The Centuries in a Nutshell
IN SOME RESPECTS the fourth chapter of Daniel is the most remarkable chapter of the Bible. It was written as a public testimony by one of the greatest kings of all time, telling of his pride, humiliation, and ultimate conversion to the King of heaven. It warns of a trap that yawns before many of us —the trap of snatching independence from our Maker and Lord—a mistake as fatal as severing a tree's roots from the soil.
Nebuchadnezzar's life prior to the third and fourth chapters of Daniel is one long success story. As the "terrible of the nations" and the "hammer of the whole earth" he had subdued by military might all opposition from surrounding powers. Even the once-mighty Egypt became subject to the northern conqueror. At his feet bowed the representatives of all nations and into his coffers flowed wealth from every quarter. He was surrounded by the wit and learning of the times, and under his patronage the arts flourished.
Then it was that this supreme monarch received a dream, shattering his contentment and clamoring for interpretation. After the servants of the court had tried and failed, the prophet Daniel gave an interpretation that was, in effect, a knell of doom. The king had seen a towering tree whose branches provided fruit and shade for the earth. Then a Watcher had descended from heaven with the decree that the tree must be hewn down and its fruit scattered, leaving but the stump of the roots in the earth girded by a band of iron and brass. Nebuchadnezzar had heard the words: "This matter is by the decree of the watchers, ... to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men."
The chief intent of the story is made clear by the threefold repetition of the statement that the Most High rules over and above human government. Both the oppressor and the oppressed are to remember that there is a heavenly Watcher who has appointed a boundary beyond which evil cannot overflow. Men and nations have a probationary period, which, if not valued, terminates in judgment and destruction.
Daniel is the book of judgment. Daniel means "God is the Judge." He pictures the judgment scene in chapter 7:9, 10 and gives the time of the great assize in chapter 8:14. But let us point out always that the narratives of the book also stress judgment. This is the theme of both chapters four and five. If in our early studies and sermons on Daniel we show this to be the case it is not so difficult to convince people regarding the investigative judgment when we come to chapter eight.
"In the annals of human history the growth of nations, the rise and fall of empires, appear as dependent on the will and prowess of man. The shaping of events seems, to a great degree, to be determined by his power, ambition, or caprice. But in the word of Cod the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will." 1
Pride and the Fall
Primarily, the story of Daniel 4 is recorded for the benefit of individuals. It warns all men that who ever makes his happiness depend on anything lower than the heavens, less enduring than the stars, and less stable than the Creator Himself, invites destruction. Such a one will be pierced through with many sorrows. The acme of such a fatal course is found in all the manifestations of human pride— whether it be pride of talent, appearance, or position. "Before destruction the heart of man is haughty" (Prov. 18:12).
A haughty heart is the prophetic prelude of evil and is as surely the sign of destruction as the fall of mercury in the barometer is the sign of rain. Whenever man dotes on his own greatness there comes an eclipse of his glory. This story tells why it should be so. Pride makes the boaster a beast, as once before it made an angel a devil. The only safe course is that recommended in both the Old and the New Testaments: "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:31). To this end all need to cherish the awareness that there is "a watcher and an holy one" standing by. "As a shield from temptation and an inspiration to purity and truth, no other influence can equal the sense of God's presence." 2
The significance of chapter 4 of Daniel is much broader, however, than a mere homily. Many scholars have pointed out that the tree in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, like the image in the earlier account, is a representation of heathen empires from the time of Daniel till the end. Nebuchadnezzar is a typical representative of unbelieving rulers.
"Now the vision of the tree is not more clearly symbolic of this remarkable incident in Nebuchadnezzar's life, that that incident itself is typical of certain moral and chronological features of the succession of Gentile monarchies.
"The leading moral characteristics of all the four great empires, of which Nebuchadnezzar was both head and representative, have been ignorance of God, idolatry, and cruel persecution of the saints. Nebuchadnezzar, prior to this incident, knew not God. He set up a great image, and commanded all men, on pain of death, to fall down and worship it; he cast into the burning fiery furnace the faithful witnesses who refused to obey the idolatrous mandate. How have all his successors, with one consent, followed this example! Idolatry, literal or spiritual, and persecution, pagan or Papal, have marked the whole succession of Gentile monarchies. These episodes in Nebuchadnezzar's life are clearly typical; these features of his character have been stamped indelibly on all his successors; these incidents answer to events on the scale of nations and centuries, with which history makes us familiar." 3
And the use of the symbols of brass and iron in this chapter is reminiscent of the metal image previously, just as a tree is frequently the emblem of a nation (see Eze. 31; Luke 13:6-9). Even after the fall of Babylon, represented in this story by Nebuchadnezzar's being driven from the throne, the roots of Babylonian principles and illicit worship remained, ultimately sending forth new shoots more numerous than before.
"When Babylon fell, the principles by which she had controlled others were in turn applied to her. Wherever there is tyranny in government in any nation of the earth today, it is an off shoot of that root which filled the earth, the stump of which was allowed to remain until the end of time. . . .
"The mysteries of Greece in a later day were but a repetition of the Babylonian mysteries. . . .
"The influence of Babylon in educational lines was no less marked than her influence in government and religion, and the educational root of the tree was as vigorous as the others. We are in the habit of tracing the educational system of the world to Greece or Egypt; its principles are older than Greece. They belong to Babylon. . . . The so-called 'higher education' of today, which exalts the science of the world above the science of salvation; which sends forth students bearing worldly credentials, but not recognized in the books of heaven, students who love display, who are filled with pride, selfishness, and self-esteem, this education is a plant which has sprung from that broad root which supported the tree representing the Babylonian dominion." 4
Thus, when we read "the tree ... is thou, O king," we are to understand the words in the same sense as those of Daniel 2:38: "Thou art this head of gold." Nebuchadnezzar was but the representative of Babylon, as Babylon itself is the representative of all powers that oppose the people of God. (See Rev. 17 and 18.)
As with every chapter of Daniel, this one has special significance for "the time of the end." We read in Revelation 18 that the latter-day Babylon, the final church-state confederacy, will boast, "I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow," but, as with Nebuchadnezzar, the moment of apparent victory and vaunted pride will be but the prelude to judgment and destruction. The SDA Bible Commentary (vol. 7, p. 866 f.) points out regarding mystical Babylon that "the imagery of the Revelation appears to be based largely on historical parallels in the OT." "Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; . . . for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her" (Rev. 18:8).
Even in this day of universal graft and consummate iniquity, there stands amid the shadows "a Watcher and an Holy One." "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small." Right will not always be on the scaffold and wrong upon the throne. The hour even now approaches when the principles of righteousness and truth, and all who honor them, will be vindicated before men and angels.
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1. Ellen G. White, Education, p. 173.
2. Ibid., p. 255.
3. H. G. Guinness, Light for the Last Days, p. 42.
4. S. N. Haskell, Prophetic Waymarks, p. 77.