August 21, 2005 Copyright
© 2005, American Journal of Biblical Theology Ishtar Gate, Babylon
(Rebuilt, Pergamon Museum, Berlin)
Ishtar Gate, Babylon
As we observe the state of our world, particularly if we do so through the eyes of the news media, we see a world in endless turmoil. It is a place of violence and hatred where nations continually rise up against other nations, warring over property or ideologies, seeking to control or enslave others. It is a world where evil runs rampant. The most perennial battle is the conflict between Jews and Arabs, between those in the line of Isaac and Jacob, and those tribes that branched off of it such as Ishmael and Esau. Most of the nations that harbor such hatred for Israel are distant blood relatives. Because of this, the Jewish nation has seen peace only for brief periods of time.
At the time that Daniel writes, the Jews had recently experienced what for them was unthinkable: the temple in Jerusalem, which they understood as the tabernacle of God for about 800 years, had been destroyed by the Babylonians when they destroyed the city and took its people captive. The Jews thought that, since God resided in the temple, there was no possibility that they would ever be conquered by a foreign enemy. They watched as the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, and ignored the prophesies that warned them of the same fate as they, like the northern nation, had turned away from God and immersed themselves in the pagan culture. God had promised, through Moses at Mount Sinai, that He would protect them and provide them the promised land if they would simply obey Him. However, that hand of protection was lifted after nearly 800 years of Jewish apostasy. The destruction of Jerusalem was seen by many as the defeat of Judah's God, a seeming impossibility to the Jews. They defined themselves by the temple. Now, the only Jews that existed as a community were now captives of Babylon. They lost their land, their temple, and much of their identity. They harbored some hope for the future, but such hope was difficult to maintain in their captive state. The Jews may have failed to realized that God had indeed been true to His promise, that through the captivity, the remnant of those who were faithful to God were protected from the nation's destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters.
Following the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon was placed on the throne. However, he was far more interested in waging a campaign in northern Arabia than he was in sitting on a throne, so he appointed his son, Belshazzar to the post. This would date this writing somewhere around 556 or 555 B.C. taking us back in time from the events of Chapter 6 which took place at the end of Belshazzar's reign. It is at this point that Daniel shifts from a historical narrative to his description of visions he had experienced.
Daniel presents the "substance" of his vision ("sum of the matters") using apocalyptic literature form. When we approach this literature form in scripture, found also in Ezekiel and the Revelation of John, it is important to understand its historical usage. This literature form was used from about 600 B.C. with Ezekiel and Daniel generating some of the early apocalyptic writings, until about 400 A.D. There are some characteristics of apocalyptic that are worthy of note:
- The form was often used to describe the content of visions and dreams.
- The narratives were written to people who were being subjected to persecution.
- The narratives are intended to encourage those in stress, illustrating the ultimate victory over their persecutors.
The form uses imagery to refer to real, literal objects and events and ideas. Early readers, familiar with this literature form, understood the relationship between the images and the identification of the objects described. The challenge we face involves the determination of the meanings of the imagery when we are separated by thousands of years, multiple levels of language translation, and a different culture and world view. However, much of the imagery is understood, and with a little bit of research, we can come up with a better understanding of the intent of the apocalyptic writer.
Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.
When one observes the sea when it is subject to great winds, one finds a turbulent, chaotic, and dangerous place. Apocalyptic literature uses this metaphor to refer to the turbulent, chaotic, and dangerous human culture. It is the mass of humanity that is swept to-and-fro, constantly changing as it is roiled by the sins of man. Sweeping down upon this mass of chaotic humanity are the "winds of heaven," the Spirit of God, coming from every direction. When these winds are released, it is an act of judgment upon humanity (Rev. 9:15). The word translated "strove" is important, as it identifies the power of the wind to overpower the sea.
We can see that the interpretation of apocalyptic literature results in concepts much larger than any that would be obtained from a simple literal interpretation based upon modern English, and ignorant of the writer's intent. When we look at this verse literally, we see wind from heaven blowing over the waters. When we look at it through the symbolism used by the writer we see God's judgment falling upon a chaotic, evil world. Those who are living through persecution, just as the first century Christians experienced when given the Revelation, recognize the sea as that worldly evil that keeps them suppressed. It is an encouragement to them to know that God recognizes that evil, and it is His intent to bring the persecutors to judgment, as it is God (through the four winds of heaven) who strives against evil humanity (the sea.)
