The King Who Went Crazy
Daniel 4I begin with a simple question: How far will God go to get his message across to us? The answer is not hard to find. He will do whatever it takes to make sure we get his message. But what if we don’t want to hear what God has to say? The answer is the same but raised to a higher power. If we choose not to listen to God, then he simply turns up the volume until he has our undivided attention.
If you doubt my words, consider the story of the king who went crazy. Though this story tells of strange events that happened 25 centuries ago, the moral is both timeless and as relevant as today’s headlines. Even though the world has changed greatly since Daniel’s day, the human heart hasn’t changed at all. The world is still filled with men and women who think they don’t need God, and God still knows how to humble the proud.
British playwright George Bernard Shaw put it this way:
There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire, and the other is to gain it. We don’t look at it that way. In our eyes gaining your heart’s desire is the very purpose of life itself. But how many people have achieved their dreams only to be ruined in the process? Success can be just as big a temptation as failure, perhaps more so since success tends to make us take life for granted. While it is true that God speaks to us both ways, we tend to listen more when God speaks through sorrow, pain, loss, and personal failure. Success tends to make us complacent but failure cannot be denied.
In that sense failure can be a gift from God, especially if it breaks our sinful self-confidence and brings us to the place where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not. That’s the lesson King Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way. From this story we learn how God humbled a pagan king. There is important truth here for all of us to ponder.
Reading the King’s Diary
Before we move to the text, note two facts about Daniel 4. First, unlike other chapters in Daniel, this one was written by the king himself. In fact, the first few verses and the last few are written in the first person singular. Reading this chapter is almost like reading the king’s personal diary. Second, Daniel 4 describes in great detail the king’s most humiliating experience. It would be as if your personal journal were posted on the Internet so that your innermost thoughts and the hidden secrets of your life were revealed for everyone to read.
Those two facts tell us that this chapter contains an extraordinary story. What happened to Nebuchadnezzar happens to all of us sooner or later. And for many of us, it may happen more than once. Therefore, we should pay careful attention to this ancient story because through it God will speak some very contemporary truth to all of us.
I. A Dream Described
The story begins at a time when King Nebuchadnezzar is on the crest of a wave. He is contented and prosperous, and well he should be. At the height of his glory, Nebuchadnezzar was king over the greatest empire the world had ever known. If there had been a Fortune 500 list in those days, he would have been first on the list. He spoke and it was done. He commanded and mighty armies obeyed his word. And Babylon! What a fabulous city it was. The famous Hanging Gardens were one of the wonders of the ancient world. The city itself was protected by 15 miles of double walls—85 feet tall and some 27 feet thick. The walls were so wide that chariots could race around the circumference of the city. Visitors entered the city through the massive Ishtar Gate and traveled down the main boulevard toward the king’s palace.
Truly the king had every reason to feel secure, safe, and satisfied. Who in all the earth could dare to challenge him? But one night he had a strange and troubling dream. This wasn’t the first time God spoke to him in a dream. In Daniel 2 he dreamed of a huge statue made of four different metals. The interpretation of that dream revealed God’s plan of the ages. This dream is quite different, and very personal.
“These are the visions I saw while lying in my bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed. In the visions I saw while lying in my bed, I looked, and there before me was a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him’” (Daniel 4:10-16).
The dream had two distinct parts. First, the king saw a vast tree, with leaves and branches stretching as far as the eye could see. Birds nested in the branches and animals found shade under its leaves. Second, the tree was cut down and stripped and the stump bound with iron and bronze. Then somehow the stump became a person who lived among the animals for seven years. Evidently this person lost his mind completely.
The king intuitively realized that his dream contained an important message he needed to know. But no one in his kingdom could explain it. His “wise men” utterly failed. They had no clue what it meant. Then the king called for Daniel because he knew that Daniel possessed the “spirit of the holy gods” (a pagan way of referring to the Holy Spirit).
II. A Dream Explained
When Daniel heard the king’s dream, he knew exactly what it meant. For a long time he stood silently, not wanting to tell the king the awful truth. After summarizing the first part of the dream, Daniel comes to the bottom line: “You, O king, are that tree!” (Daniel 4:22). He goes on to say that God had ordained that the king will become like a beast of the field:
“You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:25).
The key word is “until.” This divine judgment is disciplinary, not merely punitive. For seven years (e.g. “seven times” in Hebrew) the king will live as a wild beast, having lost his mind. He will live with the beasts “until” he acknowledges that God alone is sovereign.
III. A Dream Fulfilled
The rest of the story unfolds quickly. Verse 28 tells us that “all this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar.” For twelve months the king had time to change his ways. Evidently nothing Daniel said sank deeply into his soul. Perhaps he didn’t believe him or perhaps he thought he had plenty of time to repent. Perhaps he made excuses for his behavior.
Then came the fateful moment that changed his entire life: “As the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he 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?’” (Daniel 4:29-30). Note the pronouns: I … my … my. And the boastful words: “I have built … by my mighty power … the glory of my majesty.”
