A Humbled King

December 5, 2021 Preacher: Luis A. Cardenas Series: Daniel (English 2021)

Topic: English Passage: Daniel 4:1-37

Please turn in your Bible to Daniel chapter 4. We might imagine that Daniel was a young man getting ready to start his own life and his own service to God under the king of Judah, but that changed once the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and began taking over the city. He also stole the best people of the land, which included Daniel, and made them his slaves in Babylon.

King Nebuchadnezzar II (or Nebuchadnezzar the Great) came to power in 605 B.C., and it was under his rule that the Babylonian Empire reached its highest glory, somewhere between the size of California and the size of Texas. That might not seem like a lot to us today, but it was the major world power having conquered the Assyrians and the Egyptians, controlling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and touching the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.  Using a modern-day map, the kingdom would span Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

The capital city called Babylon was the largest, most impressive, most admired city in the world at the time. It was in modern-day Iraq on the eastern portion of the Fertile Crescent about 50-60 miles south of Baghdad.

Speaking of the city, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said, “The city stands on a broad plain, and is an exact square... [I]n magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. It is surrounded, in the first place, by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width and two hundred in height.”

Though the secular world praised Babylon’s glory, to the average Israelite Nebuchadnezzar was a villain who destroyed their nation and promoted all sorts of pagan idolatry. In reality, Nebuchadnezzar was being used by God to punish the nation for generations of continues rebellion.

Daniel chapter 4 is distinct because it was actually written by King Nebuchadnezzar himself, probably some time near the end of his reign. Let’s read the opening verse.

Verses 1—King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you!

This is an edict of the king intended addressed to the entire kingdom. And what is it that the king feels so compelled to proclaim to his kingdom. Verse 2—It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. 3How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.

This is basically a psalm praising God Almighty. How in the world did that happen? What in the world would lead Nebuchadnezzar to say this? Well, up to this point, we’ve seen multiple ways He had seen God work.

In chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar saw God vindicate Daniel and his friends when they didn’t defile themselves with the king’s food. He saw God’s holiness and wisdom on display in their lives.

In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar saw God reveal to Daniel what his dream was and what it meant. The king’s response in verse 47 was “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.

Then in chapter 3, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down before the golden image, and God protected them from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar said: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king's command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.

Nebuchadnezzar recognized the greatness of Yahweh. Nebuchadnezzar got a firsthand view of God’s ability to reveal knowledge and to protect His people. But these opening words in chapter 4 go ever further. They are a humble proclamation of God’s eternal authority. He is the God who rules over all. That’s a new statement for King Nebuchadnezzar.

God’s signs and wonders have produced in Nebuchadnezzar a humility, a recognition that his human kingdom and authority is nothing when compared to the permanence of the kingdom of the Most High God.

How did he get to that point? How did Nebuchadnezzar come to that realization? We need to ask that question, not just historically, but personally. You and I need to learn humility. We all need to come to a greater realization of God’s power and authority.

So, how do we do that? That’s what chapter 4 is going to tell us. The chapter starts by telling us the end of the journey, but the story tells us how the pagan king came to that conclusion.

Like I said, this chapter is different than the previous chapters because we get a story in King Nebuchadnezzar’s own words. Similar to the book of Ecclesiastes, a king is going to share with us his wisdom by telling us about his life. So, let’s sit down and listen to a story from a great king telling us how he came to admire an even greater King.

Verse 4—I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace.

This story start with a happy king, a comfortable king, a thriving king. But that takes a turn very quickly.

Verse 5—I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me.

We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that ruined his inner peace. He goes from rest and relaxation to terror. Ordinary dreams don’t do that, but this dream has done it. This is a devastating nightmare, and it compels the king to action.

Verse 6 continues the king’s account—So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation.

Again, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We’ve seen it before in the Daniel, and we’ve seen it all throughout history. The people in power get nervous, and so, they use all their power to try and find a solution. But sometimes, all the authority in the world isn’t enough. Sometimes, only God has the answer.

Verse 8—At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods—and I told him the dream, saying, 9“O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. 10The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.

This is a glorious tree, admired by the entire world. This is a bountiful tree; its leaves and branches and fruit provide for everyone, including the birds and the beasts. But all of a sudden, something happens.

