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Nebuchadnezzar and the Danger of Pride -- a study of Daniel 4

What does humble pie taste like?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Daniel 4

In this unforgettable chapter of the Bible, we see the utter humiliation of a king who was puffed up on his own majestic glory, and the too-easy solution of humbling himself before the One True God. It's a powerful reminder about the price of pride, and it's a tale of hope that God's mercy can extend to anyone who remembers his place before God.

He is able to humble those who walk in pride. (4:37)

Getting Started: Would You Rather Eat Crow or Humble Pie?

In this week's passage, we're going to read about one of history's great "pride goeth before the fall" examples. The English language has all kinds of clever ways to describe this, so let's start with this question:

When you were growing up, how did your mom warn you against pride?

For me, the go-to was "Don't get a big head". But every family seemed to have a different way to warn about pride. Some of my favorites:

  • You'll eat crow

  • You'll eat humble pie

  • You'll swallow your pride

  • Don't get cocky

But there are a bunch more! What are your favorites? Or, if you're a parent, what have you said to your kids about pride? You can learn a lot about what you really believe when you listen to yourself try to teach your kids.

Here's where it gets fun: What are examples from your past where someone had to call you out for pride? If you talk to my mom, I apparently had a big head more often than not. I don't know what she's talking about. I didn't have a big head -- I just had great hair. (I might have been a bit of a problem when I got the lead in the senior musical. We did Grease. Had a blast. That's a picture of me and "Cha Cha" being awesome. No, but really, I was apparently intolerable that whole few months to my family and my friends. And, well, that may not have been the only time I got a big head as a young person.) How about you? What are the times you had trouble with pride and why?


And here's where the question gets really fun: How did those seasons of pride end for you? Did you lose friends? Did you have a "fall" that ended with you eating crow? (How did that taste?) (In my case above, my friends put up with me and I got better.)


Option 2: The Braggart Blowhard from Your School

Let's say that you and everyone in your group had no trouble with pride at all. All of you are the most humble people you know. Well, maybe you remember people from growing up who were obnoxiously cocky. I spent some time thinking about this, and it was harder than I thought. There were a number of kids I was envious of (for their good looks or their strength or their skills at something or other), but the ones that I got to know, none of them were arrogant about it. They were all humble, down-to-earth. Probably what that means is that the kids who were arrogant are the kids who didn't want to be my friend! And as a result, they have faded from my memory.


If no one comes to mind, you can always just bring up movie "popular kids". Kids who are in "the it crowd" or who want to be in the it crowd are an endless source of movie fodder. Let me reveal my age with these examples that came to mind:

What are the most satisfying parts of that kind of movie for you? When the braggart kid eats humble pie? When the formerly good kid comes to his senses? When the high school principal gets pranked?


Here would be the point and transition: we can all stand to re-learn some lessons about pride and humility.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Who Else? Nebuchadnezzar

[Here's my suggestion -- I believe that this background information makes the most sense to share as part of "part 1" of the lesson. Read it, do further research, and then decide what's the most helpful to share in part 1.]


If the "big bad" of the Pentateuch is Pharaoh, then the big bad of the rest of the Old Testament is Nebuchadnezzar. One of the most interesting rulers of the ancient world (and the most important ruler of the Babylonian Empire), Nebuchadnezzar has inspired storytellers and artists from every age.

Seriously -- Kanye West wrote an opera called "Nebuchadnezzar" (because of course he did; Nebuchadnezzar reminds Kayne of Kanye).


As to be expected, there's not a consensus as to who Nebuchadnezzar was. And as far as I can tell, a lot of conclusions seem to be driven by the principle that "if it's in the Bible, it must be wrong". But archeology continues to discover things that feed into the Bible's characterization of this fascinating individual.


People tend to view him through two lenses:

  • Nebuchadnezzar the military leader

  • Nebuchadnezzar the builder

Let me try to summarize both.


Nebuchadnezzar, Son of an Emperor

(See my post on Ezekiel 11 for the difference between "Babylon" and "Neo-Babylon".) In 627 BC, a Chaldean chief named Nabopolassar (who was likely a "noble" from the city of Uruk) rose up against the Assyrian overlords to establish an independent nation headquartered in the city of Babylon. Nabopolassar is acknowledged as the first king of what would be known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire (his ruling dates -- 626-605 BC). He was a charismatic military leader, gathering the disparate tribes from his region into a powerful military force that would conquer Nineveh itself in 612 BC.


