Daniel 4, the madness of Nebuchadnezzar (the fourth chapter of the Bible’s Book of Daniel) tells how King Nebuchadnezzar learns the lesson of God’s sovereignty, “who is able to bring low those who walk in pride.” Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great tree that shelters the whole world, but in his dream an angelic “watcher” appears and decrees that the tree must be cut down and that for seven years he, Nebuchadnezzar, will have his human mind taken away and will eat grass like an ox. This comes to pass, and at the end of his punishment Nebuchadnezzar praises God. (Daniel’s role is to interpret the dream for the king).
The message of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness is that all earthly power, including that of kings, is subordinate to the power of God. It forms a contrasting pair with chapter 5: Nebuchadnezzar learns that God alone controls the world and is restored to his kingdom, while Belshazzar fails to learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s example and has his kingdom taken from him and given to the Medes and Persians.
(Summary of Daniel 4 based on the translation of C.L. Seow in his commentary on Daniel)
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, addresses a letter “to all peoples, nations and languages that live throughout the earth” telling them he will recount the “signs and wonders” that the Most High God has worked for me.”
Nebuchadnezzar was living in his palace in peace and prosperity when he had a strange dream that troubled him. None of his diviners and magicians were able to explain it for him, and he called for Daniel, chief of all his wise men. This is the dream: The king saw a great tree at the centre of the earth, its top touching heaven, visible to the ends of the earth, and providing food and shelter to all the creatures of the world. As the king watched he saw a “holy watcher” come from heaven and call for the tree to be cut down and his (sic – the pronoun changes from “it” to “he”) human mind changed to that of a beast for seven “times”. This sentence “is rendered by decree of the watchers … in order that all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals…”
Daniel explains: the king himself is the tree, and by the decree of God he will lose his human mind for the mind of an animal, and live with wild animals and eat grass like an ox hydration bag for running. This came to pass, until at the end of the seven years Nebuchadnezzar had his human mind and his kingdom were restored. The letter concludes with Nebuchadnezzar’s praise of God, for “all his works are truth, and his ways are justice, and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.”
Additions to Daniel
It is generally accepted that the Book of Daniel originated as a collection of folktales among the Jewish community in Babylon and Mesopotamia in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods (5th to 3rd centuries BCE), expanded in the Maccabean era (mid-2nd century) by the visions in chapters 7–12. Modern scholarship agrees that Daniel is a legendary figure; it is possible that this name was chosen for the hero of the book because of his reputation as a wise seer in Hebrew tradition. The tales are in the voice of an anonymous narrator, except for chapter 4 which is in the form of a letter from king Nebuchadnezzar. Chapters 2–7 are in the form of a chiasmus, a poetic structure in which the main point or message of a passage is placed in the centre and framed by further repetitions on either side:
The chapter opens with an introduction typical of Aramaic letters of the post-exilic period (“King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations and languages…May you have abundant peace stainless steel water jug!”). Jewish bibles, and some Christian ones, attach this to the end of chapter 3, so that Nebuchadnezzar’s letter concerns the events of chapter 3 (the Fiery Furnace) instead of his madness. This is no more than an accidental result of the fact that chapter divisions were only introduced in the 13th century, and given that chapter 4 is in Nebuchadnezzar’s voice, the attachment to this chapter seems the most fitting choice. This is followed by the dream, Daniel’s interpretation, the sentence, the king’s recovery, and a final doxology in which the king repeats his praise of God.
The Prayer of Nabonidus is a fragmentary story from the Dead Sea Scrolls (scroll 4QPrNab) with close parallels to Daniel 4. Told in the first person by King Nabonidus of Babylon (reigned 556–539 BCE), it tells how he was smitten by an inflammation for seven years while in the oasis-city of Tayma, in north-western Arabia, and how a Jewish seer explains to him that this is because he is an idol-worshiper. Another passage, extremely fragmented, apparently introduces a dream narrative. The parallels with the history of Nabonidus are extremely close, and while Daniel 4 is not based on the Prayer it is likely that it is a variant of an original Jewish story in which Nabonidus, and not Nebuchadnezzar, was the king.
Daniel 4 is a legend set in the royal court, like the other tales of chapters 1–6. The theme is the relationship between heavenly and earthly power: the king’s power on earth is not denied, but it is subordinate to the power of God. Chapters 4 and 5 contrast Nebuchadnezzar, who learns his lesson when humbled by God, and Belshazzar, who learns nothing from Nebuchadnezzar’s example and blasphemes against God, who then gives his kingdom to the Medes and Persians.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream a “holy watcher” descends from heaven to pronounce sentence on tree and king. This is the sole instance of this phrase in the Old Testament, although it echoes the frequent descriptions of God’s watchfulness. The watcher’s commands to cut down the tree (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar) and strip it are issued, presumably, to the divine beings who carry out God’s will.
Daniel 4’s tree parallels the similar image in Ezekiel 31, where the pharaoh of Egypt is compared to a mighty tree towering above all others with its top in the clouds, a symbol of human arrogance about to be cut down. The metaphor then switches to depict Nebuchadnezzar as a beast dependent on grace for its survival until he learns humility before God. Possibly significantly, the king is restored when he “lifts up” his eyes to heaven.