Nebuchadrezzar’s dream of a colossus

It was only his second year on the throne (the regnal year beginning Nisan 603 BC), but one night Nebuchadrezzar had a dream, and he wanted his wise men – the dream-interpreters, the enchanters, the sorcerers and the astrologers – to tell him what his dream was. They answered, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” He was not impressed. “If you cannot divine what I saw, I can have no confidence in your interpretation. Tell me, or you will be torn limb from limb.”

Dreams, planetary conjunctions, eclipses, animal entrails were regularly interpreted in the ancient world. Now the king wanted to know whether his advisers really did have access to a secret source of knowledge. Surely one of them would have the answer? The wise men had no choice but to be frank. “With respect, what you ask is not reasonable. No one can show it to the king except the gods, and they don’t dwell with us mortals.” He was not to be appeased. A day was set for the wise men of Babylon to be executed.

Among the Jews whom Nebuchadrezzar – Crown Prince at the time – had deported to Babylon was a youth named Daniel. Having just undergone a 3-year training program in the language and literature of the Chaldeans, he too was now one of the king’s advisers and on the execution list. He told his friends to pray with him and ask the God of heaven to reveal the mystery. In a vision of the night God answered his prayer. So he came before the king and told him the dream.
   “You looked, O king, and there before you stood a great statue. The statue was enormous, exceedingly bright, and frightening in its appearance. Its head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and loins of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold 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 statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
And this, he said, was the interpretation:
   “You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into your hand he has given the children of man, the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler of them all. You are the head of gold.
   After you another kingdom inferior to you will arise, and then a third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. And there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it will break and crush all these.
   And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom, but some of the strength of iron will be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the muddy clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with muddy clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
   And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will the kingdom be left to another people. It will break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it will itself endure forever, 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. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

Nebuchadrezzar was astonished. The king abased himself before Daniel. “Truly your god is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries.” Amongst other honours he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon. Jerusalem at this time was under Babylonian rule, but was not destroyed until 586 BC; many Jews still lived in the province of Judaea. That Daniel was a historical figure, famous for his wisdom and probity, seems clear from his being held up as an example to them before Jerusalem’s destruction (Ezek 14:12-23).

Today, 2600 years later, we can look back through time to see whether the developments foreshadowed in Nebuchadrezzar’s dream came to pass.

The four empires and afterward

It may seem that this involves another exercise of interpretation, but actually the course of history is clear enough. As foretold by the ghostly writing that appeared on the palace wall during Belshazzar’s feast, God that night brought the Chaldaean empire to an end and gave it to the Medes and Persians. That was in 539 BC. The Persian empire continued until Alexander the Great, whose most decisive battle against the Persians was at Gaugamela in 331 BC. In one short lifetime he conquered their entire empire, now further enlarged by the inclusion of his homeland, Greece. On his death in 323 this Hellenistic empire broke up into four kingdoms, the longest-lived of which, Egypt, fell to the Romans in 31 BC. This was the kingdom symbolised by bronze. The Roman empire was the legs of iron, eventually dividing into a western and an The Colosseum, Romeeastern part. It was bigger even than Alexander’s empire but had different borders, from Spain in the west to Syria in the east and extending even to Britain. It also included the northern coast of Africa.

After the sack of Rome in AD 410 its empire disintegrated into multiple kingdoms – collectively a fifth, divided kingdom. Some of them had imperial ambitions, notably the French (Franks) and Germans. In partially realising them, they saw themselves as reviving the Roman empire, whether as the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne (742-814) or the short-lived empire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Coronation was at the hands of the Pope, bishop of Rome. Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ was also conceived in these terms, although he was hostile to the Church. After two devastating wars, the European Union was a further attempt to bring unity to western Europe, but full political and economic unity has yet to be achieved. Symbolised by the feet of iron and clay (distinct from the legs of iron), the European states that succeeded the Roman empire intermingle but do not cohere.

So that is where we are in history. It will be in these last days that God sets up a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The nation states of this present age will be broken in pieces and become like chaff; not a trace of them will be found.

The ram and the goat

In the 3rd year of Belshazzar Daniel saw a vision of a ram with two horns. One of its horns was higher than the other and came up after it, and it charged westward, northward and eastward. Then from the west came a goat; it passed so quickly across the face of the earth that it did not touch the ground. It had a conspicuous horn between its eyes and overthrew the ram. The goat grew exceedingly powerful, until its horn was broken and in its place came up four horns. An angel explained outright that the two animals represented the kings of Medo-Persia and the kings of Greece. The goat’s horn represented the first of the Greek kings. In part, Daniel knew what was coming when he interpreted the writing on the wall.

