by Ed Gallagher
As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces.Daniel 2:34
The next election is not as important as you think it is. Oh, the pundits might be right (but they’re probably not): the next election might be the most important ever; the future of democracy might ride on its results. And we have been taught to believe that everything, all of life, should be centered around this kind of thing. To the extent that cable news and online news have become major sources of entertainment for Americans, not to mention talk radio, we are constantly reminded of the importance of politics. Each thing the President does or says, each thing Congress fails to do, each case decided by the Supreme Court, has earth-shattering, life-altering, history-making consequences.
The Book of Daniel wants to re-orient the way we think about politics. (So does the book of Revelation, but let’s stick with Daniel for now.) Certainly, human political figures can wield tremendous power and affect people’s lives for good or ill, sometimes for very good or very ill. But we should not attribute to them anything like ultimate power. They are, actually—and whether they know it or not—merely pawns in someone else’s chess game. We should concentrate our attention much less on human politics and much more on the One who is really in control.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28 // Luke 12:4–5.
The message of Daniel is largely the same as the message of Jesus. You need to figure out to whom you should direct your fear. Human rulers may seem powerful, imposing, but in reality all human rule totters on a frail foundation and will be shown to be irrelevant in the light of the rule of God.
Interpretation of Dreams
While God blessed Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego with “knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom,” to Daniel particularly God gave skill at interpretation of dreams (Dan 1:17). The Babylonians and other ancient near eastern cultures were also known for dream interpretation; manuals for how to decipher the meaning of dreams have appeared with the discovery of ancient libraries.
Nebuchadnezzar summoned his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans (2:2) and demanded that they tell him his dream (2:1–11). This is a different approach from the way Pharaoh treated his magicians back in the days of Joseph; Pharaoh narrated his dream and asked for an interpretation (Gen 41:8), which only Joseph provided, though he attributed the dream interpretation to God (Gen 41:16). Why did Nebuchadnezzar want his magicians (etc.) to tell him his dream first? On the one hand, this tactic was probably a test of his magicians’ abilities: Nebuchadnezzar probably wanted to know whether the magicians really had any special powers about them, or whether they were just making stuff up. On the other hand, Nebuchadnezzar may not have remembered his dream (as Josephus asserts; Antiquities of the Jews 10.195). We have often experienced this, haven’t we? We wake up and remember having a dream that made us feel anxious, but we can’t remember what exactly happened. This is the way Jerome put it in his Latin commentary written at the beginning of the fifth century AD: “There remained in the king’s heart only a shadow, so to speak, or a mere echo or trace of the dream, with the result that if others should tell it to him, he would be able to recall what he had seen, and they would certainly not be deceiving him with lies.”1
At any rate, the wise men came close to admitting that they had no special powers: they told their king that “no one can reveal it to the king except the gods” (Dan 2:11), and the gods weren’t talking. In this exchange with the kings, these wise men remind me of Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, the fortune teller near the beginning of the movie who is able to tell Dorothy all about herself by sneaking a peak at her belongings.
Professor Marvel wouldn’t have been able to tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream, either.
Daniel more-or-less agreed with the Babylonian magicians: only a divine power could do what Nebuchadnezzar demanded. His approach to the problem was prayer (2:17–19), he praised God for revealing the dream and its interpretation (2:20–23), and—like Joseph—he publicly acknowledged that the revelation of the mystery was owing to God and not to himself (2:27–30).
The Dream and Its Interpretation
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a strange statue made from a variety of materials with a very unstable foundation, “partly of iron and partly of clay” (2:33). And then the statue was crushed by “a stone cut out, not by human hands” (2:34). The statue didn’t just topple over, like Goliath; rather, it disintegrated. All the broken pieces “became like chaff … and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found” (2:35). If I may be permitted another Wizard of Oz reference, remember what happens when Dorothy throws water on the Wicked Witch of the West? In place of the statue, that stone uncut by human hands became an enormous mountain (2:35).
