Divine Sovereignty Daniel 8:1-27


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Daniel 8:1-27

At the beginning of this second vision, given to Daniel two years after the first, the book reverts to Hebrew. From chapter 2, verse 4 to this point the book was written in Aramaic. It remains Hebrew to the end of the book. The brute fact is: no one knows why certain parts are in Aramaic and others in Hebrew. The languages are related; if you didn’t know the difference between them, you wouldn’t notice it just by the appearance of the words on the page, but they are very definitely not the same language. The chapter falls rather neatly into two large parts. After a brief introduction in vv. 1-2, locating the vision by time and place, we have the report of what Daniel saw in vv. 3-14. Then in vv. 15-26 an angel, Gabriel by name, gives Daniel the interpretation of his vision. The chapter ends with Daniel’s description of the emotional impact the vision had on him.

Text Comment

v.1       The third year of Belshazzar was either 550 B.C. or 547. Scholars read the evidence in different ways.

v.2       The idea seems to be that Daniel found himself in Susa in his vision. That is, he was not actually in Susa; he was in Babylon, but in the vision he was in Susa, which was some 220 miles east of Babylon. By the way, Susa’s location in the province of Elam is another of those details highly unlikely to have been known to a 2nd century writer, since, while in later years it was not located in the province of Elam, we now know that it was during Babylonian times.

v.4       Remember, Babylon was still the imperial power at the time Daniel received this vision. We will be told in v. 20 that the ram stands for the Medo-Persian Empire. The one horn was higher than the other; in other words, Persia was a greater power than Media. Verse 4 summarizes about two-hundred years of ancient near eastern history.

v.8       The goat, we are told in v. 20, stands for Greece. These horns are the four generals who divided Alexander’s empire upon his death in June of 323 B.C.

v.11     The Prince of the Host is a reference to God himself. Here is one commentator’s explanation of how we ought to take this reference to the horn growing as great as the host of heaven and throwing them down and trampling on them. “Antiochus was not literally fighting angels; rather, that was the significance of his attack on people and sanctuary. The visible realities such as the Jewish people and the Jerusalem temple had a transcendent significance that Antiochus denied. When believers are hurt, heaven is hurt.” [Goldingay, 221]

On the other hand, it is possible that the “hosts of heaven” is a reference to the Jews themselves, the people of God, whom this king killed in great numbers. [Longman, 204]

v.12     The special importance of this one of the four horns – which is a reference to the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes – is his subjugation of the Jews and his despoiling of the sanctuary and its worship in Jerusalem. Obviously one happy thought Daniel would have drawn from this prophecy was that the Jews would once again have a temple and be conducting worship in it, but only then to have that worship stopped once again.

v.14     As I said last time, most of the debates that Christians have with one another about end-time scenarios are over statements made in the apocalyptic prophesies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, highly symbolic passages all, including quite a few statements about numbers. Are these numbers to be taken literally or figuratively, whether the 70 weeks in Daniel 9 or the thousand years in Revelation 20? And if the latter, what do these numeric symbols mean? There is another such debate here. Some take the 2,300 evenings and mornings to be a reference to 2,300 days of evening and morning sacrifices (the two sacrifices that began and ended each day at the temple). That would add up to six years and four months. Others take it to be a reference to the two sacrifices offered each day and so divide the number in half to get the number of days (1,150), which would amount to roughly three years and two months.