And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.
One of the most dramatic sets of images that rise out of apocalyptic literature is that of the beasts it describes. When taken literally, we see what we might think look like dragons, lions, bears, and other animals, either real or mythical. However, the writer is using an understood metaphor: beasts are those animals that ravage and destroy human flesh. The ravaging that is experienced by those in persecution is coming at the hands of evil men, organized as evil nations. For example, the beast the destroyed Jerusalem is Babylon. Over the years students and scholars have studied the description of the biblical beasts and have come to a wide consensus on most of their identities. When we look at the descriptions of the parts of the beasts we find their parallel in the nations they describe. What is amazing is that often these beasts are not necessarily contemporary with the writer, but are prophesies of coming nations. The description of the four beasts of Daniel is a good example of this literature style.
This description is of four beasts that come up out of the sea, each at different and sequential times. Again, as the sea represents the mass of evil humanity, out of this mass rise nations that come to devour and destroy. The Jews have experienced the rise of the nations against them, and now have little hope of salvation from this perennial fate. Daniel's prophesy shows the Jews that God is quite aware of the situation, and has a plan for their future.
The first was like a lion, and had eagleís wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a manís heart was given to it.
The description of the first beast is that of a lion with eagle's wings, but those wings had been plucked, taking from it the ability to fly, forcing it to walk the earth. When the Jews would observe the beast from the sea, they would see only one: Babylon. It was Babylon that has caused them to suffer. Daniel's choice of description is consistent with Babylonian culture. The Babylonians used the image of the lion as their national standard. One example of this usage is on the Ishtar gate, one of the few restored artifacts of Nebuchadnezzar's reign. Placing wings on the beast gave it power. Nebuchadnezzar, at the peak of his reign, led the most powerful nation in the "world." However, his wings were clipped when he spent seven years in acute mental illness (Chapter 4.), a consequence of his arrogance. There is little controversy that this beast refers to Babylon.
And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.
The next beast is like a bear that has three ribs in its mouth. Obviously, if a bear is eating a rib, something was killed. The nation that followed Babylon was Persia, under King Cyrus, "one side" of the Medo-Persian empire. The conquests of this empire are characterized by three campaigns for conquest: Asia Minor, the Chaldean Empire (Babylon), and Egypt.
After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.
The next beast is like a leopard with four heads. The head of the beast is its intelligence, the source of its decisions. The head of the beast, in apocalyptic literature, refers to the king or leader of the nation (Rev. 13:1 ff). The Persian kingdom was defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and soon after Alexander died, the Greek empire was divided into four distinct and independent parts: Greece/Macedonia under Antipater, Asia Minor under Lysimachus, Asia/Palestine under Seleucus, and Egypt/Palestine under Ptolemy. It may be important to note here that the first two beasts were contemporaneous with Daniel. However, this beast does not rise from the sea until nearly 200 years after his death. Because this description so closely describes the third of the four nations that ruled over the Jews, some have denied that Daniel wrote this as prophesy, but rather that it was written much later after all of these four nations had risen and fallen.
After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.
The fourth beast is described as terrible and frightening, and like no natural beast on earth. With teeth of iron, this empire would be fiercer and stronger than any of the previous empires that had dominion over the Jews. This empire would conquer its foe with brutality, stamping the residue, tromping over the downtrodden and helpless in a way that had never been experienced before. Furthermore, this empire is described as having 10 horns. Horns are attached to the head of a wild beast and are used by it to cause injury to its prey. However, unlike independent heads, the horns still answer to a single head. The empire that overran the Greek Empire was the Roman Empire which was divided into ten states, each answering to Rome, one horn that had power over them all.
I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.