Nabopolassar was joined by his son Nebuchadnezzar during his campaign to eradicate the remaining Assyrian forces at Harran in 610 BC. Nebuchadnezzar (which is anglicized from Nabu-kudurri-usur, "Nabu, watch over my heir") had been serving as high priest in Uruk before becoming old enough to lead. He acquitted himself so well that when Nabopolassar fell ill in 605 BC, he left Nebuchadnezzar in charge of the entire army -- who swiftly destroyed the massed Egyptian armies who had mustered to Carchemish. He then marched south through Judah, taking control of Jerusalem.


Nabopolassar died soon after Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians, so Nebuchadnezzar rushed back to Babylon to be crowned king before his conniving brothers could steal the throne. He then spent the first 11 years of his kingship expanding Babylon's power through Assyria, Arabia, and even into Egypt. Unfortunately for him, every time he departed a region, that region seemed to organize a rebellion against Babylonian rule, forcing him to return and use force to quell it (we talked about multiple such rebellions in Judah when we studied Ezekiel). (Either he did not have trustworthy generals, or he did not trust his generals.)


Nebuchadnezzar, Builder of a Legacy

Nebuchadnezzar is mostly famous for his building projects in Babylon -- turning it into one of the great ancient cities and for a time the largest city in the world. (see:

He was a gifted designer and organizer. The still-stunning-today Ishtar Gate (lions were the "sacred animal" of Ishtar, their goddess of love) demonstrates his vision and ability. Interestingly, more than 15,000,000 bricks have been recovered from Babylon (see left) with the same inscription that basically says "I am Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who provides for [whatever building], the eldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon”. In other words, he also wanted full credit for the great buildings -- he wanted to make it impossible for history to forget him.


Controversies Related to the Bible

Let me try to summarize the complaints in three categories:

  • Nebuchadnezzar is inconsistently portrayed in the Bible

  • Nebuchadnezzar was a builder, not a fighter

  • Nebuchadnezzar could not have gone mad for 7 years

Here's how I would respond in a nutshell.


Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible

Most of our information about Nebuchadnezzar comes from Daniel and Jeremiah. In Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar is God's chosen instrument ("servant") to punish the nations -- including His own people -- for their sin. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is a fickle and vainglorious despot, even manic in his mood swings. To non-believers, who can't understand how God could use a tyrant as His servant, this "proves" that Daniel and Jeremiah are contradictory, certainly fictional.


Well, those non-believers should read Habakkuk. Habakkuk had the very same question in 605 BC, and God responded like this (1:5-6):

For I am doing something in your days that you will not believe when you hear about it. Look! I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylonians] that bitter, impetuous nation that marches across the earth’s open spaces to seize territories not its own.

In other words, God can use a wicked person to accomplish His purposes if He chooses. It is not for us to say who is fit to be God's servant.


Nebuchadnezzar Builder and Fighter

Another complaint is that most of the archeological remnants emphasize Nebuchadnezzar as a builder and a man of religious focus. Indeed, he had been a high priest, and he invested a great deal of resources into building many ornate temples and shrines throughout Babylon. They conclude that such a man could not be the tyrant and conqueror depicted in the Bible. I really don't understand that argument -- why could he not be both (as our passage clearly indicates)?

There is an incredible archeological find called "The Babylonian Chronicles", a series of tablets that sat in the archives of the British Museum until they were finally translated and published in the 1950s. They include a summary of military activities of Nebuchadnezzar's first 11 years as king, including his victories at Carchemish and at Jerusalem. Granted, they don't dwell on his military exploits. The majority of records we have focus on his building accomplishments. But (1) that could be a quirk of the records that have survived, and (2) maybe Babylon the capital was more important to him than Babylon the empire. Maybe he understood that empires come and go, but the city could last for millennia. Here's an article that balances different ideas:


Nebuchadnezzar the Madman?

The biggest qualm skeptics have with regard to this topic is the chapter we will focus on this week -- Daniel 4 -- in which Nebuchadnezzar is said to go mad for 7 years and then repent and be restored. They say that there's no other record of such behavior out of Nebuchadnezzar, and that there's no way a king could avoid assassination under those conditions.


As to the first, is anyone really surprised that Nebuchadnezzar didn't keep a record of himself going mad for seven years and being humiliated by the Hebrew God? The surviving records of Nebuchadnezzar have many details about his first 11 years, and then they go silent. Maybe we just haven't found them, or maybe there wasn't much to report! (The king ate grass today.) Interestingly, there is a Babylonian relic which mentions bizarre behavior from Nebuchadnezzar. There are lots of ways to interpret it, but this article gives the case in support of his madness:


As to the second, the article linked above reminds that David survived among the Philistines by pretending to be insane. Apparently, the Ancient Near Eastern world held mental illness in a special category -- namely that perhaps the gods were speaking through such people and thus it would be disastrous to kill someone with what we would call a mental illness. Setting aside the chilling long-term ramifications of that policy, it would make sense that the court would not want to kill a king-gone-mad. After all, they would get to rule the kingdom in his stead without people knowing what was happening.