We do not know enough to know whether the numbers can be fitted precisely into the dates of Antiochus’ oppression of the Jews and so be taken as literal predictions of a length of time. His despoiling of the temple lasted from December 167 B.C. to its cleansing and rededication under Judas Maccabeus in December 164 B.C. The 1,150 number fits better with the interruption of temple worship (especially if the sacrifices were stopped sometime before Antiochus made sacrifice to Zeus in the temple). The 2,300 number, on the other hand, fits better with the entire period of Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews, though we don’t know precisely when to date its beginning or its end. Ralph Davis cleverly puts it this way:

“If I were held at gunpoint and told to make a decision, I would opt for the 2,300 position. But it’s difficult, even without the gun. In any case, the 2,300 figure tells us this is a rather long period, yet the fact that it is calculated in days means it is a definitely limited one.” [109]

v.17     Two things. First, note that the sight and the voice of the heavenly being were terrifying to Daniel. (This is, by the way, the first mention of any angel’s name in the Bible and of the name of Gabriel in particular, who, as you know, will appear in the New Testament as well.) American Christians have a great difficulty facing the fact that there is a heavy measure of transcendence – awe-producing, even terror producing transcendence – in the biblical revelation of the heavenly realm. There is familiarity and family affection, to be sure, but there is nothing of the “aw-shucks” bonhomie that too often characterizes evangelical thinking about God and heaven, the familiarity that seems to dissolve differences in rank. Everyone who sees the glory of God or an angel in the biblical history is afraid! Second, the phrase “for the time of the end” strikes us nowadays as a reference to the end of history, to the second coming. Not so fast. In v. 19 it appears that it refers to the end of the time of the indignation, that is, at least probably, the end of the desolation of the temple by Antiochus. We need to be careful that we don’t read our sense of a term like “the end” into the use of the term in a quite different context.

v.22     It took some years of turmoil, but after Alexander’s death at 33 years of age, four of his generals each came to rule a segment of his vast empire: Cassander in Macedonia and Greece; Lysimachus in Thrace and Asia Minor; Ptolemy in Egypt; and Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia. Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) was a later ruler over that last, Seleucid, kingdom.

To be more precise, after the death of Alexander, Judea fell under Egyptian (Ptolemaic) control for a century (300-200 B.C.). That changed when Antiochus III (the Great) defeated the Egyptians and Palestine passed into Seleucid control. Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) was the youngest son of Antiochus III and came to power by a circuitous route. The title “Epiphanes” which Antiochus put on the coins he minted, which is short for “God made Manifest,” was a reference to Zeus. He was an advocate of Hellenization, the transformation of near eastern culture and religion according to the Greek model. He spent his reign at war and thus was chronically short of funds. He was also emotionally volatile. He looted the Jerusalem temple of its treasures and, thinking the people rebellious, carried out a vicious pogrom of retribution, putting many Jews to death. A year later, a pogrom was carried out again. This time he was determined to eradicate Judaism as a religion and replace it with the pagan cults. He caused an article sacred to Zeus to be placed in the Holy of Holies and a pig was sacrificed there in Zeus’ honor. The observance of all specifically Jewish laws relating to religious life – such as circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, as well as temple worship – were forbidden upon pain of death. All copies of the Torah that could be found were destroyed. Anyone whose child was found to have been circumcised was put to death or anyone who was found to possess a copy of the Torah. You can read about this in the book known as 1 Maccabees, one of the books of the so-called Apocrypha, but a largely reliable history of the period.

The obvious question posed by this vision and its interpretation is why the special attention paid to a man who was a relatively minor figure in the near eastern history of the five centuries before the appearance of the Lord. Why does Antiochus IV get all the attention here? He was not what anyone could call a major player on the world stage; he was certainly no Cyrus or Alexander the Great. Well the answer is obvious. He figures so largely here because he was to make a direct assault on the spiritual life and future of the people of God. In this case it wasn’t simply that the Jews were oppressed by another king. He executed a program intended to destroy any distinctive Jewish faith and life. In other words, he attempted to wipe the people of God off the face of the earth.

As the great old Princeton OT professor, Robert Dick Wilson, wrote, the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes was “the deadliest peril the church has ever confronted.” “There never was, before or since, such a period of desperation or despondency in the history of the church.” [Cited in Davis, 21] So there is a reason why the vision would concentrate on the effort of Antiochus IV to eradicate the worship of Yahweh and his people.

