First, some believe that 4:1-3 is more properly a conclusion to chp. 3 than an introduction to chp. 4. However, 3:28-30 is a perfectly adequate ending to the story of that chapter, even as 4:1-3 is an appropriate introduction to the narrative of chapter 4 in which God does indeed perform a 'sign for Neb in demonstrating that His kingdom and dominion are eternal (other 'signs would include the dream and its interpretation in chp. 2 and the three men delivered from the furnace in chp. 3). If taken in this way we see a fairly well-structured literary outline for the chapter. The king begins and ends with an ascription of praise to the Most High (1-3; 34-37), while the main story divides into two parts: the narration of the dream (4-18) and the interpretation of the dream (19-33).
Second, the time when the events of this chapter occurred cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. However, it was sufficiently late in Neb's reign that he could speak of his building projects as complete (4:30). Also, if the 'seven periods of time (4:16) refer to seven years (and this is by no means certain), the dream cannot have occurred later than Neb's 35th year of rule (he ruled 43 years altogether). 'These factors together place the time of the dream likely between the thirtieth and thirty-fifth year of Neb's reign, when Daniel was between forty-five and fifty years old, and when twenty-five to thirty years had elapsed since the deliverance of the three friends from the fiery furnace (Wood, 99).
Third, the chapter employs the first person singular in vv. 1-18, 20-27, 34-37, and the third person singular in vv. 19, 28-33. This may indicate that Neb himself wrote the account and that Daniel later included it in the book. The reason why Neb would have wanted to write this account is to clarify for the people the nature and significance of his obviously bizarre experience. The shift to the third person in vv. 28-33 is probably due to the subject matter. Neb felt more at ease describing his insanity as if he were an observer; that is to say, it enabled him to distance himself from what was clearly a humiliating condition. Or yet again, he speaks in the third person since he was not truly himself, i.e, as if he were another.
A. Doxological Introduction 4:1-3
Is this decree by Neb the expression of a regenerate heart? We will discuss Neb's alleged 'conversion later, but note well that commentators differ on the significance of this utterance. According to Baldwin, 'there is nothing in the poetry of verse 3, despite reminiscences of the language of the Psalms, that absolutely demands knowledge of the Scriptures. Marduk in the Babylonian Epic of Creation was thought of in similar terms: 'For unspecified time shall thy word stand inviolate, To promote and abase lie both in thy power' (110). On the other hand, both Young and Wood see here the theology of Ps. 145:13 on the lips of a converted man ('Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion endures throughout all generations).
Wood comments on the phrase 'in all the earth (v. 1): 'Both the Assyrian and the Babylonian kings thought of themselves as rulers over all the earth, so describing themselves in their inscriptions. Actual dominion extended only from the Zagros mountains to Egypt, but this was the known world of the day (101).
Note v. 3b. God's kingdom and rule and dominion do indeed continue undiminished from one generation to the next, even though at times in history it seems as if God is in retreat or has abdicated his throne because evil appears to run rampant and unchecked and unjudged. As for Neb, 'earthly might acknowledges the power of God; one who rules for a while as king acknowledges one whose kingship is unconstrained by time (Goldingay, 91).
B. Nebuchadnezzar's Dream: its content 4:4-18
1. the dream 4:4-5
a. Neb's peace and prosperity v. 4
'The picture we are given of Neb. in v. 4 is that of the successful and satisfied potentate, not unlike that of the rich landowner in the parable of Luke 12:15-21. The king is at the pinnacle of achievement. He could well afford to be 'at ease' in his house, for his kingdom was indeed prospering. . . . Both personally and politically all was well. What could possibly disturb this scene of tranquility and confidence? (Anderson, 40).
b. Neb's fear and alarm v. 5
2. the Babylonian court magicians 4:6-7
a. summoned by Neb v. 6
Evidently over the years (since the incident of chapter two) Neb's confidence in them re-emerged. Perhaps since then they had successfully interpreted dreams for him and others.
b. unable or unwilling (?) to interpret the dream v. 7
Two observations. (1) Unlike chp. 2, Neb does not require them to supply the content as well as the meaning of the dream. (2) The text is ambiguous. Lit., it reads, 'they were not ones making known the interpretation to me. It may not be the case that they were unable to interpret the dream but only unwilling, and for reasons similar to those that made Daniel himself hesitate (4:19). However, see v. 18.
3. Daniel (Belteshazzar) 4:8-9
Why did Daniel come in only after the failure of the court magicians?
