In the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon has a dream that troubles him. Daniel, inspired by God, is the only person who is able to interpret it. It's a powerful story in the literal sense, and its spiritual sense goes deep; it describes a step that we each need to take if we want to make spiritual progress.
The literal text sets the story in the "second year", which refers to a state of conflict that comes before regeneration. Generally, "two" means a union, and specifically the marriage of good and truth. But in this story, the marriage is between evil and falsity. Nebuchadnezzar is still on the throne of Babylon: the falsities from selfish love seek to establish dominion over every sphere of life.
So, in the second year, "Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was so troubled that his sleep left him." Dreams are one of the ways the Lord revealed the Word to the ancients. It is not surprising to find Nebuchadnezzar greatly disturbed by a dream, to the point that "his sleep left him." Sleep, when dreams occur, depicts a state of obscurity. In Nebuchadnezzar's case, the obscurity arose because he represents false thoughts resulting from a selfish lust for power. Selfishness obscures the truth because it makes it impossible to focus outside of the self.
Nebuchadnezzar represents falsity from selfishness and the desire to dominate and control others. When this is in charge, people become manipulative, insisting that everything serve their own ends. They are willing to twist any truth, even destroy it, to justify their actions. The danger in this state is its attraction; it can invade the mind and establish an empire.
This is our state before regeneration. However, Divine Providence mandates that in order to remove this, we must become conscious of our Nebuchadnezzar states. This may be difficult because reflection requires perspective, which starts out obscured — asleep. Nebuchadnezzar, unable to remember or interpret his dream, commanded his magicians, astrologers, sorcerers and Chaldeans to ease his mind.
When the wise men were unable, the king began killing them. In the internal sense, "to kill," means to turn truths into falsities. Daniel and his companions were to be included in the slaughter, but they were different from the other wise men, who represented falsity based on abuse or misuse of truth grounded in selfishness. Daniel and his friends served the Lord.
Daniel's name had been changed to 'Belteshazzar,' symbolizing the perversion of truth by love of self. Yet in this verse, they sought 'Daniel' and his companions to kill them. This shows a human quality hidden from daily life. If Nebuchadnezzar represents blind selfishness, to save us, the Lord must keep truth hidden from the flow of selfish thought. When his hidden name is used, Daniel represents this hidden thought, protected and ready for use against selfishness.
In chapter one, Daniel rejects Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to eat his food. Once again, he stands against the king who reveals his evil in his willingness to kill when displeased. Nebuchadnezzar is the epitome of self-worship, Daniel is the true worshiper of the Lord.
Daniel and his friends sought "mercies from the God of heaven concerning this secret." Despite their position as 'wise men,' they humbled themselves to the Lord. This is a picture of the submission necessary for conscience to direct the unruly external self.
Daniel was given insight into the fallen human, the decline caused by selfishness. People faced with these insights often run and hide. Yet without self-knowledge, people cannot make any spiritual progress. By blessing the Lord, Daniel recognizes that only His divine power can help people put evils into order. Without this, spiritual life is over.
This gratitude embodies a New Church principle: all goodness and truth are from the Lord alone. Any insight people have into the nature of evils must come from the Him. Evil is blind to itself, but truth shows it for what it is. By thanking the Lord for insight, people can face their evils.
Before he can be killed, Daniel requests an audience with the king. Outward behaviors can be aligned with good or evil, and so Arioch, captain of the guard, acts on Daniel's request in spite of Nebuchadnezzar's orders. His words to the king show how useful things can ally themselves to the truth. So Arioch advocates for Daniel.
In his entreaty, Arioch emphasizes Daniel's heritage: "a man of the captives of Judah." This may have cast the king's mind back to his campaign in Judah, or even to the young man prepared for his service, filled with wisdom and glowing with physical health. In the internal sense, 'Judah' represents the church with a person, initially through truths. So Arioch identifies Daniel as truth from the Word. Nebuchadnezzar knew Daniel by his Babylonian name of Belteshazzar: when people in falsity are presented with truth, they view it as mere information for their own use. This is why an adulterer sees no difference between adultery and marriage, or a liar no distinction between truth and falsity.
Daniel is the conscience, which can be thought of as guilt or sorrow for actions. But at it's core, conscience is guidance by the truths of the Word. For truths to guide us, we must recognize their Divine authority and origin: none of the wise men, astrologers, magicians, or soothsayers could tell and interpret the king's dream.
In the sense of the letter, Daniel could begin because he established that the dream was from God, and thus interpreted by God. Daniel was simply a mouthpiece. For us, the self-awareness needed to move us from selfishness to charity comes from the Lord. Only He can direct our lives, but leaves us in freedom to accept that direction or not.
