Commentary on Daniel 7

Last updated: February 25, 2010

English Translation (ESV)

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter. 2 Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3 And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. 5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ 6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. 8 I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

9 “As I looked,

thrones were placed,

and the Ancient of Days took his seat;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames;

its wheels were burning fire.

10 A stream of fire issued

and came out from before him;

a thousand thousands served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;

the court sat in judgment,

and the books were opened.

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

13 “I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion

and glory and a kingdom,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away,

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed.

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’

19 “Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet, 20 and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. 21 As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.

23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,

which shall be different from all the kingdoms,

and it shall devour the whole earth,

and trample it down, and break it to pieces.

24 As for the ten horns,

out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,

and another shall arise after them;

he shall be different from the former ones,

and shall put down three kings.

25 He shall speak words against the Most High,

and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,

and shall think to change the times and the law;

and they shall be given into his hand

for a time, times, and half a time.

26 But the court shall sit in judgment,

and his dominion shall be taken away,

to be consumed and destroyed to the end.

27 And the kingdom and the dominion

and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven

shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;

their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,

and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’

28 “Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.”

Notes

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter.

Belshazzar’s co-regency with Nabonidus began around 553 BC.1 Chronologically, this dream occurred between the events of chapters 4 and 5. It has been about fifty years since Daniel’s deportation.

2 Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea.

The sea symbolizes the earth (v 17).

4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.

The lion refers to Nebuchadnezzar and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (cf. 2:38). Elsewhere in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar is compared to a lion2 and an eagle3. The plucking off of the lion’s wings connotes a loss of power. The transformation of the lion into human form alludes to the restoration of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4.

5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’

The phrase “it was raised up on one side” has given rise to diverse interpretations. “The bear symbolism concerning the two sides with one larger probably should be interpreted in light of the clear passage in Dan 8.”4 There the ram with two horns, one horn being longer than the other, is identified as the kings of Media and Persia (8:3, 20). Recall that 6:8, 12, 15 show that the author of Daniel considered the kingdom of the Medes and Persians to be one kingdom. There is no reason to believe the author mistakenly thought a Median kingdom preceded a Persian kingdom. Some commentators have taken the “three ribs” to refer to three specific kings or kingdoms. Although such interpretations are possible, I think it is better to be cautious and take the phrase to be a vivid image of the bear eating its prey. The command to arise and devour much flesh is similar to God’s stirring up the Medes against Babylon in Jeremiah 51:11, 28.

6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it.

Greece dominated the world after the Medo-Persian Empire. The “four wings” of the leopard increased the speed of an already swift cat. “Alexander the Great invaded Asia Minor in 334 B.C. and within ten short years (by the age of thirty-two) had conquered the entire Medo-Persian Empire to the borders of India.”5

In Scripture “heads” may represent rulers or governments (e.g., 2:38; Isa 7:8-9; Rev 13:3, 12), and that is the case with the leopard’s four heads. Daniel predicted that this one empire would ultimately evolve into four kingdoms, and this is exactly what occurred. Alexander died in 323 B.C., and after much internal struggle his generals carved the kingdom into four parts: (1) Antipater, and later Cassander, gained control of Greece and Macedonia; (2) Lysimachus ruled Thrace and a large part of Asia Minor; (3) Seleucus I Nicator governed Syria, Babylon, and much of the Middle East (all of Asia except Asia Minor and Palestine); and (4) Ptolemy I Soter controlled Egypt and Palestine. A quadripartite character is definitely ascribed to the Greek Empire in the next chapter (cp. 8:8 with 8:21-22), and it is reasonable to interpret the leopard’s “four heads” in light of that clear teaching.6

7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.

The mention of iron recalls the fourth kingdom in chapter 2. The statue in chapter 2 presumably had ten toes, just as the fourth beast has ten horns.

