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"Temporary Tyrants, Everlasting God"


          This week, we return to the eleventh chapter of Daniel where today we hope to finish our treatment of this chapter which contains the longest prophecy in the book of Daniel.  These 45 verses foretell a specific and detailed chain of historical events from the time of Daniel to about 350 years into the future.  As we have seen, during that time period, two kingdoms alternatively vied for control of the Ancient Near East.  The southern kingdom of Egypt and the northern kingdom of Syria were the dominant powers in this region.  The events recorded in this chapter as foretold to Daniel would have been of particular interest to him and his fellow Jews.  The events in the second half of chapter 11, which we began last time, were of profound importance to the Jews because they predicted the coming of a godless ruler from the northern kingdom whose hatred of God would be manifest in two ways.  That is—first, his desecration of the most holy places in Jerusalem and second, his brutal persecution of the people of God.  This man from the northern kingdom was Antiochus IV, who is also foretold in chapter eight as the “little horn” who would rise up against God and his people, the Jews.

          We can now look back on these detailed prophecies predicting a lengthy series of historical events and see that they were perfectly accurate, predicting in sometimes extravagant detail, the political and military developments in Syria and Egypt that had such a significant impact on God’s people.  The reign and specific activities of Antiochus IV in this second half of the chapter were doubtless very sobering to Daniel.  At the same time however, these prophecies also powerfully affirm that in the midst of all the evil that will befall God’s people, the Lord of the universe will be in complete control.  These future events will come as no surprise to God.  Instead, under his Providential rule, they will serve his ultimate and good purposes for his people.

          Let’s pick up where we left off last time with verse 36 of chapter eleven.  Daniel records, “36"And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods. He shall prosper till the indignation is accomplished; for what is decreed shall be done.  37He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.  38He shall honor the god of fortresses instead of these. A god whom his fathers did not know he shall honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and costly gifts.  39He shall deal with the strongest fortresses with the help of a foreign god. Those who acknowledge him he shall load with honor. He shall make them rulers over many and shall divide the land for a price. 40"At the time of the end, the king of the south shall attack him, but the king of the north shall rush upon him like a whirlwind, with chariots and horsemen, and with many ships. And he shall come into countries and shall overflow and pass through.  41He shall come into the glorious land. And tens of thousands shall fall, but these shall be delivered out of his hand: Edom and Moab and the main part of the Ammonites.  42He shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape.  43He shall become ruler of the treasures of gold and of silver, and all the precious things of Egypt, and the Libyans and the Cushites shall follow in his train.  44But news from the east and the north shall alarm him, and he shall go out with great fury to destroy and devote many to destruction.  45And he shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the glorious holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with none to help him.”

          Daniel is a book full of texts that are difficult to understand and in my opinion; no other verses in Daniel are more difficult than the ones we just read.  Although the prophecy in these verses in many ways sounds very similar to ones that precede it in this chapter, there is one enormous difference.  That is this. As we have seen, the prophetic events recorded in the first 35 verses of the chapter, when they were fulfilled, have precisely corresponded with events recorded by historians.  That’s the case for verses two through 35, but beginning at verse 36, that glorious correlation between prophecy and history abruptly ends.

          From verse 36 to the end of the chapter there are many points where the prophecy and recorded history simply do not line up.  As you can imagine, numerous theories have been offered to explain this sudden and dramatic disconnect between the earlier prophecies and these verses we are examining today.  We can safely eliminate any notion that holds that God, who has been perfectly accurate up to this point in his predictions, mysteriously begins to falter beginning at verse 36.  It’s not as if the angel communicating these future events to Daniel at this point suddenly loses the “satellite signal” from God and starts improvising here.  It’s inconceivable to think that God, who has proven himself so miraculously in this prophecy up to this point, would in some way mysteriously lose his way beginning with verse 36.  That contradicts the truth found in Isaiah 46:10 where God says, “…I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,'”  Because of who God is, knowing the end from the beginning, its impossible for him to make mistakes in this or any other area.

