Bible Commentaries
Daniel 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


C. Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and humbling ch. 4

We have seen that in the first three chapters of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar came to an increasing appreciation of the greatness of Yahweh. In this chapter, he learned that Yahweh is sovereign over kings as well as kingdoms (cf. ch. 1). As the head of Gentile power, Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling probably has typical significance suggesting the final overthrow of Gentile world dominion by the smiting stone: Jesus Christ (Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44-45). However, the main lesson of the chapter is the sovereignty of Yahweh over the greatest human sovereign in the world (cf. Daniel 4:17-18; Daniel 4:22; Daniel 4:24-26; Daniel 4:30-32; Daniel 4:34; Daniel 4:36-37).

"In the light of other passages in the Bible speaking prophetically of Babylon and its ultimate overthrow, of which Isaiah 13, 14 may be taken as an example, it becomes clear that the contest between God and Nebuchadnezzar is a broad illustration of God’s dealings with the entire human race and especially the Gentile world in its creaturely pride and failure to recognize the sovereignty of God." [Note: Walvoord, p. 95.]

The fact that Babylon falls in the very next chapter seems to support this conclusion.

The form of the chapter is unusual. It is a decree that Nebuchadnezzar issued following his recovery from temporary insanity. The decree contains the record of events resulting in the issuing of the decree. Daniel himself may have written this account as a decree, or he may have inserted the king’s actual decree from another source. It is unique in Scripture, being the only chapter composed by a pagan-if Nebuchadnezzar wrote it, and if he was unconverted.

The structure of the chapter is essentially ABBA, chiastic. It begins and ends with praise of God (Daniel 4:1-3; Daniel 4:34-37), and in the middle there is the narration of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 4:4-18), and its interpretation and fulfillment (Daniel 4:19-33).

The time of this incident seems to be considerably later than the event recorded in chapter 3. Nebuchadnezzar had finished extensive building projects (Daniel 4:30, including the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon?). He reigned a total of 43 years (605-562 B.C.). Perhaps it was toward the end of his reign that these events transpired. Pentecost and Whitcomb estimated that the date may have been about 570 B.C. [Note: Pentecost, p. 1341; Whitcomb, pp. 62-63.] If so, Daniel would probably have been about 50 years old. The Septuagint dates the incident in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (Daniel 4:4, LXX; about 587 B.C.), but that seems to reflect the opinion of the translators rather than the inspired writer. The Septuagint connected Daniel 4:1-3 to the end of chapter 3, and began chapter 4 with Daniel 4:4.

Verse 1

The fact that Nebuchadnezzar addressed what follows to everyone living on the earth, even though he did not rule over the entire earth, should not be a problem. This was the universal language that he customarily used (cf. Daniel 3:29). He did, in fact, rule over a very large portion of the ancient world. Likewise the benediction, "May your peace abound," seems to be a typical salutation formula (cf. Daniel 6:25).

Verses 1-3

1. Nebuchadnezzar’s introductory doxology 4:1-3

Verses 2-3

"Signs" and "wonders" are common biblical words used to describe miracles (cf. Deuteronomy 6:22; Deuteronomy 7:19; Deuteronomy 13:1-2; Deuteronomy 26:8; Nehemiah 9:10; Isaiah 8:18; et al.). Signs (Aram. ’atohi) refer to "natural phenomena that because of their magnitude or timing decisively evidence God’s intervention." [Note: Archer, "Daniel," p. 59.] Wonders (Aram. timhohi) are "supernatural manifestations of divine intervention in the course of nature." [Note: Ibid.] The "Most High God" is clearly Yahweh (cf. Daniel 3:26). The king had great respect for Yahweh, but that does not necessarily mean that he was a monotheist, much less a convert to Judaism. The king’s praise of Yahweh opens and closes the chapter (cf. Daniel 4:37), forming an inclusio around the narrative.

The effect on the reader of this introduction is to make us eager to discover what happened to Nebuchadnezzar. We now want to pay close attention to the testimony that follows.

