Nebuchadnezzar, before he relates the judgments of God that had been wrought upon him for his pride, gives an account of the fair warning he had of them before they came, a due regard to which might have prevented them. But he was told of them, and of the issue of them, before they came to pass, that, when they did come to pass, by comparing them with the prediction of them, he might see, and say, that they were the Lord’s doing, and might be brought to believe that there is a divine revelation in the world, as well as a divine Providence, and that the works of God agree with his word.
Now, in the account he here gives of his dream, by which he had notice of what was coming, we may observe,
I. The time when this alarm was given to him (Dan. 4:4); it was when he was at rest in his house, and flourishing in his palace. He had lately conquered Egypt, and with it completed his victories, and ended his wars, and made himself monarch of all those parts of the world, which was about the thirty-fourth or thirty-fifth year of his reign, Ezek. 29:17. Then he had this dream, which was accomplished about a year after. Seven years his distraction continued, upon his recovery from which he penned this declaration, lived about two years after, and died in his forty-fifth year. He had undergone a long fatigue in his wars, had made many a tedious and dangerous campaign in the field; but now at length he is at rest in his house, and there is no adversary, nor any evil occurrent. Note, God can reach the greatest of men with his terrors even when they are most secure, and think themselves at rest and flourishing.
II. The impression it made upon him (Dan. 4:5): I saw a dream which made me afraid. One would think no little thing would frighten him that had been a man of war from his youth, and used to look the perils of war in the face without change of countenance; yet, when God pleases, a dream strikes a terror upon him. His bed, no doubt, was soft, and easy, and well-guarded, and yet his own thoughts upon his bed made him uneasy, and the visions of his head, the creatures of his own imagination, troubled him. Note, God can make the greatest of men uneasy even when they say to their souls, Take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry; he can make those that have been the troublers of the world, and have tormented thousands, to be their own troublers, their own tormentors, and those that have been the terror of the mighty a terror to themselves. By the consternation which this dream put him into, and the impression it made upon him, he perceived it to be, not an ordinary dream, but sent of God on a special errand.
III. His consulting, in vain, with the magicians and astrologers concerning the meaning of it. He had not now forgotten the dream, as before, Dan. 2:1-21 He had it ready enough, but he wanted to know the interpretation of it and what was prefigured by it, Dan. 4:6. Orders are immediately given to summon all the wise men of Babylon that were such fools as to pretend by magic, divination, inspecting the entrails of beasts, or observations of the stars, to predict things to come: they must all come together, to see if any, or all of them in consultation, could interpret the king’s dream. It is probable that these people had sometimes, in a like case, given the king some sort of satisfaction, and by the rules of their art had answered the king’s queries so as to please him, whether it were right or wrong, hit or missed; but now his expectation from them was disappointed: He told them the dream (Dan. 4:7), but they could not tell him the interpretation of it, though they had boasted, with great assurance (Dan. 2:4, 7), that, if they had but the dream told them, they would without fail interpret it. But the key of this dream was in a sacred prophecy (Ezek. 31:3), where the Assyrian is compared, as Nebuchadnezzar here, to a tree cut down, for his pride; and that was a book they had not studied, nor acquainted themselves with, else they might have been let into the mystery of this dream. Providence ordered it so that they should be first puzzled with it, that Daniel’s interpreting it afterwards might redound to the glory of the God of Daniel. Now was fulfilled what Isaiah foretold (Isa. 47:12, 13), that when the ruin of Babylon was drawing on her enchantments and sorceries, her astrologers and star-gazers, should not be able to do her any service.
IV. The court he made to Daniel, to engage him to expound his dream to him: At the last Daniel came in. Dan. 4:8. Either he declined associating with the rest because of their badness, or they declined his company because of his goodness; or perhaps the king would rather that his own magicians should have the honour of doing it if they could than that Daniel should have it; or Daniel, being governor of the wise men (Dan. 2:48), was, as is usual, last consulted. Many make God’s word their last refuge, and never have recourse to it till they are driven off from all other succours. He compliments Daniel very highly, takes notice of the name which he had himself given him, in the choice of which he thinks he was very happy and that it was a good omen: “His name was Belteshazzar, from Bel, the name of my god.” He applauds his rare endowments: He has the spirit of the holy gods, so he tells him to his face (Dan. 4:9), with which we may suppose that Daniel was so far from being puffed up that he was rather very much grieved to hear that which he had by gift from the God of Israel, the true and living God, ascribed to Nebuchadnezzar’s god, a dunghill deity. Here is a strange medley in Nebuchadnezzar, but such as is commonly found in those that side with their corruptions against their convictions. 