Tuesday of Week 34 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 2:31-45

Daniel, we saw in yesterday’s reading, had been blessed with a divine gift for interpreting dreams. King Nebuchadnezzar has had a series of dreams but he cannot remember their contents which greatly disturbed him. He calls in all his wise men and astrologers to interpret them. Naturally, without being told the contents, they cannot do so, although they apparently go into all kinds of rambling disquisitions to cover their ignorance. The king goes into a rage and wants them all executed. Daniel and his companions are also to be given the same fate.

Daniel then approaches the king’s chief executioner to ask the king to hold off the executions (in which he would also be involved) because he wants the opportunity to interpret the king’s dreams. He is then brought into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, who asks if Daniel can interpret his dreams. The young man says that all the wise men and soothsayers in the kingdom did not know how to interpret the dreams, but:

…there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…
(Dan 2:28)

He is the one who, through Daniel, will tell the king what is going to happen in the final days.

Daniel then begins his interpretation. He knows that the king is concerned about the future. It has been revealed to Daniel, not because he is wiser than anyone else, but so that the king can learn the meaning of his dream and to understand his innermost thoughts.

It is at this point that our reading begins, with a description of the contents of the dream and the meaning of its symbols. This, says Daniel, is what the king saw:

…a great statue. That statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its midsection and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.

As the king watched in his dream, a stone broke away, untouched by any human hand. This stone struck the feet of iron and clay and shattered them. Then all the rest of the statue collapsed and broke into fine pieces:

…and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found.

On the other hand:

…the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

Now, says Daniel, comes the interpretation of the dream.

First, about Nebuchadnezzar himself, God has given him sovereignty, power, strength and honour. Daniel pointedly notes that the source of the king’s power is God and not the divine nature which Nebuchadnezzar claims for himself. In addition all human life and all other life have been entrusted to his rule. He is the head of gold in the dream.

After him will come another kingdom, of silver, which will not be as great as Nebuchadnezzar’s, followed by a third of bronze, which will rule the whole world.

Then there will be a fourth:

…strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything…

And, like iron, it will crush and break all earlier kingdoms.

The feet – part iron and part clay – represent a kingdom that will split in two, but will maintain some of the strength of iron: in other words, the kingdom will be partly hard and partly brittle. And, just as the feet are a combination of earth and clay, so the two will be “mix[ed] with one another in marriage”. But they will not hold together, any more than iron and clay can.

Then it is that God will set up a kingdom never to be destroyed, a kingdom which will not pass into the hands of another race. On the contrary, it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and last forever. This is symbolised by the stone, untouched by human hand, which broke away and reduced all the metals to powder.

Daniel concludes:

The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain and its interpretation trustworthy.

For us, at this distance in time, the interpretation itself needs some further elucidation. The references are to actual historical dynasties which succeeded one another.

The gold head represents the Neo-Babylonian empire; the silver chest and arms, the Median empire; the bronze belly and thighs, the Persian empire, and the iron legs, the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great (about 330 BC).

The iron will be the strongest, the kingdom of Philip of Macedon and his famous son, Alexander (the Great), and will overcome all others. With his death, Alexander’s kingdom divides, but cannot reunite because the iron and clay of the feet will not blend. After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided among his generals. The two resulting kingdoms, which most affected the Jews, were the dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt, and that of the Seleucids in Syria, who tried in vain by war and through intermarriage (“mix with one another in marriage”), to restore the unity of Alexander’s empire.

The diminishing value of the metals from gold to silver to bronze to iron represents the decreasing power and grandeur of the rulers of the successive empires, from the absolute despotism of Nebuchadnezzar to the relatively democratic system of the Greeks. The metals also symbolise a growing degree of toughness and endurance, with each successive empire lasting longer than the preceding one.

Last of all comes the messianic kingdom. The stone hewn from the mountain is the messianic kingdom awaited by the Jews. This is an apocalyptic prediction, about which Daniel does not yet know the way in which it will be realised. He sees it still as something exclusively Jewish (“nor shall this kingdom be left to another people”).

But with the coming of Jesus, the form of the prediction becomes clear. He is the stone which breaks away from the mountain. He is the Messiah come to establish the everlasting Kingdom of God, very different from the preceding empires which have now all been reduced to dust and blown away like chaff. The empires of the earth collapse and give place to a new kingdom which, being founded by God, is everlasting – the Kingdom of God. Jesus will later refer to himself as the cornerstone:

…the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.
(Acts 4:11)

The cornerstone formerly rejected and as the foundation stone is a clear allusion to the stone which breaks away from the mountain and crushes him on whom it falls.

Our reading ends with Daniel’s interpretation, but we may as well add in the conclusion of this narrative. In spite of the disturbing nature of the interpretation as far as Nebuchadnezzar is concerned, he is deeply moved and uncharacteristically falls prostrate before Daniel as to a god. He acknowledges the greatness of Daniel’s God:

Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery! (Dan 2:47)

It will not be the last time the king acknowledges the God of Israel.

Daniel is then rewarded by being made governor of the whole province of Babylon and chief sage of the kingdom and given many gifts. However, Daniel entrusts the running of the province to his three companions while he remains in attendance on the king.

This vision and its interpretation, of course, is not just a historical narrative. It is a special message of hope for a people who are under the cruel persecution of the tyrannical King Antiochus, about whom we were reading last week in the books of the Maccabees.

And history confirms that no dynasty, no political power, lasts for ever. In the not too distant past, we have seen the collapse of powerful (and very anti-Christian) empires – German Nazism and Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism. The millions of peoples who suffered under these regimes must have felt at times very much like the Jews under Antiochus. Yet, all these regimes collapsed and much more rapidly than most had hoped for or expected. History in the future will confirm the same about today’s regimes that now project evil.

For us Christians, our hope is not based on human power, but on God because God represents truth and justice and these must always prevail in the end. As Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar:

The dream is certain and its interpretation trustworthy.

Our lives are based not on any earthly regime, but on the rock that is our Christian faith. The Kingdom of God is the stone which grew into a great mountain, filling the whole world.

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