3. The Dream Which Nearly Became a Nightmare (Daniel 2:1-49)
This past week, I officiated at the wedding of the daughter of some good friends in our church. Everything seemed to be going well. The groom and his groomsmen and I were waiting in a small room at the front of the auditorium. We knew that the moment the pianist began to play the “Wedding March,” it was time to make our entrance. The “Wedding March” began. As I reached for the door knob, ready to lead into the ceremony, someone rushed in the side door and told us the bride had just discovered a tear in her dress, which they were sewing up. We needed to wait.
My mind rushed to the woman at the piano. She faithfully continued to play the “Wedding March,” no doubt wondering why we were not coming out the door behind her. I slipped out the door. The rest of the men stayed in the room as I made my way to the side of the pianist. I whispered in her ear that there was a small problem with the bride’s dress and that we would need to delay the ceremony a couple of minutes.
I can still remember the look on her face. She turned to me and said, “How can I do that? I’ve already started.” It was easy for me to ask for more time. I was not the pianist, in the middle of playing the “Wedding March.” How do you stop something already set in motion so it won’t be obvious and embarrassing? She did a marvelous job of it. Within several measures, she was no longer playing the “Wedding March.” She slid into one of the great hymns of the faith and bought us those precious few moments.
There are times when it seems we have set something disastrous and irreversible in motion. The second chapter of the Book of Daniel describes one such time. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a disturbing dream. He wanted to know its meaning, and he summoned a number of his senior staff: magicians, conjurers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans. Their assignment was more difficult than any he had ever given them before. Nebuchadnezzar wanted not only to know the meaning of his dream; he insisted they first tell him his dream!
For any king to ask this would be distressing. For Nebuchadnezzar to demand this of his staff was disastrous. The king’s dream nearly became a nightmare for his advisors. Nebuchadnezzar, known for being brutal, demanding, and tyrannical, had no hesitation in dealing severely with those whom he considered his enemies. We know that he ordered Daniel’s three friends to be cast into a fiery furnace. From Jeremiah 29:22-23, we learn that the king of Babylon roasted Zedekiah and Ahab in the fire. Our text in Daniel 2 tells us he intended to put all the wise men in his land to death because they could not do the impossible.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream started something which appeared impossible to stop. He demanded that his dream be told, and only after this that it be interpreted. His advisors sought to reason with him, but to no avail. Finally, in frustration, they told him that what he asked was unreasonable. They not only admitted their limitations, they even acknowledged the inability of their gods. The king’s demand was beyond what they or their gods could do. It would take a God of a very different kind, a God whose “dwelling place is not with mortal flesh” (Daniel 2:11).26 Nebuchadnezzar soon heard about the only God who could accomplish the king’s demand. It was the God of Daniel and of his three Hebrew friends, the “God who is in heaven” (Daniel 2:28).
The first four chapters of Daniel are a unit. While Daniel and his three friends are prominent in these chapters, king Nebuchadnezzar is also a central character. In chapter 1, he defeats Jehoiakim, king of Judah, a victory which God brought upon the king and his kingdom (Judah) as a judgment for their sin and rebellion.
Nebuchadnezzar took captives (including Daniel and his friends) to Babylon and made some a part of his administration. He also placed some of the vessels from the temple of God in Jerusalem in the house of his god in Babylon as a sign that his god was better than Israel’s God. He was wrong and will say so in the fourth chapter of Daniel.
In chapter 1, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel and his three friends part of his administration. He did so, not because he thought so highly of Daniel’s God or because he respected Daniel’s convictions, but simply because Daniel and his friends were “ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm” (Daniel 1:20). At first thought, this evaluation, “ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers,” seems like an exaggeration. We will see from our text it is not an exaggeration at all.
Now in Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar comes to have respect not only for Daniel but also for his God:
The king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47).
Nebuchadnezzar has come a long way, but not yet far enough. He is hardly in the household of faith. In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar acts on the basis of the revelation given to him in chapter 2, but in a way that is inconsistent with the message of his dream. If the king learned in Daniel 2 that the God of Israel is the giver of wisdom and revelation, he will learn from chapter 3 that He is also the God who delivers his people. In the last chapter of this unit, Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar bows before Him as the only true God (see Daniel 4:3,34-37).
Chapter 2 describes a significant step forward for the king of Babylon and also a step forward for Daniel and his three friends. If the wisdom of these young Hebrews is recognized in a general way in chapter 1, it is even more evident in the crisis of chapter 2. As a result of Daniel revealing the king’s dream and its meaning, he is elevated to a high level position in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom.