1. He retains the language and dialect of his idolatry, and therefore, it is to be feared, is no convert to the faith and worship of the living God. He is an idolater, and his speech betrayeth him. For he speaks of many gods, and is brought to acquiesce in one as sufficient, no, not in him who is all-sufficient. And some think, when he speaks of the spirit of the holy gods, that he supposes there are some evil malignant deities, whom men are concerned to worship, only to prevent their doing them a mischief, and some who are good beneficent deities, and that by the spirit of the latter Daniel was animated. He also owns that Bel was his god still, though he had once and again acknowledged the God of Israel to be Lord of all, Dan. 2:47; 3:29. He also applauds Daniel, not as a servant of God, but as master of the magicians (Dan. 4:9), supposing his knowledge to differ from theirs, not in kind, but only in degree; and he consulted him not as a prophet, but as a celebrated magician, so endeavouring to save the credit of the art when those blundered and were nonplussed who were masters of the art. See how close his idolatry sat to him. He has got a notion of many gods, and has chosen Bel for his god, and he cannot persuade himself to quit either his notion or his choice, though the absurdity of both had been evidenced to him, more than once, beyond contradiction. He, like other heathens, would not change his gods, though they were no gods, Jer. 2:11. Many persist in a false way only because they think they cannot in honour leave it. See how loose his convictions sat, and how easily he had dropped them. He once called the God of Israel a God of gods, Dan. 2:47. Now he sets him upon a level with the rest of those whom he calls the holy gods. Note, If convictions be not speedily prosecuted, it is a thousand to one but in a little time they will be quite lost and forgotten. Nebuchadnezzar, not going forward with the acknowledgements he had been brought to make of the sovereignty of the true God, soon went backwards, and relapsed to the same veneration he had always had for his false gods. And yet, 2. He professes a great opinion of Daniel, whom he knows to be a servant of the true God, and of him only. He looked upon him as one that had such an insight, such a foresight, as none of his magicians had: I know that no secret troubles thee. Note, The spirit of prophecy quite outdoes the spirit of divination, even the enemies themselves being judges; for so it was adjudged here, upon a fair trial of skill.
V. The particular account he gives him of his dream.
1. He saw a stately flourishing tree, remarkable above all the trees of the wood. This tree was planted in the midst of the earth (Dan. 4:10), fitly representing him who reigned in Babylon, which was about the midst of the then known world. His dignity and eminency above all his neighbours were signified by the height of this tree, which was exceedingly great; it reached unto heaven. He over-topped those about him, and aimed to have divine honours given him; nay, he over-powered those about him, and the potent armies he had the command of, with which he carried all before him, are signified by the strength of this tree: it grew and was strong. And so much were Nebuchadnezzar and his growing greatness the talk of the nations, so much had they their eye upon him (some a jealous eye, all a wondering eye), that the sight of this tree is said to be to the end of all the earth. This tree had every thing in it that was pleasant to the eye and good for food (Dan. 4:12); The leaves thereof were fair, denoting the pomp and splendour of Nebuchadnezzar’s court, which was the wonder of strangers and the glory of his own subjects. Nor was this tree for sight and state only, but for use. (1.) For protection; the boughs of it were for shelter both to the beasts and to the fowls. Princes should be a screen to their subjects from the heat and from the storm, should expose themselves to secure them, and study how to make them safe and easy. If the bramble be promoted over the trees, he invites them to come and trust in his shadow, such as it is, Jdg. 9:15. It is protection that draws allegiance. The kings of the earth are to their subjects but as the shadow of a great tree; but Christ is to his subjects as the shadow of a great rock, Isa. 32:2. Nay, because that, though strong, may be cold, they are said to be hidden under the shadow of his wings (Ps. 17:8), where they are not only safe, but warm. (2.) For provision, The Assyrian was compared to a cedar (Ezek. 31:6), which affords shadow only; but this tree here had much fruit—in it was meat for all and all flesh was fed of it. This mighty monarch, it should seem by this, not only was great, but did good; he did not impoverish, but enrich his country, and by his power and interest abroad brought wealth and trade to it. Those that exercise authority would be called benefactors (Luke 22:25), and the most effectual course they can take to support their authority is to be really benefactors. And see what is the best that great men, with their wealth and power can attain to, and that is to have the honour of having many to live upon them and to be maintained by them; for, as goods are increased, those are increased that eat them.
2. He heard the doom of this tree read, which he perfectly remembered, and related here, perhaps word for word as he heard it. The sentence was passed upon it by an angel, whom he saw come down from heaven, and heard proclaim this sentence aloud. This angel is here called a watcher, or watchman, not only because angels by their nature are spirits, and therefore neither slumber nor sleep, but because by their office they are ministering spirits, and attend continually to their ministrations, watching all opportunities of serving their great Master. They, as watchers, encamp round those that fear God, to deliver them, and bear them up in their hands. This angel was a messenger, or ambassador (so some read it), and a holy one. Holiness becomes God’s house; therefore angels that attend and are employed by him are holy ones; they preserve the purity and rectitude of their nature, and are in every thing conformable to the divine will. Let us review the doom passed upon the tree.
(1.) Orders are given that it be cut down (Dan. 4:14); now also the axe is laid to the root of this tree. Though it is ever so high, ever so strong, that cannot secure it when its day comes to fall; the beasts and fowls, that are sheltered in and under the boughs of it, are driven away and dispersed; the branches are cropped, the leaves shaken off, and the fruit scattered. Note, Worldly prosperity in its highest degree is a very uncertain thing; and it is no uncommon thing for those that have lived in the greatest pomp and power to be stripped of all that which they trusted to and gloried in. By the turns of providence, those who made a figure become captives, those who lived in plenty, and above what they had, are reduced to straits, and live far below what they had, and those perhaps are brought to be beholden to others who once had many depending upon them and making suit to them. But the trees of righteousness, that are planted in the house of the Lord and bring forth fruit to him, shall not be cut down, nor shall their leaf wither.
