The first six chapters of Daniel record the visions of Babylonian kings and the trials of those who had been taken captive. In chapters 7-12 we will now read about the visions that came to Daniel. These chapters are more difficult than the first six chapters and will require us to carefully read the images and their given interpretations. Many of these visions have been taken out of context and given wild meanings without scriptural foundation. We must also remember the rules for interpreting apocalyptic literature. Generally, we read the scriptures and understand everything to be literal unless the text demands otherwise. When we are told that we are reading a vision or a dream with an interpretation, then we know that the text has demanded for us to understand the scripture figuratively. Therefore, we must understand these visions figuratively, unless the text demands otherwise. As we will note, there are many places in these chapters where the text will demand a literal understanding because of the interpretation given.
Time frame (7:1)
Daniel begins by telling us that it was the first year of Belshazzar’s reign. In chapters 5-6 we read of the end of Belshazzar’s reign and the end of the Babylonian empire. Therefore, we are backing up in time somewhat as we read this chapter. Most scholars determine the date to be 553 B.C. Further, Daniel tells us that what he is about to relate to us was a dream and visions of his head. As we just noted, this means that the things we are about to read are to be understood in figurative language, unless the text demands otherwise.
Four beasts (7:2-8, 17)
The first thing Daniel sees is the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea. The winds of heaven typically refer to the winds of judgment from God (Revelation 7:1; Isaiah 29:6). These winds are seen stirring the great sea. This has two possible meanings. Daniel may be seeing winds stirring up the Mediterranean Sea . However, this does not seem likely for reasons we will note in a moment. The other alternative is that the wind is stirring up a large sea, not a particular sea. This seems likely in light of other prophetic passages. Large seas refer to nations, societies, or all humanity (Revelation 13:1, 11; Isaiah 57:20). We seem to be reading of the stirring of the nations by the hand of God. From the sea appeared four great beasts, all different from the other (vs. 3). The first beast is a lion with eagles’ wings. The second beast is a bear with three ribs in its mouth. The third beast is a leopard with four wings and four heads. The fourth beast is a dreadful and terrifying beast that apparently cannot be described because it is so awful.
Verse 17 tells us that these four great beasts represent kings from the earth. We need to be aware that the scriptures’ use of kings and kingdoms are considered synonymous. For example, in Daniel 2:38 we see that Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold in the dream. However, Nebuchadnezzar was the representation of the kingdom of Babylon , for the rest of the interpretation describes world empires.
In verse 4, the description of the first kingdom is given. Daniel 7 has many parallels to Daniel 2 in regard to the kingdoms that are identified. Since Daniel sees this vision in the days of Belshazzar, king of Babylon , it makes logical sense that the first beast refers to Babylon , as the first image in Daniel 2 also referred to Babylon . Further, there are many prophetic references to Babylon being called a lion (Jeremiah 4:7; 49:19,22; 50:17,44) and an eagle (Jeremiah 49:22; Lamentations 4:19 ; Ezekiel 17:3; and Habakkuk 1:8). As Daniel is watching, the wings on the lion are plucked off, lifted off the ground, made to stand on two feet like a man, and given the mind of a man. It is likely that this description is a historical remembrance of what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar, previous king of Babylon . Because of Nebuchadnezzar’s lack of humility, the kingdom was taken away from him and he was made like an animal (Daniel 4). This may be the plucking of the wings. Once Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself the kingdom was returned to him and his sanity returned. This may be what is represented in the image of the beast walking on two feet and being given the mind of a man. At the very least, the vision clearly resembles the loss of power and glory from the Babylonian empire.
In verse 5 Daniel sees another beast that is like a bear. This bear is raised up on one side and has three ribs between its teeth. Further, the bear is told to ‘arise, devour much flesh.’ Each of these beasts describes a world kingdom; therefore, the next world empire to arise was the Medo-Persian empire. Many have given ideas as to what it means that the bear was raised up on one side. The best answer seems to be given from the description of the Medo-Persian empire found in Daniel 8:3. There we read one horn was higher than the other, signifying within this kingdom, one power was greater than another. Early in its coming to power, the Median empire was the dominant nation. It was under the Medes that Babylon was conquered. However, under Cyrus, a Persian king, the Persian division of the empire was more powerful through the rest of its dominion. This seems to be the meaning of the bear raised up on one side. Persia is the more powerful side of this great empire. Others have also presented the possibility that the bear raising up on one side refers to the bear being ready to kill again, while in the midst of devouring flesh. This would refer to the great power of this empire. The three ribs in the mouth of the bear are generally understood to refer to the conquests the Medo-Persian kingdom would make. This world empire made three notable conquests: Babylon (539 B.C.), Lydia (546 B.C.), and Egypt (525 B.C.). Regardless of this point, it is clear that this symbol refers to the nations that Medo-Persia would be conquering. This conquering power was given by God as the beast is told to ‘arise, devour much flesh.’