          So what is the explanation?  We’ll address that question in a moment but first we should pause a minute here and reflect on what our response should be when we run into a very difficult text like this one.  Whenever we come to a portion of Scripture that is very difficult to understand like this one, we should do at least three things.  First, we should be grateful that there are very few Biblical texts are this difficult.  The vast majority of the Bible and all of the central teachings of the Scripture are very clear and accessible to us.  Second, we can rejoice that even in these very difficult Biblical texts, there is still a rich vein of truth to be mined as we back up from the specific meaning and look for the broader Biblical truths these difficult indisputably teach.  What I mean by that is this--if we can’t correctly identify all the individual trees in these difficult verses, we can still clearly see the forest and the big picture of the text can give us many blessings as we meditate about the larger lessons these difficult verses teach.  Finally, we should be very humble in our approach to them.  Anyone who is dogmatic about these kinds of very difficult Biblical texts is either arrogant or simply uninformed as to their difficulty. 

          In that spirit of humility, here is my best understanding of what is going on here in this final section of Daniel 11.  In verses 36-39, I think the prophecy is giving a summary of the career of Antiochus, with special emphasis placed on the most important spiritual truths about him as a person.  In other words, in verses 2-35, Daniel prophesies this complicated series of historical events involving the northern and southern kingdoms.  In verses 36-39, the Holy Spirit extracts from those events some crucial underlying truths—he underlines them for us in verses 36-39.  He provides a summary statement of what is that will motivate this monster, Antiochus.  That is to me the best explanation I have seen explaining the abrupt break in historical correlation that begins in verse 36.  That explanation is far from invulnerable, but today it is my best understanding of what is going on here. That certainly would explain why there is little or no correlation between this section of prophetic Scripture and the future events we know occurred in history.  That is simply not the Holy Spirit’s purpose.  He is using the form of predictive prophecy to underscore the most important truths about Antiochus from the preceding prophecy. 

          In verses 40-45 there is a different explanation for this lack of prophetic and historic correlation.  There seems to be a chronological break in the prophecy that separates the events previously prophesied from the events that will come after verse 40.  We see that break at the beginning of verse 40 where Daniel says, “At the time of the end…”  That phrase seems to indicate the events prophesied in the next few verses are separated in time from what has been predicted in the preceding verses. Verses 40 and following seem to be predicting events “at the time of the end.”  One difficulty with that understanding is that in the context he continues to talk about the king of the south and the king of the north.  That would seem to connect it with what has preceded it, but I think there is an explanation for why on the one hand, the prophecy seems to be about a far future time, but is written in a way that has continuity with what we have seen before. 

I think God wants us to make a strong connection between those godless antichrist figures of the past and the final antichrist figure who will appear at the end of this age.  We saw this in first John 2:18 we looked at last time.  Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming so now many antichrists have come.  Therefore we know that it is the last hour.”  John wants us to see the continuity between the antichrists of his day and the final end-time antichrist.  Likewise, God wants us to see continuity between the events in past redemptive history and the future events of redemptive history.  We must not miss the line connecting Antiochus to Nero to the church-persecuting tyrants in church history to the tyrants alive today.  They are all cut from the same cloth and point in the same direction.  That is--this world is fallen and fiercely opposes God and his purposes.  Sin has a powerful grip on this world but in the midst of the tumult God is still God—he is still sovereign and will ultimately work out his purposes in the midst of evil, whether it is expressed through Antiochus or the final antichrist. 

          Let’s briefly examine the major theme of verses 36-39.  You’ll notice that, unlike what has preceded it, these verses don’t deal as much with military victories or political intrigue.  The main focus of these verses is on the spiritual realities that will motivate him.  Notice that focus here.  In verse 36 we read, “36"And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods...37He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers, or to the one beloved by women. He shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all.  38He shall honor the god of fortresses instead of these. A god whom his fathers did not know he shall honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and costly gifts.  39He shall deal with the strongest fortresses with the help of a foreign god.”  That presents a picture of this then-future tyrant that shows us that he will not only be a pagan, worshipping the false gods of the nations, but his religion will be something he will use as a cloak for his personal ambition.  These verses tell us that he will throw off the gods of his fathers and had instead choose other gods who better served his political agenda.  For instance, the “one beloved by women” in verse 37 was probably either Adonis or Dionysus, both of which were revered in Egypt, the southern kingdom.  Worshipping them over the gods of his fathers would have brought Antiochus favor in the southern kingdom, which he needed after his military victories over them had alienated him from them. 

