Daniel 4: 28–34
28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of the twelve months he was walking about the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king spoke, saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?”
Nebuchadnezzar had it all: kingdom, wealth, power, and prestige. He had captured prized cities like Jerusalem, conquered enemies such as the brutal Assyrians, and defeated Egyptian pharaohs on the field of battle. His legacy was secure and his dynasty was the envy of the ancient world. This is the place where God chose to trouble Nebuchadnezzar with terrifying dreams of future calamity.
Here at the end of chapter 4, Daniel, chosen by God to interpret the dreams and show God’s will, has just laid out the meaning of the second dream—one that held dire warning for Nebuchadnezzar as well as a promise of hope if the king would humble himself before God.
Nebuchadnezzar seems to actually heed this warning for a while but, surrounded by his palaces and grandeur, he just cannot help himself from repeating old habits. In verse 29, the king walks into a bear trap and once again sings praises to himself.
Like a flash of lightning, God makes His presence known and, “While the word was still in the king’s mouth,” God makes good his warning and strikes Nebuchadnezzar with madness:
31 While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! 32 And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.” — Daniel 4:31–32
“Madness” is not a word we use often in modern discussion. In today’s world, we seek to label specific behaviors and take time to delve into the reasons behind why people act the way they do. Indeed, behavioral science has seemingly unlocked the mysteries of the mind in ways that can allow healing to take place or can help us understand how our actions affect others on the inside and out.
To say that someone has “gone mad” may seem cruel and uninformed by today’s standards, but it used to be a common theme in literature and lore. A character that was so beset with misery and trauma could suddenly behave irrationally and carry the tale to new heights of drama.
One of the best-known examples is Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” When the vain old king sought to divide his kingdom among his three daughters so he could retire in style and admiration, he only found trouble. After breaking the heart of his favorite daughter and being betrayed by the other two, Lear was driven into the wilds in anger, grief, and shame and questioned his own sanity:
O! let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (Act 1, Scene 5)
Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar had similar thoughts as he was struck by God with this madness and was driven out into the wilderness to forage like a beast:
33 That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws. — Daniel 4:33
Nebuchadnezzar’s Howard Hughes-like transformation from sultan of swag to the wild man of Babylon is one of the most remarkable in the bible. We can shake our heads and marvel at his foolishness to test God by seeking his own glory—but how often have we done the same in our lives?
Living in the grip of unrepented sin can be akin to living in a type of madness. When you are caught up in sinful devotion, it can claim you and rob you of your senses in some ways. The endorphin rush of pornography or the satisfaction of just one more drink can drive you to lie to loved ones and betray their trust. Or maybe it is the satisfaction of gossip where you damage the lives of others in an effort to be sought out by friends who long to share your juicy information.
Sins and habits that we repeat over and over, knowingly or unknowingly, alter our behavior in ways that drive a wedge between those we love and the God who seeks our whole heart.
How do we break these habits? How do we come in from the wilderness of our own flesh and love of this world? Nebuchadnezzar discovered the answer after seven long years of misery, as we see in verse 34:
34 And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever:
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
And His kingdom is from generation to generation — Daniel 4:34
In a striking change of perspective from the third-person to the broken king’s own voice, Nebuchadnezzar reveals that he “looked up” and his wits returned once he again acknowledged God’s power. Nebuchadnezzar spat out his salad of grass clippings and filled his mouth with praise to the Almighty, the one true God.
This then is our hope when locked in the “madness” of our sins: look up. Remember that God wants all of you and not just the part that you take to church. We live in denial of how our sins hurt others and how they break our relationship with our heavenly Father. To keep trying to balance our addictions and our habits with a life of holiness is a losing game.
People were astonished to see the once wild and demon-possessed Man of the Tombs “…sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” [Luke 8:35b] You are also put in your “right mind” when you encounter Jesus. Nebuchadnezzar’s confidence in himself ultimately failed him. Christ and his perfect work gives you the conviction to turn from the madness of sin and follow Him.
To look up is to see the Cross. To look up is to be honest with yourself on how much you love and want the pleasure, the attention, the importance, or the security that your sins promise—and how ultimately those sins betray and fail you.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.