The meaning of his dream, of vital importance to Nebuchadnezzar, is also of great importance to us. What did the dream mean for Nebuchadnezzar and what is its meaning for us?
Guiding Principles for
the Interpretation of Daniel 2
Serious students of Scripture disagree over the interpretation of the king’s vision in chapter 2. Scholars do not agree concerning the nations and periods of time depicted here. How, then, are we to approach this chapter? What are the guiding principles for our interpretation?
First of all, we should remember this is prophecy. Until all of these prophecies are completely fulfilled, we will not understand them. Unfulfilled prophecies always cause us confusion, even as they confused the prophets who revealed them (see 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Second, when Daniel interpreted this dream to the king, he did not supply all the details. He did not identify the kingdoms or the kings (except for the first kingdom and Nebuchadnezzar himself). The interpretation and even the application of this dream did not require a complete understanding of the vision and all of its details. It only required a general, overall grasp of the dream and its meaning.
Third, we should seek to understand the dream and its interpretation in light of the way Daniel and the king understood it. Daniel’s words to the king are critical to the interpretation of the dream. Daniel’s own response to the dream, in verses 20-23, indicates his understanding of the dream. The king’s response to the revelation of the dream and its meaning, recorded in verse 47, tells us what the dream meant to him.
In this lesson, our approach to the king’s dream and its meaning will not focus on what Daniel, the king, or biblical scholars today find perplexing. We will try to grasp the dream and its meaning from that which Daniel and the king did understand. The meaning of the dream for Daniel and the king should be the same for us. Let us seek to walk in their steps, to learn what they learned, and then to apply this to our own lives, by God’s Spirit.
Dream Becomes a Nightmare
1 Now in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar,27 Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him. 2 Then the king gave orders to call in the magicians, the conjurers, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans, to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. 3 And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is anxious to understand the dream.” 4 Then the Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic:28 “O king, live forever! Tell the dream to your servants, and we will declare the interpretation.” 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The command from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be made a rubbish heap. 6 But if you declare the dream and its interpretation, you will receive from me gifts and a reward and great honor; therefore declare to me the dream and its interpretation.” 7 They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell the dream to his servants, and we will declare the interpretation.” 8 The king answered and said, “I know for certain that you are bargaining for time, inasmuch as you have seen that the command from me is firm, 9 that if you do not make the dream known to me, there is only one decree for you. For you have agreed together to speak lying and corrupt words before me until the situation is changed; therefore tell me the dream, that I may know that you can declare to me its interpretation.” 10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean. 11 Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh.” 12 Because of this the king became indignant and very furious, and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they looked for Daniel and his friends to kill them.
The dreams Nebuchadnezzar experienced in the night were God’s response to his thoughts as he waited for sleep to come:
“As for you, O king, while on your bed your thoughts turned to what would take place in the future; and He who reveals mysteries has made known to you what will take place” (Daniel 2:29).
The king was pondering what the future held. Through his dreams, God revealed the future and its implications.
It is possible, as some have suggested, that the king actually forgot the dreams, and that is why he demanded that his wise men tell the dream and then its interpretation. I think the king remembered his dream, but wanted to be certain of a genuine interpretation, not a fabrication. Anyone can “interpret” a dream; few indeed can tell you what your dream was. The king required both.
King Nebuchadnezzar was in a bad mood when he called his wise men. His dream troubled him so greatly he could not sleep afterward (2:1). Two things caused the king such distress over his dream. First, he believed his dream was very important. In his culture and religion, dreams were a means of revelation from the gods.29 He wanted to know what the gods were trying to tell him. Secondly, like the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day who did not understand his dream, there was an ominous sense that something was wrong. Because he lacked the interpretation of his dream, he did not know what was wrong, or what he should do about it.
A great sense of urgency arose when the king’s senior wise men gathered before him. After briefing them of the situation, he demanded they tell him his dream and its meaning. The assembled wise men, representing the various heathen methods for obtaining “divine guidance,” were unanimous about one thing: the king was being unreasonable in asking them to do the impossible. No king, they protested, had ever asked this of his counselors. They could promise an interpretation if he told them his dream, but he should not demand that they reveal his dream. This was beyond their ability and the ability of their gods.
Their response to the king not only reveals their impotence, but also that of their gods. It testifies to the futility of the heathen religions and introduces the God of Daniel, who can do what they and their gods cannot:
10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean. 11 Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh” (Daniel 2:10-11).
The king was now both frustrated and furious. He demanded all the wise men in Babylon be put to death. We are not sure whether the wise men were being killed as they were arrested, or whether they were all being rounded up for some kind of mass execution. It is uncertain whether any wise men actually died before Daniel spoke to the king. We do know, with certainty, that the king fully intended to kill every one of his wise men throughout the land. The process of execution was under way, whether or not any executions had actually occurred before Daniel took action.