Summary

Acknowledging how little we know, Nebuchadnezzar seemed to be a true genius -- both in military and construction. He also seemed to be emotionally unstable. And as Daniel 3&4 make clear, he thought very highly of himself. The term "megalomaniac" comes to mind, but it's also possible that he suffered from a mental illness that God leveraged in order to humble him for 7 years.


In chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar says that when he humbled himself before God, God restored him. (Note that the Bible doesn't say that's what happened -- that's what Nebuchadnezzar believed happened.) Considering his previous flip-flops about God, it's hard to believe that ol' Neb remained solely devoted to God for the rest of his life. It's also possible that God restored Nebuchadnezzar for entirely different reasons, more related to the Jewish Exile, and his time of humiliation was necessary to bring about that end. There are many things we don't know, so we make our guesses, acknowledge them as guesses, and move on.


Bonus Big Idea: Hubris in the Bible

I thought it wise to acknowledge that Nebuchadnezzar is not the only person to be brought low in this way. The Bible has a lot to say about "hubris"! Hubris can basically be defined as "self-destructive pride/arrogance". These individuals come to mind:

  • Pharaoh -- Even after seeing the mighty power of God, Pharaoh still believed himself stronger, and was willing to send his entire army to their deaths.

  • Saul -- Saul believed himself above God's commands, and thus condemned himself to years of violence and death.

  • Nabal -- (you might have to re-read this story in 1 Sam 25) A man so arrogant that he is forever known as "Nabal" (which means "fool" and probably wasn't his name).

  • Nebuchadnezzar -- We read this story this week.

  • Belshazzar -- We skip this story in Daniel 5; this king flaunted his possession of temple artifacts and died before the night was out.

  • Herod -- Really, both Herod the Great and Herod Agrippa suffered terrible fates for their belief in their own superiority, even to God.

But the quintessential illustration of hubris is Satan. Satan was so taken in by his own beauty and power that he believed he could overthrow God.


The point is that such destructive arrogance is consistently condemned by God.

 

Where We Are in Daniel

Oh right, this is a Bible study, not a history or philosophy lesson.

The first words in our passage point us to the preceding verses, so there's no way to fully understand our passage without knowing the context. At the end of chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar has issued a proclamation that everyone in the empire should not speak against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego because He is a God who can save.


Chapter 4 is a stand-alone letter written by Nebuchadnezzar describing one sequence of events in his life that has led him to confess that the God of the Hebrews is the One True God ("Most High God"). He starts by praising God (vv. 1-3), then he describes the dream that has troubled him (vv. 4-18), then he gives Daniel's interpretation of the dream (vv. 19-27), then he explains how the dream was fulfilled (vv. 28-37, this week's passage).


Daniel 4 is a very interesting chapter. It is the only chapter in the Bible "written" by a pagan. Now, to be fair, it does seem that Daniel (as the king's advisor) had a lot of input. But this letter comes to us as from the mouth of Nebuchadnezzar. Let's recap Neb's experience with God Almighty --

  • God gave Daniel the interpretation of a dream (ch 2) that clearly demonstrated God's wisdom and His superintending power over all human empires.

  • God demonstrated His power to save His people from a fiery furnace (ch 3).

  • God demonstrated His power to bring low any arrogant human (ch 4).

In other words, Nebuchadnezzar knew very well that God was the Most High God. If "all men are without excuse", Nebuchadnezzar was really without excuse.


About the dream in chapter 4 -- this is the dream of the tree that terrified Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream, he sees a mighty and beautiful tree, but then he hears a voice from heaven saying to cut down the tree, and that the tree will have mind of an animal for 7 years. Daniel (who to his credit has compassion for the king) says that God will humble the king for 7 years until the king humbles himself before God, and the king will live with the wild animals (we will get into that in our study). The thing to note is that 12 months after this dream, Nebuchadnezzar seems to have forgotten the warning.

 

Part 1: Pride Declared (Daniel 4:28-30)

28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months, as he was walking on the roof of the royal palace in Babylon, 30 the king exclaimed, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?”

This is why I shared all of that background information on Nebuchadnezzar first. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar was a great conqueror, ruthless when he needed to be. But he also cared a lot about his physical legacy (the city of Babylon).

