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, www.churchofscotland.org.uk [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), www.churchofengland.org/about/renewal-reform/theological-reflections [accessed 7 July 2019]
4 King Nebuchadnezʹzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has wrought toward me.
3How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and his dominion is from generation to generation.
4 I, Nebuchadnezʹzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5I had a dream which made me afraid; as I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6Therefore I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeʹans, and the astrologers came in; and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. 8At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazʹzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods—and I told him the dream, saying, 9“O Belteshazʹzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is difficult for you, here is the dream which I saw; tell me its interpretation. 10The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth; and its height was great. 11The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12Its leaves were fair and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the air dwelt in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.
13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14He cried aloud and said thus, ‘Hew down the tree and cut off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit; let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven; let his lot be with the beasts in the grass of the earth; 16let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven times pass over him. 17The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ 18This dream I, King Nebuchadnezʹzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazʹzar, declare the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”
19 Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazʹzar, was dismayed for a moment, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king said, “Belteshazʹzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazʹzar answered, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! 20The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth; 21whose leaves were fair and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all; under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the air dwelt— 22it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. 23And whereas the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Hew down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field; and let him be wet with the dew of heaven; and let his lot be with the beasts of the field, till seven times pass over him’; 24this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field; you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will. 26And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be sure for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. 27Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you; break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquillity.”
28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezʹzar. 29At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30and the king said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezʹzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field; and you shall be made to eat grass like an ox; and seven times shall pass over you, until you have learned that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33Immediately the word was fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezʹzar. He was driven from among men, and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezʹzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives for ever;
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing;
and he does according to his will in the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What doest thou?”
36At the same time my reason returned to me; and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37Now I, Nebuchadnezʹzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven; for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to abase.