Nebuchadnezzar (also called Nebuchadrezzar) was king of Babylon from around 605 BC to 562 BC. He was the most important ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and a renowned builder. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which he constructed for his wife, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Under his rule, the Neo-Babylonian empire was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world, and Babylon grew into a formidable city.
In the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar is one of the most well-known Old Testament villains. He conquered Jerusalem (twice), destroyed Solomon’s temple, and took many Jews captive, initiating the period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian captivity or the Babylonian exile, which lasted about 70 years.
King Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned in the books of Jeremiah, 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles, and he plays a prominent role in Daniel. He’s also mentioned in numerous rabbinic commentaries and six apocryphal texts. A series of tablets known as the Babylonian Chronicle support some of the Old Testament narrative surrounding him, but it stops recording in 594 BC, before his second invasion, the destruction of the temple, the Babylonian captivity, and many of the events recorded in the Old Testament. The ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus fills in the dates of some of these events, but we don’t have other ancient texts to corroborate him.
Historians generally believe that King Nebuchadnezzar was a prominent Babylonian ruler, but that many of the details surrounding him have been embellished or blended with legend, making it difficult to discern exactly how much we know about him.
In this guide, we’re going to cover some of the basic facts about Nebuchadnezzar drawing from history and the Bible, and we’ll explore some of the famous passages involving him.
Facts about King Nebuchadnezzar
King Nebuchadnezzar was both a historical figure and a prominent character in the Bible. Most of what people remember about Nebuchadnezzar come from Old Testament narratives (such as the Book of Daniel), but these details aren’t supported by other ancient texts.
This section includes both historical details and important observations about Nebuchadnezzar as a biblical figure.
Nebuchadnezzar belonged to the Chaldean dynasty
Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopollasar, founded the Chaldean dynasty and the Neo-Babylonian Empire after he rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, declaring himself king of Babylon in 626 BC.
Before he was king, Nebuchadnezzar was a formidable commander. He’s first mentioned in a 607 entry in the Babylonian Chronicle, which records Nabopollasar leading his armies to the mountains with the “crown prince” Nebuchadnezzar. Fighting for his father, Nebuchadnezzar helped conquer the Assyrians.
In 605, Nabopollasar died, and Nebuchadnezzar became the second king in the Chaldean dynasty. His reign lasted about 40 years, and was the longest (and most significant) reign of any Chaldean king.
Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem
The Babylonian Chronicles records that “Nebuchadnezzar conquered the whole area of Hatti”, which included Palestine, Syria, and Judah. The dates and details are a little fuzzy between the various Old Testament accounts and Babylon’s own record in the Babylonian Chronicles, but the main events are pretty consistent.
When Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylon, Jehoiakim was king of Judah. He submitted to King Nebuchadnezzar at first, but three years later, he rebelled—against the advice of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:9–11). Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:1–2, Daniel 1:1–2, Jeremiah 25:1), Jehoiakim died, and his son Jehoiachin became king (2 Kings 24:6).
With Jerusalem besieged, Jehoiachin’s reign lasted for just three months before his surrender to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar took everything from Jerusalem, including its king and 10,000 people (2 Kings 24:13–14).
The Babylonian Chronicle states that in 597 Nebuchadnezzar “marched to Palestine and besieged the city of Judah which he captured on the second day of the month Adar” and then “seized its king and appointed a king of his own choice, having received heavy tribute which he sent back to Babylon”.
Nebuchadnezzar created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
According to ancient writers, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was a massive, tiered structure as high as the city walls and about four or five acres at its base. Allegedly, Nebuchadnezzar had it built for his wife, Amytis, who missed the mountains of her homeland.
But it might not have existed. The earliest mentions of it are in Greek and Latin texts, and while the Babylonians recorded much of Nebuchadnezzar’s work, there’s no mention of the garden—or his wife Amytis.
All but one of the original Greek and Latin texts reference the Greek historian Cleitarchus when discussing the gardens, and he had a reputation for embellishment. The only source that doesn’t reference him is Josephus, who claims to be referencing an ancient source that lists important Babylonian monuments. But there’s a problem: we have that source. And it doesn’t mention the gardens.
It’s possible that what we know as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was actually Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, which may have had a garden on the roof. Or we just haven’t uncovered archaeological evidence of it yet. Or, someone (*cough* Cleitarchus) made it up.
Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s temple
When he conquered Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jehoiachin and appointed his uncle, Mattaniah, to be the new king (2 Kings 24:17). As he did with many of the Jewish exiles, Nebuchadnezzar gave Mattaniah a new name: Zedekiah. Eventually, Zedekiah rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar once again marched against Jerusalem—but this time, the consequences were far more severe.
The Babylonian Chronicle doesn’t record anything after 594 BC, and so beyond the biblical narrative and other secondary texts, we have no record of this second attack on Jerusalem (which took place around 587 BC) or the events that follow.
