Daniel 4 stands out in the Old Testament as the only story in which a human being appears to be turned into an animal. It may remind you of the classical trope of metamorphosis—think of the sequence in Pinocchio when the boys morph into jackasses or the many tales from the Roman poet Ovid when the gods transform humans into creatures that represent their fatal flaws. Here’s how the text depicts Nebuchadnezzar’s fate:
He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws. (Dan. 4:33)
Victorian scholars, hoping to discover a plausible historical explanation for this description, suggested a diagnosis of clinical lycanthropy. It is hard to read this and not picture something like Beauty and the Beast. Is this the stuff of fairy tales? What happened to Nebuchadnezzar and what does it mean?
Is this the stuff of fairy tales? What happened to Nebuchadnezzar and what does it mean?
This is neither a fairy tale nor a description of psychosis but a theological account of how God teaches the proud to praise him.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Animal Mind
Daniel 4 opens with Nebuchadnezzar at his leisure in his palace when he receives a symbolic dream. In the dream, the king appears as a giant tree that reaches to heaven and provides food and shelter to all the birds of the sky and beasts of the field. But a decree comes down from heaven that the tree must be cut down (Dan. 4:13–17). The tree is an image of strong, benevolent kingship (see Ezek. 17:23–24; 31:4–7, 9), and the animals in the dream are the subjects that the king is provisioning and protecting.
But this tree has a hubris problem—in its power, grandeur, and leisure it ignores God (Dan. 4:30). “Chopping down the tree” is a symbolic description of the King’s punishment. Verse 16 describes the punishment in straightforward, if incredible, language: “Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him.” Since pride floods Nebuchadnezzar’s mind, God gives him a new one.
Nebuchadnezzar’s body becomes the canvas on which this profound change is illustrated. He lives exposed and subsists on vegetation like an ox. His body goes unkempt until his appearance becomes avian. No consistent comparison, however, is developed to an ox or a raptor or any other kind of animal. Rather, Nebuchadnezzar becomes animalistic. His outward appearance is affected, but only in ways that any person’s would be if they had an animal mind and lived for years out of doors like a beast. The external change that we see reflects the quality of the internal change that we can’t.
This punishment is a fall down the hierarchy of the created order from universal provider and protector to become one of those that is in need of provision and protection, a lowly beast (Ps. 8:5–7). Just as the birds and beasts found shade and sustenance under the great tree (v. 12), Nebuchadnezzar himself becomes like bird and beast, eating the portion of an animal with his body exposed (v. 33).
This punishment is a fall down the hierarchy of the created order from universal provider and protector to become one of those that is in need of provision and protection, a lowly beast.
But the text doesn’t dwell here—it transitions quickly from the description of Nebuchadnezzar’s animal sojourn to his restoration in v. 34. The key moment comes when Nebuchadnezzar “lifts his eyes to heaven.” Scripture associates the gesture of lifting the eyes with acknowledging God in moments of profound revelation (Gen. 22:13; Josh. 5:13; Isa. 40:26; 51:6; Pss. 121:1; 123:1). It is a wordless gesture—a form of humility that an animal could accomplish. Although animals rank below humanity in the created order, their instinctual knowledge of God is often described as truer than humanity’s sin-darkened thoughts (Isa. 1:2–3; Jer. 8:7; Job 12:7–12). Nebuchadnezzar’s experience of living as a beast changes his perspective toward the divine. He can no longer ignore God, can no longer rest smug in his self-confidence (Dan. 4:17; 4:25b). He is dependent. He must look up.
Humbling the King
Nebuchadnezzar’s sojourn as a beast is not a fairy tale, but fairy tales are tapping into an aspect of the truth that we find in Scripture. In the old story, the arrogant prince is transformed into the Beast until he learns to love selflessly. His external appearance is made to match his character until his character changes. Nebuchadnezzar’s pride made him subhuman, so God drove him out from among mankind. His mind was changed for the mind of an animal so that he would learn to humble himself before God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s sojourn as a beast is not a fairy tale, but fairy tales are tapping into an aspect of the truth that we find in Scripture.
This new perspective is forced on Nebuchadnezzar as a punishment, but there is grace here. The animal mind that God gives him changes his perspective and restores him to a right relationship with God (Dan. 4:34–35).
Nebuchadnezzar’s account invites us to repent of pride and ignoring God. But at a more profound level it reveals the character of our God who humbles us and restores us to our right mind (Dan. 4:37). A King like this commands our praise.
In stark contrast to Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance, Jesus ascends his throne by humility. The Lord is the great King. His kingdom is everlasting. But Paul tells us that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). This move from very God to humble human parallels Nebuchadnezzar’s descent from great king to lowly beast. But in contrast to the King of Babylon, King Jesus willingly descends the created order to become like those he cares for. Jesus Christ took on a human mind to redeem man. God does not command what he has not accomplished.
Jesus’s humility is the prelude to his exaltation over heaven and earth (Phil. 2:9–11). Nebuchadnezzar’s humility is the prelude to praising the King of heaven:
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)
This kind of praise is the proper human response to God’s goodness and glory. But pride disorders our minds so that we ignore God and become less than human. Paul urges us to reflect on Christ’s humanity so that we can embody his mind (Phil. 2:5). When we see the character of God shining in his humility, it humbles us and leads us to praise. Like Nebuchadnezzar and like Jesus, we must humble ourselves to ascend to our full humanity.