March 3, 2013
Background Scripture: Daniel 7
Devotional Reading: Daniel 6:25-28
In reading the various books of the Bible, it is always helpful to know some of the background of these writings. For example, it helps us to know while Matthew was writing his gospel to emphasize the Jewish context of the message and the audience, Luke was writing to present the gospel as good news to Gentiles as well as Jews.
But, when we turn to the Book of Daniel, it is essential that we know a great deal about its background. As one biblical scholar put it, Daniel is “one of the least understood and most abused books of the Bible.” If we better understand this book, we are much less likely to abuse it.
Daniel represents a style of literature difficult for us to understand. It is called “apocalyptic” and it was popular in late Palestinian and early Christian times. The New Testament Book of Revelation is also an apocalyptic book, and there are some apocalyptic passages in other prophetic books: Isaiah 6:1-6; Ezekiel 1:13-27 and Joel 2:28-3:17. There is even a section of Mark 13 that is often called “the little Apocalypse.”
Apocalyptic writing is not literal, but visionary, ecstatic and symbolic. It presents the world as in the grip of a great cosmic conflict between two very different worlds. The purpose of this literature is to encourage faith in God and His reign in a period of persecution and danger. Misuse of this kind of writing is to assume it is meant to be taken literally.
We also need to know the writer is using a prior period of history to illustrate his prophetic concerns for his own times. Specifically, he is using the traumatic times of Persian rule in the 6th century B.C. to deal with those of the 2nd century B.C. world, 167-160 B.C., particularly the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, a time when the Jews were persecuted by the Seleucids, the Greek-speaking successors to Alexander the Great.
When Daniel begins Chapter 7 and says, “In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon …” his Babylonian name is the code word for the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes. So, Daniel is written in a kind of secret code to encourage Jews to keep their faith in God’s purpose and rule.
Stories and visions
The book is divided into two definite sections. Chapters 1-6 are composed of stories about the ancient Daniel and his friends. Chapters 7-12 are a collection of Daniel’s visions. We are dealing with Daniel 7 this week and chapters 8 and 9 the two weeks following.
It may seem confusing that the hero of the stories in chapters 1-6 and the writer of the whole book are both known as “Daniel.” Are there two Daniels or is the author using the name “Daniel” as a pseudonym to protect himself and/or to honor the hero of old?
We cannot know for certain, but that doesn’t prevent the writer of Daniel from speaking to us and our own times.
In Daniel 7:3-8, then, the four beasts – the lion, bear, leopard and “fourth beast” – actually represent the four empires of the reader’s own day: Babylon, Media, Persia and Syria (the Seleucid kingdom).
The 10 horns represent 10 Syrian kings and pretenders to the throne and the “little horn” (7:8) is the code word for King Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, and the current villain. For other biblical imagery of this kind, see Job 26; 12,13; Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-1; and Revelation 13:1.
In chapters 7-9, both the King James and RSV texts speak of an “ancient of days.” Some versions translate this as “a primeval Being” (Moffatt), “a venerable one” (Amer. Trans.), “one crowned with age” (Knox) and “an Ancient One” (NIB).
That demonstrates we do not know exactly what the writer means, but we can see this person (an angel?) was a personage of ancient origin and wisdom, perhaps even God Himself who was taking His seat of judgment.
And the point of this is the assertion that no tyrant will be excluded. No matter who is king or emperor, he will ultimately be subject to God’s judgment.
Same, but different
I have emphasized those eight words because that is also for us, the point of Daniel’s prophecy.
Our situation today is quite different and also so much more widespread, but the message to God’s people today is essentially the same: As even Daniel’s name proclaims “God has judged,” today’s threatening powers will eventually be subject to His judgment.
Parts of Africa are aflame with war and fratricide, the Middle East even more so, and great parts of the Far East. In South America there is great unrest, and our own country is a tinderbox of natural and public disasters. But our faith assures us that God’s will will prevail in time. Whether that is soon or late depends to some degree upon our response.
So, Daniel tells us as he told his contemporaries: “Fear not: God is in charge of this world.” And do we have proof that God will prevail? No – evidence, but not proof.
Neither can anyone prove that God’s rule will not be done.
That means, whether we accept Daniel’s assurance or reject it, it is essentially a matter of faith, an exercise of trust, betting our lives and the world’s destiny that God is in charge and His will is going to prevail.
The end result is, if we trust in God’s gracious will, we can and must live accordingly. If, on the other hand, we do not trust in God and His will, we will live in fear and panic. Each of us has a choice.
I know the choice I have made. What will yours be?
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.