Downfall and Restoration of a King

SYNOPSIS:  The King has another troubling dream, one that leads to his downfall after a display of extreme arrogance - Daniel 4:1-34.

Mosaic from the Ishtar Gate
Mosaic from the Ishtar Gate
In Chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar “set up” an enormous golden image and commanded all men to pay homage to it. Death was decreed for all who refused. The enemies of Daniel exploited the situation in an attempt to destroy his three Jewish companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to execution.

God thwarted that plot and reversed the royal decree by rescuing the three youths from a superheated furnace. In the end, Nebuchadnezzar praised the God of Heaven who had delivered his servants and reversed his horrific death sentence.

In Chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar has another dream, and, again, only Daniel can interpret it. God is about to cause his removal from power until he learns once more that Yahweh alone is sovereign over the affairs of humanity.

The fourth chapter begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh:

(Daniel 4:1-3) – “Nebuchadnezzar the king, unto all the peoples, the races and the tongues who are dwelling in all the earth, Let your prosperity abound! The signs and the wonders which the most high God hath wrought with me, it is pleasing before me to declare. His signs, how great! and his wonders, how mighty! His kingdom is an age-abiding kingdom, and his dominion lasteth from generation to generation” – (The Emphasized Bible).

The terms “great,” “kingdom,” and “dominion” are repeated from the preceding chapter to prepare the reader for the declaration by the king about the sovereignty of God over governments and history. Regimes rise and fall; only the kingdom of God endures forever.

Eight times the term “earth” occurs in this chapter in reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty.  In contrast, “heaven” occurs sixteen times in reference to the rulership of Yahweh. The king must learn that “heaven” alone rules over and on the earth (Daniel 4:26).

Nebuchadnezzar now recounts a dream that gave him great anxiety and came to him when he was at rest, “luxuriating” in his palace. This translates an Aramaic word used for the “greening” of plants and anticipates his being represented by a great tree that nourished all earthly creatures.

This tree “grew great and grew strong, and its height reached unto the heavens and its sight to the end of all the earth.” This same description is repeated in verses 20-22 and applied to Nebuchadnezzar (“you have grown great and grown strong, for your greatness is grown and reaches unto the heavens, and your dominion to the end of the earth”). But the king attributes his greatness to his own majesty and efforts, not to the God of Heaven.

The king summoned all the wise men of Babylon to interpret his dream, the “scribes, enchanters, astrologers and soothsayers.” As before, none could do so except Daniel.

In his dream, the king saw a large tree in the center of the earth that grew until its height reached to heaven. It was visible from the extremities of the earth. The animals of the earth were fed by its fruit and lived in its shade; the birds of the air were sheltered and nourished in its branches (Daniel 4:4-18).

Nebuchadnezzar then saw a “holy watcher” descend from heaven. This figure commanded the removal of the tree so that nothing would remain visible above the ground.  It was to be “cut down,” its branches “lopped off,” its leaves “stripped,” and its fruit “scattered across the earth.” Only the “tip of its root” would remain in the ground.

“Watcher” occurs in verses 13, 17, and 23, the only scriptural passages that apply this term to a nonhuman entity.  “Watcher” or ‘er translates an Aramaic noun that means, “wakeful, watchful, wakeful one, a watcher.” Presumably, the “watchers” were angelic beings also identified as “holy ones,” though no further details are provided.

The “watchers” declared that the heart of the king would change from that of a man to a beast, until “seven seasons passed over him.” The great fruitful tree would become a pitiful tethered animal dependent on others for nourishment.

Through his downfall, all “the living would come to know that the Most-High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever he will and sets up over it the lowest of men.” Once more, “sets up” translates the same Aramaic verb used in Daniel 2:21 where the prophet declared that it is God who “removes kings and sets up kings.” Likewise, the same verb for “removed” is used in both passages (“Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom is removed from you”).
The power of the Watcher’s decree is demonstrated as the Ruler of the world-empire turns to Daniel for understanding. Through his God-given ability to interpret dreams, the “lowly” prophet of Yahweh exercises dominion over the king and his kingdom. 
Daniel has declared the removal and the restoration of political power to one who presumed to possess it through his own might and majesty, rather than as a gracious gift from the “God of Heaven.”

Daniel’s Interpretation

The great tree represented Nebuchadnezzar who had “become strong, his greatness reaches to the heavens, and his dominion to the ends of the earth.” The command of the watcher to cut down the tree was “the decree of the Most-High.” Men would drive him out of society to live among wild animals for “seven seasons,” until he comprehended that “the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever he pleases.” Afterward, his kingdom would be restored.

