Another Dream Disturbs Nebuchadnezzar’s Sleep Daniel 4:1-27


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Daniel 4:1-27

For the second time the emperor has a dream, the kind of dream that you and I in all likelihood have never had, a dream that was overpowering in its impression and that was remembered from start to finish in precise detail. It was the sort of dream that demanded an explanation, as had the dream in chapter 2.

It is interesting that the Aramaic text of Daniel, that is the text we have in the Hebrew Bible, breaks the chapter at 4:3, placing Nebuchadnezzar’s doxology at the end of chapter 3 rather than at the beginning of chapter 4. That chapter division was introduced into the Hebrew Bible in the 14th century, so is hardly original to the OT text. Luther, among others, realized that it was a mistake and altered the chapter division in his translation of the Bible. [Lucas, 107-108] If the Hebrew Bible chapter division were correct, Nebuchadnezzar’s doxology would have been prompted by the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, not by what transpired in chapter 4. But chapter 4 has the form of a letter or decree of Nebuchadnezzar himself, in the accepted style of Babylonian royal inscriptions, and the opening doxology is a natural beginning for a story that concludes with Nebuchadnezzar praising the Most High God. In any case, chapter 3 as it stands already ends with the king’s praising the God of Israel. The beginning of chapter 4, as it stands in our Bibles creates interest in what followswe want to know why Nebuchadnezzar came to have this view of Israel’s God and adds the king’s personal authority to the narrative. We find this elsewhere in the Bible, famously in Psalm 73 where the author begins with the praise of God for delivering him from the great spiritual crisis of his life, the crisis and his deliverance from it that is narrated in the rest of the psalm. [Davis, 60]

Text Comment

v.4       The chapter is not dated so we cannot know when during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign this happened, but it was certainly during a time of Babylon’s unquestioned supremacy and so a time of political stability. The king was at ease; all seemed well. He was, after all, as we shall see, able to be absent from the court for a significant period of time, some suggest a period as long as seven years and still return to recommence his rule. It is worth noting that Babylonian sources tell us very little about the last thirty years of Nebuchadnezzar’s life, and this account clearly falls into that period. [Lucas, 107]

v.7       The court omen-readers could not interpret the dream, though it doesn’t seem that difficult to interpret. Perhaps they guessed at its meaning but were terrified to tell the king the bad news.

v.8       Nebuchadnezzar was still a polytheist. His encounter with the God of the Jews had not delivered him from that mistake. He admired Daniel’s god, but only as a particularly noteworthy deity among the many. He even still referred to one of the Babylonian deities as his god. “Belteshazzar” is built on the name “Bel,” another name for Marduk. The Babylonians had some fifty names for Marduk!

You will have noticed that this time Nebuchadnezzar did not require his court officials to describe to him his dream before interpreting it. Nor does he require this of Daniel. One wonders why. In any case, Daniel was the last to be asked about the dream, when, Nebuchadnezzar’s previous experience would have seemed to dictate that he be the first. One does not get the impression that, theologically speaking, Nebuchadnezzar was the sharpest knife in the drawer! In any case, details like this argue against the narrative being legendary. In a legend meant to glorify the pious Jew, Daniel would have been the first one he asked. [Young, 100]

v.12     In ancient Mesopotamia the image of the Tree represents the divine order of the world maintained by the king as the representative of his god. In the ancient world it was the king and only the king who was created in the image of God. Only in Israel were all men made in God’s image. It was in the king that the divine order for the life of man was realized. [S. Parpola in Longman, 119n] In other words, the tree was an image familiar to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and this great tree they would naturally have understood to represent the great king. Once again God accommodated himself to the pagan king, spoke to him in a way he could understand and appreciate. A Jew would get this imagery just as easily. In Ezekiel 31 Pharaoh is likened to a cedar of Lebanon of great height, its top among the clouds, a tree in which all the birds of the air made their nests and under which all the animals gave birth to their young.  It is a picture of the way life ought to be, a picture of prosperity and order and peace.

v.15     The meaning of the band of iron and bronze put around the stump has puzzled commentators. The stump indicates that the tree was not to be killed so that it might grow again. But why the metal band? There are a great many guesses, but no certain interpretation.

