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Bible Study: Daniel 4

Daniel 4 is the amazing story of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, fall, and conversion. John MacArthur’s sermon “How Are the Mighty Fallen” looks at this narrative passage, with several good insights.

This chapter deals with the pride of rulers, and “a proper recognition of the sovereignty of God, a proper recognition of the supremacy of God, a proper recognition of the humility of man ” God is always the one in control, who sets kings on their thrones and pulls them down again. The Bible gives us other examples of tyrants, such as King Herod in Acts 12; when Herod accepted the praise of men who proclaimed him a god, God struck him down with worms and he died — because he had not given God the glory. What happened to Nebuchadnezzar is an example and warning to all would-be tyrants and rulers throughout history — to all the Hitlers, Mussolinis, Saddam Husseins — as well as to all of us ordinary sinners who would try to rule even the little kingdom we invent for ourselves.

This story probably takes place many years after the events of the previous three chapters, likely at Nebuchadnezzar’s 25th or 30th year of reign. All is secure in his reign, and the land dwells in relative calm, peace and prosperity. Daniel has been faithfully serving all these years, a witness of a righteous life to the pagan king. For all of the miraculous events in Nebuchadnezzar’s life up to this point, though, Nebuchadnezzar still serves his pagan gods and keeps his retinue of court wise men around. This chapter, though, serves as the climactic point in Nebuchadnezzar’s spiritual biography. As MacArthur says, though we can’t be totally dogmatic about it, the text certainly indicates that Nebuchadnezzar truly comes to faith in the true God.

Just as in chapter 2, when the king has a dream he summons all the scholars and wise men to interpret his dream; and once again, they cannot interpret it. Again Daniel arrives, afterwards, to give the interpretation. Daniel shows concern for Nebuchadnezzar: he waits before giving Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation, and delivers it in a compassionate manner — oh, would that the dream and its interpretation was meant for your enemies. Daniel waits out of compassion, rather than just blurting it out abruptly, because he cares about the man. MacArthur: “We know the message. And we know there’s a message of judgment, and doom, and hell. But we never preach that message with a vindictive heart, do we? We never preach it in a harsh, and damning, and unloving, and judgmental way. But I could never, and I hope you can’t either, talk to anybody about the loss of their eternal soul, about the judgment of God in their life, without a sense of sadness and compassion.” Daniel has enough compassion, though, to deliver the full message — as with the prophet Nathan’s rebuke to King David, “you are the man.” Daniel also advises the king to repent while there is still time, to do good deeds and show mercy to the poor. The chapter continues: even now Nebuchadnezzar did not repent, and we see God’s great patience — God gave Nebuchadnezzar a full year before passing sentence, a last opportunity for repentance. As in the days of Noah, when God waited and delayed judgment for 120 years, in this case God granted another year before judgment.

Now to the particulars of the story: trees were often used to symbolize rulers in ancient times. A few other biblical references include Ezekiel 17:22 and 31:3, as well as Amos 2: 9; some non-biblical writings also compare a monarch to a tree. The particular type of insanity experienced by Nebuchadnezzar is also not unknown. A writer at a mental hospital in 1946 observed a mental patient with a clinical case of “boanthropy” — from the word boa, which means bull or cow. In this form of lyanthropy, the afflicted person thinks he’s a cow or a bull, and goes around eating grass and water like cows. Just as with Nebuchadnezzar in his insanity, this patient manifested a physical abnormality of lengthening of hair, and a coarse, thickened condition of the fingernails.

After the seven years when Nebuchadnezzar was literally put out to pasture, God restored him to an even greater position. Just as the dream had foretold, after Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged that the most high God reigns, his understanding returned to him. The very fact that the kingdom was still there, kept for him all those years, also shows God’s control of the situation. As MacArthur points out:

“In a kingdom like that, you’ve got a lot of grasping underlings. You’ve got a lot of people who would like to knock off Nebuchadnezzar. But God never let one of those grasping, ambitious nobles in that kingdom lay a hand on that throne. Because God said Nebuchadnezzar would get it back. If you go later on in the history and you find after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, you find an incredible milieu of political intrigue as they try to take over that throne. But for seven years, while the man is a raving maniac, nobody lays a hand on that throne. And I believe God used Daniel in the meantime to control it until it could be given back to him.”

What a great conclusion to the story, a great lesson that Nebuchadnezzar learned and for all of us to learn and remember. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

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