And what he did for Babylon was great, indeed! Nebuchadnezzar built two great walls, at least three dozen temples, and three stunning palaces.

This incredible find (the picture of the stele to the right), one of only four known images of Nebuchadnezzar to exist, shows the king next to a huge ziggurat he built for the god Marduk. (Note that skeptics say that the Tower of Babel was just a legend inspired by this building, as the caption to the picture demonstrates.) In it, Nebuchadnezzar boasts that the great tower shows all of the kings of the world that he is the one most loved by the god Marduk. You can see how his relationship with the One True God was dicey.


Caring a lot about a physical legacy (a monument) is not new or unique. The original Tower of Babel (which was built in the same region as Babylon) was built by people who wanted to "make a name for themselves":

God responded to their desire by confusing their language so that their heads would not get too big 😏. Similarly, God responded to Nebuchadnezzar by confusing him (so to speak).


But people try to make this kind of legacy all the time, and God doesn't make a big deal about them all, right? Well, about that. Consider Herod Agrippa:

21 On an appointed day, dressed in royal robes and seated on the throne, Herod delivered a speech to them. 22 The assembled people began to shout, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 At once an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Here's a man in a position of authority who accepted the adulation of deity and was struck down for it. This is certainly the path Nebuchadnezzar was on.


But how many kings and emperors have accepted (demanded) worship from the masses? They weren't all struck down, right?


The truth is that we don't know what God did or did not do to those individuals. We know what happened to Nebuchadnezzar and Herod and the Babel-builders because it is recorded in the Bible. What we can say for certain is that everyone who sets himself up as a rival to God will be judged eventually. There is no getting away with this.


So here's where I think you take the initial discussion. We use the phrase "take pride in work" as a positive thing. Where is the line at which "taking pride in your work" becomes a bad thing?


The first thing we need to do is realize that the saying uses the word "pride" to mean something different than the sin identified in the Bible. What are ways we could reword the saying? Then, once you've established that, talk about the line between "caring about your work" and "being prideful about your work".

 

Part 2: Reality Defined (Daniel 4:31-33)

31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared that the kingdom has departed from you. 32 You will be driven away from people to live with the wild animals, and you will feed on grass like cattle for seven periods of time, until you acknowledge that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms, and he gives them to anyone he wants.” 33 At that moment the message against Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people. He ate grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky, until his hair grew like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.

I like the section title -- "reality defined". Have you ever needed a "dose of reality" or a "reality check"?


Well, Nebuchadnezzar got one. As a reminder that God was in charge of human history, not the transient rulers of people-groups, Nebuchadnezzar was made to act like cattle.

That choice was not accidental. Just as ranchers herd cattle from place to place for their own purposes and ultimately have life-and-death say over the herd, so men like Nebuchadnezzar had treated humans like cattle, herding them from place to place and treating their lives as disposable (for their own benefit).


There are usually two questions that come up at this point:

  1. Is this possible? and

  2. Is this cruel?

As to the first, of course it's possible. There is a recognized disorder called "boanthropy" in which the person believes himself to be a cow (you can look it up). Lots of websites mention it, but the only example given is Nebuchadnezzar. Some people think it is caused by hypnosis. Everyone says it is exceedingly rare.


As to the second, the accusation is that this "cruel and unusual punishment" is beneath God. Every resource on the topic says that boanthropy is terrifying. "Cruel" is a loaded word, though. Nebuchadnezzar survived his ordeal and was restored to his right mind. Perhaps he even learned his valuable lesson (although as I said above I have my doubts). If anything, God was being more gentle with Nebuchadnezzar than Herod Agrippa, wouldn't you say?


The description of what happened to him is indeed horrifying. He ate grass (it is possible to eat grass) and probably some other stuff. By not attending to personal hygiene, his hair and nails were probably very much like feathers and claws!


[Aside: parents of teenagers may enjoy talking about what happens when someone doesn't attend to personal hygiene. But even they wouldn't know what happens when you don't shave/shower/wash your hair/brush your teeth for years. Some stylists think it would be good for your hair to stop shampooing it, but even they acknowledge that the dirt and bacteria buildup would be problematic. Fingernails grow 1/8" per month, so you do the math.


And this might also be a fun time to talk about everyone's experiences working from home.

Granted, if you talk too much about poor hygiene, you'll probably gross a bunch of group members out. Just a warning.]


Most likely, we have never experienced a humiliation like Nebuchadnezzar. However, we have all been brought low for some instance of pride or another. Do you have any such experiences you would be willing to share?


