Daniel 4

Daniel 4

SERIES: Integrity is No Accident: The Book of Daniel

God Humbles the Proud

Introduction:  I heard a dumb joke the other day: “What do Atila the Hun, Catherine the Great, and Jack the Ripper have in common.”  Answer:  they all have the same middle name.  Now don’t groan; I warned you it was dumb.  The fact is all these individuals also share a much more important common characteristic:  they were all cruel beyond imagination.  Had you been alive when they were, these individuals would have been the last people on earth you would have expected to see converted to faith in God.  You would no more expect to hear them praising and honoring God than you would expect to hear the same coming from Ahmadinejad or Gadhafi or Chavez.

But the fact is there have been some incredible conversions over the centuries that defy all odds and demonstrate the power and mercy and grace of God in incredible ways.  I think of the Apostle Paul, Charlemagne, John Newton, and Charles Colson.  Not that it takes the conversion of a super-evil person or a super-well-known person to prove that God is merciful.  The fact is the salvation of anyhuman being is a miracle of God’s grace, for we have all sinned and are all deserving of eternal punishment.  Nevertheless, God uses the occasional conversion of a wicked celebrity to get our attention, and there has never been a more astounding conversion than that of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. 

Nebuchadnezzar was cruel almost beyond imagination.  Already in the book of Daniel we have seen that he was not beyond executing scores of his own advisers because they couldn’t interpret a dream which he refused to even reveal to them!  Nor was he beyond throwing people alive into a furnace because they dared challenge a thoughtless decree of his.  Secular history indicates these were relatively minor infractions of etiquette and good taste compared to some of his other atrocities.

However, there was something about Nebuchadnezzar which was an even greater barrier to a right standing with God than his sadistic cruelty, and that was his pride. In Proverbs 6:16 we read that “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him.”  And the first item in the list, even before the shedding of innocent blood (which, of course, God also hates), is pride.  It is this issue of pride that I want to focus on today, for this is the issue that connects many of us with this story.  

Probably no one here this evening has been guilty of burning someone alive, but many are guilty of pride.  Let’s read Daniel 4, which contains the faith story of King Nebuchadnezzar, a Gospel tract, if you will, detailing how God humbled the proudest man on earth and brought him to repentance and faith.  He goes from being a persecutor of the faithful in chapter 3 to becoming a witness to the faith.  

Let’s read Daniel 4:1-18:

King Nebuchadnezzar,

To the nations and peoples of every language, who live in all the earthMay you prosper greatly!

2 It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.

3 How great are his signs,
          how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
    his dominion endures from generation to generation.

4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. 5 I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. 6 So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. 7 When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. 8 Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)

9 I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. 10 These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. 11 The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.

13 “In the visions I saw while lying in bed, I looked, and there before me was a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. 14 He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.

“‘Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.

17 “‘The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.’

18 “This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”

The king and his dream (1-18)

Much time has passed between chapters three and four of Daniel–most scholars suggest at least 30 years.  While at the end of chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar was very impressed with God’s rescue of the three holy children–Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego–and decreed that the people of any nation or language, who say anything against the God of Israel, would be cut into pieces and their houses turned into rubble, it is clear that he did not commit personally to believe and obey the living God.  

In chapter 4, however, we read about how God finally broke through his hard and faithless heart.  He begins his faith journey with …

A declaration of purpose and praise. (1-3)  Writing to everyone in the civilized world he says, “It is my pleasure to tell you about what God did for me.  How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!  His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.”  What could account for such a clear description of the nature and character of God coming from a pagan, idol-worshiping monarch?  Well, something dramatic has happened to change Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, and he’s about to tell us about it.  

He tells us he was at home in his palace, contented and prosperous.  Everything was cool until he had another dream that terrified him.  As was his normal procedure, he called upon the various dream interpreters of Babylon to tell him what the dream meant.  They could not.  Actually, it is more likely that they did not; (in fact, that is actually what the Hebrew says).  After all, the king toldthem the dream this time, and it is not that difficult to understand.  Even a child might guess what it meant.  

I think it more likely that the magicians and astrologers declined to interpret it because it portended bad news for the king, and bad news for the king meant bad news for them.  Negativity was not well-received by absolute monarchs like Nebuchadnezzar.  At any rate, the decision is made to consult Daniel.

The decision to consult Daniel. (4-9)  Nebuchadnezzar refers to Daniel at this time as the chief of the magicians (9), so one wonders why he wasn’t called first, especially in view of his previous success in interpreting a dream of Nebuchadnezzar.  Perhaps God worked it out so that Daniel was unavailable until after the astrologers and diviners had their chance, so as to more strongly set the power of God over against the weakness of the gods of the Babylonians.  At any rate, the king proceeds to describe his dream to Daniel.

