If you’ve spent any time with children, you know how much they love picture-story books. Kids love stories and they love pictures. When you put the two together, the story bursts into life. One picture-story book I loved as a kid was Where the Wild Things Are. It’s about a young boy named Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks havoc through his household and his sent to bed by his mother without his supper. Then Max’s bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he sails to an island inhabited by malicious beasts known as the “Wild Things.” After the lights were turned off, I would picture these great beasts stomping around my room. And I, like Max, would tame them with a magic trick and they would call me the most wild thing of all.
Daniel chapter 7 has a lot of similarities. Here we have pictures of great beasts rising out of the sea with animal-like features, roaring and thrashing about the place, and a terrifying beast with iron teeth that devoured and crushed. But this is no story-picture book for boys. It is an account of a vision given to Daniel by God. In this vision, Daniel is given an entire panorama of world history from the time of the Babylonian Empire until the end, with the arrival of the kingdom of God.
Understanding Apocalyptic Genre
There are some who approach Daniel 7 (as they do with other prophetic literature) like it’s an end-time jig-saw puzzle and they attempt to chart it all out on a futuristic time-line. But in taking this approach they missed the purpose for which apocalyptic books such as Daniel and Revelation were given. Daryl Block, in Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic, explains:
“the intention of apocalyptic is not to chart out God’s plan for the future so future generations may draw up calendars but to assure the present generation that—perhaps contrary to appearance—God is still on the throne and that the future is firmly in his hands.”
Who was this written to? Who was Daniel’s immediate audience? God’s oppressed people – the exiles in Babylon. It was written to give them encouragement and hope. Despite everything they saw around them, God was still on the throne. That’s what we’ve been seeing in the first six chapters. The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den teach us that God is in control and is able to overcome impossible odds. Well now, in chapters 7-12, that same theme is pressed deeper. We move from human evil to the spiritual forces that lie behind them.
The Beasts of the Sea (1-8)
Daniel sees the four winds of heaven stirring up a great sea. In the Bible the sea is a symbol for chaos, disorder, and hostility to God. This is a picture of the sea of sinful humanity – unstable, chaotic and in a constant state of unrest and turmoil (Psalm 2:1; 65:7; 93:3–4). Then out of this sea come four huge beasts. Who or what are these? The answer is given in verse 17: they represent four kings who will rise from the earth. So, these beasts represent nations or empires opposed to God.
Back in chapter 2 King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. In that dream he saw a giant statue made up of four different metals: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Daniel explained to the king that Babylon was the head of gold. But Babylon would be replaced by another kingdom, the Medo-Persian Empire. And this kingdom in turn would be replaced by another, the Greek Empire. And finally, the Roman Empire. Well this dream of Daniel replicates Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2. The two are connected.
The first beast, we are told in verse 4, was like a lion but had eagle’s wings. This represents Babylon, the head of gold in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Statues of lions with eagles’ wings lined the streets of Babylon. Winged lions also guarded the gates of royal palaces. They were emblems of the Babylonian power. As Daniel was watching, “its wings were torn off” – reminding us of how Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God in chapter 4. “It was lifted from the ground, set on its feet like a man, and given a human mind” – reminding us of his restoration to sanity.
Then suddenly another beast appears, and it is depicted as a ravaging bear (verse 5). This has reference to the Medo-Persian empire, the chest of silver in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But there is something odd about this bear. It is lopsided – one side is raised up above the other. Some commentators suggest this has reference to the unbalance of the Medo-Persian empire; Persia being the dominant power. It was commanded “Get up! Gorge yourself on flesh.”
Then another beast appears. It is like a like a leopard with four wings of a bird on its back (verse 6). A leopard, as we know, is one of the fastest animals in the animal kingdom. With the addition of four wings, speed is increased further. This represents the kingdom of Greece, ruled by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s lust for world dominion was legendary. By the age of 32 he had conquered the entire Medo-Persian Empire all the way to India. The four heads could very likely represent the four generals who ruled after Alexander’s untimely death – Seleusus, Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Cassander.
Notice a common theme with all of these beasts – none of them act independently, they are all governed by an external power. The lion was lifted from the ground and given a human mind. The bear was told to feed. The leopard was given dominion. It is God who directs these beastly empires. He removes kings and establishes kings (Dan 2:21). He is ruler of human kingdoms and gives them to anyone he wants (Dan 4:25, 32).
