Continuing in our series in Daniel, we begin a two-part look at chapter 4: the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, and his dream about a tree. Today, we’ll mostly just read the story (with a little bit of comment). It’s a long one, but we need the whole story before we can think about what we might learn from it.
Some context: remember that Nebuchadnezzar has twice been forced to acknowledge the power of Israel’s God (Daniel’s interpretation of his previous dream, in chapter 2; and the miraculous preservation of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo, in chapter 3). Yet it seems to take this encounter with God, in chapter 4, for him to completely get the message. It’s written in the first person, as a letter from the king to his whole empire, testifying to the lesson God had taught him:
Daniel 4:1-18 Nebuchadnezzar, To the nations and peoples of every language, who live in all the earth: May you prosper greatly! 2 It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. 3 How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.
4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. 5 I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me.6 So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. 7 When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. 8 Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
9 I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. 10 These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. 11 The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
13 “In the visions I saw while lying in bed, I looked, and there before me was a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. 14 He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field. “‘Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.
17 “‘The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.’ 18 “This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”
Notice, here, how the king hasn’t really learned his lesson from the previous encounters with God’s power. As in chapter 2, he asks all of his Babylonian wise men and sorcerers first, before consulting Daniel. He calls him by his Babylonian name, Belteshazzar, which is linked with one of the Babylonian gods. And he only notes that “the spirit of the holy gods” is in him. While the king might have begun to grasp the power of Israel’s God, he hadn’t even begun to see him as the one, true God.
Daniel 4:19-22 Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds— 22 Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
Why was Daniel terrified? Because the dream was warning of bad stuff about to happen to the king. He may have been frightened on the king’s behalf; more likely, he was worried about being the bearer of bad news to a king – not a job known for its long life-expectancy in the ancient world. At least with the previous dream, it was good news for the king: who was the head of gold on a great statue.
In Mesopotamian art, the tree represents the world order, given by the gods and administered by the king; sometimes, the king is the tree. So in the imagery of the dream, Nebuchadnezzar is the image of the gods maintaining divine order in the world. (Which fits with Nebuchadnezzar’s own self-image.) So far, so good…
Daniel 4:23-27 “Your Majesty saw a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live with the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.’ 24 “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: 25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
It’s a rebuke to Nebuchadnezzar’s pride – thinking he was the embodiment of divine order, and refusing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. And it’s a rebuke to his treatment of others, maintaining this order – and his own position – by oppression and exploitation.
Daniel suggests there might be time to repent. A year, as it turns out. But Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t heed the warning of the dream. We go into third person, for a bit:
Daniel 4:28-30 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
He’s still proud, refusing to acknowledge God (“by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty.”) So the dream is fulfilled:
Daniel 4:31-33 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
So Nebuchadnezzar loses his sanity, and spends time living like a wild beast. (Probably a mental disorder of some kind. “Boanthropy” describes a symptom in which sufferers think they are an animal and live accordingly; it’s sometimes linked with schizophrenia.)
There’s a connection, here, with one of the great tales of the ancient Mesopotamian world: the epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a long story, but basically Gilgamesh sets out to achieve fame through mighty deeds. He fights and defeats Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest. (He did this by cutting down the tree he guarded, which caused Humbaba to fall, too.) Along the way, he befriends Enkidu, who had grown up as a savage (living like a wild animal), but had become civilised – yet still maintained a tendency to act like the uncivilised beast he once was.
It’s like Nebuchadnezzar is being told: you want to achieve fame and immortality for yourself, like Gilgamesh did? Think again. You’ll be cut down like Humbaba and his tree; made to live like uncivilised Enkidu.
We’ll look at the end of the story tomorrow. But for now…
To think about
If we put Nebuchadnezzar front-and-centre in this story, what do we learn? That pride is not an appropriate attitude to have toward God, who is the source of all life and power. God is able to humble the proud and powerful in an instant. As Proverbs warns:
Proverbs 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
In what ways do you think or act like Nebuchadnezzar – like you are the one who has achieved whatever wealth or status or talent or power you might have?
But is that all that’s going on here: an elaborate moral tale warning against pride? What happens if we put God and his plan for his people front-and-centre? We’ll look at that tomorrow.