Daniel & the Dream of the Four Beasts
Along with Daniel’s interpretation of dream for King Nebuchadnezzar, of the great statue with a golden head, chest and arms of silver, abdomen and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay, Daniel’s own dream of the four beasts emerging from the sea is perhaps the best known prophecy associated with Daniel and certainly suffers nothing in its vividity of characterisation (Daniel chapter 7). In many ways it is even more hotly debated as to its meaning than that of the statue of Nebuchadnezar, not least because it explicitly indicates that these beasts will shall be four Dominions or Nations that shall dominate history until the End Times. It’s one among a number of reasons why Christian theologians and frequently associated it with the prophecies of the Revelation of St John in the New Testament, not least because the last beast of Daniel is seen to refer to the same power as the beast portrayed in Revelation as dominating the earth in the run up to the Second Coming.
Summary of the Chapter
Daniel has a dream in the first year of the reign of Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor. Daniel is still in honoured captivity in the royal court of Babylon. He sees a storm cause four great beasts to rise from the sea:
- The first was a lion with eagle’s wings, but its wings were broken off and it was made to stand on two legs and had the mind of a man, i.e. intelligent, not just a brute beast.
- The second was a bear, ‘raised up on one side’ i.e. hunched, with three ribs held between its teeth, and it was told to devour much flesh.
- The third was a leopard with four wings of a bird and four heads, and ‘much dominion was given unto it’.
- The fourth was different, not modelled on an animal, but greater, more terrible, a monster we might say, with iron teeth, bronze claws and ten horns, with an eleventh horn arising on its head with tore out three of the others. And this tenth horn had the eyes of a man and spoke ‘great things’.
Daniel sees the fourth beast, the most terrible of them, destroyed by God, its body burnt, but the other three beasts survive but lose their power. Daniel then sees a white figure like the ‘Son of Man’, i.e. Christ be given absolute power over the Earth. Christ consciously called himself ‘the Son of Man’, thereby revealing his true identity to his Disciples.
Daniel asks one of the divine court what it all means and is told that the four beast are four kings or nations that shall dominate the Earth but lose their power to ‘the saints’, i.e. followers of Jehovah. The fourth beast with the seeing and speaking horn is the greatest and the one which persecutes ‘the Saints’, prevailing over them under God intervenes. He is told furthermore that the fourth beast’s ten horns are ten kings or kingdoms emerging from the beast that shall dominate the entire world. The eleventh horn rises later and destroys three of the kingdoms, and then turns on Jehovah’s faithful, waging war on them and seeks to ‘change the times and the law’. After a period this horn is destroyed by God who institutes divine rule on Earth.
The Dream’s Context
The dream story is extraordinary and highly controversial although mainstream Jewish and Christian, especially Protestant, interpretations are generally consistent, but there are dissenting views. It appears in one of the probably original Aramac chapters, not the probably later Hebrew additions, and fits alongside the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and deals with some of the same prophetic themes.
It must be remembered that these events and passages of Daniel date to the time of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish elite, one of whom was Daniel, and as with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, starts with the events of Daniel’s own time and then rolls out into the far future.
Furthermore, the dream is rich in little details of description which clearly serve a purpose to the prophetic narrative, but which have been frequently and selectively overlooked by various theories of explanation, and which undermine such interpretations.
Explanation of the Dream
In second part of this article, I sought to explain the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and identify the empires of the dream as being the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Graeco-Macedonian, Roman and what we might call ‘The Inheritors of Rome’ or post Roman sovereignties. Frankly, the main alternative explanation doesn’t fit the historical facts or even the text of Daniel and is a secular attempt to undermine the cogency of the traditional explanation.
Secondly, and this is largely overlooked by others, whereas Nebuchadnezzar’s dream has the empires rising and falling in sequential order, this dream of Daniel does not, but has them as concurrent, albeit there is a long passage of time implied with some events following others. This is of critical importance because the two dreams are not necessarily covering identical ground, albeit they do seem to overlap. Many people have missed this because it’s too obvious.
The dominant traditional interpretation about Jews and Christians has been that:
- the winged lion represents the Babylonian empire of Daniel’s time (winged lion reliefs were common imagery in Babylonian-Chaldean-Assyrian culture of the time),
- the bear is the Medo-Persian empire with the three ribs (which represent the major ancient kingdoms conquered by the Persians – Babylonia, Lydia and Egypt),
- the leopard with wings of a bird and four heads to which was given ‘dominion’ – the Graeco-Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great which was the greatest yet and which spilt into four kingdoms after his death (albeit only for 30 years),
- the ten horned beast with the iron teeth, bronze claws and eleventh seeing and speaking horn, which was more destructive and powerful than the others and which waged war on the followers of Jehovah – the Roman empire (the iron claws reflecting the iron legs of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the bronze claws the incorporation of the Greek world and the horns the post Roman successor kingdoms which laid claim to the inheritance of Rome.
The controversy over the eleventh horn which replaces the three horns, persecutes the ‘Saints’, speaks great words and seeks to remake the ‘times and laws’ has been seen by Protestants as referring to the Papacy arising out of Roman authority and claiming to divine authority on Earth, changing doctrine, persecuting the faithful etc, approximating perhaps to the ‘Whore of Babylon’ of Revelation. Clearly Roman Catholics dispute this and argue that it refers to the rise of AntiChrist or similar.
As a footnote, the Western Roman Empire was replaced by ten tribal confederations, three of which were Arian heretics, which were destroyed later by forces working with the Papacy.
