The Tree and the Watchers
The fourth chapter of Daniel was King Nebuchadnezzar’s official testimony that was entered into the records of Babylon. Whereas Dan. 3:30 speaks of “the king” in the third person, Dan. 4:1 shifts to the first person, as the king speaks personally. It was his statement and explanation after the fact as to how he spent some years afflicted by a mental problem that had a spiritual cause. Some commentators identify this mental disease as lycanthropy, where a man imagines himself to be a wolf or some other animal.
The first four chapters of Daniel record four opportunities for the king of Babylon to turn from his false gods and to seek the true God of heaven. In chapter one the king’s interest ought to have been piqued when he saw how the three Hebrew students prospered without eating the king’s food. In chapter two the king came face to face with proof that the God of Daniel was indeed the true Revelator from heaven. In chapter three the king saw proof that the God of heaven could deliver His servants even from the fiery furnace. Further, he even saw Jesus for himself, though he saw Him from a safe distance.
These events took place over a period of years. Although they are all back to back in these chapters, we should understand that they did not take place immediately one after the other. During the intervening years, after the excitement died down, the king reverted back to his usual kingly practices. Though he was impressed by the miracles that he had witnessed, those miracles did not change his heart. As we will see shortly, though he recognized the sovereignty of the Most High God, he did not claim that God as his own God. Neither did he command that all other gods (idols) be removed from the city in favor of the Most High God.
And so, chapter four records the judgment of God upon the prideful king. God humbled him and gave him a final opportunity to repent and to fulfill the responsibilities of the Dominion Mandate that God had entrusted to him. He did indeed humble himself and acknowledge the God of heaven, but no permanent change took place. His descendants did not continue to take his decree to heart. Hence, in Daniel 5 we see the divine judgment fall upon Babylon itself, and the Dominion Mandate passed to the next beast empire, Medo-Persia.
Dan. 4:1-3 begins this way:
1 Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language that live in all the earth: May your peace abound! 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.
This proclamation was addressed to all the people and nations of the earth. It was not possible for him to send this notice literally to all nations around the globe, but no doubt he sent this by messenger to every nation within his reach. Copies of the official document were delivered to the kings, but the message itself was addressed to every individual, whether they heard it or not.
The King’s Dream
Dan. 4:4-6 then begins to relate his testimony:
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.
The dream came while the king was secure and "at ease" in his palace, having no reason to be fearful of any nation that might attack him. This suggests that the dream alarmed him because he suspected that he was the "tree" in the dream. So he called the experts to see what they would say. Unlike the situation in chapter two, the king related his dream to the various groups of experts and required only that they should give him its interpretation. Dan. 4:7 continues,
7 Then the magicians, the conjurers [Magi, “wise men”], the Chaldeans, and the diviners came in, and I related the dream to them; but they could not make its interpretation known to me.
Recall that Daniel had been made the head of the Order of Magi in Dan. 2:48 after revealing and interpreting the king’s earlier dream. Yet the text above seems to indicate that Daniel arrived late and was given opportunity only after the others had failed to find an interpretation of the dream. Dan. 4:8, 9 continues,
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 [or God]; and I related the dream to him, saying…
The king knew Daniel by his Hebrew name, but also identifies him by his official Babylonian name, “Belteshazzar according to the name of my god.” Belteshazzar means “Bel’s Prince.” Strangely enough, the king refused to claim Daniel’s God as his own but was content to serve Bel [known as Baal in Phoenicia] as a god of lesser power. Thus, the king still claimed Bel to be “my god.” Speaking to Daniel he says in Dan. 4:9,
9 O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians [Magi], since I know that a spirit of the holy gods [or the holy God] is in you and no mystery baffles you, tell me the visions of my dream which I have seen, along with its interpretation.
It is plain to see that the king remembered Daniel’s success with the earlier dream and still had great confidence in the prophet. The king then related his dream to the prophet in Dan. 4:10-17. He begins, saying,
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. 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.
As we will see, this was a picture of Babylon itself, which in turn was represented by the king. Trees represent men in Deut. 20:19, but Ezekiel 17:24 extends this to nations as well. Nebuchadnezzar himself greatly admired the tall, stately cedars of Lebanon and had even cut down some of them to bring back to Babylon. The kingdom of Babylon was a beautiful and majestic “tree,” and because it had received the Dominion Mandate from God, it was “in the midst of the earth” and “visible to the end of the whole earth.”
