His Dominion Endures
February 11, 2024

His Dominion Endures

Passage: Daniel 4:1-37
Service Type:

His Dominion Endures
Daniel 4:1-37
by William Klock


In his day, Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest king who had ever lived and he ruled the greatest empire that had ever been.  But he lived in the shadow of another.  More than two thousand years before him, a king named Gilgamesh had ruled over Sumer, the first of the great Near Eastern kingdoms.  Through the centuries Gilgamesh had become a larger-than-life legend—the greatest king of all time, who ruled over the greatest kingdom.  In the ancient world, the gods brought order to chaos, but it was the duty of the king to maintain that order for his people.  Gilgamesh brought civilization to the world, but in his greatness he forgot his duty and abused his people.  They cried out to the gods for help and the gods created Enkidu, a wild man, more animal than human.  He had horns and was covered with hair and rampaged through the countryside, causing chaos, and challenging Nebuchadnezzar.  He was a reminder to the king: His duty was to maintain order for the sake of his people, but to claim to be the author of that order was to blasphemously claim for himself what rightly belonged to the gods.  Of course, even this ended up going to Gilgamesh’s headed.  He outwitted the gods and tamed the wild Enkidu, and as he drew him closer and closer to his great city, Enkidu was civilized and became a man—and eventually Gilgamesh’s best friend and sidekick.  The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem carved in clay tablets roughly a thousand years before Nebuchadnezzar was even born, recounts the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.


I mention all this, because this great legendary king and his beast-man sidekick lie behind the events of the Fourth Chapter of Daniel.  For over two-thousand years kings had come and gone in Mesopotamia, but they all saw themselves as successors of that great, legendary, demi-god king, Gilgamesh and his kingdom.  I think the way that the author of Daniel chose to incorporate into his book the story we read in Chapter 4 kind of highlights this.  In the story the king is Nebuchadnezzar, the same king from the last three stories, but when we look at the historical record, the events described here happened to another king, Nabonidus, the last of the Babylonian emperors.  He describes himself as a “nobody”.  Nebuchadnezzar’s nephew had ascended to the throne, but he was an evil man.  He was overthrown in a coup and Nabonidus was made king in his place.  But from the perspective of the author of Daniel, that doesn’t matter.  One Babylonian king was as good (or as bad) as another—all the way back to Gilgamesh.  Like Antiochus Epiphanes in his own day, these pagan kings rose to greatness, but were notorious for taking all the credit themselves.  It's a reminder that men were not created to rule men.  God is king.  But because we refuse to acknowledge his sovereignty, he raises up earthy kings and when they forget who it is they really serve, well, we can take heart.  The Lord will hold earthly kings to account.


So Daniel 4 is written as an encyclical from the king—his first-person account of his encounter with the God of Israel.  It begins this way:


King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.

How great are his signs,

         how mighty his wonders!

His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,

         and his dominion endures from generation to generation. (Daniel 4:1-3)


This follows on the heels of the king’s praise for the God of Israel who had delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.  But it’s not a continuation of that episode.  Something has happened since and the king wants to report it to everyone in his empire.  Whereas the last chapter began with the king summoning this crowd of people, nations, and tongues to acknowledge his greatness, here he declares to them the glory of the Most High God.  But what brought this on?  Continuing with verse 4:


I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods—and I told him the dream, saying, “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. (Daniel 4:4-9)


It's another dream.  The king summons his wise men to tell him the meaning of the dream, but for some reason he summons everyone but Daniel.  Maybe it’s that the king is really Nabonidus, not Nebuchadnezzar and this is his first experience of this sort.  He says that the wise men were unable to explain the dream.  In just a bit we’ll hear him tell the dream to Daniel and the meaning of the dream is pretty obvious.  It seems like the real problem is that the wise men are afraid to tell the king what his dream means.  So finally, the king summons Daniel.  Even after everything that’s happened, the king still doesn’t quite get it.  He’s a Babylonian.  He's acknowledged the might of the God of Israel, but that doesn’t mean he’s become a Jewish monotheist; he’s just squeezed the Lord into his pantheon.  But, still, his acknowledgement is something and he beings to explain his dream to Daniel.


The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.