Now, there is an important perspective for Christians to acquire in all of this. All of this upheaval described in Daniel’s vision of the following centuries, the rise and fall of empires, all of it meant, in the nature of the case, huge measures of personal suffering – the displacements of war, and the misery that goes with war – that, so far as the vision goes and so far as we can tell, had no direct bearing on the fortunes of the kingdom of God. What of the people who found themselves in the path of the Greek army as it headed east through Babylon, Persia, and as far as the Indus River? What about their suffering; their oppression?

Florence and I saw a fascinating film this past week entitled Lion. It is the heart-breaking and heart-warming story of a five-year-old Indian boy who entirely unintentionally found himself on a train heading east away from his home, his mother, brother, and sister. It was a decommissioned train, as it turned out, locked and empty, and he wasn’t able to get off it until it arrived in Kolkata, several days later. The five year old boy, who spoke only Hindi, not Bengali as they do in Kolkata, struggled to survive on the streets of that huge city for a week or more and then was placed in an orphanage. Unable correctly to pronounce the name of his hometown, authorities were unable to locate it and, eventually, he was given up for adoption to an Australian couple from Tasmania. The boy grew up an Australian but, when he reached his young adulthood, Google Earth appeared on the scene and he began to search India from above looking for the train station not far from his home where he had boarded that train and the distinctive water tower that he remembered. He eventually did find it, after years of looking, and eventually was reunited with his mother and sister; his older brother had been struck and killed by a passing train the very night the young boy went missing.

His had been a family that lived in abject poverty. The mother worked in a quarry gathering rocks for a few rupees per day with which to feed her children. Her boys were at the train station that fateful night because it was their job to scavenge the empty trains for any leftover food, coins that had fallen from someone’s pocket, or anything else they might sell or use. And then add to that poverty the heartbreak of a mother who lost two sons the same night, who searched for her little boy but could not find him, and all the rest. Imagine her life as the years passed! Her family now reduced to a single daughter, from the three children she once had. Why? Why? Why? We cannot help but asking, though no answer comes. The world is full of woe because it is a world run by evil persons doing the bidding of evil spirits and stands under the judgment of a just God for its sins. But there was nothing in the movie, and, so far as my investigations took me, nothing in the actual story upon which the movie was made, about Christ, about faith in him, about conversion to Christianity, about the church. Nothing. And, of course and alas, much of the story of the world is the same.

No wonder vast multitudes of unbelievers don’t think the kingdom of God or the Christian Church is nearly as important as their country or their government or their multi-national company or, for that matter, their favorite sports team. What does the kingdom of God accomplish in comparison with those powerful, influential, and famous institutions that draw so many human beings into their orbit? More important, even a Christian might very well be tempted in the same way – that is to think of the Church as irrelevant on the world stage. Her power seems nothing compared to the Cyruses and Alexanders of the world or, nowadays, to the nuclear arsenals of the great powers; her influence insignificant compared to that of armies or economies or cultures.

But what Daniel’s vision reveals is that the real importance of these centuries of political upheaval and the violence that went with it – as Babylon gave way to Persia, which in turn gave way to Alexander, who, in turn gave way to his four generals – was precisely its impact on the kingdom of God! Antiochus IV, though no Cyrus or Alexander as the world counts the greatness of a political leader, was, in fact, the most significant figure in this forecast of events on the world stage precisely because of the threat he would pose to the people of God and so the future of the kingdom of God in the world. Life in this world matters for one reason only: this life, this world is the stage on which the great drama of the world’s salvation is played out, the place where and the time when the souls of men are lost or found forever. The kingdom of God is the purpose of history! That men do not know that is their most damning ignorance!