(2.) Care is taken that the root be preserved (Dan. 4:15); “Leave the stump of it in the earth, exposed to all weathers. There let it lie neglected and buried in the grass. Let the beasts that formerly sheltered themselves under the boughs now repose themselves upon the stump; but that it may not be raked to pieces, nor trodden to dirt, and to show that it is yet reserved for better days, let it be hooped round with a band of iron and brass, to keep it firm.” Note, God in judgment remembers mercy; and may yet have good things in store for those whose condition seems most forlorn. There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, that through the scent of water it will bud, Job 14:7-9.
(3.) The meaning of this is explained by the angel himself to Nebuchadnezzar, Dan. 4:16. Whoever is the person signified by this tree he is sentenced to be deposed from the honour, state, and dignity of a man, to be deprived of the use of his reason, and to be and live like a brute, till seven times pass over him. Let a beast’s heart be given unto him. This is surely the saddest and sorest of all temporal judgments, worse a thousand times than death, and though, like it, least felt by those that lie under it, yet to be dreaded and deprecated more than any other. Nay, whatever outward affliction God is pleased to lay upon us, we have reason to bear it patiently, and to be thankful that he continues to us the use of our reason and the peace of our consciences. But those proud tyrants who set their heart as the heart of God (Ezek. 27:2) may justly be deprived of the heart of man, and have a beast’s heart given them.
(4.) The truth of it is confirmed (Dan. 4:17); This matter is by the decree of the watchers and the demand by the word of the holy ones. God has determined it, as a righteous Judge; he has signed this edict; pursuant to his eternal counsel, the decree has gone forth, And, [1.] The angels of heaven have subscribed to it, as attesting it, approving it, and applauding it. It is by the decree of the watchers; not that the great God needs the counsel or concurrence of the angels in any thing he determines or does, but, as he uses their ministration in executing his counsels, so he is sometimes represented, after the manner of men, as if he consulted them. Whom shall I send? Isa. 6:8. Who shall persuade Ahab? 1 Kgs. 22:20. So it denotes the solemnity of this sentence. The king’s breves, or short writs, pass, Teste me ipso—in my presence; but charters used to be signed, His testibus—In the presence of us whose names are under-written; such was Nebuchadnezzar’s doom; it was by the decree of the watchers. [2.] The saints on earth petitioned for it, as well as the angels in heaven: The demand is by the word of the holy ones. God’s suffering people, that had long groaned under the heavy yoke of Nebuchadnezzar’s tyranny, cried to him for vengeance; they made the demand, and God gave this answer to it; for, when the oppressed cry to God, he will hear, Exod. 22:27. Sentence was passed, in Ahab’s time, that there should be no more rain, at Elijah’s word, when he made intercession against Israel, 1 Kgs. 17:1.
(5.) The design of it is declared. Orders are given for the cutting down of this tree, to the intent that the living may know that the Most High rules. This judgment must be executed, to convince the unthinking, unbelieving, world, that verily there is a God that judges in the earth, a God that governs the world, that not only has a kingdom of his own in it, and administers the affairs of that kingdom, but rules also in the kingdom of men, in the dominion that one man has over another, and gives that to whomsoever he will; from him promotion comes, Ps. 75:6, 7. He advances men to power and dominion that little expected it, and crosses the projects of the ambitious and aspiring. Sometimes he sets up the basest of men, and serves his own purposes by them. He sets up mean men, as David from the sheepfold; he raises the poor out of the dust, to set them among princes, Ps. 113:7, 8. Nay, sometimes he sets up bad men, to be a scourge to a provoking people. Thus he can do, thus he may do, thus he often does, and gives not account of any of his matters. By humbling Nebuchadnezzar it was designed that the living should be made to know this. The dead know it, that have gone to the world of spirits, the world of retribution; they know that the Most High rules; but the living must be made to know it and lay it to heart, that they may make their peace with God before it be too late.
Thus has Nebuchadnezzar fully and faithfully related his dream, what he saw and what he heard, and then demands of Daniel the interpretation of it (Dan. 4:18), for he found that no one else was able to interpret it, but was confident that he was: For the spirit of the holy gods is in thee, or of the Holy God, the proper title of the God of Israel. Much may be expected from those that have in them the Spirit of the Holy God. Whether Nebuchadnezzar had any jealousy that it was his own doom that was read by this dream does not appear; perhaps he was so vain and secure as to imagine that it was some other prince that was a rival with him, whose fall he had the pleasing prospect of given him in this dream; but, be it for him or against him, he is very solicitous to know the true meaning of it and depends upon Daniel to give it to him. Now, When God gives us general warnings of his judgments we should be desirous to understand his mind in them, to hear the Lord’s voice crying in the city.