A King Eats Grass: Prophecies in Daniel Chapter Four
Daniel chapter four contains a compelling account of how God was able to humble
mighty King Nebuchadnezzar. When Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar?s dream of
a great tree, he provides further proof that God promotes and demotes whomever
he pleases. He shows clearly that God rules the nations. In addition, this chapter
provides several practical lessons on pride and humility.
Daniel chapter four is presented as a letter from Nebuchadnezzar to his people.
In the letter Nebuchadnezzar tells his people that the God of the Jews is great
and powerful. He can and will do whatever he wants in the world: ?His dominion
endures from generation to generation.? In telling the reader this story, the
writer of Daniel is using a dramatic method common to the movies and television.
The story starts with its concluding scene. The rest of the account, then, is
an extended flashback in which Nebuchadnezzar is explaining to his people the
cause for conclusion he reached about the God of Israel.
?I Nebuchadnezzar… had a dream that made me afraid? (Daniel 4:5). The setting
of this story is a number of years after the dream of the giant statue. Although
the writer does not provide a date (such as in the third year of…), one can
be sure that the dream of the great tree came considerably later in Nebuchadnezzar?s
life. One reason to believe this is that in the story, Nebuchadnezzar looks
out over ?the great BabylonI have built…? The city of Babylonhad obviously
existed before Nebuchadnezzar. However, the king had overseen such extensive
construction projects in his lifetime that he could with some justification
describe it to himself as the city he had built. Clearly then, this dream comes
somewhere toward the end of the long reign of Nebuchadnezzar (c. 605-c. 561 BC). As a
reasonable guess, it may have occured thirty years after the dream of the giant
In the letter Nebuchadnezzar describes having had a dream which terrified him.
He goes on to explain to his people that, as before, he had called for his ?wise
men? to interpret the dream. Unlike what he did with the former dream of the
giant statue, this time he told them the content of the dream. Clearly, the magicians,
enchanters, astrologers and diviners were more cautious than formerly. They
knew that Nebuchadnezzar could tell false prophecy from true. Besides, this
time around they did not have a death penalty hanging over them if they could
not interpret the dream. For these reasons, Nebuchadnezzar?s religious advisers
admitted to him that they did not know the interpretation.
As the king recalls, he finally called for Daniel, chief of the ?magicians.?
Why hadn?t he called for Daniel first? Perhaps he was testing the others, knowing
that he would eventually ask for Daniel anyway. If their interpretation conflicted
with Daniel?s, the king would know he had a deceiver in the ranks. Perhaps he had
forgotten about Daniel. This seems unlikely, even though Daniel had interpreted
the dream of the giant statue so many years before, as he was chief of the ?magicians?.
In the letter, Nebuchadnezzar describes how he told Daniel the dream. Nebuchadnezzar
described seeing an enormous tree in the middle of the land. It was visible
from ?the ends of the earth.? It had abundant fruit. The birds of the air rested
in its branches, while the beasts of the field found shade under its leaves. Nebuchadnezzar
described how a messenger from heaven came down and with a loud voice commanded
that the tree be cut and trimmed down to a bare stump. The fruit was stripped
and the birds and animals fled. Finally, the bare stump was bound with iron and
bronze, sitting alone in a grassy field. Then the messenger declared:
Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals
among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and
let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him (Daniel 4:
Then the angel declared in a statement sure to make any king nervous:
…the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone
he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men (v. 17).
Here one has a further hint about why the other ?wise men? had chosen not to
interpret the dream. Nebuchadnezzar knew the dream was about him, and so did
they. He also knew the dream contained bad news. No wonder the dream had terrified
him. His astrologers were afraid to give an interpretation in keeping with the dream
because they believed the king would become very angry. They assumed, perhaps
rightly, that Nebuchadnezzar did not want to hear the truth.
Often when Christians share their faith, they are confronted with similar situations.
It is not unusual when having spiritual conversations or even just conversations
of a personal nature for difficult questions to come up about where people are
at in their relationship with God. One often wonders whether the question is being
asked by someone who sincerely wants to hear the truth or perhaps by a person
who wants to have his or her ears tickled. It would be a good idea to follow
the example of Daniel, which is to speak the truth to people in a loving way, and
to trust God to determine the outcome of the message.
