William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Daniel 4:1 - 4:37

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Daniel 4:1 - 4:37


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Daniel Chapter 4

We have seen, after the vision of the great image, that a chapter followed, presenting at first sight little appearance of connection with the prophecy, but which, I trust, was shown to have a very important bearing upon it. For in Dan. 2 we had merely the general history of the Gentile powers, not their moral qualities. Empire after empire rose on, and disappeared from, the scene of God's providence. But what was the character of these empires, how they used the power that was given into their hands by God, we saw not. These historical incidents were introduced purposely between the first grand outline in Dan. 2 and the details which follow from Dan. 7 to the end of the book. They show the conduct of the empires while in possession of supreme authority from God in the world. The first picture of their moral ways was given in Dan. 3: religion, such as it was, rendered compulsory by the Gentile power, irrespective of the claims of God and the conscience of man.

The principle of this from the first runs through the times of the Gentiles. No doubt it seemed necessary, in consequence of the immense extent of the empire, to have some one controlling religion that would bind together the various lands and subject nations. What a return for the place of honour in which God had put Nebuchadnezzar! Nevertheless, it only gave occasion for God to display His power, even in the Jewish captives now under the control of the Gentiles. In the chapter before it was plain that the wisdom of God was found among them. All the lore of the Babylonish empire was completely at fault. Daniel alone. could explain the visions. But although divine wisdom was there, power is another thing and God took advantage of the terrible punishment, as it seemed, of the three Hebrews, and showed Himself most conspicuously as the Deliverer of the faithful in the hour of their need. The beginning of Gentile empire is only the foreshadowing of what will be the closing scene. And as there was then deliverance by divine power at the beginning, so there will be by-and-bye: and this specially found in connection with the faithful of Israel, the Jews. I do not mean, of course, with the Jews in their present state; because, now, a Jew remaining such is an enemy of God. But that will not always be the case. The time is coming when the seed of Abraham, without ceasing to be Jews, will be converted to God - will receive the Messiah, according to the prophecies. I do not mean the Jew will enter into the same blessed knowledge and enjoyment that we have now; but that he will be among the faithful to be found in the latter day, as is predicted in many prophecies. Of course, a very important change is supposed, which is to take place in the history of the world; or rather, God will remove from the world that which is not of the world, in order that He may resume His interest in what is taking place upon the earth. Because, at the present time, God's work is not immediately connected with the movements of the world. Its stages of progress and decline are not the expression of His will, although He always exercises a providential control over them.

But there was a time, we know, in the world's history, when God took a direct and immediate interest in what was going on among men. Even their battles were said to be the Lord's battles; and their defeats, famines, etc., were sent as a known infliction from God for some evil that He was dealing with. Now, while it remains perfectly true, that there is no war or sorrow of any kind that happens without God, and all is decidedly under His sovereign control, it is not in the way of the same direct government. So that a person cannot now say, This war is at the word of God; or, This famine is a chastening for such and such an evil. That would be indeed both ignorance and presumption. No doubt there are persons quite ready enough to pronounce as to these matters. Their mistake arises from not appreciating the great change that has taken place in God's government of the world. As long as Israel was the nation in which God was displaying His character for the earth, these things were found directly and immediately from God. But from the time God gave up His people Israel, it has been merely the indirect, providential control of a general kind, that God exercises over human affairs.

Another thing has come in. When the true Christ was rejected by Israel, and Israel thereby lost their opportunity of being restored to their place of supremacy, God, we may say, took advantage of this to bring in another thing - the calling of the Church. It was no longer God governing a nation like Israel under His law; nor was it simply an indirect government of the Gentiles; but the revelation of Himself as a Father to His children in Christ, and the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, not only to act upon their hearts, but to dwell in their midst, and to baptize them, Jew or Gentile, into one body, the body of Christ the Head in heaven. That goes on now. And therefore God has no particular relations with the Jews now: He does not deal with them any more than with others, save that they have a sentence of judicial blindness upon them. They were blind before. God did not oblige them to refuse Christ. He never makes any person blind in that sense: only sin thus blinds. But when men refuse the light of God, and obstinately reject its every testimony, He may and does give up sometimes to a total darkness, in the sense of its being a judicial one, added to what is natural to the human heart. The nation of Israel is under that judicial blindness now. But while this is the case with the great mass, it is not so with all. There is always to be a remnant of Israel. They are the only nation indeed of which that can be said - the only nation that God has never absolutely given up. Other nations may know God visiting them for a time, and visiting them remarkably in grace. Our own country God has most marvellously blessed - given men His word freely, and many other privileges. But while such is the case, there is no obligation on God's part always to keep England in that position. If the country show a deaf ear, turning away from the truth, and preferring idolatry, which is not at all impossible, it will certainly be given up, and will fall under the delusion which God will send upon the world by-and-bye. But God bound Himself by special promise to Israel, and He will never give them up entirely. In Israel there will always be a holy seed in the very darkest times. And this is connected with a remark that I made before. While God is occupied with the work of gathering out the Church, there cannot be any special relation with Israel in bringing them out as His people, and delivering them out of their distresses, and the like. But when God is pleased to remove the Church out of this present scene, Israel will come forward again; and it is in that day, when their hearts are touched by the Spirit of God, that there will be the fulfilment of a deliverance, the type of which we see in the end of Dan. 3.

