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"Many Beasts, One King"


Read: Daniel 7:1-14


This week we move into the second half of the book of Daniel.  We introduced this chapter a couple of weeks ago as a means to discuss some broad principles for interpreting Biblical texts like Daniel chapters 7-12.  These types of Biblical passages feature very graphic, sometimes hideous, otherworldly images and creatures that characterize what is known as apocalyptic literature. If you weren’t here for that message, I would encourage you to get a manuscript at the Information Desk or a CD from the rack.  I think that material will be helpful to you as we progress through the very challenging second half of this book.  As this morning we turn to examine the contents of chapter seven, you may remember that when we surveyed chapter two we said chapter seven essentially covers the same material, though adding quite a bit of extra detail. 

          You’ll recall that in chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a large image or statue with four distinct sections.  That four-part image corresponds to the four successive beasts emerging from the great sea in this seventh chapter.  The image in chapter two had a head of gold, a chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs were of bronze and its legs, a mixture of iron and clay.  That image was ultimately destroyed by a large stone that “had been cut out by no human hand.”  God through Daniel revealed that this image represented four successive kingdoms that would dominate the world to varying degrees.  The first kingdom was Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar.  That much is explicitly stated in the text of chapter two.  The identity of the remaining three kingdoms are not explicitly stated and are disputed.  Some hold that the silver portion of the image represents the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians, while the bronze portrays the Grecian empire born through the conquests of Alexander the Great, with the iron and clay legs and feet representing the Roman Empire.  That is the dominant understanding. 

However, many very fine Biblical scholars believe the empire of the Medes alone is represented by the second silver section of the image, while the Persian Empire is separate and is represented by the bronze.  Finally, the legs symbolize the Greeks under Alexander and a later ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes who, as allegedly symbolized by the fourth beast in Daniel chapter seven, zealously persecuted God’s people, the Jews.  In 168 BC, he first defiled and then destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.  Interpreters with both understandings of these chapters present very coherent arguments supporting their positions and this is not a simple issue.  As I said in chapter two, I think the Roman Empire is the fourth dominant world power shown and the Medes and Persians should be grouped together as one empire. That disagreement however illustrates our need for humility when we interpret this kind of literature.  If good, Bible-believing scholars disagree about apocalyptic images that primarily symbolize kingdoms that have already occurred, how much more should we be humble in our interpretation of apocalyptic texts which speak of future world events?  

Each of the beasts representing these kingdoms emerges one after another, from the great sea that “the four winds of heaven were stirring.” The Scriptures regularly use the sea to picture unrest and as a source of evil.  In Revelation 13, the beast with 10 horns and seven heads comes out of the sea.  In Revelation 21, John sees the new heaven and the new earth and he says in this new, perfect age, “…the sea was no more.  That tells us something.  Isaiah 57:20 says, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.”  For those who are familiar with this Biblical imagery, the fact that these beasts are seen coming up out of the sea is an alarming sign.  Beasts of the sea in the Bible are almost always destructive and these particular beasts in chapter seven certainly follow that pattern.

          Daniel says the first beast in verse four “was like a lion and had eagle’s wings.  Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.”  Chapter two has already told us this represents Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar in particular.  Jeremiah in prophecies like Jeremiah 4:7 depict Nebuchadnezzar as a “lion [going] up from his thicket”  The plucking of his wings probably refers to the humbling God gave to him when he reduced him to a bestial creature as we saw in chapter four.  His restoration also seems to be captured in the image of this beast who was “made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.”  Don’t miss the impressionistic nature of this depiction of what happened to Nebuchadnezzar.  Unless an inspired author implied that this image symbolized specific events within the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, you may very well not come to that conclusion on your own.  The definitive “answers” are often not found until AFTER a specific prophetic event has occurred.  Then, we can look back and say, “Oh, that’s what that means.”  Remember, the purpose of apocalyptic literature is often NOT to lay out a specific chronology of future events. 

