Nebuchadnezzar’s Troubled Spirit | Daniel 2:1-30

In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him. Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.” They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm—if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.” The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them. Then Daniel replied with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to kill the wise men of Babylon. He declared to Arioch, the king’s captain, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Then Arioch made the matter known to Daniel. And Daniel went in and requested the king to appoint him a time, that he might show the interpretation to the king.

Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. Daniel answered and said:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
            to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
            he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
            and knowledge to those who have understanding;
he reveals deep and hidden things;
            he knows what is in the darkness,
            and the light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my fathers,
            I give thanks and praise,
            for you have given me wisdom and might,
                        and have now made known to me what we asked of you,
                        for you have made known to us the king’s matter.”

            Therefore Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon. He went and said thus to him: “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.”

Then Arioch brought in Daniel before the king in haste and said thus to him: “I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who will make known to the king the interpretation.” The king declared to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.

Daniel 1:1-30 ESV

Although Daniel may be divided into two sections based upon the style of literature, it could also be divided by language. While the majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, there are a couple of parts that are written in Aramaic. Ezra contains two sections of Aramaic (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26). Jeremiah 10:11 is a singular verse of Aramaic, while the rest of the book is in Hebrew. The book of Daniel, however, easily contains the largest section with 2:4b-7:28 being written in the global language of the day. As with many mysteries in Daniel, the exact reason for the change in language is unsure. A standard answer that the Aramaic portion of Daniel seems to deal with the world at large while the Hebrew portion is directed specifically toward God’s people may certainly be the case; however, I tend to think of it as a permanent reminder for all generations of Scripture readers to come of the significance of the Babylonian Exile. The fact that a portion of God’s Word was written in the language of the Babylonians is testimony etched in time of God’s discipline upon His people. Seeing the Hebrew quickly give way to the speech of Gentiles reflects the lifetime of Danie; however, the second half of the book sees the opposite happen. Just as the book looks away from the present and onto visions of the future, this time it is the Aramaic which lasts for only one chapter, while Hebrew returns for the final five chapters. This linguistic shift in Daniel shows us that while our time in exile is very real, it will also surely come to an end. The LORD does not discipline His people forever.

A KING WITH A TROUBLED SPIRIT

Our passage begins by placing itself within the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. Since Daniel was captured by Nebuchadnezzar and placed within a three-year assimilation program, this date may appear to be somewhat at odds with the events of chapter one. However, Babylonians, like many in the ancient world, did not count the accession year of a king as his first reigning year. Thus, Daniel must have been taken captive during Nebuchadnezzar’s accession year and concluded his reeducation in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, which would necessarily place the events of this chapter less than a year after the three-year program had concluded.[1]

Verse 1 also introduces us to the driving tension of this chapter: Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him. Here we find without a doubt the most powerful man in the world unable to sleep because of dreams that he has had. As we will continue to discover, Nebuchadnezzar was evidently a deeply religious man who recognized these particular dreams as some sort of supernatural event. He senses that they do indeed have meaning, yet he is troubled because he is unable to understand them. This can quickly remind us of Ecclesiastes 5:12’s true words: “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” Although the world was under his domain, Nebuchadnezzar was stricken by something outside of his control, and it disturbed him greatly.

In verse 2, Nebuchadnezzar summons his wise men to tell the king his dreams. After all, he kept these magicians and enchanters employed in his palace for just such occasions. Thus, it was now their time to prove their wisdom and insight to the king. Verses 3-4 move along as we would expect with Nebuchadnezzar informing them of his dream and them asking him to hear it. Nebuchadnezzar, however, raises the stakes for their task in verses 5-6 by outlining the great rewards for interpreting his dream and the severe judgment for failing to do so. Upon a quick reading, we might default toward thinking of Nebuchadnezzar as being excessively harsh; however, the vast contrast between punishment and rewards likely indicates just how deeply his dream (and his inability to understand it) had unsettled the king. Interpreting this dream has become for him a matter of life and death, and he is ensuring that his wise men know exactly how serious he considers this task to be.

With riches or death now before them, the wise men ask to hear the king’s dream a second time, yet Nebuchadnezzar refuses to do so. Instead, in verses 8-9, he demands them to tell him both the dream and its interpretation. This demand is clearly because he fears that the wise men would simply make up an interpretation in order to avoid being torn limb from limb. Nebuchadnezzar here is an example of the loneliness of being on top. These Chaldean wise men are not his friends; they are only attempting to prosper and stay alive. Appeasing the king generally leads to both. However, the king’s request is beyond them.

