Exposition of Daniel 4:19–27 Fair warning

Daniel 4:19–27

19 Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”

Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds — 22 Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.

23 “Your Majesty saw a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live with the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.’

24 “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: 25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”

After Nebuchadnezzar finishes recounting his dream, Daniel is appalled[1] and is momentarily terrified by the thoughts running through his head, but the king swiftly reassures him (verse 19a).

Daniel answers with a verbless sentence that amounts to a fervent wish: “My lord, the dream to your enemies and the interpretation to your adversaries!” (verse 19b). English versions have added various verbs to make a viable sentence. Daniel describes the world-spanning tree in all its abundance, and then says, “It is you, O king!” verse 22a, NET). Since Nebuchadnezzar had been terrified by the dream, there is little doubt that he anticipated this interpretation.

Next, Daniel recalls the appearance of the watcher from heaven (verse 23) and explains the vision (verses 24–26). Daniel leaves no doubt in verse 24 that the decree against Nebuchadnezzar was issued by the Most High God. The danger he faces does not come from among men but from heaven itself. As such, there is no resisting it; instead, he must hope for some basis for relief in the decree.

The divine decree about Nebuchadnezzar’s future contains several elements: (1) isolated from people and living among the animals of the field, (2) eating grass “like the ox” and experiencing the rigors of the weather, and (3) enduring an appropriate period of these behaviors until he understands that the Most High is the Lord of all kingdoms and all kings (verse 25). Whether the metal fetter is literal or figurative of the limits set for the king by God is not clear; both are possible. While this period of less-than-human existence might feel pointless to the one in its grip, God plainly has a transformative purpose in it. Destroying Nebuchadnezzar would have been a trivial matter, but saving him from himself takes grace, discipline and time.

Two matters have made interpretation of these revelations difficult. First, conservative scholars have gone to some effort to identify Nebuchadnezzar’s divinely-caused affliction using standard psychological categories (e.g. lycanthropy or boanthropy). Perhaps they felt that such an identification would make the explanation more acceptable to those who reject supernatural causes. Such efforts seem misguided since the testimony from heaven is that God caused this mental state and later lifted it for a purely theological reasons. It makes no difference whatever if scientists or psychologists find the malady a realistic possibility; God is not waiting for their diagnosis or their approval!

Another difficulty is the phrase “seven times will pass by for you” (verse 25); the word “seven” is clear enough, but what is the unit of measure that belongs to “times” — days, weeks, months, years? Conservative scholars, such as Wood and Miller, generally believe this Aramaic noun (`iddanin) means “years” in this context. The standard lexicon offers both “time” and “year” as possible meanings for the word,[2] which happens to be plural (“times” or “years”) in our verses. English versions generally follow the same path as NIV by saying “seven times” and not attempting to guess on a definite measure. We agree.

Wood says that the interpretation “years” fits the likely duration of Nebuchadnezzar’s illness and explains: “To speak of seven days, or weeks, or even months appears to be too short in view of the overall story.”[3] Miller accepts and repeats this view.[4] I do not find the argument to be convincing, much less compelling. One week on your knees eating grass would be quite instructive, especially for a proud man accustomed to luxury. It is difficult to see why a period of years is required, but the possibility remains.

NIV once again mentions the nonexistent “stump” in verses 23 and 26, but the latter verse is best translated by NET: “They said to leave the taproot of the tree, for your kingdom will be restored to you when you come to understand that heaven rules.” See our explanation of verse 15 for more details about the taproot.

Verse 26 concludes the interpretation on a more hopeful note. Once Nebuchadnezzar understands — with the implication that he also assents — that Heaven rules, his kingdom will be restored. In apparent concern for the well-being of a king he both likes and admires, Daniel risks adding respectful but challenging advice (verse 27). He calls on the king to wipe away his sins by behaving in accordance with righteousness, which in this context probably means humility (= righteousness) must replace pride (= sins). Further, the king’s prosperity was not being shared by all his subjects, so Daniel urges him to show kindness to the oppressed. Daniel suggests that such a change might lead to a continuation of the king’s prosperity.

Daniel’s closing suggestion, and the tantalizing possibility that crushing judgment might be avoided, provides a crucial theological lesson. God has declared through the dream and through Daniel what he will do, but humble repentance can still alter the picture. Under similar circumstances, God had spared a repentant Nineveh from impending judgment not so many years before this (Jonah 1–4). What does this prove? Heaven rules. Any judgment that God declares, he is free to rescind. It is for us to remember that he is God and we are not, and to live a humble life of mercy under his compassionate rule.

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

 

[1] HALOT, shamam, be appalled, q.v.

[2] HALOT, `iddanin, time, q.v.

[3] Wood, Daniel, 111.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 134–35.

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