Daniel 7:1–3;15-18 (NASB95)
1In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel saw a dream and visions in his mind as he lay on his bed; then he wrote the dream down and related the following summary of it. 2Daniel said, “I was looking in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3And four great beasts were coming up from the sea, different from one another…”
15“As for me, Daniel, my spirit was distressed within me, and the visions in my mind kept alarming me. 16I approached one of those who were standing by and began asking him the exact meaning of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things:
17“‘These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth. 18But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.’”
Daniel is a difficult book for modern readers. The language is tricky, leading to conflicting translations; the genre of the book, early Jewish apocalyptic literature, is an ancient genre with no modern equivalent; and the nature of that genre is to be intentionally vague, overly symbolic, and deeply seated in a thorough knowledge of the Torah and of Jewish culture. That may be one of the reasons the Lectionary cuts Daniel’s vision down so severely.
Modern Christians generally have little to no interaction with Jewish Apocalypse apart from Daniel, Revelation, and arguable portions of Isaiah. Muddying the waters further is that many American Christians in particular have had their reading of these texts stuffed into an interpretive lens they were never meant to fit; one which is chiefly concerned with telling the future, and figuring out who the secret bad guys are. Neither of those concerns are central to either Daniel or John the Revelator, or indeed, any known examples of Jewish Apocalypse.
Jewish Apocalyptic Literature is chiefly concerned with putting the challenging times faced by the people of God in their cosmic context. These writings seek to answer the question, “where was God when the world was burning?” The Jewish authors of these texts witnessed generation after generation of wicked empires rising, falling, and being replaced with new empires more wicked than the last.
First Daniel sees a lion with eagle’s wings, characterized by human wisdom rising up to take dominion over the earth. The image is evocative of the winged feline guardian statues topped with human heads common in Mesopotamian royal and sacred architecture. Jews rarely acknowledged any difference between the Assyrians and the Babylonians, as indeed, by the middle of the last millennium B.C. there was little difference to be seen other than where the throne happened to be. These are the empires represented by the first beast.
The second beast is a lopsided bear representing the imbalanced codominance of the Medes and the Persians which would ultimately give way to the Achaemenid Persian Empire; symbolized by the beast rising up from its lopsided position to devour the earth. The third beast is a leopard, a swift, efficient, ruthless killer. It represents the meteoric rise of Macedonia under Alexander the Great.
The final, indescribably monstrous and unnatural beast represents Rome; a force that, following its conquest of Carthage, Greece, Persia, and Egypt, must have seemed ineffable. What had qualified for an ‘empire’ in ages gone by had been dwarfed by Rome. Uprising, and revolts were never absent from any sizable state, but where these concerns had toppled previous empires, Rome handled them with the same ease one might have in crushing an ant. Daniel reached its final form in a generation that witnessed Rome’s armies sweeping the earth as if the flood of Genesis had awoken once more to consume the world in death and chaos. When Octavian supplanted his corulers, and started making claims about himself that had eerie echoes to the boasts of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, it must have seemed that all the darkness of the legends of old had come back with a vengeance.
And that’s precisely why that generation needed Daniel 7. These emperors who claim to be gods, who conquered nations, displaced peoples, and extracted the wealth and labor of nations to build their own glory; their success is temporary. The progressive wickedness of the world is like the progressive recalcitrance of the Pharaoh in Exodus; the wicked are being given chance after chance to turn around. Their replacements are offered a new start to be better than those who came before. But with each opportunity, they chose to walk further away until wickedness was no longer a choice empires could make, but an integral part of how they operate; a principle most clearly characterized by the excesses of Rome.
But Pharaoh’s wickedness was not allowed to go on forever; his recalcitrance built to a critical tipping point whereupon divine judgment became necessary. Daniel 7 points forward to the coming day of the Lord when Rome would be so judged. And because Daniel 7 makes opaque allusion to Exodus, many 1st century Jews were anticipating the Day of the Lord this time around to look like the Day of the Lord had that time around. But they had missed a crucial detail in Daniel 7.
The beasts of Daniel 7 do not represent particular human rulers of the four empires. The final beast makes this most evident insomuch as the human rulers of Rome are represented as horns growing out of the beast; they are manifestations of a deeper enemy. The Pharaoh in Exodus was a singular figure responsible in his own right for the evils and excesses of Egypt. These empires of later days were saturated with evil; no one person had built the inglorious systems of fear, oppression, and exploitation that made empires of this scale possible. It is these underlying forces of influence which Daniel 7 sees as the figures who need to be conquered by the one like a son of man. What’s more, the son of man’s conquest was not achieved through battle with the beasts, but by his ascension to the right hand of the Ancient of Days who passed judgment on the powers influencing the empires of earth.
It is here that Christians can see in truth that victory over Rome did not come on the battlefield, but on the cross; judgment had not been passed on sinful humans, it had been passed on sin itself, and the spiritual powers which propitiate it. The power of sin is death. In dying without sin, Christ dragged sin down to the grave, subjected it to its own destruction, and leaving both sin and death behind in the grave He rose again victorious over the powers of this world. With His ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ eternal reign was secured; all that remains is for His people to proclaim His reign, combatting what influence remains to those old broken powers by fighting lies with the truth, fighting selfishness with generosity, fighting fear with hope, fighting hatred with love, and fighting death with the resurrection life we are even now invented into through baptism.
When we face a burning world, we need only look just a little beyond the surface to see that we are merely facing down these old wounded beasts in their death throes, lashing out incipiently against the ineffable, incomparable, and unstoppable victory of Christ. It is by no means permission to sit back and wait for Christ to make His victory complete; but an invitation to join the battle until all the world is free from the chains of sin and death.