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Relevant Verse: Daniel 4

Theme: How to govern: Practice righteousness, show mercy to the poor!

Leading Question: Why do only merciful people find mercy with God?

As Daniel and the exiles left their land for Babylon, Jeremiah commanded the exiles to seek the peace and prosperity of the city and to pray to the Lord for it. “Seek the welfare (Hebrew shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare (shalom) you will have welfare (shalom).” (Jeremiah 29:7 NASB). Daniel did just that. In all he did, he added ethical goodness to Babylon—he made it a better place. He served with excellence and integrity—while worshipping and relying on the Lord God. As a result, Daniel not only modeled a good life, he also helped make life better.

Question: What about the call to “seek the welfare (shalom)” of the world around us is surprising? Encouraging? Puzzling?

Daniel 4 contains an open letter from the king with a long confession of a personal experience and praises to God in the style of the hymn praises previously seen in the book. Some writers consider this chapter to be a royal edict that was proclaimed throughout the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Although the main event in the chapter is not dated, the context of the story is the time of “Nebuchadnezzar the Builder,” or the second phase of the king’s reign.

While Jerusalem and its temple lie in ruins, the city of Babylon was brought to architectural perfection under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon was the largest city of the ancient world and contained the Hanging Gardens, which according to the Greeks was one of the seven wonders of the world. The city was also the location of the magnificent temple to the Babylonian god Marduk, Nebuchadnezzar’s palaces, and the great Processional Way. The city was surrounded by a wall whose dimensions were about 90 m (300 ft) high, 24 m (80 ft) wide, and 97 km (60 mi) in circumference. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, a four-horse chariot could turn around atop the wide outer wall. Herodotus also states that Babylon was the most powerful and famous empire of the ages. It is not a surprise then that King Nebuchadnezzar was proud of his accomplishments. The Grotefend Cylinder contains the king’s own words: “I built the palace, the seat of my royalty, the bond of the race of men, the dwelling of joy and rejoicing.” Biblical prophets spoke of Babylon as “the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians’ pride” (Isaiah 13:19).

The symbol of the “tree in the midst of the earth” (Daniel 4:10) in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream had special significance to the king. Babylon was considered to be “the abode of life” at the center of the world. Out of the Euphrates River grew a cosmic tree, sometimes called Tree of Truth or Tree of Life, connecting the underworld with heaven. In one of his Building Inscriptions Nebuchadnezzar sees his vast empire as a tree providing shade and nourishment to all peoples: “The produce of the lands, the product of mountains, the wealth of the sea I received in her. Under her everlasting shadow I gathered all men in peace. Vast heaps of grain beyond measure I stored up within her.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream indicated that the king would be cut off from his kingdom for seven years. Here is Daniel’s response: “Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was appalled for a while as his thoughts alarmed him. The king responded and said, ‘Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its interpretation alarm you.’ Belteshazzar replied, ‘My lord, if only the dream applied to those who hate you and its interpretation to your adversaries!’” (Daniel 4:19 NASB). At the heart of Daniel 4 is the call for repentance in the manner of the prophets of old. The content of repentance is specific: “Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity’” (Daniel 4:27 NASB).

Question: In what way is Daniel’s advice to king Nebuchadnezzar remarkable?

In the Hebrew Bible, providing justice means caring for those in society whose needs are not being met; this can mean helping them monetarily and setting up the proper social structures to combat their plight. Daniel thus encourages Nebuchadnezzar to use his great wealth for the poor. Social justice is not only a divine concern for Israel. God calls all nations to implement and embody justice and righteousness. This view of government is in accordance with royal ideology throughout the ancient Near East where legitimate rule is predicated upon “justice” and “righteousness” for the oppressed and lowly. Accordingly, rulers who are unwilling or incapable of maintaining social order in this sense are deposed.

“Anyone who oppresses the poor insults their Maker, but anyone who is kind to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31).

Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “It is not enough to be concerned for the life to come. Our immediate concern must be with justice and compassion in life here and now, with human dignity, welfare and security” (Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, 147).

God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men. Justice is not important for its own sake; the motivation for justice, and the validity of its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God (Heschel, The Prophets, p. 276).

In one of Jesus’ parables, the shocking thing about the kingdom of God is that it arrives in a surprising form, not as a mighty tree, but as a humble mustard plant. For the kingdom of God is not a crushing human empire built on might and power, but rather, a humble venture of trust. Christ showed that His gospel is based not on human ambition or pride, but on humble faith in God.

Archaeologists have recovered about fifty tablets with cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Babylon with descriptions and details of Nebuchadnezzar’s building projects. The interesting part is, the tablets date from the first eleven years of his reign. Here are a few of the inscriptions:

I have made Babylon, the holy city, the glory of the great gods, more prominent than before…. No king … has ever created, no earlier king has ever built, what I have magnificently built for Marduk.

I built this palace, seat of my kingship over the mighty kings, … palace of joy, of rejoicing. … In Babylon, I edified it, on top of the ancient trough … with mortar and bricks I secured its foundations.

I built a strong wall that cannot be shaken with bitumen and baked bricks… I laid its foundation on the breast of the netherworld, and I built its top as high as a mountain… The fortifications of Esagila and Babylon I strengthened and established the name of my reign forever.

Starting in Daniel 4:28, “the text suddenly switches from the first-person style to the third-person narration, and this third-person perspective will be maintained throughout the account of the fulfillment of the dream (verses 28–33). The switch is entirely appropriate, for the king is supposed to have his mind changed to that of an animal” (Seow, Daniel, 71–72).

There are two more pieces of background evidence that shed light on the story in Daniel 4. One comes from a fragmentary cuneiform text published by A. B. Grayson in 1975 that speaks of Nebuchadnezzar’s strange behavior. The text says that the king’s life appeared of no value to him, that he gave senseless and contradictory council, was not able to express affection to his son or his daughter, could not recognize his family, and participate in the building projects of Babylon. Even though the text is fragmentary it may be related to the king’s mental disorder that lasted for a period of time.

At the end of this experience, Nebuchadnezzar praises Daniel’s God and serves him with great zeal.

Questions: Why is God continuing to deal with Nebuchadnezzar? What kind of picture of God is he developing?

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