Daniel 4-5

In our study of chapter 2 we noted how the Aramaic section of Daniel (2.4-7.28) has a symmetrical outline:

  • 4 kingdoms and God’s sovereignty (Daniel 2)
    • God delivers those who trust in Him (Daniel 3)
      • God humbles those who walk in pride (Daniel 4)
      • God humbles those who walk in pride (Daniel 5)
    • God delivers those who trust in Him (Daniel 6)
  • 4 kingdoms and God’s sovereignty (Daniel 7)

In this lesson we aim to cover chapters 4 & 5, noting how God exercised His rule over mankind by humbling Nebuchadnezzar at the zenith of his power (chapter 4) and then finished the humbling of Babylon by bringing that kingdom to an end (chapter 5).

Opening praise of Jehovah (Daniel 4.1-3) 

1Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language that live in all the earth: “May your peace abound!

Note that he was made king of all peoples by Jehovah (see Daniel 2.37-38; Jeremiah 27.5-7). 

2“It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me.

3“How great are His signs And how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom And His dominion is from generation to generation.

Note that Nebuchadnezzar’s first vision had revealed that God would establish an everlasting Kingdom (Daniel 2.44), but the events of this chapter have convinced the Babylonian king that Jehovah’s rule was present at that time, and always would be.

Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and search for an interpreter (Daniel 4.4-18)

4“I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and flourishing in my palace.

5“I saw a dream and it made me fearful; and these fantasies as I lay on my bed and the visions in my mind kept alarming me.

6“So I gave orders to bring into my presence all the wise men of Babylon, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream.

7“Then the magicians, the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners came in and I related the dream to them, but they could not make its interpretation known to me.

This episode is similar to the one in chapter 2: the king has a dream that alarms him and he summons his wise men. However, on this occasion he only asks for the interpretation and doesn’t require them to relate the contents of the dream as well.

However, they are unable to meet even this lesser demand. Once again, the Babylonian magicians (and their gods) are shown to be nothing. 

8“But finally Daniel came in before me, whose name is Belteshazzar according to the name of my god, and in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and I related the dream to him, saying,

Interesting that the king draws attention to the fact that he renamed Daniel to honor his god (Belteshazzar = Bel protects his life), but the king comes to understand that Daniel’s God is “the Most High God” (vs. 2) and the King of heaven (vs. 37). 

When Nebuchadnezzar says Daniel has “a spirit of the holy gods”, the term for “gods” is elah, the same term used for Jehovah in vs. 2. So, it’s possible that the king is referencing Jehovah in this passage.

9‘O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, since I know that a spirit of the holy gods is in you and no mystery baffles you, tell me the visions of my dream which I have seen, along with its interpretation.

10‘Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth and its height was great.

Nations that exalted themselves against Jehovah are referred to as great trees elsewhere (Ezekiel 31; Isaiah 2.12-13). 

11‘The tree grew large and became strong And its height reached to the sky, And it was visible to the end of the whole earth.

12‘Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it.

13‘I was looking in the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed, and behold, an angelic watcher, a holy one, descended from heaven.

14‘He shouted out and spoke as follows: “Chop down the tree and cut off its branches, Strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit; Let the beasts flee from under it And the birds from its branches.

15“Yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, But with a band of iron and bronze around it In the new grass of the field; And let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, And let him share with the beasts in the grass of the earth.

16“Let his mind be changed from that of a man And let a beast’s mind be given to him, And let seven periods of time pass over him.

Literally “seven times”. Many have concluded that years are meant, but the text does not say.

17“This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers And the decision is a command of the holy ones, In order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes And sets over it the lowliest of men.”

“Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind” repeated again in vss. 25, 32. This is the fundamental lesson that Nebuchadnezzar, and all men, must learn.

“lowliest of men” note Psalm 113.7-8; Luke 1.52. 

18‘This is the dream which I, King Nebuchadnezzar, have seen. Now you, Belteshazzar, tell me its interpretation, inasmuch as none of the wise men of my kingdom is able to make known to me the interpretation; but you are able, for a spirit of the holy gods is in you.’

Daniel gives the interpretation of the dream (Daniel 4.19-27)

19“Then Daniel, whose name is 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!

Interesting that Daniel is not happy about what the vision means. This was the king who had enslaved him (chapter 1), threatened to kill him (chapter 2) and tried to execute his fellow countrymen (chapter 3).

Perhaps Daniel understood better than most that rulers are allowed to rule only because the Sovereign God allows it. Thus, Daniel was not wishing for ill to come upon the king.

20‘The tree that you saw, which became large and grew strong, whose height reached to the sky and was visible to all the earth

21and whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt and in whose branches the birds of the sky lodged—

22it is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth.

This was the Lord’s doing (see Daniel 2.36-38). 

23‘In that the king saw an angelic watcher, a holy one, descending from heaven and saying, “Chop down the tree and destroy it; yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, but with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field, and let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him share with the beasts of the field until seven periods of time pass over him,”

24this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king:

25that you be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.

