Who Were the Nations in Nebuchadnezzar’s Prophetic Dream? (Daniel 2)
This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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29To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. 30But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.31 “You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.36“This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 38and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all— you are the head of gold.39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth.40And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. 42And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage,3 but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.44And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.” 46Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him.47The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.”
After saying that God had revealed the future to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:28–29), Daniel now claimed to know this mystery, as well as a divinely revealed interpretation of it, “that you may know the thoughts of your mind.” Daniel knew the dream “not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living,” an admission that may have surprised Nebuchadnezzar, for he had evaluated Daniel very highly at the end of his three-year education (Dan. 1:19–20). As Daniel now prepared to tell the dream and its interpretation, he did not seize the opportunity for self-exaltation.
ESV Expository Commentary
Thirteen contributors explain the shorter Prophetic Books of the Old Testament—Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—with biblical insight and pastoral wisdom, showing readers the hope that is offered even amidst judgment.
Daniel made a general statement about the dream: “You saw, O king, . . . a great image.” This image is the subject of the rest of Daniel’s monologue. It was “mighty and of exceeding brightness,” and “its appearance was frightening” (Dan. 2:31). This intimidating image was a man composed of several metals, and Daniel began at the top of the image as he described it: a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay (Dan. 2:32–33). The body parts can be distilled into four sections, with their corresponding elements.
Then Daniel related what happened to the image: a stone, “cut out by no human hand,” struck the image on the feet and broke them (Dan. 2:34). The whole statue was affected, for “the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces” (Dan. 2:35a). The list of metals is now in reverse order, ascending from feet to head. The shattering was so thorough that the pieces “became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found” (Dan. 2:35b)—an image of divine judgment (cf. Ps. 1:4). No part of the image could endure the stone, which “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35c). This worldwide dominion was something ascribed to no other metal or body part—the metals were all vulnerable, but the stone was invincible.
With the words “This was the dream,” Daniel signaled that the time had now come for the interpretation. Since the king had not questioned any detail of the retelling, Daniel had succeeded in part one of his task.
Daniel spoke to Nebuchadnezzar in honorific ways: “O king,” “king of kings,” who possessed “the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory.” Daniel acknowledged that Babylon was strong and imposing, formidable to those who looked on, yet he gave even greater honor where it was due, referring to the king as the one “to whom the God of heaven has given” and “into whose hand he has given” these things. Nebuchadnezzar held power over a vast and strong kingdom only by God’s sovereign plan. Into Nebuchadnezzar’s “hand,” God gave “the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all.” This “God of heaven” ruled the rulers.
The language of verse 38 recalls the sixth day of creation: “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26). As an image-bearer of God, Nebuchadnezzar was a kind of Adam, charged with the creation mandate—even though he would not be a faithful image-bearer, exercising dominion for his own glory and exaltation (cf. Dan. 3:1–7).
At the end of Daniel 2:38, Nebuchadnezzar received the first identification of a metal from the image in his dream: “You are the head of gold.” The head of gold represented the Babylonian kingdom corporately and Nebuchadnezzar in particular.
Because of the clarity of Daniel’s interpretation, the gold head is the least debated element of the image. The next words, however, divide scholars, as Daniel moves from the present to the future: “Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you.”
This second kingdom (the silver chest and arms; Dan. 2:32) refers either to only the Medes or to the Medes and Persians together.1Our decision on this issue will affect our interpretation of the rest of the image, as the kingdoms in view are successive. If the silver chest and arms is the Median kingdom only, then the third kingdom (Dan. 2:39b) is Persia, but if the second kingdom is understood as the Medo-Persian Empire, then the third is most likely Greece. Because upcoming visions in the book of Daniel will incorporate multiple kingdoms that correspond to those in chapter 2, the decision made here will affect the interpretation of later portions of the book.
“Another kingdom inferior to you” probably refers to the Medo-Persian (or simply Persian) kingdom. It conquered Babylon in 539 BC and remained in power until 331 BC. A progression from Babylon to Persia in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision is reasonable because Babylon fell not to the Medes but to the Persians, eleven years after the Persians had absorbed the Median Empire (c. 550 BC). Nevertheless, the Medes continued to play an important role in the Persian Empire, and the Greeks frequently referred to Persians as “Medes,” until the fourth century BC.
Daniel continued his interpretation with the next element: “a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth.” In 331 BC, the Medo-Persians fell to the Greeks, headed by Alexander the Great. The comprehensive description of an empire to “rule over all the earth” denotes the vast reach and greatness of the Greek kingdom, which reigned until 146 BC.
After the Greeks came the Romans.2 Rome was the fourth kingdom in the king’s vision and received the most detail: it would be “strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these” (Dan. 2:40). The description is of a triumphant empire, seemingly undefeatable, obliterating its opponents with the strength of iron. Yet Rome was not invincible: “As you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay” (Dan. 2:41). The legs were of iron (Dan. 2:33) but rested on feet of iron and clay. This mixture denotes division, and division means vulnerability: “As the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle” (Dan. 2:42). Daniel sees that “they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay” (Dan. 2:43). The meaning of “mix with one another in marriage” is unclear, but seems to refer to intermarriage between ethnicities, perhaps specifically royal intermarriages, creating instability in the empire.
“The days of those kings” refers to the fourth empire (Rome), which saw a succession of kings (emperors) for several centuries.3 In contrast to the four kingdoms of Daniel 2:31–43, which all proved to be temporary, God’s kingdom “shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). God’s kingdom shall prevail, “just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold” (Dan. 2:45).
Note that the rock/mountain was not a part of the four-part image. The Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman kingdoms were purely of this world, while the “stone was cut out by no human hand” (Dan. 2:34). It was heavenly in origin and eternal in duration (Dan. 2:44), representing a fifth kingdom superior to the previous four.
Jesus reimagined this stone/mountain metaphor when he spoke of God’s kingdom as “a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:31–32). God’s kingdom starts small and grows, much like the stone that became a great mountain and filled the earth (Dan. 2:35). The prominence of God’s rule is depicted similarly in Isaiah: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isa. 2:2).
Jesus identified himself as the “stone” from Daniel’s interpretation in a parable about wicked tenants. In Luke 20:17, he cited Psalm 118:22 (“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”; cf. Isa. 8:14; Isa. 28:16) and then said, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Luke 20:18), alluding to Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45.
Having completed the interpretation, Daniel reminded Nebuchadnezzar, “A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this” (Dan. 2:45). And because the God of heaven made all of this known, “The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”
- Some scholars believe, however, that the number four represents completeness and that, rather than referring to specific historical empires, the four-part statue provides a global perspective on world history.
- Christian fathers like Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, and Eusebius identified the four kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, so there is precedent early in church history for the interpretation argued above.
- Steinmann rightly warns that if the fourth kingdom were interpreted to be Greece, “Daniel’s prophecy would be false prophecy, not to be honored or believed” (Daniel, 137), for God’s kingdom (represented by the crushing rock) was established not during the Greek Empire but during the Roman.
This article is by Mitchell L. Chase and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Volume 7).
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