Daniel 2: Nebuchadnezzar's Dream, Part 1
Mar 28, 2015
Each chapter in the book of Daniel is a distinct section or story by itself. The second chapter is the story of the king’s dream and how God showed Daniel the dream and its interpretation. This revelation very likely saved the lives of the wise men of Babylon, including Daniel and his three friends.
Daniel 2:1 begins,
1 Now in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him.
The date of this dream is considered a problem to Bible commentators, because it appears that Daniel had already gone through three years of training in the early years of the king’s reign. But such treatment of the text is unnecessarily restrictive, because in no way are we required to consider the second chapter to take place after the full three years described in chapter one.
In other words, chapter two took place during those three years. Nabopolassar, who had led the revolt against Assyria, had died in 605 B.C. His son, Nebuchadnezzar then returned from the battlefield to Babylon, where he secured his throne before returning to take Jerusalem the next year in 604 B.C.
Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne in 605, but the usual practice was to reckon the remaining months of that regnal year to the previous king. Therefore, the year 605 was considered to be the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, but his first year would have begun in the spring of 604. He took Jerusalem later that same year and brought the four Judahite boys to Babylon for training.
At the start of their training, their “pulse experiment” lasted just ten days (Daniel 1:15).
The following spring (603 B.C.), Nebuchadnezzar’s second year began, and some time before the spring of 602 B.C. he had his troubling dream. We can infer from Daniel 2:14 and 48 that Daniel was still of low rank, but that his success in interpreting the dream motivated the king to promote him as “ruler over the province of Babylon,” and he was also made the “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.”
Yet Daniel was still in need of learning the language and literature of Babylon, so there is no reason to believe that his schooling suddenly ended with his promotion. Further, we read in Daniel 1:17 that during their training, “God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams.” This is possibly a reference to the event in chapter two? In other words, chapter two explains how Daniel got his reputation for wisdom and understanding of “all kinds of visions and dreams.”
The Recurring Dream
We may also take this one step further. Commentators assume that the king called for the wise men on the morning shortly after his dream. This may be implied, but it is not stated in the text. He may have had the dream months earlier, and the fact that it troubled him may have been because he actually remembered the dream. He may have pondered it for a long time without telling anyone. Finally, he may have carefully devised a plan to use the dream to test the prophetic abilities of his wise men.
Daniel 2:1, quoted earlier, tells us that the king dreamed “dreams” (plural) which troubled him. The plural word is repeated in verse 2. Were all of these dreams given in the same night? This may imply that he had a recurring dream over a period of time, beginning in his second year. In the end, Daniel interpreted just one dream—not “dreams”—so this strongly suggests that the king had a single recurring dream that troubled him.
Normally, a recurring dream was not likely to have been forgotten. The king may have been troubled for a long time. Because “his sleep left him,” we know that he lost sleep over this recurring dream.
The fact is, we are not given these details, nor is it likely that Daniel himself would have known. And even if the king confided in the prophet years later, it is not likely that he would have revealed the king’s secret by writing of it. So the bottom line is that even though the dream itself is dated in the king’s second year, we do not know how long it took for the king to arrange this prophetic test.
Daniel 2:2-4 says,
2 Then the king gave orders to call in the magicians, the conjurers, the sorcerers and the Chaldeans, to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. 3 And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is anxious to understand the dream. 4 Then the Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell the dream to your servants, and we will declare the interpretation.”
The text moves from “his dreams” in verse 2 to “a dream” and “the dream” in verses 3 and 4, once again suggesting a recurring dream over a period of time.
In Daniel 2:5, 6 we read,
5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The command from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be made a rubbish heap. 6 But if you declare the dream and its interpretation, you will receive from me gifts and a reward and great honor; therefore declare to me the dream and its interpretation.”
Did the king claim to have forgotten the dream? Translations differ.
“The command from me is firm” (NASB)
“The thing is gone from me” (KJV)
“The matter is departing from me” (Concordant Version)
The king’s terminology appears to be vague and perhaps having more than one meaning. Did he truly forget the dream, or was he lying? The NASB translation has the king telling the wise men that he had made up his mind about his demand, but says nothing about forgetting the dream. He had made up his mind “to understand the dream” (Daniel 2:3), but he was refusing to tell them the dream.
The Babylonian Prophets
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, as we will see, showed that Babylon was a temporary kingdom that would not endure. This may have been what most troubled the king, for dreams often come laden with emotions which tell the dreamer if the dream is happy or dreadful. In this case “his spirit was troubled,” which implied that he knew the dream foretold some bad conclusion. The stone grinding the image to powder at the end is probably what troubled him most.
Yet he had no idea if it meant that he himself would be overthrown, or if it spoke of something else. The wise men of Babylon knew better than to foretell the king’s downfall. They were expected to prophesy happy outcomes, as we see with the 300 prophets of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22:12. To do otherwise would have jeopardized their jobs and, very likely, their lives.
Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar was wise enough to discern this. He knew that if he told them the dream, they would be motivated to spin the interpretation to have a happy ending. In the end, the king was astounded that a young Judahite would dare to foretell the end of Babylon, but he knew the interpretation was true.
Meanwhile, however, the king called in various classes of educated men. Dr. Bullinger’s notes on these verses give us these meanings:
Magicians. Hebrew chartummim. Connected with the kharutu (the scepter) or rod office of those who repelled demons and evil spirits by incantations, etc.
(The CV calls them “sacred scribes.”)
Astrologers. Heb. ‘ashshaphim = in Babylonian, asipi, prophets who assumed to announce the will of heaven and predict the future. These were a class apart from the others.
(The NASB calls them “conjurers.” The CV calls them “magi.”)
Sorcerers. Heb. mekashshephim = wizard.
(The NASB calls them “sorcerers.” The CV calls them “enchanters.”)
Chaldeans. Heb. Kasdim. See notes on 1:4.
When we consult Bullinger’s notes on Daniel 1:4, he tells us,
Chaldeans. A name not peculiar to Daniel. From Genesis onward it is met with, especially in Jeremiah. They were distinct from the Babylonians (Jer. 22:25; Ezek. 23:23) and belonged to South Babylonia. Used here as a special class, well known as such at that time (cp. 2:2, 4, 6, 10) and distinct also from other learned classes (2:4). The word (Heb. Kasdim) is used also in the wider sense of a nationality (5:30).
The Chaldeans, then, were not only a distinct nationality, but were also an educated class of people, known for their wisdom and knowledge of the stars and planetary movements. Nebuchadnezzar himself was a Chaldean, and thus his army is called “Chaldean” in Jeremiah 37:8. But the Chaldeans as a nationality were already being absorbed by the larger Babylonian population. As time passed, the Chaldean as a people became synonymous with the Babylonians.
With the variety of educational skills represented by these four groups, the king of Babylon hoped to find someone with a genuine prophetic gift. In order to provide maximum motivation, he threatened to tear them from limb to limb and destroy their houses if they failed to tell him the dream.
It would be interesting to know how Nebuchadnezzar came to doubt their prophetic gifts. Perhaps he had witnessed bad advice to his father, Nabopolassar, or the prophets had failed to foretell his untimely demise before taking Jerusalem. Whatever the case, Nebuchadnezzar had the discernment and perhaps an inner yearning to find the true God. Was this yearning, perhaps, awakened by his knowledge of Jeremiah before and after taking Jerusalem?
The king was yet to encounter the God of heaven on a personal level some years later, as recorded in the fourth chapter of Daniel.
This is part 4 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Daniel." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones