Trials and Dreams
Trials and dreams seem to alternate in the first few chapters of Daniel. First, we learned about Daniel and his friends’ commitment to God being trialed when asked to eat cultic food. Then Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream, which Daniel, with God’s help, was able to recount and interpret. After the initial phase of apparent submission to God, the king, inspired by the statue in his dream, built one in his own image as an expression of a desire to supplant God. This resulted in a life-threatening trial for three prominent Hebrews, but once again God came through and miraculously delivered them, eliciting praise from the king of Babylon.
Chapter four is about Nebuchadnezzar’s second troubling dream. Unlike in chapter two, though, when he could not remember it, this time he was able to “relate the dream” to “the magicians, the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners… but they could not make its interpretation known.” (v. 7) Like before, Daniel, with divine help, is able to make known the meaning of the dream.
A Change of Heart
As the introduction indicates, this chapter is mostly a royal declaration, “an open letter that was to be read publicly throughout the Neo-Babylonian Empire.” It begins with wishes of peace, and clearly states the purpose:
It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me (v. 2).
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What a different attitude from the arrogant king who tried to replace God! But this is not the same Nebuchadnezzar who built the golden statue. This is an older king whose reign is coming to a close. After his great and many achievements in Babylon, hinted at in the declaration, Nebuchadnezzar is compelled from his own experience to share the works and the majesty of the heavenly God. What he could not grasp and cherish before, he now declares in poetry:
How great are His signs
And how mighty are His wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom
And His dominion is from generation to generation (v. 3).
What experience caused such a significant change in Nebuchadnezzar? Let’s delve into the text to find out what his dream was, what it meant, and how God worked in his life to bring him to recognize His supremacy.
The first part of the dream describes a great tree “in the midst of the earth” which “grew large and became strong and its height reached to the sky and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.” It had beautiful foliage and abundance fruit and was food and shade and shelter for all humans, beasts, and birds. (v. 10-12) Pretty impressive, no?
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The second part of the dream depicts the actions of an “angelic watcher, a holy one, descended from heaven” (v. 13), who commanded the tree to be chopped down, its branches cut off, its foliage removed, and its fruit scattered. (v. 14). The tree ceased to be all it had been to man and beast and birds. Only the stump and the roots were to remain but bound “with a band of iron and bronze.” (v. 15)
Humans as Trees
With verse 16 we begin to grasp the symbolism:
Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let a beast’s mind be given to him, and let seven periods of time pass over him. This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers and the decision is a command of the holy ones, in order that the living may know that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes and sets over it the lowliest of men.
Clearly, the tree represented a human, which was no one other than Nebuchadnezzar. Already portrayed as protector of all life in chapter two, where we learned that “in [his] hands [God] has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air,” (2: 38) he is again described in similar terms in chapter four. The king’s greatness is also documented in both chapters two and four as both the head of the statue and the tree are visible from everywhere on earth.
Interestingly, this was not the first time the symbol of a tree was present at the Babylonian court. Historical evidence shows that Nebuchadnezzar’s brother-in-law, Astyages, “had also dreamed of a tree symbolizing his dominion over part of the world” and that “Nebuchadnezzar himself, in an inscription, compares Babylon to a great tree sheltering the nations of the world.” As with the usage of statues and metal symbols in chapter two, God uses a symbol familiar at the Babylonian court in order to declare the future.
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Not only was the symbol of tree familiar in Babylon, but it is also used in the Bible several times to depict human beings. Sometimes they represent a righteous person, like in Psalms 1:3 and 92:12-15, and other times a prideful person, like in Isaiah 2:12, 13:
The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled), for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty, and all the oaks of Bashan.
In Ezekiel 31: 3-10, Assyria’s pride is depicted as a tree that
shelters the birds and the beasts. In addition, the tree is planted in the middle of the garden and surpasses all the others in height. The text of Daniel is but an echo of the passage in Ezekiel. The pride of the king is proportional to the height of the tree: ‘Because it towered on high, lifting its top above the thick foliage, and because it was proud of its height’ (verse 10).
Its location in the middle of the earth and its nourishing abilities also recall the tree of life, which was placed in the middle of the Garden of Eden.
Pride Comes Before the Fall
Thus, like the tower of Babel, the increasing height of the tree represents the growing pride of a human who wished to replace God. But God put an end to this growing pride as abruptly as he stopped the building of Babel. Just as he struck the tower from above, he chopped the tree down to almost nothing, imprisoning the roots in unbreakable chains. What could this troubling dream mean?
