The Humbling of Nebuchadnezzar | Daniel 4

King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.

How great are his signs,
            how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
            and his dominion endures from generation to generation.

    I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods—and I told him the dream, saying, “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.

“I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”

Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived—it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”

All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to 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,
            and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
            and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
            or say to him, “What have you done?”

At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Daniel 4 ESV

Thus far in the book of Daniel, we have read of Daniel’s deportation to Babylon, of his faithfulness in the midst of his three-year reeducation process, of how God granted him the knowledge of both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation, and, lastly, how Daniel’s three friends faced death rather than worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. We come now to the final account of King Nebuchadnezzar, and while he has largely been a secondary character thus far, this chapter is very much his story or, perhaps we should say, his testimony.

THE MYSTERY OF NEBUCHADNEZZAR // VERSES 1-3

The beginning this chapter is purposefully jarring. First, it immediately begins as a message of Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth (v. 1). Thus, we quickly realize that the author of Daniel has included an official edict from the Babylonian king into the book. Furthermore, his writing to all the peoples of his kingdom across the earth is directly tying this chapter onto the previous one, where Nebuchadnezzar attempted to unite his subjects under the worship of the golden image that he had made. Chapter 3 concluded with him beholding the mighty power of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s God as He delivered them from the fiery furnace; however, there was no indication of real repentance from the king nor that he ceased commanding people to worship his golden image. Rather, the king only pledged to punish anyone who spoke ill of the three men’s God, which only seems like he made an exception for worshipers of the LORD from bowing to his large statue. Indeed, from the repetition of the phrase all peoples, nations, and languages, we see that Nebuchadnezzar is still intent on uniting his vast kingdom.

Yet something is tremendously different about Nebuchadnezzar here. The first word of his message is peace, peace for all of his subjects. This already should seem a bit odd coming from the man who was unflinchingly ready to tear people limb from limb, raze their homes into ruins, and throwing dissenters into a furnace. Indeed, roughly twenty years after Daniel was taken captive, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem to destroy the city and the temple, and he then “slaughtered the sons of [King] Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7). No date is given for the events of this chapter, but they may likely have occurred sometime after his final destruction of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Nebuchadnezzar presents his reason for writing as being to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. The title the Most High God first draw us back to Daniel 2:47 when Nebuchadnezzar confessed to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings…” It could also remind us of the mysterious king of Salem whom Abraham met so long ago and who “was a priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18).

Finally, the Babylonian king bursts into praise, ascribing to the Most High an everlasting kingdom and a dominion that endures from generation to generation (v. 3). Such spontaneous worship would be perfectly at home in one of Paul’s letters since he was known to burst into doxologies of adoration to the LORD (i.e., Romans 11:33-36 or 1 Timothy 1:17).

Overall, chapter 4 greets us with a profound mystery: what happened to Nebuchadnezzar to create in him such a radical change? What events produced this new king out of the old one? The remainder of the chapter gives us the answer to these questions.

THE KING’S SECOND DREAM & ITS INTERPRETATION // VERSES 4-27

These verses present us with the circumstances leading up to Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation. He begins by telling us that he was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace (v. 4). For we who are familiar with David’s descent into adultery and murder after he decided to similarly be at ease in his palace while enjoying his prosperity, a red flag should be raised in our minds. Throughout Scripture, we find that ease and comfort to only be the calm before the storm. Proverbs 16:18 warns us that “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Paul gave a similar warning about how the ungodly will be caught off-guard by the return of Christ: “While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). Likewise, Nebuchadnezzar’s peace and security were not destined to last.

I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me (v. 5). Like his frightening dream from chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar immediately calls his wise men to him, ordering them to interpret his dream. Yet here he does not withhold the dream from them. The ESV Study Bible speaks to this difference, suggesting, “perhaps Nebuchadnezzar was not worried about their honesty since he expected that Daniel could correct them if they tried to deceive him.” Indeed, the wise men are again unable to interpret his dream, so this time he brings Daniel in himself. We should then notice from verses 8-9 that Nebuchadnezzar is truly learning the power behind Daniel’s wisdom: the divine spirit was with him.[1]

Relating his dream to Daniel, we discover that he was shown a massive tree that reached to the heavens and was visible across the earth and that it gave fruit and shade to all of the earth. However, his dream took a dark turn when a watcher[2] descended from heaven, proclaiming that the tree is to be felled with its leaves, branches, and fruit stripped away. The stump, however, was left intact. The pronouncement then focused upon a person during which the watcher detailed how this man would be transformed into little more than a beast.

