A Present Kingdom
In Daniel 2:24-45, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a statue crushed by a “rock.” This king ruled an empire which overpowered the Assyrian kingdom while stretching to the gate of the mighty Egyptians. In his quest for power he laid siege to countries in between Babylon and Egypt taking some captive, including the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding villages. The Hebrew narratives and prophets indicated that this was done by the will of Yahweh as a punishment for Judah’s breaking faith with their God (2 Chron. 36:15-21). However, God continued to show the Jewish nation that their Lord was still in charge, even as captives in a foreign land.
Nebuchadnezzar was troubled by his night vision. He asked his wise leaders to interpret and when they claimed to be unable, he “put a hit out on all of them.” One of the Judean captives, Daniel, volunteered to interpret the dream for his king. After Yahweh revealed the answer, he shared with the king that his dream involved a statue with five parts. A rock was “cut” (possibly from a quarry—and possible another statue/idol) which crushed the statue causing the particles to be scattered by the wind.
Numerous interpretations of Daniel’s description have been given by Biblical scholars, clergy, and religious authors. Interpretations may focus upon the identity of the future kings or Empires as well as the temporal establishment of Babylonian, Persian, Median, Greek, Asian, Roman, and other empires. Some interpretations seek to determine the establishment of the “final” kingdom, known as the Kingdom of God, church, and/or final reign of Christ.
While many pages have been dedicated to discussing these interpretations and their application to academics and ministry, I find that a deeper issue—the permanence of the reign of God, is at the heart of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation. It may be that the divine message to this king is more regal than chronological. Was the lesson to this Babylonian king concerned with “who would succeed him, and that God would reign hundreds of years later”? Or was the lesson that “no matter who ruled the world, God ruled all?”
First, the book of Daniel occupies two different locations in our Canons of scripture. The Hebrew version, known as MT, and Greek version, known as the Septuagint or LXX, places Daniel in different locations. LXX translators put Daniel immediately following the Major Prophet Ezekiel, and at the beginning of the twelve “Minor Prophets.” In this canon Daniel occupies a place within the prophets, which may suggest many of the “prophetic” and “apocalyptic” interpretations of the book. This is the same location as our modern translations.
Second, in the MT Daniel was placed within the Hagiographa (known as the Writings or Praise), rather than the Nabim (Prophets). In this location Daniel occupied a place in the praise and wisdom corpus of the Hebrew Bible. Daniel, along with Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and others represents the stories of courage, faithfulness, and the Fear of the Lord in the courts of the Gentile kings of the world. Daniel shares themes similar to Proverbs through the Fear of the Lord, youth (Na’ar), wisdom, and instruction for kings passages. This also suggests that Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams and serve in the Babylonian court had less of a Messianic emphasis than wisdom.
It is this location, the Hagiographa, which offers us a unique view of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, involves life under the reign of God rather than a future prediction and fulfillment through prophecy.
Interpreting the Vision
Nebuchadnezzar’s vision was interpreted by Daniel because he feared Yahweh, which was considered the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). The king’s advisors and leaders could not tell him the dream, nor could they interpret it. Daniel, who had proven to be obedient to Yahweh and this Babylonian ruler, through prayer, claimed to receive a divine message from God which included both dream and interpretation. The setting of this dream suggests that this world regent not only needed a lesson in humility, but one that reminded him Yahweh, rather than Marduk, ruled Babylon as well as the rest of the world.
First, the dream included various empires representing parts of the statue such as a head of gold, arms and chest of silver, bronze pants/waist, legs, and feet of iron and clay (Dan. 2:34). Nebuchadnezzar was identified as the head of gold (2:38), while the other parts represented future kings or kingdoms (the Hebrew word mlk can mean either). Often, these components comprise the bulk of scholarly commentary concerning their attempts to “prove” or “validate” history alongside Daniel’s interpretation of the dream. Pages have been written discussing various rulers in the Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek, Judean, and/or Roman Empires. Other more modern writers have suggested that Daniel’s interpretation has a modern fulfillment connecting the book to Revelation and the Beast/Antichrist. However, these discussions became unimportant for the existing king of Babylon or those reading the text centuries later.
Second, the dream suggested that an “unshakeable” kingdom not only crushed the other rulers but is also eternal (Dan. 2:44-45). Interpreters agree that this is the kingdom of God, however, many disagree as to the “timing” of this “establishment.” “In the days of those kings” has been discussed as occurring at the end of the four or five reigning kings. The establishment of this “future empire” becomes dependent upon the interpretation of the kings. This basis for interpretation has contributed to numerous prophetic predictions concerning the “establishment of God’s reign,” or “Jesus’ kingdom/church.” Was the dream meant to apply only to Nebuchadnezzar, during the reign of Cyrus, persecution of Antiochus, Roman persecution, or even the kingdom “yet to come?”
I offer that the dream has a continual application to those in Daniel’s day and all readers in the future. The phrase “in those days of the kings” suggests that the kingdom of God exists during the reign of any king. This interpretation is not dependent on who rules or when the kingdom of God arrives, but the present reality of Yahweh’s kingdom. For Nebuchadnezzar, the dream suggested that God will always be in charge. For the Judean people the reminder was that no matter who was on the throne, past, present, or future, Yahweh reigns. This application offered hope to those under the Babylonian exilic crisis as well as those serving under the Persian, Greek, Syrian, or even Roman empires. One can even extend this theology of a present kingdom during the dark and chaotic days of history for those facing religious persecution or those feeling that God is silent. Daniel’s actions indicated that even though Yahweh had turned a deaf ear to their cries as the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem (Jer. 11:11, 14), faithfulness and devotion would rouse God to remember the covenant (Dan. 1:9, 17-20).
Applying the Vision
Yahweh’s kingdom is not waiting for a future home—it was/is a current reality. The kingdom lives through the faithfulness of God’s followers. This becomes clearer throughout the story of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, influenced by the dream, created a statue (like the one in Daniel 2) but saw, through the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s obedience that Yahweh was key to this kingdom. He erupted in praise because of their courage and God’s faithfulness. In Daniel 4 Nebuchadnezzar learned that he was to be submissive to God. In Daniel 5 Belshazzar saw firsthand the power of God because of his sinful behavior. God transferred power to the Persians who also continued to reign throughout the book. Daniel’s continued obedience in Daniel 6 brought praise to Yahweh and young Daniel was honored by the angel—who gave him insight into a future where Yahweh ruled—even though the Jews would suffer. Rather than the last half of Daniel focusing on “future prophecy” the text further illustrated that Yahweh ruled through the hearts and lives of faithful followers, even during persecution.
This belief has continued throughout Jewish, as well as Christian history. God’s reign exists among faithful followers, whether they are on a throne or on their knees. This belief provides hope for those who question the divine presence during times of chaos, evil, or despair. It provides a response to the Psalmists question, while in Babylon: “How can we sing the songs of Yahweh while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). The belief that the reign of God exists here and now, rather than something in future, reminds the reader that the “fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom,” (Prov. 1:7). As the angel Michael shared with Daniel, at the end of the book, “None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand,” (Dan. 12:10). The wise now have the opportunity to inspire hope and faith in those suffering during chaotic, painful, and depressing days.
In dark times God’s kingdom is always present, regardless of who wears the crown.