SERIES: Integrity is No Accident: The Book of Daniel
The Dream That Became a NightmarE
Note: This manuscript has been extensively rewritten by Mike Andrus.
Introduction: Last week we began a chapter-by-chapter study of the book of Daniel, the story of the life of a godly Jewish man taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the 6th century before Christ. It is a story which highlights the sovereignty of God over human history even in the midst of great disaster. Today we look at Daniel chapter two and the opening account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:
In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him. 2Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. 3And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.”
4Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic (actually this phrase, “in Aramaic,” may simply tell the reader that Daniel is beginning to use Aramaic from this point through 7:28) , “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.”
5The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. 6But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.”
They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” 8The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm— 9if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.”
The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. 11The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”
Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. 13So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them. (Daniel 2:1-13)
Scene 1. King Nebuchadnezzar makes a most unreasonable demand. (1-13)
It is the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (he was king-in-waiting until his father died in 604) and Daniel is still a teenager. He may yet be in his 3-year training to become one of the king’s counselors. One day Nebuchadnezzar has a dream.
The king’s dream. (1-11) We see first that it is …
An unusual dream. (1) While dreaming itself is not unusual, this dream troubles Nebuchadnezzar greatly and causes insomnia. He is convinced that there is some great meaning to it, but he cannot figure it out by himself.
A normal request. (2-3) Nebuchadnezzar calls upon his counselors to help. Daniel is not part of this first group. These are the well-known magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers of the kingdom, probably Babylonians, who used herbs, charms, and potions to ascertain knowledge and approval from their many gods. They practiced dream interpretation and even had specific manuals to explain the symbolism of dreams.
A normal response. (4) The magicians are happy to accommodate Nebuchadnezzar. “Give us the dream and we’ll give you the meaning.” Up to this point there’s nothing historical or hysterical about what has happened. It’s possible, and even probable, this had happened any number of times between Nebuchadnezzar and the magicians. But then everything changes.
A unique demand. (5-9) Unique as in “unheard of.” He tells them they must not only interpret the dream, but first they must tell him what he dreamed. The wise men are understandably upset. Their manual does not have a chapter on recalling someone else’s dreams. Besides, they had never heard of a king, no matter how powerful he was, asking his counselors to do such a thing.
What appears to be happening here is that Nebuchadnezzar has become suspicious of these characters. Perhaps their predictions and advice have sounded too much like horoscopes lately (you know, “today you will experience something special.” Wow!), so he decides to put them to the test. If these men are supposed to be conduits to the gods, then they should be able to tell him his dream, as well as interpret it, for surely the gods know. If they tell him the dream, then he can have confidence in their interpretation.
Well, not surprisingly, they object, claiming no one can do it, and furthermore, no one should ask anyone to do it.
A telling admission. (10-11) But the most telling statement here is when they say, “No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.” That is true, of course–of pagan gods. The pagans know nothing of a God who engages His creation, loves them, communicates with them, and even chooses to (eventually) become one of them.
The king’s decree. (12-13) It is this admission which pushes the king over the edge. He decides these men are all frauds. He orders that unless they tell him his dream, all of them will be cut to pieces and their houses made into dung hills. (Nebuchadnezzar did nothing by halves). In line with his normal pattern of overreaction, the decree will include many innocent people, like Daniel and his three friends. And of course, it will even affect the families of the magicians, since he has promised to turn their houses into piles of rubble. But here we see the sovereignty of God at work, for it is through this decree that Daniel is able to rise to a place of great prominence in the kingdom. It also provides the context for God to display publicly His great power.
Scene 2. Daniel demonstrates a most unusual faith. (14-30)
Let’s read verses 14-30:
14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. 15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. 16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.
17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19 During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven 20 and said:
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.
23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king.
26 The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”
27 Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these:
29 “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. 30 As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
When the captain of the king’s guard arrives to carry out the execution of Daniel, we see the character of this man shine again.
