[i] Daniel and his friends have just completed three years of education when a dramatic event shook Babylon. The king had some strange dreams and demanded their interpretation from the Chaldeans on pain of death. The threatened group included the four young Hebrews. Imagine just graduating from a school and entering a field of work under a boss who is ready to chop off your head for the most absurd request. But as we will see, Daniel remained calm and solved the situation in a unique way—the only way to match the irrationality of the demand.
Dreams and Paradoxes
That a king presumed his dream to be of importance was not unheard of in Babylon. In the Ancient Near East dreams were often seen as messages from the gods, and some were even written in special books. (24) What is strange, noticed Doukhan, was that Nebuchadnezzar perceived their importance despite the fact that he forgot them. How could he grasp that a dream was significant if its content was lost? Some other factor led him to pursue understanding, especially with such urgency and angst. The king sensed the importance of the dream because it was repeated (in verse 1 the word “dream” is used in plural form).
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But now, “if Nebuchadnezzar dreamed several times, and if he has understood its importance, how is it that he came to forget the dream?”[ii] Two explanations are possible: either he was overwhelmed by the content and blanked out, or God Himself caused the stupor. The latter is more probable, though the first is not impossible, and, of course, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Either way, the king forgot his dream, and this heightened the anxiety, for in Babylon such forgetfulness was considered proof of the gods’ anger and of the divine origin of the message. (25)
A Fateful Call
The king’s sleep gone and his spirit filled with anxiety, magicians, conjurers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans are called before him. They reassured him of their ability to calm his spirit with their interpretation. They only needed to know the dream. However, it became clear that the king demanded not only the explanation but the dream as well. Standing between two opposite fates—death, or riches and honor—the servants’ last speech only pointed to the king’s irrationality as their last hope of survival:
There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean. Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh. (Daniel 2:10-11, NASB)
But there was no turning back. Nebuchadnezzar had already interpreted the servants’ inability to tell him the dream as a deceptive strategy of buying time and their last utterances filled his cup of anger. The king “became indignant and very furious and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon.” (2:12) The response of the few provoked the death of all. Though not present at the court during this fruitless discussion, Daniel and his friends are bound to die. But human destinies are not only in the hands of powerful kings. Someone infinitely greater was at work to fulfill several purposes, one of which was Daniel and his companions’ advancement at the Babylonian court.
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While neither the gods worshiped by the Chaldeans and Daniel’s God lived among humans, one significant difference sets the Hebrew deity apart from the rest: “The God of Daniel, as opposed to the one of the Chaldeans, does not remain secluded or indifferent to human events. Rather, the God of heaven not only controls history but also reveals secrets. He is the God who descends and communicates with people.”[iii] What Nebuchadnezzar expected was nothing short of real communication with God, and so far, the Chaldeans had never heard of such a God. Until Daniel comes on stage.
Statues and Kingdoms
The narrator builds up some suspense in regards to the content of the dream, and finally, after prayer, Daniel reveals it to Nebuchadnezzar as well as to us:
31 “You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. 32 The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
37 You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength and the glory; 38 and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. 39 After you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth.
40 Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. 41 In that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. 42 As the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. 43 And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. 44
In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.45 Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.” (Daniel 2:31-45)
Two elements of this dream draw on specific features of the Ancient Middle East:
- statues often represented the destiny of the world, and
- the number 4 was a symbol of the earthly dimension (Dan. 7:2; 11:4; Ezek. 37:9; Rev. 7:1; 2:8). (29)
God used local cultural symbols to convey a message to the most powerful king on earth. The four metals and body parts referred to four kingdoms, while the rock had an otherworldly source and a unique outcome. Let’s briefly consider each one.
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The head of gold represented Babylon, an empire where this metal was used extravagantly to adorn palaces, temples, walls, statues, and other objects and decorations. History confirms this in the writings of Herodotus,[iv] and the Bible in Jeremiah’s comparison of Babylon to a golden cup (Jer. 51:7). The Babylonian king’s title was “king of kings,” suggesting his preeminence among kings. Ezekiel used this expression specifically in reference to Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 26:7). Daniel also uses this expression, echoing Adam’s responsibility over living things in Genesis (Gen. 1:28). With power comes responsibility, and the young Hebrew not only knows this, but has the courage to suggest it to the king. The parallel with Adam consists also in the fact that, in some way, both “introduce… history.”[v] Like Adam’s dependence on God in caring for creation, Nebuchadnezzar is to recognize that his power depends on God and is granted him in order to wisely and selflessly administer those under him. But the head of gold does not represent only Nebuchadnezzar; it also refers to the kingdom of Babylon (2:39, 44; 7:17). The end of this mighty kingdom was the rise of another empire in 539 B.C.