Verse 4

As mentioned above, the time of this dream was apparently later in Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Historians have identified a seven-year period during his reign when he engaged in no military activity (ca. 582-575 B.C.). [Note: Ibid., pp. 59-60.] This may be the seven years during which he was temporarily insane. If so, he may have had this dream in 583 or 582 B.C. If this is the true date, Nebuchadnezzar would have defeated the Egyptians under Pharaoh Hophra (in 588-587 B.C.), and would have destroyed Jerusalem (in 586 B.C.) before he had this dream. In any case, he was at ease and resting in his palace when God gave him this revelation. Nebuchadnezzar described himself as "flourishing" in his palace, in terms that in the original language picture him flourishing as a green plant. This king built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which enriched his naturally arid capital with luxuriant foliage. His description of himself here anticipates the figure of the tree in his dream that represented him.

Verses 4-9

2. The king’s frustration over his second dream 4:4-9

Verses 5-7

His dream, which was also a vision from God, terrified him, as the original language makes clear (cf. Daniel 2:1; Daniel 2:3). He still believed in his wise men even though they had let him down previously (Daniel 2:10-12). This time he told them his dream and simply asked them to interpret it. They failed again, so he called in his expert in these matters: Daniel.

"This school of pompous quacks should long since have been dismissed." [Note: Culver, "Daniel," p. 783.]

Verse 8

Daniel may not have been with the king’s other advisers because he occupied a position in the government that required his presence elsewhere. The king described Daniel by using both his Hebrew and Babylonian names. This would have had the double effect of causing those who read this decree to recognize Daniel by his common Babylonian name, and to honor Daniel’s God (cf. Daniel 4:37). Nebuchadnezzar probably meant that "a spirit of the holy gods" (cf. Daniel 4:17)-in a pagan sense-indwelt Daniel, since he used a plural adjective (translated "holy") to describe the noun ("gods"). [Note: See Leupold, p. 176, and Driver, p. 48.] However, we should probably not be dogmatic on this point since "holy" can mean divine rather than morally pure. [Note: Young, p. 99.] In this case the king may have meant "the Spirit of the holy God." The true interpretation lies buried in the theological understanding of Nebuchadnezzar, which the text leaves unclear. I suspect that Nebuchadnezzar was speaking as a polytheist rather than as a monotheistic believer in Yahweh.

"Seeing that Nebuchadnezzar recognized another as ’my god,’ it is doubtful if he regarded Jehovah as the only holy God." [Note: Culver, "Daniel," p. 783.]

"Several questions are called forth by this vs. Why did Dan. appear only after the wise men had failed to interpret the dream? Why, if Dan. was so well known for his ability to interpret dreams, and if he occupied a position of prominence over the wise men, was he not summoned first of all? . . .

"The king . . . had not forgotten Dan. Rather, his dream apparently caused him to realize that he would suffer humiliation, and probably this humiliation would be at the hands of Dan.’s God. . . . With this God, Neb., as yet, wanted no dealings. If others can interpret the dream, he will go to them rather than to Dan." [Note: Young, p. 100.]

Verse 9

Nebuchadnezzar addressed Daniel as the chief of the magicians. By this he probably meant that Daniel was his chief interpreter of the future, not that he was the head of a group of magicians. [Note: Leupold, p. 178.] Daniel’s fame in this regard had evidently become well known (cf. Ezekiel 28:3).

Verses 10-12

The king described what he had seen in poetic language. His words therefore appear as a prophetic oracle. The ancients frequently used trees to describe rulers of nations (cf. Isaiah 2:12-13; Isaiah 10:34; Ezekiel 31:3-17). [Note: Young, pp. 101-2.] Thus Nebuchadnezzar may have anticipated that the tree in his dream represented himself. What happened to the tree in his dream then could account for his fear (Daniel 4:5). This tree was similar to Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom. [Note: See Paul Ferguson, "Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, and the ’Babylonian Job,’" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:3 (September 1994):321-31.] The beasts and birds probably represent the many types of people who benefited from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (cf. Ezekiel 31:6; Matthew 13:32).

Verses 10-18

3. Nebuchadnezzar’s account of his dream 4:10-18

Verses 13-15

The watcher who descended from heaven (Daniel 4:13) was probably a divine agent, an angel, though Nebuchadnezzar described it using terminology from his background (cf. Daniel 4:17). [Note: Keil, p. 150; Goldingay, p. 88.] Earthly kings had watchmen who served as their eyes and ears and who carried out the bidding of their lords. The binding of the stump (Daniel 4:15) hints at a restoration of the tree’s life and its growth after its cutting down. After all, the stump could have been removed. The significance of the iron and bronze band that bound the stump is questionable. It kept the tree stump from disintegrating, and perhaps it symbolized the madness that would bind Nebuchadnezzar [Note: Walvoord, p. 103.] or the fact that he would be protected while demented. [Note: Archer, "Daniel," , p. 64.] As the description proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the tree represents a man. "It" now becomes "him" (Daniel 4:15).

