The second chapter of the book of Daniel is one of the best-known prophetic passages in the Bible.
The chapter is set in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. A quick look back to chapter 1 shows that Daniel and his companions were still in the years of their training, so the events in this chapter occur before Nebuchadnezzar quizzes them upon their graduation from training and finds Daniel and company ten times better than all his other wise men.
The original text switches in verse 4 from Hebrew to Aramaic. Chapter 1 and the first three verses in chapter 2 were written in Hebrew, but from this point until the start of chapter 8, the text is in Aramaic, the lingua franca at that time of the region we now call the Middle East.
King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt an outstanding, troubling dream, apparently recurring. He had been awakened from sleep by the dream. People in those days believed dreams to be significant, so Nebuchadnezzar was determined to find out the meaning of what he had dreamt.
He called together his magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and the Chaldeans — in other words, the “wise men” — in order that they could tell him what he wanted to know. However, there was a problem. Bible translations put different meanings to the Aramaic in the first part of verse 5. The New King James Version and others translate it as “my decision is firm.” But the King James Version translates it as “the thing is gone from me,” thus giving it the meaning that he had forgotten the dream. Perhaps The Living Bible puts it in the clearest way when it quotes Nebuchadnezzar as saying, “I tell you the dream is gone — I can’t remember it” (Daniel 2:5).
Interpreting a dream might not have been too hard for these fellows, but to tell the king what the dream was in the first place was totally beyond their powers. But Nebuchadnezzar was relatively new in his job and flush from military success on all sides. He was used to getting his way and would have none of their protests that he was asking the impossible. If they couldn’t tell him what he wanted to know, and do so quickly, then they were useless to him and he was going to execute them all.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, still being in their apprenticeship, apparently were not in the court of the king when he pronounced his judgment on the wise men. They heard about the sentence from Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, when he came to enforce the decree, which applied to them as well. Their lives on the line, Daniel took an enormous step of faith. He convinced Arioch to bring him before the king. Daniel told the king that he would be able to answer the matter if he was given a little time. The text of chapter 2 makes it obvious that Daniel at this point didn’t know the answer, but he had faith that he could get it from God.
Returning to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, Daniel told them what he had done, and the four of them earnestly sought God to give them the answer. One can only imagine how stunned Daniel’s companions were when he told them what he had committed them to. But there was nothing to lose. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego would face further life-and-death crises in their time in Babylon, some of which are related later in this book, but the task Daniel had set them here must cer-tainly have seemed daunting to this group of teenagers.
Yet God came through for them, just as He does for all those who, in faith and trust, put Him on the spot and expect the miraculous. The dream was revealed to Daniel, and you can read his wonderful prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God in the text of the chapter.
Daniel then summons Arioch and asks him to halt the carnage and take him to the king. Picture the scene: Before the greatest potentate on earth, the teenage apprentice wise man stands. Daniel doesn’t tell us that he was nervous, but if he was like most of us, you can be sure his knees were knocking. Under sentence of immedi-ate death if he didn’t deliver, the lives of all his colleagues also in his hands, Daniel begins to address the king.
Daniel, seeing a chance to show how superior God was in comparison with the idols and incantations of the heathen wise men, first highlights the inability of all the other wise men to be able to tell the dream. Some of them were probably Daniel’s teachers, with years of training. He then tells the king that there is a God in heaven who can tell the dream and give its meaning. Daniel’s Babylonian name was Belteshazzar, named after the Babylonian god Bel, but this was not the God Daniel was referring to.
With the reverence due to his king, he informs Nebuchadnezzar that God had revealed to him the future. A Babylonian king played a significant religious role, being also the high priest of Babylon’s religion. So it would certainly have flattered the king to think that he had actually lived up to his religious calling. But Daniel doesn’t dwell on this for long, as he knows the king is impatient.
Daniel launches into the description of the forgotten dream. The king had dreamt that he had seen a great statue with a head of gold, arms and breast of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, two legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. Then a stone had come and struck the image on the feet and the whole image had crumbled into dust and was blown away. The stone then became a great mountain and filled the earth.
The king must have been thunderstruck as the details of his dream came flooding back into his own mind. But Daniel made it clear that it wasn’t because he was so smart or gifted that he was able to describe the dream, but that God had done it to keep the king from killing all the wise men. And that further to that, God wanted the king to know about the future.
Daniel then moved on to the interpretation: The head of gold was Nebuchadnezzar. Surely it must have massaged the king’s ego to think that God regarded him so highly as to picture him at the top of the statue and being made of the most precious of metals. However, it didn’t just represent him, but also his empire.