8 I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

The horn starts out a little horn but must have grown larger to pluck up three horns and to eventually look more imposing than the others (v 20). The eyes are used to observe and learn and therefore symbolize intelligence. The “great things” spoken by the horn are arrogant blasphemies against God (vv 20, 25).

9 “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.

This is a vision of God’s throne room.7 Note that multiple thrones are placed. The Ancient of Days (God) sits on one throne. The additional thrones are used by the divine council of heavenly beings (v 10) and, possibly, by the “one like a son of man” (v 13). The white clothing and hair represent moral purity and the white hair is apt for the eternal God. Fire is a symbol for the divine presence.8 The chariot-throne of this verse resembles that in Ezekiel 1 and 10.

10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.

The stream of fire symbolizes God’s wrath that will be poured out on the fourth beast (v 11).

The notion of books being consulted again has its background in the life of the royal court, which necessarily kept records of events and decisions (Ezra 4:15; Esth 6:1). This feature of court practice was naturally included when the royal court image was used to picture the workings of heaven. God’s books sometimes record God’s purposes regarding the final issues of history or regarding particular segments of history (cf. the sealed books of 8:26; 9:24; 10:21; 12:4, 9). Sometimes they record his expectations of human conduct and his intentions regarding the judgment of humanity in the light of how far they fulfill these expectations, or fail to do so (e.g., I Enoch 81; 93:1-3; 103:2; Jub. 5:12-19; 16:9; 23:32). Any of these might be relevant in the present context. The idea of books that list the people who belong to God (12:1) or that record people’s deeds and afflictions seem less relevant here: the people whose names would be in God’s book have not yet come into focus in the vision, while the deeds that are to be judged are those before our eyes in the vision, not ones recorded in books. The scene is not a “great assize” when judgment is passed on all human beings individually.9

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.

The reader is not told how or by whom the beast is slain. This verse emphasizes the destruction of the kingdom that the beast represents and not the judgment of individuals in hell.

12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

The first three beasts are deprived of their sovereignty but avoid the punishment of the fourth beast, at least for the time being. Their ultimate fate is not clear in this chapter.

13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

The phrase “one like a son of man” refers to a human figure, as opposed to a beast. Unlike the beasts, he is not interpreted to represent a kingdom or a king. He is associated with the “saints of the Most High” (v 22) insofar as they too receive the kingdom. Since the Ancient of Days is given no interpretation because he exists outside of the vision, the reader is led to believe that the “one like a son of man” also exists outside of the vision. In other words, the “one like a son of man” is not a mere symbol for an entity outside the vision. Early Jewish and Christian interpretations identified the “one like a son of man” with a messianic figure.10 “Although he is not explicitly said to be given the task of judging, this is implicit in the rule committed to him. Judgment then is committed to one who seems to share humanity and therefore to know from experience the odds against mankind.”11

16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things.

In 9:21 Gabriel is identified with the man Daniel saw in an earlier vision. The earlier vision is probably this vision.

17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth.

In verse 23 the kings become kingdoms. “It is noteworthy that the concepts of king and kingdom are indissolubly bound the one to the other, for there is no kingdom without a king and vice versa of king without a kingdom. The interpreter is made aware of the fluidity of thought which can move easily between an individual and a collective idea, and will take note that rigidity of interpretation is out of place here.”12

18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’

This verse literally refers to the “holy ones of the Most High.” The great majority of references to “holy ones” in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish writings down to the 2nd century BC are references to celestial beings, not human beings.13 Though I believe the “holy ones” are angels in this passage, it is by no means certain.

19 “Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet,

The fact that Daniel is raising questions about the fourth empire rather than the preceding ones has been taken by critical scholars as another proof of the late date for Daniel. They argue that if Daniel actually lived in the sixth century B.C., as conservative scholars maintain, he would have also been very curious about the first three beasts. Montgomery, for instance, states, “The seer’s contemporary interest is revealed in his inquisitiveness concerning the last beast and the judgment which hitherto had been hid in figures.”

