God’s long-suffering towards King Nebuchadnezzar was further extended in three more striking mercies recorded for us in the fourth chapter of Daniel. The first came in the form of a special revelation from God by means of another dream which terrified the king (4:5). The vivid image that came to his unconscious mind was of a tree of singular size and beauty: “before me stood a tree in the middle of the land: its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature fed” (4:10-12). In the barren desert-like landscape of much of Babylon such a tree was a magnificent sight. It was the grandest tree the world had ever seen, and as Nebuchadnezzar floats along in his dreams and contemplates it, did he modestly think, “Just like me, yes, just like me”?
The dream, though, soon turned into a nightmare as Nebuchadnezzar saw a messenger descending from heaven and giving the order for that tree to be chopped down. “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. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field” (4:14 & 15). The tree is not uprooted; it is allowed to live, but all that is beautiful and useful about it is gone. Still alive, what remains is a mere stump, little taller than the grass that surrounds it. Surely the great Nebuchadnezzar is not to be cut down ? Yet “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Pet.1:24 & 25). The interpretation which the messenger gave to that destruction made application directly to the king, that he was soon to be brought as low as a man has ever been brought: “Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. 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” (4:15 & 16). The courts of heaven had decreed it would be so, not from the whim of their sovereignty, but that the world might learn one lesson from the great king’s fall: “so 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” (4:17).
Nebuchadnezzar went immediately to the wisest men in the kingdom, but all, furtively, pleaded ignorance as to its meaning. “But you can tell me its meaning,” he says to Daniel, “because the spirit of the holy gods is in you” (4:18). The natural man does not need a special revelation from God to inform him that before him lies many trials until the last final humbling and tumbling into the grave. Human experience tells all men of that fact. Death lies before us all, and everyone’s philosophy of life should take into consideration life’s unavoidable realities. You and I are going to die. What the natural man needs is periodic awakenings to the sobriety of that event. How often does God through man’s conscience and providence summon men to the great bar of judgment. Where does hope lie ? An old Christian friend wrote in a letter to the woman he later married on learning of the death of her grandmother, “How real is death, and how dismal except as its darkness is illumined by the hope of resurrection to life ! It is as we look death squarely in the face that the grace and power of the Saviour take on new meaning. How tawdry are all human attempts to dress it up. The light and faith of Jesus alone can cast a halo of joy and hope around it. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, and only they ! There is nothing that any person can place between himself and the damnation that sin demands, but the merit, blood, righteousness, mediatorship, and intercession of the risen and glorified Redeemer.” A once majestic tree reduced to a stump was a fearful sign, and the words of immanent judgment the sign’s interpretation brought to the king. Though he were the mightiest man on earth who could afford the finest physicians and sorcerers in the world, it was sickness and death that lay before him – as before all mankind.
The second striking mercy Nebuchadnezzar receives is to have that revelation opened up to him by the man of God. The king sends for Daniel and tells him of the entire dream, which overwhelms Daniel. He has known the king for some years, and been the beneficiary of his kindnesses. The king appointed Daniel ruler over the entire province of Babylon, and when he heard this dream he was “greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him” (4:19) so much so that the king noticed it, and actually reassures him, “Don’t let the dream or its meaning alarm you.” Daniel then interprets it with the utmost reluctance. “If only it applied to your enemies” he muttered, and then, plucking up all his courage, as one standing before the King of kings as well as before this monarch, he says, “You, O king, are that tree !” (4:22) It is indeed Nebuchadnezzar who is soon to be utterly humiliated, reduced to living with animals, eating grass like a cow, drenched with the dew of the morning, his hair growing like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird (4:25 & 33). This state would last an appointed period, just until the time came when the broken and rejected Nebuchadnezzar would humble his heart and “acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and give them to anyone he wishes” (4:25). Yet Daniel did not stop there. “Be pleased to accept my advice,” he said, “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” (4:27).
It is a message to Nebuchadnezzar that he would enjoy a period of tranquillity if he repented. But is there not more in the messages than the offer of temporal mercies ? Who knows what may happen if a sinner under judgment repents ? The city of Nineveh had received a message from the Lord as uncompromisingly bleak as Nebuchadnezzar’s, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown,” (Jonah 3:4). But when the word reached the king of Nineveh he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh … Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows ? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:6-9). The men of Nineveh had so little, but used everything they knew of God to escape his judgment.
