Commentary on Daniel 4

Last updated: January 27, 2010

English Translation (ESV)

1 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2 It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.

3 How great are his signs,

how mighty his wonders!

His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,

and his dominion endures from generation to generation.

4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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, 9 “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. 10 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. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 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.

13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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.’ 18 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.”

19 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! 20 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, 21 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— 22 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. 23 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,’ 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 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. 26 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. 27 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.”

28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 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?” 31 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, 32 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.” 33 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.

34 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;

35 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?”

36 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. 37 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.

Notes

1 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you!

Placing the name of the sender before the name of the recipients is standard in both neo-Babylonian and Persian letters.1 Claims to being the universal ruler of the earth were a common part of royal ideology in the ancient Near East and should not be taken too literally.2

4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace.

“The identification of the king and the first-person narrative reflect the style of the neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions.”3

9 “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 phrase “tell the visions” in the MT does not fit the context. The Theodotion has “hear the visions” and Montgomery proposed that the text was corrupted and originally read “take thought of the visions.”4

10 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 image of a cosmic tree was widespread in the ancient Near East.5 Tree imagery may be implied in a building inscription of Nebuchadnezzar’s from Wadi Brisa, which says, “Under its [Babylon’s] everlasting shadow I have gathered all the peoples in peace.”6

13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven.

Daniel 4 is the only passage in the Hebrew Bible that uses the term “watcher” to refer to a heavenly being. The “Watchers” are widely attested in Jewish literature of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, but often as renegade angels.7 The Babylonians conceived of a council of heavenly beings who were charged with the task of watching over the world.8

16 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.

This verse may be referring to a psychological phenomenon known as lycanthropy, where a human believes himself to be an animal. “In 1946 R. K. Harrison observed a patient in a British mental institution with an illness virtually identical to that described in the Book of Daniel. The patient wandered about the grounds of the institution eating grass as if he were a cow. His drink consisted of water. Harrison stated that ‘the only physical abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a coarse, thickened condition of the fingernails.’”9

17 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.’

The first reason the pericope gives for the felling of the tree is that it will show that God rules. Its cause here is not Nebuchadnezzar’s pride; it is not for reasons to do with Nebuchadnezzar at all. The watchman is concerned about whether people in general have the right attitude to human governments; the author no doubt has in mind the unbelieving world of his day, and his fellow believers insofar as they are tempted to adopt that world’s way of thinking. The felling of the tree proves who is king. The tree speaks of a human authority that has its place (cf. v 33 [36]) but has to be kept in its place. Human power is helpless outside of the permissive will of the divine power.10

19 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!

Verses 19-33 are written in the third person, as if Nebuchadnezzar could no longer speak for himself.

25 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.

The Aramaic word (asab) translated “grass” also includes other vegetables and herbs. There are no contemporary Babylonian sources that record Nebuchadnezzar falling ill in a fashion like that described in Daniel. However, we have little information on the last thirty years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and the annals of ancient monarchs were chiefly political propaganda, thus unlikely to contain embarrassing details.11 The Babylonian Chronicles end in the eleventh year of Nebuchadnezzar (594 BC) and only resume briefly in the reign of Nabopolassar.12

26 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.

The iron and bronze may symbolize that the kingdom would be protected or that the king’s mind would be fettered. The stump symbolizes that the the king’s rule would not permanently end. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible where “Heaven” is used as a substitute for God, a practice which was common in Jewish and Christian texts of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.13

27 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.”

Righteousness (sideqa) is translated by the LXX as ‘almsgiving’, and the verb break off (peruq) as ‘redeem’. Thus understood, this verse appeared to support a doctrine of merit earned by good works, and became a centre of controversy at the time of the Reformation. The root meaning of the verb is clearly seen in such contexts as Genesis 27:40, ‘you shall break his yoke from your neck’ and Exodus 32:2, ‘Break off the golden rings’ (RV). Accordingly the meaning is ‘break with the old habits’ and ‘do what is right’, a command which has meaning even without special revelation. The translation ‘almsgiving’ reflects the viewpoint current when the LXX translators were at work, and is plain in the Sermon on the Mount, where ‘do . . . righteousness’ (Mt 6:1, RV) is expounded in terms of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Exactly what ideals the Babylonian king would have had we cannot know, but it evidently took more than warning and exhortation to move him to action.14

30 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?”

The sense of achievement that Nebuchadnezzar here expresses is severely understated compared with that expressed in his successive building inscriptions in Babylon, which occupy 126 pages of text and translation in Langdon’s edition of them. 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 was also shrines to other gods, and in the city elsewhere temples of other Babylonian gods, restored or beautified by Nebuchadnezzar.15

34 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;

Once Nebuchadnezzar is back to normal, the text returns to the first person. Lifting the eyes towards heaven suggests that Nebuchadnezzar was seeking God’s help (Psalms 25:15; 121:1-2; 123:1-2; 141:8).

Bibliography

Baldwin, Joyce G. Daniel. InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Collins, John Joseph, Frank Moore Cross, and Adela Yarbro Collins. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1994.

Goldingay, John. Daniel. Dallas Tex.: Word Books, 1989.

Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Holman Reference, 1994.

Walvoord, John F. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation: A Commentary. Moody Publishers, 1971.

1Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 221.

2Ibid.

3Ibid., 222.

4Ibid., 223.

5Walvoord, Daniel, 101-102.

6Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 223-224.

7Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 224-226; Baldwin, Daniel, 112.

8Walvoord, Daniel, 102; Baldwin, Daniel, 112.

9Miller, Daniel, 134.

10Goldingay, Daniel, 93.

11Miller, Daniel, 142.

12Baldwin, Daniel, 108.

13Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 229.

14Baldwin, Daniel, 114.

15Goldingay, Daniel, 89-90.

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