          Because this chapter primarily depicts events occurring in the past, we are able to make some specific judgments about the meaning of these beasts.  However, even if we would choose NOT to look for the specific significance of these beasts, this chapter and the rest of Daniel can teach us a great deal because it provides us with, as someone has said, “A theology of history”[Lucas, 199].  One aspect of that is--the truths depicted here and in the rest of the book of Daniel give us an important lens through which God wants us to view the history of fallen human rule on earth.  Having that God-given lens on human authority throughout history is frankly far more important than the answer to such questions as, “what is the precise identity of the ‘little horn’  The New Testament gives us two anchor texts as to how we should view fallen human authorities within history.  One is in Romans chapter 13 where Paul reveals governments as being instituted by God for our good and “whoever resists the authorities resist what God has appointed.”[v.2]  American believers tend to use that lens almost exclusively.  There is however another lens on human authorities as seen in Revelation chapter 13.  There we see the two great beasts in authority representing cruel, godless, oppressive, corrupt, authoritarian rule on earth.  That image of human rule in history is more closely aligned with what we see here in Daniel seven. We must not forget that BOTH images express truth.

          Although God institutes governments for our good, all human authorities on earth carry with them degrees of this very beastly element of sin and corruption.  A very brief study of human history or a visit to the Vehicle Registration office will reveal that.  The Bible and these chapters in Daniel in particular consistently teach that this element is eventually harmful and often lethal to God’s people who are not of this world, but who live here only as aliens awaiting another King.  This “Son of man” when he comes will perfectly fulfill all the potential for human governance expressed in Romans 13 and will also utterly destroy all the  fallen, beastly elements of human rule pictured in Revelation 13.  We in American must remember those dual truths about the history of human rule because although we are FAR from perfect here in our governance, we are much closer to fulfilling Romans 13 than most nations.

Even a brief interaction with the government of any third world country will cause us to look at human governments more through the Scriptural lens of Revelation 13 and Daniel chapters seven through 12.  A balanced Biblical worldview of government implies that we should work diligently to live out Romans 13 as Paul commands, but we must understand that there is a fallen and bestial element to any human government that makes it foolish for us to place our trust in it.  In God we Trust,” not any fallen government.  These truths in Daniel are also sobering because they remind us that all empires, including this one in America, eventually deteriorate and are replaced by another one.

          After the lion in the vision comes the bear, which corresponds with the silver portion of the great statue in chapter two. I see this as representing the Medo-Persian Empire.  The bear is “raised up on one side”—that could mean many things.  Perhaps it points to the fact that the Persians were much more powerful than the Medes—no one can say for certain.  The bear has “three ribs in its mouth” that some believe corresponds to the three major conquests made by the Persian King Cyrus.  Again, even though these events occurred in the past, there is no way to absolutely confirm the meaning of many of these symbols.  The leopard, which in the Scriptures symbolizes quickness and stealth, probably represents the great conqueror Alexander the Great who moved at a lightning speed to conquer most of the known world of his day.  Also, this leopard has four heads and four wings.  That seems to express the truth that within a few years of Alexander’s death, the kingdom split into four parts.

The fourth and final beast dominates much of the rest of the chapter.  We see the correspondence with the statue’s iron legs in chapter two because this beast is pictured as having iron teeth.  Also, the ten horns match up with the ten toes on the feet of the image in chapter two. Three times in this chapter, this beast is referred to as “different” from the others.  That repetition is important.  This is a qualitatively different rule than the others. History tells us that the Roman Empire was the most stable, most unified and most enduring of any of these empires.  In verse eight Daniel observes in this vision, “…horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up but the roots.  And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.” 

In the Scripture, the horn represents power and authority and these symbols do not easily correspond to events in ancient history.  Calvin and others view the ruler designated by the “little horn” as being Julius Caesar.  That may be the case.  There is also a strong Christian tradition that this “little horn” represents a future fulfillment of the last great “antichrist” spoken of in the New Testament in places like Second Thessalonians 2:3 where Paul calls him “the man of lawlessness…the son of destruction.”  That may very well be true.  From the standpoint of good Biblical interpretation, it is not good practice to use Daniel seven as a primary source for our understanding of the antichrist for at least two good reasons.  First, the New Testament interprets the Old Testament and therefore we should root our understanding of the Old Testament—especially in the case of these highly symbolic apocalyptic texts, in New Testament passages. Second, the New Testament, in the case of the verse we just cited from Paul, speaks in very clear terms about this wicked ruler and we should allow clear texts to interpret impressionistic passages like this one from Daniel seven.  This is not to say that the teaching of the antichrist is unimportant, merely that it is not wise to derive most of our understanding of this person from Daniel seven.

The meaning of these horns is brought more into focus in verse 24.  There, the prophet says, “As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them;  he shall be different from the former ones, and shall put down three kings.  25He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law; and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.”  Speculation abounds as to how these symbols represented the political configuration of the Roman Empire, or any future empire that may very well be a valid future fulfillment of this prophetic vision.   

