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Fall 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 2 · pp. 45–54 

Literary Patterns and God's Sovereignty in Daniel 4

Byron Burkholder

The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the tree and his descent to the life of a beast conveys a message which is not easily lost on any reader, ancient or modern: God is sovereign over all nations, and rulers are therefore responsible to live ethically under God’s lordship. However, for modern North Americans, the full impact of the message is often diminished by two serious gaps.

. . . God acts in the context of human responsibility.

The first is one of historical circumstance. The audience of Daniel 4, this paper assumes, was the discouraged band of captive Israelites in Babylon. The reassurance of God’s sovereignty would certainly have aroused their aspirations for God’s vindication in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Readers in 20th century North America, however, lack the apocalyptic angst of sixth century Israel. At least it is clouded by material affluence and civil liberties.

The second gap is a literary one. Modern readers have lost—if they ever had one—a sensitivity to the literary and cultural conventions which Daniel 4 assumes. In this paper I want to attempt {46} to help close this gap and show how the literary and structural features of Daniel 4 are important means of teaching the dual theme of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Following some notes on the context and language of Daniel 4, I shall focus on the imagery and the parallel structures of the chapter and then examine the author’s ethical/moral point within the literary context.


As Psalm 137 poignantly shows, the exiled Jews in Babylon were a nation stripped of their pride, their identity, and their confidence in the future. God had apparently let them down, and Gentile kings had usurped his dominion over their lives. And yet, in the midst of their discouragement, God brought comfort and hope through new prophetic utterances (notably, for example, in Second Isaiah) and eventually, in the restoration under Cyrus, through a new direction in the history they thought had ended. These new events put the history of God’s people into a cosmic and eschatological perspective which showed their God to be in control.

In the book of Daniel, these cosmic/eschatological themes begin to be more related to identifiable events, both present and future. While the primary reference point is Israel, the scope of the message goes far beyond Israel, particularly in chapters 2-7. These chapters not only contain visions of worldwide events, but include narratives of actual Babylonian and Persian kings in confrontation with God’s sovereignty. Significantly, they are written in Aramaic, the international language. Thus, according to Joyce Baldwin, they “form a theology of history, addressed to the kings of the earth” (60).

In this context then, Daniel 4 shows the transiency of proud human leadership played out in real life—through Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the tree and the beast, its interpretation, and its fearsome fulfillment in historical circumstances. In the process, as with his first dream in chapter 2, there is a fresh assertion that God’s is “a kingdom which shall never be destroyed . . . (and) will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms, and itself last forever” (2:44). Both in the events of the story and in the doxologies uttered by Nebuchadnezzar, the point is made which is also to emerge out of the apocalyptic vision of chapter 7: “His sovereignty is an eternal {47} sovereignty” (v. 27, cf. similar wording in 4:3 and 4:34). (Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the Jerusalem Bible.)


As a lead-in to a discussion of the imagery and parallel structures in the chapter, it is instructive to survey the use of sovereignty language in Daniel 4. Two words are especially prominent in conveying the notions of kingdom, rule, dominion and authority: maleku and sholtan. The first is usually translated kingdom in the KJV and NIV (but also includes realm, or reign, and is usually translated sovereignty or majesty in the JB). It is used 49 times in the Aramaic section of Daniel (chapter 2-7), including 12 times in Daniel 4. Most of the time, particularly in the narration, the term refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, but it also is used for God’s kingdom (vv. 3, 34) and the “kingdoms of men” (vv. 17, 25, 32). The second word, sholtan, is also prominent and is used 14 times in chs. 2-7, with four of these occurring in our chapter. The word is translated dominion in the KJV and NIV and more freely as sovereignty, empire, or rule in the JB. Again, the term is used for both human and divine rulership. The picture that the usages of both words presents, therefore, is one of competing sovereignties: God’s lordship over-against human lords (vv. 17, 25 and 32)—in particular, Nebuchadnezzar himself.

