In this essay we are ready to take up Daniel, chapter four. This is the third chapter in a row that has offered a rather different type of study. Chapter two told us about coming future kingdoms by means of a dream that king Nebuchadnezzar had, and its interpretation. Chapter three returned to the historical time of Daniel and told the story of the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace. And now in chapter four, we have a second dream by Nebuchadnezzar; but it is not dealing with future kingdoms. Rather it is predicting an extremely unusual event in Nebuchadnezzar’s personal life. Through this dream Nebuchadnezzar is informed that he will temporarily lose his sanity.
As you see in verses 1-3, the chapter is in the form of a decree by Nebuchadnezzar. This is the regular form used by Babylonian and Persian kings to give edicts. Thus it appears that Nebuchadnezzar used this means to communicate his story after he regained his sanity.
By the time Nebuchadnezzar gave this edict, everyone in his kingdom already would know about his seven years away from the throne. So the proclamation wouldn’t be revealing anything. But it would serve to explain why the king was absent, and to give credit to God.
Daniel sets up the situation in verses 4-8. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. So he invited his wise men to interpret it for him. But none of them could do it. So the chief of the wise men, Daniel, was called in. It is interesting that he did not make an appearance until the others had failed.
Next, in verses 9-18 comes the dream. The dream is interesting. Nebuchadnezzar saw a tree that grew so large that it provided food and shelter for the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and humans as well. Then a “holy watcher” came down from heaven. This “holy watcher” is best understood to be an angel from God. The “holy watcher commanded that the tree be cut down, its branches stripped, and its fruit scattered.
Then in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, all of that happened. The tree was cut down, its branches stripped of their fruit, and the fruit scattered. Only a stump of the tree was left, with an iron and bronze band around it.
Then in the middle of verse 15, the tree suddenly is personalized: “Let him be wet with the dew of heaven; let his lot be with the beasts of the grass of the earth; let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven times pass over him.”
The term “times” usually is interpreted as meaning “years;” but the use of the word in this book is not consistent, and it does not necessarily mean “years.” Therefore the length of time intended uncertain.
In verse 17 the “watchers,” also called “holy ones,” reappear, though as you can see, this time they are in the plural. As I indicated earlier, these beings are best understood to be angels of God; and of course, “the Most High” who “is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals,” is God. These “watchers” express the will of God.
We see Daniel’s interpretation of the dream in verses 19-27. You will notice that the narrative has been in the first person up to this point. Now it changes to the third person. But that does not mean that it is inauthentic, as some would claim. This was a common characteristic of these ancient proclamations by kings.
We see that Daniel was upset by the interpretation. And his statement to the king in verse 19 indicates that he took no pleasure in giving Nebuchadnezzar the bad news. The interpretation was that the tree symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself. The tree was cut down to symbolize his losing control of his kingdom. The reason the stump was left symbolized that the tree would grow back. And the binding by the iron and bronze band symbolized the bondage of Nebuchadnezzar’s coming temporary insanity.
Nebuchadnezzar’s madness took the form of his believing himself to be an animal that feeds on grass. Interestingly, there is a known mental illness that has this characteristic of a human believing him or herself to be an animal. It is called zooanthropy.
In verse 25 the reason for the affliction is given. Nebuchadnezzar had to learn that God rules the kingdom of men. So Daniel tells the king, in verse 27, “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, . . . and showing mercy to the oppressed.” Apparently if Nebuchadnezzar had repented of his despotic ways and had started to rule with righteousness and mercy, his prosperity would have been prolonged.
In verses 28-33, we see what happened. The first thing we notice is that the fulfillment took place a year later (v. 29). Then second, we note that it happened when Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his palace, full of pride, telling himself how wonderful he was.
While he was telling himself these things, a voice came from heaven that declared to him that his kingdom would be taken from him, that he would be removed from human society, and that he would live as an animal eating grass (vv. 31-32). And immediately all of those things took place (v. 33).
Finally, at the end of the chapter, we see the king’s recovery and response. At the end of the prophesied time Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity returned. And the first thing he did was praise God.
The loyal members of his court (including Daniel), who had run the country in his behalf during the king’s illness, turned the affairs of state back over to him. And his kingdom was restored to even greater glory. Then the last verse indicates that Nebuchadnezzar was now ready to honor God, though once again this does not necessarily mean that he became a true believer.
As we turn to lessons we might learn from this chapter, we learn, first, that Nebuchadnezzar was sinful. For example, he did not practice righteousness (v. 27). Now I don’t know what all that entailed; but at the least meant it meant that he did not use his power adequately to help the weak and oppressed (also v. 27).
But his greatest sin was pride. Being the king of a great empire, Nebuchadnezzar swelled with pride when he thought about his being the magnificent ruler over such a great kingdom (vv. 29-31).
But what he failed to realize, and it is a common delusion of the powerful, was that even the greatest of kings is not the greatest of beings. God is the one who rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (v. 25).
And in the end we all fall into the hands of God. We not only cannot take our wealth and possessions with us when we die, we also cannot take our power.
Now on the positive side, when Daniel gave Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation of the dream, he took it well. He didn’t rant and rave, and have Daniel thrown in jail or killed. Unfortunately he didn’t repent either. However at the end of the chapter, after Nebuchadnezzar regained his sanity, he had the good sense to acknowledge God and praise him.