Exposition of Daniel 4:28–37 Holding back God’s hand

Daniel 4:28–37

28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. 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.”

33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.

34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”

36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Before we plunge into the details of the story, it is important to take a longer view. Daniel’s interpretation was so unusual as to defy belief. The most powerful man in the world will be banished, eat grass for a long time and then resume his reign — how were such things even remotely possible? Yet, in one of the book’s most astonishing passages, the king himself reports, “All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar” (verse 28a). Predictive prophecy is not only possible, some of its unlikely details have already been verified by someone who lived through the experience. When God speaks of events to come, the assured outcome is that “all this happened.” Men and women of faith will take God at his word.

Our story resumes twelve months after the terrifying dream and the advice from Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar repent. In telling his own story, the king makes no comment about whether he had heeded that advice, even if briefly. Instead, he chooses to focus on a day when the pride simply gushed out of him, with dreadful consequences (verses 28–29).

You might say that Nebuchadnezzar picks a poor place to prance about while boasting of what he had built (verses 29–30). A long time earlier, another group of people had gathered at Babel, the Hebrew name for Babylon, to build a city and a tall tower “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Their intended rebellion against heaven was short-lived because Yahweh confused their language so that they scattered. This time he confuses the mind of one man, the greatest king on earth.

The king’s palace was one of the highest structures in the city, and the view from the roof was something few got the chance to enjoy. From that vantage point, the king could see many structures he had built (verse 30). The king’s boast is clearly heard by the watchers, and the answer from heaven takes the form of a voice telling him that the kingdom has been taken from him (verse 31). Wood points out the irony: “Nebuchadnezzar was accustomed to giving words of doom to others, but this one was coming to him.”[1]

We must wonder whether the king left the roof of his palace with a clear mind. It is not hard to imagine that by the time he was taken away, the sights from his roof meant nothing to him. He himself reports that the predicted consequences were “immediately” fulfilled (verse 33). So begin the “seven times” required to bring change to the heart of a great king.

Again we are faced with the problem concerning this time of eating grass, living in the fields and feeling the dew. It is our view that Daniel would have been instrumental in protecting the king and explaining that his eventual return to clear thought and sovereignty had been declared by the Most High God. If anyone should disagree, it is not unlikely that Daniel could have explained that something worse than eating grass was an option for the Most High to bring upon those who opposed him. In our view, seven weeks or seven months seem more likely as the duration of the humiliation than seven years.

When the time without reason ends, the eyes accustomed to looking at the splendor of Babylon look instead to heaven (verse 34). What is restored to Nebuchadnezzar after his humiliation ends? Some English versions (NIV, NET, HCSB) say it was his “sanity,” while other versions (ESV, NLT, CEB, NASB) say it was his “reason.” The Aramaic noun generally means “understanding.”[2] We favor the restoration of “reason” since we believe the king was not insane but had been reduced from humanity to the existence of a beast of the field. In that state, he lacked “understanding” in the same way that your dog does not understand which of your bills needs to be paid next, but that does not make him insane.

When the king’s humanity was restored to him, the evidence was his understanding. What he understands focuses on the Most High, who both lives and rules forever (verse 34). The jarring idea that “all the peoples of the earth are regarded an nothing” (verse 35a) does not mean that God — who sent Christ to die for the world — is uncaring about their welfare. It means that God has the authority and power to make decisions and take actions “as he pleases.” The Most High does not need to take a poll or consult any king before acting. No one can stop him, and no one can demand an accounting of his actions.

God had removed Nebuchadnezzar at the height of his power, and restores him to all he had before and more (verse 36). It is from this most exalted position on earth that Nebuchadnezzar makes an ongoing practice of exalting the “King of heaven” (verse 37), and his words and actions are such as to convince us that his transformation involved his eternal salvation as well. Such unlikely faith is also indicated by Yahweh calling him “my servant” (Jer. 25:9, 27:6, 43:10), a title used only for men such as the Messiah, Abraham, Moses, David, Job, and Isaiah. No other foreign person is ever called “my servant” by Yahweh.

God is certainly able to humble those who walk in pride (verse 37), and he is also willing to accept their allegiance. In that there is hope for all.

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, 120.

[2] HALOT, manda‘, understanding, q.v.

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