But there is more to the vision than just that sweeping perspective on world history. Think of what this vision must have suggested to Daniel? Well, the first thing, something that must have depressed him greatly, was the prophecy that the world was going to be a tumultuous place for the people of God for a long time to come. One cruel empire was on its way, it would be followed by still another, and then by four more. What we do not have here, what we never have in the Bible, is a picture of sweetness and light gradually over-spreading the world. And, still more, in the midst of this geo-political tumult and violence, God’s people would be required to struggle to stay faithful to the Lord even as they struggled to stay alive. It is important for God’s people to know what they are going to face, not only at the end, but all along the way. [Davis, 105] And, of course, that message is hardly unique to the visions of Daniel.

Remember the Lord’s words to his disciples about what was to come: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and so on. The world will never be at peace and God’s people must serve him in that world, with all of its turmoil, violence, and cruelty. Or think of his words to his disciples in the Upper Room:

“I have said all these things – he had been discussing the trials they would face, the opposition of the world, their coming persecution – to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” [John 16:1-2]

It is crucial that Christians know what following Jesus is going to require of them so that they are neither surprised nor dismayed. If the world hated the Lord Jesus, they will hate us because we are his followers. He told us that and history has proved it true times without number. When the troubles come we can say, “Well he told us it would be like this.” We might have expected the children of God to have an easier time of it in this world, but in the Devil’s world they have instead a harder time.

The modern world, as we know, has made high art of propaganda. You find it in government, of course, but you find it as well in the university, in the media, and in popular culture. We are taught relentlessly that the situation is x when, in fact, it is y. The drumbeat goes on but sooner or later it always happens that the story we’re being told seems harder and harder and then finally impossible to believe. German and Japanese propaganda during the Second World War sought to convince the citizens of both countries that the war was being won long after it was clear that it was lost. But as the bombs rained death from the sky, as the death toll on the battlefield mounted, and as the enemy drew ever nearer the people stopped believing it. The Babylonians spoke confidently of their impregnability, as did the Persians after them, as did Alexander, and so on up to our own day. But the fact is, they got it wrong 100% of the time. They were worshippers of themselves, not of God, and so their kingdoms had to fail as they did in turn.

Is there any kingdom from those days that still exists today? Of course there is: the kingdom of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Israel of God. And it is not only still here, it is increasing in its size every day having overspread the world. Antiochus is no more, hardly anyone knows who he was, but billions of people know who Daniel was! Alexander the Great was one of the great conquerors of world history, but here, in the Bible he is dispensed with in a few verses. I heard the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once in my life, when he came to preach in Aberdeen, Scotland in the middle 1970s under the auspices of a Scottish society promoting preaching on the last things. He preached on this very text. I remember the impression of his voice, but the only comment that I remember from the sermon was this: “The man the world calls Alexander the Great, the Bible calls a he-goat.”

Trial, suffering, danger must be the lot of God’s people in the world; but ultimate victory will be theirs and no other’s. That is the great message of Daniel’s vision. Now it is important then for us to ask: if that is what the vision is about, if that is its message for us, why is it that believers are so regularly distracted by speculations about the coming end of the world? And the answer seems to be: because we don’t want to live a suffering life; we don’t want to have to endure the opposition and the oppression of the world. We don’t want to make the sacrifices a faithful discipleship will require of us in a world like this.

One of the commentators I read on Daniel is Tremper Longman, once of Westminster Theological Seminary and now of Westmont College in Santa Barbara. In his commentary he recollects his involvement in the stir created in the 1990s by Harold Camping, a Christian radio preacher, who, if you remember, predicted that the Second Coming would occur in September of 1994. There were folk in Prof. Longman’s church who had become persuaded by Camping and Longman actually debated him, before a crowd of Camping enthusiasts, in May of 1994, four months before the Second Coming. Longman began by saying to the huge crowd gathered for the debate, almost all of whom already agreed with Harold Camping, “I know I can’t convince most of you today, but I want you to have something to think about in October.” But, more interesting, was the way in which the expectation of the Lord’s imminent return effected ordinary Christian folk. We might have expected that they would have been made the more zealous to serve the Lord in the remaining few days, bolder in evangelism, more determined to repent of every sin. But it was not so. Longman writes of one person he knew who ran up his credit card and got into serious financial trouble. His response? “Who cares! In a few months, Christ is coming again, so I don’t have to worry about not paying my bills.” Another friend was having marital troubles. His wife had left him with the children. When Longman asked him if he had made any attempts to speak to his wife about their problems, his reply was, “No, I don’t need to. In a matter of months Christ is coming again and my problems will disappear.” [Longman, 211-213] It was much the same way in Medieval Europe, a supposedly Christian culture. When the Black Death, the bubonic plague, overspread the continent, killing sometimes a third of the local population and, so it was thought, portending the end of the world, repentance and new obedience weren’t the orders of the day, but eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!