v.16     It is now clear that the tree is in fact a man, and a particular man. Perhaps the best interpretation of the band is that, now that we know the tree is a man, the band represents the demented king being restrained with fetters or chains or, as we would say nowadays, a straitjacket. [Lucas, 112] But how much time is meant by “seven periods of time”? Some suggest each “time” is a season, which would then mean seven seasons or almost two years. Others think of seven months or seven years. Perhaps more likely is that the seven simply means “a long time,” of whatever exact duration.

v.17     The lesson of the dream is made explicit in the dream itself: the Almighty raises up kings and brings them down. Every king and every human being should know that.

v.19     Daniel’s reaction to the dream – the meaning of which he obviously immediately understood – reveals some obvious affection, or, if not affection, at least respect for Nebuchadnezzar. Remember, this is the king who destroyed Jerusalem, who captured Daniel and his friends and took them from their homes and families. Clearly Daniel did not take vindictive pleasure in the king’s impending humiliation but was sad to learn what would happen to him. Here is Daniel loving his enemy!

v.26     That is, you will suffer this fate until you have learned your lesson, until you have forsaken your pride and acknowledged your humble place before the living God.

v.27     Such humility, if genuine, will, of course, reveal itself in certain kinds of behavior, most notably in not lording it over others as ancient kings made a practice of doing and as Nebuchadnezzar certainly did. Daniel seemed sincerely to hope that Nebuchadnezzar would heed the Lord’s warning and humble himself so that he might be restored not only to sanity but to power.

v.28     Certain statements made by Nebuchadnezzar, especially at the beginning and the end of the chapter, have led Christians to wonder if the king were actually “converted,” that is, if he became a true believer in God. Probably not, and one reason for thinking so is the way Daniel describes the consequence of Nebuchadnezzar’s possible repentance here in v. 28. What he seems to hold out as a possible outcome is not eternal life, but a lengthened reign and still greater prosperity. Thus far the Word of God tonight.

I stopped our reading this evening at verse 27 because I want to preach two sermons on this fascinating chapter. We’ll complete the story next Lord’s Day evening, God willing. So nothing tonight about Nebuchadnezzar’s specific condition and nothing about the stated lesson of the text, which lesson is explicitly reported several times – in vv. 17, 25, 32 – and then by Nebuchadnezzar himself in vv. 34-35 and 37. But besides that lesson for the king to learn, which is as well a tremendous encouragement for believers who must live among the unbelieving proud, there is in this chapter an account of something still more fundamental, and we’ll take that up this evening, and leave the stated lesson of the text for next time.

The population of the world having grown to such a size and increasing as it continues to do and will do, at least for some years more, more people will die today without the knowledge of God, without fellowship with him, without the forgiveness of their sins, without true hope of eternal life than have died in that forlorn condition on any other day in the past history of the world. Surely that fact, if it does nothing else for us, ought to force us to reckon with the inestimable treasure of the knowledge of the living God that has been given to us, when it has not been given to so many.

Holy Scripture provides us with several names for God, as you know, He is often referred to simply by the word or name that means “God.” In Hebrew that word is Elohim. Elohim is found some 2,600 times in the OT. More often God is referred to by his personal name, which, as you know, is Yahweh, the newer and more accurate translation of the four-letter Hebrew name, often called for that reason the tetragrammaton, which used to be rendered Jehovah. Yahweh is found 6,828 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is rendered “Lord” in almost all English translations of the Bible, for reasons that have never been persuasive to me. Yahweh is derived from the verb “to be” and is suggestive of God’s absolute, necessary, and eternal self-existence. Yahweh is the God who is in the most absolute and ultimate sense, who is in a way and to a degree that is true of nothing else and no one else, whose being is so fundamental that all other being derives from it.

Other names, such as The Almighty refer to God under one of his attributes, in that case, his omnipotence, his power. Lord, another common designation of God, refers to his relation to his creation or his creatures, that is, his being their ruler, their master. Some of his names are reserved strictly for his chosen people. Father is one such name. Father has been called “the Christian name for God.” But “Savior,” “Redeemer,” and others likewise refer to his roles in the life of his people. In the opening two verses of the beautiful Psalm 91, for example, we have four names for God:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” [that is Elyon]

Will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. [that is Shaddai]

I will say of the Lord, [that is Yahweh], he is my fortress,

My God [that is Elohim], in whom I trust.

