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Two Frightening Eras ahead for God’s People
(Chapter 8 verses 1-27)
As we have mentioned, chapters 2 through 7 were written in the Aramaic language, the language spoken in Babylon, the land of Judah’s exile. God considered it appropriate to have the message of the world empires—their character and their fate—given to them in their own language. On the other hand, the Babylonians and the Persians could not have cared less about the special future in store for God’s people. And so in chapters 8 through 12 of his book, the author described this future in Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel.
The closing chapters of the book do not make for pleasant reading. A very difficult future lay in store for God’s people, and God did not want them to have to face it unprepared. Chapter 8 describes two frightening eras that were in store for God’s people. The first was a period of extreme suffering in the more immediate future. The second was a period of deception and danger in the more distant future. For us today, one of these eras lies in the past; one still lies partly in the future. To help us understand what happened to God’s people in the past, and to prepare us for the dangers facing God’s people in the future, we need to hear what this chapter has to tell us.
Daniel chapter 8 verses 1-4
In the third year of King Belshazzar’s reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, after the one that had already appeared to me. In my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa in the province of Elam; in the vision I was beside the Ulai Canal. I looked up, and there before me was a ram with two horns, standing beside the canal, and the horns were long. One of the horns was longer than the other but grew up later. I watched the ram as he charged toward the west and the north and the south. No animal could stand against him, and none could rescue from his power. He did as he pleased and became great.
These opening words record that God again sent Daniel a vision. Daniel’s words in the opening sentence almost seem to express surprise at receiving this vision. God had already honored him by giving him one vision, the one recorded in the previous chapter—and now a second one! The vision was so astounding that Daniel remembered the exact time it came to him. It was in the third year of King Belshazzar, king of Babylon. That would take us to the last years of the Babylonian Empire.
“In my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa.” Susa, located about 100 miles north of the Persian Gulf, would later become the site of the summer palace of Persian kings. Since Daniel’s vision predicted the downfall of the Persian Empire, the palace at Susa seems an appropriate background for the vision. Since at that time Susa was still not very well known, however, Daniel locates it for his readers—“in the province of Elam.” We understand the words “in my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa” to mean that Daniel was there only in spirit, not in body.
The first half of the chapter presents the details of Daniel’s vision; the second half presents the interpretation. Rather than treating only the details of the vision first and then discussing the interpretation separately, some of the interpretation will be included in the discussion of the details of the vision.
As in the previous chapter, here again animals are used to symbolize world empires. Instead of a bear and a leopard (as in chapter 7 verses 5-6), a two-horned ram represents the Medo-Persian Empire, and a one-horned goat symbolizes the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. This vision focuses our attention on a small portion of the larger picture of the vision in chapter 7, which described the successive rise and fall of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires and ended with the establishment of the Messianic kingdom.
In Daniel’s vision the history of the Medo-Persian Empire is sketched briefly. “I looked up, and there before me was a ram with two horns. . . . One of the horns was longer than the other but grew up later.” Daniel was not left to guess who is symbolized by the ram in his vision. A bit later in this chapter, the angel Gabriel explained to Daniel, “The two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia” (verse 20).
The empire to which our attention is directed here is one that actually consisted of two parts. Persia was located in present-day Iran; ancient Media lay to the north of Persia, toward what is now the Caspian Sea. Media had come to power earlier than Persia but never reached the political and military greatness that accompanied Persian leadership. In Daniel’s vision Persia was the horn that “was longer than the other but grew up later.” When King Cyrus came to power in Persia about the year 550 B.C., he succeeded in gaining control of Media and managed to form a combined empire, with his own country the more important of the two. For this reason historians usually refer to this empire as the Persian Empire and to the period of history of approximately 550–335 B.C. as the Persian Period.
As he watched the vision unfold, Daniel saw the ram charge toward the west and the north and the south. The Persian Empire is pictured as expanding from the east and spreading northward across what is today Iraq, westward all the way to Palestine and Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), and southward to Egypt. History records that Cyrus did this all with remarkable ease. “He did as he pleased and became great.”
Daniel gave close attention to the details of the vision God showed him. He knew there was a deeper meaning to what he was seeing, and he watched intently to learn what it was. Suddenly, a new feature of the vision attracted his attention.
Daniel chapter 8 verses 5-8
As I was thinking about this, suddenly a goat with a prominent horn between his eyes came from the west, crossing the whole earth without touching the ground. He came toward the two-horned ram I had seen standing beside the canal and charged at him in great rage. I saw him attack the ram furiously, striking the ram and shattering his two horns. The ram was powerless to stand against him; the goat knocked him to the ground and trampled on him, and none could rescue the ram from his power. The goat became very great, but at the height of his power his large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven.