Nebuchadnezzar laid this dream before Daniel, and Daniel was dismayed (interestingly, verse 18 seems to switch back to author of Daniel). Nebuchadnezzar, who surely must have had the general idea of the dream’s interpretation at this point, reassured Daniel, and the man of God spoke, my lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies (v. 19), which meant that the interpretation was not going to be a pleasant one. Daniel explained that the mighty tree was Nebuchadnezzar himself (recall Daniel 2:38). The watcher’s decree, therefore, meant that Nebuchadnezzar was going to have his greatness cut down, and he was going to be driven from men and given the mind of a beast. This humiliation of the most powerful man in the world was to last for seven periods of time (v. 25), which is typically assumed to be seven years. Seven, however, is a symbolic number in Scripture for completion or fullness; therefore, the seven periods of time may simply mean that the judgment will not be cut short but will be enacted over the exact period of time as necessary. Of course, this is exactly what Daniel emphasizes about the purpose of the king’s coming humiliation: till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and give it to whom he will… your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules (vv. 25-26). Nebuchadnezzar will be brought low until he comes to know the sovereignty of the Most High.

As with last week, we should note that the shadow of Babel is again looming over our text. While Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisted the pull toward idolatry, no grand impact was seen in Nebuchadnezzar himself. Yet in the king’s dream, take note that he is envisioned as a tree whose top reached to heaven (v. 20). Leaving behind the parallels between the tower of Babel and the golden image, Nebuchadnezzar himself now embodies the tower’s legacy. Just as God came down to disrupt the pride at Babel, so too was one of God’s holy ones[3] sent down to dethrone (and even dehumanize) the Babylonian king. However, we should also be quick to note the grace within this dream. God is planning to humble Nebuchadnezzar that he may know Him. As we will see next week, the LORD is not required to extend such a grace, for he will not show it to Nebuchadnezzar’s own heir. God is planning to pull the king away from his own fleeting glory and toward the LORD’s eternal glory.

Finally, we must consider the great boldness of Daniel in verse 27. Having interpreted the dream, Daniel proceeded to give counsel to the monarch: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. Notice that Daniel does not make promises to the king that are beyond his own understanding or control. The king’s turning away from sin and toward righteousness would not have necessarily stopped what God warned was going to befall Nebuchadnezzar. Indeed, the Assyrians received such a lengthening of their prosperity after they repented before the LORD at the message of Jonah. Their doom nevertheless still came nearly a century later. Likewise, turning from his sin might have postponed judgment. Regardless, Daniel was calling the king to repent.

THE HUMBLER OF KINGS // VERSES 28-33

Verse 28 gives us an immediate insight into what became of the king: all this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. The dream which God sent to the king was not an empty threat; the LORD did as He foretold. Verse 29, however, tells us that a full year had passed before anything happened, which seems to have been just enough time for Nebuchadnezzar to believe that the events of his dream would not actually come to pass. Again, as he was upon his palace’s roof and admiring his kingdom, he said to himself, is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty (v. 30). This time, however, his ease and prosperity were not interrupted by a mere dream but rather by its fulfillment. A voice from heaven pronounced this word of judgment:

O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.

And just as the voice decreed, Nebuchadnezzar quickly became more of a beast than a man. What then occurred to the king during this period of time, we do not know. Did his madness drive him away from civilization altogether, or did his counselors lock him in isolation until its time was completed, perhaps at the order or counsel of Daniel? We simply do not know.

We do certainly know the point behind his beastly deformation. Daniel expressed it back in 2:21: God is the one who “removes kings and sets up kings.” The LORD was displaying His vast authority over even the highest authority upon the earth and that He had the power to strip Nebuchadnezzar of his might and glory in a mere moment. This moment is a perpetual reminder to us that no one is too powerful for the LORD to bring low.

THE GRACE OF HUMILIATION // VERSES 34-37

The chapter concludes by switching back to the pen of Nebuchadnezzar. After the time of madness, Nebuchadnezzar lifted his eyes to heaven, which was an outward sign of his newly humbled frame of mind. Only then was his reason restored to him. Twice the king tells us of his restored mind, and twice he follows with praise to God. He remarks in verse 36 that still more greatness was added to me; however, this appears to be an almost incidental fact now that he knows something of the greatness of God. Three quick notes are worth pointing out. First, while Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image appeared to be his declaration of the never-ending glory of his kingdom, now the king ascribed to God an everlasting dominion and his kingdom endures from generation to generation (v. 34). Second, he now calls God the King of heaven (v. 37), acknowledging God as a greater king than himself. Third, he understands that God targeted his pride, saying, those who walk in pride he is able to humble (v. 37).