Verse 13—I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16Let his mind be changed from a man's, and let a beast's mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ 18This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”

In this dream, the beautiful, glorious tree gets chopped down, and only the stump remains in the wilderness. It’s an omen, a bad sign. But what does that mean? None of the other men can tell the king, but Daniel should know. He’s interpreted dreams before; he’s proven his ability.

Verse 19—Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.”

So, this king recognizes that Daniel knows it’s not going to be a good interpretation. Something bad is coming. But he begs Daniel not to hold back. “Tell me what it means!”

Back to verse 19—Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! 20The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, 21whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived—22it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth.

This isn’t Daniel trying to flatter the king. This is an honest recognition of the king’s greatness. He has conquered nation and brought about a glorious empire. And even though Babylon was an instrument of judgment on Israel, Daniel recognizes that his life has been spared. King Nebuchadnezzar, by God’s grace, is holding within his glory a remnant of faithful Israelites. So, understanding that, we can see why Daniel wouldn’t want the empire to crumble instantly. He was told by God to seek its good. Unfortunately, something bad is coming.

Verse 23—And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ 24this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. 26And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. 27Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”

Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is going to live like an animal, not because of some conquering nation, but because of God’s judgment for his pride.

One of the key and repeated words in this story is “know.” This is a story about knowledge. The king wants to know what his dream means, but there’s something more important that he’s supposed to know. Look back at verse 17—The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.

And again in verse 25. “Nebuchadnezzar,” God is saying, “you will live like an animal till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.

Verse 26 says he will get his kingdom back at the time that he knows that Heaven rules.

Daniel is sure about the interpretation, but he’s also sure about God’s mercy. Similar to Jonah’s message to Nineveh and many other judgments, God can withhold his judgment if there is repentance. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s possible. And so, Daniel pleads with the king to turn from his pride and his greed, and walk in righteousness. But King Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t agree, or he doesn’t maintain his integrity.

Verse 28 tells us the result one year later—All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”

Like I mentioned earlier, Babylon was an amazing city, and there is plenty of historical evidence for that, including Nebuchadnezzar’s own words. In one written record, Nebuchadnezzar calls Babylon “my dear city which I love.” His palace was “the house of wonder of the people, the bond of the land, the brilliant place, the abode of majesty in Babylon.” That’s the exact sentiment in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind while he was walking on his roof. He is basking in his own glory until God steps in.

Verse 31—While the words were still in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles' feathers, and his nails were like birds' claws.

What happened? The man lost his mind. If Nebuchadnezzar were alive and exhibiting that behavior today, he would be diagnosed with a psychological disorder known as boanthropy. It’s when a human believes he is a cow or an ox.

Dale Ralph Davis, in his commentary, says that another Old Testament scholar named R. K. Harrison claims to have witnessed an example of boanthropy in Britain in 1946. He said there was a young man in his early twenties who was in good bodily health but had no social skills. He didn’t care for himself, so someone else had to wash him and shave him. And they would give him clean water in his own container to try and keep him from drinking from the mud puddles. He would wander around outside plucking up chunks of grass to eat. He never ate human food with others.

That kind of behavior is difficult to explain for doctors today, but in Nebuchadnezzar’s case we know what was happening. This was the judgment of God. The greatest king in all the land had been reduced to an animal, not just in behavior, but even in his appearance. That’s why his diet gets compared with that of an ox, his hair with an eagle’s feathers, and his nails with the claws of a bird.

This episode in Nebuchadnezzar lasted for seven periods of time. Seven weeks and seven months doesn’t seem like it would have been enough time for his hair and nails to grow that long. Many scholars assume it means seven years, and older translation of the Bible say it like that. However long it was, it was long enough for God to make his point.

This king used to live in the finest palace and clothe himself with the finest clothing. Now he lives in the wilderness covered every morning with dew. He used to eat the greatest delicacies the world had to offer. Now he’s scrounging for food on his hands and knees.

Try to imagine that for a moment. This is a grown man who is now wild and feral. The English poet and painter William Blake made a painting depicting this, and it’s a man without clothing crawling in a dark cave. Veins and tendons and muscles are evident on his body with unnatural colors. His eyes are sunken into a face of utter terror.

With Daniels proven wisdom and counsel, it’s possible that Nebuchadnezzar could have stayed and been taken care of on the palace grounds, while his advisers governed the nation. Daniel may have told them that Nebuchadnezzar’s condition was only temporary.

And Nebuchadnezzar’s personal account ends by describing how he came to his senses, not only mentally, but spiritually.

