Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream | Daniel 2:31-49

“You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

“This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

Daniel 2:31-49 ESV

We keep teasing out some of the intricacies of the book of Daniel, and there certainly is more to discover. Beginning with this passage, the remainder of the Aramaic section of Daniel becomes one large chiasm, which is a pattern where a sequence is repeated in reverse. In a chiasm, the outside parts of the sequence correspond and continue to do so moving inward. Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of four kingdoms to come clearly parallels with the Daniel’s vision of four beastly kingdoms in chapter 7. Chapter 3’s narrative of the fiery furnace then parallels with Daniel’s sentence to the lion’s den in chapter 6. Finally, the chiasm meets in the middle with chapters 4 and 5 both describing how God is able to deal with proud kings. Throughout these six events, we are beckoned to behold and consider anew the majestic sovereignty of God over all kingdoms of the earth (Daniel 2; 7), over the lives of His people (Daniel 3; 6), and over nonbelieving kings (Daniel 4-5).

A KINGDOM THAT SHALL NEVER BE DESTROYED // VERSES 31-45

Before we consider the vision of Nebuchadnezzar in our present verses, we should take a moment to recap the first thirty verses of chapter 2. The chapter began with Nebuchadnezzar dreaming a dream in the night that deeply troubled his spirit. Seeking the purpose and meaning of his dream, he called in his wise men to provide its interpretation, promising them great honor if they succeeded and death if they failed. Yet whenever the wise men asked to hear his dream, the king refused, demanding that they tell him both the dream and its interpretation. Lamenting that only the gods could preform such a feat, the wise men confessed their inability, and Nebuchadnezzar ordered to have all his wise men killed.

When the captain of the king’s guard came to kill Daniel, the young prophet inquired about the matter and immediately requested to see the king. After asking intercession from his three friends, Daniel was given Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation by the LORD during the night. As he stood before the king, Nebuchadnezzar asked whether Daniel could tell him the dream and its interpretation, and Daniel admitted that no man is capable of such a task. However, the God of heaven did indeed reveal to Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his dream through Daniel.

Thus, our present passage fittingly begins as follows:

You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

This is the first of many visions that we will read in the book of Daniel with the last half composed almost entirely of them. As we discussed last week, the theological importance of such visions is that they show that the God of heaven speaks to us here on earth. The one, true and living God is not a deistic god, who has created the earth and now left us to our own devices; instead, He is active in the affairs of the earth, whether we presently notice it or not.

But what exactly is God revealing in this vision? Daniel explains:

This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.

First, we should again note how exactly Daniel speaks to this pagan king. We have already seen the great humility of Daniel both in his submission to the chief eunuch in chapter 1 and in his readiness to give all glory to God earlier in chapter 2, but now we witness afresh the great boldness that the man of God possessed, even as such a young man. As a teenager, Daniel is now standing alone before the most powerful man on the planet, who was the same man who had already ordered Daniel’s death along with all the other wise men. And Daniel most certainly honors Nebuchadnezzar, even calling him the king of kings. As Christians, we may bristle at Daniel using such a phrase that we know only truly belongs to Christ; however, we should remember that it was indeed an accurate title for Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian king ruled over all the earth, and all other kings, such as Jehoiakim back in Jerusalem, were vassals to him. Therefore, Daniel is merely declaring what Nebuchadnezzar truly is without any flattery.

Yet while Daniel honors Nebuchadnezzar as his king, he also does not shy away from declaring the source of the king’s authority and might: You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all (v. 37-38). Daniel is making it clear to Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom, power, might, and glory have been given to him by the God of heaven. The apostle Paul would later teach the same message, saying, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

But what of the vision itself? Daniel explicitly tells us that five kingdoms are being described in the dream. He also tells us that Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold (v. 38). Many suggestions have been made regarding the identities of the following three kingdoms. The most common view seems to be that the gold head is the Babylonian Empire, the silver chest and arms are the Medo-Persian Empire, the middle and thighs of bronze are Alexander’s Empire, and the legs and feet of iron and clay are the Roman Empire. This seems to me to be the simplest explanation, given the identity of the fifth kingdom, as we will see shortly. Yet others have suggested that Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece as the order or even that the different kingdoms are the successive kings of Babylon, following Nebuchadnezzar. The fact, however, that the identities are not given should be a warning to us against diving into pointless speculation. What we do know is that the vision is describing this succession of kingdoms to be one of diminishing glory but increasing strength. Although gold is the most valuable of the materials in the vision, it is also the softest; conversely, iron is not a precious metal in the same sense as gold, silver, and bronze yet it significantly stronger than they are. Like gold, Babylon was without a doubt weaker than the empires of Persia, Greece, or Rome, yet its wealth and glory are still remembered today. Like iron, Rome is not often remembered for its vast wealth and prosperity but for its strength and might.