* Keil suggests that Neb has simply forgotten Daniel and the events of chapter two, many years having passed since that event.
* Young, following Calvin, believes Neb remembered all too well: knowing that the dream probably foretold his humiliation at the hands of Daniel's God, Neb wanted nothing to do with either of them.
* Custom demanded that the chief of the wise men (Daniel) be summoned last (but no evidence exists for any such custom).
* Daniel was considered more an officer of state than a wise man, and accordingly was not called first (but see 4:9a).
* Others argue that Daniel was last of his own choosing. He intentionally waited until the ignorance of the court magicians was manifest in order that the power of God might be all the more glorious.
What is the meaning of the phrase, 'a spirit of holy gods? What of the possible translation, 'the Spirit of the Holy God?
4. Neb explains the dream 4:10-18
a. the great tree depicted vv. 10-12
Cf. Ezek. 31:2-18; 17:2-24; 19:10ff.; 31:3ff; Amos 2:9.
b. the great tree destroyed vv. 13-17
Two issues emerge here. First, who or what is the 'angelic watcher, the holy one? The word 'angelic is not in the original text. Nevertheless, it is most likely a reference to an angelic being, one among many whom God has assigned to watch over the activities of the human race and in some sense mediate God's rule. Second, what is the significance of the 'stump with its roots in the ground and the 'band of iron and bronze placed upon it? Most likely the ongoing presence of a 'stump indicates that Neb will survive to rule again in spite of his experience. The 'band may symbolize his preservation. Young and Keil believe it points to the withdrawal of his freedom through the fetter of insanity.
c. concluding request 4:18
C. Nebuchadnezzar's Dream: its interpretation 4:19-27
1. Daniel's hesitation 4:19
2. Daniel's interpretation 4:20-26
a. the great tree depicted = Neb's prosperity/power vv. 20-22
b. the great tree destroyed = Neb's punishment vv. 23-26
The word translated 'grass = lit., 'herbage, i.e., vegetables (probably squash; I can hardly think of a worse form of punishment!).
3. Daniel's plea 4:27
Young differs from most commentators who believe that had Neb repented he would have escaped this humiliating experience:
'It should be noted that the predicted madness of the king is to come for the express purpose of bringing him to the knowledge of the Truth. The judgment is for the purpose of converting Neb. Daniel exhorts the king to repent so that the period in which he will reign prosperously may be lengthened. The predicted experience is to come (that the king may be brought to the knowledge of the Truth), but Neb, if he ceases to do evil and learns to do well, may enjoy a longer period of prosperity upon the throne. The text says nothing of an averting of the predicted judgment, but merely speaks of a lengthening of a period of tranquility (108).
D. Nebuchadnezzar's Dream: its fulfillment 4:28-33
1. Neb's pride 4:28-32
[Why did it not happen for 12 months? Was this time graciously given to him so that he might repent? Cf. Jonah and '40 days.]
a. the arrogance of Neb vv. 28-30
Babylon truly was a great and visually impressive city. It was surrounded by a system of double walls, the outer one of which was 17 miles long and wide enough for two chariots to race side by side on its top. Of the cities eight gates, the most beautiful was the Ishtar Gate. The processional street to which it gave access was 1,000 yards long and was decorated on each side by enameled bricks which displayed 120 lions and 575 dragons and bulls (Marduk and Bel symbols). There were more than 50 temples in the city. The 'Hanging Gardens were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 'These were elevated gardens, high enough to be seen beyond the city walls. They boasted many different kinds of plants and palm trees. Ingenious hoists had been contrived by which to raise water to the high terraces from the Euphrates River. It is believed that the gardens were made by the king especially for the enjoyment of his wife, who had been raised in the mountains of Media (Wood, 119).
b. the declaration of God vv. 31-32
Not only does Neb receive revelatory dreams from God, he even hears the audible voice!
2. Neb's punishment 4:33
R. K. Harrison (Introduction to the Old Testament) says that in modern psychiatric terminology Neb 'would be described as suffering from paranoia, a mental disorder characterized by a lack of integrated relationship with environmental reality, which is generally complicated by the presence of systematized delusions (1115). The condition described by Daniel, however, constitutes a rare form of monomania, a condition in which the sufferer is deranged in one significant area only. In Neb's case, he suffered from what is known as boanthropy in which the victim imagines himself to be a cow or bull and acts accordingly. The European werewolf legends are based on a related form of monomania known as lycanthropy. There have even been cases of avianthropy in which the person is convinced he/she is a bird and roosts each night in a tree!
