This is a prediction of political intrigue between two powers referred to as the "king of the North" and the "king of the South." The names are references to their geographic location in relation to the land of Judah. Remember that Daniel was a prince from Jerusalem, and God's people of Israel are the center of prophecy. So the two powers historically came and in the future will come from regions of the globe that are to the north and south of Jerusalem. It doesn't necessarily mean from extremely southern or northern regions.
The prophecy was given to Daniel in the third year of king Cyrus of Persia (Daniel 10:1). A "man," no doubt an angel (Daniel 10:5, compare Daniel 9:21), came to tell Daniel what would occur "in the latter days."
The prophecy that follows is the most detailed in all the Bible. The third year of Cyrus was more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. Yet this prophecy foretells events that began to occur almost immediately at that time and will continue until the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Some elements of what follows are intricate, requiring close attention. But a comparison of the prophetic words with the historical record makes them clear.
Protracted Political Intrigue
Daniel 11:1-35 give an account, written years in advance, of the intrigue between the king of the South and the king of the North. In secular history, the king of the South is often referred to as Ptolemy. The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled from Alexandria in Egypt, which is south of Israel. The king of the North ruled from Antioch in Syria, which is north of Israel, under the name Seleucus, or Antiochus.
With this in mind, let's examine some of the details of the prophecy. You can find more information on the historical fulfillment of much of this prophecy in resources such as The Expositor's Bible Commentary, which we quote below, or other reliable reference works. Rather than our quoting the entire scriptural passage, we recommend that you read in your own Bible the verses we cite.
Daniel 11:2: The "three more kings" are Cambyses, the elder son of Cyrus; pseudo-Smerdis, an impostor who passed himself off as Cyrus's younger son, who had been secretly killed; and Darius the Persian. "The Persian king who invaded Greece was…Xerxes, who reigned 485-464 B.C." (Expositor's , p. 128).
Daniel 11:3-4: "Verse 3 introduces us to…the rise of Alexander the Great" (ibid.). The language in verse 4 "clearly suggests that this mighty conqueror was going to have a comparatively brief reign…In seven or eight years he accomplished the most dazzling military conquest in human history. But he lived only four years more; and…died of a fever in 323…" (ibid.).
Alexander's kingdom was divided "among four smaller and weaker empires" (Expositor's, p. 129). Alexander's infant son had been murdered in 310 and an illegitimate brother assassinated in 317. "Thus there were no descendants or blood relatives to succeed Alexander himself" (ibid.). So his kingdom was not divided "among his posterity" (Daniel 11:4).
Alexander's generals warred for control of his empire. The ensuing struggles for domination eliminated all but four, who became heads of the four divisions of his empire. The four were Cassander, reigning in Greece and the West, Lysimachus in Thrace and Asia Minor, Ptolemy in Egypt and Seleucus in Syria. Of these four, two—Ptolemy and Seleucus—expanded their rule and territory. These were the kings of Egypt and Syria, respectively.
The machinations that follow relate to these two. They are referred to as the king of the South (Ptolemy) and the king of the North (Seleucus) because of their location relative to Jerusalem.
Daniel 11:5: "The king of the South was to be Ptolemy I" (Expositor's , p. 130). The biblical expression "one of his princes" refers to Seleucus. He had originally served under Ptolemy. In the intrigue after Alexander's death, Seleucus ultimately gained control over Syria and became king of the North. Seleucus eventually wielded more power than Ptolemy. The dynasty of the Seleucid line was to continue until 64 B.C.
The Laodicean War
Daniel 11:6: A state of tension and hostility existed between the king of the South and the king of the North. Ptolemy I died in 285 B.C. In 252 the two powers attempted a treaty under which Berenice, the daughter of Ptolemy II, was to marry Antiochus II, the king of the North. Laodice, the first wife of Antiochus II, was angry because he had divorced her. In retaliation, she manipulated a conspiracy from her place of banishment. She had Berenice and her infant son assassinated. "Not long afterward the king himself [Antiochus II] was poisoned…" (ibid.).
Laodice established herself as queen, because her son Seleucus II was too young to rule. The prophecy "she [Berenice] shall be given up" refers to the coup that Laodice engineered to effect the execution of Berenice. Some nobles who had supported Berenice as queen were also brought down.
Daniel 11:7-9: Retaliation followed. A series of military actions, which came to be known as the Laodicean War, resulted. Ptolemy II died soon after Laodice killed his daughter, Berenice. Ptolemy III sought to avenge his sister's death. He attacked the king of the North and captured the Syrian capital of Antioch. Verse 8 describes the recapture by Ptolemy of "long-lost idols and sacred treasures" (Expositor's , p. 131) that had been stolen from Egypt by Cambyses in 524 B.C.
Peace was concluded between Ptolemy III and Seleucus II in 240, and hostilities ceased until 221, when Ptolemy III died.
Daniel 11:10-12: The sons of Seleucus II attacked the king of the South after their father died. One of these sons, Seleucus III, reigned for only three years. His military activity was relatively minor. He died by poisoning. Another son, Antiochus III (the Great), did "overwhelm and pass through." He conquered Judea.
Ptolemy IV, the king of the South, retaliated (Daniel 11:11) and defeated the larger army of Seleucus III at the Battle of Raphia. After his victory Ptolemy turned to a life of debauchery during which he slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews in Egypt (Daniel 11:12). Through all this he weakened his kingdom.