Yet even though I believe that specific kingdoms are being foretold here, it seems that we can also see in this vision the general pattern of human history. Tremper Longman makes this point, saying,

though the vision begins with the Babylonian Empire; its multivalent imagery intends to prohibit definite historical identifications with the remaining three beasts. Rather, the fourfold pattern simply informs us that evil kingdoms will succeed one another (at least seemingly) until the end of time.[1]

For all their might, the Romans largely saw themselves as living in the shadow of Greece, which is why they merely Romanized their gods. Likewise, many kingdoms since Rome’s fall have seen themselves as living in Rome’s shadow. Indeed, Charlemagne attempted to recapture some of that ancient glory by crowning himself the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Likewise, while visiting Sweden, my wife and I toured a restored sunken ship from the 17th Century and were amazed to find its sides decorated with Swedish kings alongside ancient Roman emperors, for they wanted to see themselves as continuing that glorious legacy. For all of our technological improvements, we seem to inherently feel that history is trending downward. Nebuchadnezzar could certainly never have imagined the awful force of nuclear weapons, yet even though humanity’s might is increasing, is its glory diminishing? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Iain Duguid nevertheless gives us a saliently clear thought:

The one thing that remains constant about these various kingdoms is their lust for power and their desire to dominate the world (Dan. 2:39-40). The desire to rule and crush remains undiminished throughout the sequence, but ultimately that ambition will go frustrated. In the final analysis, the kingdoms of this world, however glorious or powerful they may seem, have “feet of clay,” as we say, and will not stand.[2]

With this inevitable end of all earthly kingdoms in mind, we turn now to the fifth kingdom. Unlike the earthly kingdoms, this kingdom was a stone… cut out by no human hand (v. 34). This stone is beyond the worth and strength of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay; it is of an otherworldly substance, entirely separate from the other kingdoms that together form the great image. Furthermore, in comparison to such a frightening image, the stone appears to be of little significance, yet the stone strikes the image, collapsing it into dust that is carried away by the wind. Finally, the simple stone grew into a great mountain and filled the whole earth (v. 35). Daniel explains this final kingdom as a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break into pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever (v. 44).

This is none other than the kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ inaugurated with His first coming and will consummate with His second coming. Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ earthly preaching as, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” His kingdom is the eternal kingdom that God promised to give to David’s offspring (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Isaiah 9:7 teaches us this as well, saying:

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Hebrews 12:28 calls it the “kingdom that cannot be shaken,” referring to the end of all things when God will shake all the kingdoms of the earth for the last time. This great shaking will remove permanently everything that is shaken or, to use the language of Daniel, break into pieces so that the wind carries them away without a trace. Indeed, Psalm 1 reminds us that this the end for all the wicked. God’s people are rooted like trees beside living streams; “the wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:3-4). The kingdoms of this world and all their inhabitants will be ground into dust and driven away into the gloom of utter darkness, but God’s kingdom “shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

Yet as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream indicates, the kingdom of God has a humble beginning. Although it becomes a mountain that fills the whole earth, it begins as a simple stone. Jesus Himself taught this very truth of the kingdom by telling a parable:

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:30-32)

The kingdom of God begins small but is growing until it covers all the earth. Furthermore, its growth is easy to miss because God’s kingdom is a people rather than a place. We hunger for the day in which the new earth will become the dwelling place for God’s people, but for now, we are sojourners and exiles in a foreign land. We are the kingdom, and it expands each time a new child of God is delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred” to Christ’s eternal kingdom (Colossians 1:14). This means, as we do our ordinary work of making disciples, Christ is exercising the absolute authority that has been given to Him by the Father. We must simply be faithful to obey all that He has commanded us and trust that He will be with us even to the end of the age.

Besides obedience, the slow and steady triumph of Christ’s kingdom over the kingdoms of the earth should dispel our fears. Isaiah 8:11-15 uses language very similar our passage:

For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”

For all who do not fear the LORD, Christ is “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling,” but our Lord is a sanctuary and strong tower for all who fear Him. Indeed, Daniel was able to stand boldly before the king because he did not fear Nebuchadnezzar. He certainly honored him, but Daniel only feared the God of heaven and that fear drove at all other fears. This too must be our hope and security. God alone “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (2:21). We must not fear all that this world fears; rather, we must fear God and seek first His kingdom.

Finally, the sure victory of God’s never-ending kingdom calls us to repent and to believe. Again, as Jesus brought news that the time had been fulfilled, He summoned His hearers to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). While this is certainly a cry for non-believers to repent and believe for the first time in the good news that Jesus has paid the penalty of our sins upon the cross, it is also a daily cry for God’s people to take up the cross and follow our Lord. Although our justification is fixed once for all, we are being sanctified each day further into the likeness of our Lord. This sanctification requires continuous repentance and belief. As Thomas Watson rightly said, “There is always something which needs mortifying.”[3] Until death or Christ’s triumphant return (whichever happens first), we will still have sin that needs to be repented of and unbelief that must be crucified.

NEBUCHADNEZZAR HONORS DANIEL // VERSES 46-49

Our text ends on a gloriously good note. Nebuchadnezzar upholds his word and bestows honor upon Daniel, making him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and the chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon (v. 48). Daniel continues to show his selfless character by also requesting a promotion to be given to his three friends (v. 49). But more importantly, Nebuchadnezzar also gives glory to God, saying, Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery (v. 47). Based upon Nebuchadnezzar’s actions in the following chapter, we should not overreach by deeming this to be the king’s conversion; however, it is a significant testament to the faithfulness of Daniel that the Babylonian king has now seen the glory of the one, true God.

As we will see more next week, we certainly know that the events of this life do not always have the happy ending that we see here (or in the coming chapters of Daniel); however, the reality that in Christ we belong to a kingdom that shall never be destroyed is our confidence and joy. One day all sad things will come untrue, but until that day, we cast our faith upon Christ, repenting and believing His glorious gospel, and submit ourselves to His eternal throne forevermore.


[1] Tremper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary, 184.

[2] Iain Duguid, Daniel: Reformed Expository Commentary, 38.

[3] Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 10.

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