Can you imagine an unbelieving ruler teaching you about God? Imagine the President of the United States writing a decree to be given to and read by Christians, teaching Christians about God? What would be your response to this? How strange would it be! Would we listen to what he had to say about God? Would be dismiss what he said out of hand completely?
The Dream (4:1-18)
Daniel 4 opens with something unexpected and unusual. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, speaks for himself as he writes his decree concerning what happened to him. The king takes the pen and determines to write about what God has done for him. One must feel the shock of what is happening here. Nebuchadnezzar is the king over wicked Babylon, the empire that has destroyed the nation of Judah, the city of Jerusalem, and the temple of the Lord. Yet it is he, the wicked Gentile king, who will proclaim the signs and wonders that the Most High God did for him. He is going to give his personal account of the mighty works of God. The rest is his account of what happened to him.
Nebuchadnezzar has another dream. You will notice that God is speaking to people in the Old Testament times in dreams and visions. The king brings in the Chaldeans, magicians, enchanters, and the like to interpret his dream but none of them can do so. Finally, Daniel comes in before the king and Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel his dream (4:9-18). In his dream he saw a great tree in the midst of the earth that grew until its top reached far into the sky, became strong, and was visible to the end of the whole earth. The leaves were beautiful and its fruit was abundant. Animals found shade under it, birds lived in its branches and everyone was fed from it. Sounds great, right? But then a holy one came down and said to chop down the tree, lop off its branches, strip its leaves, and scatter its fruit. Leave the stump, bound with a band of iron and bronze in the grass of field. Let him be bathed in dew and his portion be with the animals of the grass of the earth. Let his mind be changed from a human mind to a beast’s mind for seven periods of time.
Verse 17 is the key to this dream, its interpretation, and the key to this chapter. This was given “in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals” (NRSV). The ESV reads that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men. The point is to show that God is sovereign over all kingdoms and gives rule to whoever he wills.
The Interpretation (4:19-27)
At the hearing of the dream, Daniel was dismayed and alarmed. The message of this dream is terrible for Nebuchadnezzar (4:19). The tree in the dream represents Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom. His greatness is vast and his rule reaches to the ends of the earth. But then the dream revealed a holy one calling for the chopping down of the tree. The message is that Nebuchadnezzar would be driven away from people and live with the animals of the field. He would eat grass like an ox, be wet with dew, and seven periods of time will pass over him. Notice the purpose is stated again and is the message of the chapter: “Till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (4:25). Further, the stump remains so that the kingdom will be reestablished to Nebuchadnezzar from the time that he knows that Heaven rules (4:26). With this interpretation Daniel advises Nebuchadnezzar to repent. Stop your sinning by practicing righteousness and show mercy to the oppressed. Notice that God is predicting through this dream all that was about to happen to Nebuchadnezzar. God holds the future in his hand!
Dream Fulfilled (4:29-37)
About a year goes by and you can imagine that Nebuchadnezzar might have forgotten about this dream by now. Time goes by and it causes us to forget the messages from God. Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his palace in Babylon and listen to what he says in verse 30.
“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30 ESV)
He says that he built Babylon by his own mighty power and for his own glory and majesty. “I have built,” “my mighty power,” and “my majesty” all reveal the pride of human achievement. Does this remind you of the rich fool in Luke 12 who spoke the same away about “my crops,” “I will tear down my barns and build larger ones,” “I will store all my grain and my goods,” and I will “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” We see the pride in human achievement. But notice what happens to Nebuchadnezzar in verse 31. While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice spoke to him that the kingdom had departed from him, he was driven into the field, and ate grass like an ox. After the allotted time, his reason was returned to him (4:34).
