Bible Commentary: Daniel 7

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Daniel 7

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Four Beasts From the Sea

The first six chapters of Daniel's book concern events and episodes in his and his companions' lives. The last six relate a series of visions the prophet experienced—all of which came late in his life. For the sake of chronological flow, we are skipping over the events of chapters 5 and 6 and reading chapter 7, which contains the first of these visions.

The date is "the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon" (verse 1). Evil Merodach, who assumed the Babylonian throne upon his father Nebuchadnezzar's death in 562 B.C. and then released the Jewish king Jeconiah from prison, reigned only a very short time. "In 560 he was assassinated by Neriglissar, his sister's husband.... His tenure was [also] brief however (560-556). [Then] his young son Labaši-Marduk, who succeeded him...reigned only one month [before] he was beaten to death" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 476).

"This revolt placed its leader Nabonidus...on the throne. He does not seem to have been related to the royal house by blood but [as we will later see] apparently married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar...[possibly using this fact] to legitimize his seizure of the throne. He may have been a member of the wealthy merchant class, therefore being cordially supported by the commercial leaders" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Daniel 5:1-4 Daniel 5:1-4 [1] Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. [2] Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein. [3] Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. [4] They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
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).

In any case, as the neighboring Median Empire grew in strength, Nabonidus was beset with political confrontation at home over religious disputes with the Babylonian religious hierarchy. He may also have suffered from health problems and seems to have become more interested in scholarly pursuits than in administration. Whatever the reason, "the situation became so uncomfortable for Nabonidus that in his sixth year (550) he went into a ten-year self-imposed exile at Tema, the great oasis of the Syro-Arabian desert east of the Red Sea. Nabonidus did not abdicate by any means, however, but left the everyday affairs of government in the hands of his son Bel-šar-usur (= Belshazzar)" (Merrill, p. 477).

The Nelson Study Bible notes: "The date of Belshazzar's first year cannot be stated precisely. However, since Nabonidus appears to have spent at least ten years in Arabia and since Belshazzar reigned for Nabonidus in Babylon during that time, a date of 550 B.C. for Belshazzar's first year cannot be far off. This date coincides with the inauguration of the Medo-Persian Empire under Cyrus [when the Persians took over from the Medes], an occasion that may have prompted Daniel's vision" (note on verse 1)—that is, this signal event may have been the reason God gave Daniel the vision at this particular time.

Daniel had been taken captive 55 years before, so he was now in his early 70s. When the prophet received the interpretation of his current vision from one of God's angels, he must have recalled the explanation he gave to Nebuchadnezzar of his vision in Daniel 2 more than half a century earlier. Remember from that passage that the king had dreamt of a giant human image with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and legs of iron. A great stone fell from heaven, struck the image on its feet and toes, causing the entire image to disintegrate, and then grew to fill the whole earth.

The four parts of the image represented a succession of four great imperial kingdoms: 1) the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors; 2) the Medo-Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and his successors; 3) the Hellenistic Greco-Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great and his successors; and 4) the Roman Empire. The stone from heaven is the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who takes over and sets up a world-ruling fifth kingdom, the Kingdom of God. The 10 toes of the legs of the image, extensions of the Roman Empire, are described as rulers who exist at the time of Christ's coming in power and glory—showing that the Roman Empire continues on in some form until the end time (as the Roman imperial system has been revived numerous times, the final revival to appear on the scene shortly before Christ's return).

Just the same, the four beasts of Daniel's vision represent four kings (Daniel 7:17 Daniel 7:17These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.
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) or the kingdoms they represent (Daniel 7:23 Daniel 7:23Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.
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). And like that of Daniel 2, this vision culminates with the time when "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom, even forever and ever" (Daniel 7:18 Daniel 7:18But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
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). Clearly the same succession of kingdoms is meant, and a more detailed look makes this even more obvious.

