A Humbled King
By Stephen Terry
Daniel, John, and the Church, Chapter 4
(Based on Daniel 4)
“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” Daniel 4:37, NIV
As time passes, memories fade, but God is constant. King Nebuchadnezzar had crossed many bridges since the day on the plain of Dura when God had reminded him that even kings could not overrule divine commands. The smoky smell of the brick kiln had long since faded from his nostrils, and with it, the memory of that incredible day. Since then, Jerusalem had rebelled and that revolt had been harshly repressed, ending with the destruction of Jerusalem.
But the warfare had not ended there. When the Egyptians had hurled the Babylonians back from their border, other states had been encouraged by this to resist the Babylonian king.[i] Therefore, after subduing Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar spent several years laying siege to Tyre until they also submitted.[ii] However, the submission was only a token surrender as Babylon only succeeded in taking the mainland portion of the city. Most of the valuables were moved to the island, which was not taken until the Greek ruler, Alexander the Great built a causeway from the rubble of the mainland city out to the island, giving his army easy access to the defenders. The prophet Ezekiel said concerning Alexander’s conquest of Tyre. “I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock.” Ezekiel 26:4, NIV But concerning Nebuchadnezzar, he made this prophetic proclamation.
“In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month on the first day, the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army. I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 29:17-20, NIV
As Ezekiel wrote, Nebuchadnezzar did turn his attention once again to Egypt and fought the army of Pharaoh Ahmose II (probably Amasis in the Babylonian Chronicle) at Mizraim. While the Babylonian record of this event does not indicate a conquest of Egypt, there may have been a plundering in line with what Ezekiel had written. This seems likely because the flower of the Egyptian military had recently perished in a disastrous intervention against the Greeks in Cyrene.[iii] While the Babylonian record seems to indicate a sizable Egyptian force, it may have been thus weakened militarily and not reflective of the true might of Egypt. Had Nebuchadnezzar pushed a little harder all of Egypt might have fallen before the king. However, remembering his previous decisive defeat, he probably hesitated to extend his reach so deeply into hostile territory. Apparently content with his plunder, he returned to Babylon.
This was not out of character for Nebuchadnezzar. He battled against Judah on several campaigns dealing with more than one rebellion before he decided to fully conquer the province and place the area under direct Babylonian rule. Also, as was previously mentioned, he contented himself with an incomplete submission by the citizens of Tyre. He appeared to be less interested in actual conquest than in an acknowledgment of suzerainty and the payment of tribute. As the tribute flowed in, instead of continuing to battle, he chose to develop Babylon, and as Babylon grew and became great so did Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Almost two thousand years had passed since anyone succeeded in creating anything to rival the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar may have sought not only to equal the earlier wonder but to surpass it if possible. Two things are required to create such wonders. First there must be a period with relative peace and safety. Second there must be a means to pay for the wonder’s construction. The Egyptians accomplished this by unifying Egypt to create the Old Kingdom,[iv] thereby creating the peace and security and creating access to the resources of the entire kingdom to create the pyramids of Giza as well as several other monumental works.
Nebuchadnezzar extended Babylonian power over much of the Levant. When he withdrew to Babylon, he left little that could threaten his kingdom. Having been crippled by the Greeks and then plundered by Nebuchadnezzar, his greatest rival, Egypt, could no longer challenge his rule in any meaningful way. He had the peace and safety to build a legacy, and the plunder he brought back to Babylon as well as the ongoing tribute from conquered kingdoms provided the wealth to finance whatever project he wished to begin. It had taken Babylon much longer to arrive at this point than Egypt. While Egypt enjoyed the security advantage of being accessible only across the narrow isthmus of Sinai, Babylon arose in a tenuous environment of several competing city states in a relatively small fertile area watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This perhaps accounts for an Egyptian Empire spanning millennia as opposed to a Babylonian Empire which only achieved its complete independence from Assyrian influence after the battle of Carchemish in the late 7th century BC. That empire then only lasted a few generations from Nabopolasser to Nabonidus.[v]
Nonetheless, Nebuchadnezzar enjoyed a peace that allowed him to construct the Hanging Gardens.[vi] A contemporary account written by Berossus and quoted by Josephus in his Antiquities relates that Nebuchadnezzar created the gardens in an effort to recreate the lush mountains of his queen’s homeland. Sadly the gardens were destroyed by earthquake after only a few centuries. Unlike the Giza pyramids, nothing physically remains to enlighten our understanding of this great wonder. Whether it was before, during or after this great project that the scenes of the fourth chapter of Daniel occurred cannot be known but only speculated.
