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William Blake

Nebuchadnezzar, 1795–c.1805, Colour print, ink, and watercolour on paper, 543 x 725 mm, Tate; Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939, N05059, Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Arthur Boyd

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Tree, 1969, Oil on canvas, 174.5 x 183 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; The Arthur Boyd gift, 1975, NGA 1975.3.95, Photo: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Peter Howson

The Third Step, 2001, Oil on canvas, 189 x 259 cm, Flowers Gallery, AFG 33212, © Peter Howson, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Renewal from Adversity

Comparative Commentary by

The tales about King Nebuchadnezzar II told in the book of Daniel appear to be stories of overweening pride, with Nebuchadnezzar, like Icarus, reaching too high and being thrown back to the ground. The proverbs and phrases that seem most naturally to capture the moral of this story—‘how are the mighty fallen’, ‘pride comes before a fall’, and having ‘feet of clay’—link it to other biblical texts with comparable concerns (2 Samuel 1:27; Proverbs 16:18; Daniel 2:31–32).

Nebuchadnezzar would not have been the first ruler to have sought to immortalize his image through a statue (Daniel 3:1–7), and we can all readily recall examples of statues of the once powerful, such as those of Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and Confederate heroes, that have subsequently been toppled. 

As Robert Graves writes in his poem 'Nebuchadnezzar’s Fall':

Here for the pride of his soaring eagle heart,
Here for his great hand searching the skies for food,
Here for his courtship of Heaven's high stars he shall smart,
Nebuchadnezzar shall fall, crawl, be subdued. (Knopf 1920: 37)

The works of art in this exhibition do not focus primarily on Nebuchadnezzar’s fall, however. While William Blake’s image does foreground Nebuchadnezzar’s bestial nature, with even the king’s own eyes directed downwards at the ground on which he crawls, Blake wants to alert us to a different possibility. Nebuchadnezzar’s concentration on the material as reality—seeing with the eye instead of seeing through the eye—means that his sight has narrowed so that he cannot see infinity. We are to look further.

By contrast the figure in Peter Howson’s The Third Step looks up from the graveyard in which he crawls—and away from himself—to focus his gaze on Christ. Step three in the Twelve Step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous—'a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him’—is meant to help alcoholics rely on something other than themselves to help them abstain from drinking. Similarly, in Arthur Boyd’s painting, we see Nebuchadnezzar looking up. His upward gaze is in the same direction as the growth of the tree—a reversal of his fall and the beginning of his restoration.

In their paintings, Howson and Boyd show more interest in rehabilitation and restoration than in fall. Meanwhile, Blake, in his work, focuses more on the sensual slavery represented by Nebuchadnezzar’s fallen state—a sensuality which inhibits awareness of what is spiritual—than on the pride which led to that state. Taken together, though each in its own way, these three works can be seen as inviting us to grow into the divine life, overcoming the bestial self that we see criticized in Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. It is as we look away from ourselves and abandon our own self-reliance—the moment of realization, the ‘cleansing’ of the ‘doors of perception’ (Blake 1979: 188)—that we are able to see God. Through such moments, we may ourselves become icons revealing the divine. 

So, despite initial appearances Daniel 4 does much more than present us with the moral lesson that ‘pride comes before a fall’. The chapter’s concerns with exile and renewal give us in microcosm one of the central arguments of the book of Daniel as a whole. 

The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon (Jeremiah 29). This letter encouraged the exiles to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which they had been carried against their wills. Though written a long time later than Jeremiah’s letter, much of the book of Daniel complements it by showing God at work through the exiles in Babylon—to such an extent, indeed, that Nebuchadnezzar himself eventually acknowledges the sovereignty of God. Through his time away from the affairs of court, Nebuchadnezzar had his own exile experience; one which, for all its mental distress, ultimately restored him to a greater sense of wholeness and well-being.

Samuel Wells suggests that Judah had previously loved God primarily for ‘the promise of land, king and temple’. When deprived of these things, Judah in exile ‘discovers that it is closer to God than ever it was in the Promised Land’ (Wells 2017: 3). Such renewal, concludes Wells, ‘invariably comes out of adversity’ (Wells 2018: 7).

This is perhaps an insight for a contemporary Church smarting from its loss of influence in a post-Christendom and post-modern society where it is one among many faiths and one among many voices in the public square. One response to these circumstances is to denounce and oppose the perceived godlessness of earthly powers. Some other parts of the book of Daniel seem to commend just this. But Jeremiah’s letter and the example of Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule suggest that renewal will come if the Church settles into its changed circumstances and seeks the peace and prosperity of society. 



Blake, William. 1979. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books)

Graves, Robert. 1920. Country Sentiment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Wells, Samuel. 2017. ‘Catalysing Kingdom Communities’, General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, May 23, 2017, [accessed 7 July 2019]

———. 2018. ‘A Future that’s Bigger than the Past: Renewal and Reform in the Church of England’ (Background paper presented at Renewal & Reform, Church of England), [accessed 7 July 2019] 


Next exhibition: Daniel 5