Daniel was not bothered by such fears, even when the question came from a king
who had the power of life or death over him. It was not that Daniel had absolutely
no fear of Nebuchadnezzar. He was human after all. However his fear of God was
far greater than his fear of man.
According to the Bible, fear itself is not sin. It is giving in to fear which
is wrong in God?s sight. Jesus expressed this idea bluntly: ?Do not be afraid
of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the
one who can destroy both soul and body in hell? (Matthew 10:28). Another relevant scripture
is the beautiful passage in Hebrews 13:6 (quoting Psalms 118:6,7); ?The Lord
is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?? When asked a difficult
question, Daniel?s response is to ?speak the truth in love? (Ephesians 4:15). The
man of God must not be controlled by sentimentality.
And speaking the truth in love is exactly what Daniel did with Nebuchadnezzar.
His answer was very truthful and very loving. Daniel said ?My lord if only the
dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!? (v. 19)
To his boss, whom Daniel apparently loved, but who also had the power of life
and death over him, Daniel said ?you, O king, are that tree.? (v. 22) As Nebuchadnezzar
recalls, Daniel told him that he would be driven away from the throne. Apparently,
the king would lose his sanity and go live with the wild animals, eating grass
like a cow! Could there be any fate more humiliating for Nebuchadnezzar? Here
is a man who God had raised to the highest position in the world, and God was
going to make him lose all he valued: fame, fortune, success and power. How would
you like to hear that news? Daniel leaves the king with only the slightest hint
of a silver lining in this cloud. After seven ?times? of this discipline, if
Nebuchadnezzar would acknowledge that all he had came from God, not himself, God
his sanity and his position. This was the meaning of the remaining
stump of the tree and the iron and bronze which held it together.
At times in the Old Testament, when God announced through one of his prophets
judgment on a person or a nation, he declared that it was already too late.
The time to repent had passed. Judgment was at hand, and it was time to prepare
to meet God. In different situations, however, God pronounced judgment and described
the penalty, but after doing this, he would tell the person or nation to be
judged that if they would bow their hearts to him and repent of their sins?deciding
to obey the Lord God?then he would relent of sending the calamity on them. In
some cases, God pronounced judgment as imminent, but said it was not too late
It would appear that the second description applied to Nebuchadnezzar in this
case. Daniel pleaded with him to renounce his sin of arrogance and to show his
repentance by acts of kindness to the oppressed. He implied that if Nebuchadnezzar
would repent, God would not send judgment on him.
Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar did not take the advice. It is not that Nebuchadnezzar
did not believe Daniel?s interpretation of the dream. Lack of intellectual belief
was not his problem. It can reasonably be assumed that Nebuchadnezzar even made
some preliminary steps to comply with Daniel?s advice. Perhaps he made some efforts
for the first few months after the dream was interpreted to show more acts of
kindness to the people in his kingdom. He may even have acted in a more ?spiritual?
way for a time as well. However, when the predicted calamity did not befall him
for a while, the king slipped back into his prideful ways. Does this sound like
a familiar pattern?
Nebuchadnezzar?s actions in this case are certainly not unusual. It is human
nature to become convinced about a need to change one?s life under the pressure
of some extremely stressful event, only to see that conviction gradually fade
away along with the vivid memory of the event. Is that how you respond to godly
advice? Is it your pattern when offered admonition from a trusted spiritual
person to make some initial attempts to change, but after a short period of
time to slip back into the same old habits? Unfortunately, I will have to admit that
I have fallen into this pattern a number of times. In such a case, one can be sure
that lack of true repentance is the problem. Nebuchadnezzar believed the message,
but he lacked deep and lasting conviction about his need before God to radically
change his life.