At this point, the Jewish reader of the day would not be greatly distressed at the pronouncement of the death penalty for heathen wise men who worshipped and worked in the name of false gods. But in this instance, a strange and providential twist of fate takes place, putting Daniel and his three friends right in the middle of the crisis. Though the Hebrew youths were not among those whom the king summoned, they were nevertheless included among those sentenced to death.
To summarize the story up to this point, the situation looks dismal, if not disastrous, and by divine design. Only when things seem impossible is God’s hand undeniably present. The king’s demands were unreasonable because they were impossible, humanly speaking. Here at the point of impossibility, the powerlessness of the “gods” of the heathen became evident. The wise men who stood before Nebuchadnezzar confessed with their own lips that their gods could not accomplish what the king demanded. They even admitted that any “God” who could fulfill the king’s request would be a “God” of a different (higher) order.
I am reminded of the words of the magicians of Egypt, who were attempting to reproduce the miracles God accomplished by the hand of Moses. For a time, their “miracles” seemed like those of Moses (see Exodus 7:11-12, 22; 8:6-7). But there came a time when these magicians had to throw up their hands and confess that they had come to their limit:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats through all the land of Egypt.’” And they did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt. And the magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said (Exodus 8:16-19).
God providentially orchestrated the events of Babylon so that the “gods,” along with all those who called on them, were shown to be worthless and powerless. At the same time, God created a situation in which His four servants would be in danger, and for whom He would prove to be their deliverer. Furthermore, in the midst of these circumstances, God would demonstrate that He could do what no other god could do—foretell history. All things are possible for God; there is no impossible situation. In situations which appear insurmountable, the faith of His saints grows strong, and His power and majesty is demonstrated to all. The crisis here is by divine design, as is every crisis involving the people and purposes of God.
The lesson for the kingdom of Judah, now captive, should be apparent. Assyria has captured and dispersed the tribes of Israel. Babylon has defeated Judah and taken the people captive. The temple and Jerusalem has been (or soon will be) destroyed. Chances for Israel’s recovery and restoration seem to have vanished, and Judah’s situation is humanly unalterable. Now God will show Himself able to do the impossible, in a way no one would have ever expected—through a heathen king (Cyrus) and a heathen kingdom (Persia).32
and Nebuchadnezzar’s Delay
14 Then Daniel replied with discretion and discernment to Arioch, the captain of the king’s bodyguard, who had gone forth to slay the wise men of Babylon; 15 he answered and said to Arioch, the king’s commander, “For what reason is the decree from the king so urgent?” Then Arioch informed Daniel about the matter. 16 So Daniel went in and requested of the king that he would give him time, in order that he might declare the interpretation to the king.
Daniel was indeed a man of great wisdom which came from God, evident especially in times of crisis. Imagine being a highly regarded resident of Babylon, a part of Nebuchadnezzar’s government, and discovering there is a warrant out for your arrest. Worse yet, Daniel was marked for execution for something with which he had nothing to do. Did he know what was happening, or why?
Rather than reacting, Daniel approached Arioch, “with discretion and discernment,” asking the reason behind the haste and urgency of these recent events.33 Arioch, like Ashpenaz before him (see 1:9-10), showed kindness to Daniel by answering his questions.
Daniel, who did not initiate this crisis, did show initiative in responding to it. If something were not done, he and his three friends would soon die. Had Daniel ever interpreted a dream before? Whether he had or not, this incident displayed his divine gift. Daniel, like Joseph before him, was fully persuaded that what the king demanded, God was able to do, through those who called upon Him for mercy in time of need. On this basis, Daniel requested the king for time to discern the dream and its meaning in order to reveal it. The delay was granted.34
and Gratefully Received
17 Then Daniel went to his house and informed his friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, about the matter, 18 in order that they might request compassion from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his friends might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven; 20 Daniel answered and said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to Him. 21 And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, and knowledge to men of understanding. 22 It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him. 23 To Thee, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for Thou hast given me wisdom and power; even now Thou hast made known to me what we requested of Thee, for Thou hast made known to us the king’s matter.” 24 Therefore, Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon; he went and spoke to him as follows: “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon! Take me into the king’s presence, and I will declare the interpretation to the king.”
No evidence indicates Daniel wanted to be a hero. Daniel acted as he did because he was put “between a rock and a hard place.” He was forced to act. If he did not act, not only he, but his three Hebrew friends would die, along with all the other wise men of Babylon.
