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King Nebuchadnezzar demands the wise men tell him his dream

In the second year of his reign (603 BC), Nebuchadnezzar had more dreams. His mind was troubled and he could not sleep. The king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. Whey the arrived and stood before the king, he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.”

The astrologer said to the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream and we will interpret it.”

King Nebuchadnezzar demands the wise men tell him his dreamThe king replied to the astrologer,

“This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was, I will have you cut into pieces and your homes turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive gifts, rewards, and great honor from me. So tell me the dream I had – and interpret it for me.”

The men once again said, “Tell us the dream and we will interpret it for you.”

The king answered,

“I am certain that you are trying to stall for time because you realize this I will not change my mind. If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me wicked and misleading things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

The astrologers answered the king,

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“There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician, enchanter, or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except for the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death and guardsmen were sent to look for Daniel and his friends (whom Nebuchadnezzar had captured during his siege of Jerusalem) to put them to death.

When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such as harsh decree?”

Arioch explained the matter to Daniel. At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time so that he might interpret the dream for him. Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning thy mystery so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

What the story means to us today

Death often follows sinful actions

Readers may be sad, shocked, or horrified that the king has ordered the death of his royal advisers simply because they were unable to tell him what his dream was. Notice however, the occupations of those who were to be executed – magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers. To rely on “magic” or other supernatural means is not just dangerous, it is forbidden by the Bible.

The Bible lays out guidelines for mankind – rules that ensure we survive, remain healthy, and are happy. Manmade laws perform a similar function – they ensure citizens are safe and can work together to better the society. However, there are biblical restrictions that manmade laws freely allow. For instance, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, lying, and magic are considered “sin” by biblical standards but are not illegal according to manmade laws. The Bible’s laws are more stringent than manmade laws but put more emphasis on our safety and health of our body *and* soul. Thus, it should come as no surprise when the king’s magicians meet their death. Death following sinful actions is a common occurrence.

In Babylonians instance, their worship of false Gods and practicing of magic will ultimately prompt the downfall of their entire civilization.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Who were the wise men?

The original text uses the term “wise men”. These were men who specialized in magical arts such as magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers who could see the future and even alter its course. It was a serious tradecraft with carefully documented manuals explaining how to interpret dreams and how to predict the future from the stars. These wise men were reviled by God and in fact, Old Testament law (see Exodus 22:18) dictated they should be put to death.

The importance of dreams in ancient Babylonia

According to Babylonian religious beliefs, the king had every right to worry about his dream. Babylonians believed that insight could be gleaned from interpretation of dreams. This was so important to their culture, kings often made life and death decisions based on the interpretation of dreams. If a king made a wrong decision, they could be overthrown or killed. Clearly God chose dreams as the most appropriate way for Daniel to communicate God’s will to Nebuchadnezzar.

The king’s harsh punishment

King Nebuchadnezzar on the throneThe king threatens to dismember (cut into pieces) the wise men if they cannot tell him what his dream was. Although this punishment seems severe, savagery was common in Babylonian culture. Babylonians were known throughout the Bible for their brutal practices. Other verses mention punishment such as incineration (burning to death) and being thrown to wild beasts to be eaten alive.

Were Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men put to death before Daniel could intervene?

The verses tell us that Arioch had “gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon” before Daniel requested more time. Although the verses appear to indicate the wise men were executed, we will find in later verses that indeed, the wise men had not yet been killed.

Why did the king make an unjust demand that the wise men tell him what his dream was?

The king demands not just interpretation of his dream, but what his dream was. The dream, by all indications, was greatly troubling to the king, enough to cause disruption of his sleep. The wise men were shocked at the king’s request. Although they believed they could interpret dreams, nobody but their gods could see a person’s thoughts. They faced a hopeless request. It is unlikely the king made the demand because he had forgotten his dream (the original King James Version incorrectly translates this idea). But it is clear the king was highly disturbed by the dream.

It is more likely the king’s request was a test to ensure he was not being tricked by the wise men. After all, the wise men were supposed to have direct contact with the Babylonian gods (especially the enchanter who was adept at communications with the spirit world). Contact with the gods was the means behind their ability to interpret dreams and conduct magic. In the king’s mind, only persons with legitimate contact with the gods would be able to not only interpret the dream, but to tell the king what his dream was. In other words, if the wise men had direct contact with the gods as they claimed, they should have possessed the power to tell the king what his dream was.

Daniel’s intervention

We are not given details about what Daniel said to the king. We are only told that he approached Arioch about the king’s decree which indicates Daniel and his friends were isolated from the wise men during the king’s proclamation (possibly because Daniel and his friends were still training to join the king’s service). We also are told that Daniel boldly but tactfully approached the king to request more time for his God to provide answers. It appears that Daniel was held in high regard by the king.

The science and history behind the story

A note about the Aramaic section of the book of Daniel

As discussed in our introduction to Daniel, the book was written in multiple languages. The book of Daniel begins and ends in Hebrew with the middle section written in Aramaic. The Aramaic language section begins in this chapter at verse 4:

“Then the astrologers answered the king, ‘May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream and we will interpret it.’”

