It may take me longer to get through this dream than it took the Israelites to live through the Exile. My apologies to those of you sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to sort out the interpretations of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream.
Daniel gives a pretty straightforward interpretation of the dream, but he leaves enough tantalizing gaps to have lured generations of eager Bible readers into figuring out the rest of the details. Two general interpretations dominate the array of options. Let’s sort out who says what:
Here’s what Daniel says:
- Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold.
- The silver torso is another kingdom that will arise after Nebuchadnezzar and be inferior to his kingdom.
- The bronze midsection is a third kingdom which will rule over the whole earth.
- The iron legs are a fourth kingdom. As iron breaks and smashes everything, so this kingdom will crush and break all the others. This last kingdom will be a divided kingdom (the feet and toes), partly strong like iron and partly brittle, like iron mixed with baked clay. Literally, the iron “mixing” with the clay is the iron and clay “combining in the seed of men,” which seems to refer to a weakness in the kingdom brought about by marriages between the “iron” and the “clay.”
- The stone is a fifth kingdom, God’s kingdom, which will endure forever and destroy all human kingdoms.
Perfectly clear, isn’t it? Okay, maybe not. But it’s probably not insignificant that Daniel (and God) only names two of the kingdoms: the first (Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom) and the last (God’s kingdom). It’s not that the unnamed ones aren’t important – especially the fourth kingdom that gets several verses of explanation, in contrast to the second and third kingdoms, which barely get mentioned at all. But when you are tempted to get lost in an examination of the trees (namely, kingdoms 2, 3, and 4), don’t forget the forest.
The traditional interpretation has been around for a long time. It’s a pretty entrenched evangelical interpretation and some Bibles even “canonize” it by including subheadings that identify each kingdom before Daniel’s words (see, for example, the NASB). This view is commonly called the Roman view because the fourth kingdom is Rome. Here’s the schema:
- The head of gold is Babylon (or Nebuchadnezzar).
- The silver torso is Medo-Persia.
- The bronze midsection is Greece.
- The iron legs are Rome. The iron-clay toes are an ongoing problem, usually said to be some extension of the old Roman empire or a kind of revived Roman empire.
- The establishment of the kingdom of God happens at the First Advent (birth of Christ) and the Second Advent (the return of Christ).
A second interpretation is commonly called the Greek view because, in contrast to the Roman view, Greece is the fourth kingdom instead of Rome. It goes like this:
- Head of gold is Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar).
- The silver torso is Media.
- The bronze midsection is Persia.
- The iron legs are Greece, beginning with Alexander the Great and ending in a convoluted political history of intermarriages between the dynasties that succeeded Alexander.
- The fifth kingdom is God’s kingdom, established at some point after the fall of Greece.
I’m not offering an assessment of the Roman and Greek interpretations here. (Come back another day.) Regardless of which one you prefer, the main point is indisputable: human kingdoms, no matter how impressive, will ultimately be destroyed and overtaken by a fifth kingdom, the kingdom of God – the only kingdom that will last forever. John Calvin says it well in his commentary on Daniel: “Daniel is not relating what was going to be completed in one moment; he just wants to teach that the kingdoms of the world are transient and that there is only one eternal kingdom.”