Daniel acted on faith. Once he understood the problem, he knew the solution. What was impossible for the wise men of Babylon was possible for the God of heaven, the God of Israel. God knew the future. More than this, God planned the future, in eternity past. Daniel had every confidence that the king’s dream not only came from God but would be revealed and interpreted to the king by God, if he and his friends but petitioned Him to do so.
Daniel hastened to his house, where he found his three friends. He told them what had happened in order that they might pray with him for God to have mercy on them and deliver them by revealing the dream and its message to Daniel.
As the dream came to Nebuchadnezzar in the night, so the dream and its meaning came to Daniel in a night vision (verse 19). Daniel’s response seems immediate. His prayer of praise reveals Daniel’s gratitude for receiving the answer to their prayers. It reveals more as well. Let us focus briefly on three dimensions of this prayer:
(1) What the king’s dream reveals about the superiority of God to the “gods” of Babylon;
(2) What the king’s dream reveals about God; and
(3) What the revelation of the dream and its meaning reveals about God’s love and care for His people.
First, Daniel’s praise focuses on the superiority of God to the “gods” of Babylon. Neither the wise men nor their gods could satisfy the king’s demands. They were too difficult for them. God revealed the dream and its meaning for the king. The God who answered the prayers of Daniel and his friends was the “God of heaven” (verse 19), the God about whom the wise men spoke but did not know. As opposed to the Babylonian gods, whose purposes and plans were determined by the stars and seasons, the God of heaven changes the times and epochs.35
Second, Daniel’s prayer gives insight into the message which God was giving to Nebuchadnezzar through his dream. As the king pondered the future, God informed him through his dream that the future is in God’s hands and is not determined by kings. Indeed, even the rise and fall of kings is the work of God and not men. Wisdom and power belong to God; and thus the king, who was looking to men, should have been looking to the God of Israel for wisdom.
Third, the dream demonstrated God’s care for His people Israel. The four young Hebrew captives, about to be put to death, prayed for mercy and deliverance. Their request was answered with the revelation of the king’s dream and its interpretation to Daniel. Even in captivity, God continues to care for His own.
Daniel Points Nebuchadnezzar to God
25 Then Arioch hurriedly brought Daniel into the king’s presence and spoke to him as follows: “I have found a man among the exiles from Judah who can make the interpretation known to the king!” 26 The king answered and said to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream which I have seen and its interpretation?” 27 Daniel answered before the king and said, “As for the mystery about which the king has inquired, neither wise men, conjurers, magicians, nor diviners are able to declare it to the king. 28 However, there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will take place in the latter days. This was your dream and the visions in your mind while on your bed. 29 As for you, O king, while on your bed your thoughts turned to what would take place in the future; and He who reveals mysteries has made known to you what will take place. 30 But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me for any wisdom residing in me more than in any other living man, but for the purpose of making the interpretation known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.”
What a contrast between Arioch and Daniel in these verses. Arioch is quick to take the credit for something he did not do. He attempts to claim the credit for finding someone who could interpret the king’s dream. Nothing could be further from the truth.36 He may have attempted to find Daniel to arrest him, but there is no indication that he did find him. Daniel may have sought him out. Arioch’s words to Nebuchadnezzar expose his attempt to use the situation to further himself.
Daniel would have far greater opportunity to claim some of the credit for what he was about to do, and thus to gain from the gift God had given to him. Instead, at the outset of his meeting with Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel clearly stated that it was God who determines and reveals the future, not men. Daniel, simply an instrument of God, faithfully pointed to God as the One who should be the object of the king’s trust praise.
Daniel reiterates what the wise men had already told the king. Neither wise men, conjurers, magicians, nor diviners were able to make this dream known to the king. It was impossible for them. It was also impossible for Daniel. It was only possible for God, who revealed the dream and its meaning to Daniel. The “God in heaven” of whom the wise men spoke (2:11) was Daniel’s God. He would make known to the king the dream and its meaning. God’s use of Daniel was due to grace, not because of any merit of Daniel on his own (Daniel 2:30).
Gone With the Wind:
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream Revealed
31 “You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. 32 The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and crushed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
The occasion for the king’s dream was very different from the occasion when God gave Daniel its content and as its meaning. Daniel and his friends prayed to the God of heaven, the God of Israel, knowing that He determined the future and that He alone could reveal it to men. The king did not pray at all, and certainly not to the God of the Jews. He simply pondered the future. Surely this king was not thinking hypothetically. He must have been wondering what the future held for him. God knew his thoughts and gave him a dream which answered his inner questions.