Then, in verse 7 we have the fourth beast, which is the most terrifying of all. Daniel says it was different from all the others and “frightening and dreadful, and incredibly strong.” This beast is unique. It has great iron teeth which it uses to break everything in its path. What is left is stamped and crushed by its feet. If everything else I’ve said so far is correct, this represents the might and power of Rome.
The Little Horn (15-28)
But then, as the vision progresses further, things tend to become more elusive and obscure. This fourth beast has 10 horns (verse 7). Then suddenly, “another horn, a little one, came up among them.” This horn had “eyes like the eyes of a human and mouth that was speaking arrogantly” (verse 8). So what is this all about?
Well it’s at least comforting to know that Daniel is no less confused than we are. He comes back to it later in the chapter and he asks for clarification. He is given an answer in verse 23,
“The fourth beast will be a fourth kingdom on the earth, different from all the other kingdoms. It will devour the whole earth, trample it down, and crush it. The ten horns are ten kings who will rise from this kingdom. Another king, different from the previous ones, will rise after them and subdue three kings. He will speak words against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High…” (Dan 7:23–25)
So, the 10 horns represent 10 kings. But which 10 kings are we talking about? There have been many nations and kings since Rome. Some commentators believe the Roman empire is still going. The 10 kings represent the 10 nations in the EU. Except that there are now 28 nations in the EU with one major player – Britain, about to pull out. I don’t think we can really say the Roman empire still exists. Rome, for all intense and purposes fell in 476 BC. Others say the 10 horns represent 10 kings or kingdoms across time, since the fall of Rome. Well, there has been a great number of nations and kings since Rome. Which ones in particular are we talking about? Others say it is the Roman empire renewed. However, verse 11 tells us it is killed, and its body is destroyed while the other beasts live on. So how does that work?
I have another explanation. I don’t think we are supposed to know the identity of the 10 horns and 10 kings. That’s not the point of the vision. Apocalyptic literature tends to work in regular, recurring patterns. Have a listen to another vision in Revelation 13:
“And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. On its horns were ten crowns, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave the beast his power, his throne, and great authority.” (Rev 13:1–2)
Sound familiar? And yet in this vision, all four images refer to one kingdom. These images – images of evil and rebellion against God, cross barriers of space and time. And so, though these beastly images in Daniel 7 speak to empires in Daniel’s day, they also speak of ungodly empires in every day.
Think about the symbols used by nations today – the Russian bear, the American eagle, the Chinese dragon. Throughout history we have seen evil forces at work and kingdoms rising above one another – each one fighting for position of top dog. Think of the speed of Germany’s tank force in the Blitzkrieg in the second world war. It was unsurpassed. Think of the merciless rule Stalin exerted in the former Soviet Union and the millions who suffered under his reign. When I visited Rome, I saw the remains of the Coliseum and thought about the amount of innocent blood splashed under that regime. Nations in every age seize any opportunity they can to expand their borders, stockpile weapons, encourage economic aggression, crushing anyone who stands in their way.
But it is this “little horn” that troubles Daniel the most – the one with a mouth that speaks arrogantly (verse 20) and wages war against God’s people and prevails over them. Who is this? Some believe this to be Antiochus Epiphanes, Greek king of the Seleucid Empire. He was known for his brutal persecution of the Jews, which precipitated the Maccabean revolt. Some see it referring to Rome’s Caesars and others the rise the Papacy. But most bible scholars today believe the little horn refers to the Antichrist, also known as “the man of lawlessness.” Daniel is told in verse 25 that he, “will speak words against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High.” In other words, he will attack God and the people of God. Paul writes about him in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2:
“He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God’s temple, proclaiming that he himself is God.” (2 Thess 2:4)
There’s his attack on God. Then Paul writes,
“The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan’s working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every wicked deception among those who are perishing.” (2 Thess 2:9–10)
There’s his attack on the people of God. So what Daniel sees in the future is repeated by the Apostle Paul. There will be many who oppose God and oppress His people. They are all forerunners of a final individual who will be the personification of absolute evil – the Antichrist.
So, what are God’s people to do? How are they to respond? With fear and trembling and dread? Are things going to spiral out of control? What would keep Daniel and his fellow exiles from giving up? What will keep us from giving up? Only one thing: a clear vision of God on his throne overruling all things.
That is the very vision that God gives to Daniel, right in the middle of this chapter. It is thrilling and compelling. We are going to take a look at that next time.
This post was based on a sermon called “The Son of Man” It is part of a series at our church on the book of Daniel. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.