The description of the dream. (10-18)  The dream is about an enormous tree, visible to all the then-known world.  The tree was beautiful, its fruit was abundant, and it provided shelter for every animal and person.  But the image of the cosmic tree also has a dark side.  A messenger from heaven calls out and orders that the tree be cut down and stripped of its branches, leaves, and fruit.  The divine lumberjack brings the mighty tree crashing to the ground, removing it from its place of influence and glory.  But the stump remains in the ground, out in the open, bound with iron and bronze.  There is hope for new growth emerging from the stump.    

In the middle of verse 13 a transition takes place in the story.  Instead of talking about the tree, the heavenly messenger speaks of “him,” a clear indication that the tree stands for a person.  This person is to live with the animals and like an animal for seven periods of time, which generally stands for years in the Bible.  The messenger then concludes by announcing that the purpose of this fearful development is “that the living may know that the most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.”  This, then, is the dream for which the king demands an interpretation from the prophet.  

The prophet and his interpretation (19-27)

Nebuchadnezzar is through narrating, and the biblical author picks up the story in verse 19:  

19 Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”

Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds— 22 Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.

23 “Your Majesty saw a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live with the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.’

24 “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: 25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

Daniel’s hesitancy. (19)  The dream interpreters are not the only ones hesitant to interpret the dream; even Daniel exhibits considerable hesitancy in verse 19.  His perplexity is probably not due to any lack of understanding regarding the meaning of the dream, but rather to consternation about how to tell the king in such a way that he will accept the interpretation.  The King apparently sees the confusion and fear on Daniel’s face and reassures him, in effect, “Don’t worry about the content; even if it’s bad, I need to know it.” To which Daniel replies, “If only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!” 

The prophet apparently has a genuine affection for Nebuchadnezzar.  After all, the king had given Daniel a very high position in his court, making him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and in charge of all its wise men.  Daniel and the king have had a close working relationship for over thirty years.  But if the king wants the truth, the truth he will receive.

His explanation. (20-26)  “You are the tree!”, Daniel boldly proclaims to Nebuchadnezzar.  This reminds me of another prophet, Nathan, who came to another sovereign, namely King David, and after telling him a parable and eliciting a severe judgment from David toward the man in the parable, said boldly, “You are the man.” 

Daniel goes on to tell the king that he will go insane and his insanity will continue for seven years “until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”  Nebuchadnezzar has obviously not come to that point yet.  True, he had acknowledged God as the revealer of mysteries in chapter 2 and as powerful enough to rescue His servants in chapter 3, but he has not yet acknowledged God as sovereign over all the peoples of the earth.  After all, Nebuchadnezzar himself held that post, and there cannot be two sovereigns over the same territory.  

Let me stop here a moment and observe that there are many people today, even in our churches, who are in the same boat as Nebuchadnezzar.  They believe God exists, that He is good, that He is holy, and maybe even that Jesus is His son, but they stop short of acknowledging His Lordship.  If He is Lord, He demands total allegiance, absolute obedience, and complete faith.  If He is Lord at all, then He is Lord of all, including our careers, our families, our resources, our leisure time, our futures.  You see, hell will be populated, not only by atheists and agnostics, polytheists and pagans; it will also be populated by people who believed the right things about God but sadly allowed their pride to keep Him at arm’s length.

Daniel concludes his interpretation by observing that the command to leave the stump of the tree in the ground, with its roots still alive, means that God is going to restore Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom.  Not, however, until he is willing to acknowledge that Heaven rules.  In effect, this dream is a stark warning shot across Nebuchadnezzar’s bow. 

Daniel has concluded his interpretation, but then in verse 27 he ventures to confront the king with an exhortation: 

His exhortation. (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.”  This took incredible courage on Daniel’s part.  To interpret a dream that was detrimental to the king was dangerous enough, but the king had demanded it.  However, he had not sought Daniel’s opinions about his lifestyle.  From what we know of absolute monarchs of the day, Daniel could easily have lost his life over such a venture.  The fact is, whenever we confront someone about sin in his or her life, we face the danger of their wrath.  

Back in St. Louis I tried to confront a woman in the church I pastored who had abandoned her husband, her moral principles, and ultimately her faith.  She wouldn’t speak to me, so I sent a letter to share with her the truth of God’s Word and to beg her to repent and seek restoration.  I showed the letter to several godly counselors before I sent it to make sure it was not unnecessarily judgmental and to make sure it expressed compassion and the love of Christ.  But when she got the letter, she was furious and scorned her husband because he continued to sit under the ministry of a pastor who would write such a letter.  

