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Four Beasts, Four Kingdoms, and an Eternal Ruler
(Chapter 7 verses 1-28)
This chapter begins the second division of the book. The first six of the twelve chapters are mainly historical, with a minimum of prophecy. The last six chapters are mainly prophetic, with a minimum of history. Four separate visions that God granted Daniel are recorded (chapter 7, chapter 8, chapter 9, and chapters 10–12).
The first of the four visions covers the longest span of time; the remaining three will focus on smaller portions of the history covered in the first vision.
In general, the vision that Daniel saw in a dream deals with the same subject matter found in the first dream which God gave King Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 2) and which Daniel interpreted for the king. Both dreams deal with the rise and fall of nations. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream the four successive kingdoms were symbolized by different parts of a statue; in Daniel’s dream they are symbolized by four fierce animals rising up out of the sea. As in chapter 2, four successive empires rise and fall, and are followed by the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. Because these visions sketch the great panorama of world history, the book of Daniel has been compared to the New Testament book of Revelation. For example, it is from Daniel chapter 7 that Revelation chapter 13 draws its imagery.
But why should God have given Daniel this vision involving a detailed prediction of what lay in store for the world, and in particular for God’s people, in the centuries ahead? It will help us to remember that almost 70 years earlier, God’s ancient people of Judah had been taken into exile a thousand miles away from home. After spending that long a time in captivity, it might have seemed that God was through with them. To assure his people this was not so, God showed Daniel what the future held for his people and instructed him to share this revelation with the exiles. Through this particular vision granted to Daniel, God’s people would learn that they would not only survive captivity in Babylon but that in God’s good time they would also see the promised Messiah come to earth. And when he would return to earth at the end of the world to take up his eternal rule, God’s people would actually rule with him. Far from being on the verge of extinction, God’s people had a bright future ahead of them.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 1
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
The setting for Daniel’s vision is the first year of Belshazzar, the Babylonian king who gave the banquet described in chapter 5. Babylon was still the leading nation in the world, but its power was declining. Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon, the man on the throne at the time Babylon collapsed before the attack of the Medo-Persians under Cyrus. The vision described in this chapter came to Daniel when he was about 65.
Daniel’s dream consisted of a number of visions, which God permitted him to see one night during his sleep. Daniel’s dream was not merely the product of an overactive imagination or the result of having eaten too much the previous evening. It is described here as consisting of visions that came to him from God. God thereby showed Daniel something he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see or know.
God revealed to Daniel important information about the near future and the far distant future. This information concerned not only world empires but God’s people as well. It told of nations rising and falling and the Messiah’s coming to judge his enemies and rescue his people forever. Daniel recognized this revelation as a supernatural message from God.
It is worth repeating that such divine revelation sets Christianity apart from all man-made religions. We refer to these as natural religion, because they all originate in the mind of human beings. By contrast, the Christian religion is revealed religion, because it originated in the mind of God. We have it only because God pulled back the veil and showed us things that we otherwise could not have known.
Daniel did not receive this vision just for his own benefit. Although at the time of the vision Daniel was a statesman in the Babylonian court, he was also God’s spokesman to the people of Judah living in exile. Jesus referred to him as “the prophet Daniel” (Matthew chapter 24 verse 15). While the matter was still fresh in his mind, Daniel put down in writing the essential features of the great mass of detail that God had revealed to him in the vision. Such detailed prophecy is significant evidence of the inerrancy of the Scripture.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 2
Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea.
The inspired account of Daniel’s vision begins: “In my vision at night I looked . . .” The phrase “I looked,” which occurs ten times in this chapter, is a special combination of verbs meaning literally, “I was gazing intently.” It is a significant expression, emphasizing the fact that Daniel was fascinated by the picture God was showing him and that he continued to look at it, examining it closely to learn what God was telling him through the dream.
“Before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea.” Although in biblical times the Mediterranean was commonly referred to as the “Great Sea,” it seems unlikely that the Mediterranean is referred to here. Only two of the four nations about to be pictured in Daniel’s vision arose in the Mediterranean area. What is being emphasized is that the disturbed state of the world helped to bring about the rise of four world powers that appeared on the pages of ancient history. The phrase “the four winds” suggests the four points of the compass. The continuous churning up of the great sea represents the political unrest and turmoil in the world during the last five centuries before Christ, the period of time during which these four great world powers arose.
What follows is a description of each of these world powers. The first three are dealt with quite briefly; the fourth is described in considerable detail. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (chapter 2) had presented only a partial and incomplete picture of the four world empires. Daniel’s dream gives us a picture of what these four kingdoms were really like; it gives us deeper insight into their beast-like nature. History has documented that when a nation forgets its God-given assignment and seeks instead to dominate people, it loses its finer traits and becomes, in effect, a beast.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 3
Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
In his dream Daniel saw four great beasts (later identified as four empires) arise successively to occupy positions of prominence and power. Each of these empires would have a decided influence on the ancient people of God as each in turn moved into the spotlight. Each of the beasts was distinct from the others; each of the four empires had characteristic traits.
