Exposition of Daniel 2:17–36a Words to heaven and from heaven

Daniel 2:17–36a

17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19 During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven 20 and said:

“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.

22 He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.

23 I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king.”

24 Then Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

25 Arioch took Daniel to the king at once and said, “I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can tell the king what his dream means.”

26 The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”

27 Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these:

29 “As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. 30 As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.

31 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue — an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

36 “This was the dream …”

Words to heaven and from heaven

In reading the story of Daniel, it is vital to remember that Daniel did not foresee how events would go. In particular, during this long night Daniel did not know whether Yahweh — here called “the God of heaven” (verse 17) — would answer his prayer or not. The biographer James Boswell once wrote: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Confronted with this emergency, Daniel did not rush to the library for Babylonian wisdom; he briefed his friends and then led them before a higher throne than Babylon’s. Daniel urged his friends to seek God’s mercy (verse 18). Daniel understood what many people today do not — that Yahweh’s identity is grounded in his mercy and compassion. This is most obvious in Exodus 34:6, where Yahweh reveals himself to Moses by saying, “Yahweh — Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth” (HCSB).

While we can certainly imagine that the prayers were earnest and heartfelt, there is no reason to think that it went on for hours or required the kind of bizarre behavior seen among the Babylonian astrologers and sorcerers. A case in point would be the many hours of loud prayer and bloodletting by the four hundred prophets of Baal in their confrontation with the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 18:2-–40), who spoke roughly 58 words (English translation) before fire fell from heaven.

The great acts of God always move his people to praise. Initially, Daniel praises God as eternal ruler of both time and kings; he changes both as it pleases him (verses 20–21a). Next, Daniel says that God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, even the knowledge of hidden things (verses 21b–22). He concludes with more personal language, thanking God for revealing to them “the king’s matter” (verse 23, ESV, against the more narrow “the king’s dream”–NIV). God had revealed to Daniel both the dream and its interpretation.

There is no reason to believe that Daniel delayed in arranging to see Nebuchadnezzar, but imagine the mixed feelings for one condemned to death to approach the chief executioner to set up the audience (verse 24). Daniel first speaks to block further executions, giving the clear signal that no such killing will be required (verse 24). The words describing Arioch (verse 25) reflect both urgency and fear, both quite fitting for a man serving so volatile a ruler as Nebuchadnezzar and the pending order to execute all the wise men of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar gets straight to the point: “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?” (verse 26). Leon Wood describes both Nebuchadnezzar’s attitude and Daniel’s response: “The young man had said he would return with the information, but Nebuchadnezzar would have had serious doubts that he could. … Note, however, that [Daniel] did not begin with the information itself, but with making clear to the king to whom the credit for it was due.”[1]

First, Daniel gets the Babylonian wise men off the hook — possibly a literal hook — by saying they cannot reveal the mystery. This also means that the gods of Babylon were powerless to know or reveal Nebuchadnezzar’s thoughts. However, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (verse 27). Consider that if God knows the thoughts of the king, he knows your thoughts as well!

Daniel’s summary of the vision is inadequately captured by the NIV: “He has shown Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come” (verse 28). The italicized phrase is better translated by ESV (“what will be in the latter days”) and HCSB (“what will happen in the last days”). Wood provides an excellent explanation for the phrase in question and supports ESV and HCSB:

This [Aramaic] phrase be´charit yomayya´  is used fourteen times in the Old Testament and regularly refers to the closing portion of a time period then in the mind of the speaker or writer (cf. Gen. 49:1). From the nature of the dream, the time period in view here is Gentile history, brought to a close by Christ’s millennial kingdom (cf. verses 44, 45).[2]

Both John Collins[3] and John Goldingay[4] translate the relevant Aramaic phrase with “at the end of the era” (verse 28b), thus placing the emphasis on the final kingdom in the vision soon to be described.

But, while the dream was ultimately used by God to show Nebuchadnezzar events extending to the end of the era (Christ’s return and millennial kingdom), Nebuchadnezzar’s thoughts begin much more modestly as he lies in bed thinking about “what would be after this” (verse 29b, ESV). The italicized phrase “refers only to days which Nebuchadnezzar could expect to occur within his own lifetime.”[5] This conclusion by Wood is supported by extensive research on the comparable Hebrew phrase found forty-three times in the Old Testament.[6] The king merely wonders what comes next, but God shows him so much more!

The terrifying colossus

Before Nebuchadnezzar has a chance to see details, he is overwhelmed with fear due to the huge, dazzling image that suddenly stands before him. ESV: “Its appearance was frightening” (verse 31b). HCSB: “Its appearance was terrifying” (verse 31b). NLT: “It was a frightening sight” (verse 31b).

Getting a grip on his fear, Nebuchadnezzar realizes that the statute has several zones: the head is fine gold; the chest and arms are made of silver; the belly and thighs consist of bronze; the legs are made of iron; and the feet are a mixture of iron and baked clay (verses 32–33).

Transfixed by the sight, the king continues to watch as a stone breaks of from a mountain (see verse 45 for this extra detail) and smashes against the feet of the statue (verse 34). The violent impact shatters the entire image into material carried away by the wind, like chaff during the threshing of wheat (verse 35a). After the wind carries away the fragments of the shattered image, the stone becomes a mountain that encompasses the whole earth (verse 35b). “This was the dream …” (verse 36a).

The ease with which the stone destroys the terrifying image sends a compelling message, but what is that message?

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 

[1] Leon J. Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998) 63.

[2] Wood, Daniel, 64.

[3] John J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 150.

[4] John E. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1989) 31.

[5] Wood, Daniel, 65.

[6] B. Applewhite, “Chronological Problems in Joel,” Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976, 48–9.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!