Sad to say, more often than not biblical confrontation seems to produce anger and resentment rather than repentance and sorrow.  People don’t like to be told they are sinning, and their pride often prevents them from honestly considering what we say to them.

But every once in a while, God uses our courage in confronting someone to melt that person’s heart and turn them back from their wicked ways.  It may take time; in fact, God may need to step in and speak to that person through the megaphone of pain before they are willing to turn.  But when they do, there is great rejoicing in heaven and all the effort expended is seen to be worthwhile.  We must realize, however, that confrontation has to be done by the right people with the right attitude.  Paul tells us in Gal. 6:1: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

We aren’t told what Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction was to Daniel’s exhortation.  Apparently he didn’t get angry; perhaps he even tried to clean up his act for a while, for the fulfillment of the predicted tragedy did not come for twelve more months, but it is obvious that no true repentance resulted from Daniel’s confrontation.  

So, we come to the third part of Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony:

The Lord and His discipline (28-33)

We pick up the reading in verse 28:

All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.

The delay of divine judgment (28-29).  While we cannot be certain why a full year passed (v. 28) before the judgment was executed, I would say that this is not at all out of character for the God we read about in Scripture.  It is a commonplace that the mill of God’s justice grinds slowly, but it grinds exceedingly fine.  Time and again God predicted ruin on the nation of Israel for their faithlessness, but then He gave them time to repent; and only after every opportunity was rejected did He allow their enemies to destroy them.  God predicted that Ahab and Jezebel, perhaps the most wicked husband and wife team to ever occupy a throne anywhere, would die a tragic death and the dogs would lick their blood, but twenty years passed before the prediction was fulfilled.  Yet it didtake place.

If Nebuchadnezzar humbles himself, then God will not need to further humble him.  But while it is God’s very nature to delay, He will not delay forever.  In 2 Peter 3 we read these familiar words immediately after a prediction of terrible destruction on this wicked world:

“Do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come.  And it will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.  Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?”  

Well, Peter answers his own question:  “You ought to live holy and godly lives.”  Did Nebuchadnezzar do that?  No, not yet. 

The king’s persistence in pride (30).  Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar did try to clean up his act for a while, but just one year after Daniel’s powerful exhortation to repent, we find him walking on the roof of his palace in Babylon and boasting to the high heavens:  “Is not this great Babylon which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”  

From his vantage point there was much for him to contemplate, including one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the famous hanging gardens of Babylon.  He had built them for his wife, whom he had brought from her mountainous home in Media to the flat plain of Babylon.  Another of his building exploits was the outer wall of Babylon, which was said to be wide enough to enable a chariot driven by hour horses to turn around on the top, according to the Greek historian Herodotus.  

We are astounded at the pride that oozes out of every word he speaks, but should we be?  Is this really so different from the attitude many of us have toward our beautiful homes, our fancy cars, our well-paying jobs, our gifted and intelligent children, our bank accounts, our athletic trophies?  Do we not find ourselves saying, by attitude if not by word, “Is this not what I have accomplished through my hard work, my astute investments, my shrewd planning, my carefully cultivated relationships?”

Friends, if such a thought ever crosses our minds we ought to recoil in horror, for it is a thought from the pit of hell?  “What do you have that you did not receive as a gift?” asks the Apostle Paul, “and if you did receive it why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).  James tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.”  (James 1:17)

Perhaps you push back, “But wait a minute, I work hard for everything I have.”  Some of you may remember the TV ad with Emmitt Smith, the star running back of the Dallas Cowboys back when they were winning, in which he said, “All men are created equal; some just work harder in the preseason.”  I don’t even remember what it was advertising but the point was that Emmitt’s success was due only to his personal effort.  That just isn’t true; there are a thousand other factors that determine anyone’s success in life.  

If Emmitt had been born of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda, how much would his hard work count for?  If the brilliant scholar had been born with Downs Syndrome, how much would his mental effort count for?  If Larry Bird been born 5′ 9″ tall, how much fame would his athletic skill have brought him?  If Charles Swindoll had been born with a cleft palate or a stammer, how much would his brilliant wordsmithing achieve?  