?All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar? (v. 28). All God?s promises, whether
they are promises of blessings or of judgment, will come to pass just as God
has said. A year after the dream and Daniel?s interpretation of the dream, Nebuchadnezzar
had let the initial conviction to humble himself slip from his mind. He looked
out over Babylon, the most impressive city ever built in the entire world up
to that time, and his heart swelled with pride in his work. Nebuchadnezzar had
seen to the raising of the world-famous walls of Babylon. Historians have reported
that three chariots could race side-by-side on top of the towering wall that
encircled the city. The walls of the city were seventeen miles long and forty
feet high with towers over one hundred feet high. The templeof Belwas eight
stories high! Nebuchadnezzar had built a great palace as well as the world-famous
?hanging gardens of Babylon,? one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
He looked at these wonders and the multitude of other impressive building projects
he had overseen in his life, and said to himself:
Is this not the great BabylonI have built as the royal residence, by my mighty
power and for the glory of my majesty? (v. 30)
How prideful! What a fool! How much Nebuchadnezzar is just like us! Now, who
built the city? Nebuchadnezzar could tell himself that he built the city and
in some sense he had, but who put him in the position to build the city? God
had prophesied to Israelconcerning what Nebuchadnezzar would do one hundred
fifty years before it happened (Isaiah 39:5-7). As can be seen from the prophecy
in Isaiah, God had raised Nebuchadnezzar up as his instrument to judge Juda
h(2 Chronicles 36:15-20). It was not Nebuchadnezzar?s great power, but God?s
which had raised Babylon. Besides, did Nebuchadnezzar really build the city?
Try telling that to the workers who did the actual work. How many bricks did
Nebuchadnezzar lay? Where were his calluses?
Archaeologists have discovered an inscription with interesting parallels to
what Daniel reports Nebuchadnezzar to have said about himself in Daniel 4:30.
This inscription has been found in Babylonon what is known as the East India
House Inscription. On this inscription is included a statement credited to Nebuchadnezzar,
?In Babylon, my dear city, which I love, was the palace, the house of wonder
of the people, the bond of the land, the brilliant place, the abode of the majesty
in Babylon.? Another Babylonian inscription with parallels to Daniel 4:30 is
known as the Grotefend Cylinder. On this cylinder is found the statement in
Nebuchadnezzar?s name, ?Then I built the palace, the seat of my royalty, the bond
of the race of men, the dwelling of joy and rejoicing.? These are two more bricks
in the wall which prove the historical reliability of Daniel
It is so easy for us to be exactly like Nebuchadnezzar. We might say to ourselves
?Look at this degree I worked so hard to earn,? or ?Look at this great career
I have built by my hard work and perseverance,? or perhaps ?Look at these awesome
kids I have raised. Oh yes, my husband helped a bit as well,? or ?Look at this
great church we have built: we have so many members and such a nice building
to meet in.? Another favorite is ?I have really helped a lot of people,? or
?I really am a good person.? Sometimes we are not so bold as to declare these words
outright, as Nebuchadnezzar did, but in our hearts the thoughts are there. Where
is the acknowledgement for him who gave us the power to do what we did in the
first place? To quote the apostle Paul, ?What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?? (1 Corinthians
That is a good question. What good thing do any of us have; what skill or ability
or good quality or accomplishment or wisdom do we have that was not given to
us by God? And if it is from God, what cause is there for boasting?
One day a young man found out from his best friend that he was getting married.
Rather than going out and buying his friend some boring present, he decided
to make something with his hands instead. Actually, he was not much of an artist
or a craftsman, but he was good at working with cars, so he found a really beat
up old classic car. It did not cost him much, but he spent hours and hours and
still more hours fixing it up, to the point that if he had known the number
of hours it would have taken, he might not have attempted the project. Finally, just
before the wedding, he presented his prized work to his best friend. Of course,
the friend was flabbergasted and overwhelmed with thanks. ?How could I ever
thank you enough for this gift?? he said.
A few years passed, and the one who had received the gift had moved to another
city a few h
undred miles away, so they did not see each other as much, but still
remained in good contact. One time, the one who had worked on the car was having
a casual conversation with someone who by coincidence was a mutual friend of his
best buddy. In the course of conversation, the car he had given to his friend
came up. The mutual friend said ?Oh yes, he described to me how he had bought
the car as a total junker and spent countless hours fixing it up. What an accomplishment!?
The man was totally devastated. He was so hurt that he did not know how to reveal
his hurt to his friend. Instead, from that time on, when his friend called,
he made excuses for how he did not have time to get together. He never called
his friend again, and eventually the ungrateful friend just gave up as well,
saying to himself ?I wonder what happened to our friendship??
