I love to plan parties! I’m usually up late the night before a big party getting all the details just right—making signs, assembling favors, and arranging decorations. Meanwhile, my God plans parades centuries in advance! He planned the famous parade we commemorate each year on Palm Sunday: Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Daniel received a vision about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, about 600 years before it was to happen:
“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’” (Daniel 9:25)
It’s important to note that the ‘sevens’ described by Daniel are each periods of seven years. The math makes my head spin (not everybody used the same calendar back then… talk about confusing!), but historians have found Daniel’s vision astonishingly accurate. The time between the issue to rebuild Jerusalem went out (Nehemiah 2) and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is just as God said it would be, to the very year. God’s timing is perfect and His plans always prevail.
In the book of Zechariah, the world’s best party planner gives even more insight into how this day would unfold:
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
And so it came to be—Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The gospels contain several descriptions of that bitter-sweet day—Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12. Up until this point, Jesus kept his status as the begotten Son of God a secret, urging his disciples not to reveal his identity to anyone (Matthew 16:20). On that day, however, his disciples shouted among the masses, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). In that same city, in that same week, the cries of “Hosanna!” would turn into shouts of “Crucify!”
As we wave our palm leaves at church this morning, remembering Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem years ago, let us also remember the parade still to come. Close your eyes and imagine the grandeur of Jesus’ second coming—the roar of the trumpets, the raising of the dead, and the overwhelming noise of centuries worth of believers worshipping at the feet of Jesus. No more death, no more crying, no more pain:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:2-4)
God’s timing is perfect and His plans always prevail. 2,000 years ago Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem to die. Soon he will return to Jerusalem again to bring life everlasting.
We’re now in the 3rd year of the Persian king Cyrus’s reign, after he has allowed the exiled in Babylon to go home. But it’s not clear if Daniel is hanging around to work in the Persian court somewhere or if he has gone home too. Maybe, he figures, what’s the use of going home if the restoration of his people is going to take 7 times longer than anyone thought. If I were him, I’d also be struggling to find some hope if angels keep dropping by in my dreams and giving me mostly horrible news about the future.
This is likely weighing heavily on Daniel’s tired heart as he is mourning and doing extended fasting. You don’t normally hear about people today fasting to hear a word from God, but it’s one of those ancient tried and true methods to use when you really mean business and something has to give.
It works well for Daniel here because he receives another vision. He’s by the river and sees an angel that is described with language stolen right from Ezekiel. And the Bible is weird, because it sounds like this angel (Gabriel?) has been in an ongoing battle with a prince (angelic representative?) of Persia. And the angel Michael is there fighting in Gabriel’s place so he could come tell Daniel something very important. If I am understanding this correctly, this means angels engage in extended tag team octagon fighting on behalf of the kingdoms they represent, as if the balance of history depends on it in some way.
What follows in chapter 11 is an insanely detailed prophecy given to Daniel about the Persians and Greeks, leading up to our old friend, Antiochus IV, and his typical shenanigans. It is basically a much more detailed version of chapter 8 (remember the ram, goat, and the horns?), and we have the theme from chapters 2 and 7 about the sequence of kingdoms knitted into it. Not being an expert in history, and not wanting to overload too badly, I’ll keep this very high-level.
I mentioned Alexander yesterday, who is our “warrior king” in 11:3, or the Greeks taking over the Persians. Alexander dies and his kingdom is split up among four generals. We eventually end up with the Ptolemies of the south (Egypt) and Seleucids of the north (Syria/Mesopotamia), who plague each other with failed alliances, invasions, deception, betrayal, assassinations, and the like. By verse 21, Antiochus (of the north) is on the scene, and by verse 30 we see him start his persecution of Jerusalem and desecration of the temple. By the end of chapter 11, we see his end.
Again, we are interested in patterns more than precise timelines. The north and south had been going back and forth with their conflicts but keeping each other in check. Antiochus comes on the scene and breaks the mold, crosses the line, and does what nobody before him does. And once he upsets the balance and asserts himself as a god, the true God brings an end to him. It’s the arrogant made humble again, like we’ve seen several times before in the book of Daniel.
But what of hope? What’s the point of this endless political drama and transfer of power? The messenger explains that at that point of deep anguish brought in by the king of the north, the people of God will be delivered. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And the wise are said to have some kind of special reward. If we believe in a God of justice and restoration, the end game has to be that God, being the faithful God that he is, will make all things right, even by raising his “sleeping” faithful to life.
Surely the original audience of Daniel would be familiar with the dry bones of Ezekiel coming alive and how it symbolized the return from exile, since the ideas of exile and death in the Jewish mind are interlocked. But technically, when this new revelation is being given to Daniel, the people have already gone home, although their full restoration has yet to be seen. So is Daniel 12 metaphorically about the coming restoration of God’s people, or about an actual bodily resurrection? I think both are in play. This isn’t the New Testament yet, so nobody is really talking about resurrection as we know it. The Old Testament hints at something like resurrection maybe a few times before Daniel. This passage goes further than others in the Old Testament; it’s hard to deny or explain away the element of bodily resurrection. Still, by the time of Jesus, not all the Jews are sold on it. The Pharisees believe in a resurrection, but the Sadducees do not.
A quick word about verses 5-12, which seem to break the flow a little. It prompts us to remember 8:13 when one angel asks the other how long the “transgression that makes desolate” will be. In scope is the last of the 70 weeks described in chapter 9, but now we have another “How long” question: “How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” To summarize, it cryptically lays out two periods of 3½ years, before and after the people are essentially banned from worshiping. Interpreters struggle with making much sense of the differing numbers in verses 11-12, and I am happy to join them.
I’ve been suggesting how some of these prophecies have had a fulfillment in historical events moving up into the second century B.C. because I think it fits well, but hopefully I have also left the door open for you to envision other ways these patterns have been fulfilled, and even how they are yet to be fulfilled. Part of the joy of the book of Daniel is that it keeps inviting you to interpret. Sometimes it will hand you the interpretation, and sometimes you’ll have to chew on it. Making sense of the book of Daniel (and the rest of scripture) became an important pastime for God’s people, and it is no wonder why. It can provide us wisdom, encouragement, and hope while surviving in our Babylons, or enduring very tough times that never seem to end.
We are in a strange time in our world where I think all of us are asking every day, “How long is this mess going to keep going? When can things be back to normal?” It will probably take much longer than we had wanted or expected. And whether it is good or bad, we’ll probably never go back to what we thought of as normal. But the wise and faithful can enjoy the hope of a time of restoration and resurrection, in a kingdom that has no end, under the rulership of the true God who has finally set everything right.
Thank you so much for studying Daniel with me. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Daniel 10-12
Tomorrow we will begin the book of Ezra (chapters 1-3) as we continue on our journey through God’s Word using the
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