There is really no justification, however, for this argument as the vision given to Daniel obviously emphasized the fourth beast. Whereas only three verses are given to the first three beasts, the remaining twenty-one verses of the chapter concern the fourth beast and his era; and Daniel, in his recital of the vision, uses eight verses to describe the details. If this is genuine prophecy, it is also true that Daniel is being guided providentially to that which is important from God’s standpoint. Even from a human standpoint, the end of the ages with the triumph of the saints would be a matter of primary concern to Daniel. The argument of the critics is dissipated by their own premise that even the fourth kingdom was already history at the time a second-century writer recorded it, and in that case Daniel’s curiosity would have to be faked in seeking the interpretation of history rather than a prophetic vision. There is no indication whatever in the text that Daniel thought the fourth beast already had been fulfilled in history.14

21 As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them,

In 8:9-12 a horn assaults the heavenly host. Therefore, just as in verse 18, we should take the “holy ones” to refer to heavenly beings.

The objection that the horn could not have been prevailing over angels is not valid either. This can be seen from the fact that in chap. 8 it throws some of the stars to the ground and tramples on them. The little horn here should not be understood in purely human terms. By analogy with chap. 10, we must also reckon with the angelic (or demonic) “prince” of Greece, with whom Michael struggles. Similarly, in the War Scroll, even though angelic holy ones mingle with the “sons of light,” the host of Belial and the kittim prevail in three lots of the battle before they are finally defeated. The parallelism between the Jewish people and its heavenly counterpart extends to adversity. When things go badly on earth, it is supposedly because they are going badly in the heavenly battle too. When the Ancient of Days arrives in judgment, fortunes are reversed on both levels.15

23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces.

The description of the beast to this point more obviously corresponds to the Roman Empire than that of the empire of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered by the rapidity of his troops movements and seldom crushed the people whom he conquered. By contrast, the Roman empire was ruthless in its destruction of civilizations and peoples, killing captives by the thousands and selling them into slavery by the hundreds of thousands. This hardly is descriptive of either Alexander or the four divisions of his empire which followed. As Leupold states, referring to the iron teeth, “That must surely signify the singularly voracious, cruel, and even vindictive world power. Rome could never get enough of conquest. Rivals like Carthage just had to be broken: Carthago delenda est. Rome had no interest in raising conquered nations to any high level of development. All her designs were imperial; let the nations be crushed and stamped underfoot.”16

The Roman Empire was different from the Neo-Babylonian, Medo-Persian, and Greek Empires in power and duration. Rome dominated much of the known world from 146 BC to the division of the East and West empires in AD 395. The last Roman emperor ruled in the West until AD 476 and the Eastern division of the empire continued until AD 1453.

24 As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them; he shall be different from the former ones, and shall put down three kings.

Many modern commentators identify the fourth kingdom with Greece. The first seven of the ten kings may be identified as: Alexander the Great, Seleucus I, Antiochus I, Antiochus II, Seleucus II, Seleucus III, and Antiochus III. However, there is disagreement over the kings to include in this list. The three kings put down by the little horn may be Seleucus IV and his sons, Antiochus and Demetrius. Seleucus IV was murdered by Heliodorus and Demetrius was taken to Rome as a hostage. Antiochus, son of Seleucus IV, was murdered by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus IV Epiphanes is identified as the little horn.17 A problem with this interpretation is that Antiochus IV did not violently put down three kings.

Stephen R. Miller believes the ten kings (or kingdoms) reign contemporaneously with each other and that they will come out of the old Roman Empire. The little horn is the Antichrist who will arise at the end of the present age. “Antichrist will be ‘different’ from the other kings in that he will be greater in power, intelligence, and arrogance. In the last days he will rule this confederation of nations (kings). Evidently three of the ten kings (kingdoms) will resist his power and be conquered by force; the other nations will then submit to him. These will continue to be separate nations but will come under Antichrist’s control.”18

25 He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.

Those who identify the little horn as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, note that the epithet “God Manifest” placed on his coins would be taken as blasphemous by the Jews. Antiochus IV persecuted the Jews and forbid them from observing the sabbath and the feasts.19 Clearly a period of persecution is envisioned. Though the little horn thinks to change the times and the law it is not certain that he will actually implement changes.