The second kingdom was Medo-Persia, represented by the two arms of the statue. After Media’s king Astyages was defeated by his grandson in 550 B.C., Cyrus of Persia assumed the leadership of the unified empire. (30) Daniel refers to this empire in 5:28, 6:8, and 8:20, an expression also employed in Esther 1:3. As silver is inferior to gold, so was Medo-Persia inferior to it, primarily in the cultural aspect, though greater in territory. In fact, the new empire adopted the advanced Babylonian civilization. The silver symbol hints at the extensive use of this metal by Persians in their taxation. This strong empire lasted for almost two hundred years, until Darius III’s defeated by the Greeks in 331 B.C. (31)
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Bronze was the most popular metal in Greece, being used in armor, weaponry, and in their exchange currency (something Ezekiel alludes to in 27:13). Historical records indicate references to the Greek army men as “the men of bronze.”[vi] The empire comprised Egypt and extended as far as India and Persia under Alexander the Great, who became king of the world both in terms of military power and cultural influence. He encouraged intermarriage between Greeks and the conquered populations (he himself marrying a Persian princess) and oversaw the spread of the Greek language and civilization with effects extending far into the future. The empire came to an end in 168 B.C. when Rome conquered it, annexing it in 142 B.C. (31-32)
Iron and Clay
Iron was the most used element in the Roman army and is also a fitting symbol of Rome’s strength and longevity. Its governing strategy (including the famous Pax Romana) consisted in an elaborate system of administration through which they maintained control of the occupied territories. The empire ruled for 500 years until barbarian invasions disintegrated it, the last blow being given by the Germanic chief Odoacer in 476 A.D. The clay element in the feet suggests mixed leadership of a divided kingdom, which will never again achieve the former unity. Both strength and weakness characterize this divided kingdom.
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But the mix of iron and clay also has a religious connotation. In the Bible, the word “clay” only occurs in the expression “potter’s clay,” which refers to the relationship between humans (the clay) and the Creator (the Potter; see Daniel 4:1 and Isaiah 68: 8). This suggests that the clay in the feet refer to a religious power, which is mixed with the political power symbolized by iron. After the disintegration of the political Roman Empire, a religious power would rise and endure until the end of earth’s history. This is the Christian church, which became an official religion during the Roman Empire. During the period of time symbolized by the feet of iron and clay, alliances will try to recover the former glory, but the prophecy foretells their perpetual failure. These attempts will conclude with a chaotic episode at the end of history that recalls the story of Babel (see Genesis 10:25, 1 Chronicles 1:19). Just as in the ancient times people tried to unite against God but were defeated through divine intervention, so will humans once again attempt to create a powerful alliance in the latter days, but their plans will be crushed by God. (32-36)
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The last element of the dream was a single stone made of a unified material, which crushed the feet of the statue and caused it to crumble down in pieces. In the Bible, a stone was often used as a symbol of alliance with God, like in the construction of altars, monuments, the Temple, and the tablet of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, God forbade Israelites to use tools of stone as a measure of preventing idolatry. Conversely, metals are frequently associated with the making of idols. The contrast between the statue and the stone symbolizes the difference between two kingdoms: the permanent kingdom of the everlasting God (the rock from which the stone is cut out), and the transient kingdoms of passing humans. The stone is the only element that moves in the king’s dream, and its movement has a snowballing effect. It brings the statue to nothing and then grows into the mountain from which it was cut—a mountain that covers the whole earth, symbolizing God’s future reign on this earth. (37-39)
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Purpose in Pain
The king’s response is to pray, but not before the overwhelming God he encountered through his dream. Instead, he falls before Daniel, acknowledging the uniqueness of his “God of gods and … Lord of kings” (v. 47). It is because God’s messenger was connected with the true divinity that Nebuchadnezzar was able to find answers to his troubling questions. To Daniel’s polite persistence in chapter 1 are now added more qualities. He is courageous, discreet, wise, humble, proactive, and a faithful worshipper of the living God. He is also very young, a captive, and an exile who lost and was separated from loved ones. Despite his circumstances, Daniel contributed meaningfully to saving his own life as well as the life of his friends and of all the Chaldeans in the Babylonian empire, sparing much suffering. He also put the king’s mind at ease by offering him what no one could offer without a connection with the living God. Of course, Daniel was who he was because God is who He is. Daniel had devoted himself to the only God in whose hands it is worth entrusting our destinies. In close connection with Him the young Hebrew became a remarkable blessing with effects even in our lives, thousands of years later, as we will see later.
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Secrets to Success
Experiences of suffering and loss are understandably abhorred. But they are not the end. In fact, sometimes it is in the darkest times that God comes through with the brightest hope—the hope that our lives are not lived in vain and that even in suffering we can be a blessing. Are you a young man or woman? Are you living in exile, away from your homeland and your loved ones? Are you a captive of any sort? As we see in Daniel’s life, God can use us even in such circumstances, while He also works towards our emancipation. With God’s help you can develop humility, courage, wisdom, and most importantly, faith in God, so that you can successfully accomplish what He will ask you to do.
[i] This article is based on Jacques Doukhan’s Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000).
[ii] Doukhan, 25.
[iv] Herodotus 1. 181, 183; 3. 1- 7 in Doukhan, 29.
[v] Doukhan, 29.
[vi] Herodotus 2. 153, 154, in Doukhan, 31.