Babylon was as wicked as Nineveh. There were furnaces into which live men and women were thrown. There was oppression, slavery, and drunken orgies in the king’s palace (5:1). Idolatry was enforced upon the empire. What does one do about such sins ? “Renounce them !” says Daniel, “and do what is right. Be kind to the oppressed because judgment is coming upon you.” How courageous young Daniel was to speak to this tyrant in that way. Did the memory of an earlier prophet, Nathan, inspire him ? Another king had sinned a great sin, taking another man’s wife so that she became pregnant and then arranging the murder of her brave husband. It was a reprehensible act, and finally Nathan the prophet had gone to that king saying to David “You are the man” worthy of judgment.
The greatest preacher of the English Reformation was Hugh Latimer, and often he was called to preach before King Henry VIII. When he was made a king’s chaplain a courtier said to him, “Beware of contradicting the king. Speak as he speaks, and instead of presuming to lead him, strive to follow him.” “Away with your counsel !” replied Latimer. He took his calling seriously, and all he read confirmed his need to be faithful. One day he picked up Augustine’s writings and read there, “He who for fear of any power hides the truth, provokes the wrath of God to come upon him, for he fears men more than God.” Another day he picked up Chrysostom’s writings and read, “He is not only a traitor to the truth who openly for truth teaches a lie, but he also who does not pronounce and show the truth he knows.” Latimer said that those two sentences made him afraid and he vowed, “I had rather suffer extreme punishment than be a traitor unto the truth.” He met many obstacles in speaking to the king, some even in his own impetuous make-up, but he wrote a letter one day to Henry VIII, “Your Grace, I must show forth such things as I have learned in Scripture, or else deny Jesus Christ. The which denying ought more to be dreaded than the loss of all temporal goods, honour, promotion, fame, prison, slander, hurts, banishment, and all manner of torments and cruelties, yea, and death itself, be it never so shameful and painful … There is as great distance between you and me as between God and man; for you are here to me and to all your subjects in God’s stead; and so I should quake to speak of your Grace. But as you are a mortal man having in you the corrupt nature of man, so you have no less need of the merits of Christ’s passion for your salvation than I and others of your subjects have” (The Reformation in England, D’Aubigne, Vol.2, p.42). The king was not offended by the letter and continued to appreciate his chaplain Hugh Latimer. So too Daniel’s integrity was respected by Nebuchadnezzar. Thus the second great mercy Nebuchadnezzar experienced was to hear a faithful man of God telling him the truth about his future.
The final mercy from God in this fourth chapter was the year of grace which Nebuchadnezzar was given in which to do what Daniel had urged him to do, renounce his sins by doing what was right.. Nineveh had only forty days, and their king did not waste a moment, but Nebuchadnezzar was the object of God’s long-suffering for a whole year. How often Daniel spoke to him or prayed for him we do not know, but we do know that at the end of that year nothing had changed in Babylon or in the king’s life. None of us knows if we have a year left, or even forty days. We cannot guarantee the next forty minutes. The only time we have is this moment. Whatever we know of God we are to use to renounce our sins, do what is right, and call urgently on God. Who knows what doing that will achieve ?
Twelve months went by in which Nebuchadnezzar could destroy the torture chambers, and send the prisoners home, repent of his wasted life and cast himself upon the mercy of God, but this man did nothing. Then one day, a year after Daniel had spoken to him, he was walking on the roof of his splendid palace under the starry sky and he looked with pride upon all he surveyed, saying “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty ?” (4:30). The sentiments accurately reflect Nebuchadnezzar’s attitude. He was primarily a builder, rather than a warrior, and his own statements, preserved upon cuneiform inscriptions, show his pride in the city and palace which he rebuilt. His words were also a barometer of his heart’s condition, desperately arrogant in spite of many warnings. At the sound of those words another voice echoed from heaven implementing the judgment spoken a year earlier (4:31-33). From that moment on, guided down from the roof with a wild light in his eyes, he was transformed into a virtual animal. If Daniel, the prime minister, were to seek an audience with his King, Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of Babylon, he would be taken to the royal orchard and shown a pathetic figure, lying on the ground, wet with dew, his hair like eagle’s feathers, glancing up for a moment to see whose shadow this was upon his field, before returning to the task of thrusting grass into his mouth with a clawed hand. The dream and its interpretation had been fulfilled. The mighty tree had been cut down. The promised judgment had come as the Most High had decreed. Nebuchadnezzar had learned that he lived in a moral universe and what he had sowed that very thing he now reaped.