Older translations and some modern translations include a notation in the text indicating the language transition to Aramaic. Some believe this may have indicated the wise men were speaking to the king in Aramaic, which was the diplomatic language of the Babylonian and Persian Empires. Or the notation could be a translation note indicating the original texts were written in Aramaic beginning at this point. Unsure whether the notation is part of the biblical text or an explanatory note, some translations include the statement in the text while others do not.

Dating Daniel’s story

As discussed in our introduction to the book of Daniel and in Daniel Chapter 1, the second year of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was 603 BC. Since we are told that Daniel went through three years of training on behalf of Nebuchadnezzar, this incident would have taken place during his training years.

Who were the  magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers?

King NebuchadnezzarFour classes of wise men are mentioned in the verses. Their precise duties are believed to be as follows:

Magicians were those who were skilled in divination, sorcery, and exorcism. Enchanters were a priestly class who could directly communicate with the spirit world (the dead). Sorcerers were skilled with magic and incantations.

The word for astrologers varies between translations. Some translations call them “astrologers” while others call them “wise men” or “Chaldeans” (who may have also been an ethnic group). Astrologers interpreted events according to the movement of the stars and planets.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Why is the decree from the king so urgent?”

Daniel asks Arioch why the decree to execute the wise men is so urgent. Some believe the word translated to urgent should be translated to “harsh” instead. This would render Daniel’s question as, “Why is the decree from the king so harsh?”

“This is what I have firmly decided”

In Daniel 2:5, the king tells the wise men,

“This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.”

In past translations, “this is what I have firmly decided” was translated as “the matter is gone from me” indicating the king had forgotten the dream. This is how the original King James Version translated the Aramaic. Today however, all translations agree the key word is “irrevocable” or “firmly decided”.

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Bible Text

NIV

2 In the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his mind was troubled and he could not sleep. 2 So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, 3 he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.”

4 Then the astrologers answered the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

5 The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. 6 But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

7 Once more they replied, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”

8 Then the king answered, “I am certain that you are trying to gain time, because you realize that this is what I have firmly decided: 9 If you do not tell me the dream, there is only one penalty for you. You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.”

10 The astrologers answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. 11 What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans.”

12 This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree was issued to put the wise men to death, and men were sent to look for Daniel and his friends to put them to death.

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, had gone out to put to death the wise men of Babylon, Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact. 15 He asked the king’s officer, “Why did the king issue such a harsh decree?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. 16 At this, Daniel went in to the king and asked for time, so that he might interpret the dream for him.

17 Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 18 He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

2:1 In the second year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar had many dreams. His mind was disturbed and he suffered from insomnia. 2:2 The king issued an order to summon the magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and wise men in order to explain his dreams to him. So they came and awaited the king’s instructions.

2:3 The king told them, “I have had a dream, and I am anxious to understand the dream.” 2:4 The wise men replied to the king: [What follows is in Aramaic] “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will disclose its interpretation.” 2:5 The king replied to the wise men, “My decision is firm. If you do not inform me of both the dream and its interpretation, you will be dismembered and your homes reduced to rubble! 2:6 But if you can disclose the dream and its interpretation, you will receive from me gifts, a reward, and considerable honor. So disclose to me the dream and its interpretation!” 2:7 They again replied, “Let the king inform us of the dream; then we will disclose its interpretation.” 2:8 The king replied, “I know for sure that you are attempting to gain time, because you see that my decision is firm. 2:9 If you don’t inform me of the dream, there is only one thing that is going to happen to you. For you have agreed among yourselves to report to me something false and deceitful until such time as things might change. So tell me the dream, and I will have confidence that you can disclose its interpretation.”

2:10 The wise men replied to the king, “There is no man on earth who is able to disclose the king’s secret, for no king, regardless of his position and power, has ever requested such a thing from any magician, astrologer, or wise man. 2:11 What the king is asking is too difficult, and no one exists who can disclose it to the king, except for the gods—but they don’t live among mortals!”

2:12 Because of this the king got furiously angry and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 2:13 So a decree went out, and the wise men were about to be executed. They also sought Daniel and his friends so that they could be executed.

2:14 Then Daniel spoke with prudent counsel to Arioch, who was in charge of the king’s executioners and who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon. 2:15 He inquired of Arioch the king’s deputy, “Why is the decree from the king so urgent?” Then Arioch informed Daniel about the matter. 2:16 So Daniel went in and requested the king to grant him time, that he might disclose the interpretation to the king. 2:17 Then Daniel went to his home and informed his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the matter. 2:18 He asked them to pray for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that he and his friends would not be destroyed along with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

2 Now in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was so troubled that his sleep left him. 2 Then the king gave the command to call the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans to tell the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king. 3 And the king said to them, “I have had a dream, and my spirit is anxious to know the dream.”