Then the angel showed in great detail what would happen in the days of a little horn that came out of one of the four horns: a figure readily identified as Antiochus IV, ruler, from 175 to 164 BC, of the Seleucid empire that emerged after Alexander’s death, Alexander being the first of the Greek kings. The vision was so exactly fulfilled that many modern commentators (Joyce Baldwin and James Bejon being among the exceptions) have concluded that it was written after the fact – the explanation A 7th-century bulla or seal thought to have belonged to the prophet Isaiahfirst put forward by Porphyry (AD 232-305) in his work Against the Christians. So too the book of Isaiah, who had prophesied the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia under a king called Cyrus already in the 8th century BC (Isa 13, 21, 45:1-4). At that time Assyria was the dominant power in the region, not Babylon. God, they suppose, cannot know the future. The prophet we know as Isaiah must have been an impostor, a liar so consummate that, knowing the prophecies to be bogus, he had God explicitly insisting that they were not (41:26, 42:9, 44:6-8, 25f, 45:21, 46:10f, 48:3).

In the case of the book of Daniel, we need not be totally dismissive of the argument that it was written much later than it purports to have been. There is a debate to be had. Nonetheless it is a serious matter to accuse a person of forgery, even if the person is unknown and one excuses such mendacity as ‘pious’.

True but false?

The tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, Iran ( charge of forgery is an inference from the charge that the book is historically inaccurate, and primarily in respect of two details. The first is the statement that on Belshazzar’s death, and apparently some time before the reign of ‘Cyrus the Persian’ (6:28), one ‘Darius, son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede’ received the kingdom (5:31, 9:1). Some scholars have argued that Darius is not otherwise attested, denying the Medes a major role in Babylon’s conquest and accepting Cyrus’s own testimony that he had previously conquered the Medes. But in such a case one has to ask why a forger would have invented him. It would have been both senseless and confusing to place in this prominent position a person unknown to history, while yet recognising the existence of Cyrus (6:28). And why did Isaiah, and subsequently Jeremiah, both of whom lived before the fall of Babylon, prophesy that the Medes, aided by the turncoat province of Elam, would destroy the city (Isa 13:17, 21:2, Jer 51:11)? The question arises even if their prophecies were after the fact, or if failed prophecies were routinely edited to conform with history.

In fact, it is not true that Darius is unattested. Three ancient historians come into play: Berossus, Josephus, and Xenophon. In his work Babyloniaca, of which only fragments survive, Berossus states that Cyrus defeated Nabonidus, the last Chaldaean king of Babylon, in battle and forced him to flee to Borsippa. After capturing Babylon Cyrus gave the deposed king the province of Carmania, but ‘Darius the king took some of the province for himself’ (Anderson & Young 2016). Apparently there was a king (subsequently) called Darius at the time of the city’s fall and he had greater authority than Cyrus. Cyrus, king of Persia and commander of the attacking army, was his subordinate, their countries having been brought into alliance by a marriage between the daughter of the king of Media, Astyages, and Cyrus’s father. Josephus, likewise, says that Darius, son of Astyages, was Cyrus’s relative, but known to the Greeks by another name. That other name, we know from Xenophon, was Cyaraxes; Cyaraxes was the son of Astyages and became king of the Medes when his father died. ‘Darius’, we may infer, was the throne name that Cyaraxes took on becoming king of Babylon (in the same way as a Pope assumes a new name on accession), and Cyrus’s mother was Darius’s sister. Many commentators on the book of Daniel have made these connections, including Jerome (AD 347-420).

Archaeological documents are consistent with this understanding. A stele set up a few years before the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, but after Cyrus’s supposed conquest of Media, mentions a certain ‘king of the land of the Medes’ alongside the kings of Egypt and Arabia as Babylon’s leading enemies, indicating that Media was then an independent state; it was hostile, whereas Persia was not. In his famous cylinder inscription Cyrus accuses Nabonidus of neglecting the god of Babylon and provoking the god to find someone to replace him: Cyrus was Babylon’s divinely appointed liberator rather than conqueror. What he does not say is that he came as a friend who had conquered Babylon’s enemy, the Medes. Evidently he could not make such a claim, because the city knew that he had not conquered the Medes.

