We learn different lessons throughout our lives. Some lessons are easy to learn. Other lessons are difficult to learn. One of the most difficult lessons to learn is a lesson in humility. A long time ago king Nebuchadnezzar learned a lesson in humility.
Be aware that the first three verses of this passage are actually the end of the story. Here we find a broken, yielded, and converted king, humbly bowing before God and praising him for his sovereign majesty and rule in teaching him a lesson in humility.
Let’s read about it in Daniel 4:1-37:
1 King Nebuchadnezzar,
To the peoples, nations and men of every language, who live in all the world:
May you prosper greatly!
2 It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.
3 How great are his signs,
how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.
4 I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. 5 I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in my bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. 6 So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. 7 When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. 8 Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
9 I said, “Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me. 10 These are the visions I saw while lying in my bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. 11 The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
13 “In the visions I saw while lying in my bed, I looked, and there before me was a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven. 14 He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.
“‘Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.
17 “‘The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.’
18 “This is the dream that I, King Nebuchadnezzar, had. Now, Belteshazzar, tell me what it means, for none of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”
19 Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. So the king said, “Belteshazzar, do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.”
Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air— 22 you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
23 “You, O king, saw a messenger, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Cut down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump, bound with iron and bronze, in the grass of the field, while its roots remain in the ground. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven; let him live like the wild animals, until seven times pass by for him.’
24 “This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: 25 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes. 26 The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
28 All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
35 All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”
36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:1-37)
According to the Bible, the root problem at the very core of all of our lives is pride. Now I know that’s nothing new. In fact, this problem first surfaced in the Garden of Eden.
The problem with pride is that it robs us not only of a full and meaningful relationship with other people but, even more so, it robs us of a full and meaningful relationship with God.
Throughout Scripture we find the same theme repeatedly: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (cf. James 4:6). But I’m afraid that most of us today are unaware of our problem with pride. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.”
Let me share a working definition of pride with you: Pride is simply our refusal to acknowledge God as we should. It is failing to realize fully that all of our abilities, achievements, possessions and relationships are not due ultimately to our sound judgment or superior wisdom, but to the gifts and grace of a sovereign God.
God has declared himself in Scripture as the active antagonist of the proud. God is adamantly opposed to those who set themselves up in proud self-sufficiency.
In Daniel 4 we find an incredible story about the extent to which God will go to humble those who walk in pride. The key verse for this narrative is verse 37, where we find the final words, “And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
As I said earlier, the first three verses of this passage are actually the end of the story. Prior to this, king Nebuchadnezzar had always been supremely arrogant and proud.
So what happened to bring about such a radical change? Let’s see the dramatic story of how God humbled king Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:4-37.
As we look at this historical narrative together, I want you to see this chapter as a living illustration of the biblical truth that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (cf. James 4:6).
I. God Opposes the Proud (4:4-33)
First, God opposes the proud.
In verses 4-5 we learn that one evening, while king Nebuchadnezzar was lounging comfortably in his luxurious palace, he fell asleep and had a terrifying dream.
Verses 6-7 tell us that he immediately commanded all of his wise men to come before him to interpret this nightmare. But these men failed—again!—to give the meaning of his dream.
In verses 8-9 we see that the king turned again to Daniel for help. With Daniel before him, the king then described his dream in verses 10-16.
Daniel’s interpretation of this dream was as simple as it was alarming. It wasn’t good news for the king. In verse 19 Daniel said, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!”
Daniel then went on in verses 20-25 to tell the king that he was that tree. That meant that he was going to have a great fall. His fall would be so hard that he would actually become psychotic to the point of becoming like some kind of animal living in the fields. That state would continue for seven time periods (probably seven years) until he finally humbled himself before God.
In verse 26 Daniel told the king the good news that when he did finally humble himself before God and acknowledge that only Heaven rules ultimately, then, and only then, would his kingdom be restored to him. That was why the stump with its roots remained in his dream. He would be brought down but not completely destroyed.
After Daniel finished interpreting the king’s dream, verse 27 tells us that he then courageously exhorted the king to change his ways so that this harsh discipline from God might possibly be avoided: “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
Now we don’t know exactly how the king responded to this challenge of Daniel’s. The passage just does not tell us. But since verse 29 tells us that the events described in this dream did not begin to take place until twelve months later, it is possible that Nebuchadnezzar may have at least made an attempt to change his ways.
