My family loves Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), a triple-win, big-family congeniality and clean humour, all served-up Steve Martin’s wit. One scene stands out, where he, the stressed-out and guilty father, has to perform an impromptu funeral for his oft-forgotten son’s favourite pet.
“Beans was a good frog. He was, uh, not like a lot of the bad frogs…you hear about today, all hopped up. He was loveable. He was almost human. He was like, uh, one of the family. Except that, of course, he was green and he ate flies. But he was a hopper. He hipped and he hopped. He loved hip-hop.”
Nebuchadnezzar was no Beans. In the Bible’s story, this Babylonian king had one of the most remarkable personal turn-arounds in the whole Old Testament. But he was not one of God’s people; he was their chief captor. If someone asked you to give him a eulogy, what would you say?
“Nebuchadnezzar started off as a bad king, he became a good king. He wasn’t like those other kings you hear about who never humbled themselves. At times he killed and burned. At other times he bowed and he kneeled. For his arrogance, become like an animal and ate grass. But by the end, he lifted his eyes to heaven.”
Eulogies suppress the horrific and highlight the best. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, now ancient history, there is not much to be gained by praising him, nor burying him. But, can we ask a dangerous question?
Jesus preached about heaven and hell, eternity with God’s blessing, and eternity with God’s judgment. What is the fate of Nebuchadnezzar? Will we see him at the great banquet with our Lord Jesus Christ, and all who trusted in him?
Nebuchadnezzar, will I see you in heaven?
1. Before we think about Nebuchadnezzar particularly, is it ever right to ask this question?
There are perhaps three immediate objections that my imagined reader might have. I have sympathy for the first two, but find the third one unreasonable.
A. God is the judge, we should never ask that question.
There is a lot of wisdom in this, particularly when someone dies who has never made a clear profession of faith. However, in the New Testament, even though Christians do not know definitively the hearts of their departed brothers and sisters, they could, and should, say to each other with confidence that if they died in the Lord, they would rise (1 Cor. 15:22-23; 1 Thess. 4:16). We will proceed with caution and acknowledge that we are not God. We can only stand on his promises.
B. It’s not a question the Bible raises, therefore we might not find an answer.
Nebuchadnezzar is not mentioned in the New Testament, neither as a model of faith nor someone who will be with Christ in eternity. To me, this holds a lot a weight. We might reach the end of our investigation without certainty congruent to our curiosity. However, since Daniel, the great book that we’ll examine, begins with the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s possible conversion (1-3) and finishes with the clearest Old Testament passage about the general resurrection of the dead (12), we might be able to say something.
C. Nebuchadnezzar is presented as a cartoon character, not a historical person.
Both liberal academics and dismissive Bible readers tend to treat the King of Babylon as a two-dimensional literary foil, a theological point rather than a person. I disagree. The New Testament treats Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego as historic examples of lived-out faith for others to follow (Heb. 11:33-34). Likewise, internally in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is presented as model for the next king, Belshazzar. His repentance was a rebuke to his successor.
2. Bearing this in mind, we need to know, will anyone from the Old Testament be in heaven?
When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, he promised paradise, and a new home (eg. Matt. 5, Lk. 23, Jn. 14). His death and resurrection dealt with sin and judgement so that the gospel could hold certain hope for eternity. But was that promise backdated? Could eternity be given to those in the past?
Jesus answered with a strong affirmative. Patriarchs, prophets and Old Testament people of faith will join his followers in rejoicing and banqueting with the Lord. Jesus warned hearers against missing out on this Biblical-theological reunion.
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. (Jesus. Lk. 13:28-29 cf. Luke 16:22)
Elsewhere the New Testament addresses this question from different angles. Old Testament believers, as much as New, will be part of the Eternal Kingdom.
- The cross justifies those past, present and future who trust in God’s promise (Romans 3:21-26).
- God has prepared a heavenly city for all those died in faith before Christ (Heb. 11:13,16).
- God’s plans, for them, was only to be completed when New Covenant believers are fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 11:39-12:2).
So we must ask if Nebuchadnezzar was a believer?
3. But wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar incredibly wicked?
Yes. Absolutely, as we all are.
But, wasn’t he uniquely wicked, the instrument of God’s judgement on the people of Judah?
In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s evil is not white-washed. His army besieged Jerusalem twice and took captive the best of those who remained in the land (Dan 1:1). He was the principle antagonist in the Babylonian Captivity. If Jerusalem, like Christ, was handed over to the Gentiles, was mocked, spat on, suffered and crucified, Nebuchadnezzar was the Pilate of the story. He stole all the precious articles from the temple and placed them in pagan temples (Dan 1:2; 5:2-4). His hubris knew no limits, he built a statue to himself and threatened to kill anyone who wouldn’t bow down and worship it (Dan 3:1-7)!
If anyone fell foul of the Abrahamic and Balaamic curse, surely it was he. “Blessed are those who bless you [Israel], and cursed are those who curse you.”” (Numbers 24:9; cf. Gen 12:3) If God judges people in the New Testament by their reception of Jesus, in the Old Testament, he judges them by their treatment of the men and women of his covenant. And Nebuchadnezzar sins intensely, destroying their city, robbing God’s temple, taking away their freedom and forbidding true worship.