I have many such experiences, and not many that I'd like to share 🙄. There are two extremely embarrassing times I applied for a ministry position that I was so certain I would get that I came off terribly with the search committee and was soundly rejected. The fact that it happened twice is what bothers me the most, that I couldn't learn a lesson the first time.


Pride is such an insidious barrier to salvation because it convinces us that we don't need anyone else to provide for us what we need.

(Yes, Snoopy is a dog. And yes, it's a piece of candy. Every illustration breaks down.)


The reality is that we are sinful, fallible mortals who do so much harm to ourselves when we try to make ourselves the god of our own lives. At the end of this point, I think it would be a great idea to walk through the basics of the gospel. We need a Savior precisely because we are unwilling to acknowledge God as the One True God. We try to save ourselves or create our own reality. But reality is that everyone deserves to suffer eternally for our sin against a holy God, and only God's saving grace revealed in Jesus Christ gives us a way out from that fate. But by humbling ourselves before God and acknowledging our need for Savior and confessing Jesus as our Savior and Lord, we will be saved. (Here's our lesson from Romans 10 that summarizes a lot of that information, if you need it:)

 

Part 3: Honor Given (Daniel 4:34-47)

34 But at the end of those days, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven, and my sanity returned to me. Then I praised the Most High and honored and glorified him who lives forever:
For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, and he does what he wants with the army of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can block his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At that time my sanity returned to me, and my majesty and splendor returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and my nobles sought me out, I was reestablished over my kingdom, and even more greatness came to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt, and glorify the King of the heavens, because all his works are true and his ways are just. He is able to humble those who walk in pride.

You already know that I'm hesitant to declare this the "happy ever after" ending that we would all like. Nebuchadnezzar has said something very much like this before (see 2:47 and 3:28) and quickly forgotten all about it. However, there is one possibility I can't deny:


We don't know when chapter 4 took place. Chapter 5 skips ahead to the story of Belshazzar (see the end of this post for explanation of why Belshazzar was listed as the final king of Babylon). Here are the dates we know:

  • Nebuchadnezzar's "first year" - 604 BC

  • Final destruction of Jerusalem - 586 BC

  • Siege of Tyre - 586-573 BC

  • Nebuchadnezzar dies - 562 BC

  • Belshazzar dies/Babylon falls - 539 BC

There's not much known about the final ten years of his reign. It's possible (and maybe even likely) that his humiliation took place during these final years. That would mean that he repented less than 3 years before his death, so perhaps he did have a change of heart. This would also explain why there weren't major religious changes in Babylon as a whole (because they people would have assumed he was still mad).


As for the words themselves, they're pretty solid! Even if Daniel helped him write this, he still had to be willing to put his stamp on the letter. We have talked about God's sovereignty over the nations many times, and it never hurts to talk about it again. Nebuchadnezzar ruled (and conquered Jerusalem) because God allowed him to. God was able to use him to punish His people and the world for their great sin. And God was also able to use him to preserve His people so they could be returned after Babylon fell.


An uplifting closing discussion might be people you know who came to salvation in Jesus later in life -- "surprising Christians", you might say. I think of Lee Strobel and Charles Colson (other surprising Christians might include Chuck Norris, MC Hammer, and Alice Cooper; Cooper told Greg Laurie that people don't become a Christian “I think it’s because they don’t want to give up their godship” - something very apropos to our passage this week!). Of course, we all have personal relationships with people who turned to Christ maybe later in life or maybe unexpectedly. God is always at work.


I certainly hope that Nebuchadnezzar's words are from a truly changed heart.

 

Closing Thoughts: Do You Hope to See Nebuchadnezzar in Heaven?

This could be a loaded question to some. Let's remember his life in its entirety -- he destroyed nations and armies, causing the deaths of countless thousands, he promoted the worship of false gods, and he ordered the deaths of godfearers. Do you want God to offer forgiveness to that kind of person?


I sure hope so.


Basically, this is the old question "Do you hope Adolf Hitler / Joseph Stalin / Saddam Hussein (etc.) had a deathbed conversion?" I know plenty of people who say "No - I hope they burn in hell for their crimes against humanity".


Just remember this: are there degrees of sin with God? Are there different kinds of hells for those who have committed different kinds of sins? No! Dante Alighieri didn't write the Bible. We have all fallen short. None of us does what is right. If salvation can come to me, then I want it to come to everybody. If Nebuchadnezzar doesn't deserve God's mercy, then why should I think that I do?


So maybe I have my doubts about how sincere Nebuchadnezzar was in his commitment to God Almighty. That doesn't mean I hope I'm wrong.

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