How the king must have eagerly awaited this time when his dream might be revealed to him, when he would be assured that the interpretation was genuine! In the king’s dream, what he visualized was a great statue of unusual splendor. It had a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, a bronze belly, and legs of iron, with its feet a mixture of clay and iron.
It was not the statue which distressed the king so much as what happened to it as his dream continued. A stone was mysteriously cut out, fashioned without human hands. Striking the statue on its feet, the entire image fell, disintegrating into dust. The winds blew every trace of the statue away as though it never existed. The stone, on the other hand, became a great mountain which filled the whole earth.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream Interpreted
36 “This was the dream; now we shall tell its interpretation before the king. 37 You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory; 38 and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. 39 And after you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. 40 Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. 41 And in that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. 43 And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. 45 Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy.”
That was it! That was the dream. Daniel’s description exactly matched the king’s vision. Now it was time for Daniel to tell the king what it all meant. The one statue was a composite, so to speak, of the kingdoms of the Gentiles, beginning with that of Nebuchadnezzar, and continuing through history. Nebuchadnezzar was the head of fine gold, an indication of the superiority of his kingdom to those which followed. Nebuchadnezzar was indeed a great king, but his power, strength, and glory were all from God.37 The extent of his rule (2:38) sounds much like the rule which God gave to Adam and Eve, in the beginning (Genesis 1:26).
After Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, three others would follow. Almost nothing is said of the second and third kingdoms, except for one thing: they will become progressively inferior to the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar. A great deal is said of the fourth (and last) kingdom; more attention is given it than all the rest, which is most interesting because it was the farthest removed from the days of Nebuchadnezzar. Why should this kingdom receive such attention in the interpretation?
I think it is because this is the kingdom struck by the stone; it is the kingdom whose fall topples the entire statue, rendering it virtually non-existent in the end. This kingdom, while it receives much attention from Daniel, is not named, nor are all the details pertaining to it explained. The only detail is that the mixture of iron and clay, which weakens the statue, is that of a racial intermingling (Daniel 2:43).
When this final kingdom comes to power, the end is near. The final days will fulfill the details of this prophecy. The end of this kingdom is brought about by the mysterious “stone made without hands” —the stone which brings about a new, eternal kingdom.
Daniel ends the interpretation by informing Nebuchadnezzar that the vision was from God, indicating to him what would take place in the future. The matter was certain,38 and the interpretation reliable.
Before we consider the response of Nebuchadnezzar to Daniel’s words, let us summarize some important observations concerning the statue:
(1) There is a unity, a bond between the four kingdoms, as indicated by the vision. There is one statue, but four distinct kingdoms. Somehow these four kingdoms are related or share something in common. The common element seems to be that these were all Gentile kingdoms, kingdoms which subjugated and dominated the nation Israel.
(2) There is a downward progression, a deterioration of the kingdoms. The head of gold is glorious, the breast of silver of a lesser greatness. The belly of brass deteriorates to legs of iron and feet which are a mixture of iron and clay.39 Things don’t get better, only worse.
(3) There is, in the end, a disintegration of the entire statue. Granted Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was great, but when the stone strikes the feet of the statue, the entire statue collapses, disintegrates, and blows away. In the end, the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom (not to mention all the rest) is blown away. Somehow Nebuchadnezzar is to see the link between his kingdom and the other three, and to see that he shares in the final destiny of the entire statue.
(4) There is an unknown, mysterious “king,” who destroys the entire statue, who nullifies all of these kingdoms, bringing them to nothing while establishing his own kingdom.
(5) The kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar and those who follow him pass away, and a greater, eternal kingdom does not.
(6) Greater emphasis is on the first and fourth kingdoms than on the rest. The first kingdom is given attention because Nebuchadnezzar is the king. The fourth kingdom receives more emphasis than the other three, I believe, because it is the final kingdom which will be struck down by Messiah at His appearance.
(7) Much in this vision is not interpreted or explained, which neither Daniel nor Nebuchadnezzar seem to have understood. In this vision, none of the kingdoms or kings are identified, except the first kingdom (Babylon) and its king (Nebuchadnezzar). What was not interpreted did not need to be known by Daniel or the king. The meaning and interpretation of these mysterious details will be evident when they are fulfilled.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Response Recorded
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and did homage to Daniel, and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense. 47 The king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery.” 48 Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 And Daniel made request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego over the administration of the province of Babylon, while Daniel was at the king’s court.
The response of Nebuchadnezzar is truly amazing. Imagine Sadam Hussein, falling before a Jewish Christian, acknowledging the God of Israel as the only true God, and falling prostrate before one of His servants. Nebuchadnezzar was a much greater man, in power and in reputation.