So that all seems straightforward doesn’t it – it’s another variant of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a vision of the rise and fall of empires until the End Times? Sadly it’s not, it’s more nuanced, partly because the three first beasts are said to survive until the End Times, despite losing their power.
These beasts arise from the sea together and are concurrent, and three survive the death of the fourth, albeit as shadows of their former power. They seem to endure for a great time, albeit some may be stronger at other times than others, but this is not explicit.
Secondly, while a winged lion might match Babylonian iconography, a bear does not match with that of Persia, a leopard does not with Greece etc although the four heads could be seen as the four successor kingdoms that arose from Alexander’s empire. The iron teeth and bronze claws of the fourth might match the militaristic Roman empire with its Greek East, but beyond that representational parallels break down. One might quite understandably say that it’s a dream, purely imaginative, but in such replayed dreams, and even one’s own, any imagery tends to have a symbolic purpose and meaning in the minds of the visionary or writer.
Finally, these powers are all long gone, by millennia, and yet Daniel’s vision makes clear that they are sovereignties that have enjoyed immense dominance and which survive in some strength until the End Times. So how do we make contemporary sense of them, if indeed they speak of our own times? Here a very large dose of caution is required because at various points over preceding centuries they have been interpreted as speaking to the events of those times when clearly in retrospect they were not. Here I will set out what is perhaps the most common interpretation of modern Protestant, predominantly evangelical, theologians. It’s certainly the one that most seems to describe Daniel’s vision.
A Contemporary Interpretation
The winged lion which has lost its eagle wings, which is sentient and intelligent, and which walks like a human is understood to be the UK (the lion being the symbol of Britain) or at least the Anglosphere, without the USA which is represented by the broken off eagle’s wings. This is often put together with a prophecy in Isaiah about the End Times in which the lion and her cubs fight on the side of the reborn Israel. It’s interesting that this beast is seen as the only intelligent sentient one, implying that it is the most humane and inventive. Equally importantly, it is quite separate from the fourth horned beast.
The bear is widely seen to be Russia for obvious reasons, greater in extent than the UK. Quite what the three ribs are is not known, although one would remind oneself that Russia has a metaphysical sense of itself being the ‘Third Rome’.
The four-headed and four-winged leopard to which is given ‘dominion’ is more disputed. The most common view is that it represents Germany and the four heads refer to the Four Reichs, albeit the fourth has not yet self-identified, which dominate much of Europe. This beast is clearly regarded as being more powerful than the other two, but there are severe problems with the identification which would imply that Germany is distinct from the fourth beast. It could be argued to apply to another, perhaps Asiatic power with which leopards had some mythical significance.
The ten horned, iron toothed, bronze clawed beast which rampages over the whole Earth, and which loses three horns to the eleventh speaking and seeing horn, is adamantly anti Jehovah. This is the only one of the beasts to be slain and destroyed utterly by God to make way for the rule of the ‘Son of Man’, i.e. Christ, on Earth. It is generally assumed to be a new dominion born out of the reconstituted Roman Empire from ten principal nations that come under the leadership of what the New Testament calls the AntiChrist. In this beast we see parallels with the statue of Nebuchadnezzar – the iron of Rome and bronze of Graeco-Macedon, the ten horns and ten toes of iron and clay, or Roman successor states. Some have made the case for the beast being the Papacy, others for the western capitalist system, but they don’t really work. It is certainly some form of federal state or ideologically unified confederation, with the three unrooted horns perhaps being members that fall away and are replaced by another smaller one that becomes dominant within it which could even be the federal power itself
In the Middle Ages, one might have interpreted it as the Holy Roman Empire, in the early 19th century as that of Napoleon who had himself crowned Emperor with the forced compliance of the Pope, and today as the EU with its founding Treaty of Rome. In present times, there really isn’t another compelling candidate unless it refers to an Islamic empire, and the increasing anti-Christian and anti-Jewish character of much of the Continent certainly fulfils one of the criteria of the prophecy. If it is the EU, or something based upon it, is it clear that the full circumstances have not yet happened and that the UK would fall out, and possibly Germany too, in which case there ‘may be trouble ahead’. It is based upon this identification why so many evangelical Protestants have been irredeemably hostile to the EU from the start.
Finally, the phrase about the eleventh horn ‘making new laws’ is likely to be a reference to a new set of beliefs and laws no longer based on those of Judaeo-Christianity, but a new set of attitudes and dictates, perhaps either sharia law of modern cultural-marxism. It might go further and even be a new one world religion.
The Value for Us
The prophetic element is extraordinary and clearly looks well beyond its own times into the far future. This creates difficulties for modern sceptics, but then ‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth’… As an ancient historian by training, I find the accuracy of some of the fulfilled predictions very striking, as an evangelical Protestant I have little problem caution in viewing some canonical prophecy as having merit, subject to stringent caution, as long as one is wise enough to accept that predicting the future based on it is a mug’s game and can lead to eccentricity and insanity. You cannot second guess the Ineffable.
That said, I find the clues about trends in our own times chilling and give me pause for thought. It certainly feeds my scepticism about the EU, internationalism and modern cultural developments. I see mainly evil resulting from them. It doesn’t surprise me that against the odds that the UK voted to leave the EU. As to the rest, one can but travel hopefully and with faith that Right will prevail in the end. Prophecies like those of Daniel say it will.
© 1642again 2019
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