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Daniel 4:13-16

13. I saw in the visions of my head upon my bed, and, behold, a watcher and an holy one came down from heaven;

13. Videbam etiam in visionibus capitis mei super cubile meum, et ecce vigil et sanctus descendit e coelis.

14. He cried aloud, and said thus, Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, shake off his leaves, and scatter his fruit: let the beasts get away from under it, and the fowls from his branches:

14. Clamavit in fortitudine, hoc est, fortiter, et ita loquutus est, Succidite arborem, et diripite folia ejus, 211211     It is better not to repeat boughs twice, as some do. I confess the word ענף, gnef, here used, means leaf as well as bough, but עפא, gnefa, means bough; hence the repetition is not superfluous — seize or cut off its leaves — Calvin. excutite ramos ejus, et dispergite fructus ejus: fugiat bestia ex umbra ejus, de subtus, ad verbum, et aves ex frondibus ejus, vel ex ramis ejus.

15. Nevertheless leave the stump of his roots in the earth, even with a band of iron and brass, in the tender grass of the field; and let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth:

15. Tandem imum radicum ejus in terra relinquite, et in vinculo ferri, hoc est, ferreo, et aeneo, in herba agri, et pluvia coelorum irrigetur, etcum bestia sit portio ejus in herba terrae.

16. Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him; and let seven times pass over him.

16. Cor ejus ab humano, simpliciter, ab heroine, mutent, 212212     That is, shall be changed, as elsewhere appears. — Calvin et cor bestiae detur ei: et septem tempora transeant super eam.


Here Nebuchadnezzar relates his dream, of which the interpretation will follow in its place. Yet because this narrative is cold and useless unless we should say something of the subject itself, it is necessary to make some remarks — the rest shall be deferred. First of all, under the figure of a tree Nebuchadnezzar himself is intended, not because it fully represents the king’s office, but because God appointed the existence of governments in the world for this purpose—to be like trees on whose fruits all men feed, and under whose shadow they rest. Hence this ordinance of God flourishes, because tyrants, however they are removed from the exercise of just and moderate dominion, whether they wish it or not, are compelled to be like trees; since it is better to live under the most cruel tyrant than without any government at all. Let us suppose all to be on one equal level, what would such anarchy bring forth? No one would wish to yield to others; every one would try the extent of his powers, and thus all would end in prey and plunder, and in the mere license of fraud and murder, and all the passions of mankind would have full and unbridled sway. Hence I have said, tyranny is better than anarchy, and more easily borne, because where there is no supreme governor there is none to preside and keep the rest in check. Wherefore they philosophize too minutely who think this to be a description of a king endued with superior virtues; for there was no such superiority in justice and equity in King Nebuchadnezzar. God principally wished to shew, by this figure, with what intention and with what political order he desires the world to be governed; and why he sets over it kings and monarchies and other magistrates. Then he desired to shew, secondly, although tyrants and other princes forget their duty, it is still divinely enjoined upon them, and yet God’s grace always shines forth in all governments. Tyrants endeavor to extinguish the whole light of equity and justice, and to mingle all things; but the Lord meanwhile restrains them in a secret and wonderful manner, and thus they are compelled to act usefully to the human race, whether they will or not. This then is the meaning of the figure or image of the tree.

It is now added, the birds of heaven dwelt amidst the branches, and the beasts lived by its sustenancewhich ought to be referred to mankind. For although even the beasts of the field profit by political order, yet we know society to have been ordained by God for the benefit of men. There is no doubt at all of the whole discourse being metaphorical, —nay, properly speaking, it is an allegory, since an allegory is only a continued metaphor. If Daniel had only represented the king under the figure of a tree, it would have been a metaphor; but when he pursues his own train of thought in a continuous tenor, his discourse becomes allegorical. He says, therefore, the beasts of the field dwelt under the tree, because we are sheltered by the protection of magistrates; and no heat of the sun so parches and burns up miserable men as living deprived of that shade under which God wished them to, repose. The birds of heaven also nestled in its boughs and leaves Some distinguish, with too much subtlety, between birds and beasts. It is sufficient for us to observe the Prophet noticing how men of every rank feel no small utility in the protection of princes; for if they were deprived of it, it were better for them to live like wild beasts than mutually to confide in each other. Such protection is needful, if we reflect upon the great pride natural to all, and the blindness of our self-love, and the furiousness of our lusts. As this is the case, God shews, in this dream, how all orders among us need the protection of magistrates; while pasture and food and shelter signify the various forms of usefulness which political order provides for us. For some might object—they have no need of government either for one reason or another; for if we discharge properly all the duties of life, we shall always. find God’s blessing sufficient for us.