I take a very pragmatic approach to these kinds of questions.  I ask the question, what will do my soul the most good?—that’s a big part of why we read and study the Bible. One the one hand, I can speculate on the nature of the political structures that may indeed even now be forming to express the final, world-ending fulfillment of this prophecy—keeping in mind that every former age has speculated incorrectly on this question.  Or on other hand, I can meditate on the scripturally supportable, eternally significant Biblical principles these verses unquestionably teach.  In other words, I can try to look for the individual tree in this forest that will provide highly specific information about the future rise and fall of nations and dictators (which theologians have consistently MIS-identified in the past), or I can examine the more easily recognizable forest of more general truth and breathe in and be nourished by the well-attested, soul-feeding wisdom of God in Scripture. 

When I am willing to look for the “forest” in these verses, my soul is deeply strengthened.  The “forest” gives that theology of history I mentioned earlier.  That is--this world is often bleak and grim and cruel and aside from every other atrocity powerful empires and rulers eventually bring, one is virtually assured and that is—people who genuinely follow Christ will be persecuted and perhaps killed by them.  Verse 25 says, “He...shall wear out the saints…”  That graphically speaks of the persecution of God’s people.  Evil rulers and anyone being used by Satan seek to “wear down” God’s people like coarsely grained sand paper wears down soft pine.  They do that through persistent threats and violence and varying degrees of intimidation and/or manipulation.  That truth about the inevitability of the persecution of the saints corresponds to many other Scriptures.  In this world you will have tribulation...” [Acts 16:33]  “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  [Acts 14:22]  For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,[Philip 1:29]  and if [we are] children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  [Rom. 8:17] “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,”  [2 Tim. 3:12] As we live in the midst of this rapidly deteriorating spiritual amusement park called America, these verses remind me how utterly unbiblical it is for us to expect (much less feel entitled to) any significant measure of uninterrupted comfort and ease and prosperity in this or any other country.  That’s not the way this world works!  That’s what these verses remind me—that for the sincere believer this world is a steep uphill climb to Everest.  Thank God Daniel doesn’t leave us mid way up the precipice—he also shows us what is at the top of the mountain! 

When we come to verses 9-14, we again see a correlation to the image of chapter two.  There, the image of the four empires was destroyed by “a large stone that had been cut by no human hand.”  This stone, this Rock of Ages--unlike these other powers, will rule forever and ever.  The stone of chapter two and the process of his final conquest are richly expressed in verses 9-14.  We will look at that glory-laden passage in more detail next week.  The broad message of it for now is that God will judge any and all wicked kingdoms and bring their dominion to a violent end at the end of time.  He will then transfer that dominion to the Son of Man, Jesus who will reign with his saints over this earth.  That kingdom, unlike all those that preceded it, will never be corrupted and will know no end.  Though we will look more specifically at certain elements of this chapter next week, Lord willing, we must do that within a certain context.

Two weeks ago, I stated as the first rule for interpreting apocalyptic Biblical texts, “Because the Bible is purposed to reveal and magnify God and his redemptive plan for humanity, when we study the Bible, we must give priority to looking for God.”  The rest of our treatment of this chapter will be done within the context of looking for God and as we see how he (and more specifically his sovereignty within human history) is the dominant theme of this chapter.  When I look at this text, I see several truths that magnify God’s sovereignty in the midst of the often grim landscape of history.  Today, we will only have a chance to examine one of several of these truths in this chapter.  The first truth this chapter teaches about the reign of God in the midst of the often bleak and dismal record that passes for human history is—God’s rule, though sometimes hard to see is nonetheless always in full force. 

This chapter is by no means unique in articulating that truth in Daniel.  Chapter 4:25 says, “…the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will…  Ten verses later it says of God, “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?"  No one stops God from accomplishing his purposes—nothing can frustrate him and no one will ever be able with validity to second guess him.  Chapter 5:21 says, “…the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will...” Daniel powerfully conveys God’s absolute sovereignty over people and rulers and kingdoms and we see that in a special way in this chapter.  Let’s look at three ways his sovereign rule is expressed in the midst of these successive wicked kingdoms.  First, notice what verse two says in the opening statement of this vision given to Daniel.  Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea.”  Notice that this sea, from which every single aspect of these wicked rulers and kingdoms emerge, is peaceful and passive until that moment when they are stirred by the four winds of heaven.  Let me ask you—who stirred the wind?  Did it just begin to blow by chance?  Not a chance!  They are the four winds of heaven and God stirs them up for his purposes.  In Ezekiel 37 in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision of the dry bones, the prophecy says, “Thus says the Lord GOD:  Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”  God summons the life giving breath from the four winds.  The four winds are part of God’s realm and he is clearly initiating all the activity that is to come. 