Seven seasons” is ambiguous and does not necessarily mean seven years.  It could just as well refer to seven weeks or seven months. Possibly, the number seven is used to signify a complete period. Nebuchadnezzar would be in this state until the divine pronouncement ran its full course, however long that was to be. The dream was meant to warn Nebuchadnezzar, but it was soon forgotten.

A year passed, then “all this came upon Nebuchadnezzar.” At the very height of his power, the king boasted of his majesty and achievements: “Is this not Babylon the Great that I built by the might of my power and for the dignity of my majesty?”

A voice from Heaven responded with a pronouncement: “O Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom is removed from you…until you come to know that the Most High has dominion over the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever he pleases.” His understanding departed and he was driven from society to live like an animal for “seven seasons.”

After his mind was restored, Nebuchadnezzar looked to heaven and declared:

Blessed is the Most High who lives forever! I praise and honor the One whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Before Him all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and according to his own pleasure He deals with the Host of Heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is none who can say to him, What have you done.”

History remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a great ruler and builder of magnificent buildings, as well as a conqueror of vast territories. He established an empire larger and mightier than any that preceded his realm. In Scripture, “Babylon” came to symbolize the world-power set in opposition to God and His people; humanity confident in its self-rule and rebellion against the Creator (e.gRevelation 17:1-5).

Nebuchadnezzar’s story is an object lesson in just how hollow such boasts are, even when made by History’s mightiest rulers. His fall demonstrates how decisively and quickly God removes rulers and regimes to suit His purposes.

Parallels to Genesis 11:1-9

Angels are called “watchers” in Zoroastrianism, a religion that grew to prominence in this region under the subsequent Persian Empire. Possibly, the term was familiar to Nebuchadnezzar who then applied it to the superhuman figure he saw his dream. The noun rendered “watcher” is from the root verb ‘or (“to awake, rouse, stir up” – cpDeuteronomy 32:11Isaiah 51:9). The idea is one who is ever vigilant.

More likely, the Tower of Babel story has influenced the text, as indicated by several verbal parallels.  In Genesis 11:1-9, “all the earth (ereş) was of one language” and came to “inhabit the plain of the land (ereş) of Shinar.” The inhabitants set out to “build (banah) for us a city and a tower whose height reaches unto the heavens and, thus, let us make (asah) for us a name lest we be scattered (puş) over the face of all the earth.”

Yahweh then “came down (yarad)” from heaven to see the city that men had built. When He pronounced judgment, God mockingly used the first-person plural; “let us go down and confuse their speech.” Thus, God “scattered them over the face of all the earth, and so they left off building the city.”

Likewise, in Daniel 4:1, Nebuchadnezzar addressed a circular letter to “all the peoples, nations, and languages that inhabit all the earth.” In a dream, he was represented by a great tree whose “height reached unto the heavens.” The Babylonian ruler boasted, “Is this not Babylon the great that I built (bana) by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?” Like the great tree in his dream, his greatness “reached to the heavens and his dominion to the end of the earth.”

The watcher pronounced judgment on Nebuchadnezzar using verbs in the first person, plural form, as did God in Genesis 11:1-9; “Let us” cut down the tree, destroy it, and leave the stump of its roots. The fruit of the tree would be “scattered” and the king was driven from among men until he understood that the “Most High has dominion over the kingdom of men, and to whomever, he pleases he gives it.”

At the end of the “seven seasons,” Nebuchadnezzar was restored to his right mind and his sovereignty was reconfirmed. He then extolled the “Most-High who does according to his will in the host of the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand or say to him, What are you doing?”

In the Book of Revelation

Nebuchadnezzar boasted, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the royal dwelling-place by the strength of my power and for the glory of my majesty?”  Immediately, the Watcher pronounced, “O king Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom is removed from you” (Daniel 4:30-31).

This passage is echoed in Revelation 18:10-21 - The “kings of the earth” that are allied with the Beast and Babylon wail at the demise of the latter:

Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city; for in one hour is your judgment come…and a strong angel took a great millstone and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with force will Babylon, the great city, be cast down and be found no more at all.”

From start to finish, Babylon serves in the book of Revelation to symbolize the determination of human civilization to arrogate to itself self-rule in opposition to the sovereignty of the God of Heaven, the creator of all things.


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