This language set, in turn, is powerfully supported by the dominant image in the story: the cosmic tree. The use of this image was common in ancient oriental descriptions of the rise and fall of kingdoms. In fact, one building inscription from Nebuchadnezzar’s time even refers to Babylon as a spreading tree (Walvoord: 101). Trees, moreover, often emerged in the many royal dream accounts of the Babylonians and other near-eastern peoples. Astyages the Mede, for example, had a dream in which a vine grew out of the womb of his daughter Mandane and subsequently covered all of Asia; Herodotus later interpreted this to refer to Cyrus. Xerxes also reported a dream in which he was crowned with a branch of an olive tree which extended over the world (Walvoord: 101-102). Naturally, the world-wide scope of the tree images fit well with the apotheosis ancient peoples often conferred on their leaders. Thus, “the {48} cosmic tree is one form of union between the gods and men, a bridge between two worlds” (Lacoque: 74).

It should also be noted here that tree imagery is also frequently used in the Bible’s own literature to symbolize leadership (see 2 Kings 14:9, Pss. 1:3; 37:35; 52:8; 92:12; Ezek. 17). In fact, Lacoque opines (without substantiation) that the source of Daniel 4 is actually Ezekiel 31:2-18, a passage in which Pharaoh figures as a beautiful tree that is delivered over to be destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (“the prince of the nations,” v. 11)(77). In Ezekiel 17 even king Jehoiachin of Judah is pictured as a cedar which is cut down. However, in this passage, a new tree sprouts which anticipates the Messiah and Jesus’ own use of the tree as a metaphor for the kingdom (Matt. 13:31-32).

With this historical milieu of tree imagery, it is therefore little wonder that Nebuchadnezzar is concerned about the dream. He probably anticipates that the tree represents himself and that he is destined for demise. This leads us to consider the contrasting image in the story: that of beast. Again, beasts figure prominently in the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian imagination, and become channels for God’s messages in Daniel’s visions later in the book. In Daniel, they are symbolic of kingship and authority, but with evil associations (epitomized in the fourth beast of chapter 7) and destinies of ultimate defeat by God. In language closely reminiscent of Daniel 4, the defeat of the fourth beast is described thus:

But a court will be held and his power will be stripped from him, consumed, and utterly destroyed.

And sovereignty and kingship,

and the splendors of all the kingdoms under heaven

will be given to the people of the saints of the Most High.

His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty

and every empire will serve and obey him. (7:26-27)

The significant point about Daniel 4 is that the beast image is not merely a symbol of his “success”; the beast image is translated into an enacted metaphor after he fails to heed the warnings of the dream and its interpretation. If, as this paper assumes, the account is essentially historical, the enacted metaphor reinforces the general movement in Daniel from prophecy to concrete historical fulfillment. {49}


Following a context-setting introduction (vv. 1-3), Daniel 4 is structured in three major parts: 1) Nebuchadnezzar’s narration of his dream and its content (vv. 4-11); 2) Daniel’s interpretation of the dream (vv. 19-27); and 3) the fulfillment of the dream (vv. 28-37). A remarkable pattern of parallelism connects the three sections. The similar descriptions, in the first two narrative sections, of the tree (11-12 = 20-21), of the tree’s sentence (13-14 = 23a), and of the stump’s sentence (15-16 = 23b, repeated in the third section, 28b-29 and 30) provide an obvious example. Although there is some variation in the wording between the parallels, the echoes are unmistakable, providing not only continuity and coherence of theme, but also mnemonic assistance to the hearer in learning the story. Such repetition, which may seem redundant to modern readers who have lost the oral traditions, is common in accounts of dreams and story-retelling in the Old Testament and other ancient literature.

Thus, for example, the first poetic description—“grew taller and stronger, until its top reached the sky, and it could be seen from the ends of the earth” (11)—is echoed almost verbatim as Daniel recapitulates the image in the second section (20) and then makes the stinging application: “That tree is yourself, O king, for you have grown tall and strong; your stature is now so great that it reaches the sky, and your rule extends to the ends of the earth” (22). The “sovereignty” which will imminently be deposed is thus highlighted repeatedly in the image of the tree.

The reference to the sentence of the stump is repeated in the third section, in the fulfillment section. Here, too, the language echoes that of the dream and interpretation sections, but it now relates to the actual historical enactment. First, the voice from heaven pronounces the sentence as given earlier in the dream and the interpretation; then the enactment follows: “Nebuchadnezzar was driven from human society and fed on grass like oxen, and was drenched by the dew of heaven; his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, his nails became like birds’ claws” (v. 33). The picture of beastliness, coming in these four accounts, thus is impressed on the reader.

