Daniel Chapter 7
A New Perspective
Teddy Lishan Desta
I. The Prevailing View
Some of the most often quoted Biblical prophecies on Endtime events come from the Book of Daniel. Conservative Bible scholars , whose views currently predominates Endtime Biblical prophetic studies, speak almost with one voice regarding the interpretation of the visions of this 6 c. B.C. Israelite prophet. One must duly note what these scholars say before presenting any alternative line of interpretation to theirs. This fact remains crucial particularly in any attempt to re-interpret Daniel, Chapter Seven, which is one of the most popular starting places in expounding Endtime Bible prophecies. The following brief summary contains an overview of what conservative Biblical scholars understand to be the meaning of this particular vision of Daniel.
Going by this interpretation, the churning great sea represents the Mediterranean Sea. This is the region where all the major world empires of the ancient world rose to prominence. The wild beasts arising from the stormy sea are metaphors for successive world empires. The lion stands for the empire of Neo-Babylonia, the bear that of the Medo-Persia, and the tiger that of the Greeks. The fourth animal is taken to be the Roman Empire. The ten-horns symbolize a future Roman Empire to be revived by the Antichrist. The little horn emerging later among these ten horns is the Antichrist, who will have an obscure and insignificant origin. The Antichrist’s Revived Roman Empire will be destroyed at the Second Coming of Christ.
Since the Antichrist is expected to arise from Europe, from the very same region where once the ancient Roman Empire held sway , many Bible Endtime expositors eye the ongoing European economic and political integration with heightened prophetic interest. As the little horn, in Daniel’s vision, emerges only after overthrowing three horns, then similarly, the Antichrist will first overcome three states in the European Union before he makes his bid for total world dominance. He will be a blasphemous and very arrogant dictator with deep hate for God and God’s people. In the seven years the Antichrist lasts in power, he will unleash unprecedented persecution against the saints of God, particularly during the last three and half years of his reign. It will only be at the appearing of Christ at His Second Coming that the Antichrist will be overcome and his empire destroyed. Then God will hand over all kingdom power on earth to the saints; the kingdom the saints will receive will last forever and ever.
There have been very few attempts to think outside the mold of interpretation which has dominated the evangelical exposition of the vision or its popularization through Christian Endtime paperbacks. The following alternative viewpoint is presented as a new vantage point in understanding the vision in order to stir a new direction of thought.
II. An Alternative View
Establishing the Rules of Interpretation
The starting point to understand Daniel’s vision should be first to duly acknowledge that this is a vision. God, who is the author of such visions and dreams, rarely conveys His message in clear, literal terms. Rather, in all the visions and dreams God gives, he gives them in forms imbued with rich symbolism and metaphors (Num. 12:6-7; Ps 78:2; Prov. 25:2; Is. 29:9-12). This is made clearer to us as we examine the visions and dreams recorded in the Bible. Therefore, in attempting to interpret any prophetic vision or a dream like those of Daniel’s, every nuance of symbol and metaphor should be carefully reviewed and interpreted properly. This could be done with success only through the gift of interpretation bestowed by the Holy Spirit and by the careful and diligent study of the Scriptures (Gen. 41:16; Dan. 1:17, 5:11; Prov. 1:3-6; 1 Cor. 2).
For example, in the cases of Joseph and Daniel, their ability to interpret dreams and visions came directly from God, and we do not see them following a literal or historical method. But guided by the Holy Spirit they decoded the symbolism and metaphor of each dream to give kings and officials right counsel. Another good example to illustrate this point is the dream which we read about in Judges 7:13-15. This dream which pointed towards Gideon’s mission to destroy the Midianite army, was wholly cast in symbolic terms.
“When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling his friend [about] a dream. He said, "Listen, I had a dream: a loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp, struck a tent, and it fell. The loaf turned the tent upside down so that it collapsed." His friend answered: "This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has handed the entire Midianite camp over to him." When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to Israel's camp and said, "Get up, for the Lord has handed the Midianite camp over to you" “(Jud. 7: 13-15).
Any literal interpretation of the above dream would have led to a wrong meaning and to a different outcome. Similarly, in the New Testament one good example is the vision Peter saw in a trance (Acts 10:9-15).
“He saw heaven opened and an object coming down that resembled a large sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat!" "No, Lord!" Peter said. "For I have never eaten anything common and unclean!" Again, a second time, a voice said to him, "What God has made clean, you must not call common." This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into heaven” (Acts 10: 11-16).