It is now added, its height was great; then, it grew till it reached even to heaven, and its aspect extended itself to the furthest bounds of the land. This is restricted to the Babylonian monarchy, for there were then other empires in the world, but they were either powerless or but slightly important. The Chaldeans, also, were then so powerful that no prince could approach to such majesty and power. Since, therefore, King Nebuchadnezzar was so pre-eminent, the loftiness of the tree here described is not surprising, though it reached to heaven; while the altitude rendered it visible throughout the whole land. Some of the rabbis place Babylon in the middle of the earth, because it was under the same line or parallel with Jerusalem — which is very foolish. Those also who place Jerusalem in the center of the earth are equally childish; although Jerome, Origen, and other ancient authors, treat Jerusalem as in the center of the world. In this conjecture of theirs they deserve the laughter of the Cynic who, when asked to point out the middle of the earth:, touched the ground with his staff immediately under his feet! Then when the questioner objected to this determination of the center of the earth, he said,” Then do you measure the earth!” As far as concerns Jerusalem, their conjectures are not worth mentioning. That proud Barbinel [Abarbanel] wished to seem a philosopher, but nothing is more insipid than the Jews where they depart from their own rules of grammar; and the Lord so blinded them and delivered them up to a reprobate sense, when he wished them to be spectacles of horrible blindness and prodigious stupidity, — and in a small and minute matter that silly fellow shews his absurdity.

He now says, Its boughs were beautiful, and its fruit copious This must be referred to the common opinion of the vulgar; for we know men’s eyes to be dazzled by the splendor of princes. For if any one excels others in power, all men adore him and are seized with admiration, and are incapable of judging correctly. When the majesty of a general or a king comes before them, they are all astonished and perceive nothing, and they do not think it lawful for them to inquire strictly into the conduct of princes. Since, then, the power and wealth of King Nebuchadnezzar were so great, no wonder the Prophet says, His branches were beautiful, and their fruit copious But meanwhile we must remember what I lately said, namely, God’s blessing shines forth in princes, even if they materially neglect their duty, because God does not suffer all his grace in them to be extinguished; and hence they are compelled to bring forth some fruit. It is much better, therefore, to preserve the existence of some kind of dominion than to have all men’s condition equal, when each attracts the, eyes of his neighbors. And this is the meaning of what I have saidthere was food and provision for all, as I have lately explained it.

The second part of the dream follows here. Hitherto Nebuchadnezzar has described the beauty and excellency of his state under the figure of a lofty tree which afforded shade to the beasts and on whose fruit they fed, and next as giving, nests to the birds of heaven under its boughs. The cutting down of the tree now follows. I saw, says he, in the visions of my head upon my couch, and, behold, a watcher and a holy one came down from heaven No doubt we ought to understand an angel by a watcher. He is called “a holy one,” which is only another form of expression for an angel; and they are worthy of this name, because they are perpetually watchful in the performance of God’s commands. They are not subject to slumber, they are not nourished by either food or drink, but live a spiritual life; hence they have no use for sleep, which is the result of drink and food. Lastly, as angels have no bodies, their very spiritual nature makes them watchful. But this phrase not only expresses their nature but also their duty; because God has them at hand to fulfill his bidding, and destines them to the performance of his commands, hence they are called “watchers.” (Psalm 103:20.) In this Psalm angels are said to do his bidding, because, by an agility incomprehensible to us, they run about hither and thither, and fly directly from heaven to earth, from one end of the world to another — from the rising even to the setting sun. Since, therefore, angels can so easily and promptly fulfill God’s orders, they are deservedly called “watchers ” They are called “holy ones,” because they are not infected by human infirmities. But we are filled with really sins, not merely because we are earthly, but since we have contracted pollution from our first parents, which vitiates alike the whole body and mind. By this expression, then, Nebuchadnezzar desired to distinguish between angels and mortals. For although God here sanctifies his elect, yet as long as they dwell in the prison of the body they never arrive at the holiness of angels. Here then we mark the difference between angels and men. Nebuchadnezzar could not understand this by himself, but he was taught of God to perceive the destruction of the tree to arise not from man but from the Almighty.