4 Then the Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will give the interpretation.”

5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “My decision is firm: if you do not make known the dream to me, and its interpretation, you shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made an ash heap. 6 However, if you tell the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts, rewards, and great honor. Therefore tell me the dream and its interpretation.”

7 They answered again and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will give its interpretation.”

8 The king answered and said, “I know for certain that you would gain time, because you see that my decision is firm: 9 if you do not make known the dream to me, there is only one decree for you! For you have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the time has changed. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation.”

10 The Chaldeans answered the king, and said, “There is not a man on earth who can tell the king’s matter; therefore no king, lord, or ruler has ever asked such things of any magician, astrologer, or Chaldean. 11 It is a difficult thing that the king requests, and there is no other who can tell it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

12 For this reason the king was angry and very furious, and gave the command to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree went out, and they began killing the wise men; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them.

14 Then with counsel and wisdom Daniel answered Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to kill the wise men of Babylon; 15 he answered and said to Arioch the king’s captain, “Why is the decree from the king so urgent?” Then Arioch made the decision known to Daniel.

16 So Daniel went in and asked the king to give him time, that he might tell the king the interpretation. 17 Then Daniel went to his house, and made the decision known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, 18 that they might seek mercies from the God of heaven concerning this secret, so that Daniel and his companions might not perish with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon3 2 In the second year of his reign, King Nebuchadnezzar started having dreams that disturbed him deeply. He couldn’t sleep. He called in all the Babylonian magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and fortunetellers to interpret his dreams for him. When they came and lined up before the king, he said to them, “I had a dream that I can’t get out of my mind. I can’t sleep until I know what it means.”

4 The fortunetellers, speaking in the Aramaic language, said, “Long live the king! Tell us the dream and we will interpret it.”

5–6 The king answered the fortunetellers, “This is my decree: If you can’t tell me both the dream itself and its interpretation, I’ll have you ripped to pieces, limb from limb, and your homes torn down. But if you tell me both the dream and its interpretation, I’ll lavish you with gifts and honors. So go to it: Tell me the dream and its interpretation.”

7 They answered, “If it pleases your majesty, tell us the dream. We’ll give the interpretation.”

8–9 But the king said, “I know what you’re up to—you’re just playing for time. You know you’re up a tree. You know that if you can’t tell me my dream, you’re doomed. I see right through you—you’re going to cook up some fancy stories and confuse the issue until I change my mind. Nothing doing! First tell me the dream, then I’ll know that you’re on the up and up with the interpretation and not just blowing smoke in my eyes.”

10–11 The fortunetellers said, “Nobody anywhere can do what you ask. And no king, great or small, has ever demanded anything like this from any magician, enchanter, or fortuneteller. What you’re asking is impossible unless some god or goddess should reveal it—and they don’t hang around with people like us.”

12–13 That set the king off. He lost his temper and ordered the whole company of Babylonian wise men killed. When the death warrant was issued, Daniel and his companions were included. They also were marked for execution.

14–15 When Arioch, chief of the royal guards, was making arrangements for the execution, Daniel wisely took him aside and quietly asked what was going on: “Why this all of a sudden?”

15–16 After Arioch filled in the background, Daniel went to the king and asked for a little time so that he could interpret the dream.

17–18 Daniel then went home and told his companions Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah what was going on. He asked them to pray to the God of heaven for mercy in solving this mystery so that the four of them wouldn’t be killed along with the whole company of Babylonian wise men.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

2 And in the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, wherewith his spirit was troubled, and his sleep brake from him. 2 Then the king commanded to call the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans, for to shew the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king. 3 And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream. 4 Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, ggO king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation. 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and iyour houses shall be made a dunghill. 6 But if ye shew the dream, and the interpretation thereof, ye shall receive of me gifts and rewards and great honour: therefore shew me the dream, and the interpretation thereof. 7 They answered again and said, Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation of it. 8 The king answered and said, I know of certainty that ye would ngain the time, because ye see the thing is gone from me. 9 But if ye will not make known unto me the dream, there is but one decree for you: for ye have prepared lying and corrupt words to speak before me, till the time be changed: therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that ye can shew me the interpretation thereof. 10 The Chaldeans answered before the king, and said, There is not a man upon the earth that can shew the king’s matter: therefore there is no king, lord, nor ruler, that asked such things at any magician, or astrologer, or Chaldean. 11 And it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh. 12 For this cause the king was angry and very furious, and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 13 And the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they sought Daniel and his fellows to be slain.

14 Then Daniel answered with counsel and wisdom to Arioch the †captain of the king’s guard, which was gone forth to slay the wise men of Babylon: 15 He answered and said to Arioch the king’s captain, Why is the decree so hasty from the king? Then Arioch made the thing known to Daniel. 16 Then Daniel went in, and desired of the king that he would give him time, and that he would shew the king the interpretation. 17 Then Daniel went to his house, and made the thing known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions: 18 That they would desire mercies of the God of heaven concerning this secret; that Daniel and his fellows should not perish with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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