Harrison describes his own personal encounter in 1946 with a victim of boanthropy. The patient was in a British mental institution. He was in his mid-twenties and had been hospitalized off and on for five years. Harrison writes:
'He was of average height and weight with good physique, and was in excellent bodily health. His mental symptoms included pronounced anti-social tendencies, and because of this he spent the entire day from dawn to dusk outdoors, in the grounds of the institution. He was only able to exercise a rather nominal degree of responsibility for his physical needs, and consequently was washed and shaved daily by an attendant. During the winter of 1946-47, when the writer observed him, he wore only light underclothing and a two-piece suit, with or without a sweater, during his daily peregrinations. The attendant reported to the writer that the man never wore any kind of raincoat or overcoat, and that he had never sustained such ill effects as . . . influenza or pneumonia.
His daily routine consisted of wandering around the magnificent lawns with which the otherwise dingy hospital situation was graced, and it was his custom to pluck up and eat handfuls of the grass as he went along. On observation he was seen to discriminate carefully between grass and weeds, and on inquiry from the attendant the writer was told that the diet of this patient consisted exclusively of grass from the hospital lawns. He never ate institutional food with the other inmates, and his only drink was water, which was served to him in a clean container so as to make it unnecessary for him to drink from muddy puddles. The writer was able to examine him cursorily, and the only physical abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a coarse, thickened condition of the finger-nails.
Without institutional care the patient would have manifested precisely the same physical conditions as those mentioned in Daniel 4:33. After having passed through a difficult and debilitating period occasioned by the Second World War and its aftermath, the writer was soberly impressed by the superb physical condition of the patient. His skin exhibited all the clinical indications of a healthy body; his muscles were firm and well-developed, his eyes were bright and clear, and he appeared to manifest a total immunity to all forms of physical disease. According to the attendant he was quiet in his behavior, reasonably co-operative for one so far divorced from reality, and never damaged institutional property (1116-17).
One can well imagine the snide comments made by Neb's servants: 'The old man has finally gone round the bend! 'The king's a cow! 'Hey, where's Nebuchadnezzar? Oh, he's out back grazing! 'What's the king up to today? Oh, he's just chewing his cud! 'I'll be back in a minute. I'm going to milk the king. 'Anyone for Neb-burgers?
E. Doxological Conclusion 4:34-37
'It is important to note, writes Baldwin, 'the connection here between the exercise of faith and the return of reason. While he was full of his own importance Neb's world revolved round himself. It did not strike him how unrealistic this was until he was brought low by illness. Sanity begins with a realistic self-appraisal (116). Evidently Neb was able to retain a sense of self and his relationship to God while yet in this condition. Since the purpose of the discipline was in response to his pride, there must be a measure of voluntary humility before the condition would lift. The fact that he raised his eyes toward heaven indicates 'an act of submission, surrender, and acknowledgment of his need for the Most High God (Miller, 143).
The affirmation by Neb of divine omnipotence is important. The emphasis is on the insolence of disputing with God over what He may or may not do.
God has both the right and power to do whatever He pleases (cf. Ps. 115:3). The language used here is taken from the custom of striking or spanking the hand of a child who reaches for something off-limits. How dare we treat God that way! No one can slap his hand and question his right to act as he chooses. Neb would be the first to say: 'What God has done to me was his right. I have no grounds for complaining.
Was Neb converted?
Baldwin says No. See comments on 4:1-3. She also believes that Neb's reference to God as 'the King of heaven is indicative of his lost condition: 'This impersonal reference to God keeps Him at a distance, and this last word of Neb in the book, while formally acknowledging the power and justice of God, appears to fall short of penitence and true faith (116). Also, if truly saved, why didn't Neb restore the religious culture of Israel and release the captives or display other virtues which are the fruit of regeneration?
E. J. Young says Yes. His arguments:
'(1) There is discernible a progress in his knowledge of God. Cf. 2:47 with 3:28 and finally with 4:34,35.
(2) The king acknowledges the utter sovereignty of God with respect to his own experience (4:37b).
(3) The king utters true statements concerning the omnipotence of the true God (4:34,35).
(4) The king would worship this God, whom he identifies as King of heaven (4:37a). These reasons lead me to believe that, although the faith of Neb. may indeed have been weak and his knowledge meagre, yet his faith was saving faith, and his knowledge true (114).
To this I would add Neb's statement of faith in God's 'truth and 'justice (4:37). Although we can't be certain, I believe he was genuinely converted.