Read the Passage: Daniel 4
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (4:1–18)
Given Nebuchadnezzar’s contact with Daniel and his friends, as well as his confessions (cf. Dan. 2:47; 3:29), one might think the king was on the verge of salvation. Yet, contact with believers alone does not convert. Nebuchadnezzar had been convicted, but not converted. He had been charmed, but not changed. However, the king’s retrospective confession in Dan. 4:1–3, 8 signals that a change had occurred, which he describes in this chapter. Note that the doxology in Dan. 4:3 is almost identical to Ps. 145:13. It is striking that upon having a second dream, Nebuchadnezzar again called the wise men for an interpretation. Perhaps this is because the king suspected he knew the meaning of the dream and was hoping against hope for an alternative interpretation. Clearly, the king knew of Daniel’s abilities and even had made him “chief of the magicians” (Dan. 4:9).
It is a testimony to his faithfulness to God that over a decade into Daniel’s court service to the king, Nebuchadnezzar still knew his real name (cf. Dan. 4:8). In Dan. 4:10–18 the king describes his dream to Daniel. Note the change between the first and second dreams is how Nebuchadnezzar sought an interpretation, as here he freely reiterated his dream. It seems there is more of a sense of urgency in seeking the meaning of the second dream. In chapter 2 the king was troubled because he did not understand his dream (cf. Dan. 2:1), he was wondering about his future (cf. Dan. 2:29), and he questioned the loyalty of those in his court (cf. Dan. 2:8–9). In chapter 4 the king was troubled because he understood his dream (cf. Dan. 4:5), he knew his future (cf. Dan. 4:5, 19), and he understood who was in his court (cf. Dan. 4:8–9).
Daniel’s Interpretation (4:19–27)
In Dan. 4:19–27 Daniel gives a clear interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. There are three main components to the dream. First is a great tree that filled the earth. Note that it was common in Babylonian literature to represent a king with a tree. Daniel explains, as Nebuchadnezzar likely already understood, that the tree represented him (cf. Dan. 4:10–12; 20–22). Second, is the appearance of an angel, called a “watcher,” who declares and facilitates the removal of Nebuchadnezzar from power (cf. Dan. 4:13–15, 23). Note the term “watcher” is only applied to angels in this chapter in Scripture. Third, is the removal of the king’s mental faculties, for a time, until his conversion (cf. Dan. 4:16–17, 24–26). Note the term “seven times” (Dan. 4:16) refers to a fixed, definite, and lengthy period of time. The best translation in English in this context is “a long time.”
A striking component of Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is that when he first heard the dream, he was “astonished” (Dan. 4:19). This surprise seems to be over the raw fact of what God would do to Nebuchadnezzar. Indeed, after giving his interpretation, Daniel begs the king to repent of his sins and to show mercy to the poor (cf. Dan. 4:27). Note that the condition described in Dan. 4:15–16, 25, 33 is known as lycanthropy. It is mental condition where a person thinks themselves to be an animal and begins to live as such. The particular variety of this disease that struck Nebuchadnezzar was boanthropy, where a person believes themselves to be an ox. This condition is somewhat ironic, for God made mankind to be lord over the animals (cf. Gen. 1:26–31). Sin distorted this authority with this particular disease, even turning man into an animal.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Conversion (4:28–37)
Unlike the king of Nineveh who repented when warned by Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar did not heed Daniel’s warning. Dan. 4:28–33 records the first part of the fulfillment of the king’s dream—namely, his fall and exile. Dan. 4:34–37 reports Nebuchadnezzar’s return to power. Note that even pagan records mention the king’s absence and return to power. Daniel records that which triggered Nebuchadnezzar’s fall was his pride of the beauty and extent of Babylon. Indeed, the king did much to construct Babylon, as he was known primarily as a builder, not as a warrior. Yet, the most important event in this passage, is Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion that occurred when the Lord sovereignly returned the king’s understanding to him. The king’s confession in Dan. 4:34–37 is majestic as he admits God’s power and justice, as well as his own sin and divine dependence.
- Given Nebuchadnezzar’s repeated interaction with Daniel and his friends, why do you think he did not become a believer earlier (cf. Rom. 8:5–8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 1 John 4:5–6)?
- Given the events surrounding Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream, why do you think he again asked the wise men to interpret it? Why was he afraid and troubled?
- Are you tempted to give up on the salvation of evil world rulers and other wicked people who are in power?
- Does the fact that God has the power to take away a person’s reason frighten you (cf. Deut. 28:28; Rom. 1:24–25)?
- Is it possible to understand history apart from knowledge of God and a Judeo-Christian worldview?