From Daniel’s vantage point in Susa, the second animal in the vision came from the west. This was a goat, later identified by the angel Gabriel as the king of Greece. The goat is here a symbol for Alexander the Great, founder of the Greek Empire.
Daniel saw the goat cross the whole earth without touching the ground. Two ideas are combined here into a single expression. The first is the idea of rapid military advance. The second emphasis is the widespread nature of Alexander’s conquest.
Daniel had seen the ram, symbolizing Persia, attack and conquer enemies far and wide. After the Persian armies had made several attempts to conquer Greece, the Greeks fought back angrily. Daniel saw the goat with the prominent horn attack the two-horned ram furiously, shattering his horns, knocking him to the ground, and trampling on him.
Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire with an army of 30,000 men in 334 B.C., in what is now Turkey. In two major battles he defeated the armies of Persia. From there he turned south and seized control of the eastern Mediterranean coast all the way to Egypt. His next major battle against the Persians was fought in 331 B.C., near the headwaters of the Tigris River in present-day Syria. After this victory he marched his armies to the interior of Asia, not satisfied until he had completely destroyed his enemy. In the period of a dozen years, he managed to conquer the entire Persian Empire and bring under his rule the greatest amount of territory ever controlled by one person.
“The goat became very great, but at the height of his power his large horn was broken off.” The story of Alexander the Great is a phenomenal success story unlike any other in world history. But it ended very suddenly. At the age of 33, at the very peak of his power and prestige, Alexander died of a fever. Historians have sought to place the reasons for his untimely death on his strenuous exertion, but there appears little question that he had been weakened by drunkenness and debauchery.
Alexander’s sudden death was followed by more than two decades of infighting among those who wanted to succeed him. Daniel’s vision predicted the outcome: “At the height of his power his large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven.” Alexander’s huge empire was divided up among four of his generals. Greece was given to Cassander; Asia Minor, to Lysimachus; Egypt, to Ptolemy; Syria and Babylon, to Seleucus. It’s that fourth allotment that we’ll want to watch.
Daniel chapter 8 verses 9-12
Out of one of them came another horn, which started small but grew in power to the south and to the east and toward the Beautiful Land. It grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them. It set itself up to be as great as the Prince of the host; it took away the daily sacrifice from him, and the place of his sanctuary was brought low. Because of rebellion, the host of the saints and the daily sacrifice were given over to it. It prospered in everything it did, and truth was thrown to the ground.
A horn sprouting from a horn is something that could happen only in a dream or a vision. With this strange development, God pointed to a famous king who would rise from one of the four remnants of Alexander’s Greek Empire. Here we are introduced to the main issue of chapter 8. It is for the sake of this section that the entire chapter was written.
The horn Daniel saw in his vision is again a king. As early as the time of Christ, this little horn was identified with a wicked king named Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled during the years 175–164 B.C. He was the eighth king after Seleucus, the general who had inherited the Syrian-Palestinian segment of Alexander’s empire. Intrigue and bloodshed were the route by which Antiochus became king.
The little horn symbolizing King Antiochus started small, but Daniel saw it grow and become strong, growing in power “to the south and to the east.” Antiochus waged war against Egypt and in the direction of Persia and Media. But he gave special attention to “the Beautiful Land,” a term for Palestine, the land on which God had bestowed so many special blessings. It was this land which bore the full brunt of the wicked king’s attacks.
Daniel saw this horn raise itself against the stars of heaven, cast some of them to the earth, and trample on them. Later in the chapter, the angel Gabriel explained that the stars represented God’s people. Antiochus unleashed his anger against the Jewish believers. The first and second books of Maccabees, found in the Apocrypha, spell out details of the atrocities Antiochus perpetrated after he came to power. After a victorious campaign in Egypt, he came to the temple in Jerusalem, plundered it, and initiated a bloody persecution of the Jews. History records that he killed more than 100,000.
The height of his wicked pride was reached when he set himself up “to be as great as the Prince of the host.” The Prince of the host is God himself, and the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes was nothing short of continuous rebellion against God and his good will for his people. For one thing, he took away the daily sacrifice from the temple in Jerusalem. At the beginning of each day’s worship, and at the close, a sacrifice was offered called “the burnt offering.” The primary purpose of this offering was to express the covenant relationship Israel had with God. With its daily burnt offerings, the nation of Israel was publicly announcing, “Lord God, you are our God; we are your people!” Antiochus put a stop to this, robbing God of honor due him.