Are we like Nebuchadnezzar: more subtle and more ?spiritual?, but still an ingrate?
God knows our sinful nature well. He warned the Israelites: ?When you have eaten
and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God…do not forget the Lord your God…Otherwis
e, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down…th
en your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought
you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…. You may say to yourself, ?My
power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.? But remember
the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth? (Deuteronomy 8:10-18).
Nebuchadnezzar was to learn this lesson, but unfortunately, he was to learn
it the hard way. While the words ?and for the glory of my majesty? were still
on his lips, a voice rang out from heaven, interrupting the king in the middle
of the conversation he was having with himself. Judgment time!
The Bible obviously does not use modern psychological terminology, making it
hard to know exactly what happened to the king, but apparently Nebuchadnezzar
immediately became insane. He changed eating patterns, joining the munch-for-lunch
bunch (?Nebuchadnezzar ate grass like cattle,? v. 33). Perhaps in total confusion, he
wandered away from the city. Or maybe his ministers covered up what was happening
and hid him away in some inner area of the palace. If that is the case, then
he must have been so unmanageable that they could not even cut his hair, which ?grew
like the feathers of an eagle? or his nails, which were ?like the claws of a
bird? (v. 33)
God had taken away from Nebuchadnezzar everything he valued: his power, his
wisdom, his kingdom, and his ability to oversee great construction projects.
His insanity lasted for ?seven times? (v. 32). Authors have argued over the
meaning of this term. It may mean seven years or it may mean seven months. Given
that the number seven has the symbolic meaning of completeness in Hebrew writings,
it may simply mean that the discipline of the Lord lasted until it was sufficient
to accomplish what God had in mind?the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar.
What we do know is that it took a long time for Nebuchadnezzar to come to his
senses and give the glory to God which he deserved. Surely, Jehovah is a gracious
God. His patience is great, but it is not absolutely unlimited. Why did it take
so long for Nebuchadnezzar to come to his senses? If one of us were God in this
situation, our patience would have run out long before Nebuchadnezzar came around.
This scenatio is reminiscent of Jonah in the belly of the big fish. He was in
there for three days before he finally got around to humbling himself and praying
that great prayer (Jonah 2:1-9). What was he doing the first two days?
Finally Nebuchadnezzar repented. ?Then I praised the Most High; I honored and
glorified him who lives forever? (v. 34). Nebuchadnezzar was able to say, ?Now
I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because
everything he does is right and all his ways are just? (v. 37). Amen to that!
Now, Nebuchadnezzar is able to make the great statement that is the theme of
the fourth chapter of Daniel. ?Those who walk in pride, he is able to humble? (v.
37). One could add that because he loves us, those who walk in pride, God w
ill humble. Do not be deceived. ?God opposes the proud? (Proverbs 3:6). ?I hate
pride and arrogance? (Proverbs 8:13). No prideful person will see the face of
Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill.
But I will leave within you the meek and humble,
who trust in the name of the Lord (Zephaniah 3:11,12).
There are in general two ways God works in people?s lives to humble them. One
way God can humble his children is to pour out his blessings on them. This is
God?s preferred method of bringing his people to their knees. God wants so badly
to pour out his love for his children in great and manifold blessings. His hope
is that those blessings will drive those who receive them to their knees to
thank him for all they have received. A great example of this principle is contained
in 1 Chronicles 29:10-20. All that is needed is for one to acknowledge that
everything they have comes from him. The only thing anyone has which did not
come from God is his or her own sin.
Sadly, for most people, if God were to pour all the blessings on them he would
like, they respond as did Nebuchadnezzar. Even among disciples of Jesus, only
a small fraction could handle great riches, fame and power without it going
to their head. Most of us should be thankful that God has not allowed us be more
wealthy than we already are. We should also be thankful that God has not raised
us to a position of worldly power. We simply could not handle great wealth or
power without becoming prideful. This should cause one to reflect humbly on
his or her situation in life.
