I’ve tried numerous times to learn German (not for fun…because it definitely isn’t), but the vocabulary kills me every time. Seriously, when a language allows the ad infinitum gluing together of words already-too-long to make new-out-of-control-longer words, it pretty much guarantees failure for people with short attention spans. I’ve made up an English word for this: googletranslatebeblessedforever.
So, it’s nothing short of amazing that a German word ever comes to my mind. But when I read Daniel 4:19, I think of the word Schadenfreude. (Merriam-Webster: “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”) More specifically, I think about why some Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent of “Schadenfreude” didn’t come to Daniel’s mind, too. Let me explain.
Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a flourishing tree that perfectly matched his “contented and prosperous” life (Dan 4:4). Then suddenly, an angel crashed the idyllic scene and barked out orders to turn the tree into lumber. Birds and animals scattered as their pastoral paradise disappeared, a gnarled stump the only witness to its existence.
Then the dream does what dreams do so well – seamlessly switches images without explaining how one thing becomes another. The angel pronounces that the tree stump will live among the beasts in the field, and its human mind (there’s the seamless switching) will be changed to an animal’s mind for “seven times” (Dan 4:15–16). The reason given for these events is “that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men & gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men”(Dan 4:17 NIV).
It’s no wonder Nebuchadnezzar was disturbed. You don’t need a degree in dream interpretation to know this dream doesn’t bode well for him. It makes you wonder if the king’s problem wasn’t that none of his wise men could interpret it – but rather that none of them would interpret it (Dan 4:18). Would you want to spell out for the king what seems to be fairly obvious in his dream?
Nebuchadnezzar knows Daniel can help because the “spirit of the holy gods” was in him (Dan 4:18; see note at the bottom of this post), and indeed, Daniel seems to grasp the dream’s meaning immediately. When he hears the dream, he is stunned (a fair translation is that “Daniel…was appalled for a moment”), and then, like Nebuchadnezzar was when he awoke from his dream (vs. 5), Daniel was “terrified” by what was running through his mind.
Terrified? The dream foretells the demise of the king who took him captive and torched the holy city. Wouldn’t you maybe expect that instead of being terrified by what he’s heard, he might be secretly satisfied that the king’s getting what he deserves?
Maybe you’re not like that, but judging from the political climate on Facebook (and everywhere else) these days, I think a lot of people are. Good grief, we cheer when The Other Guy makes a debacle of a debate. (No political statement here. After two debates with plenty of debacle to go around, both candidates can qualify as The Other Guy.) You can cut national hatred with a knife.
But Daniel? He’s appalled. He’s terrified. He really doesn’t want this horrible stuff to happen to Nebuchadnezzar – no matter what his political record is. It seems to me that Daniel doesn’t just have the “spirit of the holy gods” in him; he has the heart of the Holy God in him. Schadenfreude? Not here.
* When Nebuchadnezzar says that “the spirit of the holy gods” is in Daniel, he is not professing belief in God or the Holy Spirit; he’s simply acknowledging that Daniel has a connection to the divine realm that the rest of his experts lack. See on his related statement in Dan 3:25