Bible Commentary: Daniel 4

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Daniel 4

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Nebuchadnezzar's Madness and Restoration

Chapter 4 of Daniel is a most remarkable section of the Bible in that much of it consists of Nebuchadnezzar's own words. Some historians have questioned the authorship, claiming that there is nothing else in Babylonian records to confirm such an incident. They also dispute the king having used such words, as they would have been unacceptable to the Babylonian people who worshiped him as a god. Some who dispute the authorship claim that Daniel probably wrote it. Yet while Daniel could have drafted the declaration just as speechwriters do for today's leaders, the Bible specifically states that it was the word of Nebuchadnezzar.

The declaration comes at the end of an eight-year episode—the dream with its interpretation (verses 4-27), a year of delay or probation (verses 28-29) and the seven-"time" (i.e., seven-year) affliction (verses 25, 30-37; compare Daniel 7:25 Daniel 7:25And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.
American King James Version×
, where a "time" equals a year, as we will later examine). "The story is set in a time of relative peace after Nebuchadnezzar's major conquests and massive building projects. It best fits after the fall of Jerusalem, during the lengthy siege of Tyre when Babylon launched no other major military operation. Not unexpectedly no record of a lengthy madness has been found in the royal archives, but it could have occurred any time between 582 and 573 B.C." (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on verse 4). This would put Nebuchadnezzar's second dream about 23-24 years from the time of Daniel's captivity in 605 B.C.

The prophet has been serving in a high capacity in the empire for more than two decades. At the beginning of that period the king had the miraculous experience of his first dream and its interpretation. More recently, he witnessed the amazing episode of Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace. And yet Nebuchadnezzar, while recognizing the Hebrew God as a powerful deity, does not recognize Him as the true and only God. He says Daniel is called Belteshazzar "according to the name of my god" (verse 8)—his god being Bel-Marduk. And where the NKJV has "Spirit of the Holy God," it is better rendered "spirit of the holy gods." Nebuchadnezzar saw that "in contrast to the other soothsayers in his court, Daniel was truly inspired by God (or the gods): 'The spirit of the holy gods is in him.' (That this elahin, {'gods'} is meant as a true plural—rather than a plural of majesty—is shown by the plural form of the adjective qaddisin accompanying it.)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 8). It should be noted that such language in the declaration does not necessarily mean that the king still thought in these terms after the whole affair was concluded. It may be that he was simply describing the way he understood things at the time of his dream—and that Bel had been his god. (Yet it could also be that he merely came to see and acknowledge the God of Israel as the "Most High" while still believing in and even worshiping lesser gods.)

The dream starts with a huge tree that grows to reach the ends of the earth. The magicians and others either can't or won't interpret the dream. Perhaps they can—the symbolism not being unique—but they are fearful of being the bearers of bad news to the king. So the king calls on the prophet of God. Yet "interpreting the dream was no easy assignment for Daniel. He well knew what the dream meant but could hardly bring himself to reveal it to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel's loyalty to him—whom he had served so long and well and who had always shown Daniel kindness, even when Judah was being deported from her land of promise—was genuine. His sympathy for Nebuchadnezzar caused Daniel to shrink from announcing the king's coming degradation. It was a while before he could bring himself to speak (the Aramaic literally says, 'He was stupified for one hour'—but the word for 'hour' {saah} does not necessarily mean anything more definite than 'a time'). At the king's insistence, however, Daniel finally began to speak" (Expositor's, note on verse 19a).

Daniel explains that the tree is Nebuchadnezzar, who will be figuratively cut down to live like a wild animal for seven "times" or years unless he repents. While Nebuchadnezzar has provided food, shelter and comfort for his empire, like many dictators his sins include oppression of his people (verse 27). The Bible doesn't make clear why there was a delay, but it is another year before he loses his sanity (see verse 29). Perhaps this was to allow the king time to repent prior to the punishment. Whether the king made any needed reforms in his attitude or behavior is not revealed. But, in any case, his overall problem clearly remained—his supreme arrogance with regard to his own power and prestige. As Nebuchadnezzar walked on the roof of his palace, he boasted, "Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?" (verse 30, NIV). Here was evidence from his own mouth that he had not been humbled by his dream's revelation and warning. Possibly his pride had even grown.

The king had "made Babylon the greatest city of the world, the 'queen of Asia.' [The Greek historian] Herodotus, who saw it one and a half centuries later, declared that there was no other city which could be compared with it. Babylon was built on a plain, on either side of the Euphrates, and had two surrounding walls. The outer wall, which went around the whole city, made a square" (Charles Seignobos, The World of Babylon, 1975, p. 69).