Verse 16

The man portrayed as a tree cut down would be out of his mind (lebab, lit. heart, including feelings, emotions, and affections) for "seven periods of time" (cf. Daniel 4:23; Daniel 4:25; Daniel 4:32; Daniel 7:25). The word "periods of time" (’iddanin) is indefinite; it does not indicate how long these periods of time are. It means years in Daniel 7:25, and that may be the meaning here too. [Note: Pentecost, p. 1342.] Seven days or seven weeks would have been too short a time for his hair to grow the length of feathers (Daniel 4:33), though that might be possible in seven months.

Verse 17

God also revealed the purpose of the judgment of this "tree." It was to teach all people that the Most High God (cf. Daniel 3:26) is sovereign over the affairs of humankind (Daniel 4:17; cf. Daniel 2:21; 1 Samuel 2:7-8; Job 5:11). He can, has, and will set up whom He will, even people of humble origin, to rule nations (e.g., Joseph, Israel’s judges, Saul, David, et al.). God does not need the mighty to do His work. Therefore it is foolish to become proud over one’s accomplishments and importance, as Nebuchadnezzar was.

God had sought to impress His sovereignty on Nebuchadnezzar previously (chs. 2, 3), but the king had not learned his lesson. So the Lord sent him a stronger lesson. This is often what He does (cf. Job 33:14-17). The last part of this verse is really a summary of the theme of the Book of Daniel.

Verse 18

The king concluded his description of what his dream contained by appealing to Daniel to interpret it for him. It seems incredible that the Babylonian soothsayers could not offer an interpretation of this dream, since its meaning seems quite transparent. Perhaps God hid the meaning from them, or maybe they pretended ignorance of it since it predicted Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation, and they would not have wanted to tell him of that.

Verse 19

Daniel’s initial reluctance to tell the king the interpretation must have been due to the bad news itself, or to the potentially harmful consequences to Daniel for telling it to the king. The AV translation "for one hour" (Daniel 4:19) describes a brief period of time better rendered "for a while" (NASB, et al.). Daniel had not hesitated to interpret the king’s first dream (Daniel 2:27-28). Sensing Daniel’s uneasiness, Nebuchadnezzar encouraged the prophet to relate the interpretation without fear of punishment. This verse reflects the respect that each man held for the other.

"This verse reveals the heart of Daniel as well as any in the entire book of Daniel. He knew the meaning of this dream and how well Nebuchadnezzar deserved what was to come upon him. Nevertheless, Daniel’s heart was concerned for the king and grieved over what he had to tell him. This was the distinctive feature of the true prophets of God: though they often had to predict judgments, they were nevertheless grieved when any of God’s creatures were chastised." [Note: Feinberg, p. 56.]

Verses 19-27

4. Daniel’s interpretation 4:19-27

Verses 20-23

By repeating the facts of the dream as Nebuchadnezzar had previously narrated them, Daniel assured the king that he understood the dream exactly and was therefore interpreting it accurately. Nebuchadnezzar would have to leave his present place in society and would live in the open air with "beasts" (animals) of the field. Moreover, he would behave as an animal himself, even eating grass. Zoanthropy is a form of mental illness that causes such behavior. With it a person imagines himself or herself to be an animal. Perhaps this is what God used to afflict Nebuchadnezzar. [Note: Keil, p. 159; Pentecost, pp. 1342-43.] Another possibility is that the king suffered from boanthropy. With this illness a person thinks himself or herself to be an ox (cf. Daniel 5:21). His or her outer behavior is irrational, but the inner consciousness remains virtually unchanged. [Note: Young, p. 112; Archer, "Daniel," p. 66.] This may account for the statement that at the end of his affliction Nebuchadnezzar "raised his eyes toward heaven" (i.e., repented, Daniel 4:34). R. K. Harrison recorded his personal observation of a mental patient with boanthropy who demonstrated exactly the symptoms described of Nebuchadnezzar. [Note: R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 1116-17.] Joyce Baldwin quoted a consulting psychiatrist who witnessed a similar case. [Note: Baldwin, pp. 109-10.]