But whatever happened during those twelve months, the king did experience the fulfillment of his dream one year later. Verse 29b describes the scene for us: “As the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’”
Can you see the pride of the king? Here we find a classic example of a man refusing to acknowledge his indebtedness to God. A man choosing to exalt himself. He’s strutting on top of his palace like a male peacock in full array. And then the bomb drops.
Notice in verses 31-33 that while the words were still on the lips of the king, God executed his judgment on the king.
Now, what are we meant to learn? We are to learn the age-old lesson of Proverbs 16:18, which says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” It is summarized in Daniel 4:37, “Those who walk in pride he (God) is able to humble.”
All who seek to exalt themselves will be brought down by God. Why? Simply because there is only One who is worthy of the highest place, and that is Jesus Christ. All who exalt themselves above him will eventually be brought down.
Now, before we take this too far, I want to make very clear that this does not necessarily mean that being successful is wrong. In fact, being promoted and being elevated to a place of prominence can come from God himself. Psalm 75:7 says, “God is the judge; He puts down one, and exalts another.”
It is the Lord’s sovereign right to demote as well as to promote—and most of the time we don’t know why God chooses to promote one person and demote another.
The Bible is full of examples of people whom God has raised up from obscurity and exalted to great prosperity. David was a young shepherd boy whom God made a king. Job was a humble farmer when God prospered him with financial independence. Amos was promoted from a fig picker to being one of the great prophets of God. Daniel was lifted from a lowly peon in a boot camp in Babylon to becoming a national commander.
But the key to their success was that they never lost perspective in the process. All these men remembered who it was who raised them up and who it was who could just as quickly bring them down again. Now Nebuchadnezzar joins their ranks acknowledging that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (cf. 7:25).
No matter what position you may now have, no matter what possessions you may now own, no matter what relationships you may now have, no matter what your present skills and abilities are, and no matter how secure you may now feel in these things, you must know that you are always in complete dependence on God.
It doesn’t matter how secure we think we are, we are not in control. God is the only one on the throne! He is the one controlling all the events of this world and our lives according to his perfect plan for our good and his glory.
So, God opposes the proud.
II. God Gives Grace to the Humble (4:34-37)
But second, notice that God gives grace to the humble.
King Nebuchadnezzar had to lose it all. He had to be reduced to a wild beast for seven years before he could come to the end of himself and bow before a sovereign God. But when he was finally humbled before God, his life was radically changed. It was as if a shaft of light broke into his darkened mind.
In verses 34-35 he described it by saying, “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’”
Once the king saw God in all his sovereignty and glory, his whole perspective changed. He now saw the earth as under God’s absolute control. His pride vanished as he realized that God was the one calling the shots, not himself.
And just as God was adamantly opposed to the king’s pride, so God was unequivocally committed to honoring the king’s humility. And so God poured out his blessings on him. Nebuchadnezzar concludes this passage by saying in verses 36-37a, “At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.”
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Nebuchadnezzar had once been the proud king of Babylon but he was humbled by the hand of a sovereign and almighty God.
There are two applications from this passage for us.
A. God Will Go to Great Lengths to Show Us That He Is Lord
First, God will go to great lengths to show us that he is Lord.
He will not allow our pride to go unchecked. He loves us too much to do that. He will even use intense pain or hardship if he must to remove ingratitude and proud self-sufficiency from our lives so that we will acknowledge our dependence on him.
It sometimes takes the brutal blows of affliction to soften and penetrate our hardened hearts.
You may be discouraged today because God’s crushing has still not yet led to your surrender—possibly after many years. God is saying to you today, “Bow before me and surrender your pride. As confusing as it all may seem, let go of the reins now and simply trust in my sovereign rule of heaven and earth.”
B. God’s Purpose in Humbling Us Is Always for Our Good and for His Glory
And second, God’s purpose in humbling us is always for our good and for his glory.
Never forget that in humbling us, God is performing a marvelous work of his love and grace. By crushing us God is refining us and making us more and more like Jesus Christ.
Nebuchadnezzar was eternally thankful for his affliction because he saw how it took that seven-year affliction to humble his pride so that he might drink from the fountain of God’s grace.
The Psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. . . . It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps 119:67, 71).
There is no example of humility quite like Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2 Jesus Christ is set before us as the ultimate example of humility.
Paul tells us that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8-9).
God the Father responded to his Son’s humility by exalting him above all things. The most broken and humble person who ever lived became the most exalted One.
Do you see in Jesus the strong link between humility and the pouring out of God’s grace?
The apostle Peter did. That’s why he wrote, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:5b-7). Amen.