Historian Walter Kaiser Jr. writes: "It was a huge square, 480 stadia (55 1/4 miles) in circumference [making it nearly 2/3 the area of New York City], surrounded by a series of walls that made it virtually impregnable. Robert Koldewey, who excavated Babylon for eighteen years, verified how security-conscious Nebuchadnezzar was. The city walls were surrounded, according to Koldewey, with a brick wall 22 1/3 feet thick, with a space outside that wall some 38 1/3 feet wide, then another brick wall 25 feet thick. In the event that this outer wall was breached, the invader would be trapped between two walls. Inside the inner wall was another wall 12 feet thick. Every 160 feet the walls were topped by watchtowers, 360 towers in all, reaching the height probably of some 90 feet, not 300 feet mentioned by Herodotus, and wide enough to accommodate two chariots riding side by side....

"He also constructed the city gates of cedar wood covered with strips of bronze. Numerous gates...were installed in the walls. The most famous of these, the Ishtar Gate [now on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin], was fifteen feet wide and its arched passage way was thirty-five feet above the level of the street. This gate led directly into the Processional Way, which was used primarily for the great annual New Year's Festival. The pavement was 73 1/2 feet wide and was lined with a series of 120 lions in enameled relief at 64-foot intervals.

"Along this Processional Way was the famous ziggurat or staged tower known as E-temen-anki, 'The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth,' which rose 300 feet high and could be seen for miles around the city. It is estimated that some 58,000,000 bricks were used in the construction of this ziggurat. Atop this seven-staged or terraced tower was a temple of Marduk, the god of Babylon....

"On a mound called Kasr, Nebuchadnezzar built one of his most impressive palaces. Its walls were made of yellow brick and the floors were of white and mottled sandstone. Near this palace were the famed hanging gardens, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World....

"Babylon was a marvel of city planning. It was laid out in rectangles with wide roads named after the gods of Babylon. A bridge connected the eastern or new city with the western city across the river that flowed through the city. It had stone piers on both shores some 600 feet across the river, with a wooden footpath thirty feet wide that reached from shore to shore. The dwellings of the city often reached three or four stories high with the familiar eastern central courtyard" (A History of Israel, 1988, pp. 415-416).

Yes, Nebuchadnezzar had accomplished great things—but it is God who decides who will rule nations. All the amassed wealth and power of human beings eventually count for nothing (verse 35). The mighty king of Babylon is at last brought to this humbling realization.

It is interesting to note that throughout the seven-year exile, Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom is protected and is ready and waiting for his restored leadership when God heals him. Surely many officials in this large kingdom had greedy ambition, so it seems evident that it was God's intervention that secured the kingdom for him.

Some historians have compared Nebuchadnezzar's insanity to the story of the later Babylonian emperor Nabonidus, some even claiming the story in Daniel is misattributed, but there are significant differences. "Some scholars have proposed the thesis that the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness in the book of Daniel is a distorted reflection of Nabonidus's exile in Arabia. It is now clear from the new Haran inscriptions that Nabonidus was in exile for ten years and not for seven as had been thought previously (Daniel 4:32 Daniel 4:32And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make you to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever he will.
American King James Version×
speaks of 'seven times'). Among other objections to this theory is the fact that this interpretation was based on Sidney Smith's rendering of a line in the Persian Verse Account, which is no longer tenable. Nabonidus's behavior may seem erratic but he was not mad. Unfortunately we have few details about the last thirty years of Nebuchadnezzar's life. He died soon after October 562 and was succeeded by his son Evil-Merodach" (Edwin Yamauchi, The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, 1983, p. 334).

One other point that should be made in regard to this section is the possibility of duality in the prophetic dream. A king and his kingdom are often interchangeable in Bible prophecy. Indeed, that is clear from the previous dream of Nebuchadnezzar. The tree of the present dream may represent not only Nebuchadnezzar but the Babylonian Empire as well. Babylon fell in 539 B.C., but we know from the book of Revelation that it is to experience an end-time revival as a powerful European empire dominated by a great false Christian system referred to in Revelation 17 as "Babylon the Great." Indeed, as explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 13, the ancient Chaldeans and Babylonians eventually relocated to southern Europe. In essence, the "roots" of the tree remained to sprout anew in the future. Considering this, it has been proposed that the "seven times" could be viewed as seven 360-day prophetic years. The prophetic "day-for-a-year" principle (see Numbers 14:34 Numbers 14:34After the number of the days in which you searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities, even forty years, and you shall know my breach of promise.
American King James Version×
; Ezekiel 4:6 Ezekiel 4:6And when you have accomplished them, lie again on your right side, and you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed you each day for a year.
American King James Version×
) yields 2,520 years (i.e., 360 x 7)—perhaps stretching from the fall of ancient Babylon to the beginnings of its revival in modern times. While we can't be certain, this does seem possible—particularly as there may be a parallel to this figure of 2,520 in the mysterious inscription of Daniel 5, as we will later examine.