In verses 12-13, Nebuchadnezzar’s fury goes out against all of his wise men because of the failure of the ones that stood before him. Yet as the captain of the king’s guard, Arioch, came to kill Daniel, the man of God inquired about the matter and took action. In an act of faith, Daniel requests an appointment before the king in order to reveal the dream’s interpretation. Afterward, he fills his three friends in on the events and requests that they join him in petitioning for God’s mercy to be upon them. Next, just as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream came at night, the LORD also revealed the dream to Daniel in a vision of the night. The prophet then responds with thankful praise to God, blessing Him as the sovereign Giver of wisdom. Although Daniel could have immediately ran to the king to give the dream and interpretation, he understood that praising God was of greater importance than preserving his own life.

After confirming to Arioch his decision to stand before the king, the captain of the guard takes Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar. When asked whether he can tell the king’s dream and its interpretation, Daniel shockingly responds that no wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Thus, Daniel pointedly made it clear that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream came from the LORD, and only the LORD could reveal its interpretation. Finally, we again witness the humility of Daniel as he also emphasizes that the interpretation was given to Daniel from the LORD and was not the result of any superior wisdom within the prophet. Furthermore, Daniel also understood himself to be a vehicle for the message that God had given to Nebuchadnezzar.

There are far more treasures within these verses to behold than we presently have time to discuss; therefore, I want to draw us into two primary applications from our passage.

THE INSUFFICIENT WORLDVIEW

Throughout these verses, we are given a glimpse into an indirect clash of religions and of worldviews. Verses 1-11 are marked by failure. Neither Nebuchadnezzar nor his wise men are able to interpret his vexing dream. Daniel, however, with the intercession of his friends, finds success. The LORD reveals the king’s dream, and this youth (again, likely still a teenager) boldly stands before the king who has already ordered his execution. The text is calling our attention to the inadequacy of worldly wisdom and understanding and to the all-sufficiency of the one, true God.

Unfortunately, this divide is no less present today. The situation seen here in Daniel 2 is unique, just like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; however, the inadequacy of paganism to sooth a trouble soul and the sufficiency of God’s revelation still stand. As we discussed last year, paganism has never died away because, in many ways, it is the only alternative to Christianity. Romans 1:25 clearly indicates that there are only two possible categories of worship: those who worship the Creator and those who worship creation. Pantheists, polytheists, and atheists all fit together into that second category, for by refusing to worship the Maker of heaven and earth they must necessarily worship creation, whether in part or whole. By paganism, therefore, I mean everything other than Christianity. Thus, our secular society that on appearance wants very little to do with religious activity is still necessarily pagan. The most diehard secularist, who believes in nothing beyond the material world, still cannot escape from worshiping something, which very often becomes themselves or humanity as a whole. Nevertheless, all of this is simply to say that our world is not entirely unlike the days of Daniel. Although few may call themselves magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, or astrologers today, paganism is alive and well.[2]

This is only becoming more evident as people increasingly long to be spiritual. Practices such as meditation and astrology are on the rise because, like Nebuchadnezzar, humans naturally long to discover the meaning in all of life around them. When things come that trouble our spirit, although they are not often dreams from God, we still instinctively look for an interpretation as to why it happened, and like the wise men of Babylon, paganism is inadequate to meet the challenge. Let us consider the example of terminal cancer, which is unfortunately all too familiar for many, and let us also survey a few potential responses to its troubling news. In general, most responses fall into one of three categories, hedonistic, altruistic, or stoic. A hedonistic response would see one’s immanent and unavoidable death as a call to enjoy pleasure while it lasts. An altruistic response would call us to do good to others with whatever time we have left. Finally, the stoic response sees suffering as inevitable and resolves to grit through it.

