Kings must know, or shall be made to know, that the most high God rules in their
kingdoms . . . and that he appoints over them whomsoever he will.
—Matthew Henry, Commentary on Daniel (1712)
When man seeks to usurp God’s ultimate authority, God then shows the creature how dependent he really is . . . .
—Gary DeMar, God and Government (1997)
The Terror of Dreams
In the fourth chapter of Daniel we find a pretty formal letter from the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, to the people living in his empire. It’s Hebrew Scripture written by a Gentile king. It’s also the story of his conversion.
The events Nebuchadnezzar records begin with a troubling dream. He had had one of those before (Dan. 2). So when he awoke, he called on his wise men for an interpretation as he had with the earlier dream. But they failed him again. At last Daniel came in, and Nebuchadnezzar poured out the story of his dream. It went like this:
The king saw a great tree in the midst of the earth. Its branches reached to heaven. It gave food to man and beast, and the birds of the air lodged in its branches. But then a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven and cried aloud against the tree. The tree was to be cut down, its fruit scattered, and the birds and beasts chased from its ruin. Only its stump was to be left. That stump was to be bound in iron and brass, wet with the dew of heaven, and left with the beasts of the field. Its heart was to be changed from that of a man to that of a beast until “seven times” passed over it. The intent of all this was that “the living may know that the most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever he will, and sets up over it the lowliest of men” (4:17).
Daniel was astonished and troubled at the dream. He saw in it the judgment of God. The king insisted on an interpretation. Daniel gave it.
The Judgment of God
The tree was Nebuchadnezzar himself. In his position as emperor, he provided sustenance and protection to the nations and people of his realm. He was a veritable Tree of Life. For Nebuchadnezzar was emperor by God’s’s appointment. That made him responsible for the care and protection of God’s covenant people. In this respect he was an image and forerunner of Christ, and so the description of their kingdoms is similar (see Matt. 13:31-32; Ezek. 17:22ff).
Interestingly, some trees in Scripture are symbolic “living ladders” to heaven, always with their very life coming from God. And, unlike the brick tower at the center of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had the privilege of actually standing between heaven and earth, hearing the words of God’s prophet and putting them into effect within his empire. It was an awesome privilege, and one that Nebuchadnezzar, in his self-righteousness and pride, had sorely abused.
Soon, then, God’s judgment would fall. Nebuchadnezzar would be driven from among men, live with the beasts of the field, eat grass like an ox, and be wet with the dew of heaven until “seven times” (seasons? months? years?) passed over him. But the remaining stump pointed to a future restoration after he learned that “the heavens rule” (v. 26).
Daniel’s counsel was immediately practical: “Break off your sins by righteousness, and your iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of your tranquility” (v. 27). His prescription was repentance, particularly with regard to his political office. He needed to turn from sin and act more like the coming Messiah. Of course, that means he needed to trust in the coming Messiah.
But twelve months later, as Nebuchadnezzar walked in his palace, he gave voice again to his pride: “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” (v. 30). Immediately, a voice from heaven pronounced his judgment. Nebuchadnezzar lost his sanity and was driven from among men. He ate grass as an ox, and his body was wet with dew until hair looked liked eagle feathers and his nails like talons.
Madness Is in Their Hearts
Sin, by its very nature, is madness (Eccles. 9:3). It is mad for man to defy his Creator, to ignore final judgment, to pretend that he and the universe are self-originating, self-directing, and self-sustaining. The restraining grace of God keeps our natural madness in check most of the time. But sometimes God in judgment surrenders us to that madness; and sometimes that judgment is a step toward redemption. God lets us taste our madness so that we will lift our eyes to heaven.
At the end of God’s appointed time, Nebuchadnezzar did just that and his sanity returned. This is how he describes it:
And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: and all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? (Dan. 4:34-35).
Nebuchadnezzar had learned the sovereignty of the Most High. With the birth of his faith and the return of his reason, his counselors and lords returned to him and he was reestablished in his kingdom. God added restored his glory and honor and added even more majesty to his reign. The end of Nebuchadnezzar’s letter is a parting testimony of praise:
Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase (v. 37).
King of Kings
Nebuchadnezzar was the emperor of the world, at least from Israel’s perspective. He was a foreign monarch who made no pretense of knowing Israel’s God. He was a religious polytheist and a functional pluralist. He was an intelligent man trained in the best science and literature of the day. He was a brilliant general and an even more accomplished builder.
What could a Hebrew slave, a bureaucrat and sometime preacher, possibly have to say to such a man?
Well, quite a lot, it turns out. And it was all based on words and theology of Hebrew Scripture. Daniel didn’t hesitate to tell Nebuchadnezzar that the God of the Hebrews had put him in power and was ready to yank that power away if he didn’t repent of his personal and political sins. What’s more, Daniel was right, for Daniel was the spokesman of the true Ruler of the world, the King of all kings.
Ours is an age in which both the world and, too often, the church tell us that the Bible has nothing to say to kings and politicians. The world and the church are dead wrong. The Bible speaks in no uncertain terms to the political rulers of this world. They are under the authority of the Creator God and His Son and Messiah, Jesus Christ (Ps. 2; Matt. 28:18). They ought to obey Him both in their private and public lives.
Jesus rules with a rod of iron: He saves, He converts, and He destroys. And therefore the Psalmist tells all of the magistrates and kings of the world to submit to that rule, to “kiss the Son lest He be angry” (Ps. 2:12). Those who will not submit will “perish from the way”; the Lord will “strike through kings in day of His wrath” (Ps. 110:5). For Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Daniel’s God is our God.