Let me stop right here and make a simple application: Don’t ever talk like that! As they say on the street, that’s crazy talk. The moment you start taking credit for anything, you’re just daring God to come and smack you around. Nebuchadnezzar would soon learn the error of his ways. While the words were still on his lips, he heard a voice from heaven. Another point: When you decide to start talking arrogantly about who you are and what you’ve done, and you suddenly hear a voice from heaven, you better brace yourself, because nothing good is about to happen. God doesn’t like it when any of his creatures take credit for what he has done. He won’t share his glory with anyone and he won’t sit idly by while we attempt to shove him out of the picture.
The King Put Out to Pasture
So the voice comes and announces the judgment. Then just as swiftly Nebuchadnezzar loses his mind:
“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Daniel 4:33).
This is all that is said about his seven years of insanity. One moment he is surveying his royal kingdom, the next he is ripping off his clothing, making strange snorting noises, and galloping on all fours. Soon he is running on all fours down the main street of Babylon, totally naked and stark, raving mad. Those who have studied this text say that the king had a complete nervous breakdown. That’s true, but it doesn’t seem to do justice to the text. He went totally insane and lost all connection with reality. Some say he was afflicted with lycanthropy, a strange condition where a person thinks he is a wolf. More likely it was boanthropy, the condition where a person thinks he is a cow or a bull.
It’s hard to imagine a more severe punishment from God. There would be no way to keep the king’s malady totally hidden from the public for seven years. Sooner or later (probably sooner) word would leak out. Though he was still the king, he could not reign, could not speak, and could not appear in public. Indeed, he could not think or communicate as a human being. He acted like a beast of the field.
Pride is a form of spiritual insanity. It is claiming credit for ourselves that belongs to God alone.
When the king was put out to pasture, it was a fate worse than death. Why would God do such a thing? The answer is not hard to find. Pride is a form of spiritual insanity. It is claiming credit for ourselves that belongs to God alone. What happened to Nebuchadnezzar was a kind of spiritual parable for all of us. When a man tries to become like God he becomes instead like the animals.
But that’s not the end of the story. Seven years later the king’s life took another dramatic turn: “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” (Daniel 4:34). Just as suddenly as he lost his mind, he regained it in an instant. It happened this way:
He looked up—lifted his eyes to heaven.
He woke up—sanity restored.
He spoke up—praised the Most High. 
We know he was truly changed because of what he said when he came to his senses:
“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?’” (Daniel 4:34-35)
This once-pagan king now openly declares the praises of God. He has truly gotten the message. God can do anything he wants to do, and no one can stand against him. Earthly kings rule by God’s permission and they stay on the throne only so long as it pleases God to give them power and authority. Nebuchadnezzar has learned the truth the hard way. Now he proclaims it for all the world to hear.
“Everything He Does is Right”
Verses 36-37 give us the end of the story and the moral we should all take to heart:
“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.”
Take note of one phrase in particular: “Everything he does is right.” True biblical faith begins right here. This is one of the Bible’s clearest statements about the wisdom of God’s eternal plan. Many of us struggle to reconcile those words with the heartache we see all around us. But those words are true nonetheless.
After I preached this message a friend pointed out that before this experience Nebuchadnezzar would have said that the greatest moment of his life was some great military achievement or some massive construction project. But afterwards he would look back and say the greatest moment was when he came to his senses and began to give God glory. In his mind the seven years wouldn’t matter because they would seem a small price to pay in order to see God truly and clearly.
Here is one test for whether or not you have grown through the disciplines of life. Can you look back without regret and thank God for what you have learned even though the cost to you was very great? I don’t think Nebuchadnezzar felt embarrassed about his seven years of insanity. If he had, he wouldn’t have written the story down for the whole world to know. You can know that you have made a spiritual breakthrough when you can tell your own story without feeling a need either to embellish or to cover up the negative aspects.
Timeless Truth for the 21st Century
“Those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” If we get nothing else out of this story, we must certainly learn this truth. Here are four timeless principles that help us understand how God deals with us when we attempt to live without him.
A. God’s righteousness causes him to intervene when we believe we don’t need him anymore.
Whenever we think we can live without God, he reaches down from heaven and begins to shake the things in which we place our confidence.
Because God is entirely righteous, he will not stand idle forever while his children live in sin. Sooner or later he will intervene. And how does that intervention come? Using the image of the king’s dream, we can say that God always starts by shaking your tree. Whenever we think we can live without God, he reaches down from heaven and begins to shake the things in which we place our confidence. Could that be the explanation for the health problems some people suffer? Is that one reason we have marriage difficulties and family problems? Could our financial hardships and our career frustrations be a sign that God is trying to speak to us? What about legal problems, troubles with our friends, the breakup of cherished relationships, and dreams that turn to dust? What about personal failure and the sullying of our reputation? Are not all these things allowed by God as his way of “shaking our tree” in order to get our undivided attention? If God whispers to us in our pleasure, then he shouts to us in our pain. Whenever we begin to think we’ve got it made, God reaches down and starts shaking our tree. It’s his way of saying, “It’s time for you to pay attention to me.” 