Verse 8 describes some intrigue taking place within the fourth beast, the fourth of the empires that would suppress Israel and the region around it. Of the ten horns, one would rise up above them all, and in its rising it would consume three other horns. That is, of the ten states in the empire, one of its leaders would become dominant and in seizing power, would overtake three other states, leaving six states in the empire. The power of this horn would be centered around a single man who would speak boastfully. The conquests of Rome reached all the way into Germanic northern Europe and what is now modern England. JFB contends that this little horn is consistent with the rise of a little man named Napoleon who, as a leader of one of the Roman states (his son was referred to as the "King of Rome), rose up as a conqueror who overran three of his neighboring Roman states, reducing the Empire to six states.
When one looks at the descriptions of the four beasts, the accuracy of its description of those Empires is uncanny. However, Daniel's purpose is not to give a pre-history lesson, but to make a simple point. Recall that Daniel is writing to a Jewish "nation" without a home. It was an independent nation from the time they were freed from Egyptian bondage until they were overrun and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The true Jewish desire was for their own self-rule. It was the first beast that took away their freedom. As the Jews hope for independence, Daniel is giving them a clear message that there are three more beasts, three more Empires that will rise up and keep them underfoot. At this point, Daniel paints a gloomy picture of the future. When will the Jews finally be free and independent again? Will they live under foreign oppression forever? Though the time period for the rise and fall of these four Empires will not be short, the reign of these four Empires will someday come to an end. When the fourth beast finally falls, the Jews will be free.
What part is God playing in this intrigue? We are aware from Jewish history and prophesies, particularly those of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that the nation of Babylon was granted, by God, the ability to overrun Jerusalem when God removed His hand of protection from the sons of Abraham who had turned away from Him. However, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel also prophesied that Babylon would be held responsible for their arrogance, violence, and their own disregard for God. By the time of this writing, Daniel and the remnant of Jews held in captivity had witnessed the rise and fall of the first beast, and the reign of the second had just started.
I beheld till the thrones were cast down,
and the Ancient of days did sit,
whose garment was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like the pure wool:
his throne was like the fiery flame,
and his wheels as burning fire.
10A fiery stream issued
and came forth from before him:
thousand thousands ministered unto him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him:
the judgment was set, and the books were opened.
It would be reasonable to argue that, from this point, Daniel's prophesies have not yet been realized. With verse 9, the form of Daniel's writing makes an abrupt change from apocalyptic narrative or prose, to apocalyptic poetry. As the Jews face a dismal future, Daniel gives them an encouraging prophesy: The thrones will be cast down. Apocalyptic literature uses "thrones" to represent authority. When a throne is cast down, an exercised authority is brought down. The Jews see the authority of the foreign oppressors as something they are powerless to challenge or change. However, there is coming a time when The Authority, the Ancient of Days, will bring them down. The bulk of verses 9 - 10 present imagery that describes God Himself as He stands upon His Own Authority (His throne). Unlike the evil that characterizes the beast, God's white garments represent absolute purity. The power of His authority to expose and dethrone evil is like a burning flame that both destroys and purifies. As God executes this judgment upon the oppressing beasts, there is an innumerable crowd before him who "minister" to Him. Though today's scientific scruitiny may contend that 10,000 times 10,000 is one-hundred million, a value that we deal with on a regular basis, this number was unimaginable in the ancient mind. Some would use this verse to argue that there will be only 100 million who are saved. However, we must remember that this is apocalyptic imagery, not literal science. 10,000 was the largest practical number of their culture. To square this value is simply to represent, for them, an unfathomable number. In today's scientific world, it is difficult to come up with an unfathomable number when the computer I am typing on has a hard drive that will store 1.28 million million bits of data. (1,280,000,000,000). The crowd of people who will be present at the judgment of God is simply beyond the ability of ancient man to count.
I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. 12As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.
As God's judgment commenced, the blasphemies of the leader of the final empire still shout out against God. Then, in the blink of an eye, the blasphemies are silenced by the death of the blasphemer who is then separated from God and His faithful for eternity. The remaining world powers are not yet summarily killed, but remain for a "season and a time" which is considered by some who study numerology by comparing the applications of this idiom, to represent the number 3-1/2 which is half of the complete number, seven. The judgment of these is prolonged for a period of time while they are still alive, though their dominions have been taken from them.
