Exposition of Daniel 4:1–18 An imperial message to remember

Daniel 4:1–18

1 King Nebuchadnezzar,
To the nations and peoples of every language, who live in all the earth:
May you prosper greatly!

2 It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.
3 How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.

4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. 5 I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. 6 So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. 7 When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. 8 Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)

9 I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. 10 These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. 11 The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.

13 “In the visions I saw while lying in bed, I looked, and there before me was a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. 14 He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.

“’Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.

17 “’The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.’

18 “This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”

Chapter 4 is Nebuchadnezzar’s own extraordinary account of how he came to faith in Yahweh, the Most High God. The chapter comes to us in the form of a message from Nebuchadnezzar to all the people in his empire (verse 1). What is so striking about the opening (verses 1–3) is that it eloquently expresses the might, majesty and eternal rule of the Most High God rather than describing the mighty acts of the Babylonian king. His subjects would have seen that emphasis as utterly unique. While ancient conquerors were not known for their humility, this message both begins and ends on that note, yet in no way does Nebuchadnezzar take credit. His subjects had not previously known him as a humble man. Wood explains one further motive: “Such a report would have clarified to his people the nature and significance of what had occurred during his years of absence from the throne.”[1]

In relation to the theme of Daniel, verse 3b says something vital about Yahweh: “His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.” These words were probably spoken near the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s 43-year reign, probably not later than the thirty-fourth year (571 B.C.). Miller adds: “Probably thirty years had transpired between the events of chapter 3 and those recorded here. Daniel would now have been about fifty years of age.”[2]

Another frightening dream

Though ancient kings were often away at war, Nebuchadnezzar is at home feeling “contented and prosperous” (verse 4). This pleasant context makes his terrifying dream all the more disturbing (verse 5). Wondering what it might mean, the king summons the interpreters and tells them the dream, but no interpretation is offered (verses 6–7). They too are afraid! Wanting the truth, the king summons Daniel (verse 8).

Even though it is likely that many years have passed since Daniel’s first dream interpretation, the king expresses high confidence in him (verse 9). In expressing the initial scene of his dream, Nebuchadnezzar says, “At the center of the earth was a towering tree” (verse 10, CEB). As the king watches, the tree grows even larger until it can be seen from the ends of the entire earth (verse 11). The tree’s abundance is such that “all living things lived off that tree” (verse 12, CEB). We will soon see that this scene of blissful abundance fits the “contented and prosperous” (verse 4) Nebuchadnezzar and his empire.

NIV robs the vision of its impact in verse 13. Miller explains: “[The Aramaic word] translated ‘I looked, and there before me’ is an interjection that expresses great surprise and might be rendered more emphatically ‘look!’ Nebuchadnezzar was astounded by this heavenly personage.”[3] What did he see? Not merely a “messenger” (NIV, NLT), a translation based on the idea that the being was an angel. But the Aramaic text is stressing a different function.  Miller explains: “‘Messenger’ is literally ‘one who is awake’ and occurs only in this chapter (verses 13, 17, 23) in the Bible. … The idea is that this heavenly being is awake and keeping watch over the human race.”[4] Accordingly, several English versions say “watcher” (ESV, CEB, NASB) while others say “sentinel” (NET) or “observer” (HCSB).

The watcher from heaven has apparently seen a triggering event and now executes action from heaven. He commands that the towering tree be cut down and its branches sheared off (verse 14). No longer will it provide fruit and shelter for all those it has sustained.

The clause “let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field” presents translation issues. First, the Aramaic text contains no word for “stump”; instead it has two Aramaic words that each mean “root” individually and which together mean “main root, tap-root” according to the standard Aramaic lexicon.[5] So, dump the stump (along with NET and CEB)! What, then, do we do with the phrase “bound with iron and bronze” (verse 15, NIV) or “with a band of iron and bronze about it” (NET)?  Several commentators say this metal band is there to protect the stump from damage and so to protect king Nebuchadnezzar from harm (looking ahead to the interpretation of the dream).[6] However, there is one little problem with that view: the Aramaic noun in question means “fetter,”[7] such as a shackle that restrains a prisoner or an animal. Collins explains, “In this case the fetter would represent an aspect of the bestial condition, which is imposed as punishment.”[8] So, instead of a metal band around a tree stump, we have a metal fetter that punitively restrains a man behaving like a beast.

Again, we have borrowed from the interpretation of verses yet to come in order to clarify the translation of verse 15. The Common English Bible hits the right note with: “But leave its deepest root in the earth, bound with iron and bronze in the field grass.”

Verse 16 has borne many attempts to make it more definite. One popular approach among conservative scholars has been to label the mental disorder lycanthropy — a mental disorder known to science — and the “seven times” has been interpreted to mean seven years.[9] While these conclusions may be correct, the arguments for them are not compelling. All that the context requires is that God takes action to strip from Nebuchadnezzar that which makes him human, places him on the level of a fettered beast, and leaves him in that state for an appropriate period. It was Yahweh that gave the animals into Nebuchadnezzar’s power (Dan. 2:28), and now he puts him down on that less-than-human level.

It is for Yahweh to give and for Yahweh to take away. In this case we are given insight into his reasons for doing so. In one of the thematic statements of the book, the watchers declare that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” That is the essential message of verse 17. In saying that the Most High sets over kingdoms “the lowest of men,” a dual idea is in play. In close context, this means that Yahweh can take someone who is mentally deranged, put them on the throne and make them a great ruler. Such was the case with Nebuchadnezzar. In distant context, the word “lowliest” takes on the meaning “humble,” and the entire chapter closes on Yahweh’s ability to make even the proud ruler humble (verse 37).

Having recounted his terrifying dream, Nebuchadnezzar braces himself to hear the truth from Daniel.

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


[1] Wood, Daniel, 100.

[2] Miller, Daniel, 128.

[3] Miller, Daniel, 133.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 133.

[5] HALOT, ‘iqqar, root, q.v.

[6] Wood, Daniel, 110, and Miller, Daniel, 133, take this view.

[7] HALOT, ’esur, fetter, q.v.; (the plural means “imprisonment”).

[8] Collins, Daniel, 227.

[9] Miller, Daniel, 134.

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