          A major theme of these verses appears to be —godless tyrants use religion as a means to further their personal agendas.  This is a pattern we not only see in the case of Antiochus, but we repeatedly see this in the pages of history.  That is—godless rulers who for the sake of their personal ambitions claim allegiance to certain gods.  The gods that Antiochus “adopts” as his own seemed to have served his political purposes.  This is true of so many tyrants past and present.  For instance, very few of the Roman emperors were devoted to the gods of Greek mythology.  When it served their political agenda, they would use the gods and their people’s devotion to them to serve their own personal agendas.  Saddam Hussein is an excellent example of a tyrant who used his religion as a cover for his political ambitions.  Saddam invoked Allah and Mohammed when it served his personal agenda.

We see this today even in the church as leaders use their authority for their own personal gain.  They deceive people into thinking they are something they are not.  Jesus says in Matthew 24:24, “24For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”  These are false teachers who come from within the church.  The New Testament teaches that false teachers are not simply deceived and therefore teach wrong doctrines, it says they are greedy liars who put on religious garb to line their pockets. Paul says of the false teachers in First Timothy six, that they imagine that “godliness is a means of gain.”   Finally, from what we read in Scripture about the antichrist being a great deceiver, that seems to imply that the final antichrist figure will pass himself off as a very devout man, but in the end he is a deceiver who is out for himself.

          As I said earlier, I think verses 40-45 probably refer to the end of the age because there is little if any connection between the events prophesied and the record of history and because the section begins with “at the time of the end.”  It is very difficult and in my opinion not profitable to try to speculate about what specific future events are being prophesied here.  We simply have no sure way to know what he is referring to on several fronts and the record of people in the past who have offered their understanding of how these prophecies will be fulfilled hardly inspires confidence.  Is it the papacy as some contend, or is it simply a symbol for all who rise up against God or is it Gog from Ezekiel 38?  Some of the difficulties involve factors like that seen in verse 41.  There Daniel refers to the peoples of Edom, Moab and the Ammonites.  These designations for people are no longer in use.  We know that all of these people bordered Israel east of the Jordan River, but if they are to be taken literally, we have no good way of knowing who they might be.  Any attempt to identify them today would involve a good deal of speculation and that is even more sure with respect to the identity of these people in the future.  Likewise, assuming this section is about the end times, the identity of the king of the north and the king of the south have been endlessly speculated on in the past and all the prognosticators have been wrong up to this point. It seems a waste of time to me to try to fix a specific identity to these people.

          As I said in a message on apocalyptic prophecy in chapter seven, the main reason God places predictive prophecy in the Bible is not fundamentally because he wants to give us a detailed road map of the future.  The Jews of Daniel’s time had no idea who Antiochus was and could never, apart from divine inspiration have known his identity from this prophecy.  The blessings of these predictive prophecies are mainly realized after the events they prophesied have been fulfilled.  It’s as God’s people read them and see in retrospect their uncanny correlation with historical events that they can glory in God’s sovereign control over history.  The same will be true in the future as the end-time prophecies are fulfilled.  We will see in retrospect the glory of God’s sovereign control as the specific details of his fulfilled prophecies are clearly manifest.

          One terribly important truth that we can take to the bank today from verses 40-45 is seen in the last phrase of this section.  As Daniel predicts this future tyrant he says, “Yet he shall come to his end, with none to help him.” The moment God’s purposes for any tyrant have been fulfilled—be he Antiochus or Osama bin Laden, he will be unceremoniously removed from the stage of history and his seeming invincibility will be revealed for the sham it was.  Like Saddam, like Hitler, who ended up in some obscure bunker with a self-inflicted hole in his head, this final antichrist will be exposed for what he always was.  That is, a finite man over whose life and activities the Lord of the universe is completely sovereign.  In reality, these tyrants of history, like Satan himself are little more than God’s lackeys who he uses to accomplish his purposes.