But, there are signs of conversion in Nebuchadnezzar.
4. Was Nebuchadnezzars’ repentance genuine? Was he a genuine believer?
When the four Jerusalem youths arrived to serve Nebuchadnezzar, he was impressed with their wisdom and understanding (Dan. 1:20). As the story develops, three mind-shifts overcome Nebuchadnezzar, each with an accompanying confession to the power of their God.
A. After Daniel revealed the meaning of his dream, Nebuchadnezzar’s paid homage to him personally and proclaimed the greatness of his God (Daniel 2).
Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The 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.” Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. (Dan. 2:46-48)
B. After Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were saved from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar offered complete protection for worship of their God (Daniel 3).
Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (Daniel 3:28-30)
C. Nebuchadnezzar’s third confession: now it’s personal (Daniel 4)
The enthusiastic reader shouldn’t be over-excited about Nebuchadnezzar’s first two confessions. They were fake and flimsy. Praising Daniel’s God was meaningless if he would later build a statue of himself for state-imposed worship. Proclaiming protection was as much a personal-conversion experience as a modern state allowing religious liberty or preference to a minority group.
But Daniel 4 presents the Bible’s last word on Nebuchadnezzar.
What he learned this time around is deeply personal and his praise has all the hallmarks of being real. Chapter 4 is Nebuchadnezzar’s letter, his will and testimony to a pagan world. Isn’t it amazing that a chapter of the Bible is essentially written by a man who destroyed Jerusalem?
King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation. (Dan. 4:1-3)
Nebuchadnezzar recounts his conversion experience. Having received a dream and warning from God against arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar mocked heaven, by praising his own majesty and the glory of his building achievements (Dan 4:30). God kept his warning and this King of Babylon was thrown out of his own self-exalting paradise by God, only to become a degraded animal. In language reminiscent of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Nebuchadnezzar wouldn’t acknowledge his creator, so God handed him over to a debased mind and lifestyle (Rom 1:21-22). But then in humility, he turned to God and a gift from his creator, was transformed by the the renewing of his mind.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; (Daniel 4:34)
The earlier thin-proclamations refer to God as the God of Daniel or his three companions, but this chapter speaks of God as the Most High, King of Heaven (Nebuchadnezzar: Dan. 2:47; 3:28; Darius: Dan. 6:26). Read by itself, Nebuchadnezzar’s final sentence, speaks loudly as a personal, real acknowledgement of sin and of God’s righteousness.
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Dan. 4:37 cf. Moses and the Lamb’s Song in Deut. 34:4 and Rev 15:3-4)
Are we too easily fooled by this? Is the King of Babylon a charlatan or a just a pagan voice-box, like Balaam and his ass?
What God thinks is more important than what we do.
5. Did God regard regard Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance as genuine and permanent?
There is strong evidence within chapter 4 that God regarded Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance as genuine. He judged the powerful, but arrogant ruler; and saved the wretched but humble beast. He would not have restored the Babylonian kingdom unless he acknowledged that heaven ruled (Dan. 4:26).
But couldn’t Nebuchadnezzar have just as easily turned away from God like he had done before? I think not. The next story rules this out.
The heir continued his father’s arrogance and sin, but he did not have his own ‘road from Babylon’ experience. The writing was on the wall for Belshazzar. He should have learned the lessons from the very recent past past. Nebuchadnezzar’s personal conversion is treated as history and is an extra basis for his son’s condemnation.
O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. […] But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him. He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will. And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. (Daniel 5:18,20-23)
Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, God weighed his Belshazzar’s kingdom and found it wanting, ready to be judged and divided up (Dan. 5:24-27). God saw something different in his father. If only he had followed in his repentance. Would God through Daniel have pointed to Nebuchadnezzar’s learnt humility if he didn’t regard it as genuine?
6. Nebuchadnezzar, Confession and Salvation: Daniel 7 and 12
A. Confession and Daniel 7
Nebuchadnezzar’s final testimony must be read in context of the rest of the book of Daniel. What he confessed about God, in chapter 4, is so incredibly similar to what is revealed in the later visions, of Daniel 7. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that God is the only king-maker and kingdom establisher, and Daniel 7 demonstrates God dealing with the kingdom, and creating his own that will last.
Interestingly, Daniel 7 is set in the first year after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign ends, when a new king who doesn’t acknowledge God ruled (Dan. 7:1). Two very tight points of comparison present themselves:
- Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony and Daniel’s first vision use almost identical words. Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). In the vision, when the Ancient of Days gives his power over to one like a Son of Man, the authoritative voice says that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:14). Nebuchadnezzar’s language is almost verbatim to what God says.
- The names for God are also identical. Nebuchadnezzar’s calls God, “the Most High”, the same name that both Daniel and the angelic interpreters consistently use in chapter 7 (Dan. 4:1,34; Dan. 7:18, 25, 27). This weakens a potential argument based on God’s name. Yes, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t call out to God’s personal, covenantal name, the LORD, but he did invoke the name for God that Daniel taught and used himself (Dan. 4:23-25). Could this perhaps be the name, by which, God relates to the kingdoms around him?
