Relevant Verse: Daniel 7
Theme: Suffering is not forever
Leading Question: In what way is a heavenly court system beneficial?
“To Daniel was given a vision of fierce beasts, representing the powers of the earth. But the ensign of the Messiah’s kingdom is a lamb. While earthly kingdoms rule by the ascendancy of physical power, Christ is to banish every carnal weapon, every instrument of coercion. His kingdom was to be established to uplift and ennoble fallen humanity” (Ellen G. White, 4BC 1171.5).
Daniel 7 tells of a dream and visions in which Daniel sees four wild beasts rising out of the ocean. Three have identifiable forms, while the fourth is a monster of terrifying appearance with ten horns. As Daniel lifts his eyes toward the heavens, he watches a divine court sit in judgment upon the beasts sentencing the first three to loss of power and the fourth one to be slain. A human figure is brought into the presence of the heavenly Judge and is granted universal and eternal kingship.
Context of Daniel 7
Two texts, one biblical and another extra-biblical, are helpful for a better understanding of the background to Daniel 7. The first is a prophetic text, written before Daniel’s time, in which symbols of wild beasts are used to describe God’s judgment on Israel:
I will come upon them like a lion, like a leopard I will lie in wait by the wayside.
I will encounter them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and I will tear open their chests;
There I will also devour them like a lioness; as a wild beast would tear them
(Hosea 13:7–8 NASB).
The four beasts listed in this text are a lion, a leopard, a bear and a lion-like beast that is not identified. While Hosea’s passage speaks of God’s judgment on Israel, Daniel’s vision extends to the whole world.
The second text providing insight into the context of Daniel 7 comes from a document known as “Verse Account of Nabonidus.” This cuneiform text dates after the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.E and describes a ceremony that took place in Babylon ten years earlier in the year 549 B.C.E. King Nabonidus was leaving Babylon for Tema (Tayma) and transferred his royal prerogatives to his eldest son Belshazzar:
After he [Nabonidus] had obtained what he desired, a work of utter deceit,
Had built (this) abomination, a work of unholiness
–when the third year was about to begin—
He entrusted the “Camp” to his oldest (son), the first-born,
The troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his (command).
He let (everything) go, entrusted the kingship to him.
And, himself, he started out for a long journey,
The (military) forces of Akkad marching with him;
He turned towards Tema (deep) in the west.
It was 549 B.C.E., the first year of Belshazzar after King Nabonidus had entrusted the kingship to him and had left Babylon. The priests and aristocrats including Daniel must have been deeply concerned about the state and future of the kingdom. According to ancient records, there was a great deal of discontent and opposition against Nabonidus. He was not a popular ruler of the Babylonian empire. In 556 B.C.E., he had seized power in a coup against the cruel child-king Labashi-Marduk, grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. He also angered the priests and commoners of Babylon by neglecting the city’s chief god, Marduk, and elevating the moon god, Sin, to the highest status. He rebuilt the temple of Sin in Harran and did not pay attention to Babylon’s most important New Year’s festival for Marduk. Due to the king’s decade long absence, the New Year’s Festival ceased completely. It could not be celebrated, since the presence and participation of the king was central to this vital ritual. The Babylonians believed the order of the universe had to be restored every year in order to prevent the cosmos from devolving back into chaos. According to the “Verse Account of Nabonidus” the king was accused of mendacity, madness, and impiety. The stele also states that the country had descended into lawlessness. The king listened to no one. As a result, the common people perished through hunger. Trade was interfered with and prosperity ruined. The nobility was decimated and killed in wars. Farmers were ruined, because the country’s arable land was not being protected. This was complicated by the confiscation of property. The Nabonidus Chronicle states that the king went into self-imposed exile in Arabia for a period of 10 years. It would seem that he really had no other viable choice under the circumstances, if he wished to save his crown.