The chapter is presented as having been written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. As in chapter 2, it begins with a troubling dream.[vii] The king had dreamed of a beautiful and fruitful, enormous tree. Per command, the tree was cut down, and the stump was fettered with metal. Then a pronouncement was given that the tree, shorn of its finery, would be wet with dew and among the animals. It also proclaims that the tree, which is obviously symbolic at this point, would lose its sanity for seven years. While the tree may have been pleasing to behold, its fate was not.
Unlike the earlier dream in chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar freely recounts for his wise men the substance of his dream. However, in spite of this, they are unable to provide him an interpretation. Fearing the implications nuanced throughout the dream, Nebuchadnezzar was terrified and called for Belteshazzar (Daniel) to interpret the dream. Daniel had been elevated to high position because of his earlier success with dream interpretation. His call for Daniel is indicative of the importance that the king attached to this dream. He recounts the entire dream to Daniel and closes his account with a statement of faith in Daniel’s ability to provide an interpretation. In spite of the king’s faith in him, Daniel does not immediately enlighten the king. Instead, the text tells us that he was “perplexed” for a time. We are not told how long that time was, but perhaps we can infer from chapter two that Daniel requested a day to make prayer for understanding as he did then. Considering Daniel’s habit was to pray regularly,[viii] and that habit appears to have been well known by others, such a request would not seem out of line with his usual practice.
In any event, Daniel does provide an interpretation. He states that the tree in the dream was Nebuchadnezzar and those things that happened to the tree would happen to him. Perhaps we should acknowledge at this point that while the biblical narrative identifies Nebuchadnezzar as the affected ruler, extra-biblical, more closely contemporary Aramaic texts identify Nabonidus as the ruler in question.[ix] Some have inferred from the period of insanity referenced in the dream an explanation for Nabonidus’ failure to remain present to rule from his throne in Babylon. However, the common understanding of his absence is related to his interest in archeology and preservation of historically significant buildings and artifacts. To the more hawkish among the Babylonian nobility, who saw threats to the empire in every direction, this may have indeed seemed like insanity. However, we will accept the designation of Nebuchadnezzar as the king in question per the biblical account. This is because the dream assures the ruler that his kingdom will remain intact, but Nabonidus saw his capital lost to the Medes and the Persians while he was away campaigning against Cyrus, thanks to the failures of Belshazzar who ruled in his absence[x] and the astuteness of Cyrus who realized the importance of Babylon and what its capture would mean to Nabonidus’ forces. We shall revisit this when we examine chapter five of Daniel.
In any event, the current chapter tells us that Nebuchadnezzar is spared enforcement of the doleful interpretation of his dream for a year, perhaps because its meaning instilled a more reverential humility in his heart. As time passed his humility decreased and in a moment of unguarded egotism, he claimed the glory of Babylon as his own. In this, the author of Daniel finds a sin of pride against God. However, the sin is also against the people of Babylon whose labor and support contributed greatly to the building up of the city. Whether it was the military that brought home plunder from kingdoms conquered afar, merchants who brought the products of trade and commerce into the city, artisans who wrought with skill to embellish the city with their creativity, or simply the humble laborer carrying uncounted hods of bricks on his back, all made their contributions to the magnificence of the city.
Modern leaders are tempted to take the glory of their times to themselves as well, forgetting the many who have contributed to the glory of their governments. They would do well to heed what befell Nebuchadnezzar. Possibly neglect of those who have done so much for the success of others is a great affront to God as well.[xi] The Bible often addresses the morality of kings and commoners alike. Because we do not call our rulers “kings” does not mean we are exempt from these lessons about pride and responsibility. After many centuries, these stories continue to play out in the hearts and minds of each of us. Perhaps this is what is meant when we say the stories of the Bible are “timeless.”