You see, we are averse to the message of Daniel’s vision and its emphasis on the difficulties that the people of God must face in this world and the necessity of their perseverance in faith and obedience. There is victory to be sure, but it lies over the distant horizon and many battles, many desperate battles have to be fought before victory is won. And, as the Lord said to his church, virtually the last thing he said to his people in the Word of God, “to him who overcomes I will give the crown of life.”

The principle that to be forewarned is to be forearmed is one we can all easily understand. Human beings of every religious outlook understand it. Do you not think, for example, that the Jews had known what was coming in A.D. 70, they would have behaved differently than they did? For that matter, don’t you think it would have nerved and steeled the Jews in the death camps in the 1940s had they simply known that their suffering was to bring the State of Israel into existence in just a few years’ time?

Well, so with us. The Lord has called us to a battlefield and has summoned us to endure the strife of life, strife that comes to us precisely because we are the Lord’s people. Now, to be sure, there are times and places when it is harder for believers to remember this. This has been the case for American Christians for a long time. We have lived very comfortable lives. Our religious freedoms have been zealously guarded by the state. Our prosperity is the envy of the world. We are far less likely to cry out, “How long?” as the angel does here in v. 13. But we are the outlier, both in history and in the world of our own day. There are many Christians all over the world today whose anguished cry is “How long, O Lord, How long?” before you avenge our blood, or before you deliver us from evil, or before you comfort us in our affliction? How long before you restore us from poverty and sickness and want?

The world is still full of its Babylons and Persias and Greeces. The violence has not diminished. If anything it has increased. Still today the horrors of human evil are concentrated still more in the state. [Longman, 208] We read of Babylon, not Babylonians, of Persia not of Persians, of Greece, not of Greeks. And so it is in our modern world. Without the support of the state there would have been no Armenian genocide. The story of the 20th century is the story of the Soviet starvation of some 20 million Ukrainians, Hitler’s holocaust, Mao’s political pogroms, Cambodia’ killing fields, Idi Amin’s reign of terror and on and on. Then as now the viciousness of human evil seems to be in part explained by the fact that it is being fed from behind the veil by cosmic forces of pure evil. As we’ll read in chapter 10, Persia had an angelic prince who was at work to frustrate the spiritual welfare of Persia’s people. Does the United States have such a prince? It is hard to believe it does not.

But in the teeth of such opposition we are given this great comfort. Human power can be ferocious, but it is fragile and never lasts. God’s people must struggle and must endure, but they will endure when all other kingdoms have fallen. But his people must be prepared for the long years of struggle that such a victory will require! The proof of our victory is that we are still here when the empires of the world that seemed so impregnable at the time have long since come and gone. When the Nazi leaders were executed at Nuremberg – these were for some time the most feared human beings on the planet: cruel, heartless, in thrall to a vicious ideology, perfectly willing to murder millions, the Antiochus of their day – their bodies were taken to a crematorium where they were incinerated. Their ashes were placed in a container and then driven for an hour into the Bavarian countryside where they were poured into a muddy ditch. Sic semper tyrannis! Such it will always be for tyrants.

How much longer will the struggle continue? Who can say? But whether the time is short or long, the calling remains the same. Stand fast; in spite of appearances, God, our God, is in control!