We can understand why Nebuchadnezzar would be disturbed by such a dream. What did it all mean? Daniel explained (2:36–45): Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was represented by the head of gold (2:37), to be followed by an inferior kingdom of silver, and a third of bronze (2:39), and then a fourth kingdom, represented by the iron and clay (2:40–43). Daniel spent more time on this fourth kingdom than on the other three, as it seemed to be especially fierce: “just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it [= the fourth kingdom] shall crush and shatter all these [= the previous kingdoms?]” (2:40). But the fierceness of this fourth kingdom was not the full story, for two reasons: (1) the iron was mixed with clay, and (2) it was going to get a taste of its own medicine, since it was also about to get crushed.
Without thinking right now about the details of this statue, let’s try to get an overall picture of the dream and its meaning. The statue represents human kingdoms. The statue has a head of gold and feet with an iron-clay mix, which—as Daniel says—don’t actually mix (2:43). The statue looks good on top, but if you look at its foundation, you’ll see that it’s very unstable. There’s no way that this statue is going to be able to stand very long, not with a foundation like that. And since the statue represents human kingdoms, at least part of the message would seem to be that human kingdoms are, by their very nature, unstable, subject to decay, impressive at the beginning (head of gold) but they always topple over because of their precarious foundation.
And the other major element of the dream is the rock that becomes a mountain, but not before destroying the statue, the representation of human kingdoms. This rock-become-mountain represents God’s kingdom, which will not suffer the same fate as the human kingdoms; it “shall never be destroyed” (2:44). (You can’t have a much better foundation than a mountain has.) Moreover, “it shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end.” Human rule is replaced by God’s rule.
The main point is that Nebuchadnezzar is not in control. He may be the head of gold, but he was put there by “the God of heaven” (2:37). Human kingdoms will come to an end and God’s kingdom will be all in all.
What Are the Kingdoms?
I’m not sure it really matters. I’m not sure we’re supposed to take guesses at which was the silver kingdom, and which was the bronze, and which the iron-clay kingdom. I think the point is probably not about identifying the human kingdoms intended by the statue and thereby predicting the timing of the kingdom of God, but rather perceiving that human kingdoms succeed one another, humans often interpret the days we’re living in as worse than a bygone era (and thus the metals of the statue decrease in value), and that God’s kingdom will render all human kingdoms irrelevant. I suspect that the same point would be made if the statue had five or six or seven sections, or only three. In other words, “four” is not really the point of the dream.
My view is a minority view. Most interpreters throughout the ages, and still today, want to identify the four kingdoms. Daniel 7 is also relevant here, since it has a vision of four beasts, which also correspond to four kingdoms, and everybody admits that whatever the four kingdoms represent in Daniel 2, they are the same in Daniel 7.
Ancient historians did have an idea that kingdom succeeded kingdom. I’ve collected some of those comments here. The eighth-century BC Greek poet Hesiod already wrote about declining ages of humanity.
The traditional view is that the kingdoms represented by Nebuchadnezzar’s statue are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Macedonia (Alexander the Great), and Rome. The idea that Rome is the fourth kingdom works well with a particular view of the establishment of God’s kingdom “in the days of those kings” (2:44). If you identify God’s kingdom with the church, and since the church was established in the days of the Roman empire, then the fourth kingdom is Rome. On the other hand, another ancient view that is favored by most modern scholars is that the four kingdoms are Babylon, Media, Persia, and Macedonia.2 The sequence would agree with the sequence of kingdoms in some other ancient sources (see again here), and the Book of Daniel in some other places definitely shows a marked interest in the kingdom of the Macedonians, e.g., all the stuff about the “king of the north” and the “king of the south” in Daniel 11. From that vantage point, it would make good sense for the Macedonians to be the fourth kingdom.
To reiterate, I think these interpretations might be pressing the details too far. It makes sense to me to say that the dream indicates that in the midst of unstable human rule, God will establish his kingdom.