Perhaps then, Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion in chapter 4 presents itself as a role-model for what would happen in the future in chapter 7. He calls on the same name of God with almost the same proclamation as the divine voice. “Peoples, nations and languages” would serve the Ancient of Days and his appointed king (Dan. 7:14).
Was Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion a flesh-and-blood down-payment to show Daniel and his readers that God could be trusted to keep his promises? If the greatest king of his time could turn in history, then nations might in God’s future eternal plans. If the man who destroyed Jerusalem could serve the God whose name he blasphemed, then the Most High’s plan to call nations to faith and obedience makes sense.
B. Salvation and Daniel 12
But I have hidden a vital piece of evidence, something very important. Nebuchadnezzar was never promised eternal salvation. Even in obedience, he was only promised God’s blessings in his earthly life and rule.
Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” (Dan. 4:27)
At his repentance, his reason, glory, majesty and splendour was restored and “still more greatness was added to me.” (Daniel 4:36). There is no hint, or mention of any greater salvation beyond the grave. What he was promised, he was given. Nothing more is said.
But before we push this too far, the same is true of Daniel and most Old Testament saints. He is nowhere promised eternal life, heaven or anything beyond the grave. All the blessings he receives in the narrative are honours, protections and promotions—that is, until the the end of the book. The last chapter makes me most wonder, not just about Daniel, but also Nebuchadnezzar.
But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (Dan. 12:1-4)
A few observations about this prophetic word:
- God’s future plans are about a general resurrection. Some will go to a blessed life and others to everlasting shame.
- The certain promise is only for the people of the covenant. The children of Abraham are on view, ‘your people’ as the passage maintains. Others nations are not mentioned.
- God’s judgement book is not open for us to read. Likewise, this whole vision was to be sealed up, waiting for fulfilment.
- However, the clear promise of everlasting life is for the wise and those who turn many to righteousness. While this certainly applies to future generations, presumably the example of these traits up to this point, par excellence, is Daniel, wise and the one who has turned people to righteousness.
But who has he turned to righteousness? Moving backwards, Darius is somewhat affected by his witness, Belshazzar doesn’t learn at all, but one king does turn to God and acknowledge the righteousness of all God’s ways as his final word (Dan 6,5,4). Could Nebuchadnezzar be one of those who have been turned?
7. Are there any other parallels in the New Testament?
Is Nebuchadnezzar a real convert and inheritor of eternal salvation or is he just a model for those from the nations who would genuinely accept God? Is he a visual aid or an heir of heaven?
For this we return to the New Testament and examine key parallels that Jesus mentions. Two other pagan examples stand as warnings against the unbelieving Jews of his day. Christ mentions those of the Assyrian capital who turned to God; and the Queen of Sheba who sought God’s king.
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Jesus. Matt. 12:41-42)
The parallels are so tight with Daniel 12, the clearest Old Testament passage about the general resurrection from the dead, the judgement day that Jesus also speaks about. Furthermore, the original word describing the Ninevites rising (ἀναστήσονται) is exactly the same as the Greek of Daniel 12 describing the rising (ἀναστήσονται) of all those asleep (Matt. 12:41; Dan. 12:2).
Jesus is very close to saying that the Ninevites will rise to life. But the nature of metaphor doesn’t remove all doubt. However, he does say that they will stand as a witness against the current generation who won’t repent. Remember that the men of Nineveh were only promised limited salvation against temporal judgement, but their repentance has an effect that continues to speak for eternity.
Is Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance similar?
8. So, what can we say?
I began this discussion comparing Nebuchadnezzar to a dead pet in a family movie. In my first thinking, I must admit, that I thought that there was as much chance for the Old Testament Pilate—the destroyer of Jerusalem, the builder of the self-aggrandising idolatry and the totalitarian oppression—to be be saved eternally as there would be for a fictional frog.
But as I write, I’m not so sure. Universalism and wishful sentimentality are both thoroughly opposed in the Bible. But if we take God’s word seriously, Nebuchadnezzar was a genuinely broken believer in the Most High God.
He wasn’t promised eternity, and he may not be given it. But he did humble himself before the Lord and repent as almost no other pagan leader in the whole Old Testament.
If God’s purpose with Pharaoh was to harden his heart, God’s transformational heart-work in Nebuchadnezzar was for humility and a confession that God is the true ruler. While the king of Babylon didn’t cast his crown voluntarily before the Lamb, he did have it removed so that he would acknowledge the source and right of all power on earth.
Whether or not Nebuchadnezzar will sit with the patriarchs, prophets, Jesus and all his followers, we do not know and I will not say. But I would not be surprised, if he was. And the history of the world will look very different when viewed from eternity.
Can we use Jesus’ parallel? If so, then Nebuchadnezzar will rise as a testimony against all great ones who claimed to be God’s people but didn’t acknowledge the king of heaven.
He stands as a warning against arrogant presidents who don’t think they ever need forgiveness and toward self-made Australians who think they have created all their own lives. Learn from Nebuchadnezzar. “O kings, be wise; be warned O rulers of the Earth” (Ps. 2:10).