The parallels noted so far seem to function mainly to reinforce the story lines and to impress the images and the {50} events on the readers’ memories and imaginations; they do not convey the propositional truth that God is sovereign nor do they present a clear movement toward an ethical/moral “message.” This task is left to the more doxological, poetic utterances which emerge at key points. It is to these that I shall now turn.

Perhaps the most notable repetition in these verses is the refrain (which I shall call “Refrain A”) which culminates each of the three sections’ judgement pronouncement (in 17b, 25 and 32) and recapitulates the point of the entire chapter. Each refrain begins with a clause which spells out the purpose of the judgement: in the first refrain it is “that every living thing may learn . . .” while in the second and third, it is “until you have learned.” The learning, then, is expressed the same way every time: “. . . learn that the Most High rules over the kingship of men, he confers it on whom he pleases.” This learning, of course, is the point of Nebuchadnezzar’s forced descent into insanity.

The switch from “every living thing” to “you” as the subject of “learn” reflects both the cosmic scope of this incident and the particularity of Nebuchadnezzar’s story. But I would also suggest that it reflects a pattern of increasing focus on Nebuchadnezzar and his own response to God’s workings in history and in his life. It is Nebuchadnezzar who is the brunt of the judgement, for it is he who has become puffed up with pride. Thus, Daniel’s interpretation makes the application to you, and the judgement is finally made direct and explicit in the fulfillment section when the voice says, “King Nebuchadnezzar, these words are for you! Sovereignty is taken from you . . .” (v. 28).

This movement to specificity and concreteness is reinforced by another refrain (“Refrain B”), which occurs at the beginning and the end of the chapter. “His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty, his empire lasts from age to age” constitutes the last half of the prologue hymn (v. 3) and which later begins the blessing which Nebuchadnezzar offers upon returning to sanity (v. 34). While the first instance of Refrain B is put in a general context of God’s power (“How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders,” v. 3), the second, coming after the account of one of those signs, spells out more detail:

he does as he pleases with the array of heaven,

and with the inhabitants of the earth. {51}

No one can arrest his hand

or ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ (v. 35b)

The statement “He does as he pleases,” does not suggest a fickle sovereignty, however; it is put in the context of the final doxology, which notes: “his promises are always faithfully fulfilled, his ways are always just” (v. 37).

Thus, the recurrent doxological refrains, like the story itself, show a movement towards specificity. That is, God’s sovereignty is not merely declared, but it is worked out in his concrete actions in history—in this case, in Nebuchadnezzar’s personal history. The action, as the story and the Refrain A show, is primarily one of conferring leadership on certain people and taking it away from others. The first instance of Refrain A is set apart by its extra line: “he confers it on whom he pleases/ and raises the lowest of mankind” (v. 17). As a counterpoint to this reference to raising, the final line of the last doxology (v. 37) shows God’s lowering activity: “his ways are always just,/ and he has power to humble those who walk in pride.”

This raising and lowering is visibly worked out both in Nebuchadnezzar’s decline and restoration, but it is also to be enacted more permanently in Chapter 5 (the placing of this story could hardly be accidental), with the invasion of Babylon by Cyrus and the Medes and Persians and the deposition of the Babylonian empire. In fact, as with the tree image, this motif of raising and lowering of leaders is a broad theme throughout scripture. Hannah, in her canticle after the birth of Samuel, notes how “the bow of the mighty is broken, but the feeble have girded themselves with strength” (1 Sam. 2:4). Similarly, Mary in the Magnificat sings, “He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away” (Luke 2:52-53). Significantly, Mary’s and Hannah’s hymns, along with Nebuchadnezzar’s doxologies, anticipate imminent, major salvation events in Israel’s history, suggesting a strong connection between God’s lowering/raising action and the meaning of salvation.


So far we have seen how the imagery and some of the parallel structures sharpen the theme of God’s sovereignty in Daniel 4, {52} especially as it is expressed in the real history of Nebuchadnezzar. In our discussion we have seen that God’s sovereignty is not capricious but purposeful, and in keeping with his promises. However, the chapter also shows that God acts in the context of human responsibility. Nebuchadnezzar is a ruler who acts upon moral decisions and experiences the consequences of his actions. This too is shown through deliberate literary structuring.