In Daniel’s dream the four beasts appeared on the scene full-grown. Though all four were land animals, they arose out of the sea. And yet a later verse of this chapter (verse 17) states clearly that these four beasts represented four kingdoms that would arise out of the earth.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 4
The first beast: Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon
“The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it.
Both the lion and the eagle are recognized as being dominant—one, as king of the beasts; the other, as king of the birds. The first beast resembled a lion, because of its great strength. In addition, however, the beast had eagle’s wings, enabling it to travel rapidly and to conquer far and wide. Its qualities made it a powerful force to be reckoned with in the politics of the ancient Near East.
A lion with wings may sound strange to us, but it did not to Daniel. The first beast in his vision represents the Babylonian Empire, or more specifically, great King Nebuchadnezzar. The archaeologist’s spade has uncovered streets and temples of ancient Babylon and found statues of winged lions symbolically guarding the palace gates in the empire’s beautiful capital city. The winged lion, then, was an emblem of Babylonian power.
In connection with Daniel’s vision of Babylon’s imperial power, it may not be out of place to note that the business of founding an empire first started in Babylon. There had been individual city-states earlier, but Nimrod, of the Hamite branch of Noah’s family, was the first to bring four city-states under his control (Genesis chapter 10 verses 8-12). He thereby founded the first empire.
While Daniel was watching, the effective power of the first beast was destroyed. The wings that had enabled it to move so rapidly were torn off, and the beast itself was lifted up off of the earth. Without a firm footing, the beast was not able to attack its enemies. The statement “the heart of a man was given to it” is perhaps best understood as referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s recovery from his temporary insanity, when the ability to rule had been taken from him (chapter 4 verses 28-37). After the humiliation of his insanity, there was a change in Nebuchadnezzar. He again came to resemble a human being rather than a beast living out in the field and was no longer motivated only by his lust for power.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 5
The second beast: Medo-Persia
“And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’
The empire that toppled and succeeded Babylon was the Medo-Persian Empire of King Cyrus. Daniel saw this empire symbolized by a beast resembling a bear.
The statement “it was raised up on one of its sides” is a difficult and much-disputed one. It is perhaps best understood as referring to the greater importance of the Persian segment of the Medo-Persian alliance. The outstanding characteristic of this beast was its greed for prey, for conquest. The words “it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth” describe the fate of any nation which opposed it during the two centuries that were the glory years of the Medo-Persian Empire. The three ribs “would well correspond to the three major conquests of the Medo-Persian Empire: Lydia, Babylon and Egypt” (Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction, page 383). Daniel heard a voice telling this beast, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh!” This was very likely God’s voice, granting Cyrus the authority to subjugate many nations.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 6
The third beast: Greece
“After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.
Although it is not as big or as strong as a lion or a bear, a leopard is a formidable enemy. Best known for its speed, it is also a killer. This animal symbolized the small Greek forces of Alexander the Great. With an army of only 30,000, he at tacked the enormous Medo-Persian Empire, which extended all the way from India in the east to Turkey in the west and as far south as Egypt. It took him only 12 years to complete the conquest, so that at the age of 30, Alexander was master of the world.
“On its back it had four wings like those of a bird.” By contrast, the beast symbolizing Babylon in Daniel’s dream had only two wings. The leopardlike beast had four wings, to speed its program of world conquest, according to the principles of sudden coordinated surprise attacks.
Daniel saw the beast symbolizing Greece as having four heads. When Alexander died suddenly at the age of 33, no one strong leader appeared on the scene to replace him. As a result, his empire was partitioned into four sections: Greece, Asia Minor, the Seleucid Empire (including Syria, Babylon, and Persia), and Egypt. Each of these was ruled over by one of Alexander’s generals.
One cannot review the history of Alexander’s empire without realizing the truth of Daniel’s statement: “It was given authority to rule”—not by Alexander, but by God himself. “No other explanation can account for the fact that Alexander’s 30,000-man army was able to conquer Persian armies of several hundreds of thousands” (Feinberg, Daniel, the Man and His Visions, page 88).
Daniel chapter 7 verse 7
The fourth beast: Rome
“After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.
The fourth beast Daniel saw in his vision differed from the others in that it was not associated with a particular animal, and intentionally so. There is no animal that has characteristics demonstrated by the nation symbolized here, characteristics that mark it as terrible beyond description—“terrifying and frightening and very powerful.” It had large teeth of iron, the same metal that symbolized the Roman Empire in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue (chapter 2). The beast Daniel saw in his vision had ten horns. Since animals often use their horns as weapons to kill an opponent, the horn is an Old Testament symbol of strength. Ten horns would then symbolize unusual strength, especially in the ten kings referred to in verse 24.