Daniel described Nebuchadnezzar's dream: the great image, with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Even in the literal sense of the story one sees the steady decline from precious to base to valueless.
Many scholars describe this dream in political terms. They claim it describes successive nations or rulers in the earth, from the Babylonians, to the Greeks, the Romans, and so on. However, the Word deals with spiritual, not worldly things. In one sense, this dream speaks of the different spiritual eras that have existed in this world. This is called the "internal historical" sense. On this level, Nebuchadnezzar's dream describes the rise and fall of the ancient churches to the present. This exposition focuses on a deeper level: the regenerative series, or how the Word tells of each individual's spiritual life.
Nebuchadnezzar's dream symbolizes allowing selfishness to dictate our thoughts and beliefs. Babylon is a state of great selfishness, the opposite of loving the Lord. This is the origin of all evils, going hand in hand with falsity, which twists and perverts the truth, making it a slave to our desires. The dream describes how this state gains mastery of the human mind. It begins before selfishness gains a toehold in our thoughts, and ends in the destruction of our very humanity.
The vision begins with the head because it is the highest part of a human being. But the key to this head is that it is gold, symbolizing love to the Lord. The chest and arms are physically lower than the head, and silver is less valuable than gold. The chest and arms represent the rational parts of the mind. Silver represents truths derived from the goodness within. This change from loving the Lord to thinking from truth marks a change in focus: good embraces all, opening us up to each other in a life of mutual love and charity. Truth, on the other hand, is more open to abuse: ideas of truth have been the cause of many wars and conflicts. Truth is used to hurt as often as to nurture goodness. It is a double edged sword.
At the next level, the decline becomes more obvious: from the head to the chest to the belly and thighs – half way down the body. From gold to silver to bronze, precious metal turns to base. The belly and thighs normally depict the good of loving the Lord and the neighbor, called charity. Here, however, it is twisted into the opposite sense: disregard for others, and one's own interpretation of truth. To the person in this state, these things appear good. So the belly and thighs were made of bronze, an alloy that can be polished until it gleams like gold, but it is not, nor ever can be transmuted.
So we are brought to the lower parts of the body: the legs of iron. In place of truth, falsity takes charge. This is depicted by the iron, which merely looks like silver. The legs are followed by the outer extreme of spiritual life: the feet. The feet are the lowest part of our body. Feet correspond to the outmost of our lives, which should be the expression of the Lord's goodness and truth through us. Instead, the feet of the statue are a weak spot: a mixture of iron and clay. In this image, we see the entire devolution of selfishness – carried into our very action – a life devoid of real goodness or truth, only a false image.
At the climax of the dream, a stone strikes the image and breaks it to pieces. This shows us our true character and the power of truth to bring us back from the brink of disaster. The stone was cut without hands: it is not of human origin. Here the Divine truth contrasts with the king’s practice of consulting his wise men and magicians, who represent selfish human thought. Divine truth leads to all goodness when used the way the Lord intends. Detached from human rationalizing, the truth liberates.
This freedom is the new vision of truth: the stone grows into a mountain. "A mountain" symbolizes love – a new love from truth, that replaces the selfishness and the desire for control. The mountain filling the earth symbolizes the way this new truth and love become the center and focus of our lives. We are created anew by the Lord's truth.
Having described the dream in great detail, Daniel then explains its meaning. He begins with what seems like an affirmation of Nebuchadnezzar; the Lord gave us our love of self! He ordained that we should feel life as our own and have no sense of His life flowing into us. This allows us to act according to our reason, and respond to the Lord in freedom. Selfishness is the abuse of this gift from the Lord, and the kingdom changes its meaning from truth to falsity.
Nebuchadnezzar clearly confuses Daniel with the Lord, and ascribes the power to interpret dreams to him. But the reality of selfishness becomes clear when contrasted with the ideals of conscience. If selfishness cannot reflect upon itself, it needs to be confronted with truth – and truth shows the true nature of evil and convicts it.
Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel and his three friends to positions of power. He recognized their God as the God of gods, the Lord of kings. But he continues to recognize the previous gods who served Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar may have elevated the Lord above Marduk, the Babylonian god, but he was neither willing nor prepared to jettison his customary deity.
Spiritual life must begin somewhere, and this interaction between Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel symbolizes the beginning. There is still a great distance to travel before we are truly born again. The old selfish side will reassert itself, new arguments and battles will rage. Yet the promise of Nebuchadnezzar's dream is still with us.