Nebuchadnezzar’s Startling Image

By Stephen Terry


Daniel, John, and the Church, Chapter 2

(Based on Daniel 2)


“I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.” Daniel 2:3, NIV

The events of Daniel, chapter 2, occur about one-and-a-half years after those of chapter 1. Daniel has had many months to learn and grow in the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. He still has the status of hostage as Jehoiakim’s rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar is still well over a year in the future, but that status is about to change.

As human beings we often fail to realize the potential we possess for good or bad. Because we cannot see around the corner and into our future, we assume that things will continue as they are. Sadly, for some this means that they look at their lives and see their days as an unbroken string of monotony, and they despair of ever rising above their present circumstance. However, the Bible tells us a different story about our lives. King David said of our lives, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Psalm 139:13, NIV

If we are so “fearfully and wonderfully made” (vs. 14) then life should be more than a boring day-after-day endless cycle of bare existence. Instead life should be filled with promise and hope. The Bible tells us of this hope. It says, “Hope in the LORD and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land…” Psalm 37:34, NIV Daniel understood this and grounded his faith in that hope. For this reason, he was about to see great things.

The prophet Jeremiah told the captives in Babylon, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11, NIV Daniel was determined to claim that hope and future and took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. Far from his own home and country, he could have become morose and despondent, but instead he saw opportunity where others might give up.

God is not the God of losers. In fact the person who feels he or she is a loser is proof that they are not in a relationship with God. God never leaves us in the mud. His first priority is to clean us up, then He takes us higher than we ever thought possible if we will only cling to the promise of a “hope and a future” like Daniel.

This does not mean there will not be those who will try to thwart that purpose. Over a thousand years before Daniel, Joseph was told in dreams of the glorious future God had planned for him. In an attempt to thwart those dreams, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. Eventually ending up in prison for years, Joseph could have given up on any bright future. However, God’s promises are sure, and when the time was right, God lifted Joseph out of that prison by sending dreams to Pharaoh and giving Joseph the understanding to interpret those dreams. Joseph was elevated from the prison to second to the throne. Wearing Pharaoh’s ring, he saw not only his brothers but all Egypt bow before him.

Joseph’s words remind us that God overrules all events. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20, NIV God had taken the “ashes” of Joseph’s life in an Egyptian prison and replaced them with a “crown” of dominion. (See Isaiah 61:3) Though attempts were made to interfere with this destiny, the Bible assures God’s servants, “‘no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,’ declares the LORD.” Isaiah 54:17, NIV

Just as Joseph’s deliverance and exaltation came through dreams sent to Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt, Daniel’s was to come through a dream sent to King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon. The king went to bed one night, probably without a thought about the Hebrew hostages. Certainly, he had no idea of the role they were soon to play in his kingdom. Kings routinely exchanged hostages to ensure the honoring of treaties between nations. Why would he have reason to believe that hostages he had taken from King Jehoiakim in Jerusalem were in any way different? Soon, he would discover how special they were.

Wakened from sleep by his dream, Nebuchadnezzar could not get back to sleep. His mind was spinning, trying to grapple with what the future would be and his place in it. The dream did nothing to ease his mind about that future. Sure that what he had dreamt was significant; he summoned to him those who professed to be able to interpret dreams and placed the problem before them. However, he was shrewd in his request. He knew that if he simply told them the dream, and they gave him its meaning as was the custom, they would then have power over the kingdom without accountability. For who would be able to dispute their interpretation? They could not be challenged until it was already self-evident that their interpretation was either right or wrong. By then, it would be too late to correct any action taken on the basis of that interpretation.

Nebuchadnezzar had a better idea. In order to be sure that he was not being manipulated, he made an unusual request. He demanded that they not only interpret the dream but that they tell him first what the dream was. This is a bit like the old saw about the psychic who introduced himself to someone and asked the person’s name. His cynical new acquaintance responded, “You’re the psychic. You tell me.”

Just like the psychic who was put on the spot over the man’s name, the wise men of Babylon squirmed in their uneasiness over the king’s request. In vain, they tried to play for time by reminding the king of the customary way the interpretation of dreams was dealt with. Unflatteringly, they eventually even reprimanded the king by pointing out that no king would ask such a thing. This is usually not a good approach to take when dealing with an absolute monarch. It certainly did not go over well with King Nebuchadnezzar. He understood the intended slight and reacted violently.

In a reaction against not just the wise men who stood before him but against the entire system, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the destruction of all the wise men of the kingdom. In what we consider our “more enlightened” time, we feel that his response was excessive. However, we often do the same today. Who hasn’t heard someone exclaim that they have a problem with all organized religion? Although they have probably not had an experience with every religious organization, they willingly “put to death” any possibility of a relationship with a religious organization over their experience with the few they have encountered. God teaches in this chapter, through Daniel, we should not be so hasty in our judgments.

In fact, when Daniel finds out about the death decree, he asks, “Why is the decree so hasty from the king?” (Verse 13, KJV) Once the reason for the decree is explained to him, Daniel rushes to the king and rather than refuse the request to reveal the king’s dream to him, he simply asks for more time so he can honor the king’s request. Once that request was granted, Daniel went home and enlisted his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to join with him in prayer for the ability to fulfill the king’s request.

