For the Jews to whom Daniel was written, the Exile was the grief of griefs. Babylon swept in to Judah like a flood, drowning any sense of their ability to defend themselves and shattering any illusion of safety that Judah clung to. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops dismantled the city, robbed the temple, and stole every last ounce of pride that they could find. What they left behind was a deeply broken people.
The pain of the moment was so severe that it created generational trauma, passed down from parent to child, and eventually to grandchildren. The devastating impact reverberated through decades, and created a fundamental challenge to their self-understanding and their identity as God’s people.
As is often the case, such pain carried with it terrible bitterness—much of it deserved—towards those who had been the agents of death and chaos. The babylonians were the villains of the story, and Nebuchadnezzar was their king.
The book of Daniel is written with the backdrop of all that pain. All of the suffering which didn’t need to be spelled out is captured by the short prologue to the book, which simply says :
“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.” (Daniel 1:1–2 NRSV)
Daniel then begins by with a story about what it means to survive in such an empire without losing your head or your heart, a story of savvy subversion in which Daniel gets his foot in the door as the interpreter of the visions the pagan king has but cannot understand, and a tale about what it means to worship God alone, even when threatened by a king who worships himself.
Whether in a courthouse scene or in the life of faith, it is always dramatic when an odd character all of a sudden emerges to give incredible testimony. In Daniel 4, the crazy twist is that the person giving the testimony of the greatness of Israel’s God is Israel’s greatest Enemy!
The story opens with Nebuchadnezzar receiving a terrifying dream, and desperately searching for its meaning. He recounts the dream to Daniel, hoping he will interpret it:
“Upon my bed this is what I saw;
there was a tree at the center of the earth,
and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
its top reached to heaven,
and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant,
and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
the birds of the air nested in its branches,
and from it all living beings were fed.”1
Note that the image here is not only of the emperor’s power, but of the capacity of that power to bring the flourishing of life. Of course we know that imperial power also holds a capacity for great harm, and such was the experience of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonians.
At any rate, the dream moves on, and regardless of how the emperor was going to use his power, he finds that it is to be taken from him, as a watcher comes and proclaims: “Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit…”2 The poetic proclamation of judgment goes on to tell of the dehumanization of Nebuchadnezzar, who is going to revert to an animal state for a while.3 Far from being purposeless suffering, though, this is all with a particular intent: that “all who live” would know the sovereignty of God, and that God gives power “to whom he will”, and gives it to even the lowliest of human beings.”
Daniel, understanding the dream, reacts surprisingly: he was “severely distressed for a while”, and “his thoughts terrified him”. The shocking truth is that this story evokes empathy for Nebuchadnezzar. While one would expect an exiled Jew to be elated that the oppressor would be humiliated, in this story the news distresses Daniel—and the story is designed to evoke that same empathy in the reader as well.
However, the story isn’t done messing with its readers yet—and the biggest surprise is how it concludes. after his dehumanization, the narrative actually takes on Nebuchadnezzar’s voice.
When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever.
For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does what he wills with the host of heaven
and the inhabitants of the earth.
There is no one who can stay his hand
or say to him, “What are you doing?”4
Nebuchadnezzar, the arrogant oppressor of God’s people, comes to repent and acknowledge God’s sovereignty. The shocking message: Even Nebuchadnezzar can change.
The Old Testament is full of the enemies of God’s people, but the most powerfully oppressive empires were Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon5. Get this: the Hebrew Bible contains a story where each of them comes to their senses and acknowledges the rule of Israel’s God. In each, God uses an unlikely and humiliated spokesperson—Moses, Jonah, and Daniel—to call the king to acknowledge God.
In this story, the great villain of the history of Israel—Nebuchadnezzar—ends up worshipping God!
And you think your neighbor is beyond redemption?
Perhaps you’ve thought that you are?
- Daniel 4:10-12, NRSV ↩
- Daniel 4:14, NRSV ↩
- It’s interesting to read this story in conversation with the Genesis account fo the creation of humanity—perhaps Nebuchadnezzar represents not just imperial power, but humanity in their calling to have dominion on the earth for the sake of creation’s flourishing. But that’s a blog for another day. ↩
- Daniel 4:34–35, NRSV. ↩
- The scriptures treat Persia with discretion and the resistance to Persian imperial power is written much more subtly into the text than the outright laments over the destruction wrought be the other three. ↩