Following the interpretation of the dream, Daniel gives the king some “advice” (vv. 26-27), which is really a call to repentance. Following the promise that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom will be kept for him “until (he comes) to understand that heaven rules all,” Daniel lays out the moral injunction through a structure of synonymous parallelism: “By virtuous actions break with (cf. NIV renounce) your sins, break with your crimes by showing mercy to the poor.” The key action Nebuchadnezzar is called to is “virtuous action,” variously translated as “by righteousness” (KJV) or “by doing what is right” (NIV). According to Lacoque, the word in classical Hebrew meant justice, innocence and faithfulness to the covenant, although in later Judaism it came to designate good works, particularly alms-giving (78). All of the meanings are consonant with the corresponding phrase in the second part of the couplet: “showing mercy to the poor.” Alms-giving and service to the poor were fundamental to a life of righteousness, as numerous Old Testament references attest (cf. Prov. 14:31; 19:17; Ps. 112:4), and were the minimum expected of a repentant pagan.

As the story powerfully shows, Daniel’s advice goes unheeded. Immediately following the call to repentance, Nebuchadnezzar is pictured in a position of conspicuous power, with his own sovereignty intact. With strong reminiscences of the start of the first section where Nebuchadnezzar is “at ease at home, prosperous in my palace,” this “fulfillment” section begins with him “strolling on the roof of his palace.” From this vantage point come the boastful words which express his real character: “Great Babylon! Imperial palace! Was it not built by me alone, by my own might and power to the glory of my majesty?”

The close correspondence between Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and his punishment is made through deliberate linguistic bridging. His proud boasts are “still on his lips” when the {53} voice from heaven pronounces the words of judgement (v. 31). The sentence, in turn, is “immediately” fulfilled (v. 33). The language of immediate vindication is also carried over to Nebuchadnezzar’s recovery. It is as he “looks up to heaven” that his reason returns; it is “at that moment” (v. 36) that he is returned to his former glory. Thus, while the dream and the interpretation seem to depict Nebuchadnezzar’s downfall as the inevitable fulfillment of a divine plan, the moral choices of Nebuchadnezzar are also shown to be involved. Nebuchadnezzar is responsible for the way he handles power; he can set himself up as sovereign, or he can treat his sovereignty as derivative from God’s sovereignty. The former option results in self-glorification and lack of concern for social justice, while the latter issues forth in service to the downtrodden.

Finally, the moral dimension of the chapter is sharpened by the ambiguity which surrounds the extent of Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance (Baldwin: 116). Even though Nebuchadnezzar has come to recognize the sovereignty of God, he seems to lapse into self-glorification once more. This is suggested by the strong egocentric tones and new images of royalty with which he recounts his restoration: “At that moment my reason returned, and to the glory of my royal state, my majesty and splendor returned too. My counselors and noblemen acclaimed me; I was restored to my throne, and to my past greatness even more was added. And now, I, Nebuchadnezzar . . .” (vv. 36-37). The hymn to God’s sovereignty which follows therefore comes across as less than sincere, adding a powerful twist of irony to the whole episode. The point about God’s sovereignty is made powerfully through the events and words of the story, but human power is still shown to be repeatedly vulnerable to boastfulness, no matter what God does.


The story of Daniel 4, in its development as a story, in its declarations made through doxological refrains, and in its final ironic twist, would have had a great impact on its hearer. It would have said to all rulers—whether Jewish or Gentile—that God has power to dethrone and to enthrone. It would have told the discouraged Jewish exiles and those who listened to the story as they returned from exile, uncertain of their future, that the rulers of the world do not have the final word in {54} history; God does. But it would also have made a moral point. Daniel 4 was, and is, a warning to all leaders who promote their own glory in the world and in the process inevitably lose sight of God’s justice.


  • Baldwin, Joyce. Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978.
  • Hartman, Louis F., and Alexander A. Di Lella. Daniel. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
  • Lacoque, Andre. The Book of Daniel. Atlanta: John Knox, 1976.
  • Lang, G. H. The Histories and Prophecies of Daniel. London: Paternoster, 1950.
  • Larkin, Clarence. The Book of Daniel. Philadelphia: Clarence Larkin, 1929.
  • Towner, W. Sibley. Daniel. Atlanta: John Knox, 1984.
  • Walvoord, John F. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation. Chicago: Moody, 1971.
Byron Burkholder, a freelance writer, churchworker, and missionary appointee, is currently residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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