Welcome to the second half of Daniel, where if you thought it was a strange book before, now you’ve been proven correct. Long gone are the days of easily followable narratives. We’ve had warm-up sessions in parts of earlier chapters, but now it seems that Daniel has gone full apocalyptic on us.
When we think about the word apocalypse, usually we think of the end of the world and fire and brimstone, because that is the cultural meaning it has taken on. But biblically speaking, an apocalypse is an unveiling or revealing of something. And yes, sometimes that can mean something dramatic is being revealed about the end of the world as we know it. But that is not the default mode of an apocalypse. An apocalypse, probably more often than not, sheds light on what is happening now (as in, then, for the original writers and audience) and what is immediately on the horizon, often with the purpose of encouraging the people of God to hang on. Today we can look at an ancient, yet inspired apocalypse and find patterns and truths that mean just as much (and more) as they did so long ago.
Think back to Daniel chapter two. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a statue with its different parts representing a succession of four kingdoms, and then a fifth, everlasting kingdom. This was an apocalypse, revealing to Nebuchadnezzar how temporary his kingdom is and how sovereign God is. But this also was a way of revealing to Daniel the encouraging truth that restoration for the people of God was something in the works.
Daniel’s dream in chapter seven presents the same pattern with very different imagery, and expands on it with some new information. Instead of different parts of a statue, we have four devouring beasts coming out of the sea. The first is a lion-eagle type thing, the second is a bear, the third is a leopard-bird thing, and the fourth is maybe something like an elephant with ten horns. Coming out of it is another little horn that is arrogant. These beasts are four kingdoms, and I’ll again run with them representing Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece (probably more the Seleucid kingdom in this case).
I need to take a pause and tell you that I recognize that there are several different ways to make sense of the book of Daniel. It is not an easy book, and there are a lot of things left open to interpretation (which I would argue is by design). I can barely begin to understand the nuances. But I can at least share the path I’m taking through it, and hope that it is useful to you somehow, even though I am sure it is not entirely correct.
Daniel’s dream jumps from the beasts to a court scene, or divine council, with the very fiery and white-haired Ancient One, or Ancient of Days (God) presiding over the court. The fourth beast is judged and put to death, while the other three beasts have to transfer their dominion, but are allowed to live.
To what or whom is this dominion transferred? Now approaching God on the clouds of heaven is a humanlike figure, or one “like a son of man.” Verse 14 tells us, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
Who is the humanlike figure? There are a couple options. One option is that the humanlike figure is an angel who is a heavenly representative of Israel. Option two is similar, where it would be a literary stand-in kind of figure in the vision that symbolizes the collective Israel. Either way, it is a representation of Israel approaching Judge God, being vindicated, and receiving dominion.
There is a very tempting and obvious third option, which is to identify the humanlike figure with the Messiah. Jesus’s most used title for himself is the son of man, and he makes references to the son of man coming on the clouds. There is certainly a connection to be made here, but direction is important. In Daniel 7, I don’t believe there is any intention of referring forward to a messianic figure. However, when Jesus comes on the scene, he does well to call back the symbolism in Daniel 7 to say something significant about himself: He embodies and represents Israel before God. As an aside, “son of man” means “human.” Jesus unabashedly embraces his full humanity every time he utters the phrase. As another aside, when Jesus talks about the son of man coming on the clouds, we should import Daniel 7 context and imagery as a starting point for understanding what he is talking about, because that seems to be what he is asking us to do.
Daniel is very concerned about this fourth beast that seems to be much worse than the other beasts, and what is going on with the ten horns (Now 11 though. This one goes to 11). This fourth beast probably symbolizes the hellenistic kingdom of Alexander the Great. And the 11th (little) horn probably symbolizes Antiochus IV Epihanes, one of the hellenistic kings of the Seleucid dynasty (from 175 to 164 BC), who intensely persecuted the Jews. Since the book of Daniel was likely not in its final form until the first half of the 2nd century BC, the persecution from Antiochus was either on the horizon or already a very serious reality being wrestled with.
This little horn tries to mess with the sacred seasons (Antiochus actually prohibited observing Sabbath and some feasts), persecutes, and sets himself up as sovereign for a period of time (usually interpreted as 3½ years). But after the time is up, his dominion is handed over to the people of God.
Again I want to suggest that the specifics are less important than the pattern. We can look at history and find the fulfillment of passages like these. But the bigger pattern is that earthly kings and kingdoms come and go. Some of them are decent, and some of them are truly terrible, but none of them are God. So we look forward to when dominion is in the right place, to a truly good kingdom that is eternal, with God as its king. Until then, we know there can be trouble, and we hang on.
