This week we wrapped up Babylonian civilization by looking at the reign of Nebuchadnezzar through the Book of Daniel.
Nebuchadnezzar reigned as one of Babylon’s greatest kings and one of the more powerful kings in the ancient world. He had some significant faults, but also moments of keen insight. When we first meet him in Daniel 2, we see that he had no patience for the sham dream interpretations of the various astrologers and “wise men” of the realm.
Then the astrologers answered the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.” The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.
This may simply be Nebuchadnezzar’s famous temper showing itself, but he also knew that the astrologers would simply look in a book once he told them the dream, and parrot back what the book said. It doesn’t take a “wise man” to do that.
Daniel’s eventual interpretation of the dream had many lessons for Babylon and us today. In its time, no other city on earth could equal the splendor and wealth of Babylon. Not surprisingly, the “head of gold” in the vision referred to Babylon itself. But even gold, the most precious and enduring of all metals, would eventually be superceded by the “silver” of Persia, the “bronze” of Greece, and the “iron” of Rome. Only God’s kingdom will truly last.
The dream implicitly criticizes Babylon of course, and foretells of its coming judgment and dissolution, but Nebuchadnezzar has the wisdom and humility to reward Daniel and promote him within his kingdom.
In Daniel 3 we see the full range of Nebuchadnezzar’s strengths and weaknesses on display. He sets up an idolatrous image of himself, and demands the death of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. His temper waxes so hot he demands the furnace temperature increased seven-fold. But when God’s servants emerge unharmed he says,
Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”
He seemed to like the whole “cut in pieces” concept.
His second dream in Daniel 4 deals with him personally. He sees a great tree cut down and reduced to nothing, and Daniel tells him that the dream comes as a warning for Nebuchadnezzar to abandon all pride. Alas, he fails to heed the warnings and succumbed to madness.
Nebuchadnezzar’s plight can serve as a template for examining other powerful leaders. His insanity came as a direct judgment from God, but it stemmed from his pride. When we think of clinically insane people we understand that they don’t live in reality, cannot perceive reality and cannot deal with reality.
Might a link exist between pride and insanity?
I think we can answer in the affirmative. Pride, after all, prevents you from seeing yourself and others as they really exist. Nebuchadnezzar’s own words reveal this:
[Nebuchadnezzar] said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
His claim reaches ridiculous proportions. Babylon had existed for centuries before Nebuchadnezzar, and no one would suggest that he did any of the actual building. It’s quite easy to give the orders, after all. Pride narrows the universe to one’s own dimensions and limitations. A prideful man’s heart becomes cramped and unbearable. Like other notorious rulers such as Stalin, Nero, and Caligula, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t begin insane, but ended this way. Pride leads Nebuchadnezzar down the path to madness.
His sanity gets restored, however, when he “raised his eyes towards heaven,” possibly in silent prayer, or perhaps he simply recognized the universe outside of himself.
Daniel 4 concludes with Nebuchadnezzar’s own words,
At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”
At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.