King Nebuchadnezzar is one of the most significant historical figures in the ancient Middle East. Famed as much for his military conquests as for his building projects, there is no shortage of information on the Babylonian regent. At least, that is true for the first part of his reign.
Ancient scholars have noted that, from his eleventh year onward, information about him is scarce. Between 582 and 575 BC, there is no record of any governmental activity on his part, and thereafter, while there is scattered record of his political actions and declarations, the sort of religious declarations that characterised his early reign are virtually nonexistent. Something seems to have happened to the king following his tenth year in power.
While ancient Babylonian records are silent, the Bible is not. Daniel 4 tells us of a period in Nebuchadnezzar’s life that left him incapable of governing the nation and, thereafter, radically changed his approach to religion.
In chapter 2, after Daniel revealed and interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the king was sufficiently impressed to make a bold declaration about Daniel’s God. But you will notice a distinct lack of personal commitment to Yahweh. He was sufficiently impressed to seek to pay the preacher, as it were, but the encounter appears to have had very little personal impact in his life.
In chapter 3, after Yahweh delivered Daniel’s three friends from the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar was once again mightily impressed. Again, however, the encounter seems to have had little personal impact. This time, the king legislated Yahweh-worship throughout his empire, but he made no such personal commitment.
But all that changed in chapter 4. At the end of chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar made his boldest and most personal profession yet: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (v. 37). What made the difference? How did this arrogant, boastful, self-sufficient king move from outright hubris to such deep humility? The answer lies in the events of chapter 4: God humiliated him.
Stuart Olyott has observed, “The most merciful thing that God can do to a sinner is to knock him down. In that position a man or woman is always safe. The only way he can turn his eyes is upwards. The only place to which he can appeal is heaven.”
The Bible instructs us to humble ourselves before God, but the sort of humiliation of which we read here is not the sort that we pursue but the sort that God inflicts on us. God’s action in this chapter was a display of direct chastening. When Nebuchadnezzar would not humble himself, God humbled him. When we will not humble ourselves, God may well do something drastic to humble us. Such humiliation is never pleasant but is always for our benefit. We have much to learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation. Here, briefly, are three lessons.
First, when God humiliates us through chastening, we should receive it repentantly. God warned Nebuchadnezzar of the consequences of persisting in his arrogance. As severe as his hand of chastening was, Nebuchadnezzar responded the right way. He humbled himself and acknowledged Yahweh as the true and only sovereign (vv. 34–35).
God calls us to the same attitude. He commended Josiah when he humbled himself (2 Kings 22:18–19; 2 Chronicles 34:27) as he commends all his servants who receive his chastening with confession and repentance.
Second, when God humiliates us through chastening, we should receive it humbly. By this, I mean that we should recognise and openly declare that he is right and we are wrong. This attitude is evident in Nebuchadnezzar’s confession (vv. 34–35). He recognised that God had the right to do as he pleased on earth and in heaven and that no one could question him. He recognised that he had been wrong to make the arrogant claims that he had made earlier in the chapter and humbled himself before God, who always does right.
God looks for the same attitude in us. “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20).
Third, when God humiliates others through chastening, we should learn from it. It is astonishingly sad that Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Belshazzar, failed to learn the lessons that Nebuchadnezzar learned. Yahweh again appears in chapter 5 and again humbles a Babylonian king. Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation ought to have served as an example to his successors and to his entire kingdom, but sadly they did not take the lesson.
The New Testament tells us plainly that the events recorded in the Scriptures were written for our example. We are meant to learn from them. And we are meant to learn from God’s work in the lives of others, too. We neglect these lessons to our own detriment.
As you meditate on Daniel 4 this morning, allow God’s actions of chastening in your life to serve you well. Realise the blessedness of humiliation and use the lessons you learn to follow him well.