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.Daniel 2:44
God will establish his kingdom. This is an extremely important passage for understanding the New Testament. Remember Jesus’ basic message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom in fulfillment of Daniel 2:44 and other prophecies. We also remember that Jesus had little success in convincing people of the type of kingdom he was inaugurating. A look at Daniel 2:44 indicates why. According to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the kingdom of God would demolish the human kingdoms and especially the fourth kingdom. If that fourth kingdom is Rome—and we have Jewish literature shortly after the time of Jesus that makes that identification explicit (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 10.276; 4 Ezra 9:11)3—then the one inaugurating God’s kingdom should make war against Rome, should crush the fourth kingdom, turn it into chaff and scatter it to the four winds. That is not what Jesus was going to do.
Jesus did establish a kingdom, his church. It is the New Testament message that the the church is the group of people over whom God reigns as king, and so it is closely related to God’s kingdom. We could say that Daniel 2:44 was fulfilled when the church was established on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 (and I have heard many a sermon make that exact point).
We should notice that Daniel 2:44 has not yet been literally fulfilled. The kingdoms of the world still persist. They have not all been turned into chaff to be blown by the wind. So either we should think of Daniel 2:44 as only partially fulfilled as yet, or completely fulfilled in a not-obvious way.
I myself favor the view that the outcome of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is not that kingdoms of the world will actually be destroyed by God’s kingdom but rather that they will be rendered irrelevant—at least, irrelevant in a particular sense: they will be shown to be not the ultimate sources of power. We can already see that when the statue is still standing: each kingdom gives way to the next, and they all stand on an unstable foundation. Only God’s kingdom endures. Whereas the dream makes one think that God’s kingdom succeeds and replaces all human kingdoms, we might actually look at it as if God’s kingdom “crushes” the human kingdoms in the sense that the former’s simultaneous existence alongside the never-ending succession of human kingdoms shows that only God’s kingdom is permanent.
How does Daniel reorient our view of politics? By reminding us that human kingdoms come and go, but God’s kingdom endures forever. That fact ought to have some say in our priorities, how we organize our time, to what we give our money, where we set our hopes, what we talk about with our friends, how we represent ourselves to others. Do people know us as more concerned about human kingdoms or more concerned about God’s kingdom? (I have heard it said that some Christians have their thinking shaped more by cable news than by Scripture.) Daniel’s understanding of who was in control of world history determined how he lived.
Compare Nebuchadnezzar’s demands in Daniel 2:1–12 with the similar story about Pharaoh at Genesis 41:1–8. Why does Nebuchadnezzar demand for the wise men to tell him the dream? What are the implications of what the wise men say at Daniel 2:11? See Genesis 41:16.
What does Daniel do between hearing about the death sentence for wise men (Daniel 2:13) and announcing that he would supply the king’s requested interpretation (2:24)?
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed about a statue (Daniel 2:31–35). In his dream, what happened to the statue?
According to Daniel, what does the statue represent?
According to Daniel, what is represented by the stone cut out not by human hands?
(1) Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason L. Archer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 25, commenting on Dan 2:3. This line of approach is also taken by Christopher J. H. Wright, Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017), 43.
(2) See Brennan Breed, in Carol A. Newsom, Daniel, Old Testament Library (Louisville: WJK, 2014), 85–97. The ancient interpreters seeing the fourth kingdom in Daniel as Macedonia/Greece include the neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry and Syriac biblical interpreters. One rabbinic interpretation has the four kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Greece, and Rome, with no mention of Persia; see Exodus Rabbah 35.5, in the translation of S. M. Lehrman, Midrash Rabbah: Exodus, 3d ed. (New York: Soncino, 1983), 433.
(3) Josephus was intentionally ambiguous in his treatment of Daniel’s predictions of Rome; see Louis H. Feldman, Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 629–57.