As Peter later found out, the intent of his vision was not to ask him to overcome his traditional inhibition about kosher food. Rather it was conveying to him his obligation to preach the Gospel to the gentiles which he, like his fellow Jews considered ritually unclean. Had Peter failed to understand the ultimate meaning of the vision, he would have totally missed the historic moment God opened for him at the house of Cornelius which was to start to preach the Gospel to non-Jews.
However, it is such symbolic and metaphorical nature of prophetic visions that most Bible prophetic students miss. Their emphasis has not been in decoding the symbols and metaphors which enrich the visions. Rather they focus heavily on finding historical patterns which easily fit the flow of events featured in the visions. For this reason, literalism and historicism have riddled the interpretation of Biblical prophetic visions. It would be hard to accept, therefore, that the Divine mind is correctly served by such an interpretative approach.
There is also a second reason why we cannot apply the historical approach to the vision of the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel. Contrary to what he does in his other visions, in this chapter, he does not provide us with any historical event that could serve us as a clue to interpretation. For example, he makes no reference to any of the ancient empires which we come across in his other visions. There is no mention of Babylon, Persia, or Greece. Rather, the vision is told in overwhelmingly symbolic and figurative language. The vision, so to speak, is suspended in time. In doing this, there should be a Divine wisdom. But what is it? The absence of any historical reference makes us conceive the vision in abstract terms. Hence, first we have to decode the symbols and metaphors in universalistic terms before we try to tie down the prophesied events to any historical time period.
Given the above-mentioned two reasons, paying proper attention to symbolism and metaphorical language is hereafter considered the crux of understanding the ultimate meaning of this vision.
Symbolism of the Vision
The major protagonists of the prophetic drama are presented to us in the form of wild animals. As said earlier, the prophetic significance of these wild animals should come only after careful interpretation of the metaphor and symbolism implied by their features and actions. To do justice to the nature of the vision, therefore, first we will delve into the abstraction of the symbols and metaphors. That will allow us to extract the universal message first without making any historical association between vision and modern day political event(s). Only the second part of this article will make the attempt to establish some connection between this vision and some relevant historical events.
The Political Storm
“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream with visions in his mind as he was lying in his bed. He wrote down the dream, and here is the summary of his account. Daniel said, ‘In my vision at night I was watching, and suddenly the four winds of heaven stirred up the great sea. Four huge beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other’” (Dan 7:1-3).
Sea or body of water in Scripture often symbolizes the masses of humanity, or a nation (cf. Num. 24:7; Is 17:12; Hab. 1:14; Rev. 17:15). The four winds churning the sea symbolize major contending ideas (cf. Eph. 4:14). Winds are emblematical of doctrines, ideas, or in terms of this highly politically charged vision, they are ideological forces. What we, therefore, observe is how the people are agitated and thrown into turbulence by contending and prevailing winds of political doctrines. The number four symbolizes the four corners of the world, implying diversity and polarity of the political viewpoints fiercely blowing among the people.
In short, the vision depicts, in a metaphorical way, a revolutionary situation brewing among the people. Clearly, major political forces are in full play for the upper hand. It is from the midst of such political flux, from a maelstrom of political turmoil, that we see four major contenders for power stepping out on the stage of history and on the public arena.
The four wild animals, which step out of the turbulent sea, are metaphors for political forces or powers. Scripture often employs the metaphor of wild animals to describe kings, nations, or individuals with political roles (see, for example, Num. 24:8; Ps. 80:13; Jer. 49:19, 21; Ezk. 32:2-3, etc). In the case of this vision, the four animals are the coalescing or materialization of the four contending winds of political ideas. The animals represent the forms through which the public’s now gives formal expression to its political views. From the various contending political positions (winds) now come out powerful political powerbrokers in the form of parties, movements, or old institutions which now take up new political roles .
Since the Prophet describes each political animal carefully, emphasizing its unique features and behavior, we will take these unique features as the starting place for the new interpretative approach.
The other important aspect we have to recognize about these animals is that they represent contemporary political entities rather than, as hitherto taught, sequential political empires. Many have written saying that the four wild animals represent successive world empires. But it should be clear from Daniel’s narrative that the four animals manifest and operate almost within the same time period. To support such a contention, the first three animals are present when God judges the fourth beast. Daniel tells us how God would give extension of life to the three beasts when He otherwise totally destroys the fourth beast. This cannot be so unless all four beasts are contemporary political actors (see Dan. 7: 11-12). If the four beasts are contemporary to each other and the fourth beast will be reigning at Christ’s Second Coming, then we cannot escape the implication that all these three political animals will be in existence in the last days when God destroys the fourth beast. Hence, to fully grasp their symbolic and prophetic import, the four beasts will be interpreted in terms of modern day world politics.
