Daniel In Babylon

Part 3. The Dream of the Image

King Nebuchadnezzar was in a thoughtful mood. His deeply religious turn of mind and almost passionate yearning for the approval and blessing of the gods rendered him singularly receptive to dreams, considering them, as was the custom in those days, messages from the other world, revelations of the powers of heaven. There are sufficient examples in the Old Testament to make it abundantly clear that God has from time to time revealed himself to his servants the prophets and patriarchs in this fashion. Many of the ancients—idolators—firmly believed that their own deities communicated their wishes in the same manner so that the idea was by no means confined to the relative few who served the true God. Additionally, the Scriptures give several instances in which God disclosed his purposes to men who were not his avowed followers, so that there is no reason for rejecting the idea that certain noteworthy dreams of unbelievers may have been inspired directly by God for his purpose.

Such was the case in this present instance. The King, awaking from his sleep, recalled an impressive dream, and the more he thought about it the more he felt that it was no ordinary dream. That it held a message for him he felt sure; but who would interpret the symbolism of the dream and reveal to him its message? That was the problem which occupied the king’s mind.

A colossal towering image of a man; he saw almost certainly a warrior dressed in the style of a Babylonian soldier. King Nebuchadnezzar was himself a soldier; as a young man he had led the armies of Babylon into the field against Egypt, Elam, Assyria—all the traditional foes of Babylon—whilst his father, Nabopolassar, rested from his own military exploits and administered as king the affairs of the country which he had successfully freed from the Assyrian yoke. Now in his own turn, although his military career was by no means over, Nebuchadnezzar was enjoying a brief respite of peace, and it was while he was at home in Babylon planning the great building works for which he is famous that the dream of the image came to him.

No ordinary image this—the head was of gold, the breast and arms of silver; the body and thighs of copper; the lower legs of iron; the feet iron mingled with soft, yielding, wet clay. An impressive sight, but built upon a foundation which threatened to go to pieces at any moment; nevertheless while it stood, the image proudly surveyed its surroundings as though commanding reverence and allegiance from all who beheld.

Then came action. A mass of rock, rugged and massive as if torn out from its parent mountain by the hand of God, came bearing down on the image. No human hands guided it; the power by which it travelled was invisible and irresistible. Even as the king watched, the mass of rock struck the image on its feet—the feet of iron and clay. The colossus trembled, swayed, and crashed to earth with a fall that smashed it to pieces. Fragments of gold, silver, copper, and iron lay in confusion over the plain. With the strange inconsequence of dreams the fragments went on breaking up, dividing into smaller and ever smaller pieces, until as fine dust they were caught up by the wind and blown away. Soon there was nothing left of the image, nothing to show where it had stood or give any evidence that it had ever existed—nothing but the dry sandy plain of Babylonia.

Now the rock itself started to grow. Before the king’s amazed eyes it steadily increased in size until it filled his whole field of vision, covering the plain in every direction as far as the eye could see. He saw it encircle and swallow up his own capital city of Babylon; he saw it reach southward to the sea, and northward to Assyria. He watched it as it extended its spread over the lands of his old enemies, Hittites and Amorites, the Great Sea in the west and the empire of Egypt in the south-west. His gaze followed it as it covered lands and peoples he had never heard of and did not know existed, and when it had finished growing he saw that it had become a great mountain that filled the whole earth. All peoples, nations and languages had their homes and their lives on its slopes and under its shadow. No wonder the king was in a thoughtful mood.

It is highly probable that Nebuchadnezzar had been cogitating seriously on the possible fate of his empire after his own death. He was now a man of between thirty and forty years of age, married to a wife he loved, and the father of three small children. He was firmly established as monarch of the world’s leading nation and he had great plans for that nation’s advancement. He had made Babylon the strongest power in the Middle East and although vigilance was still needed there was no real danger from the only other great power, that of Egypt. Nineveh had been destroyed a few years previously and the power of Assyria was broken for ever. Persia as a rival had not yet emerged on the scene. He was busy organising and administering the empire his father and he had created and initiating ambitious schemes of building, irrigation and road-making. He was an Oriental despot and given to violent bursts of temper, but he was an educated man and a wise and enlightened ruler. He must have known how many times in past history individual men had built up just such edifices only for them to crash in ruins after the builder had gone the way of all flesh. Perhaps the great king had been thinking about the future of all that his hands were fashioning and in that frame of mind was receptive to this dream that God sent.

