William Blake’s depiction of Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Daniel tells of a ruler who through hubris lost his mind and started eating grass like a cow. The “mad king [is] crawling like a hunted beast into a den among the rocks; his tangled golden beard sweeping the ground, his nails like vultures’ talons, and his wild eyes full of sullen terror. The powerful frame is losing semblance of humanity, and is bestial in its rough growth of hair, reptile in the toad-like markings and spottings of the skin…” (William Gilchrist)
Nebuchadnezzar’s mind went from him, and he was driven from the palace into the fields – thus he made his home with the beasts. His fingernails grew long like claws, and his hair became matted; he was unable to take care of himself.
I am sure you understand that in the ultimate sense there is no sin God will tolerate. All sin will be judged. Many sins are judged in this life; all sins will be judged in the life to come. So in using this title I am speaking in a different sense, and what I want to point out is that although God does temporarily tolerate some sins in this world, yet there is one sin that God does not seem to countenance. Daniel 4, which concludes the story of Nebuchadnezzar, deals with this matter.
The key to understanding these early chapters, and perhaps the entire Book of Daniel, comes in the second verse of the book. That verse tells of the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and explains that after the conquest of the city, Nebuchadnezzar brought back the vessels of the temple of God in Jerusalem to the house of his god and laid them up in the treasure house of his god. By this symbolic act Nebuchadnezzar was asserting that his gods were stronger than Jehovah. And so it seemed. We know that God permits others to triumph over His people for His own reasons, generally to bring judgment for sin. The temporary victory of evil persons does not mean that God is not more powerful than evil or that He will not ultimately be victorious. Yet this is what Nebuchadnezzar thought. These opening chapters of Daniel show Jehovah teaching this proud monarch that neither his gods nor Nebuchadnezzar himself was stronger than the Most High. God is God! “My glory I will not give to another,” says God. He does not allow Nebuchadnezzar to give God&’s glory to another in this story.
God had already been trying to teach Nebuchadnezzar that. The first story in Daniel that really involves Nebuchadnezzar is the story of the dream he had of a great image. It was a figure of gold, silver, brass, and iron. Nebuchadnezzar was represented by the gold head of the image. This was God’s acknowledgment that his kingdom was indeed magnificent but that, as God pointed out, it would be succeeded by another (as all human kingdoms are) and that by another and that by another; and only at the end would come the eternal kingdom of God in Christ. God was teaching Nebuchadnezzar that he was not so important as he thought.
The next story in Daniel concerns the gold image that Nebuchadnezzar set up in the plain of Dura. In reading the story with Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in view, we realize that Nebuchadnezzar was rebelling against God’s decree. Now God has to humble Nebuchadnezzar and show that only God is King.
The story we have in Daniel 4 has to do with another vision, but it must be seen against this background. Nebuchadnezzar dreamed again, and this time he dreamed that he saw a great tree. After receiving this vision Nebuchadnezzar consulted the Chaldeans as he had done on other occasions, but they were unable to give the meaning. Eventually he turned to Daniel, who apparently understood it at once. Daniel saw that the vision referred to the king. So we read that his countenance was troubled for about an hour, bothered, obviously, by what he knew this meant. Finally Nebuchadnezzar said, “Don’t be bothered. I understand that this is not a good vision, but tell me about it anyway. I want to know the truth.”
Daniel began to explain the vision. He explained that the tree was Nebuchadnezzar. God had exalted him to be a great figure, to fill all the world with his empire. Those of the earth were nourished by him – the birds in the branches, the beasts under the tree – all were fed. But because his heart was lifted up through pride, God was going to cause this great tree to be cut down. He was not to die. But he was going to lose his sanity for seven years until he came to recognize that the Most High God rules in the affairs of men.
This God sets up whom He will and brings down whom He will, and when He sets a man up, He can do it from the basest of men. He does not have to choose what we would regard as the best.
The story goes on to show that this is precisely what happened. The time came when Nebuchadnezzar was walking in his palace, looking out over the great city of Babylon, and he took to himself the glory that he should have given God. He said, “Look at this great Babylon that I have built.” In the same hour the prophecy took place. Nebuchadnezzar’s mind went from him, and he was driven from the palace into the fields – thus he made his home with the beasts. His fingernails grew long like claws, and his hair became matted; he was unable to take care of himself. At the end of the time, his reason returned to him – we are to understand that this was not only in a mental sense but also in a spiritual sense – and he recognized the truth of things, coming to what we would call a genuine repentance. We find his words of repentance and praise for God at the end of the chapter.
What Nebuchadnezzar says (v.30) as he looks out over mighty Babylon is: “Look what I have done!” He failed to give God the glory. That verse is the expression of Nebuchadnezzar’s heart and of our hearts apart from the grace of God. We think that we are responsible for what we do and achieve, and we do not recognize that even when we achieve great things it is because God, the giver of all good gifts, has given us the ability to achieve them.