Daniel 11:13-16: The phrase "at the end of some years" refers to an incident when, 14 years after his defeat, Antiochus III came against Ptolemy V, still a young boy. (Ptolemy IV had died in 203.) The Egyptian provinces were in turmoil because of the wretched rule of Ptolemy IV. Many of the people—including Jews sympathetic to the king of the North—joined with Antiochus against the king of the South. The rebellion was ultimately crushed by the Egyptian general Scopus (Daniel 11:14).
Scopus also rebuffed the forces of Antiochus during the winter of 201-200. The king of the North responded with another invasion. He captured the city of Sidon ("a fortified city"), where Scopus surrendered (Daniel 11:15). Antiochus acquired complete control of the Holy Land, the "Glorious Land" (Daniel 11:16).
Daniel 11:17: The Revised English Bible reads: "He [the king of the North] will resolve to advance with the full might of his kingdom; and, when he has agreed terms with the king of the south, he will give his young daughter in marriage to him, with a view to the destruction of the kingdom; but the treaty will not last nor will it be his purpose which is served." Having defeated Scopus, Antiochus desired to gain control of Egypt itself. He gave his daughter, Cleopatra, to Ptolemy V in marriage. Antiochus believed she would act in his favor and betray the interests of her husband. But she frustrated his plans by siding with Ptolemy.
Daniel 11:18-19: In his frustration, Antiochus attacked islands and cities of the Aegean area. He also gave asylum to Rome's enemy, Hannibal of Carthage, who assisted him in landing in Greece. Rome responded by attacking Antiochus and inflicting defeat on his forces. The Romans deprived him of much of his territory and took several hostages to Rome, including Antiochus' son. Rome exacted heavy tribute of him (Daniel 11:18).
Antiochus returned in disgrace to his stronghold, Antioch. Unable to pay the heavy fees exacted by the Romans, he attempted to plunder a pagan temple. His action so enraged local inhabitants that they killed him, bringing him to an inglorious end (Daniel 11:19).
Daniel 11:20: While not part of inspired Scripture, the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 3:7-40 says that Antiochus' other son, Seleucus IV, was also unable to pay the taxes. Seleucus sent a Jew, Heliodorus, to plunder the temple at Jerusalem. Heliodorus went to the holy city but obtained nothing. Seleucus was later poisoned by Heliodorus, and so killed, "but not in anger or in battle."
Daniel 11:21-35: These verses speak of the infamous Antiochus IV (known also as Epiphanes), the brother of Seleucus IV, who had earlier been taken hostage to Rome. He was a "tyrannical oppressor who did his utmost to destroy the Jewish religion altogether" (Expositor's, p. 136).
Antiochus passed laws that forbade the practice of the Jewish religion, under penalty of death. He was a man of incredible cruelty. On his orders "an aged Scribe, Eleazar, was flogged to death because he refused to eat swine's flesh. A mother and her seven children were successively butchered, in the presence of the governor, for refusing to pay homage to an image. Two mothers who had circumcised their new-born sons were driven through the city and cast headlong from the wall" (Charles Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, 1974, pp. 81-82).
Daniel 11:31: This refers to the momentous events of Dec. 16, 168 B.C., when a crazed Antiochus entered Jerusalem and killed 80,000 men, women and children (2 Maccabees 5:11-14). He then desecrated the temple by offering a sacrifice to the chief Greek god, Zeus. This outrage was a forerunner of a comparable event that Jesus Christ said would occur in the last days (Matthew 24:15).
Daniel 11:32-35: These verses appear to describe, on one level, the indomitable will and courage of the Maccabees, a family of priests who resisted Antiochus and his successors. The Maccabees' revolt against the Syrian king was triggered when "Mattathias, the leading priest in the city of Modein…after killing the officer of Antiochus who had come to enforce the new decree concerning idolatrous worship…led a guerrilla band that fled to the hills…" (Expositor's , p. 141).
Mattathias was aided in his cause by five sons, most notably Judah or Judas, nicknamed Maqqaba (Aramaic for hammer, whence derives the name Maccabees). Many of these patriots died in this cause, but their heroics ultimately drove the Syrian forces from the country.
On another level, these verses could even refer to the New Testament Church, with their references to mighty works, persecution and apostasy.
Historic Fulfillment Switches to Future Fulfillment
At this point Daniel's prophecy definitely takes on a different tone, referring explicitly to "the time of the end" near the end of Daniel 11:35. To quote Expositor's: "With the conclusion of the preceding pericope [extract] at v. 35, the predictive material that incontestably applies to the Hellenistic empires and the contest between the Seleucids and the Jewish patriots ends. This present section (vv. 36-39) contains some features that hardly apply to Antiochus IV, though most of the details could apply to him as well as to his latter-day antitype, 'the beast.'
"Both liberal and conservative scholars agree that all of chapter 11 up to this point contains strikingly accurate predictions of the whole sweep of events from the reign of Cyrus…to the unsuccessful effort of Antiochus Epiphanes to stamp out the Jewish faith" (Expositor's, p. 143).
From this point forward a little more than a century would pass before the Roman general Pompey would conquer Jerusalem. From then on for many centuries, much of the Middle East passed to the control of the Roman Empire.
The legacy of this north-south conflict is easily seen today. Tension between a traditionally Christian Europe and a deeply Islamic Middle East to the south is at its highest levels since the Ottoman push of the 19th century.
This age-old conflict will likely reignite as the time of the end nears. A revived Holy Roman Empire would seek greater influence in this most vital region. And regional Muslim powers would no doubt retaliate.
For a more in-depth analysis of this prophetic future conflict, read our free Bible study aid The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.