God Is In Charge and We Are Not
Nebuchadnezzar declares two truths that he learns from this experience. The first truth has been stated throughout this chapter: The Most High rules. We read this in verses 17, 25, 26, 32, 34-35, and 37. God rules, not us. Humans have such a hard time with this truth but it is a truth we must not ignore but learn. The reason we have trouble submitting to one another and to God is because we think we rule. We think we are in charge. God is in charge and we are not. Listen to how Nebuchadnezzar declares this truth in various ways in verse 35.
“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing.” First, people are nothing before him. This does not mean that God does not care about his people. That is not the point. The point is we are inconsequential. God is what matters. He is the eternal Creator God. We do such a disservice to our children when we let them rule the house and run our lives. They must learn that they are inconsequential before God. We are nothing. Our wants are nothing. God is everything!
“He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.” Second, God does what he wants. God possesses all power. We do not possess the power at all. God has power and he can do whatever he chooses with that power.
“None can stay his hand.” Third, God cannot be stopped. Are you going to make God not do something? What power do you possess to stop God for doing as he wills?
“Or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” No one can question God. This is one of the big messages in the book of Job. Who are we to question God? Who are we to declare that God is in the wrong? God is in charge and we are not.
This brings us back to the point that is made in verse 17 that ties with this. God is sovereign over earthly kingdoms and gives them to whom he wills. This is true, despite all appearances to the contrary to our eyes. We might look at the world and think that this is not true. But this is our hope in hopeless times. God is sovereign over the affairs of the earth. God is in charge even in the rise and fall of kings and leaders.
Now this truth leads to interesting questions. One notable question is does this truth mean we should not vote since God is ruling over the affairs of the earth. No, we should vote with the hope of electing people that will bring righteousness back to our nation. But this truth about the sovereignty of God means we are not disturbed by any outcome. Our faith is in God, not in the outcome. We should know what it means when God raised up and empowered wicked leaders in the scriptures. God did that to bring about the judgment that was coming to it. Whatever the outcome in any of the world’s events we know that God’s kingdom rules over the affairs of this earth. God is in charge and we are not. Even persecution must not cause us to question God’s sovereignty. We see God operating in the scriptures through these means to bring forth his will and his glory. This is our hope in troubled times.
The other point Nebuchadnezzar makes is in verse 37. God gives the rule back to Nebuchadnezzar so that he would see that all God’s works are right and “those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” God is the one who gives what we have. I hope you notice an interesting contrast that we need to think about. Pride in our human achievements is a violation to the sovereignty of God. Do you see how that worked in this chapter? Nebuchadnezzar is praising himself for all he has done and is humbled so that he would know that God rules and God is the one who has given these things to him and takes these things away. The same point can be made in Luke 12 with the rich fool. His pride in his achievements caused him to forget that God is in charge and was going to require his soul that very night.
The rule of God and our pride in our human achievements are incompatible. When we are proud of ourselves and proud of our achievements, we are denying that God rules and that God is the giver everything we enjoy. It is not our might and intelligence but a gracious God who gave us these things. God warned Israel about this in Deuteronomy 8:11-20 that they would begin to disobey because they thought they had achieved their prosperity by their own power. James warns the same thing, declaring that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father (James 1:17). Any statement of what I have done is a denial of the rule of God and the grace of God who gives to us richly.
Think about the theme of Daniel that we have studied thus far and how it is fitting together beautifully. Daniel 1 emphasized that God gives, which we are seeing emphasized again by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 2 pointed out the eternal kingdom of God that shatters all world powers and nations. God rules over the nations. Daniel 3 showed that God is able to deliver his people from the hands of the wicked. Daniel 4 declares that God rules in all matters of the earth and we must humbly submit to his rule for we are nothing before him.
Remember the dream of the tree that Nebuchadnezzar had. Turn to Mark 4:30-32.
And he said, “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 ESV)
Jesus described his kingdom with the very same language. It is a picture of rule over all the peoples of the earth. But this kingdom will not be cut down and cannot be cut down. This is why we submit to Jesus as our King and our Lord. God is in charge and we are not. God gives and there is no place for pride in the kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:3,5).