What is of fundamental importance is that we didn’t make up any of these names. They were revealed to us in the Word of God and confirmed to us in the experience of faith. Christianity insists on a self-named God. Whenever you hear a modern person begin to speak of God in ways he is not spoken of in the Bible, you know paganism is near at hand. Pagans may invent names for God, as they must since they are inventing their gods, but we know God by the names he has himself revealed to us, by which he has introduced himself to us.

All of his names, of course, help us to get at least some understanding of his being and his divine life. Each of his names adds to our sense of who and what God is. But, at the last, such names, even divinely revealed names, are just words. By themselves they are powerless and empty. We know that because we hear people using those names all the time who obviously attach no real significance to them, none whatsoever. The now universal American interjection of surprise is “Oh my God!” In texting it is even abbreviated as OMG. But nothing is more obvious than that people who use that phrase are not thinking at all about God. I suspect that Nebuchadnezzar, when referring to his God in v. 8 said “my God,” he wasn’t really thinking about Bel or Marduk either.

In fact, it is astonishing when you stop and think about it, how little people think about God. After all, most people believe in the existence of God, they use his name; if asked a question they may venture some opinion about God, but all the while they have put almost no time and effort in thinking about who God is, what God is, what can be known about him, and what implications the knowledge of God has for human life. People who say they believe in God content themselves with an astonishingly little actual knowledge of him.

Surely any wise human being should want to know everything he or she can about God. If you believe in God at all, it would seem inevitable that you would want to know what is possible to know. God is, by definition, the being with the greatest power and the greatest influence. Why would anyone not want to know all he or she could about this being? What does God think, what does he require of me? But it is not so. The life of man proves it is not so.

Here was Nebuchadnezzar who had already had two of the most profound experiences of the presence and power of God that have been given to any human being, first in the description and the interpretation of his dream by Daniel in chapter 2 and then in the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace in chapter 3. One might well suppose that Nebuchadnezzar’s life would have been turned upside down by those two events; that nothing would have or could have remained the same. We might have supposed that Daniel and his three friends would have been asked to lead Bible studies in the palace several nights a week and the king himself would be present. When Daniel told him that Bel or Marduk was, in fact, a figment of the king’s imagination, we might have expected Nebuchadnezzar to begin removing the idols from the palace and from the city. We might have expected him to say, “Ah, so that’s it. I always had my doubts about all these various gods.” Because Nebuchadnezzar had such amazing foresight, he would have said, “I realize now that they were nothing but what psychologists will someday describe as ‘projection,’ creating a divine figure by projecting a human one – one we are familiar with – on to a larger screen. But now I see that none of those so-called gods could do what the living God has obviously done.” But in actual fact Nebuchadnezzar, no matter what he had himself witnessed of the presence and power of the living God, did none of this. Why?

Well, because, as the Bible teaches us in many places and in many ways, human beings, left to themselves, don’t want to know God! After the deliverance of the three Jews from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar himself acknowledged that there was no other God who could have done what God did in rescuing his servants from the furnace (3:29). But when we encounter him next he is at ease and enjoying his prosperity. He has moved on from the remarkable event that had prompted his outburst of praise for Israel’s God. If he hadn’t forgotten about it, he had at least not been changed by it. His theology didn’t change! Remarkable! Marduk, who had never done anything remotely God-like, certainly nothing like what Yahweh had done in revealing his dream or rescuing the three men, was still his god. He hadn’t been changed by his experience. He was the same man, acting as he always had before, which is why, after all, the next dream comes to teach him a lesson he had not yet learned.

In fact, as we will read next time in v. 29, for a year after Daniel interpreted this second dream Nebuchadnezzar did nothing. He had been told what lesson it was that he would be forced to learn the hard way, he had been told by Daniel (vv. 27) precisely what he needed to do if it were possible to ward off the coming personal catastrophe, and the king did nothing. He was as unmoved by his dream as if it had never been. He was still strutting. Marduk didn’t require Nebuchadnezzar to humble himself, but Yahweh did. And it was Yahweh who had proved his presence and power to the king. But the king hardly noticed.