But according to the Bible, he brought his whole army to siege Jerusalem. They eventually broke through the wall and captured the Israelites. They killed Zedekiah’s sons in front of him, then gouged out his eyes, set fire to the temple and the palace, and took all but the poorest Israelites back to Babylon.
Solomon’s temple was arguably the most important symbol of Israel’s culture. When Nebuchadnezzar burned it to the ground, it would’ve likely felt as though either God had abandoned them (which the prophets said would happen because of their evil kings) or that he was powerless to stop Nebuchadnezzar. Either way, this was a devastating blow, right before the Israelites were taken from their homeland.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics about him, let’s look at other important biblical narratives involving King Nebuchadnezzar.
King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible
King Nebuchadnezzar was one of the most powerful people on the planet. His empire brought together people of all different nations and religions, and he had many wise men in his service. When he took the Jews captive, he selected the young men with the most potential and had them schooled in the wisdom of Babylon (Daniel 1:4–5).
Among them were the prophet, Daniel, as well as Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—who are better known by the names Nebuchadnezzar gave them: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
The Book of Daniel is a series of stories about Daniel, the ideal Israelite exile who humbly lives by his faith in the God of Israel But it gives plenty of attention to Nebuchadnezzar, a powerful, prideful foreign figure whom God humbles.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream
In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar is plagued by a dream, and he wants someone to interpret it for him. So he summons magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers, and asks them to interpret his dream. But first, they have to tell him what he dreamed.
These were the wisest men Nebuchadnezzar knew of, but he didn’t want anyone to pull a fast one on him. He figured only someone who knew what the dream was without being told could accurately interpret it (Daniel 2:9).
But what he asked went far beyond their interpretive (and/or “magical”) powers. So they told him. And being the reasonable king that he was, Nebuchadnezzar decided to execute all the wise men in Babylon, including the ones who weren’t there—which meant Daniel, too.
When Daniel learned that they were all going to die because no one knew what the king’s dream was or what it meant, he asked Nebuchadnezzar for time, then asked his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah to pray for God to reveal the dream out of mercy (Daniel 2:15-18).
God revealed the dream and its interpretation to Daniel, and he explained to Nebuchadnezzar. (You can read the dream and its interpretation in short here, or read the whole passage in Daniel 2:31-45.)
Daniel’s ability to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—without being told what it was—revealed a wisdom none of his wisemen possessed: God’s wisdom (Daniel 2:27-28). As a result of this moment, King Nebuchadnezzar appointed Daniel ruler of the city of Babylon, and awarded high positions to his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as well.
This wouldn’t be the last time Daniel interpreted a dream for Nebuchadnezzar. And as the biblical narrative progresses, God uses Daniel and his friends to reveal his own glory, which far surpassed that of the powerful king of Babylon.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
Shortly after appointing Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to positions of power, Nebuchadnezzar made a massive golden statue, and commanded people of all nations to bow down and worship it—or else be thrown into a furnace.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down, and Nebuchadnezzar’s other wisemen tattled on them. King Nebuchadnezzar gave them another chance to worship the statue, and he asked if he threw them into the furnace, “what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” —Daniel 3:16–18
Nebuchadnezzar responded by cranking up the heat on the furnace, binding Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and throwing them in. The furnace was so hot it killed the men who threw them in (Daniel 3:22).
The king famously remarked: “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25) and told Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to come out of the furnace. They were miraculously unscathed, and King Nebuchadnezzar decried that anyone who said anything against their God would be cut to pieces.
Did King Nebuchadnezzar go insane?
In Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar descends into madness. He has a dream, which he asks Daniel to interpret, as he did before. (This time he tells Daniel what he dreamed though.)
He dreamed of a tree so enormous that “its top touched the sky” (Daniel 4:11). Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit was abundant, and it sheltered and fed every creature. And then an angel comes along and commands that the tree be cut down . . . so that the stump can go insane for seven years.
Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is the tree. And he will go insane—until he acknowledges the God of Israel. Daniel gives him this advice:
“Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” —Daniel 4:27
And then one year later, Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind, just as the dream said:
“He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” —Daniel 4:33
After a period of “seven times” (seven months), his sanity is restored at the moment he acknowledges the sovereignty of God, proclaiming:
“His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” —Daniel 4:34-35
The mighty king of Babylon
The Old Testament paints Nebuchadnezzar as a violent, narcissistic king who was prone to anger and wickedness; a cautionary tale for those who don’t recognize God’s authority. History doesn’t tell us much about his character, but we do know he was a shrewd and powerful ruler who made Babylon into one of the most formidable empires on earth.
Scholars debate about how much we can really learn about Nebuchadnezzar from the Old Testament, but his role in the Bible highlights the difference between the power and wisdom of man and the power and wisdom of God. And his real, historical reign offers us a valuable anchor to understand when the events of the Bible likely took place.