Exposition of Daniel 2:36–49 The God of Heaven

Daniel 2:36–49

36 “This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. 37 Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; 38 in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.

39 “After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. 40 Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron — for iron breaks and smashes everything — and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. 41 Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. 42 As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands — a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honor and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.”

48 Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. 49 Moreover, at Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court.

You have to wonder whether Nebuchadnezzar feels a chill go down his spine when he realizes that, unlike others, Daniel knows exactly what he had seen in his dream — the terrifying image smashed to dust by the world-engulfing stone. Hearing the interpretation may reveal threats against his kingdom or even his life. Courage is required to hear such things.

Daniel’s first statement defies Babylonian pride: “You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has granted you sovereignty, power, strength, and honor” (verse 37, NET). This one sentence dominates the entire interpretation by declaring that the God of heaven appoints rulers over the kingdoms of men, including mighty Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar thinks himself king of kings by military conquest, but, no, says Daniel; it was a gift. And his voice rings true because he is revealing things that no one else could possibly know. Nebuchadnezzar realizes this knowledge is unique because he has sentenced all seers without this knowledge to death.

In case anyone thinks that the authority God gives to Nebuchadnezzar is limited, God also grants him sovereignty over all people and animals within his empire (verse 38), a decision that reminds us of the authority given to Adam and Eve to be God’s vice-regents over the earth (Gen. 1:27–28). Times have changed, and mankind has grown more numerous, but God’s reign endures. And it is God who has declared that Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold.

Wood describes what is said about the second and third kingdoms: “Very little is said of either the second kingdom or the third, perhaps for the reason that each is described at greater length in Daniel’s later visions [in chapters 7–8].”[1] On the other hand, the description may be terse because the identification of these kingdoms is not the primary concern of God in giving the vision. Of far greater import is the fact that God granted power to Nebuchadnezzar and will eventually establish a kingdom that will never be destroyed (verse 44).

The portrayal of God as the Lord of history is more vital to understanding the vision than the resolution of curiosity about which materials represent which kingdoms. That statement is meant as a warning to those who indulge in prophetic curiosity in place of living in obedience to the living God. We will reserve a more detailed discussion of the kingdoms following the Babylonian kingdom, until we have the more detailed visions of Daniel 7.

Image element Materials Empire Duration (approx.)
Head Gold Babylonian 605–539 B.C.
Chest + arms Silver Medo-Persian 539–331 B.C.
Belly + thighs Bronze Alexandrian (Greek) 331–146? B.C.
Legs + feet Iron/iron+clay mix Roman/ Roman II 146? B.C. – 1453 A.D. /Still future
Stone Stone/Mountain Millennial (Messiah) ?? – forever


Daniel draws attention to the fact that the second kingdom is inferior to Nebuchadnezzar’s (verse 39). When you consider the entire image, it plainly deteriorates in quality of material as you move from head to foot. Commentators differ over how the second kingdom is inferior to the first and also on what the reason is for the decreasing value of the materials as attention moves from top to bottom. We can be certain that size is not the answer since the Medo-Persian empire that replaced the Babylonian empire was even larger. While some suggest that the quality of government deteriorated from one to the next, we prefer Miller’s idea: “Daniel seems to have been suggesting that the sinfulness of the world would continue to increase until the culmination of history.”[2] But, this conclusion is uncertain.

While the identifications shown in the table are a consensus of traditional Christian scholars — also using the visions of Daniel 7 — those scholars who reject the existence or validity of predictive prophecy would say otherwise. Goldingay, for example, tries to say that the stone represents Cyrus the Great[3], but that makes little sense in light of the stone becoming a mountain, representing a kingdom that “will itself endure forever” (verse 44). His kingdom fell like all the others.

The fourth kingdom, symbolized by iron, receives a lot more attention than the second and third. Rome’s successful application of military technology and power enabled it to defeat some very tough opponents (e.g. Carthage) — “so it will crush and break all the others” (verse 40). Yet the Roman Empire frequently suffered from internal divisions, just as verses 41–43 predict.