Thus it seems better to surmise that Darius, having, as Xenophon says of Cyaraxes, no son of his own, agreed that Cyrus would be his heir and, following the death of Cyrus’s wife in 538 BC, sealed the arrangement by giving him his daughter in marriage. In this respect he followed in the footsteps of his father, who had given his daughter in marriage to Cyrus’s father. Xenophon indicates that Cyrus’s reign lasted 7 years, i.e. it started in 537, not 539 BC. Only from that point did Cyrus become king of Babylon, alongside Darius, and only after his death – plausibly from old age since he was already 62 in 539 BC (Dan 5:31) – did Cyrus become the ruler of both peoples. With a disregard for historical truth characteristic of despots, he erased the memory of his former co-regent and wrote inscriptions claiming to have conquered Media (Anderson 2014). Recall, in support of this scenario, how in Daniel’s vision of the ram one of its horns was higher than the other and, without breaking the other, came up after it. The meaning must be that Cyrus – the greater horn – rose to supremacy without violence after Darius did, and after Medo-Persia as an entity had already been established.

The other detail on which the charge of historical inaccuracy rests is the reference to King Belshazzar. Prior to the mid 19th century, Belshazzar was unknown among non-biblical documents, so that critics felt secure in rejecting Daniel’s bona fides. Then inscriptions were found at Ur showing that Belshazzar did exist; he was the son and heir of Nabonidus, the last king before Babylon was overthrown. The fact that Daniel knew the name of this son and heir, who was subsequently forgotten, was evidence that Daniel lived close to Belshazzar’s time! Nabonidus praying to the Moon, Sun and VenusIt was then objected that Belshazzar himself was not a king. However, further discoveries indicated that Nabonidus had been campaigning for more than half his reign in Arabia (one of Babylon’s three chief enemies, remember), so that Belshazzar ruled in the capital city as his co-regent. He was the Crown Prince. Consistent with Berossus’s statement that Nabonidus had fled to Borsippa, Daniel does not mention Nabonidus as present on the night of Babylon’s capture because he wasn’t, whereas Belshazzar was – unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy that Babylon would fall during a drunken feast (Isa 21:5, Jer 51:39, 51:57, confirmed by Xenophon).

Co-regencies were not uncommon in the ancient world. To forestall any conflict over the succession, the heir apparent would be invested with royal authority while the father was still alive and then formally anointed king when he died (cf. I Chron 29:22). That Belshazzar was not the only ruler is clear from Belshazzar’s proclamation that Daniel, having solved the riddle of the writing, should be made the kingdom’s third not second, ruler (5:29), i.e. jointly with himself and Nabonidus. Nebuchadrezzar, likewise, is described as king of Babylon (1:1) at a time when, strictly, he was only the Crown Prince.

Darius succeeded Nabonidus as king of Babylon on the night that Babylon was captured. Israel’s historians counted regnal years on a ‘factual basis’ (Robinson 1991), i.e. starting from the day of accession, so his first year began in June/July 539 BC. He lived long enough to start organising the empire into satrapies (Dan 1:1), and we know his reign extended into a second year because of its mention in the book of Zechariah (1:7) – yet another attestation of this king. Not recognising any earlier Darius, scholars have always assumed that the king was the Darius who reigned 522 to 486 BC. But this is clearly wrong, for the question is asked, “How long, O Yahweh of hosts, will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?” (1:12). The ‘seventy years’ refer to the length of time Jeremiah prophesied that Judah and surrounding nations would serve Babylon as vassals. The whole point is that this vassalage was about to end. Darius even seems to have lived to a fourth year (7:1). But by then the exiles had returned.

The reader must judge for himself. A lot is at stake, for the book not only indicates that God knows the future but that he has told us important things about it that we should know.

‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord’ – even David, when he lied, was found out. As portrayed, Daniel was a man of integrity, whom men of ill will sought to denigrate in his day just as men unsympathetic to his testimony do in ours.

Actually, the book was written in Palestine in the mid-second century BC by an author who expected God to set up his everlasting kingdom in his own near future. … The original purpose of the Book of Daniel was to comfort and encourage persecuted Jews during the Maccabean revolt. … During the revolt, pious Jews began to circulate an anthology of stories allegedly written four hundred years earlier.

C. Sandoval, 2010. The Failure of Bible Prophecy

Certainly someone is not telling the truth – but who? Either his book is a forgery or, with its prophecies reaching right to the present, it is one of the most significant works in all world literature.