In chapter 1, the king thought of the God of Israel as a lesser “god,” as one defeated by his “gods” (see 1:1-2). He seems to have cared little about Daniel’s God, or about Daniel’s convictions. He is impressed only by Daniel’s superior performance (1:18-20). But now, in light of the events of chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate, acknowledging the superiority of the God of Israel as the “God of gods,” “Lord of kings,” and a “revealer of mysteries.” Nebuchadnezzar has not yet come far enough to be called a saint, but he has come a long way in his understanding of the God of Israel.
Nebuchadnezzar was a man of his word. He gave Daniel many gifts, just as he promised the wise men, if they would but tell him his dream and its meaning (see 2:6). Along with the gifts, Daniel received a promotion. He was made ruler of the entire province of Babylon and placed in charge of all the wise men of Babylon. Here was something for the wise men of Babylon to ponder. Their gods had nearly gotten them killed. Daniel’s God had saved their lives.
While Arioch attempted to use Daniel’s God-given gifts and abilities to further his own position, Daniel used his newly gained standing with Nebuchadnezzar to further his three friends. He spoke to the king on their behalf, and they were appointed with charge of the whole province of Babylon during the time Daniel was at the king’s court.
Before we focus our attention on the central theme and message of the king’s vision, consider three secondary lessons which we can learn from our text.
(1) Our text contributes to our understanding of spiritual leadership. Daniel did not seek prominence. He did not set his sights on spiritual leadership. He sought to be faithful to His God and to his calling. It was only when he was put “between a rock and a hard place” that he stepped forward. It is often in the crisis situations of life that leaders emerge. So it was with Daniel. He was, in a sense, forced to lead. Had he not acted as he did (humanly speaking), he and his three friends would have died. Daniel’s leadership came about when he acted out of necessity and out of faith, in a way that set him apart from the rest. This seems to be the way most of the leaders in the Bible were set apart.
(2) Impossible situations expose the futility of human wisdom and power and of false gods and religions. At the same time, they provide the setting for which the power and wisdom of God to be undeniably demonstrated. God brought about the crisis of Daniel 2. In so doing, He showed the wise men of this world to be unwise, and by testimony of their own lips showed their gods powerless. God’s power was so evident through the faith of Daniel and his friends that the king fell before this man and his God.
(3) Evangelism is the work of God, brought about by the workings of the Spirit of God. I am greatly impressed by what Daniel could have said, but did not. Daniel told the king his dream and its meaning. He did not tell the king what to do about the message God had revealed to him. He did not press the king to “close” the matter of his faith in God. The events of chapter 2 brought Nebuchadnezzar a long way from where he had been, but he was not yet ready to profess his faith in this God. All too often Christians are telling others what to do, when they should be concentrating on the proclamation and interpretation of God’s Word, trusting in the Holy Spirit to prompt men to take action as He guides them.
There are times when God does give clear application. Joseph not only interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams, but then went on to recommend a specific plan of action. This was in order to preserve men from starvation, and especially to save the nation Israel. But often we make applications where God has not. Let us be careful not to rush beyond biblical revelation. The Holy Spirit knows better how to apply the Word of God than we do.
The major thrust of the king’s dream, as revealed and interpreted in Daniel 2, is so obvious we almost miss it. I fear that we usually miss this “camel” because we are too busy looking at the “gnats.” The lesson for the king can be summed up in these words:
THE KINGDOMS OF MEN FADE AWAY AND ARE FORGOTTEN;
THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS ETERNAL.
THE GLORY OF HUMAN KINGS IS NOTHING COMPARED TO THE
GLORY OF THE KING OF KINGS.
Nebuchadnezzar lay on his bed that eventful night, thinking about what the future held. No doubt his thoughts were focused on his reputation, his role in changing the course of history, and especially on his glory and fame. How humbling was the message of his dream!
His kingdom did have fame and glory. He was the head of gold. But his kingdom would pass, only to be replaced by another, and then another and another. In the end, One was coming who would put an end to all human kingdoms and establish a kingdom that was eternal. “Gone With the Wind” —that was the message of this king’s dream and the way it is with all human glory and power and works.
If the king wanted to be a part of a kingdom filled with glory, which lasted forever, he must “look to the rock” of his vision. It is not the head of gold, nor the breast of silver, nor even the entire statue which is glorious and eternal, but the stone. The stone brings the destruction of the statue and the creation of an everlasting kingdom.
Throughout the New Testament, our Lord taught the people of His day the same lesson God was teaching Nebuchadnezzar through his dream. Jesus warned men that the kingdoms of the world would pass away and that they should set their hearts and minds on the kingdom of God, which He had come to establish. He is the stone “fashioned without hands” (see Luke 1:35). He is the One whose kingdom is eternal and glorious.
