634BC Born 0 yrs
605BC Defeats Pharaoh at Carchemish

Ascends throne of Babylon

Besieges Jerusalem first time

Jehoiakim becomes his ‘puppet king’

Daniel taken captive

29
604BC Dream of image in Daniel 2 30
603BC? Image of gold in Daniel 3

Fiery furnace

31
597BC Besieges Jerusalem second time

Jehoiachin taken captive

Ezekiel taken captive

37
585BC Jerusalem destroyed

Jews taken captive to Babylon

49
578BC? Dream of Daniel 4 56
577BC? Beginning of illness 57
570BC? End of illness 64
562BC Death 72

Note: It is difficult to accurately date some parts of Daniel and the above should be taken as a guide only.

To properly understand the captivity of Judah, its cause and effect, it is necessary to understand something of its conqueror. This monarch was no ordinary man. In fact, there is no ruler in today’s world with the combination of longevity and hegemony that he possessed.

Nebuchadnezzar. Even the name drops majestically from the lips: “May Nebo protect the crown.” The meaning reinforces the power of this mighty autocrat. In all of ancient Israel’s history, he was arguably the greatest foreign ruler they faced, or that their prophets wrote about. Alexander the Great was truly the greatest general, but he flashed through the firmament of history like a blinding comet and was gone in a few short years. Ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs were powerful and revered, but their obsession with death and the hereafter somehow lessens their majesty. Really, all they left behind was a giant cemetery.

Nebuchadnezzar ruled the mightiest empire in the world for nearly half a century, from a city whose grandeur is still legendary. His Wonder of The Ancient World, one of only seven such, was all about life: the Hanging Gardens. He presided over the construction of what became, during his reign, the largest, grandest city in the world: Babylon. Its name still evokes an image of glorious splendour, shimmering above the golden sands of southern Iraq. It was, in every way, a monument to the ego of the man who built it because Nebuchadnezzar was an exceedingly proud man. He was born and raised to rule—something which he did with absolute power.

Or so he thought.

There are two threads that run through the fascinating tapestry of his life. One gave him a kind of immortality as one of history’s greatest of all rulers. The other may yet give him an even greater destiny.

Nebuchadnezzar was born in 634BC, the eldest son of Nabopolassar, a Chaldean prince from the region of southern Babylonia, not far from the site of ancient Ur. Nabopolassar wrested the city of Babylon from Assyria’s grasp in 626BC and subsequently gained control of the whole area of Babylonia. From there he set his sights high and after a bumpy ride, marched into Nineveh itself in 612BC, the last bastion of Assyrian imperialism.

From here on, it gets complicated. To summarise, the Assyrians retreated to the west and ended up at the city of Carchemish (on the Euphrates River at the border of northern Syria and eastern Turkey) for their last stand. Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt saw an opportunity to fill a power vacuum and decided to become involved. Sadly, Josiah tried to stop his march north at Megiddo, a decision which cost the life of Judah’s last faithful king. Once the warring armies reached Carchemish, it was Babylon versus the rest and it was here that crown prince Nebuchadnezzar stepped in and showed that he was not just a king-in-waiting but a general in control. In 605BC, Babylon won the battle of Carchemish, one of the supreme turning points in world history. The world had a new superpower and soon after, with the death of his father, Nebuchadnezzar returned home to be crowned the most powerful man in the world. As king of Babylon, his thoughts turned to some unfinished work in Carchemish and then he headed south to make sure Necho II entertained no more extravagant ideas about re-building an empire. On the way south, like so many great conquerors throughout history, he came across Jerusalem. Judah’s Jehoiakim, a puppet king, swapped masters from Necho II to Nebuchadnezzar and in his third year, the first of Judah’s captives were taken to Babylon—among them, Daniel. Pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian factionalism would dominate political life in Judah for the last two decades of its history, until Nebuchadnezzar finally ran out of patience.

“My servant”

In the Bible, this phrase comes with a special ring to it. It is used of very special people. Only nine individuals from Old Testament times are called by God, “My servant”. Here they are:

“My Servant”
Abraham
Job
Moses
Caleb
David
Isaiah
Eliakim
Jacob (nation of Israel)
Nebuchadnezzar
Zerubbabel
Jesus Christ (“The Branch”)

Picking the odd one out is easy! How did Nebuchadnezzar find his way onto such a list, and placed there by no lesser prophet than Jeremiah? Nebuchadnezzar: the absolute egotist, extravagantly cruel when it suited him, whose world was like a personal chess board on which he moved the pieces wherever he wanted, or removed them. Individuals or whole nations were destroyed at his word, families torn apart, whole races banished. Homicide, regicide, genocide, deicide: he turned his hand to all of them. He was superstitious too, and fiercely fiery if he felt he’d been affronted.

But he had another side. He was a cultured, sophisticated Chaldean, who built great wonders of the world. It was mainly because of Chaldean superiority in arithmetic, mathematics and astronomy that, in the 6th and 7th centuries BC, the Babylonians were reputed to be the most learned of nations. In their arithmetic, much prominence was given to the number sixty; and they had developed simple and complex multiplication tables. Of the latter, one gave the squares and another, the cubes of all the numbers from one to sixty. They divided the day into twelve hours, the hour into sixty minutes and the minute into sixty seconds.