This leads to God?s other way to humble his people. God will discipline us if
we walk in pride like Nebuchadnezzar. Because he loves us, as long as there
is still hope that our hearts can be turned, God will allow whatever trials
to come into our lives that are necessary until we are brought to our knees as
was Nebuchadnezzar. Let us be wise and help God out here. Let us get honest
with ourselves, and remember the admonition of 1 Corinthians 4:7. We may have
some great things in our lives, but we only have them by the grace of God. We
should especially remember the message of the cross, which is that we are only
saved by the grace of God, so that he will be able to use the first method to
humble us, rather than the second.
Did all this really happen? The critics of Daniel have attacked the book over
the story of Nebuchadnezzar going crazy for such a long time, but later regaining
his sanity and being returned to power. The claim is that the story is simply
unbelievable at its face value. Besides, the critics argue, there is no outside
evidence to support the story. The claim that there is no outside evidence to
support the story is actually not true. It so happens that the early Christian
writer Eusebius described a report from the Greek historian Abydenus. Abydenus was
not a Jew, and presumably he was not aware of the account in Daniel. Yet, he
recorded that in the latter days of Nebuchadnezzar the king was ?possessed by
some god or other.? Abydenus reported that immediately after this ?possession,?
d for a time. Here one has a hint from a non-Biblical
source in corroboration with the Biblical account. So much for the claim that
there is no evidence to support the story recorded in Daniel chapter four.
Besides, who is to say that the story is unbelievable? King George III of E
nglandhad off-and-on bouts with total insanity. During his times of complete incapacitation,
his ministers removed him from the spotlight and kept the wheels of government
rolling without him for months and even years at a time. When George had periods
of lucidity, they would prop him back up on his throne until the next time he went
through a spell of insanity. It seems likely that, similar to King George, Nebuchadnezzar?s
chief ministers kept a form of government going, with the king as a titular
head, as long as his insanity lasted. It is interesting to speculate that Daniel
himself may have served as the chief ruler of Babylonat this time. The history
of Europecontains several incidentd similar to that of King George III. The
story of the dream and its fulfillment is in fact quite believable.
A British writer Raymond Harris reports a case with remarkable similarity to
that of Nebuchadnezzar?s. Harris has described the case of a patient in a British
mental institution with a condition that has been called boanthropy.
A great many doctors spend an entire, busy professional career without once
encountering an instance of the kind of monomania described in the book of Daniel.
The present writer, therefore, considers himself particularly fortunate to have
actually observed a clinical case of boanthropy in a British mental institution in
1946. A patient was in his early 20?s who reportedly had been hospitalized for
about five years. His symptoms were well developed on admission, and diagnosis
was immediate and conclusive. He was of average height and weight with good physique, and
was in excellent bodily health. His mental symptoms included pronounced anti-social
tendencies, and because of this he spent the entire day from dawn to dusk outdoors,
in the grounds of the institution?. His daily routine consisted of wandering around
the magnificent lawns with which the otherwise dingy hospital situation was
graced, and it was his custom to pluck up and eat handfuls of the grass as he
went along. On observation he was seen to discriminate carefully between grass
and weeds?. The writer was able to examine him cursorily, and the only physical
abnormality noted consisted of a lengthening of the hair and a course, thickened
condition of the fingernails.
Nebuchadnezzar?s symptoms are unusual, for sure, but they do not appear to be
unique. In summary, through the dream and the interpretation by Daniel, as well
as through the fulfillment of the dream, Nebuchadnezzar learned that God ?does
what he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth? (Daniel 4:35). God
rules the nations. It is a big mistake to give ourselves credit for our accomplishments
without giving God the glory. God can and will humble those who walk in pride.
This should have been a great comfort to those who remained faithful in spite
of great persecution in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It should also be
a great comfort to us, if we are willing to humble ourselves before our God.
 As an example of the former, consider Jeremiah 4:11-28, especially v. 28.
As examples of the latter, consider 2 Chronicles 32:24-26 and Ezekiel 18:30-32.
 Speaking of Jonah, is he not also a historical/prophetic type of Jesus Christ?
He was in the belly of the fish for three days. Jesus uses this as an analogy
to his being in the grave. ?For as Jonah was three days and three nights in
the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights
in the heart of the earth.? (Matthew 12:40). Beside this, Jonah went to a people not
his own and preached repentance and salvation. The parallels to the life of Jesus are
 Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 9.41.1.
 Raymond Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 1116-1117.