The empire symbolized by the fourth beast can only be Rome, which replaced Greece as the leading nation and which was characterized by its use of raw power. Rome had little interest in raising the nations she conquered to higher levels of development. “It crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.” Rome’s only aim was to destroy, to crush, to conquer. A more detailed description is given of this fourth beast, because its significance in the vision is greater than that of the other beasts, as the following verses will show.
Daniel chapter 7 verse 8
“While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
It was mentioned earlier that the message of Daniel’s vision in this chapter is quite similar to the message of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2. The same four kingdoms are pictured. But Daniel’s vision here gives us a much more detailed picture of the fourth empire. It presents the history of that kingdom in three stages: first of all, the beast itself; then, its ten horns (ten kings); finally, the little horn.
In the case of the other three beasts that Daniel saw, each appeared for a period of time and then disappeared, to be replaced by another beast. This was not the case, however, with the fourth beast. Daniel saw a change take place in the beast. Among the ten horns a little horn appeared, which pulled three of the horns out by the roots. This seems to imply that although this horn was little when it first appeared, it became the greatest of all, uprooting three of the original horns and taking over their share of influence.
On the little horn Daniel noted two eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully. What it said is later described as speaking “against the Most High” (verse 25). This description points to the human intelligence and character of this new personality, who will be described in greater detail later in the chapter. It had a mouth that uttered arrogant boasting, including blaspheming God and persecuting his people. The description of this horn corresponds to the description of the beast in Saint John’s Revelation (chapter 13 verses 5-8; chapter 17 verses 11-14). It symbolizes Satan’s counterfeit world ruler, who will try to take the place of Jesus Christ, God’s true world ruler.
Daniel chapter 7 verses 9-10
“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
Here is the climax of Daniel’s nighttime vision. The succession of earthly kings stopped, and God stepped in, to have the last word. “Thrones were set in place” because God was about to pronounce judgment. Since the judgment pictured here is the last judgment, it is clear that Daniel’s vision of the fourth beast involves a long time span—beginning with the rise of the Roman Empire and extending to the second coming of Christ.
This is an important feature of the vision God gave Daniel. The sea (the political world) and the four beasts (four successive world powers) do not have the last word. Daniel was permitted to see that God had placed a limit on their power and influence. In his dream Daniel saw a heavenly courtroom, one that was equipped with thrones, symbols of kingly authority. God will have the last word in history, as he had the first at creation.
The courtroom proceedings were conducted by one called “the Ancient of Days.” This unusual title, used only here in the Scripture, refers to the mystery that God is eternal. This title contrasts God’s unchanging permanence with the changeableness and instability of all human power structures. The eternal, majestic God was active long before nations and empires appeared on the world scene. Here the Ancient of Days is pictured pronouncing sentence on his enemies and granting a new and splendid kingdom to the Messiah.
The vision of God that Daniel was permitted to see was not only a magnificent one but an awesome one as well. During the centuries of the Old Testament, when God wanted to appear visibly to his people, he usually chose to do so in the form of fire and cloud and smoke. Think of his appearance to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus chapter 3 verses 1-6) or to Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus chapter 19 verses 16-19), or to Ezekiel at the time of his call (Ezekiel chapter 1 verses 25-28). The biblical term for this phenomenon of Jehovah’s appearance in fire and cloud and smoke is “the glory of the LORD” (Exodus chapter 24 verses 15-17; Leviticus chapter 9 verses 23-24; Numbers chapter 14 verse 10; chapter 16 verses 19 and 42; 1st Kings chapter 8 verse 11).
This is how the covenant-God appeared to Daniel in his vision. When the eternal, majestic God took his seat on his throne to judge his enemies, “his throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.” God is pictured as seated on a chariot throne, just as Ezekiel saw him (Ezekiel chapter 1 verses 15-28).
A river of fire flowed constantly from the Ancient of Days, symbolic of the burning zeal that would destroy his enemies and rescue his people. Ten thousand times ten thousand angels surrounded the throne of God, eager to do his bidding, and their presence added to the majesty of God’s appearance in glory.
“The books were opened.” In the language of Scripture, God’s book is, first of all, his family register, in which are written the names of those who belong to him (Exodus chapter 32 verse 32; Psalm 69 verse 28). To have one’s name in that book means to be saved; to have one’s name blotted out means to be lost. In Revelation chapter 20 verse 12 other books of God are mentioned, books in which deeds are recorded according to which God will judge people. Both types of books may be referred to in Daniel’s dream. The Ancient of Days had witnessed the deeds of people and nations. He possessed all of the evidence when he made his decisions. As he prepared to announce his judgment on the four beasts and the little horn, he did not judge arbitrarily or unfairly.
The End of Part 7.1