Daniel 4 – A Great King
King Nebuchadnezzar was a mighty king. He accomplished many great things. He built the immense city Babylon, one of the most famous cities in the whole world. That was quite an achievement, but a worldly achievement. In this chapter we see the divine irony in the fact that God is using this arrogant king, who boasts in himself and his own achievements. In the end he will no longer boast in himself but boast in the LORD! What makes this chapter so special is that it is a letter written by King Nebuchadnezzar himself, rather than a description of what happened written by the author of the book Daniel.
In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar sees himself as a large and beautiful tree. The way it is described indeed acknowledges the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar and it is confirmed in what Daniel says about it. It is true, Nebuchadnezzar had become the mightiest king on earth and his greatness had, as a figure of speech, indeed reached the heavens. But it is not only his greatness that reached the heaven; his pride had as well! He sees his success as all his own doing.
Thus God will show his sovereignty. When Nebuchadnezzar is about to make himself a god, God will show him his position, and humiliate him. The highest man on earth was going to have to acknowledge that he was still subject to God and that he had received his kingdom from the hand of God, the Most High.
God's punishment of King Nebuchadnezzar did not come without an announcement. God told him beforehand what he could expect if he didn't listen. This is why the king got a dream. Again, all the wise men were unable to explain the dream. This was God's will. In this way it was Daniel who had to explain the dream, and in doing so speak the Word of God. Here we see that God works in such a way that his Word will be heard, even by the mightiest men on earth. It happened this way to Pharaoh in Egypt; he also challenged God and considered himself to be stronger than the God of Israel. God sent his Word to Pharaoh to warn him. He did not punish before Pharaoh knew what he was going to be punished for. God did this so that he would receive all honour. That is how it goes here with Nebuchadnezzar, too.
Daniel was dismayed by the terrifying dream, and did not hesitate to warn the king, and call on him to renounce his sins. Daniel did so out of concern for the king. He respected the king. He had gotten to know the king quite well, as he was one of the king’s highest officers and advisers. He did not want what the dream foretold to happen to the king.
The king received one year to change after God gave him the warning, but there was no repentance in the king. Twelve months later his pride came to a climax. One day, he was at the roof of his palace and saw all the great things he had accomplished. He was at the top of his power. His kingdom was firmly established. Nebuchadnezzar then started to boast in his own skills, his own power and majesty and glory, and in what he accomplished.
He should have known better. God revealed himself several times to the king, through Daniel and his friends, as we can read in previous chapters, but pride is a terrible sin. It was the first sin on earth: Adam and Eve chose against God, because of their pride. They wanted to be like God. They didn't want to accept God as God.
Pride is a terrible and very destructive sin also now. People do not want to accept God. They want to be their own god. They ignore the warnings which come to them from God. These warning come not only through God’s Word, but are also evident in the history of this world. We must see God’s work in all that happens, in the past and in the present. Today pride still makes people blind. In their pride they don't want to acknowledge God as God.
A true Christian will never boast in anything that comes from himself or from human beings. He will acknowledge that he is unable to do any good. But Nebuchadnezzar’s pride made him forget all the times in the past that he had to acknowledge God as the God of gods and the King of kings. Daniel warned him. God warned him. But he didn't listen. God showed him that he is nothing and that he can do with him whatever he wants. God can do with all his creatures what he chooses to do. He can humble the mightiest men, and he can lift up those who humble themselves.
This king is now thrown down and humiliated. He is the equal of beasts. Nebuchadnezzar is driven away from people and living with the animals, in the gardens of his palace. This mental illness is called clinical lycanthropy (you should be able to find an explanation of it in an encyclopedia, like Wikipedia). This means that someone thinks that he is an animal. Nebuchadnezzar thought he was an ox, and he started to behave like an ox.
This lasted for seven years, or seven periods of time, as it is said in Daniel. That means a complete period, or in other words, until the time set by God is completely fulfilled. No sooner. These seven years were a punishment for King Nebuchadnezzar because of his pride. It was also meant to bring him to repentance, so that at the end he would acknowledge God and praise and honour him. In that we see the mercy of God. The king lost his mind and couldn't think like a man anymore. He was not reasonable anymore and acted like an animal. But at a certain moment, after the seven years, God willed him to raise his eyes toward heaven and his mind returned to him. God worked it in the king’s heart to acknowledge God as the Most High, and to be restored in his royal position. And he was more blessed thereafter than before.
This punishment of the king was not a full payment for his sin. His sin of pride, just like the sin of Adam and Eve, and every other man, is so severe, that payment for these sins could only be eternal punishment, which is eternal death. It is impossible for man to pay for his sins, and then also to be saved. Only because God is merciful and doesn't want the sinner to perish, does he not punish men in the way they deserve to be punished. It is only through Christ that there is salvation. Christ did the opposite of what Nebuchadnezzar did and what we all tend to do: he fully humbled himself; he took upon himself the ultimate humiliation, in order to pay for our sins, our pride, and to save us.