26‘And in that it was commanded to leave the stump with the roots of the tree, your kingdom will be assured to you after you recognize that it is Heaven that rules.

27‘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.’

This dream is conditional. Nebuchadnezzar has the opportunity to humble himself and avoid this judgment from God. Note Jeremiah 18.7-10. 

For Nebuchadnezzar to repent meant pursuing righteousness and mercy, the same requirement of Israel’s kings (2Samuel 8.15; Psalm 72.1-4). 

Nebuchadnezzar exalts himself; Jehovah humbles the king (Daniel 4.28-33)

28“All this happened to Nebuchadnezzar the king.

29“Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon.

30“The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’

“Nebuchadnezzar’s building projects in Babylon were magnificent. The Euphrates was channeled into a number of canals that passed through the city. His palace, on the north side of the city near the Ishtar Gate, was luxuriously appointed with all the finest materials. The palace gardens were terraced and gained international reputation, eventually being named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was a parklike enclosure with an arboretum of exotic trees. Additional building projects included the temples and the streets.” (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

31“While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you,

32and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.’

33“Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.

“Very few surviving Babylonian sources give information about the last thirty years of Nebuchadnezzar’s life. A fragmentary cuneiform text seems to refer to some mental disorder afflicting Nebuchadnezzar and perhaps his neglecting and leaving Babylon, maybe putting his son Amel-Marduk in charge for a while, and then of his repentance for neglect of the worship of the gods. Unfortunately the text is too fragmentary for any firm conclusions to be drawn.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary)

Concluding praise of Jehovah (Daniel 4.34-37)  

34“But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation.

35“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’

Compare Isaiah 45.9; Job 9.12; Romans 9.20. 

36“At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me.

37“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.”

Belshazzar’s blasphemous feast (Daniel 5.1-4) 

Basic chronology of Babylonian kings:

  • Nabopolassar (625-605)
  • Nebuchadnezzar (605-562) Daniel 1-4
  • Evil-Merodach (562-560) 2Kings 25.27-30; Jer. 52.31-34. 
  • Neriglissar (560-556)
  • Nabonidus (556-539) He is the ruler of Babylon in Daniel 5, but was absent from city and Belshazzar his son was coregent.

1Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

The book of Daniel does not aim to give us a complete history of the Babylonian empire. Chapter 1 records when the Babylonian dominion over the Jews began, chapter 5 shows when it came to an end. So, ~70 years of history transpire between chapters 1 and 5.

Belshazzar means “Bel (Marduk) protect the king”. Fitting that in a book whose theme is Jehovah ruling over the realm of mankind, the Babylonian god will be powerless to protect the king from Jehovah’s judgment.

We are not told the reason for the feast, particularly given that the Medes and Persians were advancing on the city. Some speculate that Nabonidus had been defeated in battle and Belshazzar was proclaiming himself as king. Regardless, both Herodotus and Xenophon record that Babylon was conquered during a feast. 

2When Belshazzar tasted the wine, he gave orders to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them.

See Daniel 1.1-2. 

3Then they brought the gold vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God which was in Jerusalem; and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.

4They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

Note vs. 23. Belshazzar’s actions were meant to show defiance towards Israel’s God, perhaps asserting the superiority of the Babylonian gods. 

The handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5.5-12) 

5Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing.

Throne room of kings of Babylon discovered in 1899 and walls covered in white gypsum which would have made the writing visible (R. Koldewey, The Excavations at Babylon, 104)

6Then the king’s face grew pale and his thoughts alarmed him, and his hip joints went slack and his knees began knocking together.

Note that Belshazzar’s alarm will continue (vss. 9-10). 

7The king called aloud to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners. The king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Any man who can read this inscription and explain its interpretation to me shall be clothed with purple and have a necklace of gold around his neck, and have authority as third ruler in the kingdom.”

“Third ruler in the kingdom” was likely the highest position the king had to offer. Nabonidus was king, Belshazzar was co-regent or second in the kingdom.

8Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the inscription or make known its interpretation to the king.

Compare Daniel 2.1-12; 4.4-7. 

The Babylonian magicians are shown to be helpless and incompetent from start to finish.

9Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, his face grew even paler, and his nobles were perplexed.

10The queen entered the banquet hall because of the words of the king and his nobles; the queen spoke and said, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts alarm you or your face be pale.

The queen knew the history of Babylon, but Belshazzar will be shown to be ignorant (see vs. 22). 

11“There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners.

12“This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Let Daniel now be summoned and he will declare the interpretation.”

We can only speculate why Belshazzar did not know of Daniel.

Could be that when new kings arose after Nebuchadnezzar, they dismissed the personnel of the previous king. Compare with Exodus 1.8. 

Daniel is summoned and gives the interpretation (Daniel 5.13-29)

13Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is one of the exiles from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah?

