Nebuchadnezzar visited Judah again six years later and took more captives, including Ezekiel. He set up Zedekiah as another puppet king, but he foolishly turned to Egypt and the king of Babylon finally lost patience. In the 19th year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem after a two-year siege. He ransacked it thoroughly, then razed it with fire. All the temple treasures were carefully carried back to Babylon. He didn’t even favour the city with a personal visit right at the end, but stayed far north of Israel in the town of Riblah. There, dozens of religious and civic courtiers were brought from Jerusalem and slaughtered in front of him, culminating in Zedekiah’s sons, the princes of Judah, being executed in front of their father. The last thing he saw, as it turned out, because Zedekiah was then blinded and marched off to Babylon.

Had Nebuchadnezzar completely forgotten the God of Israel and turned into a bloodthirsty monster? Probably not. The gory end to the kingdom of Judah was probably considered just retribution for their double-crossing treachery in turning to Egypt. Such were the ways of those days. But Nebuchadnezzar had not forgotten the most High God. Daniel was in Babylon for all of those years, faithfully worshipping Yahweh, and there was another strange prophet still in Judah that he told the king about.

What did Nebuchadnezzar make of Jeremiah? How much did Daniel, and others, tell him of his prophecies? Up to a point, the more he knew the more he liked. Here was a man of God who told the Jews not to resist Babylon, who named Nebuchadnezzar as the conqueror of Egypt, who strongly opposed his double-crossers in Jerusalem. Jeremiah almost wrote the Babylonian Middle East invasion plan before it happened. Nebuchadnezzar may well have come to feel he was in league with “the most High God” as his kingdom began to fill the world. When the Babylonians finally ran out of patience with Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar personally gave an order concerning Jeremiah: “Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do unto him even as he shall say unto thee” (Jer 39:12). He had observed something special in this man, something different to the idolatrous traitors in the court of Zedekiah.

It all helped prepare him for his final lesson.

The Final Lesson

Daniel 4 is unique. Although it is part of the inspired Word of God, this chapter is for the most part, Nebuchadnezzar’s words. It is largely his chapter and brings to a close the biblical record of his life. Nebuchadnezzar had grown older and wiser. The ambitious young man had given way to an older king content to enjoy the fruits of his immense labours. He had carved his empire in the shape of his own image and he relaxed amidst the opulent magnificence he had surrounded himself with.

But the God of Israel wasn’t finished with him yet. The most challenging experience of his life still lay ahead of him and at the end of it, a new man would emerge. Perhaps a king now ready to face eternity.

And it started with a dream.

A magnificent fantasy about a majestic, resplendent tree that filled the earth and touched the edge of heaven itself. Beautiful, fruitful and powerful, a living masterpiece of creation that provided shelter and nourishment to all life that came into its domain. The king watched it grow in a dream so real it must have seemed that he was part of it. And he was. As the dream reached its zenith, a person entered, descending from heaven itself, higher even than the tree. Nebuchadnezzar recognised what it was: “A watcher and an holy one” (Dan 4:13), an angelic being watching over the affairs of men—even the affairs of Babylon. His voice carried great authority and he commanded that the tree be cut down so all that remained was just a stump in the ground, though still alive. There it was to remain for seven years, no greater now than the grass surrounding it. What had been a mighty tree that ruled the forest was now as commonplace as the wild animals that wandered by.

The angel gave the sleeping king the reason for the dream, which he faithfully recorded later. It was Nebuchadnezzar who conveyed the thoughts of what is probably the most famous verse in Daniel: “to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (v17). So the king knew its purpose, but not its meaning.

That was left to Daniel to reveal, and he pulled no punches. The Nebuchadnezzar he revealed it to was different to the young king he had first spoken to over a quarter of a century earlier. He was not the sometimes petulant, violent figure of those days. This time he didn’t indulge in political games. He revealed the details of the dream to his wise men, who had no answers, and finally, to Daniel. No-one was under threat of death this time. And of Daniel he said, “I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in thee” (v9). Nebuchadnezzar was prepared to listen. Daniel was concerned at the impact the meaning could have on him and the king sensed his reluctance. He re-assured him he was prepared for the answer, good or bad.

“The tree that thou sawest…it is thou, O king” (vv20,22): off to a good start. But in what followed the king was to be sentenced to seven years of extreme illness, where instead of being likened to a tree, he would be like one of the beasts of the field. Dwelling far from the luxurious splendour of his court, he would live like an animal. And the reason for it was stated again, “…till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (v32).

And again, “that thou shalt have known that the heavens do rule” (v26).

Daniel offered a possible solution to Nebuchadnezzar, a potential way of escape, “by shewing mercy to the poor” (v27).This was a part of the character of the most High that was missing in the king of Babylon.

He was indecisive. He thought about it, no doubt, but for the king of the world, there were many delightful distractions. His thinking stopped at the towering tree and he put aside the stump in the ground. Finally, after a year had passed, “is not this great Babylon, that I have built” (v30) dominated his mind.

Then, the most remarkable event in the life of this amazing king intervened, and changed him forever. He heard a voice from heaven itself. Not in a dream this time, but up close, and personal: “O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee. And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee” (vv31-32).

And again, “…until thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (v32).

Nebuchadnezzar’s life changed immediately, totally. The disease he was afflicted with may have been lycanthropy. This severe mental illness lasted for seven years and at the end of it, Nebuchadnezzar’s divine education was complete. Lesson 3, a long one, was over and the course was finished. He shared the lessons he had learnt with anyone who cares to read them—forever, as it turned out. Here is his final essay (vv1-3,34-35,37):

“To all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. I thought it good to shew the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward me. How great are his signs! and how mighty are his wonders! his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation…

“And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and 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?…

“Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.”

Daniel’s God was more than just a revealer of secrets, more even than a saver of lives. He truly was the most High God. Higher than Nebuchadnezzar, higher than everything. And the king understood this once he himself had become “the basest of men” (v17). From that experience, Nebuchadnezzar glimpsed into the forever and, like every servant of God, acknowledged finally, fully, that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (v32).