The glory of God
God's purpose with the punishment of King Nebuchadnezzar, and subsequently his restoration, was that God would be praised and receive all honour. In Daniel 2, after Daniel explains the dream to the king, then the king acknowledges that Daniel’s God is the God of gods. In Daniel 3, after God saves the three friends of Daniel from the fiery furnace, we see that King Nebuchadnezzar not only acknowledges God as the God of gods, but also starts to defend the honour of God. We see this when he decrees that any person of any nation or language who says anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, should be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into ruins. However, God still remains the God of Daniel and his friends in the eyes of the king, and he does not yet give God full honour and praise.
Here, in Daniel 4, we read that the king does not speak any more about the God of Daniel, but he calls him directly Most High. Several times we can read this name in Daniel 4. In verses 34 and 35 he acknowledges that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes:
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?”
This is quite something to hear from the mouth of the mightiest man on earth. It is the work of God, when the mightiest man on earth honours God and praises his Name.
After September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Centre in New York was destroyed and many died as the result of terrorist attacks, President Bush read the Bible, Psalm 23. This also was the work of God, who makes his Word to be heard all over the world, and does that in many different ways. Sadly there again, we see that the world does not want to listen.
Is the king a believer?
Can we say at the end of this chapter that King Nebuchadnezzar believed in God? At least he acknowledges God as the Most High who is sovereign in all he does. Does this mean that he accepted God's promises as the only way of salvation? Does this mean that we can count him as one of the believers? Some say he did not, and they mention that in the verses 8 and 9 he speaks about the spirit of the holy gods. However, we should know that the Old Testament often uses the plural of the word god (‘el’, plural ‘elohim’) when it speaks about God. That is why we are used to writing God with a capital. When we read here about the spirit of the holy gods, then it can also be translated as: the Spirit of the Holy God, as the ESV also mentions in a footnote.
We must conclude that we don't know if Nebuchadnezzar was converted to faith in the only true God. The Bible doesn't tell us. It is possible. But it is not explicitly mentioned here. Therefore, it is speculative to discuss the question if King Nebuchadnezzar is saved and received eternal life. We should not forget that he is the king who destroyed the temple of God and took the people of God captive. We don’t read anything about that here, in his letter, or about repentance from those deeds. We also don’t read anything about God as his Saviour, although Nebuchadnezzar had to accept and acknowledge that there is someone who is mightier than he is. He was forced to see that when he was made to live like an ox for seven years. This raises the question of how deep this conversion went. It might very well be that it was only a superficial conversion.
Therefore, we should not speculate, but focus on what is important here, the praise and exaltation of God Most High. This king, who did terrible things to God’s people and God’s temple, is now used so that God’s praises will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. This was God's purpose with the king's humiliation and restoration. It is important that we keep in mind that it is always about God’s honour in this day as well as in the history of the world.
That is also God's goal with our lives. It is why we are created, and it is why we are saved in Christ. Everything must serve God to his honour and praise. That is also the purpose of God’s punishment which comes over this earth. Those who do not repent, but harden their hearts, are being prepared by God as objects for his wrath (see Romans 9: 15, 17, 22-23). In his wrath, God also shows his glory.
God glorifies himself on earth
God glorifies himself on earth by displaying his power over even the mightiest rulers. The pharaoh in Egypt resisted God until the end, and God received his honour by destroying Pharaoh, the mightiest man on earth in those days (Exodus 14). Nebuchadnezzar, the mightiest man on earth in his days, did acknowledge God, at the end, as the Most High, the sovereign God. Again God received his honour, because he made the king praise and exalt him before all the nations of the earth.
The king did not keep this to himself. He confessed his sin, and his humiliation, not only before God but even before the entire world, in the letter he sent to all peoples and nations. He acknowledges God as the One Who restored him in his position and made him king, the mightiest king of the earth.
- Review the status of the “chess match” between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. By now it should be very obvious that the players are unequally matched!
- Can you find other examples, from the Bible, from history, in our own time and maybe even from your own life, which show that pride and arrogance lead to much evil?
- Both Nebuchadnezzar and David walked on the roof of their palace, when they sinned (David with Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11-12). What are the similarities and the differences between these two kings?
- What is the comfort and what is the warning which comes to us in this chapter? How do you apply this in the situation in which we live, in this world, in this time?
- Many in this world don’t want to see the work of God in what is happening on this earth, now as well as in the history of this world. Give some examples of how heathen man is used to work out God’s plan e.g. the Roman roads made travel safe and easy, so the spread of the gospel “to the ends of the earth” could happen at a rapid rate. Remember also the example of President Bush reading Psalm 23 to the United States of America after 9-11.
- Can you think of any modern examples of how God glorifies himself on earth (cf. destroying Satan and humiliating Nebuchadnezzar).