4:1-3 – The opening address by Nebuchadnezzar. This chapter opens with a personal address to all peoples everywhere and announces the power and majesty of the God of Israel as the Most High God. The confession that he makes here is no small confession coming from a man who ruled the known world and had all things at his personal disposal. This is an announcement that is written after what follows, but also precedes it. Nebuchadnezzar speaks in the first person until verse 19, where the account shifts to Daniel’s interpretation of the dream and to the state of insanity. Then the account returns to the first person once Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity is restored again in verses 34 and following.
4:4-8 – Another dream and another call for interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar opens by describing himself as “contented” (Aram. šělěh “at ease/rest”) and “prosperous” (Aram. ra‘ănān “flourishing/luxuriant”; a term used in Biblical Hebrew to refer to trees which prepares us for the dream that follows; cf. Ps.92:15). In the very place where he felt most secure suddenly he was gripped by fear. His dream, now troubling him as he was awake, needed interpretation, but as before none but Daniel could give the interpretation. This despite the fact that here he actually shares the dream with those who should have been able to interpret it for him and this dream was certainly not difficult to understand the figures, so it appears that somehow the others were kept from the interpretation. The Babylonian name of Daniel is given (Belteshazzar) because that is the name he was best known by among the Babylonians, but still Nebuchadnezzar recognized that it was not per se “his god” that had anything to do with helping Daniel, but “the spirit of the holy gods” that was “in him.” The reference to the spirit by Nebuchadnezzar is a confession “of a real presence of God that contrasts with the spurious presence that the statue of chap. 3 claimed to bring” (Goldingay 87). The spirit of the “gods” (Aram. ‘ĕlāhîn) that Nebuchadnezzar refers to could still be taken in a singular sense (much as the name of the one true God is) even though grammatically it is plural (interestingly Theodotion has the singular theou), however it seems more likely that it is still a plural for Nebuchadnezzar given his use of the plural adjective for “holy” (Aram. qādîšîn) that is included with the noun.
4:9-18 – The Dream of the Tree. Nebuchadnezzar recognized that Belteshazzar had what the others of his kingdom did not and could interpret mysteries beyond understanding. The dream was as follows: he saw a great tree (cf. Ps.92; Eze.17; 19:10-14; 28; 31) that stood in the middle of the earth and reached to the heavens themselves. This tree provided was magnificent and provided shelter and food for all of the creatures. However, suddenly, in the dream a “messenger, a holy one coming down out of heaven” (this refers in Nebuchadnezzar’s own language to what we might call an “angel” which is a transliteration of the LXX here, whereas Theodotion has “watcher” following the Aramaic ‘îr which literally means “one who is awake”—see Miller 133—and thus they are just like their Lord—see Ps.121:4; also Karl Barth—Church Dogmatics III.3 pp.460-463—proposes that the true ministry of angels is to be witnesses to God’s word and work, and to the God who alone is Lord of all). The command is given to chop the tree down and strip it of everything, but to leave the stump. Actually, the stump was to be “bound with iron and bronze.” Are we to understand this in a positive or a negative way? This is actually a word of ultimate hope to Nebuchadnezzar since he is the tree. The bands on the stump refer to God’s allowing Nebuchadnezzar to “retain control of his kingdom” and let him know that God will eventually restore it to him “after he comes back to his senses” (Walvoord 106). In a time when any sign of weakness could mean a sudden overthrow and assassination, this was no time for insanity. It would actually require divine intervention for Nebuchadnezzar to be spared and restored. Suddenly the image shifts from a bound stump to one who will be forced to live as the animals though he had at one time provided for all of the animals. The time frame of “seven times” was set for the duration of this insanity, but does this refer to years or seasons? Miller (134-5) and Walvoord (103) think it likely it refers to years because of its relation to Dan.7:12, 25 and also the LXX translation as “years,” however Goldingay (81) and Baldwin (125) understand it to simply refer to “seasons” following the Theodotion translation and the more vague use of the same term outside of this chapter in Dan. 2:8, 9, 21; 3:5, 15. While the sense of “times” may be debated, perhaps also the sense of “seven” should be understood to refer to the fullness of the time for him. Perhaps this is too vague, but it also lends itself to understanding that God’s timing is always right on time. John Goldingay notes that the first reason we are given for the felling of the tree is not pride, but simply to “show that God rules” (93). It is only noted as secondarily a matter of humility. The interpretation would seem to be apparent, but for whatever reason the interpretation was not forthcoming from all those in the kingdom who should have interpreted and so Belteshazzar was called upon for the interpretation.