Verse 34—At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

This all ended when Nebuchadnezzar lifted his eyes to heaven. I don’t think we’re intended to simply understand that literally. I think it’s a reference to him finally giving in to the God of heaven. He recognized that God was the real King.

None of Nebuchadnezzar’s, none of any man’s glory, could compare to the eternal glory of the God of heaven and earth. And having had a mental and physical and spiritual restoration, Nebuchadnezzar gets restored politically. This is how he ends his story.

Verse 36—At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

What an amazing closing line, isn’t it? The greatest king in all the earth says of our God, “Those who walk in pride, He is able to humble.”

Do you and I really understand that about God? Have we really taken this message to heart? The truth is none fully embraces this truth all the time. We’re all still affected with pride, and it can show up in multiple ways. But we have the message of Daniel 4 to remind us how frail we are.

The immediate application of this passage is the personal application. Maybe we don’t use the same words Nebuchadnezzar did, but how easily do we go about our lives forgetting that everything we are and have and do is by the grace of God?

Your education. Your attractiveness. Your intelligence. Your artistic abilities. Your athletic abilities. Your relational abilities. Your sense of humor. Your communication abilities. Your ability to work and earn a living. Your ability to minister in the name of Christ. That all comes from God, but we forget it so easily.

We build, in our minds, monuments testifying to our own greatness. We expect people to notice us and to praise us for how wonderful we are. We want to rest in the recognition of others. We forget, as God said through the prophet Isaiah, “My glory I will not give to another.”

That’s just as true physically as it is true spiritually. Spiritual life is not our own. We know that. Our salvation is all from God. It’s all by grace. God saved us, and God sustains us. Everything you are and have and do is from the God of heaven. There are no self-made men and women.

When Paul was ministering to the Corinthians, he knew there was pride and division. And sadly, it all had a Christian spin on it. They were arguing over who was the better teacher and who was the better minister. And so, in 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says to them: What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

Again, that is true physically, and it is true spiritually. Your grades, your home, your family, your looks, your abilities—everything you are and have and do is because of God, and it’s for His glory not your own.

Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, we all need to learn to say: By the grace of God I am what I am.

Yesterday, the screen on my phone died. About 15 minutes before that, I had dropped it and it got wet, which normally isn’t a big issue. And in getting ready for this sermon, it reminded me, all of us are just little machines running on parts that go bad, aren’t we?

Our bodies, our senses, our minds, our muscles, our memories—sooner or later, it all deteriorates. We are not in complete control of our lives. But we know who is. Our God invites us to walk with Him in humility, having been released from the lie of independence. Recognizing how limited we are isn’t meant to lead us to despair. It leads to joy and peace because the weight of the world isn’t on our shoulders. We have a heavenly Father watching over us.

And when the difficulties and the pain of life come at us, we can receive like Paul did, as a reminder that we are finite. But God’s grace is sufficient for us. In our weakness, God’s power is made perfect. When I am weak, then I am strong. May God help us walk in weakness, so that we can be strong in Him.

That’s the personal application, but there’s a second application here—a political application. You might have noticed that the praises in the beginning of the chapter and at the end of the chapter, and even in between, include a lot of political language: dominions, kingdoms.

Remember, the book of Daniel was written with the Israelites exiles in mind. They were away from their home. They had been ripped from the Promised Land. The land that was theirs was now under the rule of powerful, foreign nations. And it was going to continue.

But God had not abandoned them. One the one hand, this story of Nebuchadnezzar was a personal reminder of humility, but it would have also been a reminder that no matter what happens in the world, no matter how unholy this world gets, God is still in charge.

This world is filled with men and women abusing their earthly authority, without a hint of remorse or a speck of glory to God. World leaders are going on a power trip. Hollywood celebrities are chiming in on issues, assuming the world needs to agree with what they say. How is this all going to end?

We know exactly how it’s all going to end. The rulers and the influencers of this world may reject the truth of God, but in the end, those who walk in pride our God is able to humble. In the end, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

So, we don’t need to panic. We don’t need to despair. Even the greatest and most terrifying ruler in this world will one day be humbled before our Lord. And our prayer is that it would happen now, while they’re are still living, so that they would honor Christ in repentance and faith, rather than at the final judgment, when they would only give glory to God in eternal judgment.

More in Daniel (English 2021)

July 10, 2022

The Promised End

June 26, 2022

A Troubling Vision

June 19, 2022

Wars in Heaven and Earth