Chapter 4 is astonishing, not only for its content, but also for its authorship. It is a first-person account, and from the first verse it is clear that the person relating the events is none other than Nebuchadnezzar himself.
He begins with the description of another dream he had, which again required Daniel’s interpretation. This time, however, Daniel is reluctant to tell the king its meaning, and wishes it was about the king’s enemies and not the king.
The king dreamt of a tree that spread its branches so high and wide that all the peoples of the world could dwell under it. Yet in its prime, an angel commanded that the tree should be cut down so that only the stump remained in the earth. The dream foretells that the king would go insane, be driven from the presence of men, and would act and look like a beast of the field for seven “times,” meaning either seven years or seasons.
Daniel begs the king to repent of his sins and thus possibly escape this fate. Perhaps the king did repent at first, but twelve months later, as he was walking through his palace, he began to brag about all that he had accomplished, all the great buildings he had built, and how he had beautified Babylon. It seems indicative of the main sin that Daniel was referring to, that the king’s insanity came about not while he was actually busy with the construction of Babylon, but rather when he was pompously congratulating himself for his accomplishments. He was extremely proud, claiming he had done it all himself, and he failed to acknowledge the true God Who had allowed him to flourish.
In the same hour that the boast left his lips, Nebuchadnezzar, the great king, turned into a madman. For seven “times,” just as the prophet had interpreted, he ate grass in the field like an ox. Covered in dew, eventually his hair grew long and matted until it looked like birds’ feathers, and the nails on his fingers and toes looked like talons. “Boanthropy” is the clinical term for this mental disorder.
Even though it seems that those who had been his counselors and confidants abandoned him during that time, his kingdom remained secure. When at the end of his “sentence” his mind was restored, he glorified God. And here comes the moral of this story, the great lesson learned by the now humble and humbled king: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.”
Just when in Nebuchadnezzar’s 43-year reign this incident occurred is not known. In his later years he concentrated on the many building projects of Babylon. Perhaps the fact that this abasement occurred as he was patting himself on the back for all the beautiful buildings and other construction in Babylon would indicate that it happened after his final campaigns against Tyre and Egypt, sometime between 572 BC and his death in 562 BC. There is also a notable absence in Babylonian annals of any act or decree by Nebuchadnezzar during the years 582–575 BC, so that is another probable timeframe for his madness to have occurred.
Why he was not deposed during that time is also unclear. It could be because madness was looked upon differently in those days. In antiquity, epilepsy was known as the “sacred disease,” and notable rulers such as Julius Caesar and, by some accounts, Alexander the Great suffered from it. Far from being a curse, it was believed to be a sign that someone had been touched by the gods. Oracles, the heathen equivalent of prophets, often fell into fits of madness as they gave their prophetic utterances. So even though Nebuchadnezzar’s madness would have been evident, perhaps those who could have gained power through mounting a coup were afraid of getting on the wrong side of the gods if they did so. Furthermore, Daniel was evidently in a place of high standing in the kingdom, and he may have stood in the way of any rebellion, considering that he knew God had indicated that Nebuchadnezzar would eventually regain his sanity and that the kingdom would be restored to him.
Babylonian nobility, including those of the royal family, were certainly capable of duplicity, scheming, and rebellion, as is seen in the events following Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Amal-Marduk, known in the Bible as Evil-merodach, succeeded his father, Nebuchadnezzar, who died in 562 BC. He apparently reversed some of his father’s policies, as is evidenced by the fact that he freed the king of Judah, Jehoiachin, from 37 years of captivity and placed him in a position of honor and comfort in his court.
Amal-Marduk was only to hold the reins of government for two years before he was deposed and killed by his brother-in-law, Nergal-sharezer, who in turn died after only four years. His young son, Labashi-Marduk, reigned in his stead for only months before being deposed and killed by Nabonidus, a usurper with no known relationship to the ruling dynasty. For a usurper who had risen to power through violence and conspiracy, Nabonidus showed an unusual disdain for the power he had coveted. He left Babylon after some years and settled in the oasis town of Tayma, in Arabia. He there indulged his passion of the study of ancient Babylonia and its gods and temples, leaving his dissolute and apparently incompetent son Belshazzar as his co-regent in Babylon.
And so the scene is set for the next chapter.