So in the morning the king did the expected thing; he summoned his professional interpreters of dreams to his presence to demand an interpretation of the dream. According to ch.2:2 they constituted a formidable assortment; there were “the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans.” They all came in and stood before the king.

Later on Daniel was to find himself at the head of this motley collection and it will be necessary presently to examine their credentials a little more closely. For the moment, however, suffice it to say that the “magicians” were exorcists of evil spirits, the “sorcerers” utterers of incantations which constrained gods to do things for men which in the ordinary way they would have declined to do, the “astrologers” were occultists who professed to have communication with the spirit world, and the “Chaldeans” a senior caste of wise men who specialised in both astrology and astronomy, issuing predictions something after the style of “Old Moore’s Almanac.” It was from this heterogeneous assemblage of the “wisdom of this world” that the king expected to obtain the interpretation of his dream.

He started off by demanding that his advisers give him first a detailed account of the dream itself, and afterwards proceed to the explanation. The company was thrown into considerable confusion. The great king was certainly in a difficult mood this morning. They had come into the royal presence with their usual serene confidence and glibly recited the customary formula, “O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” (Dan.2:4) That would be easy enough; it was merely a matter of applying the rules of the art and the king was generally perfectly satisfied.

On this occasion he was not going to be so easily satisfied. Perhaps he had an instinctive feeling that this would prove to be a most important dream and he ought to be sure that he got the correct explanation. Perhaps—for king Nebuchadnezzar was a man having great foresight (long-headed)—he already suspected the veracity of his counsellors and determined to put them to the test. If they really did get their interpretations from the gods, who knew all things and saw into the depths of men’s minds, then logically they should be able to get the details of the dream as well. Their ability to do the one would convince him of their authority to do the other.

Rather helplessly, they made their plea a second time. “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation of it” (v.7) This was worldly wisdom in its extremity; faced with a problem the solution of which was vested only in the power of God they must needs admit defeat. Despite the royal anger and the threat of an immediate and ignominious death they could do nothing but admit that there was none on earth who could meet the king’s wishes; none but the gods, “whose dwelling is not with flesh.” (v.11)

So in the last resort these men had to confess that they were not messengers of the other world at all; they had no Divine authority and no other-worldly enlightenments. Presented with the demand that they prove their claims, they stood before the king and the world, admitted imposters, and in his rage and fury at having been tricked the king commanded that the entire fraternity be put to death.

This might be the right place in which to correct a common misconception to the effect that the king himself had forgotten his dream and wanted the wise men to recall it to his memory. The idea is based on Nebuchadnezzar’s words in ch.2:5, “The thing is gone from me,” but the king did not mean that at all. He was talking to the wise men and after their first refusal to repeat to him the dream he used a phrase which was common to autocratic potentates asserting the irrevocable nature of their dictum (saying). The full text is, “The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill.” The first sentence is equivalent to saying, “The decree is gone out from me and will not be revoked.” It was the fixity of his purpose to slay the wise men to which he was referring. From that moment their doom was sealed unless the dream was told. There is little doubt that the king remembered the dream all right; he wanted to find out if the wise men could discover it independently.

At this point Daniel comes into the limelight. He is still only a youth, in his early twenties, but already he has attracted the favourable notice of the king by his bearing, discretion and knowledge. Unfortunately that same learning has put him and his three companions into one of the categories involved in the arbitrary sentence of death just uttered by the king, so that Arioch the captain of the palace guard was soon on the spot to arrest the four youths in order to carry out the royal command. In response to Daniel’s enquiry he unfolded the whole story, and Daniel knew immediately that the time had come for his life’s work to begin. He knew instinctively that God was in this thing and that he was the agent of God and must needs be ready for service. He went straight to the king and declared that given a little time, he would tell to the king his dream and its interpretation.