John E. Goldingay makes an important point about the periods of time:

“A period, periods, and half a period” is not a cryptic way of saying 3 ½ years, whatever the significance of later time references in 8:14; 9:27; 12:7, 11, 12. “Period” is not simply a substitute for “year.” A period could be a year long, but need not be. Nor is “a period, periods, and half a period” simply a convoluted way of saying 3 ½ periods. It suggests a time that threatens to extend itself longer: one period, then a double period, then a quadruple period . . . but the anticipated sequence suddenly breaks off, so that the seven periods (in effect an eternity) that were threatened are unexpectedly halved. The king symbolized by the small horn has his time allotted; it is not without end. He himself is under control. The period he rules is a long one, but it is brought to a sudden termination. This way of speaking carried no implications whatsoever for the chronological length of time that will correspond to these periods.20

26 But the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end.

The phrase “to the end” means that the fourth kingdom will be permanently destroyed (v 11), not that there will be a reprieve at the end.21

27 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’

The “people” are under the protection of the holy ones of the Most High.

28 “Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.”

The interpretive vision has not resolved the anxieties provoked by the symbolic vision (v 15); it leaves Daniel still concerned to discover what it meant. The report of that encourages the reader to reflection and to read on in the chapters that follow. The chapter’s ending on this note of perplexity encourages us as we find ourselves in some perplexity over key aspects of it. If we thought we had a clear and certain understanding of it, that would be a sign that we had misunderstood it.22

Bibliography

Baldwin, Joyce G. Daniel. InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Collins, John Joseph, Frank Moore Cross, and Adela Yarbro Collins. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1994.

Goldingay, John. Daniel. Dallas Tex.: Word Books, 1989.

Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Holman Reference, 1994.

Walvoord, John F. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation: A Commentary. Moody Publishers, 1971.

1Miller, Daniel, 194.

2Jeremiah 4:7; 49:19, 22; 50:17, 44

3Jeremiah 49:22; Lamentations 4:19; Ezekiel 17:3; Habakkuk 1:8

4Ibid., 198.

5Ibid., 199.

6Ibid., 200.

71 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1; 3:22-24; 10:1; 1 Enoch 14:18-23; 60:2; 90:20

8Exodus 3:2; 19:18; Deuteronomy 5:4; 33:2; Psalm 97:3; Ezekiel 1:4, 13, 27; 1 Enoch 14:22

9Goldingay, Daniel, 166.

101 Enoch 46:1; 48:3, 10; 52:4; 4 Ezra 13:26; Matthew 8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40; 13:37, 41; 16:13, 27-28; 17:9, 12, 22; 19:28; 20:18, 28; 24:27, 30, 37, 39; 24:44; 25:31; 26:2, 24, 45, 64; Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41, 62; Luke 5:24; 6:5, 22; 7:34; 9:22, 26, 44, 58; 11:30; 12:8, 10, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8, 31; 19:10; 21:27, 36; 22:22, 48, 69; 24:7; John 1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34; 13:31; Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13; 14:14; Sanhedrin 98a

11Baldwin, Daniel, 150.

12Ibid., 144.

13Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 312-318; Goldingay, Daniel, 176-178.

14Walvoord, Daniel, 173-174.

15Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 320.

16Walvoord, Daniel, 161.

17Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 320-321.

18Miller, Daniel, 213-214.

191 Maccabees 1:45; 2 Maccabees 6:6

20Goldingay, Daniel, 181.

21Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 322.

22Goldingay, Daniel, 182.

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