Nebuchadnezzar was thinking of his empire. God instructed him in his dreams to submit to a great King and to be a part of an eternal empire, an eternal kingdom. Jesus is that King, and the kingdom of Heaven is the empire. Those who trust in Him have not only obtained immortality, but salvation, eternal life, glory, and peace. May we, like Nebuchadnezzar, turn from our own earthly empires to the heavenly empire of God.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love him.” For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-10).
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Questions and Answers
(1) How do we go about interpreting the prophecies of Daniel 2, knowing there is so much disagreement among Bible scholars in their interpretations?
The words of Deuteronomy 29:29 should serve as our guide: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”
Disagreement between sound, serious Bible scholars is most often found in areas unclear or dogmatic. I believe that there is much about prophecy we are not supposed to understand. This was true even of the prophets themselves (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Our main responsibility is to focus on what God has made clear to us, to believe it, and to act upon it in faith.
We should approach the prophecies of Daniel 2 in light of what God has told us through Daniel. We should understand what he understood, what he explained to Nebuchadnezzar, and what Nebuchadnezzar therefore came to understand himself. We should pay attention the main points, and not the unexplained details.
(2) What events lead up to Daniel telling the king what his vision was, and its meaning?
King Nebuchadnezzar had gone to bed and was thinking about the future (verse 29). God gave the king dreams that night which informed him about the future and about his attitude toward it. These dreams were distressing to him, especially since he did not know what they meant. He was not able to sleep the rest of the night. When he got up, he summoned some of his leading wise men and demanded from them that they tell him his dream and its meaning. They protested that this was unreasonable, requiring more wisdom and greater gods than Babylon had to offer. The king was furious and ordered all the wise men of Babylon to be put to death. This order included Daniel and his three friends. After learning from Arioch what the problem was, Daniel went before the king and asked for time to learn the dream and its meaning. He and his friends then prayed to the God of Israel for mercy, by giving Daniel the dream and its meaning. God answered their prayers by revealing these things to Daniel. Daniel went to Arioch and then the king, to tell him what God had revealed to him in his dream.
(3) How and why does Daniel end up in a position of power and honor?
Daniel did not seek the prominence, honor, or position which he gained as a result of the events of chapter 2. Daniel and his three friends, through no fault of their own, fell under the death sentence pronounced by the king on all the wise men of the land. This prompted Daniel to seek out the king, and to assure him that he could reveal the dream and its meaning, because his God was the God who controlled and foretold future events. Daniel was careful not to take credit for his God-given ability, but in spite of this Nebuchadnezzar gratefully rewarded him with gifts and a high position for himself, and also a promotion for his three friends (at Daniel’s request).
(4) What was the vision which the king saw in the night?
Nebuchadnezzar saw a great and awesome statue. Its head was made of gold; its chest and arms were silver; its belly was bronze; its legs were iron, and its feet were a mixture of iron and clay. As Nebuchadnezzar looked on with amazement, a stone (shaped without human hands) was fashioned and struck the image on its feet. The image did not merely topple, it disintegrated, and the wind blew its dust away, so that there was nothing left of the statue. The stone, on the other hand, became a great mountain.
(5) What was the interpretation of the vision?
The statue was a representation of the Gentile kingdoms, from Babylon to the time of the coming of Christ. Nebuchadnezzar was the first kingdom, the head of gold. Three other kingdoms would follow. The second and third kingdoms are barely discussed. Each kingdom seems to be of decreasing value (begining with gold and ending with iron and clay). The final kingdom is overthrown by the “stone” (Christ), and establishes an eternal kingdom in its place.
(6) What is the meaning of the vision?
Essentially, God is warning Nebuchadnezzar against pride and preoccupation with his own kingdom, or with earthly kingdoms in general. Gentile kingdoms will, in the end, be done away with and their glory will be forgotten. The “king” who should gain our attention and our worship is the Messiah. He will, at His coming, put down earthly kings and kingdoms, and establish His eternal kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar should set his mind not on earthly things, but on heavenly things.
(7) What is the meaning of this vision for us?
It is exactly the same as it was for Nebuchadnezzar. As our Lord taught, we should not lay up treasures on earth, but rather in heaven. We should not focus on the temporal, but on the eternal. We should not dwell on ourselves, and our glory, but on God and His glory.
(8) What change occurs in Nebuchadnezzar as a result of this vision and its interpretation?