Babylon did not literally rule the whole earth, but the Dominion Mandate gave Babylon the responsibility to establish the Kingdom of God throughout the whole earth. It was the same in earlier days when Judah had carried the Dominion Mandate. Judah had never ruled the entire earth, but it had been responsible to put all things under the feet of Christ. The transfer of authority from Judah to Babylon merely shifted that responsibility to a series of other kingdoms, and when each of them failed to fulfill the responsibility of the Mandate, they were held accountable before God.
The king continues in Dan. 4:13, 14,
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.”
The “angelic watcher, a holy one,” is an unusual term, but it indicates some kind of divine messenger (angel) who “descended from heaven.” The term “watcher” is from the Aramaic word iyr, (“roused, or wakeful one”) which corresponds to the Hebrew uwr (“watcher, guard”). It is a guard or sentry who is “on his watch.” When the time comes for Babylon to be called into account for its failure to fulfill the responsibilities of the Dominion Mandate, the sentry issues the command for the tree to be defoliated and chopped down.
Dan. 4:15, 16 continues,
15 “Yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, but with a band of iron and bronze [“copper”] 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.”
The stump of Babylon’s “tree” was to be left alive but restricted, bound by the bands of Greece (copper) and Rome (iron). Even so, Babylon would yet play a role in the future, so it was not to be uprooted. Babylon’s final role remains undefined here, but the rise of Mystery Babylon was later revealed to John in the book of Revelation.
The tree represented both the king and the kingdom of Babylon. So the impersonal “tree” was then described as a man (note: “his,” and “him”). Verse 16 gives this “tree” the mind of a man but says that it was to be exchanged for the mind of a beast. This foreshadows the various “beasts” in Daniel 7 and 8. In other words, the governments of these empires were ruled by men who ruled by the rather Darwinian law of “claw and fang,” motivated by the survival instinct.
Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to fulfill the terms of the Dominion Mandate was not surprising. Failure was a foregone conclusion from the standpoint of God’s sovereign choices, but in no way did this relieve him of the legal responsibility to bring forth the fruits of the Kingdom. His failure brought divine judgment not only upon Babylon but upon the successor kingdoms of men which were to rule until the rise of the Kingdom of God.
The watcher concludes his statement in Dan. 4:17 saying,
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.”
Here we see that there is more than one “watcher,” for what it is worth. Further, since messengers (angels) can be either spiritual beings from heaven or earthly messengers on earth, there may be a connection between certain saints or “holy ones” on earth and the angels at their command. Angels are commanded by both God and men, and when men learn the will of God they are often given the responsibility of issuing the decrees on behalf of God and the Divine Court. If, however, men’s imaginations or heart idols lead them to make decrees that do not truly reflect the decisions of the Divine Court, then their words are overruled and fall to the ground.
Neither Daniel nor Nebuchadnezzar tell us if there is more to this story than meets the eye. The possibility remains, however, that Daniel himself (or others who stood watch here on earth) may have given voice to a Divine Court decision, being himself a heavenly “watcher.” Because of the law of the double witness that establishes all things, it is my view that when the time comes for God to issue a decree, He reveals it to one or more of His servants on earth in order to find an earthly witness to establish all things. So Amos 3:6-8 says,
6 If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it? 7 Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets. 8 A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord has spoken! Who can but prophesy?
When God speaks, “who can but prophesy?” The prophecy is the earthly witness to a heavenly voice in order that heaven and earth may bear witness to establish a matter. Men are not to initiate such decrees, but they are indeed required to bear witness to all that God speaks.
If we apply this principle to the decree of the watchers in Daniel 4, it seems apparent that there was an earthly witness as well as a heavenly witness. Perhaps when both witnesses fulfilled their responsibilities, then the message was given to Nebuchadnezzar in the form of a dream. The king then concludes by saying in Dan. 4:18,
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 [or God] is in you.”
The king’s confidence in Daniel is amazing.
After King Nebuchadnezzar had related his dream to Daniel, we read in Daniel 4:19,
19 Then Daniel, whose name is Belteshazzar, was appalled [Aramaic, shemam, “stunned, astonished”] 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 answered and said, “My lord, if only the dream applied to those who hate you, and its interpretation to your adversaries!”
The first thing we notice is that Daniel did not have to spend time in prayer in order to know the meaning of the dream. Secondly, the dream stunned him and alarmed him. In other words, he knew instantly what the dream meant.
The king’s other counselors and wise men may have likewise understood the dream to some extent but were afraid to give an honest answer. The answer may have incurred the wrath of the king and brought about the accusation of treason. But Daniel gave the king an honest interpretation in spite of its negative meaning.