The beasts of Daniel 7 arise from the churning sea. Isaiah 57:20 Isaiah 57:20But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
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states, "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." Basically that would signify humanity in general. An even more direct parallel can be found in Revelation 13, where a "beast" comprising elements of those in Daniel 7 is described in vision as arising from the sea. And in another prophecy of the beast in Revelation 17, the waters of the sea represent "peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues" (verse 15). So it would appear that each of these beasts arises from a conglomerate of various nations and peoples. Again, a succession of great gentile empires is intended.

Regarding the first beast Daniel sees, corresponding to the head of gold in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "The first of these beasts is a winged lion, whose eagle-like pinions are soon plucked, so that instead of flying it stands on the ground. A human heart...is given to it. In the light of Nebuchadnezzar's career, it is clear that the plucking of the lion's wings symbolizes reduction of his pride and power at the time of his insanity (ch. 4). The lion symbol was characteristic of Babylon, especially in Nebuchadnezzar's time, when the Ishtar Gate entrance was adorned on either side with a long procession of yellow lions on blue-glazed brick, fashioned in high relief.... The final detail—‘the heart of a man was given to it'—may refer to the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar's sanity after his seven-year dementia. In any event, the correspondence between the winged lion and the Babylonian Empire is acknowledged by biblical critics of every persuasion" (note on 7:4).

The second beast, corresponding to the chest and arms of silver in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, is a hulking bear. Note that it is raised up on one side—so that one side is higher than the other. "The bear is...described in a way that very clearly suggests that it is to involve the alliance of two powers, one of which will dominate the other.... The symbolic action was altogether appropriate for the federated Medo-Persian Empire, in which the Persian element dominated the Median" (note on verse 5). Recall from the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 44-45 that the Persian ruler Cyrus overthrew his Median grandfather Astyages, who supposedly had tried to have him killed as an infant. Moreover, as we will see in the next chapter, Daniel 8, the imagery of one side of a beast being higher than the other is specifically used of Medo-Persia. "Daniel saw [the bear] devouring three ribs from some other animal it had killed. Indeed, it was divinely encouraged to feast on the ribs. This corresponds perfectly to the three major conquests the Medes and Persians made under the leadership of King Cyrus and his son Cambyses: [namely] the Lydian kingdom in Asia Minor (which fell to Cyrus in 546), the [Babylonian] Chaldean Empire (which he annexed in 539), and the kingdom of Egypt (which Cambyses acquired in 525)" (note on verse 5).

The third beast, corresponding to the bronze belly and thighs of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, is a four-winged, four-headed leopard—powerful and swift. "This beast portrays the division of Alexander's swiftly won empire into four separate parts within a few years after his death in 323 B.C. The initial arrangement involved the area of Greece and Macedon (under Antipater and then Cassander), Thrace and Asia Minor (under Lysimachus), all of Asia except Asia Minor and Palestine (under Seleucus), and Egypt-Palestine (under Ptolemy). Even after the breakdown of Lysimachus's kingdom, a separate realm was maintained by Eumenes of Pergamum and others, so that the quadripartite character of the Greek Empire was maintained, despite the most determined efforts of the more aggressive Seleucids and Ptolemids to annex each other into a single realm. Very clearly, then, the four heads and four wings represent the Macedonian conquest and its subsequent divisions" (note on verse 6). We'll see further substantiation of this in Daniel 8, where the kingdom of Greece is specifically identified as dividing into four parts (see 8:21-22).

The fourth beast is a fierce creature unlike any known animal. Paralleling the iron legs of Nebuchadnezzar's vision, this beast has iron teeth. Daniel 2 had stated: "And the fourth kingdom shall be as strong as iron, inasmuch as iron breaks in pieces and shatters all things; and like iron that crushes, that kingdom will break in pieces and crush all the others" (verse 40). Compare that with Daniel 7: "The fourth beast...was different from all the others, exceedingly dreadful, with its teeth of iron and its nails of bronze, which devoured, broke in pieces, and trampled the residue [of the previous empires] with its feet.... The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all other kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth [i.e., all the land, the known world], trample it and break it in pieces" (verses 19, 23). Obviously, the same power is being described. Over time, Rome took over each of the four political divisions of Alexander's kingdom (though not the full territory of the former empire).