B. God’s judgment is painful because he is cutting away the sin that pulls us away from him.
Let’s suppose you feel strange pains in your body so you decide to see a doctor. He runs a few tests and says, “I’m sorry you’ve got cancer. But we can do surgery to remove the cancer.” So you say, “I don’t want the surgery. It will hurt too much to let you cut me open.” “If we don’t do the surgery, you’ll die,” replies the doctor.
God’s disciplinary judgment is rarely easy and never painless. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, it was utterly devastating and totally humiliating. Sometimes God has to cut the tree down in order to save it. But that cutting process may go on for many months and it may be done in a most public fashion.
C. God’s discipline lasts until we learn the lessons he wants to teach us.
I am sure many people feel as if God is shaking their tree right now. And you want to know how long it will last. The only possible answer is, I don’t know. The trials of life are ordained by the Lord for our benefit. He alone knows when they will begin and end. But of this much I am sure. God will never shake your tree one moment longer than necessary. And he will never stop one second before his divine purpose in your life has been accomplished.
So if you find yourself in a hard and uncertain place, and if you long for days of contentment and peace, be patient. Wait on the Lord. Don’t run ahead of God. And don’t waste time telling him how to do his business. Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and in due time he will lift you up.
D. God’s purpose in humbling us is not to destroy us, but to draw us back into fellowship with Him.
This is the ultimate piece of good news from Daniel 4. If we stand back and look at the entire narrative, we see King Nebuchadnezzar in three scenes: Prosperity, Judgment, and Restoration. It is tempting to focus only on the judgment, especially given the bizarre nature of his seven-year affliction. But to look only at that misses the larger point. By the end of the chapter, the king has regained his sanity, regained his throne, and even increased his earthly glory. Along the way he has learned the hard lesson that God is sovereign over the affairs of man and that “those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” From the king’s point of view, this is an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. He ends up better off in every way—materially and spiritually.
In this we can all take great comfort. Though God should for a season afflict us with many trials, and though many of those trials may be of our own foolish doing, his purpose is not to destroy us but to purge us from our sin that we might be brought into close fellowship with him. In that sense Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity was a severe mercy from God, preparing the way for better things to come.
And if our “tree” is not only shaken but cut down altogether, the sound of “Timber!” that we hear in the distance is not the voice of judgment but rather the gracious hand of God cutting us down to size that the tree may be grown again to the glory of God.
The First Rule of the Spiritual Life
And that brings me at last to the First Rule of the Spiritual Life. It seems as if we come back to this again and again. No truth is more fundamental than the one Nebuchadnezzar discovered: He’s God and We’re Not. All spiritual growth must begin at this point. Until we grasp this truth, we cannot make any progress in our relationship with God.
Here is some good news. If you are ready, you can rip that big G off your sweatshirt. Since you aren’t God, you can stop playing God. Perhaps you need to say, “Lord, I’m tired of running my life. And I’m tired of trying to run everyone else’s life too.” Are you ready to “let God be God?” If you are, your life can change today.
As I survey Daniel 4, I find great hope and abundant grace. There is hope for all of God’s children because God will not allow us to live in our sin forever. God loves us too much to let us go on in our sinful rebellion forever. Sooner or later, he intervenes, sometimes in ways both public and painful, to bring us back home again.
And there is hope for those who are far from God today. Nebuchadnezzar was a pure pagan. He neither knew God nor worshiped him. Yet when God got through with him, he sounded like a Puritan theologian. That’s what God can do, and only God can do it. Just this week it was written that Jane Fonda has become a born-again Christian. I myself have read a story to that effect that seemed reasonably credible. Now I don’t know Jane Fonda and have no personal knowledge of the facts, but if God is God, then nothing is impossible and no one is beyond the reach of his grace. This truth should give us great incentive to pray for the lost and to proclaim the gospel with confidence. Even the most hardened sinners may yet come to faith in Christ.
There is hope for all of us. God knows how to get his message across anytime he pleases. He knows how to ring your phone day or night, and he’s got the unlisted numbers of all your friends too.
That brings me back to where I began. How far will God go to get his message across to us? Just ask Nebuchadnezzar. He will do whatever it takes, he will stop at nothing, and no one can successfully oppose him. Be encouraged. Be warned. Don’t be like Nebuchadnezzar or you too may be put out to pasture.
Several years ago some dear friends shared this thought with me: God is not a safe God, but he is good. He isn’t safe because God doesn’t act according to our standards. He won’t stay in the “box” we construct for him. We dare not trifle with him. But he is good, which means that even when our tree is shaking, we know he means it for our good and his glory. Let God be God, and all creation will sing his praises. Amen.
Robert Aubuchon Jr., “Tree of Success,” June 16, 1996.
The outline comes from Warren Wiersbe, I believe.
Daniel D. Meyer, “The Blessed Blade,” November 2, 1997.
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