The Dream of Empires
Daniel 1:18 brings us to the end of the Babylonian court training period for Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (a.k.a. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego). But there appears to be a chronological discrepancy with chapter 2. Chapter 1 says that the boys were to be trained for three years after their capture by Nebuchadnezzar (verse 5). Yet chapter 2 says that Nebuchadnezzar's dream occurred in the second year of his reign, and verse 13 implies that the training was finished since Daniel is considered to be one of the "wise men." How do we resolve this?
In its note on the second year of the king in Daniel 2:1, The New Bible Commentary states: "This phrase is thought by some to conflict with the three-year period of training mentioned in ch. 1. But the phrase 'three years' (Daniel 1:5) need refer only to portions of years." What this would really mean is that the training was for a time period spanning three calendar years and not three full years. The short time prior to Nebuchadnezzar's first year on the throne would have been year one. The first year of Nebuchadnezzar would have been year two. And the second year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign would have been year three. It was during this year—in 603 B.C.—that the training period ended.
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary points out: "The very difficulty [in chronology here] is a proof of genuineness; all was clear to the writer and the original readers from their knowledge of the circumstances, and so he adds no explanation. A forger would not introduce difficulties; the author did not then see any difficulty in the case" (note on Daniel 2:1).
Remarkably, Daniel and his friends proved far wiser than not only the other students, but than all the wise men of the realm (Daniel 1:20). Besides the fact that God surely aided their intellectual development, we should consider that these young godly men of Judah's court were surely well studied in Scripture, including the brilliance of the civil law system God gave through Moses as well as the unparalleled wisdom of the book of Proverbs.
In verse 21, we are told that Daniel continued in the service of the Babylonian court until Cyrus of Persia conquered the empire in 539 B.C., 66 years later.
Sometime later in Nebuchadnezzar's second year, he has his famous dream, the subject of chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar was immensely troubled by this vivid dream. He knew it meant something and he felt he had to know what. Perhaps he saw it as a "message from the gods." When he mentions the dream to his spiritual advisers, they respond in Aramaic (verse 4). Starting with their response and continuing to the end of chapter 7, the original language of the book of Daniel is Aramaic, the common language of the empire. Perhaps Daniel intended a broad gentile readership for this section.
The advisers asked that the king tell them his dream. But to be sure that whoever interpreted the dream was telling the truth, he required that they first tell him what he had dreamt. Any good storyteller could make up an "interpretation" (and perhaps the suspicious Nebuchadnezzar suspected his "wise men" often did just that!), whereas only one with supernatural knowledge could reveal the dream itself. Nebuchadnezzar let his fear turn to hostility and, ever the absolute ruler of his kingdom, goes "over the top" with his very real threats to kill all the "wise" men. Like too many rulers who have absolute power, it seems he was extremely ill-tempered with no care for human life. People were replaceable, even innocent young men who were not even involved in his problem. Among those threatened were Daniel and his three friends—but all of this was ultimately from God for a purpose.
How do we react when others make bad decisions that affect us? Daniel's reaction carries an important lesson for every Christian. We all face bad decisions on the part of others—at work, at home, from the government and even at times in the Church. And this was a bad decision. Daniel's very head was on the line. But he didn't just stand around and complain about the government. Instead he took action—but it was tempered with tact and wisdom (verses 14-16; compare James 1:5). The word translated "wisdom" in verse 14 is related to the Hebrew word meaning "to taste." In English we talk about a person having "good taste," meaning having a sense of appropriateness. Daniel's "good taste" was spiritual in nature. He had the wisdom (good taste) to know what was appropriate when approaching the rulers of the land. But he took no personal pride in his wisdom. He knew it came from God (Daniel 2:18).
However, to Daniel, just realizing God's help was not enough. When God answered his need, his next reaction was to go back to God and offer thanks and praise (verses 19-23). Author Sinclair Ferguson correctly remarks on Daniel's example: "We need men and women with that spirit today. We do not need more pomp or noise or triumphalism. In the last analysis, we do not need money in order to establish a witness to God in the highest reaches of our society. We need Christians of complete integrity who know that God's eye is on them. With that we need people who pray. Perhaps more than anything else we need Daniel's spirit of prayer" (Mastering the Old Testament, 1988, Vol. 19, p. 59).