Significant changes occurred in the attitudes and actions of Nebuchadnezzar. From one who worshipped his own Babylonian gods as superior to the God of Israel, this king now acknowledged Him as superior to his gods. He greatly honored Daniel and his friends and promoted them to high level positions. But he was not yet what we would call a true believer. This will not come until chapter 4. The events of chapter 3 reveal to us that he did not yet “get the message” fully.
26 How much greater God is than these wise men could even imagine. He is a God who “dwells in heaven” (2:28), but He would also be the God who dwells in human flesh (Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 1:21-23; 1 John 1:1-4).
27 Some critics make a great deal that here we are told it was the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, contending this contradicts the reference in Dan. 1 to a three year training period (1:5). Several answers can be given. First, fractions of a year may be counted as an entire year in Hebrew usage. Second, Daniel and his friends may have commenced their training before Nebuchadnezzar formally became king.
I see no real problem in the first place. In Dan. 1, we were told that Daniel had the ability to understand and interpret dreams and visions (1:17). The incident in chapter 2 may have occurred before the training of Daniel and the others was completed. Daniel’s actions, described in chapter 2, may be the occasion when Daniel discovered his God-given ability to interpret dreams. This may also have been the incident which called the king’s attention to the vastly superior wisdom of Daniel and his friends. Too much has been made here of too little, as is the way with the critics, who strain the gnats and swallow the camels of Scripture (see Matt. 23:23-24).
28 At this point, the language changes from Hebrew, the language of the Jews, to Aramaic, the language of the Babylonians. There is no structural explanation for the change in language. The Hebrew language does not end at the close of one division and the Aramaic begin at a new division. You can, at best, find a paragraph break at verse 4, but this is at the beginning of the verse and the language changes to Aramaic in the middle of the verse.
The change in language occurs at a point of great interest in the story of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream--when king Nebuchadnezzar demands that his wise men tell his dream and explain its meaning or be put to death. Abruptly the language changes so the Jewish reader, who knows only Hebrew, cannot follow to the story’s conclusion. What happened? A Hebrew could find out how the story ends only by learning Aramaic (which would be very humbling for a Jewish captive), or by asking a foreigner who knows Aramaic.
There is a message here for the Jews, in this change from Hebrew to Aramaic. God is reminding the Jews of their captivity, and thus of their sin and divine judgment (see, for example, Isaiah 28:11). He may be encouraging them to learn Aramaic. Although He had always spoken to the Jews in their own (Hebrew) tongue, God is now revealing Himself to the Gentiles through a Gentile tongue. (Remember that the New Testament was written in Greek.) This change in language is but another painful reminder to the nation Israel that the times of the Gentiles has begun.
29 The dreams of Pharaoh, as recorded in Genesis 41, are similar. While Daniel was a “prophet,” he was not a typical prophet, like those who stood before Israel and spoke to men for God. His calling was like that which Joseph had with the Pharaoh in Egypt. Daniel was a prophet especially equipped to speak for God to a Babylonian king. Since this king believed that the “gods” spoke to men through dreams, God spoke to him through dreams, and sent his “prophet” Daniel to interpret these dreams. God revealed the future to this king in the way he was most inclined to recognize as a word from God.
33 Daniel asked God to supernaturally reveal what men did not and could not know, but he asked men like Arioch what he did know. God gave Daniel favor with Arioch so that he was willing to tell him what he needed to know.
36 There is actually no evidence that Arioch ever found Daniel, as he claims. While we might assume Arioch found Daniel to arrest him, this may not have been the case at all. Daniel’s friends were at his home, where he later joined them. Since his friends needed to be filled in on what was happening (2:17), it seems likely that Daniel was not at home, to be found or arrested, but that somehow he learned of the order to arrest all the wise men. I think Daniel sought out Arioch to find out what was happening. This would mean that Arioch did not really “find” Daniel in the first place. We know from verse 24 that Daniel “went in to Arioch.” In Arioch’s behalf, it should be pointed out that he had great faith in Daniel. By taking credit for finding Daniel and claiming he could meet the king’s demands, Arioch might benefit from Daniel’s success, but he also stood to suffer with Daniel if he failed. Arioch linked his fate with Daniel’s. The executioner could have been executed if Daniel was not able to tell the dream and its meaning.
38 In the beginning (verse 1) of this chapter, we were told that the king had dreams (plural), not just a dream (singular). Nebuchadnezzar, much like the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day, may have had more than one dream. Phaoah’s dreams were similar in nature and identical in meaning (see Genesis 41:1-8). Joseph pointed out to Pharaoh that since there were two dreams, the matter was determined and irreversible (Genesis 41:32). It may have been very much the same with Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. Daniel’s words suggest this could be the case.