Surely we have here a striking illustration of what the Bible is always teaching us is the true condition of the human heart, the natural tendency of human thought about God. The problem is that we don’t want to know God, we don’t even want to know about God because we have an instinctive recognition of what that knowledge would require of us, what implications it would have for our lives. The majesty of God, his power, wisdom, goodness, love, purity, all of this is, as it must be, expensive for human beings. It exacts a price that in our sinful and fallen condition we do not want to pay. We are unwilling to pay. Nebuchadnezzar was certainly unwilling to pay it.

Human beings don’t want to be humbled, as the knowledge of the true and living God would certainly humble us. We do not want to confess our moral failure, as the knowledge of God’s holiness would require us to confess it. We do not want to admit how needy we are, as the knowledge of God’s power would require us to admit. We do not want to acknowledge how foolish we are, as the knowledge of God’s wisdom would require us to acknowledge. We don’t want to take our eyes off ourselves, as the glory of God – compelling and enrapturing as it is – would require us to do. The human heart and mind are very perceptive about such things. It understands the implications of the life of the living God. That is why it is so content to occupy itself with idols. Idols don’t require humility; they don’t require an admission of moral failure, of foolishness, of neediness, or of our prevailing self-centeredness. So we find it easy to concentrate on them and forget about God as Nebuchadnezzar had done, who had seen the living God at work.

We know this is so, not only because the Scripture teaches us that it is so, but because we who know God and love him still find the same reticence in our own hearts and minds. Even we Christians are so ready so much of the time to content ourselves with as little of God as we can, to think little about him, and certainly to make no great effort to know him better. We know all too well how lax we are in seeking God, and how often we take his name upon our lips while nothing at all happens in our soul!

If that is true of you, as it is certainly true of me, then take heart. The first step toward a clearer view of God, a higher view of God, a more honest and accurate view of God, a more life-transforming view and experience of God is simply to acknowledge our reticence to seek it, our fear of it, our unwillingness to take God nearly as seriously as we know we should. How often do we actually look up to God, look up hoping to see him, to see more of him. Not simply glancing up, expecting to see what we already know God to be, the God we have become comfortable with, but to look with all our soul in the act, wanting with all our heart to see God as he is, God as he transcends all our comfortable commonplaces.

All of this heart-resistance to God, both among the people of the world and among ourselves, of course, reminds us that really to see God, really to take God seriously, really to understand what it means to know God is no easy thing. We have to work at it, you and I. God must reveal himself, but we must seek him, as the Bible says, with all our hearts. We have to struggle through all the impediments that stand in our way, impediments in our own hearts, but impediments also that arise from the vast distance that separates and must separate God and ourselves. We have scarcely any idea of how great God really is! Years ago I read this personal recollection of Alexander Whyte. He was describing a vacation he had taken one winter. He had thought that at least once he should get away from his family and the busyness of their holiday activities and spend some time trying to get near to God, to see God, to obtain a sight of God both for himself and for his ministry. But the vacation was now almost over and he not got away to spend time seeking God.

“I became very miserable as I saw my time slipping away, and my vow not performed. I therefore one afternoon stole into my coat and hat, and took my staff, and slipped out of the house in secret. For two hours, for an hour and three-quarters, I walked alone and prayed, but pray as I would, I got not one step nearer God all those seven or eight cold miles. My guilty conscience mocked me to my face, and said to me: ‘Is it any wonder that God has cast off a minister and father like thee?’ For two hours I struggled on, forsaken of God, and met neither God nor man all that chill afternoon. When, at last, standing still and looking at Schiehallion [a mountain in the center of Scotland] clothed in white from top to bottom, this from David shot up into my heart: ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow!’ In a moment I was with God. Or, rather, God was with me. Till I walked home under a rising moon with my head waters and with my heart a flame of prayer… Two hours is a long time to steal away from one’s books and companions to swing one’s walking stick, and to utter unavailing [words] to one’s self in a wintry glen: but then, my two hours look to me now – as they tasted to me then – the best strength and the best sweetness of all my Christmas holiday.” [Lord Teach us to Pray, 233-234]

