A Transformed King? Reflection on Daniel 4

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake

           Each Wednesday I have been offering a reflection on the Book of Daniel. The Bible Study I lead on Wednesday afternoon has reached week four, which brings us to chapter four of Daniel. In each of the previous three chapters we have encountered the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who is known in Scripture as the king who destroyed Jerusalem and took its leading citizens into exile in Babylon. The Jewish lament over their exile is described poignantly in Psalm 137:1-6, a Psalm that give birth to a song for Godspell:

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

            While exile is not easy for Daniel and his friends, they find a way of making do. They are brought into the governmental system, rising to top positions, or so it seems. In the chapters that precede this one, which shares a second dream on the part of the king, we have seen the king confronted by the power of God of Israel, but not true learning. The king will give praise to the God of Daniel and his friends, but then seemingly forget the lesson. The question is, will he learn this time?

            Carol Newsom, in her commentary on Daniel makes this point regarding the role that chapter four plays in the story of Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel 4 plays a climactic role in the sequence of stories in Dan 1–6. Although deriving from originally independent traditions, chs. 1–4 have been carefully edited together to provide an extended account of the gradual transformation of Nebuchadnezzar’s consciousness from a king who considers himself to be the most powerful figure in his kingdom to one who recognizes that his extraordinary greatness is but a gift from the Most High God.  [Newsom, Carol A. Daniel:A Commentary (The Old Testament Library) (p. 127). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.]

In this chapter of Daniel, the king has dream, and only Daniel (Belteshazzar) can interpret, for he seems to possess the spirit of the divine. The focus of the dream is a tree, which stands in the center of the earth and reaches to the heavens. Apparently, according to Daniel, the king is the tree, for “You have grown great and strong. Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth” (Dan. 4:22). Nebuchadnezzar has reached the heights of power. No one can challenge him. But, as Daniel reveals in his interpretation of the dream the king faces disaster. A Holy Watcher, an angel of God, will come and cut down the tree, leaving only a stump and roots. The good news is that there is the potential for restoration, but Daniel warns the king that its likely he will go through a great ordeal. He, who stands between heaven and humanity, will become lower than a human being, becoming one with the animals, eating grass as an animal will do. It will take seven years before he’ll learn his lesson. But the lesson will be learned. He will be restored (you want to end the story on a high note). But not only is the king restored, by the king who represents Marduck will affirm the sovereignty of the Most High (El Elyon), the God of Israel.   

Sure enough, it will take seven years and a loss of authority before this all happens, but it will occur. I should note that much of this and previous stories fit Nabonidus, the final king of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom, rather than Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus did disappear for about ten years, and was known for his dreams, but as Carol Newsom reminds us:

Nebuchadnezzar has replaced Nabonidus as the protagonist. The reason is not difficult to discern. Although Nabonidus became culturally irrelevant soon after the end of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had left a wound of memory in the consciousness of Jews in the Diaspora and in Judea. Telling this story of his belated recognition of the power of the Most High was a means of redressing that memory. [Newsom, Daniel, p. 130].

Nebuchadnezzar learns his lesson and offers praise to the Most High, declaring:

I blessed the Most High,
    and praised and honored the one who lives forever.
For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,
    and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
    and he does what he wills with the host of heaven
    and the inhabitants of the earth.
There is no one who can stay his hand
    or say to him, “What are you doing?”
(Daniel 4:34-35)

            Nebuchadnezzar, according to the stories found in the Book of Daniel learns his lesson. It takes time and several encounters, but he finally recognizes the sovereignty of God. It took seven years, but he came to recognize that whatever power/authority he possessed was the gift of God. 

        As we read the story of Nebuchadnezzar, his dream, and his apparent transformation (after a severe humiliation) what message might we hear for our times? It is important that when we read a story like this that we not get lost in the exegetical details. The question isn't whether this happened in time (whether this is rooted in the story of Nabonidus or whether Daniel existed). The question for us concerns what the story says about the nature of authority in our time. We live in an age of increasing authoritarianism. Leaders around the world, including our own President, seem enamored with power. Like Nebuchadnezzar they boast in their powers, boldly declaring their greatness. Remember that in Daniel 4, even after the dream was interpreted, the king could walk on the roof of his palace, look out across Babylon, and boast: “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” As the adage goes, “pride cometh before the fall.” Such was the case for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was close to power, but like Nathan seems to have been able to speak truth to power. Can we do the same? Or, are we also enamored with power? Do we desire seats at the table, where we can receive benefits? Yes, Daniel got the benefits, but he remained true (though apparently in Jewish interpretations, down through the years, some had the sense that he got a bit too cozy with the one who destroyed their homeland and Temple). Nonetheless, what do you hear?


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