Over 2,500 years ago King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire delivered a message that is still relevant for each of us today.
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon from 604-561 B.C., is one of the most infamous rulers recorded in Scripture. Along with the pharaoh of Egypt (who tried to keep the children of Israel in bondage), he is one of the most notorious pagan monarchs mentioned in the Bible and did much to harm God’s people. Nebuchadnezzar acquired his infamy by overthrowing the nation of Judah, destroying the temple and carrying thousands of Jews captive to Babylon.
But there is a strange footnote in history when it comes to Nebuchadnezzar. While he was an enemy of the descendants of Abraham, Nebuchadnezzar accomplished something truly amazing. He is directly responsible for the contents of an entire chapter of the Bible! An edict Nebuchadnezzar issued makes up the entire fourth chapter of Daniel, making him the only heathen monarch to be so extensively quoted in the Bible.
What was so important about Nebuchadnezzar’s decree that God had it included in the Bible? We need to keep in mind that all Scripture, including this passage in the book of Daniel, was inspired by God and is “profitable” for us to read (2 Timothy 3:16). So there must be something about Nebuchadnezzar’s message that God wants us to hear and heed.
Before we consider this ancient king’s words, let’s look at some of the background to his decree.
Written in Aramaic
While most of the Old Testament of the Bible was written in Hebrew and most of the New Testament in Greek, small portions of both the Old and New Testaments were written in Aramaic. The most extensive use of Aramaic in the Bible is found in the book of Daniel, including King Nebuchadnezzar’s edict in chapter 4.
The use of the Aramaic language in the book of Daniel is not surprising, given the fact that the setting for this book is during the Jews’ captivity in Babylon. Aramaic, also called Chaldean or the language of the Chaldeans, was the language of ancient Babylon, and Daniel and his fellow captives were taught it as part of their training to serve the king (Daniel 1:4; 2:4). And as subjects in the Babylonian Empire, all Jews began learning and using this language.
According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Aramaic eventually “displaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews in Palestine” (“Aramaic Language”). So including Hebrew and Aramaic in the book of Daniel was partly a reflection of the Jews being bilingual—speaking both languages.
Since Babylon was the major empire of that time, its language, Aramaic, was “the language of international protocol” (ESV Study Bible, comment on Isaiah 36:11). So in addressing his decree “to all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth,” it made sense for Nebuchadnezzar to issue his decree in Aramaic (Daniel 4:1).
(For additional information about the use of this language in the Bible, see our Life, Hope & Truth article “Biblical Aramaic.”)
A story of humiliation
Most heathen kings delighted in erecting large monuments to tout their power and military successes. King Nebuchadnezzar was no exception; he had lots of these. But his decree in Daniel 4 didn’t follow the normal pattern for kings. Instead, his decree includes not only an account of a dream that he had affirming his kingdom’s prestige but also the story of his personal humiliation.
Most people, especially kings, don’t like to speak of their shortcomings. Yet for some reason—apparently because he came to an understanding that he thought all people should know—this ruler admitted to everyone a grave personal fault and the punishment he received because of it.
What happened to King Nebuchadnezzar was this: he went insane. His dementia was so severe that he completely lost his mind and lived like an animal for “seven times”—apparently seven years (Daniel 4:32-33).
And what brought on this punishment? Pride. God forewarned Nebuchadnezzar of his impending demise through the dream He gave him. Daniel, who interpreted the dream for the king, advised him to “break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity” (verse 27).
But King Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t contain himself. A year later, as he was walking about his royal palace, “the king spoke, saying, ‘Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?’” (verse 30).
God’s response was swift. “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you!’” (verse 31).
So the king suffered a great humiliation—a horrific mental illness for seven years.
The king’s edict
King Nebuchadnezzar began his decree by stating that it was directed “to all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth” (Daniel 4:1). In short, it was for everyone in the entire world.
Then, after the usual oriental custom of wishing peace for everyone (verse 1), the king states his purpose for sending his message: “I thought it good to declare the signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me. How great are His signs, and how mighty His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation” (verses 2-3).
Instead of beginning his message speaking of his own greatness and majesty, he focused on God and how God had worked with him.While the king had already learned of God’s existence and had shown respect for His power by his interactions with Daniel and Daniel’s three Jewish friends, he now seems to have come to a deeper understanding of God’s supremacy. Instead of beginning his message speaking of his own greatness and majesty, he focused on God and how God had worked with him.
Nebuchadnezzar then recounted how he had received a dream, which was interpreted by Daniel, warning him of his impending period of insanity so he would learn “that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (verse 25). In short, he needed to “come to know that Heaven rules” (verse 26).
The king then stated that his predicted insanity did indeed occur (verse 33).
After this humbling experience and after his mental abilities had returned, Nebuchadnezzar wrote: “I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will. … No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ … And those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (verses 34-35, 37).
How will you respond?
Scholars debate whether King Nebuchadnezzar really made a deep, heart-changing commitment to God or not. He certainly came to acknowledge God’s supremacy, but there is no record of him forsaking his pagan gods and worshipping the true God alone.
God, who “knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:21; compare Acts 15:8), will be King Nebuchadnezzar’s judge. Yet regardless of the king’s ultimate fate, his warning message to all people alive during his reign and preserved for us today remains valid. We need to acknowledge that God is supreme, that He is working out a plan here on earth, and that we will be judged by Him for our actions.
But the key question is this: How will you respond?Of course, the key elements of Nebuchadnezzar’s message permeate the entire Bible. This king of Babylon was not the only person to emphasize these instructions from God. He just happened to be in a unique position to further emphasize this message to all peoples.
Years later, Paul spoke of these same principles. He wrote to Church members in Corinth: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To those in Rome, he wrote: “For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10).
Although King Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding was limited, his message continues to ring true today. The core of what he expressed is at the heart of the gospel of the good news of the Kingdom of God. That is, God is indeed supreme; He is working out a plan of salvation for mankind that will surely come to pass; His judgment will come upon all; and we should humbly repent and believe what God says. (Read more about the Kingdom of God in our article “Daniel 2: Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream.”)
By studying the rest of the Bible, we can understand much more about the gospel—something we strive to continually convey in the pages of Discern and in articles on our website, LifeHopeandTruth.com. But the key question is this: How will you respond? How many times and in how many ways will you need to hear these truths before you act upon them?
Heed Nebuchadnezzar’s edict. Heed this message from the God of the universe who loves you and wants you to be part of His eternal family!