In verse 6 Daniel sees a third beast that is like a leopard. But this beast also has four wings of a bird on its back and four heads, and dominion was given to it. The next world power to rise after Medo-Persia is the Grecian empire. The wings symbolize the swiftness with which the Grecian empire would conquer. History tells us that Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world at his time to the borders of India in less than ten years. History further tells us that Alexander wept because he did not have anything else to conquer. Alexander was a very powerful leader who quickly lead Greece to be a world power. Heads typically resemble rulers. This is seen in Revelation 17:9-10 where seven heads refers to seven kings. The four heads of the leopard most likely refers to what happened to the Grecian empire once Alexander died. Upon Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., the kingdom was split into four parts between Alexander’s generals. According to the New American Commentary, this is how the empire was divided: (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. In Daniel 8, the Grecian empire is described as being divided into four ( 8:22 ). Thus, this seems to be the likely interpretation of the four heads of the leopard.
Finally, Daniel sees a fourth beast that is indescribable. All that Daniel can say is that it is terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. This beast has great iron teeth, devouring and breaking into pieces, then stamping out what is left. The kingdom that arose after Greece was Rome . This description matches the description previously given in Daniel 2:40. Further, this beast is described as having ten horns. Among the horns a little horn rises up, plucking out other horns and speaking blasphemous, pompous words. One must note the similarity between this description and the description of the beast in Revelation 13. They are clearly the same (for a listing of similarities, see the Revelation 13 study on this website). The explanation of these things is given later. Meanwhile, Daniel sees some more images.
The Ancient of Days (7:9-12)
While Daniel is looking at this fourth terrifying and dreadful beast, Daniel looks and sees that thrones were placed and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing is white as snow and the hair of his head like pure wool. His throne was fiery flames and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire came out before him and tens of thousands served him. Daniel now sees the throne room of God. The Lord sits down on the throne to bring forth judgment. In verse 9 we see that his throne has wheels which are of burning fire. This should remind of what Ezekiel saw when he saw in a vision the throne room of God. The fire coming out from before him indicates that God is executing judgment (see Revelation 4:5). This understanding of the image is further validated in verse 10 when we see the court sat in judgment and the books were opened. Many immediately assume that we are looking at the final judgment. We make a foolish error if we always assume the scriptures are talking about the final judgment when we read about the judgments of God. But we need to look at the context to determine what judgment we are looking at. Verses 11-12 tell us what judgment is being seen by Daniel. Verse 11 tells us that the judgment we are seeing is upon the fourth beast, as Daniel sees it killed, its body burned, and given over to be burned with fire. This a judgment against the Roman Empire that is being seen by Daniel, not an image of the end of time.
As for the first three beasts that have been revealed to Daniel, their dominion was taken away but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As we have noted earlier in this chapter and also in chapter 2, each kingdom took over the previous kingdom. Medo-Persia conquered Babylon , Greece conquered Medo-Persia, and Rome conquered Greece . Though their dominion was removed, each empire was absorbed by the next. Each succeeding nation ruled over the same peoples and lands, and thus they continued to live for a time. But with the judgment against Rome , the world empires are put to an end. No world empire arose again after the destruction of the Roman Empire . I believe this is what John sees in Revelation 20:2-3 (see notes on this web site for further information on this text).
The Son of Man ( 7:13 -14)
While all of this is going on, Daniel sees with the clouds of heaven one like the son of man coming to the Ancient of Days. To the son of man was given dominion, glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. The dominion the son of man was given was an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed. I believe that to understand the image we need to look at a few things. First, when was this to take place? What does the context tell us? Three things are occurring in the same time frame. During the days of the Roman Empire we see that a judgment will take place upon it so it will be destroyed. Also, sometime during the dominion of this fourth beast, the son of man will be given dominion, glory, and a kingdom.
