Daniel is one of the most controversial books of the Bible, yet its message is clear and unmistakable. While Bible scholars debate issues like when it was written and whether it is historically accurate, the Book of Daniel consistently calls God's people of every generation to faithfulness.
Daniel is the only Old Testament book written completely in apocalyptic language. As such, Daniel is similar to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which is the oldest document actually claiming the title "apocalypse" or "revelation." In this sense, Daniel forms an important bridge between the Testaments. Daniel, like other Old Testament prophets, is concerned with the Sinai covenant ( Daniel 9:11 Daniel 9:13 Daniel 9:15 ) and with the basic social message of the other prophets (4:27). At the same time, he deals with issues of the distant future in a manner that sets the pattern for New Testament prophecies.
Daniel's unique position in the Old Testament can also be seen in its purpose. Unlike other Old Testament prophecies, this book does not call its readers to repent and lead a new life. Daniel's concern is consistent faithfulness among believers, continued obedience among God's people during times of hardship.
The Book of Daniel has two discernible parts: the historical narratives of chapters 1-6 and the visions of chapters 7-12. The stories of the first half relate the events of Daniel and his ministry in the foreign courts of Babylonia and Persia. The visions of the second half are the personal accounts of Daniel dated to the later part of his life.
The narratives of chapters 1-6 have in common a single theme: Daniel and his three friends successfully bear witness to their faith before a hostile world. Though the circumstances are often unpleasant, these young men consistently stand up for righteousness against overwhelming odds. In the process they find that God is faithful. The historical section in general forms a theology of history in which God delivers those who faithfully represent him in the world and humiliates the proud who fail to acknowledge him.
Though the visions of chapters 7-12 are in general less well known than the beloved stories of the first half, they nonetheless contain individual passages that are noted for their theological importance. The vision of chapter 7 portrays God as "the Ancient of Days"; another figure is called "the Son of Man, " a designation Jesus applied to himself ( Matt 16:27 ; 24:30 ; 26:64 ; Mark 8:38 ; 13:26, ; etc. ). The interpretation of the vision of chapter 9 includes the hotly debated "seventy sevens" or "seventy weeks of years" passage (vv. 24-27). The concluding vision contains the only explicit Old Testament reference to the resurrection ( 12:1-3 ).
There are at least four themes that dominate this book: the sovereignty of God; the self-destructive pride of humankind; the ultimate victory of God's kingdom; and the coming of his servant, the Messiah.
The Sovereignty of God. Other Old Testament prophets knew that Yahweh, the god of Israel, was sovereign over the whole world, including the other nations. But Daniel illustrates this fact in graphic new ways. Through both the narratives and visions, Daniel demonstrates the lordship of God over the whole world, not just Jerusalem and the Israelites. This truth was meant to be a source of great comfort for exiled Israelites living in a foreign context.
This pervasive theme is apparent from the outset of chapter 1. The first verse of the book asserts that Nebuchadnezzar came to besiege Jerusalem. The reader of the book might assume the Babylonian king has come in his own awesome strength and at his own instigation. But the next verse makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar was not acting in opposition to the will of God. In fact, whatever success [Nebuchadnezzar enjoyed was provided by God: "The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his Nebuchadnezzar's] hand" (v. 2, Heb. natan, "give, " is a key word in this chapter).
After Daniel steadfastly resisted the cultural pressure to compromise, God "gave" (natan [t"n]) him favor before Nebuchadnezzar's chief of staff (v. 9). Later, God "gave" (natan [t"n]) the four young Jews surpassing knowledge and discernment, particularly to Daniel, a gift for understanding visions and dreams (v. 17). So this chapter emphasizes God's sovereignty over the affairs of nations (Babylon and Israel, v. 2) as well as individuals (Daniel and this three companions, v. 17).
The sovereignty of God is played out in the rest of the book in the conflict between the proud and arrogant rules of the world and the kingdom of God. The stone cut by supernatural forces in chapter 2 demolished the statue of Nebuchadnezzar's dream symbolizing the human kingdoms of the earth. The God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego controlled the forces of nature with startling effect on Nebuchadnezzar (chap. 3), as he also did for Daniel in the lions' den (chap. 6). Daniel is given the ability to interpret dreams and visions that are mysterious and impossible for the noblest and wisest of Babylon's wisemen to discern (chaps. 2, 4, and 5). The handwriting on the wall episode demonstrates God's sovereign control over nations and individual rulers (chap. 5).
The Book of Daniel adds a new twist to the prophetic view of the nations who might oppose God. Most of the other prophets have oracles against Israel's enemy nations, a prophetic form that is ancient in Israelite literature (see, e.g., Isa 13-23; Jer 46-51, etc.). But Daniel views the key empires in sequential order of four, followed by a fifth, eternal kingdom. Rather than present sermons against Israel's immediate neighbors, Daniel sees visions of future empires that oppose God worldwide and oppress his people everywhere. Both the historical narratives and the visions portray a struggle between these successive rulers of the world and God's kingdom. The stories relate how God's servants (Daniel and his friends) were able to overcome the strongest human forces of earth in their efforts to remain faithful to God.
The first of the visions (chap. 7) portrays three frightening beasts and a grotesque monster that threatens to exterminate God's people. But the Ancient of Days prevails and establishes an eternal kingdom for his saints. Even in persecution and death, the sovereign Lord of the kingdom will provide resurrection ( 12:1-3 ). God's sovereignty over the proud and arrogant rules of the world climaxes in Michael's final victory provided for all who are written in "the book" ( 12:1 ). In the historical narratives, God was sovereign over all his enemies of the past. The visions reveal how that sovereignty will play itself out in human history.