14“Now I have heard about you that a spirit of the gods is in you, and that illumination, insight and extraordinary wisdom have been found in you.

15“Just now the wise men and the conjurers were brought in before me that they might read this inscription and make its interpretation known to me, but they could not declare the interpretation of the message.

16“But I personally have heard about you, that you are able to give interpretations and solve difficult problems. Now if you are able to read the inscription and make its interpretation known to me, you will be clothed with purple and wear a necklace of gold around your neck, and you will have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.”

17Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Keep your gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription to the king and make the interpretation known to him.

Daniel was not the first prophet of God to refuse a reward (see 2Kings 5.15-27). 

Significantly, God rebuked those prophets who prophesied for money (see Micah 3.5,11). 

18“O king, the Most High God granted sovereignty, grandeur, glory and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father.

See Daniel 2.36-38. 

19“Because of the grandeur which He bestowed on him, all the peoples, nations and men of every language feared and trembled before him; whomever he wished he killed and whomever he wished he spared alive; and whomever he wished he elevated and whomever he wished he humbled.

Nebuchadnezzar was able to exercise the same authority over life and death as God Himself (see Deuteronomy 32.39; 1Samuel 2.6-7). This was because Jehovah had exalted Him.

Significantly, this dominion would be given to the Son of Man (Daniel 7.14). 

20“But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit became so proud that he behaved arrogantly, he was deposed from his royal throne and his glory was taken away from him.

See Daniel 4.28-33. 

21“He was also driven away from mankind, and his heart was made like that of beasts, and his dwelling place was with the wild donkeys. He was given grass to eat like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until he recognized that the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind and that He sets over it whomever He wishes.

See Daniel 4.17,25,32. 

22“Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this,

Belshazzar may have known this history, but he had failed to learn the lessons of history. 

23but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified.

Kings exalting themselves against Jehovah would also be a key feature of Daniel’s visions (see Daniel 8.11,25; 11.36). 

Belshazzar had exalted himself against Jehovah by worshiping gods who could not compare with Jehovah (see Psalm 115.3-8; 135.15-18; Jeremiah 10.3-5). 

24“Then the hand was sent from Him and this inscription was written out.

25“Now this is the inscription that was written out: ‘MENĒ, MENĒ, TEKĒL, UPHARSIN.’

  • Mene: numbered
  • Tekel: weighed
  • Peres (Upharsin): divided. Note that the word Persia has the same consonants in Aramaic as “peres”. Thus, there is a possible allusion to Persians in the word chosen (see vs. 28). 

26“This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENĒ’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it.

27“ ‘TEKĒL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient.

28“ ‘PERĒS’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.”

29Then Belshazzar gave orders, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a necklace of gold around his neck, and issued a proclamation concerning him that he now had authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.

The Medes and Persians defeat the Babylonians (Daniel 5.30-31) 

30That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain.

539 BC. 

“Herodotus says that Cyrus captured Babylon by temporarily diverting the course of the Euphrates when the Babylonians were feasting and dancing. His troops waded along the river bed where it passed through the city walls. Xenophon says much the same, adding that the Persians took the city at night and that Gobryas, one of Cyrus’s generals, killed the Babylonian king, a riotous, indulgent, cruel, and godless young man.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary)

31So Darius the Mede received the kingdom at about the age of sixty-two.

Critics charge that Daniel confused Cyrus (539-530 BC) with Darius who ruled over the Persian empire at a later time (521-486 BC). 

However, Daniel’s accuracy as a historian makes such a charge needless. It’s likely that Daniel is referring to the regent over the region of Babylon (possibly Gubaru who is mentioned in some texts as governor of Babylon and the region beyond the River). 

“The most likely suggestion, though it too has problems, takes Darius the Mede as an alternative name for Cyrus the Persian, who was about sixty-two when Babylon fell” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary)


  1. “The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind…” That statement, found in 4.17,25,32; 5.21, is the theme of chapters 4-5, and of the entire book. It was Jehovah who exalted Nebuchadnezzar (2.36-38), and it was Jehovah who humbled the great Babylonian king (chapter 4) and brought his empire to an end (chapter 5). Jehovah’s sovereignty insures that His Kingdom will never come to an end (2.44; See Hebrews 12.28). 
  2. We’d be foolish to not make personal application of these chapters. Yes, Jehovah’s sovereignty over kings and kingdoms is clearly seen in these chapters, and if He rules over the “great” of this earth, then He most certainly reigns over you and I as well. But how easily we allow ourselves to be consumed with pride and fail to honor “the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways” (Daniel 5.21). No, we may not make the same boasts as Nebuchadnezzar (4.30), but we take far too much credit for what we have in this life (see Luke 12.16-21). Our God reigns over the realm of mankind, so let us not only follow the will of our King, but let us humbly acknowledge our reliance on our Sovereign God.

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