A picture is worth a thousand words. People often ask why there are books in the scriptures have such amazing imagery. But our saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” gives us the reason why we have imagery like this. Symbolism is a key element in apocalyptic literature. Usually the meaning of figures is explained in the text itself. When this is not the case, their significance is often found in other scriptures (Miller, New American Commentary, 193). While there is the temptation to stop study the book of Daniel at this point, we are encouraged to continue forward, not only because this is the word of God and all scripture is valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, but also because these visions continue the message of Daniel of hope in hopeless times by seeing our Sovereign Lord reigning on the throne. Our focus will be on our great Lord as we study these visions, looking for the message of hope for life and the message about who God is and what God does. It is easy to get lost in the details of a vision. But in our quotation above, Miller said it correctly that the meaning of the figures is explained in the text itself. So that also must be our focus as we try to understand the image. Listen carefully to the interpretation given rather than trying to make an interpretation. We must remember that God is painting a picture. Not every detail has significance but is part of the picture to give us the main message that God is teaching.
The first six chapters have been in historical sequence of time in the life of Daniel and his friends. However, you will notice that Daniel 7:1 takes us back in time to when the Babylonian Empire was ruling and Belshazzar was the king. Remember that the handwriting on the wall appears during the reign of Belshazzar for he is the one using the vessels of the temple of the Lord for his party. During the first year of Belshazzar’s reign, Daniel saw a dream and visions, wrote those things down, and its summary (7:1). This is the first dream that we have read Daniel having. The other dreams have belonged to Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel has been the interpreter by the power of God. With these things in mind, read Daniel 7:1-28.
The Dream (7:1-14)
Daniel sees four great beasts coming out of the sea but they look different from each other. The first beast was like a lion with eagles’ wings. But the eagles’ wings were plucked off, made to stand on two feet, and given the mind of a man. The second beast was like a bear that was raised up on one side with three ribs in its mouth. The third beast was like a leopard with four wings on its back and with four heads. The fourth beast has no animal parallel. It is just a terrifying, dreadful, and exceedingly strong and had great iron teeth. Verse 7 clarifies this that the fourth beast was different from all the other beasts. Not only this, it had 10 horns. Then a little horn came up among the ten horns, with eyes like a man, speaking great, boastful things. Thrones are then placed and the Ancient of Days takes his seat. His clothing was white as snow, the hair of his head like pure wool, and his throne was fiery flames with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire flowed from the throne. Thousands and thousands served the Ancient of Days and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court convened and the books were opened. Daniel looks and the fourth terrifying beast was killed, its body destroyed, and burned with fire, which would include the boastful little horn that was on that beast. Further, the rest of the beasts had their dominion taken away but they were allowed to live for a season and a time.
Then Daniel saw one like the son of man coming in the clouds of heaven and he came to the Ancient of Days. Dominion, glory, and a kingdom were given to the son of man so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His rule is everlasting and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed. That concludes the dream.
First Interpretation (7:15-18)
This dream was disturbing and alarming to Daniel. So in this vision he approaches one standing there and asks for an explanation of the things he has seen. The answer is given in verses 17-18. The four beasts represent the four kings or four kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:23) of the earth. But the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.
Now we know what we are looking at. The four beasts represent four kingdoms. In Daniel 2 we also saw four kingdoms described. The details revealed in Daniel 7 tell us that these are the same four kingdoms that were depicted in chapter 2. The lion with wings but has its wings plucked and it given the mind of a man would represent the Babylonian Empire. This description sounds like what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 where God humbled him and made him like an animal, but then God gave him the mind of a man again once he humbled himself before God. The second beast was a bear with one side raised up would represent the Medo-Persian Empire. The image makes sense because the Persian part of the kingdom became the greater part and that is why it is raised up on side. The third beast was a leopard with four wings and four heads which would represent the Grecian Empire. Alexander the Great conquered the world is great speed like a leopard. But upon his death, the kingdom was divided into four pieces, likely pictured with the four heads on the leopard.
Now I want us to notice a couple important things. First, the interpretation never goes into all the details about these first three beasts. They are not important to the vision. Second, the interpretation is extraordinarily simple. There are four kingdoms, but God’s people will possess the kingdom (7:17-18). That is it! The kingdoms are going to be terrifying but then God’s people will possess the kingdom.
