Nebuchadnezzar part 4

by John Thomas Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

part 4
Nebuchadnezzar's story thus found its way into the Old Testament of the Bible. The Bible narrates how Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, besieged, plundered, and destroyed Jerusalem, and how he took away the Jews in captivity, portraying him as a cruel enemy of the Jewish people. The Bible also portrays Nebuchadnezzar as the legitimate ruler of all the world's nations, appointed to rule the world by God. Through the divine ruling, Judah should have obeyed Nebuchadnezzar and not rebelled. Nebuchadnezzar is also depicted as carrying out death sentences pronounced by God, slaying two false prophets. Nebuchadnezzar's campaigns of conquest against other nations are portrayed as being in line with God's will for Nebuchadnezzar's dominance.
Despite Nebuchadnezzar's negative portrayal, he is notably referred to with the epithet 'my servant' (i.e., God's servant) in three places in the Book of Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar's attack on the Kingdom of Judah is theologically justified in the Book of Jeremiah on account of its populace's 'disobedience' of God. The king is called "Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant." The Book of Jeremiah also states that God has made all the Earth and given it to whom it seemed proper to give it to, deciding upon giving all of the world's lands to "Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant." The Book of Jeremiah also prophesies Nebuchadnezzar's victory over Egypt, stating that "Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant" will invade Egypt and "deliver to death those appointed for death, and to captivity those appointed for captivity, and to the sword those appointed for the sword."
Given that Nebuchadnezzar was the enemy of what the Bible proclaims as God's chosen people, possibly the worst enemy they had faced until this point, there must be a particular reason for referring to him with the epithet "my servant." Other uses of this epithet are usually limited to some of the most positively portrayed figures, such as the various prophets, Jacob (the symbol of the chosen people) and David (the chosen king). Klaas A. D. Smelik noted in 2004 that "in the Hebrew Bible, there is no better company conceivable than these; at the same time, there is no candidate less likely for this title of honor than the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar." The epithet may be a later addition, as it is missing in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, perhaps added after Nebuchadnezzar began to be seen in a slightly more favorable light than immediately after Jerusalem's destruction. Alternatively, possible theological explanations include Nebuchadnezzar, despite his cruelty, being seen as an instrument in fulfilling God's universal plan, or perhaps that designating him as a "servant" of God was to show that readers should not fear Nebuchadnezzar, but his true master, god.

Nebuchadnezzar's forces at the siege of Jerusalem, as depicted in a 10th-century French manuscript