What we are seeing in this passage is the ascension of Jesus Christ as He returns to the Father in heaven. Notice Acts 1:9, "And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." The apostles watched Jesus ascend in a cloud to heaven (Acts 1:11 ). In Daniel 7, we are seeing the Father’s perspective as Jesus returns in a cloud to the Father in heaven. Paul taught in many places that when Jesus Christ raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, He received all power and set up His kingdom. Ephesians 1:20-23, "which He worked in Christ when he raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."
This is why Jesus and John the Baptist preached the kingdom was at hand. It would come at Jesus’ ascension (Mark 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 teaches us that Jesus received the kingdom at his resurrection and will give it back to the Father at the end. Premillennialists have it backward that Jesus has not received a kingdom and does not have dominion. The scriptures teach otherwise.
Explaining the fourth beast ( 7:15 -28)
At seeing all of these images, Daniel is greatly troubled and alarmed. So Daniel approaches one of those standing there and asks to know the truth of the things he has just seen. The main message of the visions is presented for us in verses 17-18. The beasts are the kingdoms that will arise from the earth, but the saints of the Most High will receive a kingdom and possess a kingdom forever and ever. But to Daniel, and the rest of us, this is not enough information. Daniel specifically inquires about the fourth beast which was exceedingly different from all the rest. In verse 21 we are provided a little more description about what this fourth beast is doing. Daniel reveals that the horn is making war with the saints and prevailed over them until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was given for the saints.
The explanation is given concerning the fourth beast in verses 23-27. There will be a fourth kingdom that is different from the other kingdoms in that it will devour the whole earth, trample it down and break it into pieces. This is again the same description of the Roman Empire given in Daniel 2:40. As for the ten horns, these represent ten kings and another shall arise after them that will be different from the former ones. This one horn speaks words against the Most High and shall wear out the saints, who will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.
The explanations given in regard to this passage by commentators have been wild and numerous. We will attempt to understand the meaning of this passage in light of the context and the most natural reading. First, we must notice that these are still taking place in the days of the fourth beast, the Roman Empire . Verses 26-27 are the same points made in verses 9-12, which we noted were all events during the Roman Empire . The important message that is conveyed is that during this empire, it would have power to war against the saints for a time and then would be judged.
But there are more details to look at concerning the horns. Verse 24 tells us that these are kings and there is another that will arise that will be different. Some suggest that the horns are a reference to all the emperors under the Roman Empire . The horn that rises up to wear out the saints is considered to be all the emperors who caused persecutions against the Christians. This interpretation fits Revelation 13 where we see the great power of the Roman Empire being used to cause people to worship themselves and not God. The Roman emperors would kill those who would not worship them and blasphemed the name of God.
Another reasonable suggestion is that these ten emperors can be numbered and therefore Daniel is receiving a specific answer about the horns. The ten rulers of Rome are: 1) Augustus; 2) Tiberius; 3) Caligula; 4) Claudius; 5) Nero; 6) Galba; 7) Otho; 8) Vitellius 9) Vespasian; and 10) Titus. Therefore the horn that would rise up after them is Domitian, the eleventh emperor of Rome . Emperor Domitian fits the descriptions given, for he made claims of personal deity, demanded people to worship him, and persecuted the saints of God. This interpretation reconciles the information found in Revelation 17 best with least amount of conflict (for more information see notes on Revelation 17 on the web site).
Premillenialists argue that this horn is the Antichrist that has not appeared yet. The problem is that this text is dealing with events in the days of the fourth kingdom and not things over 2700 years later. Some argue the horn is the papacy of the Roman Catholic church. But again, the text is dealing with things that would take place in the days of the Roman empire , not thousands of years. As we noted in our study of Revelation, it seems to me that this passage is referring to Domitian and intensification of persecution that he would bring against Christians. Other emperors had at times persecuted Jews and Christians (like Nero), but the persecutions became severe from Domitian to the time of the destruction of Rome . This seems to exactly fit the message of Daniel 7:24-26.
At the hearing of these things, Daniel is still greatly alarmed at the knowledge that he has received about things to happen to the saints of God in the future. However, he kept the matter in his heart.