The Madness of King Nebuchadnezzar

by Ed Gallagher

William Blake, Nebuchadnezzar, c. 1795, public domain

Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?

Daniel 4:30

These are the words of Nebuchadnezzar, and two things immediately pop into mind when I read them: (1) he shouldn’t have said that! These words are the turning point in the story, and they lead to the situation depicted in the picture above. (2) His words sound really familiar, like things I have said any number of times. 

Because, you know, I think pretty highly of myself. I’ve been able to accomplish some pretty amazing things in my life, and I’ve got a ways to go, yet—I’m not that old. I’m only going to become more impressive. There’s a million things I haven’t done; just you wait. “Is not this a magnificent career—and family, and reputation, and Christian service—that I have built by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” 

I need Daniel 4. Probably a lot of us do. This story shows how ridiculous God thinks it is when we talk about our lives as if we have accomplished wonderful things. Because we haven’t. Yeah, Babylon might be impressive, and Nebuchadnezzar might have been in charge during its glory days, but only because God set him on the throne. I mean, that is what Daniel has already told him: “You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom” (Dan 2:37). Anything I have ever accomplished, I didn’t really accomplish so much as God accomplished it through me. I didn’t cause myself to exist. I don’t provide air for my lungs. I don’t oversee the beating of my heart or the functioning of my brain. I don’t even understand any of this stuff. What I ought to reflect on, instead of thinking about how wonderful I am, is the truth spoken by the fourth-century BC Greek philosopher Epimenides and quoted by the apostle Paul: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). 

Raphael, Saint Paul Preaching, 1515, Wikimedia Commons

This is about humility, about which the Bible has a lot to say. Let me cite here just a couple of famous verses. 

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:10

The last will be first, and the first will be last.

Matthew 20:16

Nebuchadnezzar’s Last Chapter 

We’ve already had three chapters in which King Nebuchadnezzar features as one of the chief characters. (Well, chapter 1—not so much, but he does appear in that chapter.) Daniel 4 is the last one in which Nebuchadnezzar appears. His name is mentioned in Daniel 5 as the father of the reigning king Belshazzar, and that’s it; no more Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel after that. 

This chapter is unique in that it is narrated in the first person from the perspective of Nebuchadnezzar himself. The king is telling this story. The chapter is set up like a royal proclamation: the king has an announcement to make to his kingdom. What he wants to say is in praise of the Most High God. This is how he begins (4:2–3) and ends (4:34–37). The king has fully experienced the power of the Most High God, and he knows what he’s talking about when he concludes the chapter by saying that the King of heaven “is able to bring low those who walk in pride” (4:37). 

Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Here, again, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream, just like in chapter 2. This time he has no hesitation about narrating the dream to his magicians (4:7); he does not demand that they tell the dream to him (as at 2:5–9). Even so, the magicians can’t help at all, so in comes Daniel.1 

The dream (4:10–17): A big tree gets chopped down.

That’s the basic plot of the dream. But there are some weird elements, also. The stump of the tree is left, and its mind—yes, the mind of the tree stump—is changed “from that of a human, and let the mind of an animal be given to it [or him]” (4:16). This is going to last for “seven times,” as a decree of the “watchers,” which is a type of angel. And the point? “That all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings” (4:17). 

All of that is in the dream itself. No interpretation necessary. This is the stuff that Nebuchadnezzar tells Daniel. We might think that the meaning of the dream is so obvious as to hardly need interpretation, certainly not divine revelation. But Nebuchadnezzar seems not to get it. And since this chapter is teaching us about humility, we should probably admit that were we in his situation, we would probably also be resistant to the dream’s lesson and seek out clarification. 

Daniel interprets: the tree is Nebuchadnezzar (4:22). “You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will” (4:25). 

Notice that Daniel repeats the point already expressed in the dream: the Most High is in control, not any person. The Most High dispenses dominion according to his own pleasure (4:17, 25). It would be improper for any king to take pride in his own accomplishments since he is merely God’s servant. 

This same lesson is given in other parts of Scripture (on Assyria, see Isa 10:5–12), even in reference to this same king. Let’s listen to Jeremiah. 

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: This is what you shall say to your masters: 5It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever I please. 6Now I have given all these lands into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him. 7All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave.

Jeremiah 27:4–7

Now, the message of Jeremiah is different from that of Daniel. Jeremiah needed to tell other people that they should serve Nebuchadnezzar or face punishment from God (Jer 24:8). But the point God makes in Daniel 4 could also be derived from this passage in Jeremiah. God controls the kingdoms of men. Nebuchadnezzar is in charge because God put him there. He will continue to be in charge as long as God wants him there. Eventually, God will make a change. 

Daniel’s Response 

Daniel does a couple of interesting things in his response to Nebuchadnezzar. First, he obviously doesn’t want Nebuchadnezzar to experience the predicted hardship. Second, he offers good advice to Nebuchadnezzar. Let’s think about both of these points in turn. 