The fifth and final kingdom is that of the Messiah, referred to in this chapter as "One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven" (verse 13). "Son of man" means a human being. God used this as a title for Ezekiel, the prophet-watchman being representative of his people. Jesus used the title as applying to Himself. Jesus is the ultimate representative man, who died in sacrifice for everyone and to whose life everyone's must be conformed through His living again within them. Yet, strictly speaking, He is here said to be "like" the son of man. While in the flesh 2,000 years ago, Jesus was human. But when He returns in glory, He will not come as a mere man, but as the Almighty God who had lived a life in the flesh as a human being. Interestingly, this chapter gives us one of the few Old Testament revelations of God the Father. "Ancient of Days" could refer to either the Father or Jesus Christ, but the fact that Jesus is clearly described here as the "One like the Son of Man" who comes to the Ancient of Days, the Ancient of Days must refer to the Father in this context.

The 10 Horns and the Little Horn

The Roman Empire fell in ancient times. Yet the empire was to continue until the end-time glorious coming of Christ, whose everlasting Kingdom would take over from it. How could this be? As already noted, the Roman Empire has experienced a number of revivals. This is where the "ten horns" of the fourth beast come in—symbolic of 10 kings or kingdoms. Notice the expression "three of the first horns" in verse 8. If some horns are "first," then others come later. This would seem to imply that the 10 horns of this vision are consecutive—unlike the 10 simultaneous kings represented by the 10 toes of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The phrase in verse 8 could even be rendered "the first three horns." This seems to indicate that there would be 10 revivals of the Roman Empire, the first three of which are uprooted or subdued by an additional "little horn" and the last of which would itself comprise 10 distinct powers.

Consider what has actually transpired in history. Late in the fourth century, the east-west division of the Roman Empire became permanent, with one emperor reigning from Rome over the Western Roman Empire and another emperor reigning from Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) over the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire fell during the next century but the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire continued until 1453. It is the Western Empire, centered at Rome, that has experienced a number of revivals. As the Western Empire collapsed in the fifth century, three groups of barbarian invaders sought to succeed the Roman emperors. Indeed, these groups—the Vandals, Heruli and Ostrogoths successively—each sought and received official recognition from the Eastern Roman emperor as a legitimate continuation of Roman rule in the West. Yet there was a problem with these invaders from the perspective of the Western religious leader, the bishop of Rome or pope. These barbarians were not orthodox Catholic Trinitarians, having adopted a form of Christianity known as Arianism. At the pope's urging, the Vandals were eventually overthrown by the Eastern Roman emperor. The Heruli were also overthrown at papal urging—the Eastern emperor sending the Ostrogoths as his agents to carry this out. Then the Ostrogoths themselves were later overthrown by Eastern Roman forces—yet again at papal behest.

Following this, the Eastern Roman emperor, Justinian, reclaimed a lot of the western imperial territory and placed it under the management of the Roman Catholic provincial bishops. This is often referred to as the "Imperial Restoration." Yet it was not to last, the Eastern Empire eventually abandoning what it had recovered. A later revival of the Western Empire came under the Frankish king Charlemagne, who was crowned by the pope in the ninth century. Following the disintegration of his empire, another Holy Roman Empire was established the next century at the request of the pope by the German king Otto the Great. It continued for nearly 300 years until, rent by rival factions, 19 years went by without an emperor. This was followed by the election of the Hapsburg family to the imperial throne—a revival that reached its apex under Emperor Charles V in the 16th century. Eventually, this empire also diminished, the title "Holy Roman Emperor" becoming an increasingly empty distinction. In 1806, Francis II of Austria rejected the title in the face of the growing power of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had himself received the imperial crown from the pope two years earlier.