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Then, Daniel presents some of the most amazing prophesy in the Old Testament, a prophesy that is consistent with that of Joel, Ezekiel, and others: Prior to the final judgment, comes one like the Son of man to whom is given all dominion and glory, a kingdom over all people, nations, and languages, and a kingdom that unlike those of this earth, is everlasting. This description of the Son of Man is consistent with the Old Testament prophesies concerning the Messiah, and is consistent with all of the New Testament descriptions of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God, incarnate: He is the Messiah, the person of God who created all that is, who came down to earth in the form of man so that God could fully communicate His plan for mankind, and that through Jesus a way for man's salvation would be fully and finally established: salvation from the lake of fire reserved for the beast and all of his minions, is given by grace to all who place their faith and trust in God. Jesus, the very person of God, humbled Himself to evil men so that the penalty for the sins for all men could be paid. When Jesus returned to His state as the Eternal Messiah, by the nature of His atonement on the cross becomes the judge over all mankind. The atoning sacrifice took place once for all men of all ages, and by His nature as Messiah is the King of all kings, the one authority over all men.
To the Jew, the message of Daniel is: there will be a season of Empires that will continue to dominate Israel. However, there is a time coming when God Himself will defeat them, and bring them to judgment for their despicable and evil ways. However, as a nation, the Jews have rejected Daniel's description of Jesus Christ as the prophesied Messiah. That rejection of Him will ultimately keep them, as a nation, under the subjection of the beast until the coming judgment. The apostasy of the nation of Israel that brought about its dissolution under the Assyrians and Babylonians is even today continued by their rejection of Christ. Each of the Old Testament prophets described the nature, characteristics, life-history, and ultimate glorification of the Messiah, and every one of those prophesies were fulfilled in Christ.
The Christians in the first century found themselves in a situation similar to the ancient Jews. The third beast was roaring during the first century, so Christians who were rejected by the Jews as gentiles, heretics and blasphemers were also persecuted by Rome for their refusal to worship the Caesar. John's Revelation was written to encourage these Christians who, like the ancient Jews, were persecuted by the beast and its horns. Knowledge that God will intervene on the behalf of His faithful and bring the beast to a deadly judgment can bring hope to those in persecution. Though satan is prince of this world, and his beasts and their horns bring about much death and destruction, God is still the one in control as He calls people to rise above this sin-sick world and turn to Him in faith. These prophesies show us that those who do come to God in faith will stand before Him at the seat of judgment and witness the humility, demise, and destruction of all that is evil. God promised to preserve the faithful in His covenant with them at Mount Sinai. We see the provision of that promise as He brought the remnant of faithful into captivity in Babylon, saving them from Judah's destruction. God still provides and protects his faithful and promises that, though we may be subjected to the acts of evil men while we are on this earth, He is still the One God, still the One who is in control, and His judgment will be dispensed upon all who have rejected Him.
Where do we stand in the midst of this terrible battle? If we have turned to God in faith, and accepted the forgiveness that comes only through the Lord Jesus' atonement on the cross, we will not face the final judgment with any reason for fear. When we come before God, we will be accompanied by that same Holy Spirit who entered our hearts at the moment of salvation, and when we stand before God, Jesus' testimony will be "this one belongs to me." The lake of fire, the eternal separation from God, awaits all who have rejected Him. This is a terrible and serious circumstance for those who have not turned to God in faith. Consequently, it is incumbent on every Christian to join with Jesus and serve Him in obedience to His commission to serve as His hands, His feet, and His voice to share the good news of salvation with all who will hear. Daniel's prophesy was good news for suffering Jews. It is also good news for today's Christians who seek to be obedient to Jesus Christ, their Savior, and their Lord.
Archer, Jr. Gleason L. (1985). Daniel and the Minor Prophets. Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 7. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. p. 84-91.
Beyer, Bryan. (Summer 2005). Ezekiel, Daniel. Explore the BIble Adult Commentary. 9(4). Nashville, TN: Lifeway Christian Resources. p. 120-129.
Goldingay, John E. (1989). Daniel. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 7. Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated. p. 135-172
Jamieson, Robert; Faussett, A.R.; Brown, David. (1997). A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 2. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. p. 417-421.