When Daniel heard Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he “was severely distressed for a while. His thoughts terrified him” (4:19). He wished that the dream applied to Nebuchadnezzar’s enemies rather than to the king. Is this the way you would have felt had you been in Daniel’s shoes? How would you feel if the king who had taken you captive, had destroyed your nation, had tried to incinerate your friends—how would you feel if that king received some bad news? Maybe you’re as pure-hearted as Daniel, but I think a few people might feel just a bit gleeful about Nebuchadnezzar’s misfortune. Daniel here reminds me a little of Jesus (Luke 23:34), or Stephen (Acts 7:60), praying for the people killing him. 

The advice that Daniel gives Nebuchadnezzar is also worthy of note. 

Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.

Daniel 4:27

Here we see one of the problems with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride: it resulted in oppression of others. At least, I think that’s why Daniel gives him this advice. Apparently Nebuchadnezzar had become so impressed with himself that he failed to see the deprivation outside his door. We might compare Solomon, whose building policies produced a magnificent palace and a beautiful temple and a very frustrated workforce (cf. 1 Kings 12:4). Or we could think of Marie Antoinette, who apparently did not actually say her most famous comment, when told that the people of France had no bread: “Let them eat cake!” Nebuchadnezzar needed to stop admiring himself and take a look around, to learn about the true, human cost for his magnificent Babylon. 

The Result 

The fulfillment of the dream plays out in one verse. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar heeded Daniel’s advice for a year, but he still hadn’t fully learned his lesson. So he said those words of self-admiration quoted at the beginning of this lesson. And then this happened: 

Immediately the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.

Daniel 4:33

It all seems a bit odd, and Christians in antiquity wondered whether this story about Nebuchadnezzar is not supposed to be understood literally but whether there might instead be some sort of spiritual meaning.2 (Daniel refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s madness at 5:20–21.) There’s also a Dead Sea Scroll that tells a similar story about a different king.3 In any case, the point of the story seems pretty clear: Nebuchadnezzar is not in control. He’s not in control of what he eats, or what he wears, or how long his fingernails are. He certainly is not in control of a kingdom, unless God says so. God is in control. 


The lessons in this one are pretty straightforward. 

  1. You’re not as good as you think you are. 
  2. Love your neighbor. 

These lessons are related, as we’ve already seen. The rich man in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:19–31) might well have thought that he deserved his wealth because of his hard work and intelligence, and if Lazarus would stop just sitting at the gate, maybe he’d find a job and get something to eat. His poverty is his fault, and I deserve my wealth. Of course, that is not what Jesus thought. This story in Daniel 4 also suggests a better way of looking at life. 

Let me also remind you of the movie Groundhog Day, which you should probably commit to watching once per year. Phil Connors starts out as a complete jerk, full of himself, resentful of others for not being properly impressed with him. It is a cycle that he cannot break until he stops thinking about himself, starts thinking about others. At the end of the movie, he is completely invested in others, what he can do for them, without seeking any praise for himself. And he’s happy. 

Daniel 4 is not a chapter that tells us we’ll be happier if we think about others more than about ourselves. It’s more a chapter about how stupid it is to think that we’re so great, to not realize that ultimately we control almost nothing. Nebuchadnezzar, who marveled at the wonderful city that he had built, had surely never laid a single brick.4 In some ways he was the one person who was least responsible for the greatness of Babylon, but he got to enjoy most of the benefits of that greatness. That situation should have given him humility. God made sure he eventually learned the lesson. 

Bonus Material

Hanging Garden of Babylon

Discussion Questions 

Why does God send Nebuchadnezzar another dream in Daniel 4? Why is God trying to communicate with this king? 

Why do you think Daniel reacts to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream the way he does (4:19)? Is this reaction surprising to you? 

What kind of advice does Daniel give Nebuchadnezzar (4:27)? What does this advice imply about the type of life Nebuchadnezzar has been living? 

Why do you think twelve months passed between the dream and the fulfillment of the dream (4:28)? 

What lesson does Nebuchadnezzar learn in this chapter? 


(1) The Greek historian Herodotus tells of some more-or-less contemporary events in the kingdom of Media, when the king Astyages has some dreams that are interpreted by magi. Astyages is satisfied with the interpretation, until the advice from the magi proves incorrect, whereupon he impales them. See Herotodus, Histories, 1.106–28. Later, Cyrus of Persia had a dream that he interpreted himself, but incorrectly (1.209–10). 

(2) See Jerome’s report (and rejection) of this view in his Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason L. Archer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 46–47. 

(3) The Prayer of Nabonidus. For my take on this text, see Ed Gallagher, “Daniel and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Identity in Crisis: Daniel’s Vision for the Future: The 81st Annual Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship, ed. Doug Y. Burleson (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2017), 410–14. 

(4)  As pointed out by Christopher J. H. Wright, Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017), 101.

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