Those days of divinely administered lycanthropy (the apparent disease with which he was suffering) at last ended. “Seven times passed” (4:32) and it became “the end of that time” (4:34). How long that period was we do not know. Some ancient writers consider it to have been for seven years. Among the fragments in Qumran Cave IV (1955) was an Aramaic fragment now called The Prayer of Nabonidus. It is regarded as coming from the second half of the 1st century BC. On this fragment the speaker identifies himself as Nbny (probably Nabonidus), king of Assyria and Babylonia, and claims that for seven years he was struck with an evil inflammation. When he confessed his sins, a Jew of the exile explained matters to him. The writer of this fragment, it would seem, has confused matters, attributing to Nabonidus the illness of Nebuchadnezzar. After an allotted period the king’s insanity ended, his reason returned to him and he breaks into praising the Most High God in some of the most glorious words to exalt God’s sovereignty in all of Scripture: “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 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 ?'” (4:34 & 35).
What is this fourth chapter of Daniel ? It is a kind of primitive press release. It is an edict issued by king Nebuchadnezzar from his royal palace written with the purpose of assuring the worried citizens of Babylon, that they are not being ruled by a crazy man. The country had buzzed with the rumours of the extraordinary things said to have happened to Nebuchadnezzar. One presumes that Daniel has been guiding the empire during these years. But the day comes when the light of reason again flickers in Nebuchnezzar and the king’s health is restored. Then it is that the contents of this chapter are composed, when Nebuchadnezzar issues this statement, “To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world: may you prosper greatly ! It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me …” (4:1 & 2). And all that follows in this narrative of the decline, fall and renewal of the king are written and are preserved in the archives of the Babylonian nation. That is why Daniel recorded them in his book. Everywhere in Babylon God’s people gathered around the Word, taught their children, met together, sang the psalms, and looked with hope for a return yet to the land of Israel. They did so under the protection of this chapter, because of all that had happened in the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar.
The chapter reads like the edict of a religious man, but one still muddled in his beliefs. Consider how Daniel is referred to as “Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him” (4:8 & 18). Daniel is also called the “chief of the magicians” (v.9) The syncretistic language reflects a paganism influenced by the theocratic convictions of Daniel. Though the God of Daniel has been dealing with him in such extraordinary ways Nebuchadnezzar still thinks in terms of a sort of parliament of gods, a United Nations of deities in heaven where Israel has its god and Babylon has its god, but the top god, the king has come to recognise, is Daniel’s god – the Most High God (4:2). Even with all the privileges he has had, and fearful judgments that have come into his life Nebuchadnezzar is a confused man. Even with that transparent life which young Daniel has lived before him, as a living word, dealing with him with such integrity, even so the king has not even become a monotheist. “Hear, O Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord God of Daniel is one God.”
The king had heard and seen so much. What signs he had witnessed. Men say if only they could see a miracle, such as a man thrown into a furnace of fire and not being destroyed, then they would believe. But Nebuchadnezzar saw that and did not believe. Or if men could see the son of God with their own eyes then they would become believers, but Nebuchadnezzar had, as the people of Jerusalem were to see him – which mob went on to cry, “Crucify him. Crucify him !” It takes more than signs and wonders to form power evangelism, and even more than a godly life faithfully declaring the Word of God. Let us have that at least, but for a sinner to become a believer it takes regeneration by the Sovereign Spirit. It takes the obedience of faith in those things we have received from the Most High God. It takes accepting the advice of the word of God, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right,” and crying mightily to Christ to save. It takes a person saying, “The dearest idol I have known, Whate’er that idol be, Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee.” Nebuchadnezzar’s life demonstrates the truth of Jesus’s own words, how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.