Daniel then explained how each other part of the image represented another kingdom or empire which would follow Babylon. He didn’t name them, but the descriptions that he gave amazingly describe the primary empires that occupied that part of the world in the centuries to come.
Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was to be followed by an empire inferior to his, at least in the Babylonians’ estimation, just as silver is inferior to gold. This second empire, represented by the two arms and the upper torso of the statue, was at its core a confederation of two peoples.
Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, was to conquer Babylon and large swaths of other territory. The Persians were a tribe situated to the east of Babylon, in what is now modern-day Iran. They were closely related to the Medes, and had been their vassals before Cyrus took power. Around 550 BC, Cyrus led his Persians in revolt against his maternal grandfather, Astyages of the Medes, and won a great victory over him at Pasargadae, later to be the site of Cyrus’s capital. In that battle, large contingents of Medes sided with Cyrus, and from that point on, a Mede was second-in-command of the Persian Empire.
Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia and hegemon — or leader — of the League of Corinth, which included most of the city states of mainland Greece, led his relatively small army of 40,000 across the Hellespont between Europe and Asia. Within ten years he had conquered all of the Persian Empire and much other territory.
His empire, and the Hellenistic successor states that it fractured into after his death, were represented by the belly and thighs of bronze. It is significant that Greek mercenaries were commonly called “brazen men” and fought in the service of many foreign kings, including those of Egypt and Assyria. They earned their name from the distinctive bronze armor that they wore. We will revisit the Persian Empire and its Hellenistic conquerors later in this book, as they both figure significantly in Daniel’s other prophecies and visions.
The fourth empire was depicted as two legs of iron that, just as iron is stronger than bronze, broke in pieces and crushed the Hellenistic successor kingdoms of Alexander’s empire. Beginning with Greece and Macedonia at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC, the Roman war machine inexorably conquered most of the remnants of Alexander’s territories, ending with the incorporation of Egypt in 30 BC as a Roman province. Rome eventually was to conquer much more land to the west. Significantly, it would divide in two, just as in the two legs of the image. The Western Roman Empire centered at Rome fell in 476 AD , but the Eastern Roman Empire, more commonly called the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), would last, albeit for much of that time as a mere shadow of its former glory, for almost another 1,000 years.
The feet were of iron and clay, representing a mixture of strength and weakness. After the demise of the Byzantine Empire, other empires arose in the Middle East and Mediterranean basin, but history also witnessed the rise of independent nation-states, smaller in size than the mighty empires of antiquity. And just as in the symbolism of the image, some were strong and some were weak, a situation that prevails to this day.
And at the very bottom extremity of the statue are the ten toes, also made of iron and clay. These represent ten nations — unidentified as of now — but connected to the old Roman/Byzantine Empire which will play a significant role in the very end of this current epoch, or, as Daniel termed it, “the latter days.” These ten nations are closely allied to the final world tyrant, a maniacal figure whom the Bible calls the Antichrist. Totally possessed of Satan, the Antichrist will try to set up his empire on earth — the final and worst of man’s empires.
We will talk more about the Antichrist and what he does later in this book, but for an in-depth study on him and his ten allies read “The Beast,” chapter 3 in The Rise and Fall of the Antichrist.
The toes are the ten nations that the stone, cut without hand, crashes into. Then the whole image disintegrates and is blown away. The stone is Jesus Christ, and in the days of those ten toes He will return to earth and set up His kingdom that will never be destroyed, but which will fill the whole world as a great mountain.
We now have the advantage of centuries of hindsight and can see clearly how amazingly this vision has been fulfilled so far. But even without that, Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed that before the whole court, he fell on his face before Daniel and worshiped him and extolled Daniel’s God who could reveal such secrets as the king’s dream and the interpretation.
So there we have one of the most amazing prophetic sections of the entire Bible, a passage that has strengthened the faith of many believers from then till now.
Fulfilled prophecy is the watermark of the Bible’s veracity, revealing the imprimatur of God behind its words. Hold a banknote up to the light and you will see an image that is hidden under normal circumstances that attests to its genuineness. Likewise, when held up to the light of history, this passage is one of the most significant authentications of the Bible’s divine inspiration.
The chapter ends with the king making Daniel ruler over the province of Babylon. Then it seems Daniel asked him if he could delegate this job to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, allowing him to more closely advise the king on matters pertaining to the overall empire. Putting this last part in context with chapter 1, it seems that this promotion did not actually happen for some time, at least not until after the four companions had completed their training.