He afterwards adds—the angel cried with a loud voice, cut down the tree, strip off the leaves, cut off its boughs, scatter its fruits, (or throw them away,) and let the beasts flee from its shadow, and the birds of heaven dwell no longer under its branches By this figure God meant to express that King Nebuchadnezzar should be for a time like a beast. This ought not to seem absurd, although it is but rough to speak of a tree being deprived of a human heart, since men know trees to have no other life than that usually called vegetable. The dignity or excellence of the tree cannot be lessened by its being without a human heart, for it never had one originally. But though this is rather a rough mode of expression., yet it contains in it nothing absurd, although Daniel bends a little aside from the strictness of the allegory; nay, Nebuchadnezzar himself had an allegorical dream, and yet God mingled something with it by which he might comprehend the meaning veiled under the image of a tree. The angel, then, orders the tree to be deprived of its human heart, and its bough and fruit to be torn down and cast away, after it had been cut down; next he orders the heart of a beast to be given to it, and thus its portion might be with the wild animals of the woods. But as this must be repeated elsewhere, I now pass it by rather hastily. The general meaning is this; King Nebuchadnezzar was to be deprived for a time not only of his empire but even of his human sense, and to be in no way different from the beasts, since he was unworthy of holding even the lowest place among mankind. Although he seemed to surpass the human race in his elevation, yet he must be cast down and thrown below even the lowest mortals!

The reason for this punishment follows, when it is added, seven times shall pass over him; and then, do not cut off its lowest root, but let the rain of heaven water it; and next; his portion shall be with the wild beasts. Although the chastisement is hard and horrible, when Nebuchadnezzar is expelled from the society of men, and rendered like wild beasts; but it is something in his favor when God does not tear him up by the roots, but allows the root to remain, for the tree to spring up again and flourish, and be planted again in its own place, and recover new vigor through its roots. Here Daniel reviews the punishment inflicted on King Nebuchadnezzar, in which God afforded a specimen of his clemency, in sparing him and not utterly cutting him down, but in allowing his root to remain. Some here discourse about the mitigation of penalties when God sees those repent whom he has chastised with rods; but I do not think it applicable here. There was no true conversion in King Nebuchadnezzar, as we said before, and shall see again more clearly. God did not wish to press him too hard, and this we must attribute to his clemency; because when he seems to set no bounds to his punishment of men’s sins, yet in all temporal punishments he allows men to taste his pity; so that even the reprobate remain without excuse. The assertion of some—that punishments are not remitted without the fault being excused, is false; as we see in the example of Ahab. For God remitted the fault to the impious king, but because he seemed to shew some signs of repentance, God abstained from greater punishment. (1 Kings 21:29.) So also we may see the same in the case of Nebuchadnezzar. God was unwilling utterly to root him out—for the metaphor of the tree shews this—but he desired seven times to pass over him Some understand seven weeks, others seven years; but we shall treat this point more copiously by and bye. Lastly, we must notice this; in the midst of the time during which God’s wrath seemed to rage against this wretched king, his benefits were also mingled with it. We learn this from the words, his portion shall be with the beasts of the field; that is, he shall feed upon some food by which life shall be preserved; and then, it shall be watered or irrigated with the rain of heaven. For God signifies—though he wished to punish King Nebuchadnezzar, and to render him a remarkable example of his wrath—his knowledge of what he could bear; hence, he so tempers his punishment as to leave hope remaining for the future, Thus he took his food even with the beasts of the earth, but he is not deprived of the irrigation of the dew of heaven.

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