Verses 24-26

The king’s condition, whatever it was, would continue for seven periods of time (cf. Daniel 4:16) until the king had learned that the Most High is sovereign. Then Nebuchadnezzar would receive back both his senses and his throne. "Heaven ruling" (Daniel 4:26) is a figure of speech (metonymy) for God ruling, since God lives in heaven. The Jews often substituted "heaven" for God’s name out of respect for Him. This is most obvious in Matthew’s Gospel, which was written primarily for Jews, in which "the kingdom of heaven" usually replaces the more common "kingdom of God" in the other Gospels. However, this is the only place in the Old Testament where the substitution of "heaven" for "God" occurs.

Verse 27

Daniel concluded with a bold exhortation for the king. What God had revealed would happen unless Nebuchadnezzar turned from his sins, practiced righteousness, and showed mercy to the poor. Clearly Nebuchadnezzar ruled with a heavy hand as well as a proud heart.

"This points out the principle that any announced judgment may be averted if there is repentance (cf. the Book of Jonah)." [Note: Pentecost, p. 1343. Cf. Jeremiah 18:7-10.]

Verse 28

Daniel 4:28 introduces the fulfillment of what God had warned Nebuchadnezzar he could expect if he failed to repent. Perhaps he humbled himself initially, but after 12 months he was as proud as ever.

Verses 28-33

5. The fulfillment of threatened discipline 4:28-33

Verses 29-30

Archaeologists have discovered ancient documents in which Nebuchadnezzar boasted of the glory and splendor of Babylon. [Note: See Montgomery, pp. 243-44; and Archer, "Daniel," p. 65.]

"The palace from which he surveyed Babylon was one of the citadels on the north side of the city. It had large courts, reception rooms, throne room, residences, and the famous hanging gardens, a vaulted, terraced structure with an elaborate water supply for its trees and plants, apparently built by Nebuchadnezzar for his Median queen. From the palace he would see in the distance the city’s 27km outer double wall, which he had built. His palace stood just inside the double wall of the inner city, which was punctuated by eight gates and encircled an area 3km by 1km, with the Euphrates running through it. The palace adjoined a processional avenue that Nebuchadnezzar had paved with limestone and decorated with lion figures, emblematic of Ishtar; this avenue entered the city through the Ishtar Gate, which he had decorated with dragons and bulls (emblems of Marduk and Bel). It continued south through the city to the most important sacred precincts, to whose beautifying and development Nebuchadnezzar had contributed, the ziggurat crowned by a temple of Marduk where the god’s statue resided. In Marduk’s temple there were also shrines to other gods, and in the city elsewhere temples of other Babylonian gods, restored or beautified by Nebuchadnezzar." [Note: Goldingay, pp. 89-90.]

Josephus quoted the ancient writer Berossus who in his Chaldaic History gave a description of Nebuchadnezzar’s building activities. [Note: Josephus, 10:11:1. See also Whitcomb, pp. 65-66; and Campbell, p. 50, for additional descriptions.]

"The discovery of the cuneiform inscriptions has remarkably confirmed the accuracy of this vs. From these we learn that Neb. was primarily, not a warrior, but a builder." [Note: Young, p. 109.]

Verses 31-33

No sooner had the king articulated his pride, than he heard a voice from heaven pronouncing the punishment that Daniel had warned might come upon him. Immediately something snapped in his mind and he became like an animal. "Hair as eagle feathers" pictures hair that is neglected and matted as well as long. He did not think to trim his fingernails and toenails, either. His judgment is a sobering reminder that we are all but a breath or a heartbeat from insanity, or death, but for God’s grace. It is He who sustains us moment by moment (John 15:5; Colossians 1:17). The humbling of proud rulers is a common theme in Scripture (cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-20; Psalms 92; Proverbs 16:5-7; Proverbs 16:12; Isaiah 10:5 to Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 14:4-23; Ezekiel 17:23-24; Ezekiel 19:10-14; Ezekiel 28; Ezekiel 31:5-6; Ezekiel 31:12-13; Acts 12:23).

"What he should have learned from his vision of the great image and from the deliverance of the three Hebrews from the fiery furnace would [now] be indelibly impressed on him." [Note: Archer, "Daniel," p. 66.]