Traditional Christian scholars differ on the exact nature of the fourth kingdom. Miller explains:

Some scholars … contend that verses 44–45 refer to Christ’s spiritual kingdom in the hearts of believers that commenced at his first coming. … Other commentators … maintain that the kingdom in view is Christ’s physical reign on earth inaugurated immediately following his second advent. It follows that if the dominion described in verse 44 refers to Christ’s personal, earthly kingdom set up at his second coming, then the last part of the statue must represent an earthly empire existing immediately prior to Christ’s return.[4]

To further understand this difference of interpretation among traditional interpreters, note carefully that the great image has “legs of iron” (verse 33a) as well as “feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay” (verse 33b). No other zone of the image has two sub-zones like this one. The existence of this distinction allows us to say (along with Miller[5] and Wood[6]) that the iron legs represent ancient Rome and the mixed-iron-and-clay feet and toes represent a ten-nation empire — some strong and some weak — arising from ancient Rome and existing just before Christ returns. In reaching this conclusion we are partially relying on information from Daniel’s visions in Daniel 7–8, and we will say more when those more detailed visions are explained.

Verse 44 introduces some mysteries that require information from Daniel 7 to resolve. First, the phrase “those kings” has no obvious referent. The previous verses have described kingdoms, not kings. However, parts of the visions in chapter 7 relate to ten kings, a fact that correlates well with the (ten) toes of the image in verse 42. If we assume that interpretation, then it is during the time of those ten future kings that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (verse 44a).

What becomes clear in verse 44 is that the kingdoms of men (represented by the terrifying image) will suddenly be destroyed and replaced by a kingdom established by the God of heaven (represented by the stone that becomes a mountain filling the whole world). There was no great battle at Christ’s first coming, but his second coming will trigger the dramatic and sudden destruction of all those word powers arrayed against his return (Revelation 19:19–21). These facts fit well with the image of the stone shattering the image whose fragments are blown away.

In verse 45b, the segment saying, “A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this,” should be understood to mean after the events just described: the shattering of human kingdoms by the stone (verse 45a). That translation is much more exact than the indistinct timing expressed by “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future” (verse 45b, NIV). What is it, then, that God has shown will happen “after this”? The full and final replacement of human kingdoms by the kingdom of God, right after those human kingdoms are suddenly shattered and swept away.

Following this dramatic revelation, Nebuchadnezzar’s reacts decisively and yet paradoxically: he humbles himself before Daniel (verse 46). However, the fact that Daniel does not object, along with Nebuchadnezzar’s immediate praise for God as “the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries” (verse 47), indicates that the praise is meant for God. This high praise for God from Nebuchadnezzar is the climax of the chapter.[7] That is an accurate conclusion about the story in its own time and place. We live much later and tend to be interested in the current implications of Daniel’s prophecies, and yet the same conclusion remains valid for us today. We too need to recognize the majesty of God who alone is the God of gods and King of all kings.

Miller summarizes, “Nebuchadnezzar still had not come to exclusive faith in Yahweh as his continued worship of other gods proves.”[8] Perhaps so, but he is on the track toward such faith, as future chapters will demonstrate.

True to his word, the king gives Daniel administrative control of the capital and the surrounding province as well as the supervision of the Babylonian sages (verse 48). Daniel wisely requested, and got, his three friends appointed as administrators under him in the province of Babylon.

In chapter 1, God’s power to change events came to the attention of Ashpenaz, the overseer of the palace officials. In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar himself sees that God is the king of the ages. The knowledge of God’s supremacy spreads ever wider. When it pleases him to bring human history to an end, the kingdom of God will destroy forever the kingdoms of men and replace them. Those who belong to God will prosper in his kingdom; those who do not will blow away like dust in the wind.

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, 68.

[2] Miller, Daniel, 94.

[3] Goldingay, Daniel, 51.

[4] Miller, Daniel, 97.

[5] Miller, Daniel, 96–99.

[6] Wood, Daniel, 69–71.

[7] Miller, Daniel, 103.

[8] Miller, Daniel, 103.

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