If you have been following this series on Daniel with any energy, you have probably noticed that one of the major themes of the book that repeatedly surfaces in both his stories and his prophecies is the truth that terribly wicked and godless rulers have arisen and will continue to arise but all their activity is limited and permitted by an absolutely sovereign God.  An American believer who digs deep into the book of Daniel may very well react to the repetition of this theme by thinking something like, “OK Daniel, we got this truth—you don’t need to keep repeating it.”  We may be tempted to skip over yet one more section stressing God’s sovereign control over evil tyrants.  Let me suggest that if we feel that impulse, it says far more about us and the context in which we live than it does about God’s word in Daniel and his repetition of this theme.

When God repeats a truth in the Bible, it’s because it is important for his people to know—he does not want them to forget it.  Currently, we as North America believers may not feel this great burden to remember and meditate on this truth about tyrants being under God’s sovereignty.  But church history up to the present shows that this truth of a God who reigns in the midst of tyrannical rule has been unspeakably precious to God’s saints.  In our context, we have by God’s grace lived in a very stable, comparatively non-violent culture that does not as a rule openly persecute believers.   Names like Antiochus, Emperor Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Omar Bashir of the Sudan, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and a host of others are for most of us, only names on a page.  To those believers who were and are presently under their oppressive rule, they seem to have god-like power over them.  Seemingly unstoppable, they kill whoever they choose, effortlessly mowing down anyone in their way.  The church under these tyrants has faithfully cried out to God and looked for him to provide rescue, perhaps through other countries, but thousands and in some contexts millions were butchered with no one to give them aid or comfort.

 To THOSE people who have throughout church history lived under godless and oppressive dictators, these assurances of God’s sovereign control in the midst of seemingly unstoppable and godless leaders—to those people, these truths in Daniel are a lifeline.  Church history tells us that the martyrs of the church have found the book of Daniel to be a deep well of God’s mercy to them.  The vast majority of us simply have no conception of what it is like to live in a country as a follower of Christ where the ruling political and military elite, wielding enormous, unchecked power hates you and seeks to kill you and all other believers.  Imagine what it has been like for the believers in places like Darfur or a thousand other places who have feared for their lives and the lives of their children and families. 

Put yourself in their shoes for just a moment.  You have heard reports of entire neighboring villages being wiped out, including many of your relatives and friends.  Pastors and church leaders have been brazenly executed in public.  Women and children have horribly maimed and abused before being snuffed out.  You pray and pray for deliverance—for God to make a way to escape the carnage.  In those contexts—and they are tragically unceasing in our world, what do you tell these believers?  Do you parrot the lies of open theism?  “God is completely detached from these things.  He didn’t even know they were going to occur and although God can use this, he has no overarching purpose for it.”  Or do you point them to the God of Daniel and reassure them of the truth that he repeatedly and powerfully proclaims. That is—that in the midst of this seeming utter insanity and chaos, a sovereign God, though in no way responsible for these grisly acts, yet remains in control and through them is working out his purpose.  That is the truth that Daniel, through prophecy and stories tell.  Jesus says it this way in Luke 21, “16You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.  17You will be hated by all for my name's sake.  18But not a hair of your head will perish.” By your endurance you will gain your lives.”

God knows all about these things and is in complete control working out his sovereign purpose that you will one day not only understand, but marvel at.  You may even die, but not a hair of your head will perish.  There is real comfort there and these truths are not just for those who are under the hand of an oppressive despot, they are for us who may be facing merciless enemies of another form like cancer or heart disease or other dreaded afflictions that seem to completely dictating the course of our lives.  In response to them can cry out with Paul, “33Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  34"For who has known the mind of the Lord,  or who has been his counselor?"  35"Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?"   36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”  That is a perfect response to the truths we see in Daniel about God’s sovereignty in the midst of political and social upheaval and persecution. May God give us the grace to trust in him in the midst of all of the tyrants of life in a fallen world.


Page last modified on 1/27/2008

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