It is not likely that he literally walked into the king’s presence with his request. It was not usually so easy to obtain an audience with the great man, and v.26, describing the entry of Daniel with the interpretation, does not read as if the king had held previous personal conversation with him on the matter. It is more likely that the request was made, and the permission obtained, through a third party, probably the captain of the palace guard, who was already intimately involved in the progress of this matter.

Daniel’s next action is of interest. He gathered his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and bade them join him in prayer before God for the revelation of this secret. There is something very significant here. Daniel was already confident that God would reveal the truth to him; his request just made to the king shows that. Why then did he not make personal supplication to God; why deem it necessary to bring his three friends into the prayer circle? Did he realise that the greater degree of solemnity and urgency induced by the fact of a number praying together, and the feeling of joint participation, itself constituted a further factor bringing his own spirit more in tune with the Divine Spirit? The clarity of the message he expected to receive from God must depend upon the degree to which he himself was able to shake off the trammels (restrictions) of earthly mindedness and enter into the “secret place of the Most High.” That must have been helped in no small degree by the fact of corporate prayer in unison together, and so the co-operation of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah was a definite factor in Daniel’s attainment of a mind so opened to the Holy Spirit that he could understand the details of the interpretation he was presently to repeat to king Nebuchadnezzar.

It was now Daniel’s turn to dream. “Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision.” (2:19). The details of the dream are not related, but it is evident that they were sufficiently explicit to give Daniel the knowledge he desired. But there was no immediate running off to the king with the answer, even though the threat of death was still hanging over his head. There was something much more important to be done first. He solemnly and reverently returned thanks to God. It is a wonderful prayer, this paean of praise whereby Daniel ascribed all might and power to the giver of the revelation. “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings:…he revealeth the deep and secret things.” (Dan.2:21-22) Only after he had thus acknowledged the source of his enlightenment did he proceed to the palace to impart the information for which the great man was waiting.

Thus it came about that a probably greatly relieved captain of the palace guard came bustling into the royal presence with the welcome news that he had ready a man who would comply with the king’s conditions and give the interpretation of the dream. Arioch almost certainly would be feeling that this was a most fortunate ending to the whole episode; the character of his royal master was so unpredictable that it was quite on the cards he himself might, later on, be blamed for the too literal execution of the command; possibly, too, the friends of the condemned men would find some way, eventually, of taking their revenge on the servant where they had small chance of doing so on the master. In the meantime he did his best to divert a little of the credit to himself; “I have found a man of the captives of Judah” he told the King, who can “make known unto the king the interpretation.” He must himself have had confidence in Daniel’s ability, to have risked his own reputation in so confident a statement. Good it is for any of us if the unbelievers among whom our daily lives are spent come to have confidence in the veracity of our words and soberness of our judgment even though they will not accept and share our beliefs.

Now brought into the king’s presence, Daniel hastened to disclaim any superior wisdom inherent in himself. “Art thou able to make known (declare) unto me the dream...and make known the interpretation?” (v.26) demanded the great man. The youth before him, in a speech which is a model of restraint and dignity, first reminded him that the soothsayers, the astrologers, the wise men of Babylon, with all the boasted powers of the gods behind them, had been quite unable to interpret the dream. Then with a modesty which must have sounded strange in that Babylonian court, he proceeded to disown any claim to superior wisdom of his own in the matter. But there is a God in heaven, he went on, and that God is directly interested in the affairs of this empire of Babylon, and wields overall control of its destinies, and in his inscrutable wisdom has now intervened to instruct thee, King Nebuchadnezzar, what shall befall this empire in the last days. It was a masterly approach; no wonder the king was interested; and the quiet ring of authority in the voice of this youngster could not but have impressed a man who himself knew what authority meant.

So Daniel told the dream, and as he recounted the details his listener knew that he was speaking the truth. This young man before him could only have obtained this knowledge from the God he worshipped. The king had revealed to no one his dream and it could have come to Daniel from no other source than above. He settled himself more comfortably on his throne to hear the explanation.