This story is also a reminder for those of us who might be impatient concerning justice. We might look at the pride of rulers and the injustice of their boasting and posturing and wonder why God is so longsuffering. At times we might even find in that longsuffering an excuse to abandon faith and even deny the existence of God. Yet we find in this story an assurance that even though God’s mercy is great, it is not endless, and when the time is exhausted, justice is swift.[xii] As the author writes, while “the words were still on his lips…” judgment was passed on King Nebuchadnezzar immediately and he lost his senses and was driven away from people. He insanely ate grass without regard to the weather and his exposure. He ceased grooming and became a wretch to all who saw him. We are told this continued for seven years. Those who did not know of the prophecy might have felt that this would continue to the end of his life and despaired of ever seeing him rule the kingdom again. Without his faculties, he could reassure no one. Perhaps this is why he felt it necessary to issue the decree regarding his experience. Without that decree, others might question whether they could depend on him or not when he returned to the throne. What would prevent a recurrence? The decree was evidence that everything was according to prophecy and not because of some frailty of the king’s health.
Like Job who suffered greatly with the loss of all his wealth, his children, and even his health, Nebuchadnezzar was restored all, and per his decree, not only was his kingdom and position restored to him. He “became even greater than before.”[xiii] This certainly echoes the statement, “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.”[xiv] It is a recurring theme in the Old Testament that even when we must travel through “the valley of the shadow of death,”[xv] God is present there with us, and when the experience is over blessings will overflow our cup.[xvi] While this is a message that comforts us in our modern trials, perhaps it was doubly so for the Israelites who had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and were now experiencing the dark valley of captivity in Babylon.
The two-fold message of this chapter that God overrules the affairs of even conquering kings and restores bountifully those who are faithful through difficult trials was surely not lost on the captive Jews. Those who remained faithful did see a restoration and a blessing as recounted in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. A temple was built and sacrifices were again offered in Jerusalem. Eventually the temple the returned exiles built was replaced by one built by King Herod, and that temple had the honor of being visited by the Messiah. In that alone, the latter blessing of the Jews was greater than the former. Had Israel recognized their time of visitation by Jesus, the greater glory of his presence would have been only the beginning of blessings. However, instead of proclaiming the glory of God like Nebuchadnezzar, most of them rejected that glory, and instead saw the destruction of that temple in 70, CE, and the beginning of suppression of the Jewish faith by their Roman overlords. Eventually, with the end of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, CE, they even lost the right to enter the city of Jerusalem.
Strangely this was because the Israelites repeated the sin of Kadesh Barnea. Instead of recognizing God’s power in Jesus and accepting where God was leading, they chose their own messiah in Bar Kochba. They made this messiah in their own image of what they felt the messiah must be. They felt that the messiah would deliver them from the Romans by defeating the imperial armies. Since Bar Kochba promised to do this and Jesus did not, they felt logically the messiah was Kochba and not Jesus. They had some initial successes on the battlefield, but according to Cassius Dio[xvii], a son of a Roman Senator who wrote several decades after the fact, over half a million Jews died as a result of that mistaken messianic uprising.
Jesus advocated no revolution against Rome. Instead He advised a humble acceptance of the status quo. This was true whether being impressed into service,[xviii] assaulted,[xix] or even when paying taxes.[xx] This was similar in intent to Jeremiah’s instructions to the Babylonian exiles. He urged them to settle down and accept their lot and even pray for the prosperity of Babylon.[xxi] Paul, the Apostle, also expressed a similar idea in his letter to the Roman church.[xxii] Apparently such an attitude makes it possible to have an effect even on kings as Daniel did from the time of his captivity until the fall of Babylon to the Medes and beyond as future chapters will reveal.
[i] “Neo-Babylonian Empire,” Babylonia, www.wikipedia.org
[ii] “Early History,” Tyre, www.wikipedia.org
[iii] “Amasis II,” www.wikipedia.org
[iv] “Egyptian Chronology,” Chronological Charts of the Old Testament, John H Walton, 1978
[v] “Kings of Neo-Babylonia,” Ibid.
[vi] “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” www.wikipedia.org
[vii] Daniel 4:4-17
[viii] Daniel 6:10
[ix] “Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus,” Book of Daniel, www.wikipedia.org
[x] “The Verse Account of Nabonidus,” British Museum, Tablet 38299, Column II, Lines 18-29.
[xi] Matthew 25:45
[xii] Habakkuk 2:3
[xiii] Daniel 4:36, NIV
[xiv] Job 42:12, NIV
[xv] Psalm 23:4, NIV
[xvi] Psalm 23:5
[xvii] Cassius Dio, Roman History
[xviii] Matthew 5:41
[xix] Matthew 5:39
[xx] Matthew 22:17-21
[xxi] Jeremiah 29:6-7
[xxii] Romans 13:1-7
This Article is Provided by Still Waters Ministry
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