Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar: What Dreams Are Made Of?

A lion from Ishtar Gate of Babylon built by King Nebuchadnezzar II in about 575 BC.. The piece is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, in Istanbul, Turkey.

We all have them. I suspect that most dreams are just subconscious streams of thoughts and emotions played out in disconnected images in the twilight between full sleep and consciousness. They might be interesting to a psychologist, but we can hardly count on them for meaningful information or guidance.

Some people believe that all dreams have some meaning, and some people believe that dreams have external meaning and significance (not just internal, psychological meaning and significance). Though I question that, I don’t discount that God can speak to us through the medium of dreams.

For as much attention people give them, dreams are not a prominent feature of biblical focus. The dreams that come to my mind are the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar. One of those dreams stands out to me, not so much because of the dream, itself, or its interpretation, but the response to it.

We need a little backstory first, though. Nebuchadnezzar could be ruthless, as kings often were. When he had a dream that troubled him in the second year of his reign (see Daniel 2), he called in his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what his dream was. They were eager to interpret it, but the king had something else in mind.

The King said that he had determined before summoning them that they must tell him what the dream was and interpret it or he would them “cut into pieces” and their homes “turned into piles of rubble”! I’m sure they were a bit less eager, but they pressed him, “Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

They didn’t understand him (or they didn’t want to understand him), so he clarified his demand again: “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you.” The King wanted them to tell him what his dream was. He figured if they could tell him what his dream was they could interpret it for him also.

They protested, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks!” Still, the King had them all executed. He would have executed Daniel also, but Daniel prayed to God and was shown the King’s dream during the night so that he was able to describe the dream and interpret it.

But this isn’t the dream I want to focus on. The interpretation of the dream in Daniel 2 was benign and foretold the distant future after the King’s life. King Nebuchadnezzar had another dream that is described in Daniel 4, and the interpretation of this dream was anything but benign.

To make a long dream short, the King dreamed of a mighty tree and a messenger from heaven who called out: “Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit.” The messenger continued: “Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.”

Last, but not least, the messenger said that this is “the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.”

Daniel was “terrified” when the king called on him to interpret this dream, and the reason becomes apparent quickly enough. The King didn’t hesitate to execute the men who couldn’t tell him what his dream was. What would he do when the interpretation isn’t to his liking?

Daniel explained it despite the terror he felt. He said the dream was a decree from God against the King. Daniel told him he would be driven away from his people to live with the wild animals until he renounced his sins, repented of his wickedness, did what is right and acknowledged God.

imagine that Daniel trembled a bit as he spoke those last words! Who tells the King to repent and change his ways?… and lives to tell of it!

But the King doesn’t have Daniel executed. He unreasonably put to death the men who couldn’t tell him what his dream was, but he didn’t punish Daniel for the extremely unfavorable interpretation of the second dream.

That puzzled me a bit previously, but I had a dream the other night, and I think I understand it now. Let me explain how.

My dream was short, as most of them (that I can remember) are. My memory of the dream is also fuzzy (as they usually are as well). I don’t have the vivid dreams some people describe.

In my dream, I was before my father. He was giving me a test. I was checking off answers or highlighting answers on a page. One answer that I gave seemed to me a little off when I highlighted it, and I knew (or was told) immediately that the answer was wrong. At the same moment, I had a very deep revelation about myself…. only I don’t know what that revelation is.

As I became aware of waking and thought about the dream, I could not, for the life of me, recall what the answer was that I got wrong or what the revelation about myself was. I am pretty sure I got the other details (as plain as they are) right, but I don’t know what the answer was I got wrong or what it revealed about myself.

As I continued to puzzle over my dream, I remembered the story of Nebuchadnezzar, and I remembered that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t kill Daniel for the very unfavorable interpretation of his dream. Then, it dawned on me why he didn’t kill Daniel.

Of course, Daniel previously told the King his dream before he interpreted it the last time. Daniel had earned the King’s respect, but that wasn’t the whole story. This King wasn’t a nice guy. He killed people for failing to do the impossible and tell him what his dream was!

It’s no wonder Daniel was so gracious in his explanation of the dream. He didn’t pull any punches when it came to the actual explanation, but he prefaced the explanation by saying, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”

But, I don’t think that Daniel’s graciously worded explanation or respect for Daniel are the reason Daniel lived to tell the story. I think there is more to it than that, and my own dream seems to shed some light on it.

I distinctly recall in my dream the feeling of failing to give my father the benefit of the doubt about something in giving the wrong answer and an immediate revelation of self-understanding. I just can’t remember now what the revelation was.

What is it about myself that I realized in the dream, but now I can’t remember? As I was thinking about it, I had a keen sense of the understanding being “on the tip of my tongue”, but just out of grasp. It seemed to me that, if someone suggested what it was to me, I would recognize it immediately.

That’s what made me think of the story of Nebuchadnezzar. I had previously puzzled over the fact that he didn’t have Daniel killed for such a rotten interpretation of the dream. Daniel was surely concerned about it (“terrified” in fact).

Then it dawned on me that Nebuchadnezzar recognized the truth of what Daniel was saying. Like my own sense that I would recognize what it was I couldn’t recall, Nebuchadnezzar recognized Daniel’s interpretation to be true.

I am not much of a dreamer, and I don’t put much stock in dreams, as I have said, but I don’t doubt God can speak to us and work through them. Muslims who convert to following Christ often speak of dreams or visions (or both) that convince them of the truth of Christianity.

We, in the west, though, tend to discount such “spiritual” experiences in favor of more psychological and scientific explanations. I am a product of that western thinking myself.

Still, I am not willing to discount or explain away the dreams in the Bible – or the dreams that Muslim converts or others might have. Rather, as Paul admonished the Thessalonians, we should “test everything”.

Maybe someone would even have an interpretation of my dream. Maybe I will recognize the truth of it then!

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