Babylonian king who conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the people More learns that the only enduring thing in this world is the reign of God; his power was derived from God, but he became awed by the pomp of power and mistook it as his own. The exiles could take comfort in the fact that God checks the pride of the powerful even when that power is not violently directed against the people of God. There is no need to be awed by the pomp of power; only God’s power will be enduring.
[In the comments below the name Nebuchadnezzar will be used as in the biblical text, but there is much evidence to suggest that the tradition has confused Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus. Nabonidus did withdraw from Babylon for several years to the desert oasis of Tema.]
Nebuchadnezzar learns that God’s power is greater than the power of any human being, kings included. From the dream in An interpreter of dreams who was delivered from the lions' den. More 2 and the events of Daniel 3, the king should clearly have known of God’s power. Nebuchadnezzar’s opening testimony to the wonder of the Most High God comes close, with one key exception: he thought all of God’s power existed to secure his own ease (4:1-4).
The king did not always use his power faithfully. While all people, beasts, and birds could benefit from his rule (compare 2:38 with 4:12), he often threatened, and even caused, death (2:13 and 3:6, 22). He used his power as if he were accountable to no one. His power was extensive, but he needed to learn that it was dependent on the giver-God-who can readily take power away. The king remains clueless even after receiving the dream. Daniel sensed the profound change that would need to take place in the king. Any change as profound as this would be unsettling to the empire, even though it was necessary. If the king had acknowledged that his power was given by God, he would have shown it by using it on behalf of the oppressed (4:27). The surest sign of the misuse of power is the lack of redress for wrongs done to the least powerful in a society. The tranquility or peace that the king longs for (or imagines for himself) must include justice for the weak. If not, its longevity will be short-lived as he found out.
The king’s attitude toward God seems to have changed by 4:36, but one cannot be sure how much. In this verse, the first-person pronoun is frequent (“my” majesty and “my” kingdom). On the other hand, he does acknowledge God’s power more here than he did earlier. He does say, “I was re-established” (4:36), rather than “I have built” (4:30). Whatever one decides about the depth or sincerity of Nebuchadnezzar’s change, it will become clear that the next king, Belshazzar, did not take to heart the message given Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel 4 sets up Daniel 5.