Three years after Daniel is brought to Babylon (602 BC), King Nebuchadnezzar has a recurring dream. He knows the dream is significant, so he asks the wise men who serve him to interpret the dream for him. There is a catch, though. He will not tell them what he dreamed; they have to figure that out for themselves, and then interpret its meaning. The wise men complain that only the gods could possibly know his dream and that what he asks is impossible.
It is interesting to note exactly what the wise men say to the king: “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.” The Babylonians are convinced that the gods do not dwell in the flesh, yet this is exactly what would happen 600 years later when Jesus Christ is born. Jesus’s birth completely refutes the pagan theology of the Babylonians, for He is God in the flesh.
The king then passes a death sentence on all the wise men in Babylon, for he has become convinced that they are all frauds. Daniel learns about the king’s decree and seeks a stay of execution from the king so that Daniel can have some time to figure out the dream and its interpretation.
Why is Nebuchadnezzar so anxious about the dream and why does he seemingly overreact when his wise men cannot tell him what the dream is? Stephen R. Miller, in vol. 18, Daniel, The New American Commentary, speculates that
the king probably felt that the dream foretold some terrible disaster that was going to befall him. After all, Nebuchadnezzar had seen a manlike statue destroyed, which he likely associated with himself or his empire. He may well have felt insecure about his newly acquired kingdom, and he may have considered the destruction of the statue a divine omen to him that he and his empire were doomed. Perhaps this led him to believe that someone was planning to assassinate him and take away his kingdom. With intrigue in the courts of that day common, such was a real possibility (two out of the next three Babylonian kings were assassinated). Traitors may have been in his midst planning to overthrow his government at that very moment. Since a coup usually was perpetrated by the military or the court, the king may have wondered if some of these very wise men were plotting against him. Thus he was not reluctant to rid himself of them.
Daniel and his three friends start praying to God that He will reveal the dream to them. That very night God reveals the dream and its meaning to Daniel in a vision. After offering a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God, Daniel promptly seeks an audience with the king to reveal the dream and its meaning. Daniel gives all the credit for the revelation of the dream to the “God in heaven” whom Daniel worships. Daniel agrees with the previous wise men that no human being could discover the mystery of the dream, but only the one true God who knows everything.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he is standing in front of a massive statue. The statue is composed of 1) a head made of gold, 2) chest and arms of silver, 3) torso and thighs of bronze, 4) legs of iron, and 5) and feet made of a mixture of iron and clay. As the dream progresses, a rock, which is supernaturally cut out from a mountain, strikes the feet and destroys them, after which the entire statue disintegrates into dust and is blown away with the wind. The rock then grows in size until it is as big as the entire earth.
But what does this dream mean? Daniel explains that the head of gold symbolizes the Babylonian empire led by Nebuchadnezzar. His kingdom will be followed by another (the silver kingdom), and that kingdom will be followed by another (the bronze kingdom), and then finally the fourth kingdom will arise (the iron and clay kingdom). The rock that destroys the statue is a kingdom set up by God Himself. God’s kingdom will eradicate all of the human kingdoms and it will stand forever.
So what are the three kingdoms in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream? Most conservative scholars identify the silver kingdom as Medo-Persia, the empire that topples the Babylonians in 539 BC, initially led by Cyrus the Great. The bronze kingdom is the Greek empire. The Greeks defeat the Medo-Persians in 332 BC. Alexander the Great is the first leader of the Greek empire. The iron kingdom is the Roman empire, which begins in 146 BC and would last 500 years before its split into east and west.
Most scholars likewise recognize that the rock which destroys the human kingdoms is Jesus Christ at His second coming. When the Messiah returns, He will set up his kingdom on earth and it will have no end.
How do we know Jesus is the rock in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream? In Luke 20, Jesus tells the parable of the son of the vineyard owner. In that parable (verses 17-18), Jesus quotes from Daniel 2 in reference to the rock. He identifies Himself as the Messiah, the rock which will crush the kingdoms of the world. Clearly Jesus believes that He is the rock of Daniel 2.
Nebuchadnezzar is amazed by Daniel and his God and he pays homage to them. As a reward to Daniel, he promotes him to ruler of the province of Babylon (the city) and also leader of all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel asks that his three friends also be promoted to serve Daniel in the province of Babylon, and his request is granted. Even though Daniel is probably not even yet twenty years old, he has become one of the most important people in the entire Babylonian empire.
The primary purpose of this story is to communicate the triumph of Daniel over the Babylonian wise men. Daniel serves an all-powerful, all-knowing God who can reveal to Daniel what the future holds. The Babylonian wise men worship false gods who know nothing about the future.
Additionally, Daniel 2 teaches us about the broad sweep of human history. Each of the successive world empires is inferior to the former – gold to silver to bronze to iron. There is a progressive decay in the world of men. Iain M. Duguid, in Daniel, Reformed Expository Commentary, writes,
In a real sense, this is not simply a vision of the decline and fall of the Babylonian empire and its immediate successors, but an epitaph for human history. The entire human endeavor, though gifted and blessed by God in the beginning with unparalleled glory and dominion, ends up in nothing but division and dissolution.
This vision of mankind runs counter to the narrative popular in our day, that mankind is improving itself and world we live in. Duguid explains the significance of the rock destroying the statue:
The final word of history does not lie with a new and improved version of the statue of man. Rather, it lies with something radical that God will do: a rock that is not hewn by human hands will strike and demolish the statue and then grow to fill the earth (Dan. 2:34–35). This rock clearly points to the kingdom that God will establish in the last days, a kingdom that starts small and lacking in glory but grows through the power of God until it ultimately dominates the entire globe and becomes the ultimate fact of history. Only that divine kingdom is eternal.