Upon that occasion, I may just observe, the king was so far moved, that he commanded, as a sort of ordinance of his realm, that the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, should be honoured; and that any person who attempted to speak against that God should be cut in pieces, and their houses made a dunghill. But we do find this: that, whether it was the special honour that he paid to Daniel, in Dan. 2, or the command that his subjects should honour the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, in Dan. 3, it had but little permanence. It was merely a passing feeling, which, like the morning cloud, faded away from the mind of the king. He himself records in this chapter how little the ways of God had reached his heart, however he might for the moment have been struck with the display of His wisdom. It is one thing to show honour to a prophet, and to compel the subjects of his realm to honour the God who delivered as none other could. But how was it with Nebuchadnezzar himself? "I, Nebuchadnezzar," he says, "was at rest in mine house, and flourishing in my palace.

Thus, you see, it is plain, from his own account, although he gives it to show the mercy manifested towards him, that, after all the wondrous transactions of the previous chapters, Nebuchadnezzar was just the same man at bottom still. There was no thorough change in his soul - no such thing as his heart brought to God. He was at rest in his house and flourishing in his palace. As the man of the earth, all that God had given into his hands only fed his pride and self-complacency. In this condition God sends him a fresh testimony. "I saw a dream which made me afraid, and the thoughts upon my bed and the visions of my head troubled me." Therefore he makes a decree, commanding to bring in all the wise men of Babylon, that they might make known the interpretation of the dream. It was in vain. They came, and he told the dream. But he says, "They did not make known unto me the interpretation thereof. But at the last Daniel came in before me, whose name was Belteshazzar, according to the name of my god," etc. To him he speaks with confidence. "O Belteshazzar, master of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in thee, and no secret troubleth thee, tell me the visions of my dream that I have seen, and the interpretation thereof." He may speak to him in a heathenish style; the wisdom of the Most High God in him he may attribute to his own gods; but still he does acknowledge that there is something special and peculiar in Daniel. He also alludes to the vision in the same style. Daniel, when he hears the dream, and realizes its meaning, was troubled and amazed for one hour. Nor must we confine this to the story of Nebuchadnezzar. Just as we saw in Dan. 2 that the king was said to be the head of gold, so in this chapter he was the tree. But in Dan. 2 it was not the king personally alone, but his dynasty that was represented by the head of gold. In a certain sense, what was true of Nebuchadnezzar would characterize the Gentile empire to the close. So in this present scene. Daniel had the pain and horror of seeing what awaited Nebuchadnezzar. And this, alas! too plainly foreboded the issue of this new system that the God of heaven had set up.

But following simply the chapter before us, Daniel explains the vision. "My lord," said he, "the dream be to them that hate thee, and the interpretation thereof to thine enemies. The tree that thou sawest, which grew, and was strong, whose height reached unto the heaven, and the sight thereof to all the earth . . . It is thou, O king, that art grown and become strong." Every one must be familiar with the way in which troth the psalms and prophets use the figure of the tree to describe the position assigned by God to Israel, as well as to other people. Thus, the vine in Ps. 80. is clearly what Israel was intended to be in the purpose of God. But there was total failure. And so we see in Jer. 2, Ezek. 15, etc., God's purpose seemed to be broken. But He never gives it up. He may repent of creation. But wherever there is that, which is not barely the work of His hand, but the fruit of the action of His heart, - and that His purpose is, - God never abandons it. Where He merely calls into being that which did not exist before, a change may come in. But there is no change where God sets His love upon a person, and gives certain suited gifts. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." (Rom_11:29) This is a very important thing, as connected with individual souls. Doubt the faithfulness of God in any one respect, and you weaken it as to everything else. If God could call His people Israel, and afterwards give them up absolutely, how could I be sure that God would keep me always as His child? For if ever it was tried, it was in Israel. If I believe in the faithfulness of God to myself, individually, why doubt it as to Israel? The question always is, Is God faithful! Has He departed from His purpose, or withdrawn His gifts? If not, whatever appearances may say for a time, God will vindicate His truth and mercy in the end.