That explanation is common knowledge to every Christian student of prophetic matters. To the king it was completely new. The head of gold pictured he himself and his empire, ruling over the nations and supreme over all. The empire of Babylon was founded long before, and suffered many vicissitudes and disasters through intervening years, but it was Nebuchadnezzar who raised it to the zenith of power and extended the city of Babylon to its widest extent. We speak of Babylon as the first “universal” empire; the expression is true only in a limited sense in that Babylon exercised sovereignty only over the lands of the Middle East, the Bible lands. The far extent of the wider world was only dimly known to the Babylonians and no thought of suzerainty (rulership) over the great civilisations that then existed in China, North-west India and Southern Arabia ever entered their heads. Trade with those lands was transacted by Babylon but Nebuchadnezzar’s armies never pursued their career of conquest to such places. Greece and Rome both flourished in the days of Nebuchadnezzar but neither were ever subject to him. The “head of gold” ruled over the peoples known to the Old Testament and that was all that was intended.

This empire must one day come to an end. How long it was to endure Daniel did not say and it is certain that he did not at that time know, but one day it would fall and be superseded by another empire, one symbolised by silver. We know that empire to be that of Persia; Daniel lived to see that part of the prophecy come to pass. He himself eventually served the kings of Persia. In point of fact the “head of gold” was destined to survive only twenty-three years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus the Persian in 539 B.C. captured Babylon and added it to the rapidly growing Persian empire. Then in 332 B.C. Alexander the Great of Greece in turn overthrew the power of Persia and the copper part of the image took the centre of the stage. Finally in 66 B.C. Greece fell before the might of the iron kingdom, Rome, and potential world domination left the Middle East and settled in Western Europe, there to remain until the “Time of the End.”

Thus Daniel led up to the climax of the dream, the coming of the Messianic kingdom upon earth. These four empires, all built by fallible men, were destined each to have its day and pass away. The fifth kingdom, built not by man but by God, shall endure for ever. After it has broken down and ground to pieces every vestige of the earlier empires, it will extend its sway until all peoples everywhere shall acknowledge its power and live contentedly under its jurisdiction. God had admittedly given the kingdoms of the world and their subjects into the hands of one great king after another but all this was only for a limited time. A day is to dawn when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever. (Rev.11:15) There had been many earlier prophets to speak of the glories of “that day” when God turns to speak peace to the nations and effect the reconciliation to himself of “whosoever will;” when the graves open to yield up their dead and the whole human race be called to walk the “highway of holiness” to perfection of life. Daniel was the first to relate this blessed time to the earthly kingdoms of history, to give a sequence whereby the “watchers” and the students might place it in connection with history as it is known. Wherefore we in our day, beholding with our own eyes the progressive collapsing and inevitable end of the present development of the feet of iron and clay, the last vestiges of that political system which once was Rome, have this confidence and evidence that the days of the Kingdom are at hand and cannot be much longer delayed.

These words had the ring of truth, and an astute man like Nebuchadnezzar could not fail to realise the fact. He fell down and worshipped Daniel— probably much to the surprise of his assembled Court. Of course he did it in symbol of homage and reverence to the God whom Daniel represented. The king’s conversion was sudden but wholehearted, like most of his actions. “Your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings.” (v.47) In those few words he elevated Daniel’s God, over all the gods of Babylon. There is no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar had lost faith in his own gods, only in the wise men who claimed to represent them. In fact, the extant inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar show without a doubt that he was faithful to Marduk the god of Babylon for at least the greater portion of his life; but here he evidently acknowledged the power of Daniel’s God and also the integrity of Daniel’s credentials as a representative of that God. In token of that recognition he bestowed high honour upon the man who had interpreted his dream. Daniel was made a chief ruler in affairs of State; his three companions also were promoted to high office. Honour and wealth were at their command, the plaudits and flatteries of men, and every attraction the luxurious world of Babylon had to offer. The time had now come when the value of the earlier training and self-discipline to which these young men had been subjected was to be put to the test.

(To be continued)