So why was it God depicted Nebuchadnezzar as the golden head of the statue in Daniel’s vision?
Some things are obvious. The most popular answer from Western Christians is that Neb was simply fulfilling God’s plan. He had utility and played his part. And we also have that time when he went mad as punishment against his fleshly pride, and repented by humbling himself before God (Daniel 4). I note in passing that the Babylonians were unique in not boasting of their military conquests. We have precious few records of their martial exploits; it seems they frowned on such pride. The Sumerian Empire, which the Babylonians admired so much, provides a clue where that comes from, referring in official inscriptions only to their monarch’s piety and building programs, despite external records of major military conquests.
What we do have is a strong record of Babylonian libraries, a penchant they picked up from their Assyrian predecessors, who in turn had taken much from the more ancient Sumerians. Most of what we have today from Assyria and Sumer is found in the remnants of Babylonian possessions. We also know from these records that Daniel’s training for imperial court service included studying a lot of this stuff. We have a rough outline of his degree program, which included: language and literature, history, mythology, math and science, and administrative procedures. But it was more than a mere course in culture; Daniel had to learn to think like a Babylonian. More to the point, he had to understand his employer, Nebuchadnezzar.
You can get a decent introduction to Babylonian learning from Western academic sources. What would be exceedingly difficult to find is someone who can teach you what it would all mean to a Babylonian of that era. What we do understand is that the Babylonians themselves would insist you can’t get it without a certain broad outlook, an underlying approach to reality itself. Precious few Western scholars can help you with this. Oddly, those who know it best tend to be somewhat careful sharing it, because of the basic hostility they endure from the inveterate fans of Western Civilization. Once you really grasp the Ancient Near Eastern outlook, you find yourself pulled into that world, and no longer at home in the West.
Keep in mind: This is the world of Abraham and Daniel, among many other biblical heroes of faith. Daniel and his Hebrew pals didn’t struggle much because we know of a certainty that it wasn’t so radically different from their own Hebrew approach to things. Not in the peculiarities of revealed religious truth, but they shared in the broader intellectual background, those basic assumptions about reality. The Babylonians were part of the heart-led ancient past, same as the Hebrews.
In the passage in Daniel 4, the prophet is careful to note that Nebuchadnezzar was restored by praising God as he knew him, an ancient name we generally anglicize as El Elyon — “the Most High God.” Neb didn’t call Him “Jehovah” (or Yahweh) as the God of Israel; Daniel made that connection. So Neb clearly remained pagan, in the sense that he didn’t convert to serving Jehovah. This is the man God referred to as the golden head of the statue in Neb’s own dream, the same dream later revealed to Daniel. The whole business of how someone could recognize a dream as a divine revelation, and not be able to recount it, is itself a part of ancient lore Westerners find incomprehensible. It comes off as miraculous mumbo-jumbo. But to someone who understands the Ancient Near Eastern approach to life and reality, it’s not at all surprising. Two men could have the same dream if they shared a cultural background, plus a certain kind of moral receptivity and a sense of divine calling.
That was the objective of Daniel’s Babylonian education, to share a frame of reference consistent with his earthly master. And the whole objective for any Babylonian man’s delving into the ancient literature was to open up a higher faculty of moral reasoning not restricted to mere intellect. Daniel and his pals got that faculty as a component of their Hebrew faith; it was built into their religion. Theirs was due to a clear revelation from the Creator of all things. Babylonians had to wade through a lot of crap contained in ancient literature in hopes that some clue would seize them and make them able to see from that higher perspective.
Despite his pagan orientation, Nebuchadnezzar was enough heart-led to see in terms of moral truth and be used by God. We can see that he struggled to pass on this depth of moral vision to his heirs. The end of the Babylonian Empire saw the throne passed through increasingly incompetent hands until Belshazzar, who wasn’t even related to Neb, so far as we can ascertain. Belshazzar’s father was a decent soldier, seizing the throne by assassination, but had no talent for rule. We note that Daniel says the golden head of the statue is Nebuchadnezzar himself, not his dynasty.
Nebuchadnezzar’s moral probity in God’s eyes is hard to grasp from a Western viewpoint. The Babylonian sense of moral value conflicts with those of the West. But apparently Babylon’s was a lot closer to the Hebrew’s version of morals. This is why we cannot hope to understand what God calls “moral righteousness” unless we take the time to dig into the culture and orientation of the Ancient Near East.