But to return, the figure of the cedar-tree in Eze_31:3, may yet more help to illustrate what we have in Daniel. "Behold the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs." Then later on we find "the cedars in the garden of God could not hide him." Those were the other powers in the world. "The fir-trees were not like his boughs," etc. And, further still, we find that there is an allusion to Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Verse 18) But I will not dwell upon it further. My desire has been to prove, from these various passages, that it is a common thing in Scripture to use the tree, either as the symbol of fruit-bearing or of a place of high dignity and importance. In the New Testament the figure extended to that which for a season supersedes Israel Matt. 13 shows us that the dispensation of the kingdom of heaven is, in one of its phases, compared to a tree sprouting up from small beginnings. The Lord unfolds the history of professing Christendom. In Matt. 12 He had given His sentence upon Israel. The last state should be worse than the first. Such will be the state of the wicked generation of Israel, that put the Lord Jesus to death, before God judges it. Then the Lord turns to Christendom, and shows, first of all, His own work on earth. He sows seed. In the next parable an enemy appears upon the scene, intrudes into the field, and sows bad seed. It is the inroad of evil into the field of Christian profession. The parable following discloses that what was little in its commencement grows into a vast towering thing in the earth. The little mustard-seed becomes a great tree.

Now, we may see by these passages that in every case, whether it be an individual as expressive of power, as Nebuchadnezzar, or a nation, which takes the ascendant, or a system of religion, as in Matt. 13, the symbol of a tree points to greatness in the earth, unless fruit be the object. Such is its universal teaching. Of course I am speaking now not so much of those trees, that were merely for bearing fruit, as of such as were chosen for their size and stateliness also. Earthly power is clearly meant by the tree in Daniel. (Dan_4:21) "In it was meat for all; under which the beasts of the field dwelt, and upon whose branches the fowls of the heaven had their habitation: it is thou, O king, that art grown and become strong: for thy greatness is grown, and reacheth unto heaven, and thy dominion to the end of the earth." This tree was the admiration of men. There was everything that gratified the heart: its own magnificent proportions, the beauty of its boughs and leaves, the abundance and sweetness of its fruits, the kindly shadow, under which all these creatures, the beasts of the field and fowls of heaven, found protection. All this and more was found in it, and such were man's thoughts about it. But what was God's estimate? "And whereas the king saw a watcher and an holy one coming down from heaven, and saying, Hew the tree down and destroy it." Observe, it is merely a destruction for a time; there is no such thing as annihilation in any one thing in the mind of God. "Yet leave the stump of the roots thereof in the earth." There must be means used of God to maintain it alive. Leave it, therefore, He says, "with a band of iron and brass, in the tender grass of the field; and let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven times pass over him." "This is the interpretation," he says, "O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which is come upon my lord the king." And then he gives its personal application to Nebuchadnezzar. In this case all was perfectly simple. Nebuchadnezzar was warned of what was to come upon him. He was to be driven from men, and his dwelling was to be with the beasts of the field. But more than that, he himself was to be reduced to their condition. "They shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven." And this for a certain defined time. "And seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will." We need not dwell upon this history of Nebuchadnezzar. No simpleminded believer would be disposed to raise difficulties about it. Men have done so, explaining it as a mere delusion in the king's mind. But these are not questions that a Christian ought even to consider, except for the good of another. The word affirms that king Nebuchadnezzar was, by God's power, reduced in appearance to a bestial condition. If we own that God could and did set aside the laws of nature, giving some to walk unhurt in the fiercest of fires, and preserving another intact in a den of lions, we must feel that it is a mere question of His will and word whether Nebuchadnezzar was brought into this terrible debasement; hunted about among the beasts of the field, and made to eat grass like the oxen. The man that believes the one must believe the other. God's power alone could so work, and God's word is the warrant for all.

