The king declared to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind. (Daniel 2.26–30)
Two thousand years before Nebuchadnezzar, another Mesopotamian royal—King Meskalamdug, perhaps, or Queen Pu-abi—died, and at the funeral 74 retainers were sacrificed and buried in what archaeologist Edward Woolley called “The Great Death Pit.” It appears to have been something of a party that ended with a certain social awkwardness.
Retainer sacrifice popped up all over the ancient world—China, Egypt, Mesopotamia. No one knows with any certainty just why, but it seems to have something to do with consolidating political power in moments of great cultural shift. Having your favorite court characters killed and buried with you along with your favorite jewelry and chariots is a remarkably flamboyant display of power.
Nebuchadnezzar did not rule at a time when retainer sacrifice was widely practiced, but he certainly had the power to destroy the court magicians who failed to reveal the dream buried in his unwaking mind. What’s striking about this story is not the alienness of Nebuchadnezzar’s absolute authority to kill his wise men or the custom of having court astrologists as official cabinet members; it’s the familiarity of Nebuchadnezzar’s state of mind.
Who hasn’t awakened from disturbing dreams to find the memory of the dream dissipating while the disturbance remains? It seems related to the kind of free-floating anxiety with no proximate cause; it’s a cloud of dust that coalesces around whatever worrisome core conveniently appears. Migraine? It must be a brain tumor. Are the kids doing a waterfront cleanup service project? One of them will surely fall into the river and drown. I read the email detailing our tuition payment schedule for my high school kids? Now I’m anxious we will run out of money and I’ll have to work evenings and weekends and my children will spend all their time staring at screens and turn into video game zombies or gender goblins and and and …
But what does this have to do with the absolute authority of ancient royalty? I’m nothing like them.
Except that hidden in my unwaking mind is the expectation that I should be in charge. I want to be the queen of my life, don’t I? I want absolute control. If I have control, I need never fear illness or accident or poverty. The fear and the fret will go away if I can just be sure nothing bad will happen. But I and Necuchadnezzar and Pu-abi can all be sure of the opposite: something bad will happen. You might have the power to bring 74 living people down to death with you, but you’re still right there with them in the grave. You might be able to terrorize the pagan pretenders and occult sycophants when they cannot tell you why you’re such a wreck, but in the end you will be wrecked and so will your kingdom. My little life is a vapor, and I am not in charge.
Nebuchadnezzar’s problem is that he is distressed and doesn’t know why. In fact God had a disturbing message for the all powerful king, but he allowed the king to experience the perturbation first and then receive the message. Almost as if that were the only way to get the royal attention. First the confusing dream fog, then the lingering distress, then the frustration with the lackeys who are supposed to be able to clear this up for you. Finally, an unexpected message from the administration wing: there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.
And what is the revelation? Is it a comfort? Does it allay the anxiety?
You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you … (Daniel 2.37-40)
Yours is the greatest kingdom ever! Everything that comes after will be inferior. You didn’t actually acquire it in your own power, though, whatever you may think of all your conquests. The God of heaven has given it into your hand. Is that a comfort? Does it allay the anxiety?
Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. (Daniel 2.46-48)
What a startling thing—Nebuchadnezzar, mighty king of a mighty empire, falling on his face in front of a captive government functionary. “Your God is God of gods and Lord of kings,” he proclaims, and has offering and incense be made to … Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar does not yet understand who is in charge here. He does not yet understand the meaning of the thoughts in his mind.
Having had the troubling dream of the statue interpreted for him, having acknowledged the interpretation is true, Nebuchadnezzar causes to be erected an actual statue of himself and requires people to worship it. The end of this critical failure of comprehension is the episode of the fiery furnace, where the king, awed by the survival of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, decides he needs to do more than fete the servants of this God of the Hebrews; he needs to loan him some of his kingly authority:
Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” (Daniel 3.28-29)
There now. Surely this is sufficient acknowledgment of their God: the threat of immediate and terrible death to anyone who maligns him—the same punishment that would be meted out to anyone who crosses the king. Nebuchadnezzar still does not understand what is on offer here, because he still puts himself on equal footing with God. So God in his patience and mercy sends a second alarming dream:
I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ (Daniel 4.13-17)
One hardly blames the Chaldeans for demurring on the interpretation of this one; even Daniel is dismayed—notice that this time it is the king who reassures Daniel—when he realizes what kind of message he is going to deliver: you will be humbled. The crown of the tree will be lopped off. Until you learn who I am and whose creature you are, you will live like a dumb beast. And so it was. Finally, after seven “periods of time,” the king learns that he is not in charge:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4.34-35)
Thus Nebuchadnezzar. But what of the following empires? What about me, wishing to be in charge of my own little dominion, trying to make sure that nothing bad will happen, throwing a fit when the world doesn’t comply with my will? The same considerations apply. Will all the would-be kings and queens acknowledge the one who placed dominion into their hands?
Recently, Queen Elizabeth II passed from this life. Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, she has always acknowledged the providence of her Lord. It did not keep her from humiliating suffering—from national troubles to grandchildren spectacularly deficient in filial piety. Even as she passed, some charming commentators could not resist wishing her an excruciating death because she was the sovereign over an imperfect kingdom—as ever, we imagine we could avoid the bad things happening if only we were the ones in charge. But for seven decades she bore the crown with grace, honor, and dignity, befitting one who rests her hope not on her own power, but on her Redeemer’s. She knew whose creature she was.
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure. (Daniel 2.44-45)
What will become of those inferior kingdoms? They’ll be broken in pieces, just like Nebuchadnezzar’s and Elizabeth’s and mine, by no human hand. And the kingdom set up in its place will last forever, and will never be subject to conquest. This reign of this king—who is neither Nebuchadnezzar, nor Elizabeth II, nor me, no matter how much I fret and chafe—will be all his own doing, and it will be forever. No one will march in and take over and make a gruesome party of bringing all the court officials into the grave with him, a display showcasing the extent of his power and its limits. When this king goes down to the grave, it will not be to bring his people down to death with him; it will be to rescue them out.
Is that a comfort? Does it allay the anxiety?
Has this revealed to you the thoughts of your mind?