The Tree is the King and the Kingdom
Daniel 4:20-23 repeats the dream and identifies the tree:
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, 21 and 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— 22 it 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. 23 And 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 grounds, 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 till seven times pass over him”;
The king was the tree that was to be chopped down. But because the stump remained intact, it is clear that the king was not to be overthrown permanently, but only for “seven times,” as the end of verse 23 tells us.
There are two levels of application, the first being the personal experience of the king himself, and the second being the Babylonian kingdom that he ruled. The personal application was for a short-term period of just seven years, while the Babylonian system had a long-term prophetic application—7 x 360 years, that is, 2,520 years.
Daniel 4:24-26 continues,
24 This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: 25 that you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you will 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.
Daniel gave the king the short-term prophetic application as it applied to King Nebuchadnezzar himself. The most important factor, however, was that it would last only until the king recognized the sovereignty of the Most High over him, his kingdom, and all the kingdoms of men.
Of course, the very fact that the king had written this document and was sending it out to the kings of the earth shows that he had already repented and had come to recognize the Most High God as Ruler of all nations.
The prophet’s advice is given in Dan. 4:27,
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 [Aramaic, anah, “humble, afflicted”], in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity.
Daniel’s advice was unprecedented in the history of Babylon—and probably in the history of most other nations as well. He called upon the king to repent and “break away now from your sins… and from your iniquities.” To call the most powerful monarch in the world a sinner who had been doing iniquity would normally call for the death penalty. But Daniel survived this, so great was the king’s respect for him.
What was it that Nebuchadnezzar should do to repent? Daniel says, “by showing mercy to the afflicted ones.” In other words, his manner of rule ought to show consideration to his subjects. It is the second great commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. In this simple advice, so seldom heeded by world rulers, the prophet put his finger on the root problem—the reason why God was soon to chop down the tree. God required the king of Babylon to treat the people with mercy and with a Christ-like attitude.
The governments of men normally consider mercy to be a sign of weakness. Governments do not like to project weakness. But the mercy of God is not weakness but the ability to bless, to forgive, and to heal upon request.
Nebuchadnezzar, however, ruled as an absolute monarch. His word was law, and he could change it at will. As we will see in the sixth chapter of Daniel, Medo-Persia was a constitutional monarchy, where the law was king, and the king himself was bound by the law. These two kingdoms give us the contrast between Rex Lex (“the king is law”) and Lex Rex (“the law is king”).
The gospels give us a greater explanation of what God required of King Nebuchadnezzar. In Luke 22:25 Jesus describes the theory of government as taught by the professors of political science: “The kings of the nations lord it over them.” This is contrasted with God’s theory of government in Luke 22:26, “let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.”
This is a fuller explanation of Daniel’s statement to Nebuchad-nezzar about showing mercy to those in his realm who were oppressed by his government and by his decrees. Whereas most earthly kings expect to be served, the rulers in the Kingdom of Heaven come to serve the people. If King Nebuchadnezzar had followed Daniel’s advice, he might have prolonged his “prosperity.” In fact, the judgment would have been cancelled altogether, for in doing this he would have recognized the Most High God’s rule before the judgment fell upon him. The purpose of the watchers was to establish God’s right to rule the nations, as we read in Dan. 4:17.
The simple truth is that when kings recognize their position under God and know that they are but stewards of the throne, they have resolved the most basic issue of earthly governments. The natural result of this would be to study the laws and decrees of God, so that earthly kings might know how to rule according to the will of their Superior, instead of by their own selfish will.
In recent years the Western nations have systematically become secularized. In other words, by their own admission they have renounced the Most High God and have usurped His right to rule what He has created. This is the essential issue that must yet be resolved in history. Thus, what happened to King Nebuchadnezzar is what will happen to the modern rulers of Babylon who now follow his example.
Those of us who are advocates of the Kingdom of God must understand that we are to follow the example of the prophet Daniel. We are to give Babylon the same advice that Daniel gave to Nebuchad-nezzar. Recognize the Most High God, and submit to His law, which is His will. Show mercy to the oppressed. Treat people with kindness.
If the modern rulers would follow this advice, they would establish the Kingdom willingly, rather than waiting to be overthrown by divine intervention. But prophecy indicates that they will not heed this advice, for even King Nebuchadnezzar himself did not follow Daniel’s advice. He was given a period of “twelve months” (Dan. 4:29) in which to comply, and then the dream was fulfilled in his life.
Twelve is the number of divine government. This time period, then, was granted to the king by the mercy of God.