Daniel – Life & Times
Before addressing some of the prophecies and major events of Daniel’s book – in some ways the most densely packed book in the entire OT – in future articles, it would be useful to overview the contents of the book itself.
Introduction in Babylon (chapter 1)
In the third year of King Jehoiakim, Jerusalem falls to Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon. Young Israelites of noble and royal family are taken to Babylon. Among them are Daniel and his three companions, who refuse to touch the royal food and wine. Their overseer fears for his life in case the health of his charges deteriorates, but Daniel suggests a trial and the four emerge healthier than their counterparts from ten days of nothing but vegetables and water. They are allowed to continue to refrain from eating the king’s food, and to Daniel God gives insight into visions and dreams. When their training is done Nebuchadnezzar finds them ‘ten times better’ than all the wise men in his service and therefore keeps them at his court, where Daniel continues until the first year of King Cyrus.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of four kingdoms (chapter 2)
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and realises that the dream has an important message, so he consults his wise men. He demands that his wise men tell him what the content of the dream was, and then interpret it. When the wise men protest that this is beyond the power of any man, he sentences all, including Daniel and his friends, to death. Daniel receives an explanatory vision from God: Nebuchadnezzar had seen an enormous statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of mixed iron and clay, then saw the statue destroyed by a rock that turned into a mountain filling the whole earth. Daniel explains the dream – the statue symbolises four successive kingdoms, starting with that of Nebuchadnezzar, all of which would be crushed by God’s kingdom, which would endure forever. Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges the supremacy of Daniel’s god, raises Daniel over all his wise men, and places Daniel and his companions over the province of Babylon.
The fiery furnace (chapter 3)
Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and are thrown into a fiery furnace. Nebuchadnezzar is astonished to see a fourth figure in the furnace with the three, one “with the appearance like a son of the gods.” So, the king called the three to come out of the fire, and blessed the God of Israel, and decreed that any who blasphemed against him should be torn limb from limb.
This narrative is a clear test-of-faith and contest-of-faith account common in the Bible, similar to the later story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Elijah’s contest against Ahab’s pagan priests, intended to exhort Jews not to succumb to paganism when undergoing persecution. The fourth figure may be and angel or, more probably due to the context, Christ.
Nebuchadnezzar’s madness (chapter 4)
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a huge tree that is suddenly cut down at the command of a heavenly messenger. Daniel is summoned and interprets the dream. The tree is Nebuchadnezzar himself, who for seven years will lose his mind and live like a wild beast. All of this comes to pass until, at the end of the specified time, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that “heaven rules” and his kingdom and sanity are restored.
Interestingly, we know that Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor Nabonidus also took a long religious sabbatical for ten years in a city in the Arabian desert, entrusting his kingdom to his Crown Prince, Belshazzar, so one wonders if this was dynastic practice and that Nebuchadnezzar had not gone mad, but merely retired for seven years from ruling his kingdom.
Belshazzar’s feast (chapter 5)
Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, and his nobles blasphemously drink from sacred Jewish temple vessels until a hand mysteriously appears and writes upon the wall.. The horrified king summons Daniel, who upbraids him for his lack of humility before God and interprets the message: Belshazzar’s kingdom will be given to the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar rewards Daniel and raises him to be third in the kingdom, and that very night Belshazzar is slain and Darius the Mede takes the kingdom.
The identity of Darius the Mede is unknown, either it is a mistake and refers to Cyrus the Great, or to an obscure general of Cyrus who was not a king but rather a governor. My suspicion is that Darius the Mede is a later scribal misidentification of Cyrus with a later Persian king Darius, and we know that Persians and Medes were regarded by foreigners as interchangeable names for the same people (they spoke the same language and shared most customs).
Daniel in the lions’ den (chapter 6)
Darius elevates Daniel to high office, exciting the jealousy of other officials. Knowing of Daniel’s devotion to his God, his enemies trick the king into issuing an edict forbidding worship of any other god or man for a 30-day period. Daniel continues to pray three times a day to God towards Jerusalem; he is accused by his rivals, and King Darius, forced by his own decree, throws Daniel into the lions’ den. But God prevents the lions eating Daniel, and the next morning Darius rejoices to find him unharmed. The king casts Daniel’s accusers into the lions’ pit together with their wives and children to be instantly devoured, while he himself acknowledges Daniel’s God.
The parallels with other stories in the Old Testament are clear, eg Elijah’s contest with the pagan priests of Ahab, but here it is not Daniel who demands the death of his enemies, as did Elijah, but the king. Daniel is presented throughout the book as enduring, faithful, even merciful, never vengeful, and therefore much more in tune with God’s real message.
Vision of the beasts from the sea (chapter 7)
In the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson Belshazzar Daniel has a dream of four beasts arising from the sea. The fourth, a beast with ten horns, devours the whole earth, treading it down and crushing it, and a further small horn appears and uproots three of the earlier horns. The Ancient of Days judges and destroys the beast, and “one like a son of man” is given everlasting kingship over the entire world. A divine being explains that the four beasts represent four kings or kingdoms, but that “the holy ones of the Most High” would receive the everlasting kingdom. The fourth beast would be a fourth kingdom with ten kings, and another king who would pull down three kings and make war on the “holy ones” for “a time, two times and a half,” after which the heavenly judgement will be made against him and the “holy ones” will receive the everlasting kingdom.