In the Book of Daniel, recognized by scholars as a work of historical fiction, Nebuchadnezzar is given a portrayal that differs considerably from his portrayal in the Book of Jeremiah. For the most part, he is depicted as a merciless and despotic ruler. The king has a nightmare and asks his wise men, including Daniel and his three companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to interpret the dream, but refuses to state the dream's contents. When the servants protest, Nebuchadnezzar sentences them (including Daniel and his companions) to death. By the end of the story, when Daniel successfully interprets the dream, Nebuchadnezzar is nevertheless shown to be very grateful, showering Daniel with gifts, making him the governor of the "province of Babylon" and making him the chief of the kingdoms' wisemen. A second story again casts Nebuchadnezzar as a tyrannical and pagan king. After Daniel and his companions refuse to worship a newly erected golden statue, he sentences them to death by being thrown into a furnace. They are miraculously delivered, and Nebuchadnezzar then acknowledges God as the "lord of kings" and "god of gods." Though Nebuchadnezzar is also mentioned as acknowledging the God as the true God in other passages of the Book of Daniel, it is apparent that his supposed conversion to Judaism does not change his violent character, given that he proclaims that anyone who speaks amiss of God "shall be cut in pieces and their houses shall be made a dunghill." In a third story, Daniel interprets another dream as meaning that Nebuchadnezzar will lose his mind and live like an animal for seven years before being restored to his normal state (Daniel 1-4). The portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel is a fickle tyrant who is not particularly consistent in his faith, far from the typical "servants of God" in other books of the Bible.
Given that Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as the father of Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, it is probable that this portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar, especially the story of his madness, was based on Belshazzar's birth father, Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (r. 556–539 BC). Separate Jewish and Hellenistic traditions exist concerning Nabonidus having been mad, and, likely, this madness was simply reattributed to Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel through conflation. Some later traditions conflated Nebuchadnezzar with other rulers as well, such as the Assyrian Ashurbanipal (r. 669–631 BC), the Persian Artaxerxes III (r. 358–338 BC), the Seleucids Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175–164 BC) and Demetrius I Soter (r. 161–150 BC) and the Armenian Tigranes the Great (r. 95–55 BC). The apocryphal Book of Judith, which probably applies the name Nebuchadnezzar to Tigranes the Great of Armenia, refers to Nebuchadnezzar as a king of the Assyrians rather than Babylonians and demonstrates that Nebuchadnezzar was still viewed as an evil king, responsible for destroying Jerusalem, looting its temple, taking the Jews hostage in Babylon, and for the various misdeeds ascribed to him in later Jewish writings.
In most of his inscriptions, Nebuchadnezzar is typically only titled "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon" or "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the one who provides for Esagil and Ezida, son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon." In financial documents, Nebuchadnezzar has also ascribed the ancient title "king of the Universe," He sometimes also used the title "king of Sumer and Akkad," used by all the Neo-Babylonian kings. Some inscriptions accord Nebuchadnezzar a more elaborate version of his titles, including the following variant, attested in an inscription from Babylon:
Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, pious prince, the favorite of the god Marduk, the exalted ruler who is the beloved of the God Nabû, the one who deliberates (and) acquires wisdom, the one who constantly seeks out the ways of their divinity (and) reveres their dominion, the indefatigable governor who is mindful of provisioning Esagil and Ezida daily and (who) constantly seeks out good things for Babylon and Borsippa, the wise (and) pious one who provides for Esagil and Ezida, foremost heir of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, am I.
See also
• List of biblical figures identified in extra-biblical sources
• Nebuchadnezzar (Blake) – famous 19th-century painting depicting the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness
• Nabucco – 19th-century opera by Giuseppe Verdi based loosely on the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar
0. As Nebuchadnezzar wrote the inscriptions on the stele, he is also unquestionably the king depicted. The stele is one of only four known certain contemporary depictions of Nebuchadnezzar. The other three are carved depictions on cliff faces in Lebanon, in much poorer condition than the depiction in the stele. The Etemenanki ziggurat was presumably the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel, hence the name 'Tower of Babel stele.'
1. ^ Nebuchadnezzar was made high priest of the Eanna temple in Uruk by his father in 626/625 BC. It is assumed that he was made high priest at a very young age, considering his death took place more than sixty years later. It is not known at what age Babylonians became eligible for priesthood, but there are records of freshly initiated Babylonian priests aged 15 or 16.
2. ^ The cuneiform signs are AG.NÍG.DU-ÙRU
3. ^ "Akkad" here refers to Babylonia and derives from the city Akkad, the capital of the ancient Akkadian Empire that Nabopolassar worked to connect himself to. The "king of Akkad" referred to here is thus Nabopolassar.
4. ^ The word translated as 'equal brother,' talīmu, has also been alternatively translated as 'chosen brother,' 'close brother,' or 'beloved brother.' Regardless of the correct interpretation, the epithet clearly illustrates Nabopolassar's great affection for his second son. Such public affection bestowed upon the brother of the heir to the throne often led to later conflicts and usurpations.

General Notes:
a Stele

A stele, or occasionally stela, when derived from Latin, is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected in the ancient world as a monument. The surface of the stele often has text, ornamentation, or both. These may be inscribed, carved in relief, or painted.

b Etemenanki was a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the ancient city of Babylon. It exists only in ruins, located about 90 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraq.

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