Daniel’s reaction. (14-16) Daniel reacts to the king’s bizarre behavior in different ways to the different principals:
To the commander: he demonstrates “prudence and discretion” (ESV) or “wisdom and tact”(NIV). (14) Is that how we would have responded? I wonder. I tend to get very upset when I am treated unfairly, and this action is most unfair. Daniel could have ranted and raved, but he doesn’t. There’s no panic, no despair, no frustration. He just asks for information: “Why has the king issued such a harsh decree?” People live and act in the moment of crisis as they have prepared themselves through previous experiences.
To the king: he makes a request for time. (16) Daniel asks the king for a grace period to seek the Lord on this issue and see if his God might intervene. Perhaps because Nebuchadnezzar remembered Daniel’s great qualities, which he noticed when he first met him, the king grants Daniel’s request. After all, what does Nebuchadnezzar have to lose?
To his friends: he urges them to join him in pleading for mercy from God. (17-18) I’m sure it is a very sober Daniel who returns to his friends to discuss the situation. The king’s dream has turned into an unexpected nightmare for these young men.
By the way, what do you do when one of your dreams suddenly becomes a nightmare? What do you do when your promising career path is suddenly brought to a dead end by an unexpected and undeserved lay-off? What do you do when your teenager, who seems to have it all together, gets busted for possession of drugs or announces he/she is gay? What do you do when the plans you have are shattered by an unforeseen turn of events?
I know that too often my response to crisis is to take charge. “OK, this is a tough situation, but we can conquer it. Let’s just pool together all our resources and we can make it.” Many of us have the tendency to look first to our own abilities. Daniel’s response is of a different kind. He has no delusions of grandeur concerning his own abilities to overcome this situation.
To his God: they pray and God answers. (18-19) The actual prayer isn’t stated but implied. The answer, however, is stated in verse 19: “During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.”
When God reveals the dream and the interpretation, Daniel immediately sprints to the king to give him the good news. No, he doesn’t. What he does immediately is to take time to praise God. Thenhe goes to report the good news.
Even with his life hanging in the balance, Daniel takes the time to give thanks to God for the answer. We are often like the nine of ten lepers healed by Jesus in Luke 17. We go on our way rejoicing that our problems are solved and forget to thank God for His deliverance.
Daniel’s praise. (19-23) After extolling the virtues of his great God, Daniel concludes his praise this way:
“To you, O God of my fathers,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and might,
and have now made known to me what we asked of you,
for you have made known to us the king’s matter.”
When we truly recognize God’s sovereignty as more than just an encyclopedic fact of life, that recognition demands that we come to Him and confess, “God, you alone are Lord over the events of life. I cannot possibly control them or know them. I need you.” It is to confess that we cannot deal with the realities of life and death on our own, that our abilities are not enough to make everything in life O.K. We need His wisdom, His instruction, His forgiveness, and His promise of eternal life to navigate our way through this existence in the face of the oncoming freight train of certain death for us all.
Daniel’s report. (24-30) In verses 24ff Daniel asks the executioner to hold off so that he can go to the king and interpret his dream. But first, …
He seeks to spare the wise men of Babylon from execution. (24) This is interesting to me, because these men are not cut out of the same cloth as Daniel. Maybe they all belong to the same Wisemen’s Club, but as we have already seen, they operate from a completely different world view. They are more like the priests of Baal, whom Elijah slew in 1 Kings 17. In fact, in the coming chapters they will show themselves to actually be mortal enemies of Daniel and his three friends.
So why does Daniel seek to spare their lives? Perhaps the reason is as simple as the fact that he sees their execution as completely unjust because they are ignorant of the knowledge of God. It is impossible for them to recall someone else’s dream without God and they don’t know God. So he pities them.
He offers to interpret the king’s dream. (24-25) He tells the commander to bring him before the king and he will tell the interpretation. So, Arioch announces the good news to the king. But when Nebuchadnezzar asks Daniel if he can tell him both the dream and the interpretation, his first word is “no.” Here’s what he says: “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked.” But there is a God who can…” It took great faith in his God to say this even before Nebuchadnezzar confirmed that Daniel had the dream right.