They made maps and catalogues of the stars, divided them into groups, distinguished planets and comets from fixed stars and understood the relative distances of many planets from the earth. Different languages were spoken in the Euphrates Valley, and these were studied with the aid of dictionaries and grammar. When Daniel and his friends were to be taught “the learning and tongue of the Chaldeans,” there was a great deal to learn.

But it wasn’t all one way. Nebuchadnezzar was also to be taught something of the learning of Daniel—in particular about Yahweh his God. The religious education of Nebuchadnezzar, though seemingly random from his perspective, was systematic and comprehensive. It was a course that lasted over 35 years, at the end of which he passed his final exam with flying colours. In fact, of the myriad of unbelieving, non-Jewish rulers down through the centuries of human history, it may be that Nebuchadnezzar came closer than any to a true understanding of who the God of Israel really is. Just how close will be revealed one day in the near future.

And he was the only one who actually wrote part of the Bible.

When Nebuchadnezzar first arrived in Jerusalem he was no doubt aware of some of the history of the kingdom of Judah, and of the God they had worshipped. There were great kings in their history, but not any more. It was over a century since Merodach-Baladan had returned from a visit to king Hezekiah with stories of fabulous wealth, but less than 40 years since king Manasseh had been brought to Babylon in chains by the Assyrians. Now the world had changed again and Babylon’s time had come. It was prudent to keep a tight reign on a nation that had a feisty history, so Jehoiakim was left in Jerusalem as a puppet king and the cream of his court taken back to Babylon. The king of Babylon’s education was about to begin.

Lesson one

It all started with a dream. One of history’s most famous.

Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction showed how extreme his temper could be. He demanded of his wise men—totally unreasonably—that they tell him what the dream was and what it meant. Of course they couldn’t. The king was angry, “very furious,” and called his chief executioner, ordering him to slaughter all his advisers, including Daniel and his friends, before another day had passed. End of story. That’s how ancient eastern autocrats often vented. Yahweh weighed in and the famous dream became one of history’s most famous prophecies. World history in a nutshell and Nebuchadnezzar instinctively knew he was on holy ground.

His response to his first great lesson was stunning. He fell on his face—the king of the world—and humbled himself before a teenage Hebrew slave, Daniel. And he ordered offerings to be made and incense burnt. It gives an insight into the sort of man he must have been: emotional and intense. In one day he had gone from a blind murderous rage to over-the-top grovelling gratitude. He was a man to handle very carefully, but a man capable of change. The man who was sure that Nebo protected his crown was now willing to acknowledge another power in the pantheon of Babylon—a unique one at that—and stated, “Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret.”

Lesson one was over.

Lesson two

Very soon after the dream faded and its miraculous nature had diminished, one part of Daniel’s message stuck in Nebuchadnezzar’s craw. The head of gold. Daniel had been careful with his words: “Thou, O king art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory…thou art this head of gold.” The Babylonian power sounded grand, but it wouldn’t last. It was to be replaced by another power, then another and another. In the end they were all replaced by a kingdom that would “stand for ever,” but it wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar’s. Finally, this awesome dream became an irritating problem. Whatever else it was he came to see it as a challenge to his authority, and in an empire like Babylon, that could never be tolerated.

Kings like to ponder the words, “for ever.” They feel somehow part of it and they don’t like to be confronted with their own mortality.

So Nebuchadnezzar dreamed up a solution. He made a colossus of gold: no other metals, nothing to come after the head of gold but more gold. He made it 60 cubits high too; after all 60 was Babylon’s superlative number. And instead of the image falling down, everyone in Babylon would fall down, just like he did when he fell down and worshipped Daniel. And if anyone refused, they would be burned alive; reduced to ashes; blown away like the chaff of the summer threshing floors. That should clear up any confusion. And just to reinforce the idea, his fellow Chaldeans gushed, “O king, live for ever.”

But of course, three men did refuse to bow down. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—three Hebrew captives—had been promoted by the king to manage the affairs of the province of Babylon. How humiliating their stand must have been, and Nebuchadnezzar was furious. With great difficulty he controlled himself and spoke to the three men. Calmly, but with great menace, he gave them a chance. But they refused his offer and now there was no restraining him. The very worst of Nebuchadnezzar bubbled to the surface. His face darkened to reflect the evil fury that had engulfed him.

Then just like before, when the king was at his murderous peak, God intervened. Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t believe his eyes. Fury was replaced by a creeping fear as he saw the three men alive in the raging fire, but joined now by a fourth. The king rightly assessed something divine was in the furnace. But the only gods he knew never moved. This one was alive! He used a new title to describe Him, “the Most High God.” This was much more than just a revealer of secrets and Nebuchadnezzar confessed as much:

“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.”

The king acknowledged another great power, new to him. Not just a revealer of secrets now, but a great Saviour also. But he still tried to protect his own majesty by seemingly entering into a kind of agreement to personally defend the dignity of this God.

Nebuchadnezzar was progressing, but Lesson two was complete.

The direct lessons were over for now and would not resume for another 25 years.