the extreme seclusion in which most Eastern monarchs pass their lives, often unseen by their subjects from one year’s end to the other. Alike in ancient days as in modern-witness the cases of Charles VI of France, Christian VII of Denmark, George III of England, and Otho of Bavaria-a king’s madness is not allowed to interfere with the normal administration of the kingdom.

When the seven "times"-whether years or brief periods-were concluded, Nebuchadrezzar "lifted up his eyes to heaven," and his understanding returned to him. No further light is thrown on his recovery, which (as is not infrequently the case in madness) Was as sudden as his aberration. Perhaps the calm of the infinite azure over his head flowed into his troubled soul, and reminded him that (as the inscriptions say) "the Heavens" are "the father of the gods." At any rate, with that upward glance came the restoration of his reason.

He instantly blessed the Most High, "and praised and honoured Him who liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. [Exodus 17:16] And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and He doeth according to His will [Psalms 45:13] in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?"

Then his lords and counsellors reinstated him in his former majesty; his honour and brightness returned to him; he was once more "that head of gold" in his kingdom. [Daniel 2:38]

He concludes the story with the words: "Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth and His ways judgment; [Psalms 33:4] and those that walk in pride He is able to abase.". [Exodus 18:11]

He died B.C. 561, and was deified, leaving behind him an invincible name.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Daniel 4:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/daniel-4.html.

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Sunday, August 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 16 / Ordinary 21
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