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Once again Daniel comes through, although, interestingly, he came before the king last (v. 8). It almost seems as if the king was avoiding a reality that haunted him. Yet the misery of ignorance was eventually replaced with the misery of condemnation. God caused the king to become mad. An animal-like state, a perfect symbol of his “religious unawareness” was going to be his portion for seven years until the king recognized God’s supremacy. His restoration was linked with awareness and a genuine acknowledgment that “Heaven rules.” (v. 26) Such a realization can only be accompanied by compassionate rulership, so the king is admonished to “break away now from [his] sins by doing righteousness and from [his] iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.” (v. 27)
The King Goes Mad
As the dream predicted, exactly one year later, the king became mad while “walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon” and reflecting on
‘Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty.’ (v. 28-29)
In confirmation of the dream, a voice from heaven uttered the divine judgment and the events took place just as he had been told a year before.
While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.’ Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.
The glory of Babylon and the architectural achievements of Nebuchadnezzar have been recorded in history with impressive numbers:
Stretching more than three square miles, with its palace, its suspended gardens, and its 50 temples, Babylon had one of the seven marvels of the ancient world and was one of the greatest cities at the time… The hanging gardens were also his creation, to remind his wife Amytis of the trees, flowers, and hills of her native Media. The city’s grandiose beauty made a lasting impression on travelers and poets.
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But this illustrious gift for beauty became a curse in the hands of a prideful king. In his desire for elevation, he ended up lower than humans. A mental illness made him captive to animal habits, imagining himself to be one.
Some historical records confirm this account with details such as Berosus’ mentioning of the king falling ill before his death, Abydenus’ description of Nebuchadnezzar, who became “possessed by a god or something of the sort, climbed up to his palace’s terrace pronouncing prophetic words, and disappeared suddenly,” and A. K. Grayson’s discovery of a cuneiform depicting strange actions: he “gave senseless and contradictory orders, and he could not express affection to either his son or his daughter, recognize his clan, or even participate in the building up of Babylon and of its temple.”
For seven years he bore this judgment, a period during which quite likely Daniel took care of the affairs of the empire. Certainly, a long stretch of time for such a vast kingdom to be without a functioning king, but we can better grasp it in light of the ancient superstition that “if a person was possessed by an evil spirit, that spirit could possess anyone who would willfully try to harm the afflicted person.”
The King Submits
Eventually, the king submitted to God and recognized His superiority. Interestingly, the praise and honor he gave God cycled back to him as he is granted majesty, splendor, and greatness surpassing his previous glory.
But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; 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, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty and surpassing greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.
This chapter and story ends with Nebuchadnezzar praising God because “His works are true and His ways just and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” Can you imagine yourself praising God for being able to humble the prideful–if the prideful person were you? It takes a spiritually aware and mature person to understand that the power of a God who humbles the prideful is worthy of praise because it shows that God’s power aligns with the noblest moral principles. He does not want us to submit to Him out of capriciousness, but because He knows that our self can only become its best under His leadership.
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As Doukhan notes,
[this transformation] did not happen all at once but in steps, climaxing in a personal experience with God, whose objective was not to destroy the king but rather to lead him to know God himself. The king’s dream served the purpose of warning him against pride while simultaneously offering the possibility of repentance and hope.
Secrets for Success
A God who uses His power to turn us into the best version of ourselves is a good God. And sometimes, as we all know, this process takes discipline. Discipline may be hurtful, alienating, irritating, and discouraging. But in the end, if it brings us to a recognition of who God is, we are victors. Because it is only and only in submission to God that we can achieve our destiny–a destiny defined not by our selfish ambitions, but by responsibility and accountability for a perishing world to a God of constant renewal and hope.
 Zdravko Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2007), p. 149.
 Commentators date the events in this chapter during the closing years of the king’s reign. See Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, p. 149.
 Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), p. 63.
 Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, p. 63.
 Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, p. 164.
 Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, p. 64.
 Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, p. 66.
 Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, p. 68.
 Nebuchadnezzar’s mental illness “is known as lycanthropy (the wolf-man syndrome). This type of mental disorder takes place when a person delusively thinks of himself and behaves like one of the wild animals.” Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, p. 169.
 Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, p. 70.
 “One can find other examples in the Bible where the numbers seven and seventy are used in the context of judgment. In Daniel 3:19, the king commands that the furnace be “heated seven times hotter than usual,” and in 9:2, Daniel studies Jeremiah’s prophecy is about the seventy years of exile. The same numbers can be found in the Bible in the context of a flood (Gen. 7:2, 4, etc.), a famine (Gen. 41:2-7), covenantal curses (Lev. 26), a destruction by war, (Isa. 23:15), and exile (Jer. 25:11).” Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 165.
 Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 173.
 Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 174.