Last week we looked at the story of Daniel miraculously recounting and then interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and how it portrayed him as a “new and improved” Joseph. It gave a model (for second century Jews, and for us) of how to relate to a secular culture in a way that doesn’t sell out to its values, but commends God and his values. Today, we look at the content of the dream.
Gold, silver, bronze, iron & clay… rock!!
Here’s the dream, as described by Daniel:
Daniel 2:29-36 “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. 30 As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind. 31 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.
That’s some weird dream. Maybe he had too many covers on that night. Or he’d eaten too much pizza. (Should have been following the Daniel Plan…) What on earth could it mean?
Before we get to Daniel’s interpretation, I should point out that this wasn’t as unusual as you might think. Dreams from this era often had giant figures or statues. (It was a thing.) And world kingdoms were often described in terms of metals of declining value. Here, God is communicating in culturally-appropriate dreams.
Daniel then explains the symbolism. First, the gold head:
Daniel 2:36-38 “This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. 37 Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; 38 in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.
It’s starting out as good news for King Neb – he’s the head of gold. That probably bought Daniel some time. Next comes the silver chest:
Daniel 2:39a “After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours.
It probably refers to the Medes, who took over from the Babylonians (this happens in Daniel chapter 5). And it’s inferior to Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, so it’s still good.
Then there’s the bronze thighs:
Daniel 2:39b Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth.
Bronze probably represents the Persian empire. Or New Zealand at the Olympics.
Last comes to the iron and clay:
Daniel 2:40 Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others.
What does the iron and clay represent? Let’s get some more detail:
Daniel 2:41-43 Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. 42 As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
Alexander the Great smashed all of the other kingdoms of the world – but then divided, becoming (by the time of Antiochus IV) quite brittle. It added a layer of empire – and Hellenistic (Greek) culture – over the top of quite diverse cultures. So this probably refers to the Greek empire.
(Some think that it refers to Rome*, and the future divided Roman empire; the Greeks were therefore bronze, and the Medes and Persians are lumped in together as silver. But the divided image better fits the Greek empire, all the more so if it’s to be word on target for the Jews of the second century, living under Greek rule.)
But precise identification of the empires isn’t the point. So far, the point has been that each empire has its divinely ordained time to rule; history is under God’s control.
But the real point comes next:
Daniel 2:44-45 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.
All of the great kingdoms of the world need to see themselves in perspective: God’s kingdom is greater. It can crush all the kingdoms of the world, and it will not come to an end.What’s more, it won’t come about by human hands, but by the action of God.
For 2nd century Jews to think about
This message is both a comfort and a challenge to Jews living in the second century BC.
It’s a comfort, knowing God has everything under control. The fact that they are being ruled by Greece hasn’t escaped his notice; and that will one day come to an end, as all human kingdoms do. Soon, God will act to bring in his kingdom, and put everything right.
It’s also a challenge, since it won’t come about by human hands. The Maccabean revolution – and all of the Jewish nationalism that came before and after it – was about humans trying to bring in God’s kingdom, by force. But here, the vision Daniel interprets is trying to tell them that it’s not going to happen that way.
For us to think about
Firstly, we need to note that this statue-crushing rock turned up in the form of Jesus. He brought in a different kind of a kingdom, that started off as small as a mustard seed, but grew to become a large plant, with birds (or people!) from everywhere coming to perch in its branches (Matt 13:31-32). And we’re part of that process of this growing tree; this rock that has become a mountain, and will one day fill the whole earth.
Secondly, we need to hear the same comfort and the same challenge as Jews in the second century. Although God’s kingdom arrived in Jesus’ ministry, we still await its fulfilment, when the mountain does indeed fill the earth. In the meantime, remember that God still has history under control. And he’s the one who’s going to act decisively to put things right.
This means that we should be careful about thinking that we are the ones who will bring in his kingdom. It’s not our job to legislate or impose kingdom values on an unwilling populace that doesn’t know God. We’re simply called to live by its values and commend them to the world (just like Daniel did). But God is the one who changes hearts. God is the one who builds his kingdom. And when he does that, even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
*One of the main arguments for the final kingdom being Rome is that it’s under Rome that Jesus did come to bring in the kingdom. But Daniel isn’t necessarily interested in precise chronology and identification of empires, particularly as the number four is symbolic in much of the book. (And if you really want it to be nice and neat, the Romans pretty much inherited the Greek empire rather than creating a new one – outside of Italy, the language of the empire was still Greek.) As Calvin pointed out, “Daniel is not relating what was going to be completed in one moment; he just wants to teach that the eternal kingdoms of the world are transient and that there is only one kingdom” (Calvin, Daniel I, 97.)