4:19-27 – The interpretation of the dream. Daniel, for obvious and perhaps not as obvious reasons, was reticent to provide the interpretation. He also was greatly bothered by the dream and the meaning. It would appear though that Daniel’s concern has less to do with his own self-preservation over giving the king a negative interpretation than to do with a genuine concern for the benefit of the king and therefore of the kingdom. Daniel’s concern for Nebuchadnezzar “invites us to care about people in power, even people who abuse power, to appeal to their humanness not their sinfulness, and to treat them as people given a responsibility by God and people who may respond to an appeal to right and wrong” (Goldingay 94). After describing the tree again to Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel declares “You, O king, are that tree!” (cf. Nathan’s very similar words to David “You are the man” – 2 Sam.12:7). Note the parallels and contrast between the tree that is Nebuchadnezzar and the description Jesus gave of the Kingdom of God in Mark 4:30-32. Daniel emphatically tells the king that the “Most High” had issued a “decree” against him that he would live like a wild animal for “seven times” until he acknowledged “Heaven rules” (this is the only place in the OT where “heaven” stands for the name of God, but this became more common by the inter-testamental period and was particularly used by Matthew in his many—31 verses to be precise—references to the “kingdom of heaven” where the other Gospel accounts have a preference for “kingdom of God”) The acknowledgment that “Heaven rules” was an acknowledgment that the Most High was sovereign over everything and everyone. Nebuchadnezzar was informed that there was mercy in this for him. The Most High would preserve him until he acknowledges this, but he did not have to necessarily even face this suffering (though that would be left to the mercy of God). He could have followed the advice of Daniel and renounced his sins by doing right and also caring for the oppressed. “Nebuchadnezzar might not have been treating others cruelly but he probably did what many people do today, practiced an indulgent lifestyle and simply ignored the misfortunes of others” (Miller 139; cf. Isa.1:17).
4:28-33 – The fulfillment of the dream. Approximately one year after the dream and interpretation everything happens just as it had been predicted. It began with Nebuchadnezzar walking on the roof of one of his palaces (there were several in Babylon) and glorying in the majesty of “the great Babylon” (cf. Rev.14:8; 18:2) that he believed himself to have built by his own doing. Babylon was, of course, one of the most magnificent cities of the ancient world. Walls forty feet high wide enough for chariots to ride upon with gates that were renowned for their magnificence. He also built the hanging gardens for his wife that the Greeks labeled one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Perhaps it was even there that looked out upon that vast city and was in awe of the dozens of temples and the numerous palaces and mighty walls. A truly awe-inspiring spectacle, but just as the words were “still on his lips” suddenly “a voice came from heaven” with the decree that had been given in the dream. God not only was capable of giving all of Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar but of taking it from him, making him insane and keeping him from death in that state of insanity for seven times until he should be humbled and restored. “Perhaps one should say that the true insanity belongs to the Nebuchadnezzar who had earlier been talking as if he were the eternal king and God did not exist. His outward madness is the external expression of a delusion he has already been the tragic victim of” (Goldingay 96). The illness of Nebuchadnezzar finds allusion in the 2nd century BC Abydenus (Eusebius Praeparatio Evangelico 9.41.1) and the 3rd century BC Babylonian priest Berosus (Josephus Against Apion 1.20). Interestingly the LXX has added that his madness happened in his eighteenth year which would be the very year he destroyed Jerusalem (586BC), but the Theodotion Greek does not include this time note and neither does the Aramaic and it seems very unlikely (the LXX having a text that is ¼ longer in chapter four than the Aramaic; despite the fact that the LXX does not have 4:6-10a solving the dilemma of Daniel’s absence that the Theodotion did not have an issue with including). Stephen Miller proposes that it likely happened no later than 571BC which seems probable (128). According to Jewish legend, his son Amūl-Marduk ruled in his stead until his sanity was restored (Baldwin 128). Is it possible that Daniel may have actually cared for Nebuchadnezzar in this state? Somehow he was cared for and kept from the public so that he eventually could be restored. That alone speaks of God’s grace and mercy.
4:34-37 – The insanity ends and sanity begins. Nebuchadnezzar again writes whereas in his previous state he could not and it had to be told in the third person. Now he tells us that he looked to heaven and he was restored. What praise belongs to God who restores us when our profession can be as little as a crazed man who lifts his eyes finally to acknowledge the God who is sovereign over all? Nebuchadnezzar makes a profession of faith in God as sovereign over all, but how much a saving faith is perhaps beyond what we should conjecture. What does Nebuchadnezzar’s profession of faith teach us? Why did God choose to restore Nebuchadnezzar who had been given a chance earlier to do what was right and didn’t? Can we profess trust in a God that we know little about and it be sufficient? What can we learn about the kingdoms and authorities of this world through this account?
John Goldingay comments that though Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the tree between heaven and earth that was glorified and then shamed ends, there would “eventually be a very different tree, one which more effectively links earth and heaven and displays itself—or rather displays the one it bears—before earth and heaven; a tree which, moreover, also has to become a tree of shame—but not for its own shortcomings—before it can be a tree of glory. That tree will offer life, security, and provision in fuller senses—though the fuller sense must not exclude the physical senses which are this vision’s concern, and which are God’s own concern” (91-2).