The Political Animals
"The first was like a lion but had eagle's wings. I continued watching until its wings were torn off. It was lifted up from the ground, set on its feet like a man, and given a human mind” (Dan. 7:4).
The first animal Daniel observes emerging from the turbulent sea is the lion. As it is well known from both Scriptural and secular usage, the lion is the chosen symbol of might and majesty. Moreover, this lion has eagle’s wings. The wings give the lion an air of extra grandeur and loftiness. However, in due course, the wings get plucked. The mighty, dreadful lion ends up in the hands of its handlers, performing like a circus animal!
But in our search for symbolic meaning, what does such descriptions about the lion tell us about modern day political actors and events? The answer to this question lies through the proper decoding of the symbol of the lion and the metaphorical descriptions given about it.
Through the centuries, the lion has been used as a symbol of kingdoms and empires, kings and strong leaders. Wings of the eagle the lion possesses serve additional metaphorical purpose. They likely signify all or any of the following attributes - an illustrious empire, a glorious and majestic king, an enduring dynasty, or some type of heavenly connection as in a claim of Divine origin (Deut. 33:11). However, the plucking of wings predicts the subsequent downfall of the powerful and majestic lion.
In the world of politics, clipping of wings is an often-used metaphor for the diminishing of power and influence. This does not come as a surprise given the pervading atmosphere of political turmoil cast in this vision. The lion could be the first to lose power and influence in the ensuing power struggle among the four political animals. However, the plucking of wings indicates the gradual nature of the removal of power and influence from the lion. In this sense, its enemies will sap the power and authority of the lion by working on it ‘one wing at a time’. The weakening of its power, the trimming of its majesty, the stripping of its influence, the debunking of its claims, all will be accomplished in a gradual manner. In the end, the one-time dreaded lion will be tamed and controlled at the hands of its opponents. It will be caged and be made to learn to receive orders!
If what has been said above about the lion is a fitting metaphor to describe a modern day political event, and then what does it signify? God might have intended this to be a statement about the gradual downfall of a one-time powerful empire or an absolute ruler. As history attests, this is how absolute monarchs came to lose power - through popular unrest. Revolutions curtailed the unlimited power and expansive authority of monarchs and princes. In the subsequent power struggle among forces representing the crown and the common people, kings and emperors have always lost the struggle eventually. As history attests, if not totally removed from power, absolute leaders have been constarined by the rule (stick) of law and made to obey the will (voice) of the people.
"Suddenly, another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, with three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, 'Get up! Gorge yourself on flesh” (Dan. 7:5).
The bear is a bulky, slow moving, crouching animal with a tendency towards bitterness and vengeance. Scripture depicts it as a very strong, voracious and destructive wild animal (2 Sam. 17:34-37; 2 Kgs. 2:23-25; Pr. 17: 12, 28:18; Hos. 13:8). In this vision, the bear has two important additional features - it is lop-sided, and devours much flesh and crunches a lot of bones.
In its metaphorical sense, therefore, the bear is intended to symbolize a political force, which is,
-slow in developing and asserting its strength, -parochial in its operations, -implacable and intractable, and -a cause of much death and destruction.
As Daniel says, the bear, ‘raised up itself on one side’ (v. 5), and a political force, which fulfills such a metaphor in modern political terms, is a sectarian political movement operating in one side (corner) of a country. Such a political force usually engages in a war of attrition, fulfilling the Scriptural prophecy of, ‘arise and devour much flesh’ (v. 5).
A political movement of such nature, as history shows is most often organized around class, culture, or regional identity. Uprisings or insurgencies based on class, ideology and even religion, all tend to involve many people across the nation. On the other hand, political movements based on regional or ethnic identity turn out to be highly localized, limiting their operation to one part of the country. Moreover, they prove to be very intractable, difficult to placate or overcome. Hence, such conflicts drag out for years causing much destruction to human life and to the economy. As history shows us, such low scale, simmering regional conflicts turn out to be perpetual death machines. Like the bear in Daniel’s vision, the conflicts relentlessly grind human flesh and bones, killing soldiers and civilians by the thousands over the years. The three ribs in the mouth of the bear are, therefore, indicative of the completeness or enormity of the destructive power of such a political movement.