The first book of Maccabees provides vivid details of how through the evil activity of Antiochus Epiphanes, “the place of his [God’s] sanctuary was brought low”:
“The king sent letters by messenger to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah . . . to follow foreign customs . . . to keep offerings out of the sanctuary . . . to profane Sabbaths . . . to pollute the sanctuary and priests . . . to build idol temples, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh . . . that they should leave their sons uncircumcised . . . so that they might forget [God’s] law.” (1st Maccabees chapter 1 verses 44-49)
Antiochus Epiphanes thoroughly disrupted the worship life God had prescribed for his Old Testament people. He plundered the temple in Jerusalem and desolated it. He abolished all sacrifices and festivals and even erected an altar to Jupiter, chief of the Greek gods, in place of the altar of God. He burned the books containing the law of Moses, trying to make it impossible for God’s people to hear the message of God’s love for them and of his plans for them.
And the result? Daniel saw it in his vision: “Truth was thrown to the ground.” God’s truth, the truth God had miraculously given to ancient Israel, was forcibly taken from them.
It was painful for Daniel to see this in a vision. But imagine how painful it was for God’s people four centuries later to experience this in real life! As Antiochus continued his arrogant and blasphemous tyranny over their worship, they must have wondered, “Why does a loving God permit such a nightmare of persecution and suffering to come upon us?” Yet that’s exactly what happened. In Daniel’s vision of the little horn, the host of saints was given into its power. “It prospered in everything it did.” How long would God let a situation like this continue?
Daniel chapter 8 verses 13-14
Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, “How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled—the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, and the surrender of the sanctuary and of the host that will be trampled underfoot?”
He said to me, “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”
Although God’s people could not know the details, God had determined how long the period of persecution would last. Angels pointed this out to Daniel in his vision, in language which is mysterious and which presents a problem to Bible interpreters.
In the vision we hear angels speak. These loyal servants of God asked for more information on the terrible trial ahead for God’s people. “How long? How long will the suffering of God’s saints and the humiliation of God’s sanctuary last?”
The reply is directed to Daniel: “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”
The question “How are we to understand this period of time?” is one of the major problems facing the reader of the book of Daniel. Many have taken the expression literally, seeing in the 2,300 evenings and mornings a period of about 6 1/3 years. According to this interpretation, this time period represents the time from the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes to the time when the temple was cleansed and rededicated.
Other Bible scholars have called attention to the fact that numbers occurring in visions usually are not exact mathematical calculations but are symbolic. H. C. Leupold holds this view: “Since seven is the mark of a divine work, this period would have been characterized as a divine period of judgment. As it now stands, this number signifies not even a full period of divine judgment” (Exposition of Daniel, page 357).
According to this interpretation, the angel’s message about a 2,300-day period of suffering was to reassure the people of God. Although they would be persecuted, it would last only for a limited time. When God’s good time came, the sanctuary in Jerusalem would be cleansed from its defilement and be reconsecrated.
Daniel chapter 8 verses 15-18
While I, Daniel, was watching the vision and trying to understand it, there before me stood one who looked like a man. And I heard a man’s voice from the Ulai calling, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision.” As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet.
As was the case in chapter 7, the second half of this chapter is an interpretation of the first half. As Daniel watched the amazing sequence of events pictured in his vision, he struggled to grasp what God was trying to tell him. He understood that an enemy would overthrow the sanctuary and persecute the people of God. He learned also that this persecution, though severe, would be temporary. But Daniel wanted to know more of the meaning of the vision. And so God told him more.
God’s answer again came in a vision. Suddenly, Daniel saw an angel named Gabriel standing before him. Daniel heard a voice—apparently the voice of God—which seemed to come out of the river saying, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision.”
Daniel was a renowned statesman, the adviser of kings. Yet here he was terrified. He fell prostrate, not only as a mark of reverence before an angelic being but also because the experience he was undergoing was absolutely overwhelming.
The angel Gabriel addressed Daniel as “son of man,” an appropriate designation for a sinful human being, a frail creature of clay. “Son of man, . . . understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” Here was a fact Daniel needed to know in order to understand the vision, a fact he could not have found out by himself.
The heavenly messenger now proceeded to explain that the future time referred to was not only the near future but also the more distant future, the Messianic period, the time we know as the New Testament era. As the details unfold, it becomes clear that Daniel’s vision of a ram and a goat and a little horn deals first of all with some events that happened in the time of the Persian and Greek empires. But it is equally clear that Daniel’s vision symbolizes the difficult days that will come upon God’s people as the world draws to its end.
It is emphasized again that Gabriel’s message had a shattering effect on Daniel. He fell into “a deep sleep,” apparently fainting. Gabriel touched him and restored him to consciousness. He gave Daniel the strength to get up and to listen to further interpretation.
The End of Part 8.1