“I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the spirit of the holy gods is in you.” (Daniel 4:10-18)


This kind of imagery of a tree representing the life-giving rule of the king is found in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, but more immediately, it’s also a motif found in Babylonian iconography.  The tree’s roots sink all the way down to the waters under the earth and its branches up to the firmament above, holding everything together.  The gods establish order, but someone on earth is needed to hold it all together.  And so in the Babylonian imagery, an image of the king sometimes replaces the tree.  The king is the personification of order.  The king sort of becomes the perfect or the ideal human being and the image of God.  And we see this in the way Babylonians thought about their own civilization and the peoples around them.  They were civilized.  They lived in an ordered society—and that order was represented by the king.  Other people, however, were less than human—the further they were from the civilization governed by the king.  They would write about their less civilised neighbours as wild animals.  Again, think of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Enkidu was the wild man, uncivilised, leaving chaos in his wake.  But Gilgamesh outwitted the gods by luring Enkidu closer and closer to his city and to himself, and the closer Enkidu got, the more civilised and human he became.


So the king is the great tree, bringing order—peace, prosperity, justice, civilisation—to his people.  But then the unexpected happens.  A watcher—a heavenly being—descends and orders that the tree by cut down, its branches lopped off, and it’s leaves and fruit stripped.  The remaining stump is to bound with iron and bronze—preserved for a time, while the king is cast out.  He will be wet with dew and live with the beasts of the grassland.  For seven periods of time he will have the mind of a beast.  And why?  So that all the living will know that the real king is the Most High.  He gives the kingdoms of men to whom he wills and sets over them the lowliest of men.  (That last bit sounds a lot like Nabonidus, who described himself as “nobody”.)


Like I said, the dream seems pretty self-explanatory and I suspect the problem with the wise men wasn’t so much that they couldn’t explain, but that they were afraid to explain it.  Daniel, who trusts in the Lord and who knows that it was the Lord who gave the dream to the king, Daniel confirms what I expect the king already knew, but was afraid to admit.  Continuing from verse 19:


Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived—it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”  (Daniel 4:19-27)


For the most part, Daniel simply repeats the obvious and confirms what the king already feared.  He is the great tree, bringing order to the world as a king rightly should.  As far as the dream goes, it seems that the king’s fault is that he has refused to acknowledge that he rules on behalf of the Most High God.  He’s been happy to acknowledge the God of Israel and to bring him into his pantheon, but that’s not enough.  He needs to acknowledge that the God of Israel is the Most High who rules over all—including the gods of Babylon and, most importantly, over himself.  But Daniel does add his own bit of wisdom.  He could see how the king ruled his kingdom and he knew the king’s faults.  And so he adds, “Break off your sins.  Make your rule about justice and mercy.  If you do that, you might stave off the judgement the Lord has decreed.


There is a modern book, 126 pages long, full of the inscriptions left by Nebuchadnezzar’s on his buildings.  It’s a testament to his greatness and all he accomplished.  The Babylon he built was the greatest city the world had ever known.  His hanging gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  In one of those building inscriptions (No. 12), he describes himself as a just king, meek and humble.  And that’s what the imagery of the tree suggests.  But it's worth noting that Daniel leaves that part out when he retells the dream.  Nebuchadnezzar’s great empire was kind of like the Hindu god Vishnu.  Vishnu was supposed to be the god who preserves human life, but his giant image was traditionally carried in processions on a massive wheeled throne that crushed anyone who got in its way.  This great juggernaut that sees itself as preserver and provider for its people easy becomes the crusher and destroyer.  We see that still today in earthly governments with the best of intentions, but that routinely and uncaringly grind people up in the gears of bureaucracy.  Even pagan kings are called by God to embody his divine kingship and to preserve life and order and—this is where Nebuchadnezzar was falling short—to show justice and mercy.


I’m reminded of the disputes between King James and the Presbyterians of Scotland.  James believed in the divine right of kings, thought himself to be above the law, and got himself into trouble by trying to impose episcopacy on the Church of Scotland.  One Scottish minister, Andrew Melville, is famous for rebuking the king, saying, “Sir, ye are God’s silly vassal.  There are two kings and to kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of the commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the king of the church, whose subject James VI is and of whose kingdom he is not a king, not lord, not head, but a member.”