Two hours of hard work, two hours of perseverance before he got a sight of God and a new experience of God’s glory. Have you ever sought to see God for two straight hours? I have. Motivated by that very anecdote of Alexander Whyte, I went off on a long walk by myself at our summer place in the Colorado mountains precisely to seek God, to see if I couldn’t get a glimpse of his glory. And I prayed for most of two hours. But I never found him. There was for me no encounter with God. Hard work. Sometimes disappointing work. God, being such a person as he is, is not always at our beck and call. He has decided that we must search for him to know him better, that we must struggle to lay hold of him. But I have seen him, as I know many of you have seen him. Sometimes in his majesty, sometime in his love, sometimes in his purity and holiness, and sometimes in all of that together. And through the years we have learned more and more about him. Our concept of God, if you will, has been educated, enlarged, and refined. And now we know better than we did before at least this much: that God is far above us and beyond us and that his glory is immeasurable. Just to see him, John says, will make us like him. That is how transforming the sight, the true knowledge of God actually is, how impossible it is for a man or woman to remain the same after an encounter with him.

Think of the stars we see in the night sky, so far from us that while astronomers can calculate the distance, the light-years of separation between us and them, the distance is so vast that it beggars our imagination. We cannot grasp it. How far are millions of light years after all? But we know very well that if we were somehow to approach those stars, the fiery furnace that they are, they would consume us. Nowadays with the sort of telescopes they have and the enhancements that computer imaging makes possible, we can see much more of those distant stars, their brightness, their color, the swirling cauldron of their fire; we can see much more of them than anyone before was able even to imagine. The sight is captivating; it fires the imagination. How much more ought to be our sight of the infinite personal God, even distant, imperfect, and essentially finite as our knowledge of him, our sight of him is and must be. Men can see more or less of God depending on how hard they look.

When Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor and theologian, was near the end of his life, he wrote a book entitled Dying Thoughts. He wrote the book first and foremost for himself as a dying man. In that book he wrote:

“If an angel from heaven should come down on earth to tell us all of God that we would know, and might lawfully desire to ask him, who would not turn his back upon libraries and universities, and learned men, to go and discourse with such a messenger? What travel should I think too far, what cost too great, for one hour’s talk with such a messenger?” [Baxter’s Practical Works, IV, 1013]

Baxter’s question, of course, was rhetorical. The expected answer is obviously that we would think no cost or distance too great to learn more of God. But the fact is Nebuchadnezzar had seen God in his majesty, knowledge, and power on two separate occasions and it prompted no great curiosity on his part. Nebuchadnezzar’s indifference to God is a caution for us all. He serves as a reminder of how utterly easy it is to be and remain indifferent to God, to pay little or no attention to him, and to show no real desire, certainly no passion, to know him better. God, for innumerable reasons, ought to be the principle concentration, the preoccupation of our lives and far, far too much of the time he is an afterthought. We see ourselves too much in the pagan king, at least I do. It would take a personal catastrophe to force this man to take a good hard look at God. Let us do it, more and more, not out of fear of punishment, but for love’s sake, and for joy’s, and for the fulfillment of all our dreams! More of God, more knowledge of him, a greater sense of God will do more wonderful things for us than anything else we might get or do, more than anything else by far!

Twice in the book, first in 3:29 and then again in 6:26 God is identified by his subjects. In the first instance Nebuchadnezzar refers to “the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” In the second Darius, the Persian king, refers to “the God of Daniel.” Whatever other lesson we may draw from this, surely people are to associate the living God with us. They are to see something of him in the way we live, the way we speak of God, the way we revere him, the way we obey him, and the way we serve him. We want others to speak of “the God of Rob Rayburn” or “the God of Evelyn German” or “the God of Becky Wilson.” And the only way that is going to happen is if we are concentrating on God, being changed and shaped and lifted up by what we see of him and learn of him and come to know of him.

I wish for nothing more for myself or for you than this: that we would through all our days see more and more of God himself and come to be the sort of people people become when God is the great thing, the great influence, the great power, the great presence, the great experience of their lives. I want for myself and for you something of what will be our experience when we finally see him in heaven, something of what Dante, in his Paradiso, described this way:

‘Unto the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’

All paradise began to sing, ‘be glory’ –

So that the strains inebriated me.

And what I saw before my eyes now seemed

To be a smile of all the universe:

For I was drunk with joy of sight and sound.

O bliss, O happiness ineffable!

O life, made whole with perfect love and peace!

O riches, leaving nothing for desire!

[Canto 27, trans. Lawrence White]