"If there’s one message that is emphasized in the Book of Daniel it’s that ’the Most High rules in the kingdom of men’ (Daniel 4:32, NKJV)." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 282.]

"Perhaps one should say that the true insanity belongs to the Nebuchadnezzar who has earlier been talking as if he were the eternal king and God did not exist. His outward madness is the external expression of a delusion he has already been the tragic victim of. Only a madman thinks he is a king or an emperor (Pascal): politics is the house rules of a lunatic asylum. But those rules are important, because they make the madness as little harmful as possible." [Note: Goldingay, p. 96.]

It would not have been abnormal for Nebuchadnezzar’s enemies in Babylon to kill him and take his place. The fact that this did not happen during the time of the king’s breakdown is another tribute to God’s sovereignty. He kept affairs under control, so that when Nebuchadnezzar recovered, he could continue to rule. [Note: For extrabiblical support for Nebuchadnezzar’s temporary madness, see ibid., pp. 83-84; or Young, pp. 110-11.] One wonders what role Daniel might have played in protecting the king, and encouraging the other royal officials to expect and plan for Nebuchadnezzar’s restoration.

Verses 34-37

6. Nebuchadnezzar’s restoration 4:34-37

The narrative resumes in the first person, adding the force of personal testimony to the story that the king had been telling. "Raising his eyes to heaven" implies that Nebuchadnezzar finally came to the end of himself-and sought divine help from Yahweh.

"Sanity begins with a realistic self-appraisal." [Note: Baldwin, p. 116.]

"The ability to recognize God is the fundamental difference between beasts and men. In any age, the glory of man is to recognize God and to take his place relative to the Sovereign of the universe." [Note: Feinberg, p. 58.]

"Nothing is more insane than human pride. Nothing is more sober and sensible than to praise God." [Note: Culver, "Daniel," p. 785.]

The king described the Lord as "the Most High," "He who lives forever," and "the King of heaven" in these verses. It is difficult to prove conclusively from the text that the monarch placed saving faith in Yahweh, but that is a distinct possibility in view of these titles and his accompanying praise. [Note: See Young, pp. 113-14; Walvoord, p. 112; Whitcomb, pp. 68-69; Campbell, pp. 53-54; and Ironside, p. 60.] Some interpreters held that Nebuchadnezzar did not become a believer in Yahweh in a saving sense. [Note: E.g., Leupold, p. 204, Archer, "Daniel," p. 58, and Baldwin, p. 116.] Only God knows for sure.

"In chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar reaches a new spiritual perspicacity. Prior to his experience of insanity, his confessions were those of a pagan whose polytheism permitted the addition of new gods, as illustrated in Daniel 2:47; Daniel 3:28-29. Now Nebuchadnezzar apparently worships the King of heaven only. For this reason, his autobiography is truly remarkable and reflects the fruitfulness of Daniel’s influence upon him and probably of Daniel’s daily prayers for him. Certainly God is no respecter of persons and can save the high and mighty in this world as well as the lowly." [Note: Walvoord, p. 112.]

What we can say certainly is that Nebuchadnezzar moved from acknowledging the sovereignty of no one but himself-to acknowledging Yahweh’s sovereignty over him.

Verses 36-37

Even as Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged God’s sovereignty, endless existence and rule, and His irresistible will and power, his sanity returned to him. His public decree, as well as his public confession of inferiority to Yahweh, show the genuineness of his repentance-as does God’s greater subsequent blessing of him (cf. Job).

"This tremendously important principle had to be established in the minds of the captive Jews, serving out their years of bondage in Babylonia. . . . The captive Jews needed to know that even the apparently limitless power of Nebuchadnezzar was under the control of the Lord God Almighty, who still cared for them and had a great future for them in their land. Therefore, each episode recorded in the first six chapters concludes with a triumphant demonstration of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness and his ability to crush the pride of unconverted mankind." [Note: Archer, "Daniel," pp. 67-68.]

"There seems to be prophetic significance in this incident as well as in the one in chapter 3. Even though God has appointed Gentiles to a place of prominence in His program during the times of the Gentiles, yet most nations and people walk in rebellion against God. . . . God’s judgment on Nebuchadnezzar, designed to subject him to God’s authority, seems to prefigure God’s judgment on the nations to subject them to the authority of the One who has been given the right to rule." [Note: Pentecost, p. 1344.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Daniel 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.