Daniel 7 – the dream of 4 beasts.
We’re jumping back a few years, to the start of Belshazzar’s reign. 553 BC, and Daniel has been in the civil service for maybe 53 years. He’s in his mid 60s. All that time he’s served Nebuchadnezzar, whom he genuinely admired, and now Belshazzar, whom he doesn’t. The Babylonian empire has been his whole life – and Daniel has never forgotten the dream he interpreted when he was a young man, back in Chapter 2.
In that vision Nebuchadnezzar foresaw the end of his own dynasty, and the coming of others – progressively more powerful, more violent, and less honourable. Now, as the first fulfilment approaches, Daniel has the same experience that he had previously interpreted for Nebuchadnezzar, some 50 years ago. That’s a long time.
In fact, chapters 2-7 are like bookends. Here’s what I mean: (PP slides)
In the rest of the book we’re going to get lots more visions that Daniel had. But this one is like a turning point for the book. Up until now the relationship between Daniel and the empire has been OK – the empire has misunderstood, or just not cared. One write says “Faithful Jews can live, and even succeed, in the court of a pagan king; though sometimes they will face hostility and even the threat of death, and bear effective witness. But now… Faithful Jews will inevitably suffer persecution, even martyrdom, before God steps in.
Let me just summarise the dream. Four beasts, representing four dynasties. The last one is somehow worse than all the others, and one part of the fourth dynasty is especially boastful. It is judged and destroyed by the ‘Ancient of Days’ , and power is passed to one individual, ‘like a son of man’.
This dream mirrors the earlier one, and some aspects are very very similar – 8:25, ‘not by human power’ is very like 2:34 as the destruction of the final kingdom is described. They are surely two visions describing the same sequence. And people still argue about what that sequence is – is it Babylon / Medes / Persians / Greeks, Babylon / Medes & Persians / Greeks / Rome, or something else.
I think it’s the first, and the final ‘bad guy’ is Antiochus Epiphanes – we’ll talk more about him later. But it doesn’t really matter – and here’s why. These visions are not so much a series of predictions about historical events, as an explanation of how history works. Thye references to things that happened are there to show us that God knows how it all works – but the important things are the lessons we lear about God and about history. And that means that if these visions are indeed about history leading up to Antiochus, then applying them again – to the Roman occupation, to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and then ultimately to the ‘last days’ and to Jesus’ return – is absolutely right. And I’ll give you some evidence that God expects us to do exactly that. So – let’s dive in.
- Rebellion always looks the same. A desire for power leads to the same end every time:
- It ends up being destructive.
- It is boastful – self-glorifying.
- It resents divine intervention – it is ultimately godless
This is the pathway of all human empires, and history has taught us this truth time after time.
- God rules, and his throne is never vacant.
- He is the ‘Ancient of Days’ – he’s always been there. (v9 – notice that whereas all the other players in this drama ‘arise’ – come into the story – the Ancient of Days ‘enters’; the heavenly throne room is permanent.
- He is seated on a throne – He judges all that happens.
- He is awesome – Holy, Majestic, Authoritative. Description of Jesus. Compare this passage with Rev 1:13, where it is Jesus who is described. John understood!
- The books are opened – nothing is hidden from him. Look at Rev. 20:12 where John echoes the language of this moment. Pause to understand this: Daniel writes down something which is about the empire that he is immersed in. He sees the path along which it will decline, and the person who will judge it, and the punishment to which it will be subjected. And what we do is what John did: we understand that this pattern is repeated every time.
- God’s chosen pattern of law is human-shaped. V13 on. God’s response is not a bigger beast!
- In the image, not in the place of God. ‘One like a son of man.’ Literally ‘A normal person’. Don’t jump past the plain language to the metaphor!
- The task of the people of God, the ‘saints’. The meaning of ‘one like a son of man’ for Daniel is simply ‘God’s people’ – Israel. Daniel looked, and saw that God’s puny, ordinary people would in the end outlast and overcome. See that first! 7:18 7:22 and 7:27 – all three tell us that ‘one like a son of man’ for Daniel is Israel personified.
- Ultimately fulfilled only in Christ. Because Israel personified is realised only in Him. I do wish that people would understand that more generally, when they look for the fulfilling of prophesies concerning Israel; they are fulfilled for Israel when they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Here’s what we are still (from Daniel’s perspective) looking for:
- An authority that unites all kinds of people – ‘all nations and all people of every language’
- A rule that unites earth and heaven – led into the presence of God
- A power that causes things and people to live, not die – everlasting.
So what is there here for us?
In the face of human empire building, whether the USA or Microsoft or Islam, we can continue to declare that God rules. He has not done an Elvis, and ‘left the building.’ He sees everything, and will one day judge all things. Sometimes his judgement comes promptly, as it did for Belshazzar. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to come at all. But come it will, and all the books will be opened.
And secondly: justice, truth and judgement will bear the face of Jesus. Acts 17:31 “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”; Matthew 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” See Matthew again deliberately re-using the language of Daniel? It is the Son of Man who will judge.
Trust the one who is seated on the throne. Not the tiniest injustice goes unnoticed. And the one who judges is Jesus, the just and the merciful.