"While I was watching, another beast appeared. It was like a leopard with four wings of a bird on its back. It had four heads and was given authority to rule” (Dan. 7:6).
The tiger as a wild animal is best known for its speed, lurking steps and bloodthirsty habits. It is a master of hiding, of careful moves, and skillful ambushes. In its physical appearance, the tiger is a spotted animal (Jer. 13:23); the color of its skin allows it to camouflage and blend with its surrounding easily. The tiger in Daniel’s vision is depicted as having four heads and four wings on its back. That adds mystery and metaphorical value to its nature and character. Therefore, it is such features and natural characteristics of the tiger, which form the basis of our search for a modern day political actor displaying the following qualities,
-It operates underground as a clandestine organization. -Its activities are guerilla-type in nature. -It is master of ambushes, assassinations or terrorist acts. -It is composed of motley of followers. -It will have a countrywide, four-corner operation and influence. -It will be intellectual based, as the four heads of the tiger indicate. -It will make frequent movements, as the four wings of the fowl imply. -It will have a certain dominion, a political base to spread its influence.
Therefore, based on the above interpretation, we can deduce the following parallels between the tiger and its modern day political counterpart.
The power, which the tiger symbolizes, will operate in the shadows, and be a master in setting up ambushes and in launching sudden terrorist attacks.
Given the metaphor of the tiger’s spotted skin, the political organization will draw its supporters from various sections of society. Secondly, as much as its mottled skin color allows the tiger to camouflage itself easily among the foliage of the forest; similarly, its counterpart will able to blend itself easily with the community in which it operates. Hence, such a political organization will be one hard to detect and confront.
Moreover, the tiger’s four heads imply two things. First, they entail the pervasive influence of the party. Its influence will be felt throughout the four corners of the nation. Secondly, the tiger’s multiple heads imply the exceptional mental acumen and intellectual sophistication this political organization will manifest. In this sense, the party will rely on intellectual persuasion to make its influence felt. The tiger symbolized party, hence, will not depend on appeal to the status quo and history (lion), ethnic identity (bear), or brute force (fourth beast) in order to establish its legitimacy.
Similarly, the four wings of the fowl on the tiger’s back signify two additional attributes. First, this political entity will be highly mobile; to rapidly change its location or positions likely for security or tactical reasons. This means that its members will nimbly move in all corners of the nation. Secondly, unlike the wings of the lion, the fowl’s wings allow only short distance flight. They do not permit a majestic and sustained flight. Hence, metaphorically speaking, the tiger represented organization, unlike the one symbolized by the preceding lion, will have neither a celebrated career nor a long-lived political life.
Therefore, given all these similitude about the tiger, then which of our modern day political forces represent it adequately? Of all known political organizations of the current world which best fit the above description are those with the following characteristics - clandestine, ambushing and terrorist tactics, motley following, nationwide operation, intellectual (secular) predisposition, and a short duration of political life.
However, there is one last thing we have to consider about the tiger as a political metaphor. According to Scripture and secular history, there are two types of such clandestine political movements in the world, one which is rural in its operation, and the other which is urban-based. However, Jeremiah 5:6, makes the wolf the symbol of the rural-based clandestine force, and the tiger a metaphor of a city-based enemy. Therefore, the tiger in Daniel’s vision, in modern political terms, typifies the urban-based clandestine party, with nation wide operation.
The Hideous Fourth Beast
"While I was watching in the night visions, a fourth beast appeared, frightening and dreadful, and incredibly strong, with large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and it trampled with its feet whatever was left. It was different from all the beasts before it, and it had 10 horns. While I was considering the horns, suddenly another horn, a little one, came up among them, and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. There were eyes in this horn like a man's, and it had a mouth that spoke arrogantly” (Dan 7:7-8).
The fourth beast in its appearance is out of the ordinary. It is grotesque and most terrifying. It is also very powerful to easily overcome the rest of the three animals. Since Daniel could not easily find a match that looked like the fourth beast, he left it nameless. As Daniel saw it, the beast was,
“Diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet... it shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces” (vv. 19, 23).
Moreover, some of the unique features of the Beast were its ten horns. What was surprising about these horns was not their numbers, but that they apparently possessed a life of their own! They engaged in what appeared to be a power struggle among each other. Literally, they removed each other from position! The victorious one from such a struggle was, as Daniel called it, a ‘little horn’. This little horn had first to overthrow three other horns, before it made itself supreme. Moreover, the little horn showed great antipathy to God and His people. It had all the features of utter arrogance and cruelty. As Daniel noted, the little horn had,
“Eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things… whose look was more stout than its fellows” (v. 20).