He rejects any personal credit. (26-30) Daniel could have responded very accurately and truthfully, “As a matter of fact, your pompousness, I can. I have had a dream of my own. You want to see power? Listen and I will tell you exactly what you dreamed, though you have not revealed it to a single soul.” But instead, he looks at the king and says, in effect,
“No, your highness. I am not able.
I am no one special.
Nor can any man do what you have asked.
But there is a God in heaven who is able to do all things.”
Daniel clearly understands that this great achievement is not his own, but the work of a sovereign God. How often it is that we see our personal accomplishments as a matter solely of our own effort and ability. The Word of God tells us different, that He is sovereign over all human affairs and accomplishments.
Now everything so far is preparatory to the dream and its interpretation, in which…
Scene 3. God reveals the amazing course of human history. (31-45)
The king’s dream revealed. (31-35) Let’s read what Daniel gives as the content of the dream.
31 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.
He saw an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. (31-33) The description of this statue is frightening, with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, lets of iron, and feet of iron and clay.
A rock, cut not by human hands, smashes the statue, becomes a huge mountain, and fills the earth. (34-35). Daniel goes right on to the interpretation, not even waiting for the king to affirm that he got the dream right. There’s no doubt in his mind. Besides, the king is probably sitting there nodding his head.
The interpretation of the king’s dream is revealed. (36-45)
36 “This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. 37 Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; 38 in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.
39 “After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. 40 Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. 41 Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. 42 As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.
“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”
In summary, there will be four kingdoms which will rule over the world and then finally, there will be a divine kingdom, the kingdom of God, which will shatter all of those kingdoms and which will endure forever.
The head of gold is Nebuchadnezzar. (36-38) The Babylonian Empire is to be the greatest of human kingdoms in the sense that in no succeeding kingdom will any king have the kind of raw, unquestioned power as Nebuchadnezzar. At first glance it may seem that Daniel is buttering up the king, but note that everything he says has been revealed to him by God.
The chest and arms of silver represent an inferior kingdom that will follow. (39) Historically, no doubt the Medo-Persian Empire is meant, though not identified by name in our chapter. This empire succeeded that of Babylon in 539 B.C. It was a great empire, but it never reached the stature of Babylon, indicated by the fact that silver is of less value than gold.
By the way, liberals generally say that the 2nd and 3rd kingdoms are Media and Persia, while the fourth is the Greek. The reason they do this is that they cannot accept predictive prophecy, so the prophet (allegedly writing in the 2nd century B.C. according to their timeline), could not have known of the Roman Empire. However, the four parts of the image fit the traditional four empires much better, as does Daniel’s parallel dream in chapter 7.
The belly and thighs of bronze represent a third kingdom. (39) The Greek empire (333-146 B.C.) under Alexander the Great conquered more territory than either Babylon or Medo-Persia.
The legs of iron represent a fourth kingdom that will crush and break all others. (40) Rome held its subjects in its grip tightly, ruling for half a millennium, longer than all the others, 146 B.C. – A.D. 476, when the western Roman empire comes to an end.
The toes of clay and iron represent a divided remnant of the fourth kingdom. (41-43) The point of the description on verses 41-43 this seems to be that the Roman Empire will not disappear but be broken up into a variety of nations. The weakness of Rome, which led to its fall, was a deterioration of moral fiber among the people. Idleness, luxurious living, and dissipation of character found their way into and intermixed with all aspects of its government and culture.
The Rock represents a divine kingdom which will crush all others and endure forever. (44-45) It is in the days of this last kingdom, we are told, that God will bring His kingdom to earth, one which will not be the product of human effort, but entirely the work of His hands. God’s kingdom will smash the fourth kingdom, destroying its power and, thus, the power of all preceding human kingdoms.