But while that is plain and simple enough, we have a further image of the Gentile power, its self-exalting character, and the judgment of God upon it. I apprehend that Nebuchadnezzar, personally, only showed what would be the general tendency of the Gentiles, as having power given him from God. He would admire and exalt himself; turning all the greatness that God had conferred upon him to his own credit. He was clearly shown the judgments that would come upon him; but the warning was unheeded. Therefore, "all this came upon the king Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon. The king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty? While the word was in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee." The sentence was executed. Exactly so have the Gentile powers acted with regard to God. I am not now speaking of individuals who may arise from time to time. Godly persons may have been in the position occupied even by Nebuchadnezzar; but, as a general rule, his successors, from that day to this - those that have had the supremacy of the world, and the world's glory - have used it in the main for themselves. I do not now speak so as to allow a feeling of disrespect towards these powers for a moment; but am only stating the well-known facts of Gentile rule. They were heathen for many centuries down to Christ, and after Christ; and when Christianity was accepted by Constantine, and its profession was by degrees taken up by the empire, no one can suppose that it was more than a system of religion adopted. But this did not hinder the general course of things. The only difference was: that the heathen profession, which was dominant before, was put down, and Christianity, which was trampled down before, was set up. Heathenism and Christianity changed places. Constantine may have thought it right to put down the heathen and show honour to the Christians; but there was no such question as his taking the Bible and inquiring, What is the will of God about me? How shall I show my obedience to God? That never has been the case, since Nebuchadnezzar's time, with any one that has swayed the world's destinies. It could not be. I speak of the great masters of the world, when the empire was an unbroken thing. And even since that, though there may have been exceptional cases of kings who have had the fear of God before them, yet even then it has not been in their power to change the substantial course of policy in their kingdoms. Those who have attempted to do so have completely failed. God's authority in the world is one thing, and God's having a soul obedient to Him as His servant is quite another.

This chapter shows us, then, the turning of all the power, and authority, and glory that God gave men, into a means of gratifying their own pride. The consequence of this is, that all understanding of God's mind would be taken from them. Nebuchadnezzar had remarkable visions and revelations from God. But what did they avail? He had had this warning, the most personal one of all. But what did it avail? Daniel had counselled him to break off his sins by righteousness, and his iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. He heeded it not. Twelve months passed away, when, in pride of heart, he attributed all the greatness and splendour, with which he was surrounded, to himself and the work of his own hands. That great Babylon was what he had built "for the house of the kingdom, by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty." At once the sentence takes effect upon himself; and what was then literally true of him individually, was morally true of the Gentile powers as a whole. The character of the Gentiles all through would be without intelligence of God and without subjection to Him.

"The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws." In verse 16, it had been said, "Let his heart be changed from man's, and let a beast's heart be given unto him." All thought of God was entirely lost. He had no more idea about God than the beast of the field. Even a natural man has a conscience in him. But Nebuchadnezzar lost all thought; he was reduced to the non-intelligence of a beast. Man was formed to be the being on earth that looked up to God, and stood in dependence upon Him. That is his glory. A beast enjoys, so to speak, what is its own sphere of enjoyment, according to the capacity that God has conferred upon it naturally, but it has no idea of the God that made it and all things. Man has. That is, recognition of God is the great essential difference between a man and a beast, if one may speak now in a sort of practical way of the truth intended to be taught by the history. I apprehend that we are shown by this history, if we read it typically, that the Gentile powers would give up the recognition of God in their government. They might use His name outwardly, but as for any owning of God as the source of all they possessed, it would completely pass from their minds; and so it has.

But there was a physical change, which was what really took place in Nebuchadnezzar's case. Reduced to the condition of a beast, he lost what characterizes a man - all recognition of God. He had a beast's heart, as it is said here. He had nothing of the character and glory of a man. Man is put here below as the image and glory of God. He is responsible to make God known; and he can only do it because he looks up to God. There are those that have an outward semblance of man, but "man that is in honour and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish." This received its most remarkable confirmation in the case of Nebuchadnezzar; but the same thing is true, in principle, of every man that has got self and not God before his eyes. That was exactly true of the Babylonish king. He understood not. He attributed all to himself and not to God; and so, by a terrible retribution, he is reduced to the most abject state. Never had a Gentile possessed such glory and majesty as Nebuchadnezzar; but in a moment all is changed. In the height of his pride the sentence of God falls upon him. "He was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen," etc. But all this had its limit. It was to be "till seven times had passed over him," "Times" may have been used rather than years, perhaps, because this judgment of Nebuchadnezzar is the type of the condition to which the Gentile powers are reduced during the whole course of their empire. Hence a symbolic term may have been chosen rather than one of ordinary life. The Gentiles, spite of God's gift of supreme power, would be without any adequate recognition of Him in their government. They would use their power for their own ends and interests As to really and honestly conforming themselves to the will of God, when was such a thing ever heard of as the great object of any nation's policy since they got their power? I am not aware that it was ever even thought of. So truly does this figure apply to the whole course of the Gentiles.