It was in this same year when Nabonidus handed the power to Belshazzar (549 B.C.E.), when the empire was in turmoil, that Daniel had a dream and visions of terrible beasts interjected by images of the Ancient of Days handing the power to the one who looked like a Son of Man. The historical reference in Daniel 7:1 to this first year of Belshazzar indicates that the content of Daniel 7 must be read with the Babylonian empire’s political decline in mind in order to understand something of the experienced politician’s troubling thoughts as he lay on his bed and contemplated the looming end of Babylon. Does Daniel foresee a time of great distress for his people? The Talmud and ancient Midrash emphasize Belshazzar’s tyrannous oppression of the Jews in Babylon. Rabbis interpreted several passages in the prophetic literature as though referring to him and his predecessors. For instance, the passage, “when a man flees from a lion, and a bear meets him” in Amos 5:19, the lion is said to represent Nebuchadnezzar, and the bear, equally ferocious, is Belshazzar.
Question: How do you deal with troubling events and crisis taking place in our world today?
Literary Features in Daniel 7
Another important clue for the understanding of Daniel 7 is to observe the essential and unavoidable comparisons with chapter 2. Culver has summarized the comparisons succinctly in Daniel and the Latter Days, p. 124.
The differences between the dream prophecy of chapter 2 and the vision prophecy of chapter 7 are chiefly as follows: 1) The dream [Daniel 2] was not seen originally by a man of God but by a heathen monarch, hence it was something that would appeal to such a man and which might be readily explicable to his intellect. The vision [Daniel 7] was seen by a holy man of God, and hence in terms more readily explicable to his intellect. 2) The first presented the history of nations in their outward aspect–majestic, splendid; the second in their inward spiritual aspect–as ravening wild beasts. This might be elaborated to say that the first is a view of the history of nations as man sees them, the second as God sees them.
Since the same general subject is treated in this vision as in the dream of chapter 2 it is natural that the same general principles present in that prophecy should follow here–the same series of powers, the same continuity of rule, degeneration and character of authority, division of sovereignty, and increasing strength of the kingdoms.
In terms of structure, scholars propose the following chiastic plan for Daniel 7 with the heavenly scenes of judgement written in poetic form at the center:
A. Dream (7:1-2) B. Four beasts and the horns (7:3-8) C. Judgment (7:9-10, 13-14) (written in poetic form) B’. The horn and the beasts (7:11-12) A’. Interpretation (7:15-28)
Another literary feature is important to note: In the vision proper, each of the animals, as well as the little horn, is characterized by one verse each. However, in the interpretational part, the first three animals appear very briefly and in one single verse only. Extensively described are:
- The little horn (vv. 20–22, 24–26)
- The judgment, including the saints receiving the kingdom (vv. 18, 22, 26–27)
- The saints (vv. 18, 21–22, 25, 27)
The above observations are of great importance as they reveal the main message of the chapter:
- the little horn attacks the saints, the people of God
- the judgment of God takes place in favor of His saints
- the kingdom is given to the saints
Interpretation of Daniel 7
The following interpretation of the four animals and the little horn is offered by scholars in the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists:
The four animals (vv. 2-3) represent four world empires that begin with the first in the time of Daniel (Dan 7:17). The sea represents the peoples on earth (Rev 17:15) from which the empires arise. The winds may stand for political events that bring about revolutions, wars, and other problems (Rev 7:1). In number and character these empires remind us of those in Daniel 2.
The lion with eagle wings (v. 4) as king of land animals and king of birds is the same as the golden head in Daniel 2—Nebuchadnezzar and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The imagery is found in Babylonian art. However, under Nebuchadnezzar’s successors the empire began to lose some of its lion-like characteristics such as boldness and strength.
The bear raised up on one side (v. 5) represents the empire of the Medes and Persians (see Dan 8:3, 20). The three rips could stand for Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt, which were devoured by the new empire.
The leopard with four wings and four heads (v. 6) is a very fast animal. The Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire with unprecedented speed. But Alexander‘s kingdom was divided in four, and later three, parts after his premature death (see Dan 8:8, 21–22).
The fourth animal is indefinable (vv. 7, 19, 23). It corresponds to the fourth empire of Daniel 2 (see Dan 23 2:40). In both cases iron is mentioned. It is the Roman Empire.