How can then we translate this terrifying and all-conquering Beast and the little horn in terms of modern politics? In this regard, a few options are open to us. The metaphors implied by such descriptions as - hideous and most powerful animal, powerful teeth, power to overcome all the other animals, devouring the land, multiple horns that competed among each other for position, and immense antipathy to God and the saints – make us think in one particular direction than in any other. The first thing, which comes to mind, will be some form of atheistic authoritarian system, or a military dictatorship with left-wing tendencies. Such a supposition is defended on the following grounds.
(i). Diverse looks: - Such political entities as, atheistic authoritarian system or military dictatorships infuse dread among the people rather than respect and consent. Anything operating through the force of arms in politics is a political anomaly rather than a natural phenomenon. Particularly, the military in power will be out of the ordinary.
(ii). Hideous and terrifying appearance: - A totalitarian party or the military in state power are the most terrifying political entities that can be perceived at all. In particular, of all known social forces, it is the military, which possesses massive (fire) power and discipline to inspire terror and subservient obedience. Hence, the appellation given to this political organization - the Beast.
(iii). Destructive: – As modern history attests, the military or a militarized party have been responsible for much oppression and suffering in almost every nation they have taken power. The first political edict such parties usually impose include the banning of other political parties, and the suppression of the people’s rights of assembly and free speech. Moreover, due to their amateur approach to politics, or as the result of ideological rigidity, such parties often cause colossal havoc to society.
(iv). Ten horns: - This metaphor implies the emergence of a select few of powerful individuals from the general body of the political movement. This select few will collectively bear direct power in the name of the organization or the movement, which gave rise to them. Collective leadership, in this case comes in the form of a military junta, revolutionary command council, or a central committee. As often witnessed in history, eventually such types of revolutionary councils suffer from internal power struggles, usually leading to political purges and the emergence of a powerful dictator.
(v). The little horn: – According to Scriptures, ‘little’ is a figure of speech for an insignificant or despised person (Ps. 119:140), and ‘horn’ is a metaphor for might or ruler (Ps. 132:17; Lk. 1:70). In this regard, in the political struggle among the ruling council members, it will be an obscure individual who will emerge victorious. According to Daniel, the ‘little horn’ dictator would gain absolute power only after removing three prominent leaders (horns) who were before him. Such a success often comes from having a knack for conspiracy and a talent for merciless action. However, such a person, as it appears, uses three of the more senior members of the ruling party for his front men before he finally makes his bid for political dominance.
The other notable aspect of the Beast and the little horn is that they will be openly hostile to God and to the saints. This implies that they will adopt a rabid form of secular ideology, which attempts to change the eternal laws of God. The Beast will unleash an unprecedented persecution against the saints of God (v. 25). However, after a certain length of time (v. 25), God will orchestrate the events that will destroy the fourth beast utterly. When God judges the Beast, He will be to utterly destroy it. However, God will show relative mercy to the other three political animals, allowing them more time to operate before the Kingdom of God is finally inaugurated on earth (vv. 11-12).
The Kingdom of God and The Son of Man
When God judges the fourth beast and removes governmental power from its hands, He will at the same time bestow kingdom power and authority on the Son of Man (Dan 7: 13). Many understand the Son of Man to be the Lord Jesus Christ receiving Kingdom power and authority. Jesus is now seated at the right side of God, His father, waiting until God makes His enemies His footstool. Jesus will enter into His Kingdom rule at the Endtime after the demise of the kingdom of the Antichrist (Ps. 110, 2 The:2).
However, there are also a few others who consider the Son of Man figure in Daniel’s vision as a figure for the collective body of all the saints of God (Dan. 7: 27). In Endtime revelatory terms, there are many who consider this Son of Man figure as an appellation for the ‘man-child company’, or as the ‘overcomer remnant’. It will be then this band of overcoming saints, represented by the Son of Man figure, who are the chosen of God to bring Kingdom power to humanity in its fullest sense. They will be used of God to bring liberty to all creation, which is now groaning under the natural law of corruption and decay. In that day, the whole creation then would attain to the hope of glory - to the very freedom that belongs to the children of God (Rom 8: 18-23). Then wild beasts, both literal and metaphorical, shall no longer harass and oppress the land.
Glory be to God
Teddy Lishan Desta
(Revised on 12/18 &19, 24).