Second Interpretation (7:19-28)
Daniel is like us and wants to know more (7:19). But it is about the fourth terrifying beast that he has his concern. It was different from the rest, had teeth of iron, claws of bronze, and broke in pieces what was left with its feet. He also wanted to know about the ten horns and the little horn that had eyes and spoke great, boastful things. Verse 21 tells us a little more about what he saw. The little horn made war with God’s people and prevailed over them until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was given for the people of God. Then the time came for God’s people to possess the kingdom.
The fourth beast represents the fourth kingdom, which we learn from Daniel 2 and by counting off the four kingdoms that this would be the Roman Empire. The ten horns stand for ten kings. After those ten kings there will be the other king but he will be different than the others. He will speak words against God, wear out the people of God (which speaks of persecution), think to change the the times and law, and God’s people will be given into his hand (allowed to be persecuted and killed) for a time, times, and half a time. But then the Ancient of Days will convene the court and his dominion will be taken away. Then the kingdom will be given to God’s people.
Now many try to make too much out of the ten horns and the little horn. But if we keep to the interpretation given I think we can see the point from the text. In the fourth kingdom, the Roman Empire, there are going to arise a new set of kings who will be different in their behavior from the former kings. Most notably, they will persecute God’s people and speak arrogant words against the Most High God. The reason I think the little horn represents more than one actual person is because of verse 26 where it says, “His dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end.” If you turn to back to Daniel 7:11 it reads, “The beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.” The little horn and the beast become synonymous in the interpretation. Further, the little horn is on the head of this fourth beast. So it seems that the picture is that Roman Empire will have kings who will rule. But then there will be a change in the way to rule, turning arrogantly against God and against God’s people. We see this change occur in world history as the Roman emperors turned their attention to persecuting Christians especially in the second and third centuries. Just as “antichrist” represents all who are actively against Christ (cf. 1 John 2:18; 2:22; 4:3), so the little horn represents all Roman kings who are actively against God and his people.
Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD. We have an exchange of letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. These two letters are the most famous, in which Pliny encounters Christianity for the first time.
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Trajan to Pliny
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
There are so many points that we could make out of this text but we do not have the time to do so in this lesson. We are going to come back to this chapter in our next lesson. But there is one central point that I want us to see from the text today for hope in hopeless times.
Learning About God
Notice verse 25 carefully. God’s people are given into his hand for time, times, and half a time. Think about this for a moment. God’s people are given into the little horn’s hand for a time. Then God will take his dominion away. Amazing that God gives them over! Shows God is still in control. Why allow this? God is going to allow the persecution of his people. The saints of the Most High are going to be worn out. Look back at verse 21. What this means is that the the little horn will make war with the saints and prevail over them. God is going to allow that. Does that go against our way of thinking? Do we think of Christianity meaning that God would not allow such things like persecution? Daniel 7 is very clear that God will give them over to this persecution. We should know this with even more certainty from reading Daniel 3 and Daniel 7. Daniel and his three friends were persecuted for their faith. God rules over the kingdoms of the earth and is allowing such things to happen. Is this a reason for us to lose faith in God?
Not at all. Why does God allow these kinds of things to happen? Why would the people of God be given into the hands of a wicked world empire so that they will be persecuted and even die? We have been set up to answer this question after all we have read in the book of Daniel. Remember what Nebuchadnezzar learned in Daniel 4:34-35.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34–35 ESV)
God works for his glory and purification of his people. God’s long term purpose was plainly declared three times in this text: the kingdom will be given to the people of God (7:18,22,27). God wanted Daniel to know that God’s ultimate victory over evil would be a long time coming. But even so, righteousness will prevail. God’s kingdom will destroy the kingdoms of the earth. Clearly we forget this truth of God’s rule since it has been the teaching point paragraph after paragraph. History is full of kingdoms/nations (beasts) that rebel and take their stand against God. But Lord holds them in derision (Psalm 2) and destroys those who take their stand against him. God rules over all the earth. Even through persecution, God reigns and is acting for his purposes and our good.