The ten horns (vv. 7, 24) are smaller kingdoms, which conquered Rome and came forth from it. Historically, Rome was captured by the Germanic tribes of Western Europe. Some have identified them as the Alemanni, the Anglo-Saxons, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Herulians, the Lombards, the Ostrogoths, the Sueves, the Vandals, and the Visigoths.
The Son of Man in Daniel 7
Daniel also provides a picture of the Son of Man. Jesus used this phrase of himself twenty-seven times in Luke alone. The image of clouds in Daniel 7:13 is reminiscent of Sinai (Exodus 16:10) and is perhaps the basis for the second coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of the heavens (Matthew 24:30). Bock points out how the New Testament development of the term “Son of Man” completes the picture begun by Daniel (see Darrell L. Bock, “The Son of Man in Daniel and the Messiah,” 79-100). He summarizes this New Testament development in the following nine statements:
- Jesus progressively revealed His messianic understanding of the term.
- The messianic significance of the term for Jesus is eventually directly revealed by Jesus to the disciples after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi.
- Jesus fuses the term with other Old Testament descriptions of His mission, specifically the Servant, and thus is able to speak of the Son of Man’s necessity to suffer in the suffering sayings which dominate the middle portions of the gospels.
- As Jesus faces the cross, He begins to reveal to His disciples the background and significance of the term Son of Man in terms of Daniel seven with the apocalyptic sayings.
- This same background is revealed publicly at His trial before the Sanhedrin.
- Thus the term is a convenient vehicle for revealing Himself to those who believe, while avoiding the immediate political connotations of the term, Messiah.
- The usage in John’s gospel parallels that of the Synoptics while reflecting a development of themes implicit in both the Synoptics and Daniel seven.
- The term in its Danielic usage in the New Testament has in view His ultimate victory and apocalyptic return, a significant fact in view of His approaching Passion.
- Therefore, the term is most appropriate for summarizing Christ’s Christology, for in it one like a man who is more than a man exercises dominion and authority to such an extent that he can also be considered divine. As such, He will be the center of a new kingdom, king in a new age when all men will recognize His authority and worship His person. God’s sovereign plan of history will culminate in the completion of the Son of Man’s mission in eternal victory. His future return in vindication makes this certain, even as He heads for the cross. In the promise of His victory, disciples can walk in hope and expectation even though He went to the cross. His rule will cause all men to pause at the marvelous grace of God as it is observed that Jesus the Christ, the Son of Man, is truly the greatest One whoever walked the earth.
Judgment in Daniel 7
For Adventist believers the judgment scene in Daniel 7 speaks to the pre-Advent judgment. Pay attention how George Knight speaks of the judgment in his book, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, p. 70:
There is not the slightest doubt that Daniel 7 has a pre-Advent judgment of or for the saints. But some of us have so much baggage between our ears that it is difficult to focus our eyes on what the text actually says. We should note that the judgment in Daniel 7 has two aspects:
- It is against the little horn.
- It is for the saints. . .
The tragedy is that we made the pre-Advent judgment a fearful thing built upon a less-than-biblical understanding of sin, law, perfection, and even judgment itself. Spiritual insecurity and lack of biblical assurance was the result. “God is out to get you” was the message in the era of bony fingers. But that is not the Bible teaching of judgment. In Scripture the Judge is not against us or even neutral. The Judge is for us: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son for our salvation (John 3:16, 17). John 5:22 even tells us that “the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” The purpose of judgment in the Bible is not to keep people out of heaven, but to get as many in as possible.
Question: How do you relate to the message of God’s judgment?
In the end, the visions and angelic interpretation left Daniel with greatly alarming thoughts and a changed outlook (Daniel 7:28). Yet, as sure as the believer is about God establishing his kingdom, there are still earthly powers ruling with arrogance, boastfulness, and blasphemy, and oppressing God’s people. Together with Daniel, we will need to wait and take a closer look into the machinations of beastly powers. As we become just as appalled and sick as Daniel was, we suffer with God’s people in order to gain insight into Heaven’s answer and solution. The visions are to be continued in Daniel 8 and 9.