Vision of the ram and goat (chapter 8)
In the third year of Belshazzar Daniel has vision of a ram and goat. The ram has two mighty horns, one longer than the other, and it charges west, north and south, overpowering all other beasts. A goat with a single horn appears from the west and destroys the ram. The goat becomes very powerful until the horn breaks off and is replaced by four lesser horns. A small horn that grows very large, it stops the daily temple sacrifices and desecrates the sanctuary for two thousand three hundred “evening and mornings” (which could be either 1150 or 2300 days) until the temple is cleansed. The angel Gabriel informs him that the ram represents the Medes and Persians, the goat is Greece, and the “little horn” is a wicked king.
Vision of the Seventy Weeks (chapter 9)
In the first year of Darius the Mede, Daniel meditates on the word of Jeremiah that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years; he pleads for God to restore Israel and the Temple. The angel Gabriel explains that the seventy years stand for seventy “weeks” of years (490 years), during which the Temple will first be restored, then later defiled by a “prince who is to come,” “until the decreed end is poured out. There are also references to a ‘Holy Anointed One’ who is to come in the future which are widely regarded to be references to the life of Christ, and certainly have much similarity with the ‘Man of Sorrows’ of Isaiah.
In terms of the political situation, this one of the Hebrew chapters that most matches the events of the 160s BC, but the timing does not work. In reality, no one has convincingly explained the meaning of the prophecy although perhaps the most popular one is that it refers to the period between the Persian imperial warrant given to the minor prophet Nehemiah to rebuild the Temple and the crucifixion of Christ. Frankly, it’s impossible to understand.
Vision of the kings of north and south (chapters 10–12)
Daniel sees in his vision an angel (who explains that he is in the midst of a war with the “prince of Persia”, assisted only by Michael, “your prince.” The “prince of Greece” will shortly come, but first he will reveal what will happen to Daniel’s people.
Daniel 11: A future king of Persia will make war on the king of Greece, a “mighty king” will arise and wield power until his empire is broken up and given to others, and finally the king of the south (identified in verse 8 as Egypt) will go to war with the “king of the north.” After many battles (described in great detail) a “contemptible person” will become king of the north; this king will invade the south two times, the first time with success, but on his second he will be stopped by “ships of Kittim.” He will turn back to his own country, and on the way his soldiers will desecrate the Temple, abolish the daily sacrifice, and set up the abomination of desolation. He will defeat and subjugate Libya and Egypt, but “reports from the east and north will alarm him,” and he will meet his end “between the sea and the holy mountain.”
Daniel 12: At this time Michael will come. It will be a time of great distress, but all those whose names are written will be delivered. This chapter is the most explicitly end time chapter in the book which is why Daniel is so often regarded as the OT partner book of Revelations.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Daniel is the hardest book in the OT, and the most controversial. In some ways it is also the densest with stories of faith overcoming all, persecution, visions and prophesies interspersed with real historical events and quite striking portraits of some of the key figures of the. Indeed, parts of it are redolent of much of Herodotus’ Histories.
There seems to be a real historical core to it dating back to the Jews in exile in Babylon in the mid 6th century which gives credence to the identification of the hero with an otherwise unknown Jew. The arguments for its composition in the mid 160s BC seem to me to be taken too far – there is clearly much later material present but those arguing for it all to be later are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If one does not study ancient texts with a degree of sympathy, one will never really understand them or what can be gleaned from them
Nebuchadnezzar is an interesting figure, and so is the otherwise unknown ‘Darius the Mede’. Both are portrayed as great pagan princes whose egos succumb to flattery and hubris, but who do heed the warnings of Jehovah. In a way, they are similar to the Assyrians of Jonah. Even the blasphemous Belshazzar is portrayed as heeding the warning, although in his case it was already too late. It’s a surprisingly nuanced view of people the Jews might have regarded as oppressors and enslavers beyond all redemption, but that is not the case. As is so often the case, such pagan rulers are seen by Jewish writers as acting as Jehovah’s instruments of righteous punishment against their own people who have broken their Covenant with God.
The messages for the Jewish exiles in Babylon of the earlier passages, and indeed for the Jews resisting the Antiochene persecution of the 160s BC are strikingly different. Both emphasise the importance of cleaving to Jehovah to get them through dark days, but the earlier passages emphasise Daniel’s non-resistance, almost Christ like, how his forbearance, wisdom and faith win the goodwill of pagan rulers, whereas the later passages emphasise apocalyptic struggles and wars, something in tune with the holy war of liberation the Jews of the 160s BC were engaged in. In many ways, I am surprised how many secular scholars arguing for composition in the 160s BC have missed this contradiction in tone which strongly suggests two very different authors in very different times and places.
The prophecies are incredibly vivid and obscure, despite their explanations by ‘Daniel’ and are unusual in that they look far to the future and deep into the past, and offer a metaphysical explanation for Near Eastern history and visions of what is to come. Their scale of vision is breathtaking, as is their imagery. Subsequent articles will address some of the most significant.
So Daniel… well if it wasn’t for a promise I made to Goodnight Vienna, I think I might have backed off…
© 1642again 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file
Ed. I’m very sad to hear of the loss of another great contributor to GP. Sign of the Southern Cross’s brother Æthelbert (Nick) died suddenly and unexpectedly last night at the age of 38. We will miss both his company and his writing.
My sincere condolences to all his family.