As Christians, we know that these responses are appealing because they reflect (although incompletely) biblical realities. When understanding the shortness of our days, we should resolve to delight ourselves in the gifts that God has given, such as food and drink (Ecclesiastes 2:24). We should also resolve to serve others, just as our Lord did (Mark 10:45). Likewise, we should resolve to endure patiently in the strength of the Spirit (Revelation 2:3). However, hedonism, altruism, and stoicism themselves fail in the same fashion as the wise men of Babylon: they can only respond, not interpret. More than that, as the magicians could not know the dream, paganism cannot proper diagnose the ultimate cause of all suffering in the world, which we know is sin.[3] When tasked with finding meaning in trials and suffering, the world’s honest assessment must ultimately be: The thing… is difficult, and no one can show it… except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.

THE WORD MADE FLESH

As we witness in God’s revelation of the dream and interpretation to Daniel, the LORD is more than sufficient to answer troubled spirits. The God of heaven, the true and living God, reveals deep and hidden things, for to Him belongs all wisdom and might. In other words, the LORD our God speaks and delights in giving wisdom and understanding to His servants. Through the dream, He even revealed future events to Nebuchadnezzar! Indeed, the natural impulse in narratives like this one is to identify ourselves with Daniel; however, in many respects, we are more like Nebuchadnezzar, troubled by circumstances beyond our control and faced with the counsel of the world or of God.

Yet the most notable contrast between the gods whom the wise men served and our God is found in their exclamation that the gods’ dwelling is not with flesh. For in John 1:14, we read that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Jesus Christ, as the Word of God, is the perfect revelation of the Father, “the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Or as Jesus Himself said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And He became flesh, a man like us. Our God, whose ways are higher than our ways, does not stand apart from us; rather, He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).

Furthermore, our Lord willingly suffered on our behalf, enduring death and the wrath of the Father for our sake. By His crucifixion and resurrection, we have been united to Him through the indwelling of the Spirit. This reality certainly equips us to respond to trials in a God-glorifying manner, yet it also reveals to us the meaning behind our turmoil. Too often, we attempt to sooth ourselves with the reminder that God is doing more than we can presently see, which is certainly true! However, we should make certain that we do not sound like the wise men in verse 11, who were hopelessly distant from their gods. Instead, the Scriptures reveal to us a clear purpose behind our suffering. In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul wrote of the great glory of knowing Christ by saying:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead.

Paul understood his present pains to be a participation in the agonies of Christ. Thus, he saw himself as joining in Christ’s suffering, uniting to him in death just as he would be united to Him in the resurrection. This is neglected, yet clear, truth that must be revived. The one steadfast purpose in our suffering, regardless of the countless other effects that God is creating, is becoming more like Christ. Yet though Christ suffered under the Father’s wrath, in Him we suffer under the Father’s mercy. This should instill in us the confident assurance that none of our tears are without purpose and that one day they will all be wiped away entirely. As one writer puts it:

True Christianity is no easy sell. We do not call people first to a crown but first to a cross. The path to glory is a path of suffering. Our joyful suffering with Christ will be swallowed up by glory with Christ still to come. That first moment of resurrection life will make the worst that the world has done fade into insignificance. Then all present suffering with and for Christ will be seen as worthwhile, for He is worthy indeed.[4]

This life brings with it plenty of circumstances that confound the mind and trouble the spirit, but ours is the greater Daniel, the One who not only brings the Word of God but who is the Word of God. Where the wisdom and comforts of this world fall short, Christ is inexhaustible. Let us serve and worship the God of heaven who has revealed to us the mighty mystery of Christ.


[1] An analogy that I have read compares this form of dating to the number of stories in a building. In the U.S., the ground floor and first floor are synonymous; however, in some places in the U.K., the ground floor and first floor are distinct from one another. Thus, their first floor would be the same as what we call the second floor. Babylonian dating worked very much the same way with the king’s accession year replacing ground level.

[2] Indeed, as I have mentioned before, technology has in many ways taken the place of magic today. Of course, technology is inherently neutral, unlike magic. However, like nearly all things in this life, the use of technology can be either godly or sinful. If we look to and use technology in order to transcend the limitations of the world around us and to make a name for ourselves, then it has become nothing more than modern magic. However, if we create and use technology for exercising our God-ordained dominion over the world, then it fulfills its proper place as a tool to be used.

[3] This is not, of course, to say that something like cancer is necessarily caused directly by sin; instead, sin has broken the order of the world itself, leaving us in a place where natural disasters and illness are a sorrowful but ordinary piece of life.

[4] Suffering with Christ | Tabletalk (tabletalkmagazine.com)

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