This does not make God the author of all this sin, nor does it relieve these wicked rulers of their responsibility.  It simply means as Calvin says of God’s activity within this chapter, “he governs by his secret counsel the events which men carry on without method.”  God governs—that is—he controls these events.  None of them would have occurred as they did without God’s direct superintending sovereignty.  HE stirs the waters and out come these hideous beasts.  Second, notice that all four of these beasts are at some point pictured as being passively acted on by God.  The lion representing Nebuchadnezzar had wings that according to verse four ‘were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet, and the mind of a man was given to it.”  In one sentence, Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed in the passive voice four times.  The bear (verse five) “was told, “Arise, devour much flesh.”  The apocalyptic imagery indicates that the bear ultimately does what it does in achieving world dominance because it had been acted on by God. 

The third kingdom represented by the leopard according to verse six had its dominion “given to it.”  Again, the ultimate cause of the dominion of the Greeks was that God caused it to occur.  In chapter two we read in verse 21 of God, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings;”  In the case of the fourth beast, one way Daniel emphasizes the different nature of the fourth beast is that he is almost always written of in the active voice. That does not mean that God is not ultimately controlling this empire—we’ve already seen that from the text we just cited and his origin in the sea stirred up by God.  In the case of the fourth beast, we see his passive yielding to the will of God most violently.  He is the only one of the four about which we read, “the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.”[v.11] God shows himself as acting upon this fourth empire or tyrant in the most merciless manner.  First, he executes him (there is no record of any fight—just an execution) and second, he humiliates him by destroying his remains.

Notice one more indication of the absolute nature of God’s sovereign reign in the midst of human wickedness.  We see this in a passage which has direct bearing on this one.  In Hosea 13:7, a passage written at least a century earlier than the book of Daniel, notice the very familiar imagery as God applies it to himself as the Judge of Israel. “So I am to them like a lion; like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. 8 I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open.”  Surely it is no mere coincidence that God applies to himself the same images as Daniel’s vision applies to first three empires and one as an unnamed “wild beast” just as Daniel’s fourth beast is unnamed.  Given the uncommon parallels, we dare not read those texts as if they were vacuum sealed off from one another.

The combined impact of these two is clear.  God is ultimately THE active agent in history—even in the midst of the carnage and suffering and chaos that mark the rule of wicked.  God was there when Saddam Hussein attempted genocide among the Kurds and at least 180,000 of them were killed.  He was there in the midst of Stalin’s extermination of an estimated 20 million of his own people or Mao’s 25 million or Hitler’s systematic extermination of six million Jews.  In the midst of all that evil—God was not hiding.  He wasn’t up in heaven wringing his hands, trying to figure out an exit strategy.   In the midst of the evil and darkness and gut-wrenching violence on people made in his image, he was not absent. 

We will not completely understand how all that works in life, but texts like Daniel seven prevent us from seeing it any other way.  Our response to that should not be to recoil at the notion of God being in control of all of that evil, or to reduce it to only a theological dilemma that in this life has no complete answers.  Our response should be first, to not forget the second half of story.  God will right all wrongs; judge all the monsters and give to his own persecuted, worn down saints the kingdom to reign with his Son.  Second, we should find enormous comfort in the fact that if God was not hiding, but was instead in the driver’s seat in those awful contexts, neither is he missing in the midst of our own personal tragedies.  He is at the helm!  He has not abandoned his post.  Just the opposite—he is piloting my ship sometimes right into the middle of the storm for the sake of his Name and my ultimate joy. He is working his plan in the midst and even because of the evil forces of this world that are intent on wounding and killing us.  We can say with Paul that “…for those who love God all things (even evil, ruthless, murderous tyrants and world regimes) work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  We will see more of the evidences of God’s sovereignty in this chapter next week, Lord willing.  May God give us the grace to trust Christ, our Rock in the midst of the storms.


Page last modified on 12/17/2006

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