After the fall of Napoleon, another revival of Rome was still to follow. Benito Mussolini sought to restore the Roman Empire. In 1929, he signed the Lateran Treaty with the papacy, establishing papal sovereignty over Vatican City, Roman Catholicism as the Italian state religion and papal recognition of Mussolini's government. In partnership with Mussolini was Adolf Hitler, who sought restoration of the imperial Roman tradition in Germany. The Vatican signed a concordat with Hitler in 1933, protecting the rights of the Church in Nazi Germany and giving Hitler's regime an outward semblance of legitimacy.

That gives us nine revivals in all. The first three—1) the Vandals; 2) the Heruli and 3) the Ostrogoths—were, as appears to have been prophesied, uprooted at the behest of a "little horn," a smaller power emerging from Rome, which would, according to the same premise, certainly seem to be the Roman Church and its leader. Appearing to strengthen the identification is the fact that the last six revivals were all, by contrast, sanctioned by the papacy: 4) Justinian's Imperial Restoration; 5) Charlemagne's Carolingian Empire; 6) Otto the Great's Roman Empire of the German Nation; 7) the Holy Roman Empire under the Hapsburg Dynasty; 8) Napoleon's French Empire; and 9) the Hitler-Mussolini Axis. This listing shows that just one imperial revival yet remains to come on the scene—the final one, which will exist at the time of Christ's return.

The little horn is guilty of great blasphemy and wickedness. Observe what Adam Clarke's Commentary states in its note on verse 25, with phrases in the verse set in italics: "He shall speak great words against the most High [could be rendered] 'He shall speak as if he were God'.... To none can this apply so well or so fully as to the popes of Rome. They have assumed infallibility, which belongs only to God. They profess to forgive sins, which belongs only to God. They profess to open and shut heaven, which belongs only to God. They profess to be higher than the kings of all the earth, which belongs only to God. And they go beyond God in pretending to loose whole nations from their oath of allegiance to their kings, when such kings do not please them! And shall wear out the saints. By wars, crusades, massacres, inquisitions, and persecutions of all kinds. What in this way have they not done against all those who have protested against their innovations, and refused to submit to their idolatrous worship? Witness the exterminating crusades published against the Waldenses and Albigenses.... And think to change times and laws. Appointing fasts and feasts; canonizing persons whom he chooses to call saints; granting pardons and indulgences for sins; instituting new modes of worship utterly unknown to the Christian Church; new articles of faith; new rules of practice; and reversing, with pleasure, the laws both of God and man."

Verse 25 concludes with this statement: "Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time." This expression occurs again in the book of Revelation 12 as the time during which a portion of God's Church is protected just prior to Christ's return. Some argue that the expression does not refer to a specific period of time, but such particular language would be a rather odd way to express something indefinite. Much more likely is that a "time" denotes a year. "Times," in the plural, would need to mean the smallest plural—two—for this to be at all comprehensible. This yields a total of three and a half years—a figure consistent with the 1,260-day work of the end-time two witnesses in Revelation 11:3 Revelation 11:3And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three score days, clothed in sackcloth.
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and the 42 months of Revelation 11:2 Revelation 11:2But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given to the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.
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and 13:5. What the statement in Daniel is telling us is that all the awful blasphemy and evil of the false Christian system during the Middle Ages was only a forerunner of what is going to happen in the last three and a half years before Christ's return.

The dominion of the little horn is consumed and destroyed when the Kingdom of God is set up (verses 26-27). Indeed, the beast and presumably this horn emerging from it are both destroyed in burning flame at that time (verse 11), just as Revelation 19:20 Revelation 19:20And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
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explains that the final Beast and False Prophet will be cast into the lake of fire.

Finally, "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom" (Daniel 7:18 Daniel 7:18But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
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, 22, 27). This wording emphasizes the great honor God will shower on His saints. Though the Kingdom of God will always belong to God and Jesus Christ, this sums up the generous love of God in sharing the blessings of the Kingdom with the saints.

Yet dark days would precede that time. Daniel was deeply troubled about what was coming. His "face paled (...literally…‘my facial hue was changing on me') because of his inward concern about the severe trials and afflictions awaiting his people" (Expositor's, note on verse 28). Nevertheless, he continued to mull it over.