7.24 Daniel -- the Four-Fold Image
Chapter 2 is reminiscent of Gen 41, in which Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh. In both cases, the Lord gave a prophetic dream to a world leader who didn’t acknowledge Him (Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar). None of the usual advisors or wise men could explain the king’s dream. The interpretation was given only to one of the Lord’s chosen servants (Joseph, Daniel), who was promoted as a result of the incident. But there are some significant differences between the two accounts:
a. Pharaoh’s dreams revealed the immediate future, but Nebuchadnezzar’s dream extended into a distant future.
b. Pharaoh’s dreams called for a practical response of obedience, a program to conserve food. This program not only saved Egyptian lives, but extended Pharaoh’s power and influence in the region. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream required no action -- it was a window into the future course of history.
c. Reading the Genesis account, it’s entirely plausible to conclude that the Lord sent the dreams to Pharaoh primarily for the sake of Israel -- to rescue Joseph, to save His people from the coming famine, and to cause them to move to Egypt in preparation for the nation-creating events of the Exodus. But in Daniel, the implication is that the Lord sent the dream (1) because He is "the revealer of mysteries" (Dan 2:28-29), and it is His nature to communicate, and (2) because Nebuchadnezzar is "king of kings," and the God who has given him dominion wishes him to use it wisely (Dan 2:30-38). The fact that the dream and its interpretation are presented in Aramaic underscores these points. The Lord wished to be known among the Gentiles, and Daniel’s role as being one of His chosen people was to assist in making Him known to them.
The dream presents the book’s first view of four empires, here pictured as a huge statue. The four sections -- gold head, silver chest and arms, bronze belly and thighs, and iron legs and feet -- progressively diminish in value, but increase in toughness and endurance (NIV Study Bible 1302), except that the iron feet are mixed with clay (Dan 2:32-33). The sections are commonly identified as the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires [or Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek], although most interpreters conclude that this series is not exhaustive. These four prefigure additional, similar human empires that will succeed them. More details are supplied in later chapters, but only here does the image of the statue suggest an essential unity to all the empires. This is rather like one of the New Testament uses of the term "the world" to indicate an entire system of human powers and alliances raised up in rebellion against God.
This four-ply statue represents the human organization of power on the world stage. It is what was called the imperial state or, in the 1970’s, the "military-industrial complex," whose appearance changes (gold, silver, etc), but not its essential nature. This statue, of which Nebuchadnezzar is the head, will be smashed by a Stone "cut out without human hands," the eternal kingdom set up by God Himself.
While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth (Dan 2:34-35).
Many scholars, having observed that this is an apocalyptic book, emphasize the divine origin and sudden appearance of the Stone. In fact, Daniel says that it is "cut out of a mountain" (Dan 2:45), suggesting a pre-existing earthly material such as a people or nation. Moreover, the Stone grows, like the kingdom of heaven planted on earth in Jesus’ parables (Mat 13). Baldwin (p. 97) observes that it is a "living stone" (compare 1 Pet 2:4), "mobile and growing" in contrast to the rigid, lifeless statue.
Daniel explained all this to Nebuchadnezzar, but he pointed out no moral, issued no call for repentance. Although Babylon’s glory will be swept away like chaff, the king was not urged to change his ways and perform works that will endure. Nebuchadnezzar offered praise to God and rewarded the messenger, but otherwise paid no heed.
Nebuchadnezzar’s response was similar to Hezekiah’s (2 Kings 20:19), who received a prophecy of doom from Isaiah, but was relieved to know it would not be fulfilled in his own day. Hezekiah did not try to ward off the sentence of God. Similarly, Nebuchadnezzar ignored the real import of the dream: it was a word of judgment, an insult to his greatness, a declaration that all his glory would be swept away without a trace (Dan 2:35). Herod had more political sense 600 years later: when he heard of the birth of a king in Bethlehem, he recognized a potential threat and took decisive and murderous action to prevent it. If Nebuchadnezzar had really understood the prophecy, his natural response would not have been to promote Daniel, but to cut off his head.
This dream is a more concise version of Daniel’s later vision in chapters 7- 8. There, it is too easy to become bogged down in beasts and horns, and spend inordinate amounts of time and paper identifying them with kings, nations, empires. The point is far more clear in chapter 2: God owns history, and despite all the pomp and power of human domination and global society, the Hand of God will:
a. break human-centered civilization
b. itself grow into a great mountain
c. fill the earth
What we have here is nothing less than a parallel history that is hidden from the eyes of Gentiles, but revealed by God’s spokesman. But even when revealed, will men have eyes to see or ears to hear? Will they continue to serve the image in one or another of its four stages, or will they heed the Stone? So far, the evidence is clearly in favor of the former choice: most men throughout history, as well as today, offer eager obedience to an historical and temporary coalescence of power, no matter how crude or violent.