If this is the case, there is still a major unanswered question, since the fourth kingdom, the Roman empire, is no more. Did God establish His everlasting kingdom during the days of the Roman emperors? If so, how did he do that?
The answer to this question, I believe, comes in two parts. The Kingdom of God brings the rule of God over human beings in two different ways. First, the rule of God was established in a new and powerful way at the very height of the Roman Empire when Jesus Christ died on the cross to forgive us of our sin and rose again to demonstrate his power over death. Since that great event, the acceptance of the rule of God has been voluntary for those who trust Christ’s forgiveness and submit their lives to His direction.
But that is not a complete fulfillment of this prophecy, for secondly, the rule of God will be established with power and force in the last days of human history when Christ returns in glory to destroy ungodly human governments and establish his government of peace and justice over all people.
The dream of Nebuchadnezzar reflects this biblical picture of the Kingdom of God. For, as we will see later in Daniel chapter seven, God gave Daniel a dream similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s. In Daniel’s dream the kingdoms are represented by four beasts. The last one is also seen in Daniel’s dream to represent the final kingdom on earth, led by a satanic ruler who will be crushed by Christ at his second coming. The fourth beast in Daniel’s dream has ten horns which coincide with the ten toes in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The ten horns and ten toes seem to represent a coalition of world powers, which will rule the world in the last days before Christ comes again.
So, has God sovereignly brought about the fulfillment of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream? Yes, all but the last scene. In summary, all four of the empires have come and gone (though there may still be remnants of the last one, the Roman, in the West). During the Roman empire the kingdom of God was inaugurated by the Son of God who has invited us to submit to the rule of God in our lives. Still to come, the final human empire will be crushed when Christ returns. On that day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and his kingdom will endure forever.
What we must learn from this magnificent picture is that our God is sovereign over all the events of human history. But there is more here than the simple recognition of God’s sovereignty over human affairs. Many people confess that God has great power, but they act as if He is not terribly relevant. What this book is trying to show us is that God’s sovereignty is of the utmost relevance. For He is not just sovereign over the great movements of human governments; He is also sovereign over individuals.
The dream and the interpretation are guaranteed. (45b) Daniel concludes his report with this guarantee: “A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” Now I think we need to recognize the courage this entire report took, especially this final guarantee. Remember the content of the dream. Daniel goes before this volatile king and tells him that the God of the country he has just destroyed, namely Judah, decrees in this dream that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom is going to come crashing down and be replaced by an inferior one. This is not the kind of news a pompous Commander-in-Chief is likely to receive well! But the truth is the truth.
Scene 4: King Nebuchadnezzar responds in a most unexpected way. (46-49)
Listen to the last paragraph of chapter 2:
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”
48 Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. 49 Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court.
Honor for Daniel. (46) Nebuchadnezzar amazingly falls upon his face and commands that offerings and incense be offered up to Daniel.
Recognition of Daniel’s God. (47) This is obviously not a true act of repentance, submission, and conversion on Nebuchadnezzar’s part, because in the very next chapter we find him setting up a golden image of himself and commanding everyone in the kingdom to bow down to it. It may have been an intellectual conversion, however, which should press home to us that true faith is far more than the acknowledgment of facts.
Wealth and position. (48) Daniel is given many gifts. And he is made ruler over the province of Babylon (the most important province in the Empire) and chief of all the wise men.
Promotion of Daniel’s three friends. (49) At Daniel’s request, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are given important governmental positions in Babylon. Daniel himself remains in the palace.
Conclusion: How do we respond to such a sovereign God? God’s desire for us is that, in whatever situation we find ourselves, and especially in circumstances of hardship and disaster, we come to Him in humility and ask Him to work powerfully in our lives according to His will, not our own. We are to come to Him in praise, recognizing Him as the Lord over every situation. And we are to proclaim Him as the Lord who will one day bring history to a close, bringing His everlasting presence to those who love Him, and everlasting destruction to those who have rejected His sovereignty.
DATE: July 10, 1994