Some may point to Daniel’s great faith that God would tell him all as being the reason he agreed with Nebuchadnezzar’s request. However, if Daniel had not agreed to provide what the king requested he would have been executed. Failing to provide the information that the king expects will also result in execution. Therefore, Daniel had nothing to lose by at least attempting to comply with the request. It is at this nexus between our recognition that we have nothing to offer, and God’s willingness to step into the situation that great miracles occur. This is the essence of righteousness by faith in God alone for our salvation in every situation, including our eternal salvation. Just as Daniel proclaimed to Nebuchadnezzar, “…No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…”  Daniel 2:27-28, NIV

Many centuries later, Paul put it like this, “…it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 2:13, NIV In other words, any power that exists in the Christian’s life comes not from the innate ability of the Christian to overcome the problem, but only through the dynamic presence and participation of God. Daniel wanted to leave no doubt in the king’s mind that it was God and not him that answered the king’s request.

It is only when we set ourselves aside that God can truly work in our lives. For Nebuchadnezzar and Pharaoh this would be very hard for their kingdoms were maintained by the strength of their will. Perhaps this is why in each case God only revealed His will to them while they were asleep. Only while the force of their powerful personalities was at rest could that strong will be breached.

However, Daniel made a point of making himself available to God. There was no barrier that stood in the way. Although God revealed the same vision to Daniel, He had shown to the king, Daniel did not have to be asleep to receive it. The text makes clear that the visions received by Nebuchadnezzar came only through chalam or dreams, but the visions came without chalam to Daniel.

Not to make too fine a point but some might feel that the visions of Daniel were only an Aramaic form of the dreams of the king. This is because up until Daniel 2:4 the text is in Hebrew then abruptly changes to Aramaic. However, in spite of the change, the text does not support that. The consonants of the Hebrew and the Aramaic are identical only the vowels are different. Those consonants are not associated with Daniel’s visions in chapter two no matter what the vowels might be.

As has been said, when Daniel came before the king with the answer requested, he made clear that the answer was from God and not from some wisdom or skill that Daniel possessed. Having made that point, he went on to share what God had shown him. The dream had been of an astounding and huge statue of a man.

The statue had a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with clay. While Nebuchadnezzar was examining the statue, a rock was cut out of a mountain. That rock struck the feet of the statue, destroying it. Then that rock itself became a huge mountain that filled the earth.

Daniel then went on to explain the symbolism of the vision. He told Nebuchadnezzar that the head of gold was him. He would be followed by an inferior kingdom of silver. Then a third kingdom of bronze would rule the world. That would be followed by a fourth kingdom of iron that also would rule the world. The feet of the statue represented a fifth kingdom with the strength of iron and the weakness of clay. The rock cut out of the mountain represented God’s kingdom that would be set up during the time of the fifth kingdom of iron and clay.

Some have attempted to equate the metals of the different kingdoms to different archeological periods. But attempts to identify a kingdom of bronze with Bronze Age technology or the iron legs with a kingdom based on Iron Age technology do not make sense as the Iron Age had arrived at least six centuries before King Nebuchadnezzar so undoubtedly any kingdom after his would also be based on iron age technology at the very least.

It is possible that the kingdoms might be those of Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-Merodach, Neriglissar, Labashi-Marduk, and Nabonidus, who were all Babylonian kings. Some might note the absence of Balshazzar in this list. However, he only sat on the throne in Nabonidus’s absence. This could be why he promised to make Daniel third in the kingdom and not second in Daniel 5:16,29, as he himself was second. The image of a Babylonian Empire still powerful but in decline could fit this interpretation.

However, the interpretation still has to deal with the stone cut out without hands that destroys the statue. Daniel clearly indicates that this is God destroying the other kingdoms and setting up a kingdom. This could refer to Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon. Texts from Isaiah could be supporting this interpretation. In Isaiah 44:28, Cyrus is called God’s shepherd. In Isaiah 45:1, he is called the Lord’s anointed.

Isaiah certainly seems to see Cyrus as doing God’s will in toppling the mighty Babylonians. Even in Daniel, God seems to have a direct hand in the empire’s fall, no pun intended. During Belshazzar’s feast in Daniel 5, a disembodied hand writes out judgment against the kingdom. Soon thereafter, Cyrus enters the city and takes the empire.

The problem with this interpretation is that the kingdom is not only set up by God, which could fit based on Isaiah’s texts, it is also said to last forever. The Medo-Persian kingdom did not, though. It met its end on the spear tips of Alexander’s phalanxes. This would not seem to qualify as a kingdom that “will never be destroyed.” (Verse 44)

Some have interpreted the head of the statue as representing the kingdom of Babylon, followed by the joint kingdom of Medo-Persia represented by the two arms, followed by the kingdom of Alexander the Great, followed by the kingdom of Rome in the two legs which then splits into ten kingdoms (the ten toes of the feet). However we should be careful how much symbolism we read into the vision beyond what the text actually says. We should not let a desire to create parallels with other visions that occur later in Daniel cause us to read more into the image than is actually there. Assuming that every vision dealing with kingdoms in Daniel is parallel could be a mistake.