With the answer in hand, Daniel goes to the king and reveals the dream and its meaning. The image the king saw may have been frightening, but it had great significance, foretelling a succession of great empires. Even in the first century, the identities of the four gentile kingdoms mentioned were understood, as we can see from the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, chap. 10, sec. 4). The head of gold, as Daniel explained, was the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar. The silver chest with two arms signified the empire of the Medes and Persians, which conquered and supplanted Babylon. The belly and thighs of bronze represented the Greco-Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, which swallowed up Persia. After Alexander's death, this Hellenistic empire continued in a divided form until its divisions were taken over by the next great kingdom, the Roman Empire, represented by the legs of iron. (The two legs apparently signified the east-west division that characterized the Late Roman Empire). Each succeeding metal is less valuable—perhaps showing the wealth of each succeeding empire being more thinly spread, as each empire was bigger than the previous. But, though less valuable, each succeeding metal is stronger, as each empire was more powerful than the last.
However, extending from the legs are feet and toes of iron mixed with clay—a brittle and unstable mixture because it would not bond well. These are destroyed by a stone from heaven, which reduces the entire image to dust. This stone clearly represents the Messiah, Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4; Psalm 18:2; Matthew 16:18; Romans 9:33; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-8), coming from heaven to smash the governments of this world. The stone then grows into a great mountain that fills the whole earth. As a mountain in Bible prophecy is often symbolic of a kingdom, this signifies the Messiah's Kingdom extending to fill the entire earth after destroying the succession of great empires. And indeed, that is what we see in Daniel's explanation in Daniel 2:44. This fact is important to understand, for it shows that the Kingdom of God is a literal kingdom to be set up on earth—the fifth and final kingdom in succession—and not some ethereal sentiment set up in men's hearts, as many believe the Kingdom of God to be.
While most biblical scholars agree that the stone from heaven refers to the Messiah coming to set up His Kingdom, there are differing views about when it occurs. Some claim that "these kings" mentioned in verse 44 refers to the four preceding kingdoms with the stone representing Jesus Christ's first coming during the days of the first-century Roman Empire. Others view the toes as representing 10 nations extant at the end time in a loose federation (the brittle mixture) as a final resurrection of the Roman Empire (compare Revelation 17:12-14). The latter is the correct meaning. The Roman Empire has continued intermittently throughout history since its official fall in A.D. 476. The darkest and most ominous revival will exist on the world scene at the time of Christ's return.
To understand, we have to look at all the prophecies concerning the succession of empires and the Kingdom of God, especially those in the book of Revelation. Part of the key is given in Daniel 2:35, which states regarding the kingdoms that "the wind swept them away without leaving a trace" (NIV), something that did not happen to the Roman Empire while Jesus was on earth—nor has it ever really happened. In addition, the description in Revelation makes it very clear that the Kingdom of God is not here yet, but will commence at the return of Jesus Christ. To learn more about this, request or download our free booklets, The Book of Revelation Unveiled and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.
Writing to a Roman audience, Josephus explained the succession of gentile empires. But it is interesting to see what he said to the Romans regarding the stone from heaven. Notice: "Daniel did also declare the meaning of the stone to the king; but I do not think proper to relate it, since I have only undertaken to describe things past or present, but not things that are future; yet if any one be so very desirous of knowing truth, as not to wave such points of curiosity, and cannot curb his inclination for understanding the uncertainties of futurity, and whether they will happen or not, let him be diligent in reading the book of Daniel, which he will find among the sacred writings." In the same space, Josephus could certainly have explained what the stone was, but it is clear that he did not want to provoke the Romans by telling them their empire would eventually be smashed by God.
Daniel 2 ends with another glimpse of Daniel's magnificent character wherein he shows his loyalty to his friends and petitions the king for special favor for them. As will happen numerous times during his long sojourn in Babylon, God rewards Daniel's character and loyalty with wealth and position.