This emphasis on God's sovereignty leads naturally to the next two primary themes of the book: prideful and rebellious humankind is self-destructive because it fails to acknowledge the sovereign Lord of the universe; and God's people will ultimately succeed, because with him they cannot fail.
The Pride of Humankind. A further emphasis of the Book of Daniel is the pride and arrogance of humankind and God's total condemnation of egotism. In chapters 1-6 human pride is the subsurface issue behind the problem that introduces each chapter. In the visions of chapters 7-12, the arrogance of future world leaders is the enemy of God and his people. Ultimately, the each case, God has acted, or will act, to turn human pride and arrogance to shame and ridicule.
In the narratives of chapters 1-6, Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are perfect examples of human leaders who rebel against God's authority. In both cases, their pride reduces them to pathetic states of helplessness and ridicule. After God has acted, they are hardly recognizable as kings of the great and mighty Babylon ( 4:33 ; 5:6 ).
The pride of the world empires is central to the ideas of chapters 7-12. The scheme of empires in chapters 7 and 8 is a succession of world leaders, which depicts the limits of imperial pride, reaching the climax at the little horn with the big mouth ( 7:8 ). But a new heavenly kingdom, led by the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, replaces these proud earthly reigns. In chapters 10-12 the supernatural forces of heaven will move to crush the ultimate anti-Christian ruler of earth, who has arrogantly raised himself above every god ( 11:36 ).
The Book of Daniel is especially pertinent for every new generation of believers because it addresses the ultimate problem of the human condition. Sin and rebellion always find root in pride and self-absorption. So salvation must involve confession, rejection of prideful self-sufficiency, and dependence on God ( Mark 8:34 ), all of which are so magnificently modeled by Daniel, his three companions, and later, by the saints of the Most High.
The Ultimate Victory of God's Saints. Daniel also reveals much about the kingdom of God. The fundamental message of Daniel is that through every possible circumstance of life, it is possible to live a life of faith and victory with God's help. God reigns supreme in heaven and earth, and those allied with him share in his triumph. No matter how severe the persecution, the enemies of God cannot bring an end to his community of believers. The unique apocalyptic nature of Daniel teaches that this has always been so (chaps. 1-6) and always will be (chaps. 7-12). Even in death, God's people are victorious ( 12:1-3 ).
Prevalent in this book is the idea of four great world kingdoms followed by a fifth (chaps. 2 and 7). Conservative authorities have traditionally taken these kingdoms to refer to Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, respectively. Though the precise details are in doubt, the message is clear and irrefutable. All earthly kingdoms are temporary, even fleeting, no matter how impressive they may look at the moment. Ultimately, the eternal kingdom of the Ancient of Days will be ushered in by the Son of Man ( 7:14 ).
Although this promise is certain and sure, the rest of the book describes a delay in the arrival of God's eternal kingdom. During the postponement, God's faithful people will endure severe testing and persecution at the hands of proud, irreligious leaders of the world. The seventy weeks of years ( 9:24-27 ) and the promise of the resurrection ( 12:1-3 ) presuppose that the faithful saints of God will have to endure hardship for a limited time. But those who faithfully endure and await his timing will participate in his final victory.
Daniel is the primary source in the Old Testament revealing events of the future. Together with the New Testament Book of Revelation, it provides data for the various theories about the endtimes. Though Christians disagree on issues such as when Christ will return in relation to a millennial (thousand-year) reign, all are agreed that the most important question is whether the church is currently living a life worthy of his blessing and acceptance, whenever he comes again.
In other words, the details of eschatology are not as crucial as eschatological ethics: behaving Christ-like now in this world, and living in the expectation and anticipation of Christ's return. Daniel teaches that God's people can and should live holy, righteous lives while suffering the injustices of this life. They are encouraged to do so because, in the end, God will conclusively reward them with victory.
God's Messiah. The role of the "Son of David" is a central theme among Israel's prophets. Israel never forgot God's promise to provide seed from her ideal King to rule forever on the throne in Jerusalem ( 2 Sam 7:16 ). Isaiah thought of God's commitment to David as a pattern for the everlasting covenant God wanted with Israel ( 55:3-4 ). Jeremiah asserted that the covenant with David was as unbreakable and secure as God's appointment of the sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night (33:20-22).
The son of David figure was an "anointed one, " since the kings of Israel were traditionally anointed with oil by a prophet. This anointed one ("Messiah" in Hebrew, "Christ" in Greek) was the principal figure for the prophets, who speak of a movement from chaos and defeat to victory and redemption for national Israel. But as an exilic prophet, Daniel was living and working after the actual loss of the monarchy. No ancient Near Eastern community could survive the absence of a king. But Israel had the capacity to preserve spiritually what she had lost materially.
In Daniel, the concept of the Messiah was reinterpreted toward the universal, rather than being limited to a single nation, Israel. Thus there is a Davidic substratum, or ideological undercurrent in Daniel 7:13-14. Daniel had envisioned evil incarnate in the form of the little horn, the symbol of a ruthless human dictator who stops at nothing to achieve his own selfish ambitions ( 7:8 and 8:9 , though the two horns are not identical). Now Daniel sees the Messiah as the antithesis of personified evil. Eventually the Son of Man will lead his people ("the saints of the Most High") into triumph.
The political and military dimensions of the son of David, the king-Messiah, are broadened in Daniel. In chapter 7 the nationalistic interpretation of the Messiah is transcended. Instead of savior of national Israel, who leads his people to victory over enemy nations that are evil, the Messiah becomes victorious over evil in general.
William T. Arnold
Bibliography. J. G. Baldwin, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary; J. E. Goldingay, Daniel; D. W. Heaton, The Book of Daniel; A. LaCocque, Daniel in His Time; D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic; E. J. Young, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary; idem, The Prophecy of Daniel: A Commentary.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Daniel, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".