While it might seem obvious to some to equate the two arms of the statue with the separate Median and Persian cultures, there is no equivalent symbolism for the breakup of the Greek empire into four parts under the four generals that succeeded Alexander in the belly and thighs of bronze. Such detail in regards to the Medes and the Persians but not with the Greeks seems inexplicable. This is especially so when, unlike the Greek defeat of the Persians, there was no direct transition from Alexander to Roman rule.

Another aspect of this interpretation of the statue’s meaning tries to identify the two legs of iron with the Western and Eastern Roman Empires based in Rome (eventually moved to Ravenna) and Constantinople. The ten toes are said to be ten kingdoms that arose out of the Roman Empire. The legs of the statue would have to be rather deformed to accurately portray the eastern and western empires. Once Constantine moved the capitol of the empire to Constantinople, Rome began to decline.  Constantinople outlasted the Western Empire by almost a thousand years. This would not seem to fit the image of two equally strong iron legs standing together. There may be a case for the legs representing the Senate and People of Rome (S.P.Q.R.) as the two legs supporting the Roman Empire, however.

That Daniel did not see the ten toes as representing ten kingdoms is seen in his use of the singular “kingdom” (Aramaic – maleku), the same word used to refer to the other four kingdoms of gold, silver, bronze and iron. We should be careful not to confuse the dilution of the strength of the kingdom with a disintegration of the kingdom itself. A parallel might be seen in the deep fissures that can exist in multi-cultural societies that nonetheless work together through a unifying government as a single national presence.

Both interpretations have a problem with time if the kingdom set up by God represents a still future apocalypitic return of Christ as is often advanced. If the feet represent the kingdom under Nabonidus, and Cyrus is not the kingdom that destroys them then there is a long and indeterminate period of time not yet complete before God actually sets up the kingdom that destroys the feet. If the feet represent the disintegrated Roman Empire then there is still a long and indeterminate period of time as well. Why should the period of the feet be so very long compared with the time periods of the other parts of the statue?

Another question that arises regarding the empires portrayed by the statue is if the stone represents an apocalypse still future, why would the statue portray only the empires of Babylon through Rome? The British Empire lasted as long as the Neo-Babylonian Empire and had dominion over as many as a fifth of the world’s people. Why does it not matter in the march of kingdoms? What about the Third Reich which did not last as long but sent over six million Jews and over twenty-three million Russians to their deaths? Why are these empires as well as others not included?

Perhaps the problem is the understanding of the stone cut out without hands. If we interpret this as the apocalyptic return of Jesus, then we cannot help but wonder why these other kingdoms were left out. However, if we identify it as the incarnation of Jesus, we can see the pieces fall into place. We can then see the head as Babylon, the chest as Medo-Persia, the belly and thighs as Greece and the legs and feet as Rome. However, we have to look for an event that took place in Rome that weakened the empire before Jesus’ incarnation to make everything fit.

The most significant change that took place in the Roman Empire near the birth of Jesus was the change from a Republic to an Empire. This fits. Once Rome moved from being ruled by the people through the Roman Senate, it became an empire ruled by Caesar’s, some of whom were strong and some of whom were weak. As various individuals with their armies vied for the throne, the cohesiveness of the Empire suffered. The successors to Caesar Augustus (Octavian) were at the worst inept individuals like the paranoid Tiberius, the insane Caligula, and at best uninspiring but capable administrators like Claudius.

It was during this period that the kingdom of God began to be proclaimed. (See Mark 9:1) This kingdom was a kingdom cut out without hands as it is a spiritual kingdom. (See John 3:8) Christ himself, who established the kingdom, used the imagery of the stone as well.  “Jesus said to them, `Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” Matthew 21:42-44, NIV

This kingdom is indeed well on its way to becoming a mountain that fills the whole earth. Jesus also said that this would happen. He said, “…this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14, NIV The stone of the kingdom of God was not the apocalyptic return of Jesus. It was His first advent. It set up a spiritual kingdom that has never been destroyed and is filling the earth even now.

Both Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar were privileged to see visions about the Messiah to come. In future chapters, we will see that God reveals more on this topic to Daniel. However, King Nebuchadnezzar receives no more information about Jesus. We will learn why in chapter three. In the meantime, Nebuchadnezzar is so impressed that Daniel was able to tell him his dream that he promoted Daniel from simply being a hostage to a high position of responsibility in Babylon. Daniel then used his position and authority to secure high positions for his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

God worked through Nebuchadnezzar to reveal the future to Daniel and to lift him and his friends from hostages whose lives were under threat in the event King Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar to important citizens and administrators. This may be why when Jehoiakim eventually did rebel, these hostages were spared. No doubt Daniel could walk by faith in God, and proclaim “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, `He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” Psalm 91:1-2, NIV



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