Chapter 8 expands on chapter 7 by presenting Daniel’s vision of a ram and a goat. The ram is powerful and has two horns. A goat with a horn between its eyes shows up and takes out the ram. But eventually the goat loses the horn and 4 more replace it. Out of one of these horns comes a little horn that becomes very powerful and arrogant. He interferes with the sacrificial system and wreaks general havoc and headache. A couple of angels speak among themselves and ask how long this will go on. A prediction of 2,300 evenings and mornings is given, which could be meant to be 2,300 days or 1,150 days. If it is the latter, that roughly approximates a 3½ year period, which will come up again.
Luckily, Gabriel is able to help us with some of this. He identifies the ram’s horns as the kings of Media and Persia. The goat is Greece, with the first horn being its first king. And the four horns are four kingdoms that rise up to take over when the first king is gone. Then another very powerful and troublesome king comes after them. But Gabriel assures Daniel, “he shall be broken, and not by human hands.”
To fill in a couple more blanks, it seems reasonable to say the goat’s horn is Alexander the Great, who rapidly defeated the Persian empire. After he is broken (his sudden death in 323 BC), his kingdom is divided between his generals (the Diadochi). The four horns refer to the four most important of these kingdoms. Our beloved friend Antiochus comes out of one of these.
Antiochus in a way declares war on Judaism, and by extension, on God. He ushers in the “Antiochene Crisis” in 167 BC in response to a civil war in Jerusalem. With an iron fist, he brings massacres, enslavement, military presence, a rededication of the temple to Zeus Olympios, a replacement of normal sacrifices with pagan sacrifices, and destruction of copies of the Torah. This defiling of the temple and sacrificial system is likely referred to by the “transgression that makes desolate.” Antiochus is basically making worship of the true God illegal if not impossible.
The tyrannical little horn is allowed to do his thing for a time, but God will be the one to put an end to him. Again we have a pattern where an arrogant king sets himself up as God, is allowed to live in that delusion for a time, but is eventually made low by God. And hope waits for the deliverance and restoration that follows.
Chapter 9 reminds us that Daniel has been waiting for this restoration. He recalls that the prophet Jeremiah said that the exile would last for 70 years. This launches him into a prayer of repentance on behalf of his people. Israel had screwed up so badly and put themselves into this situation, but Daniel, as far as we can tell, doesn’t have much of anything to apologize for. Yet, he groups himself in with Israel and confesses their collective sin. Daniel cries out to God to restore the temple, the people, and Jerusalem, not for their own sake, but for God’s. Because now God’s people, who carry his name, have become a laughingstock.
But Gabriel now adds another layer of interpretation on Jeremiah, and informs Daniel that it will take 70 weeks for everything to be restored to some kind of normal for Jerusalem and the people of God. What do we make of this? Usually it is taken to mean 70 weeks of years, so 70 times 7, or 490. But 490 years from when? Does it start from when they went into exile, or from when Daniel had the conversation with Gabriel, or from when Jeremiah first spoke the prophecy, or from some other point? And do the biblical authors really intend these numbers to be used as precise timetables? Whichever way it is, 490 years is much longer than 70, and this has to come as devastating news to Daniel, who by now has waited most of his life for the exile to end and for things to be put right again.
Gabriel informs us that these 70 weeks are divided into periods of 7 + 62 + 1. The first 7 weeks is 49 years, or in biblical tradition, a Jubilee, when slaves are set free and debts are forgiven (see Lev 25). As it turns out, that is the amount of time from the start of the exile until their return after Cyrus’s decree. The anointed prince after the 7 weeks could be a reference to the high priest Joshua, or possibly Cyrus. During the 62 weeks, Jerusalem is being rebuilt into a real city again. After the 62 weeks there is an anointed one who is cut off, which is probably a reference to the murdered high priest, Onias III. Then it mentions a prince to come who destroys the city and temple. This “prince” is likely Antiochus, assaulting the city through his official, Apollonius. And in the last week, we have some kind of agreement between Antiochus and the hellenizing Jews, followed by his ban on worship, and replacement of YHWH worship with pagan worship, basically as punishment for a rebellion. To get more backstory on this line of interpretation, you can look at the Jewish writings of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Whatever interpretation you take, and whoever this prince is, his end will come at the end of these 70 weeks.
If your head is spinning, join the club. Part of the fun of reading Daniel is that we’re continually invited to interpret. Don’t get too lost on the details and timelines. It has been helpful for me to zoom out and try to catch the big picture themes and patterns.
We’re not immune to trouble. Regrettably, sometimes the people who have been placed in authority over us don’t have our best interests in mind. This can make a huge mess of things for a while, but God is always on the move to restore his people, even if it takes 7 times longer than we had hoped.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Daniel 7-9
Tomorrow we finish the book of Daniel (chapters 10-12) as we continue on our