Nebuchadnezzar needed a very similar rebuke.  Daniel spoke it—humble yourself and commit yourself to justice and mercy—but it appears the king did not heed it.  Continuing at verse 28:


All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.  (Daniel 4:28-33)


A year later the king was walking on the roof of his palace to admire his city.  It was the greatest in the world.  Nothing had changed.  It was all his doing.  It was all his because he was so great.  He did not heed the advice of Daniel.  And as he declared his greatness, the Lord spoke.  The tree was to be cut down, the kingdom taken away from the king.  For seven periods of time—it’s not clear what the Aramaic word means, but it doesn’t usually mean year—but for a specific period of time the king is to live as a wild man in the grasslands.  Remember the epic of Gilgamesh and his wild man sidekick Enkidu?  The structure of the Lord’s speech here is interesting in that it parallels the civilising of Enkidu in the epic, but in reverse.  Enkidu was more animal than man, but the closer he drew to the king and his city, the more human he became.  In precisely the opposite way, the king is now driven from his city and progressively became a wild man, like Enkidu.  The king thought of himself as Gilgamesh, the great king who single-handedly brought order and prosperity to the world, but because he refuses to acknowledge God, the true Lord of all, he is driven off to live like an animal.  For seven period of time—however long that is—he is reminded that he is not God, he is at best the sidekick.  And it’s interesting that because he refused to repent, he’s now given no choice.  The time is fixed.  At the end, the Lord announces, you will be restored, because you will have learned that it is the Most High who rules the kingdoms of men.


It’s an interesting aside to notice how the Lord’s discipline works.  Israel’s problems weren’t the same as Nebuchadnezzar’s, but the worked similar with her.  From the outset, he spoke through the prophets and said that her exile would last seventy years and that when it was over he would be glorified through his people.  It wasn’t a matter of disciplining the king until he learned his lesson.  He'd missed the chance for that.  Now the Lord decrees a set time and he also decrees that when that time is over the king will have learned.  Brothers and Sisters, we need to heed the Lord’s warnings when he gives them  Now verse 34:


At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,

for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

         and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,

         and he does according to his will among the host of heaven

         and among the inhabitants of the earth;

and none can stay his hand

         or say to him, “What have you done?”


At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.  (Daniel 4:34-37)


The Lord was good to his word.  When the time had passed, the king was restored and for all his trouble has finally gained wisdom.  In this fallen world, there is a place for human kings, but only when the kingship of the Most High is first acknowledged as the root and source of all human authority.  Nebuchadnezzar can even acknowledge his own greatness, but now that statement is sandwiched between his confessions that it is the Lord who has supreme dominion.  The king’s sin was pride and his government was rebuked for overseeing injustice and for lacking mercy, but Nebuchadnezzar now acknowledges that all the Lord’s works are right and just and that he makes the prideful to be humble.  The great king is back on his great wheeled throne, but no more will it rumble through the streets, crushing those who get in his way.


Now, what does this all mean for us?  When Daniel was written, this was meant to be an encouragement to the people of Judah in their exile.  As the other stories about Daniel and his friends reminded them, it might seem like these foreign, pagan kings were in control, but despite appearances, the Lord was still on his throne.  His promises would be fulfilled.  And he will hold earthly rulers to account.  We can take comfort in the same way.  No earthly king or prime minster or president rules apart from the Lord’s sovereign authority.  No matter how things seem, our God is in control and will hold human beings to account.


But, too, the application of the story shifts a bit in our own context.  We live in a democracy and that means that at least a little bit of the authority that Nebuchadnezzar held rests with each of us.  As individuals we hold very little power, but what we do have embodies a God-given obligation to the pursuit of a government that is humble, that acknowledges the authority of God, and that acts with justice and mercy.  That, Brothers and Sisters, is an integral part of our witness to the kingdom of God.  As Nebuchadnezzar saw the great tree of human kingship that brought order and prosperity to the world, you and I have seen the even greater tree on which the Lord Jesus died, the tree by which he has brought the justice and mercy of the Father into a broken world, the tree by which Jesus has become this world’s true Lord, the tree by which the Most High God has once again become king—through his son, who has died, who has risen, who as ascended to his throne, and who will come again.  The kings of old could only see power and strength in the tree of government, but in the cross we meet the one who rules with justice and mercy.  The kings and people of old walked in great darkness, but in Jesus we have seen a great light.  As Isaiah wrote:


For to us a child is born,

         to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

         and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

         Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

         there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

         to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

         from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)


Brothers and Sisters, the Lord of hosts has done this.  Now may we live as witnesses to his King and to his kingdom.


Let’s pray: O Lord, teach us to see and to trust in your kingship regardless of our circumstances.  Teach us to hear your voice, to heed your warnings, and to learn from your discipline.  Give your grace that we might be faithful stewards of your kingdom, always acknowledging your sovereignty with humility, seeking to manifest the justice and mercy of the cross.  Through Jesus the Messiah we pray, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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