What comes to mind when you hear the name Nebuchadnezzar? You may think of his dramatic dream of the giant image. Perhaps you see the quixotic solid gold image on the Plain of Dura. Maybe you imagine the king sitting on his throne, staring incredulously into the fiery furnace at the three Hebrew youths.
A closer look at Nebuchadnezzar’s story reveals more than an arrogant despot. Instead, one can see an intelligent ruler, a military genius, an astute educator, a talented builder, a strategic thinker who was served and respected by Daniel the prophet. We also see a gentile ruler loved and led by God.
While there is undoubtedly a dark side, Nebuchadnezzar’s biography is rich with illustrations and timely lessons for those of us who live in the twenty-first century. It speaks to Christian leaders and members alike who struggle with sin and Satan. It dramatically reminds students of the Bible and history that the most important victory of all is the victory over self.
The transformational events in the life of this King are outlined in he book of Daniel so we might be instructed and enlightened. Nebuchadnezzar’s peculiar humiliation and subsequent exaltation is given valuable Bible space without apology or explanation. In fact, one-third of this prophetically rich book is given to Nebuchadnezzar’s story, with a significant portion recording the King’s own words.
After seven humiliating years, deranged and excluded from his throne, Nebuchadnezzar is converted. He said, “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” (Dan. 4:34).
He continued, “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” (verse 37).
In the book Prophets and Kings, Ellen White affirmed the genuineness of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion: “An idolater by birth and training, . . . he had nevertheless an innate sense of justice and right, and God was able to use him . . . for the fulfillment of the divine purpose” (pp. 514, 515).
She added: “The once proud monarch had become a humble child of God; the tyrannical, overbearing ruler, a wise and compassionate king. He who had defied and blasphemed the God of heaven, now acknowledged the power of the Most High and earnestly sought to promote the fear of Jehovah and the happiness of his subjects” (p. 521).
This once heathen king learned the lesson that all believers must eventually acknowledge: “Under the rebuke of Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, Nebuchadnezzar had learned at last the lesson which all rulers need to learn—that true greatness consists in true goodness” (p. 521).
Ellen White’s account ends with unambiguous succinctness: “God’s purpose that the greatest kingdom in the world should show forth His praise was now fulfilled. This public proclamation, in which Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the mercy and goodness and authority of God, was the last act of his life recorded in sacred history” (p. 521).
Yes, there is more to the life of King Nebuchadnezzar than the dream of the golden image.
King Nebuchadnezzar is an outlier. Known as a conqueror of nations and builder of cities, he is also referred to as a servant of God used for divine purposes (Jer. 27:6, 9). Referred to in eight books of the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar’s illustrious reign validates Daniel’s reference to Babylon as the head of gold, one of several world powers (Dan. 2).
Successor to his father, King Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar married Amytis of Media and was grandfather to King Belshazzar. His contemporaries were Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar developed the Babylonian empire into what historians refer to as a marvel of the world. The system of governance, jurisprudence, and economic prosperity were complemented by such wonders as the Ishtar Gate and Hanging Gardens.
Nebuchadnezzar was paradoxical. Sensitive and intelligent, he was also temperamental and easily angered. Capable of good, he simultaneously had an exaggerated view of himself and struggled with pride. Nevertheless God loved Nebuchadnezzar, saw his good, and ultimately saved him through a series of divine confrontations that resulted in him becoming a humble follower of the true God. (Nebuchadnezzar's story is told in 2 Kings 24: 25; 2 Chronicles 36; Jeremiah 21-52; Daniel 1-4 and Prophets and Kings, chapters 35-44.)
The saga of Nebuchadnezzar’s life and leadership has powerful intersecting themes.
Providence.Upon ascending the throne, history records Nebuchadnezzar petitioning his Babylonians gods for fame, fortune, and longevity. As a military leader, he won battles and conquered lands among the Assyrians and Egyptians. He subdued Palestine and Syria and controlled trade routes across Mesopotamia. In Palestine he providentially encountered the true God and His followers; and that became a turning point. He spent the rest of his reign coming to terms with the claims of this Sovereign Ruler.
Education.Nebuchadnezzar’s account has rich leadership insights concerning the importance of education and leadership development, succession planning, delegation, accountability, leadership qualifications, and discovery. One also sees the value of assessment, evaluation, outcomes, cultural exchange, religious liberty, emotional intelligence, health, prophecy, justice, fairness, listening, and researching truth.
Righteousness. Central to Daniel’s portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar’s story is righteousness and humility intrinsic to the great controversy theme. Daniel emphasized the vital role of prayer, courage, partnership of believers, prophecy, involvement of supernatural beings, and divine revelation in the affairs of leadership and governance. Also evident is the use/abuse of human power contrasted with the love/compassion modeled in divine interactions.
The portrayals in the book of Daniel concerning the encounter of this pagan king with the God of heaven are majestic. They crescendo with a subtle celebration of the temporal and eternal victory of righteousness and grace.
The last recorded words of King Nebuchadnezzar in the biblical record illustrate this triumph: “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” (Dan. 4:37).
Delbert Baker, recently elected vice-chancellor of the Adventist University of Africa, is a long-time pastor, editor, and administrator. He is working on a book dealing with practical life and leadership lessons from Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion from tyrant to servant of God.