You see, as much as we like to think we are responsible for our own success, the fact is that every success we have ever enjoyed is a gift from the sovereign of the universe.  Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn that, and so in verse 31 we see …

The tragic fulfillment of the prophet’s prediction (31-33).  “While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice came from heaven,” reiterating exactly what Daniel had said in the interpretation of the dream.  And this time it is fulfilled immediately.  Nebuchadnezzar is stricken with a mental disease that causes him to be deranged, deserted, and dehumanized.  He goes from the palace to the pasture.  He goes from being absolute monarch to being a laughingstock.  

But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.  

The result of God’s discipline (34-37)

34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
    his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the peoples of the earth
    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
    with the powers of heaven
    and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
    or say to him: “What have you done?”

36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

First, repentance finally occurs.

Repentance (34).  After seven years of existing like a wild animal, the king says, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me.”  I find that interesting and very instructive.  He wasn’t required to clean up his act first, he didn’t have to make restitution to all those he had offended, he didn’t have to promise to never exhibit pride again—all he had to do is to lift his eyes toward heaven.   I believe what that means is that he finally recognized his pride, realized he could not save himself, and turned to the only source that could help him, namely God. 

I like Iain Duguid’s observations on humility.  

“This looking away from oneself is the essence of true humility, and the means by which we can distinguish it from the counterfeit form.  Counterfeit humility may confess cringingly, “Oh how worthless I am,” yet its eyes are still fixed on itself.  In counterfeit humility, I am caught up in my weakness rather than my strength, but I am still as focused on myself as I was in my pride.  True humility, in contrast, looks away from myself to heaven.  True humility recognizes not only that I am nothing, but also that God is everything.  It acknowledges that I cannot stand by myself, but God can make even me stand firm and strong.  Humility sees that apart from Christ I can do nothing, but in Christ I can accomplish whatever God designs for me.”[i]

God listened to Nebuchadnezzar and responded with grace and mercy.  Friends, the moral, spiritual, and political insanity that characterizes proud leaders in our day will be healed only when they, too, look up.  In fact, every one of us must come to that point sometime in our lives if we desire to be right with God and spend eternity with Him.  We must come to the end of ourselves and cast ourselves on Him.  We don’t have to clean up our act before we come to Him; in fact, it is not even possible to clean up our act until we have come to Him and experienced His acceptance and forgiveness.

Now we note in verse 34 that repentance is followed immediately by restoration. 

Restoration (34-36).  Isn’t that just like God?  If He is slow at judgment, He is never slow at restoration.  At the moment a person comes to God in faith and truly repents of his sin, God forgives him and sets in motion the process of restoration.

Now, please understand, God is not obligated to restore a person’s health or fortune or fame or kingdom once they have allowed sin to destroy it.  Sometimes He will do so out of sheer grace and mercy, but we have no claim on that at all.  What He has obligated Himself to do is to save those that humble themselves before Him, to meet their needs, and to grant them fulfillment in His service.

Finally, we see how Nebuchadnezzar responds this time–not with pride and haughtiness, but with humble adoration of God:

Adoration (34-37).  Friends, there is some really good theology there in verses 34-37, coming from the mouth of King Nebuchadnezzar.  We don’t have time to analyze it, but it’s worth some serious contemplation. 

Conclusion:  I would like to say in conclusion that it is far better for us to humble ourselves than to be humbled.  Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).  We need to renounce every ego symbol we have and put our confidence in Christ alone.  The Gospel is an intrinsically humbling message.  Paul put it this way:   

… whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ….  (Phil. 3:7-8)

On one occasion Abraham Lincoln called at General McClellan’s home to consult him about a military matter.  The general had gone to a reception.  Lincoln waited for a considerable time, and finally the general returned.  He walked down the hall and ascended the stairs to his bedroom, although word had been given him that Lincoln was waiting in the parlor.  After some minutes a second message was sent.  Word came back that General McClellan had gone to bed.

Lincoln never spoke of that incident, and he did not call again on McClellan until the great crisis of September 1862, when he and Halleck went to McClellan’s house and asked him to take charge of the defeated and disorganized army of the Potomac, which Lee had defeated in the second Battle of Bull Run.  When Lincoln’s friends rebuked him for tolerating McClellan’s insolence, Lincoln said, “Why, I would be willing to hold McClellan’s horse, if only he will give victory to our army.”  

As someone has said, “It’s astounding what can be accomplished for a great cause once we forget about who gets the credit.”  

Humbling ourselves before men is difficult, but it seems to be even harder to humble ourselves before God.  Harder, but so much more important. 

DATE: August 7, 1994




Divine discipline



[i] Iain M. Duguid, Daniel, 71.

Daniel 5
Daniel 3