Nebuchadnezzar’s great sin was pride, but the rest of humanity holds no bragging rights over him. The Babylonian king’s pride was blatant and obvious as he was the highest ruler upon the earth; however, our pride against the LORD is just as damning as his was. Both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 quote the Greek translation of Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Our pride is certainly evidenced each time that we sin, since every act of sin is a declaration that we are wiser than God, that we know better how to satisfy our souls. Yet even apart from blatant sin, pride can particularly be seen in the simple failure to give thanks to the LORD. Indeed, Paul links ingratitude to the coming wrath of God, saying, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Pride sees the multitude of blessings that God has provided for us and views them not as showers of grace but as inherent rights.[4] Through our pride, we see ourselves as essentially in the place of God.

Therefore, we are not so far removed from Nebuchadnezzar, and like him, we deserve to be humbled by God. In fact, we deserve far worse than the king received in this account. Although God set us above the animals as bearers of His own image, we desire to be gods instead. For such a transgression against God’s holiness, we ought to be brought far lower than even that of a beast, which is exactly what will happen to all who refuse to repent. Those who reject Christ will forever be cast “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). They will share the same eternal fate as the demons. All who call upon Christ’s name for salvation, however, are spared this end, not because they are less damned under the pride of sin but because Jesus has taken their punishment upon Himself. Christ willingly submitted Himself to the greatest act of humiliation ever seen. Although He was very God of very God, He “emptied himself, by taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). This act of humiliation was also an act of substitution. He stood in our place, placing Himself under the Father’s just and holy wrath, so that we would be spared in the ark of His blood from such a great flood. The King of heaven was cut down for us that we may now be exalted with Him.

But also, like Nebuchadnezzar, our peace with God comes through repentance. We must turn from our sin and look to Christ alone. Of course, none of us can say whether Nebuchadnezzar was converted through his humiliation or not. Only the LORD knows such things. We can, however, clearly see marks of genuine repentance in Nebuchadnezzar’s writing. The king’s speech has clearly turning away from such prideful statements as, is this not great Babylon, which I have built… (v. 30) and turned toward giving glory to God alone.

Further still, the very fact that the king is writing to all peoples, nations, and languages is a powerful sign of true repentance. In many of the penitential psalms,[5] the psalmists call for others to join in praising God. Psalm 51:13, for example, finds David declaring after his forgiveness: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” Likewise, Psalm 130 ends with a call for all of Israel to “hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption” (v. 7). After truly beholding something wonderful, the natural impulse is to tell others. We do this with our favorite food and films. No one forces us to share our excitement with others; it naturally flows from our love. For this reason, C. S. Lewis called praise one’s “inner health made audible.” And from his praise to the LORD and calling for others to praise alongside him, Nebuchadnezzar appears to be a new man, a transformed man, a humbled and redeemed man. If the king was so impacted by his own humiliation, how much more should we be as we gaze upon the humiliation of Christ, the Son of the living God, in our place. The Holy One, not merely a holy one, came down to us as well, but rather than cutting us down, He was cut down for us. Let us, therefore, repent to our great King of all sin and, as we meditate upon His forgiveness, praise and proclaim the greatest sign and wonder of the Most High to all the nations.


[1] As the ESV footnotes make clear, Nebuchadnezzar’s word could be translated as “the spirit of the holy gods” or as “the Spirit of the holy God.” Calvin argues for the former, which is of course what the ESV went with as well.

[2] Nebuchadnezzar describes the watcher as “a holy one.” The term watcher is only used here in Daniel, but God’s holy ones, which we would presume are angels, are mentioned in places like Deuteronomy 33:2, Zechariah 14:5, and Jude 14. Later apocryphal books (like Enoch) describe watchers as a particular type of angel; however, Scripture does not give us such an indication. Furthermore, we must remember that this section of text was written by Nebuchadnezzar; therefore, watcher may have been a Babylonian concept for what we would call angels.

[3] This is perhaps also an indication that, for all of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatness, his glory has still not even achieved the (sinful) heights of those at Babel. Even as the king took servants like Daniel, the true King would send one of His servants to humble Nebuchadnezzar.

[4] From this lens, it seems quite natural that our society’s continuous demand for rights would be connected to the treatment of pride as a virtue.

[5] These are psalms with repentance of sin as a primary theme.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s