9: Daniel 4


August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., a black man, a Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech about freedom for African Americans. He said, in part:

“Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, … And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

That was the dream of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are the dreams of the oppressed. Those are the dreams of men who care for other men. Those are the dreams of people who understand the God who set Israel free — of people who share God’s dreams.1

Millennia before, another “King” had a dream — not of a great future for his subjects, but a God-given dream of what might have been and what was about to happen to a man who thought more of himself than he did of others. Read his reminiscences in Daniel 4.2

Greetings. King Nebuchadnezzar, to all peoples. It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.

I have never known a king to have had his message given such wide coverage. This has been translated into hundreds of languages. God wants you to read it and grasp its importance.

Yes. Another dream for Nebuchadnezzar!

“I was at home, contented and prosperous. I had a dream that made me afraid. I commanded all the wise men of Babylon to come and interpret it for me. When I told them the dream, they could not interpret it. Finally I related it to Daniel (a.k.a. Belteshazzar).

“I said, ‘Belteshazzar … 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.’

In the middle of the land stood a great tree.

great treeIt was so high that its top touched the sky. It was visible to all across the landscape. It had beautiful leaves, abundant fruit and food for all. Animals sheltered under it and birds lived in its branches.

“In the visions I saw a holy messenger descending from heaven. He called out: ‘Fell the tree. Remove the branches. Strip the leaves. Scatter the fruit. Turn loose the animals and birds. But leave the stump and the roots, bound with iron and bronze, 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. Let his mind be changed from that of a man to that of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.

“‘The decision is announced by messengers so that humans 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.’

“That was my dream. What does it mean?”

A dream about a tree and a holy messenger. But, who is this individual referred to in the third person in verses 15 and 16?

Daniel knew, but didn’t want to say.

Then Nebuchadnezzar reassured him with, “Don’t let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”

Daniel interprets
“My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies!

“That tree you saw — you, O king, are that tree! Your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant lands.

“Remember the announcement of the holy messenger?

“The Most High has issued a decree against my lord the king: You will be driven from people and live with wild animals; you will eat grass as cattle do and be drenched with dew. Seven times3 will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. 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.”

The prophet as pastor
“Be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins. Do what is right. Be kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

Was Nebuchadnezzar known for his righteousness, mercy and humility, his kindness, goodness and gentleness?

How had he threatened the Chaldeans when they failed to interpret his dream about the metal statue! How had he threatened people on the day he dedicated the golden statue. How had he dealt with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego!

Like many in positions of leadership today, Nebuchadnezzar’s horizon was filled with one person — himself. God was nowhere in view. The king could not even see the people for whom he was responsible — unless it was to use them for his own purposes.

To him as well as to us God says: “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”

Yes. The Lord has trees — trees that benefit the creatures around them!
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers (Psalm 1:1-3).

David wrote: “But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God (Psalm 52:8).”

God could well have done with Nebuchadnezzar as one of his trees — a king who cared for his subjects by ensuring that all were housed and fed and that their needs were acknowledged and met. After all, the Jewish prophet, Jeremiah, had received word from God that Nebuchadnezzar was His servant and that certain nations that he had subdued should not rebel.

Early in the reign of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: This is what the LORD said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck. Then send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah. Give them a message for their masters and say, “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Tell this to your masters:’

With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand (Jeremiah 27:1-8).”

But Nebuchadnezzar was singing his own version of (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees” (1913):

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree —
And if you want to see a tree
Then all of you
should look at me —
And only I-I-I-I-I can be a tree!

That’s not where the story ends!

Twelve months later, while walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar was musing. “Is not this the great Babylon I have built by my power and for my glory?”

The mind of the man
Of what was he thinking? About some of his history. His ascendancy? Successes and failures of his predecessors? His own achievements?

For six centuries Babylonia had been an Assyrian dependency. Constant rebellions had been suppressed. Sennacherib, tired of them, had thoroughly destroyed the city of Babylon. Esarhaddon rebuilt it. Then in 626 B.C. Nabopolassar, a Chaldean official, declared himself king of Babylon and the kingdom became a success, developing into an empire in its own right. Helped by the Medes, he eventually inherited all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. Then, in 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, while still crown prince, defeated Egypt. When his father died he became king and practically rebuilt the city of Babylon, and erected many structures in other cities.4

Babylon was fortified. Temples and a ziggurat, were constructed. The famous Hanging Gardens were also built by Nebuchadnezzar. These were later considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.5

Armchair travelers are still impressed with pictures of Procession Street and the Ishtar Gate, the Hanging Gardens and pictures of stylized bulls, dragons and lions on the remains of the walls.

“ … the events of this chapter belong to the last half of his reign of 42 years. The king was ‘flourishing’ in his palace in Babylon, and like the foolish rich man in the parable, whose fields had produced abundantly (Luke 12:16–21), forgot his responsibility to the One to whom he owed his greatness.”6

God now gave him a new perspective of life.

This is how the tree was felled.
The words [of verse 30] were still on his lips when a voice spoke from heaven,

“This is what is decreed … Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven from people and live with wild animals and eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

Immediately the prophecy was fulfilled.

The syndrome
Abhorred and despised even by his lowliest subjects, reduced to the state of a grazing beast in the field. Physically he became like the brute beast that he imagined himself to be, as his skin toughened into hide through constant exposure to outdoor weather at all seasons. (The temperature in modern Iraq ranges from a high  of 43 to 49 degrees Celsius in summer to a low of well below freezing in winter.) Most particularly the hair of his head and his body, becoming matted and coarse, looked like eagles’ feathers; his fingernails and toenails, never cut, became like claws. So the boasting king, a victim of what is known as boanthropy7, sank to a subhuman level.8

What happened next?
“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. I praised the Most High; I honored him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion … He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. I was restored to my throne and became greater than before.”

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding (Psalm 111:10).

“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.”

Listen to this from the King of kings.
Jesus called His disciples together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave (Matthew 20:25-28).”

Of what do we dream today?
Do we dream the dreams of God — dreams of making a better world for all mankind?

We can no longer afford to have great dreams about ourselves at the expense of others.

God’s message to Nebuchadnezzar can never be ignored by anyone who calls Jesus “King.”


  1. See e.g., Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 15, Isaiah 58, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27.
  2. Quoted scriptures in this series have been included for emphasis but sometimes abbreviated to focus on the main point. Readers interested in further research should always refer to the full text in the Bible.
  3. Times. Aramaic: iddan = years. See also Daniel 4:23, 25, 32; 7:25; but not in 12:7 where the word translated “time” is Heb. mo`ed, a word that focuses on the annual festivals, solemn assemblies and appointed times.
  4. See Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979), art. “Babylonia.”
  5. The Grolier Encyclopedia: art. “Nebuchadnezzar”
  6. Nichol, Francis D., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1978)
  7. See Harrison, R. K., Introduction to the Old Testament (Inter-Varsity Press/William B. Eerdmans, 1969), 1114-1117.
  8. Taken from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., (Copyright © 1979 by The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan), Vol 7, p. 66. Used by permission of The Zondervan Corporation

© 2010 (Revised January 31, 2020), Angus McPhee