Let us look a little at the effect of the judgment on Nebuchadnezzar. The seven times passed over the king. "And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up my eyes unto heaven." Then was the first great sign of returning intelligence. A beast looks downward. He never looks upward, in the moral sense of the expression. Man, acting morally as man, acknowledges in his conscience One from whom he has derived all, and One whom he is bound to honour and obey. Nebuchadnezzar, when the term of the judgment was passed, lifted up his eyes unto heaven. He is taking the true place of a man. "And mine understanding returned unto me." What was the consequence? "And I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever." Mark the difference. On previous occasions, he might have bowed down before the prophet, and commanded sweet odours to be offered to him: he might send out statutes and decrees that the God of the Jews should be honoured by all his subjects. But what does he now? He drops all others for the moment, and bows before God. Nebuchadnezzar is not occupied with compelling other people for good or ill, but himself, blessing, praising, and honouring the Most High. Observe, too, the expression, "Most High"; because it is used here with particular emphasis. "I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou? "

When the times of the Gentiles close, the stump will assert its vitality, which was left in the earth protected by divine providence, and allowed still to be a stay in the midst of the anarchy that would otherwise have overspread the earth. We must remember, that the world's government is a signal mercy for the earth compared with having no government at all. Yet, while God has controlled it and kept it in His providence for the good of the world, there is a time coming, when it will sprout up again and will be found really fulfilling the object for which God has established it in the earth. And when will this be "When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness." When everything that has come from God will really be accomplished according to His will - when man will be blessed fully, and will no longer be as the beasts that perish - when Israel will not any more be found rejecting their own Messiah, nor the Gentiles arrogating to themselves the power conferred on them by God, in His sovereign bounty. That same day will see all these glories shining out; but it can only be "when Christ, who is our life, shall appear," and when we shall "appear with Him in glory." It is reserved for Him to be the head of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews. All nations and tribes and tongues shall serve Him. For God can only be known where Christ is known - can only be seen in His goodness and glory where Christ is recognized as the expression and substance of it. And so it will be in that bright day. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself will come and establish, in perfection, everything that has only crumbled under man's hand, and had, at best, only a negative effect in the world, staying the evil here and there, but far short of the full means of blessing that God intends. When that day comes, it will be seen that Gentile government, not in its present corrupt state, but cleared of evil, and expanded according to the thoughts of God, will flourish in the earth, and be the channel of nothing but blessing. It is only sin which has hindered God's mercy in it hitherto. Thus, when the grand fulfilment will take place of this typical history of Nebuchadnezzar - when the time of the "beast's heart" towards God, caring only for self, gratifying pride and lust of power, shall have passed away, God will take the reins into His own hands as the Most High God, and Gentiles shall bow in praise and thankful joy.

When that expression, "Most High God," first occurs, there is a very striking scene. And in Scripture we must often recur to the first use, in order to get the full meaning. "Most High God" appears first in the case of Melchizedek, when Abraham was returning victorious from pursuing the kings who had taken Lot prisoner. So it will be at the close of this dispensation, when there will be not only victory over all the powers that assemble against God's people, but the answer to the blessed scene that followed. Melchizedek meets Abraham, and Abraham gives him tithes of all, and receives his blessing. And Melchizedek is the type of Christ in this, that He unites the kingly glory with the priestly. He was the King of Salem, and his very name was King of righteousness. Then will be the day of peace founded on righteousness. But he was the priest of the Most High God also. It is not the offering of sacrifice or of incense that characterizes his action, but the bringing out of bread and wine for the refreshment of the conquerors. He blesses, and pronounces the blessing of the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth. For in that day, there will be no longer a moral chasm between heaven and earth, but complete union. It will be no confusion or amalgam of the two, but a link of most intimate harmony; and the Lord Jesus will be that uniting bond. The Head of those that belong to heaven, He is also the King of kings, and Lord of lords - the sovereign Disposer of all earthly power. To Him all will bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, and things infernal too. This will be the full epoch of the restoration of Gentile intelligence and blessing.

If any persons are called to honour the truth of God, and to walk in the intelligence of His ways, it is His own children who enjoy the consciousness of their Father's love. And may we, understanding this our place, be enabled to remember what will be the end of all things, as far as man is concerned! That day of judgment approaches which is coming upon the world, and the weight of which will fall upon the Jew and Gentile, both in a state of apostasy. Still, we know that it will see a remnant of both brought out to shine with greater blessedness than ever - the Jews exalted, the Gentiles blessed, in their true places. No longer a poor, mutilated stump, but again sprouting up into its normal strength and majesty, under the dews of heaven. The Lord grant that we may expect good from God, remembering that in the midst of judgment there is mercy that triumphs over judgment in every case, save in that which utterly rejects Christ - which lives, refusing His mercy - which dies, counting itself unworthy of everlasting life. Remember, that no soul that hears the gospel is lost simply because it is evil. There is a sure remedy for all we are. Men are lost because they reject and despise eternal life, pardon, peace, everything, in the Son of God.