The previous chapter serves as an introduction to the vision, the substance of which is now provided. But the introduction, impressive as it is for its account of the overwhelming impression the vision had on Daniel, for the appearance of an angel and references to other spiritual beings and their efforts for and against the kingdom of God, and for the promise to Daniel that the vision was given both in answer to his prayer and because he was greatly loved in heaven, certainly indicates the importance of what follows. If we struggle to know precisely what we’re to do with the information we read in this chapter – the account of the vision that Daniel received – at least let’s begin with the conviction that it must have been wonderfully important. The prophecy continues to v. 45, but, as we will see next time, its focus shifts in that last paragraph, so we’re reading only through verse 35.
As we said last time, v. 1 belongs with the preceding material, not with what follows.
v.2 The vision passes over two hundred years of Persian rule in a single verse. The fourth king – the numbering is something of a puzzle – was probably Xerxes, the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. He was a powerful emperor but he got his lunch handed to him by the Greeks at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. Xerxes stumbled back to Persia, his hopes of still greater empire thoroughly dashed.
v.4 Vv. 3 and 4 offer a brief glance at the conquests of Alexander the Great, after whose death at just 33 years of age, those conquests were eventually divided among four of his generals. One kingdom became four.
The remainder of the vision up to v. 35 is occupied with two of the four kingdoms that were created out of the ruins of Alexander’s brief imperial rule – the Ptolemaic, centered in Egypt, and the Seleucid, centered in Syria. These are the southern and the northern kingdoms referred to in the following verses.
v.9 At first the southern, or Ptolemaic kingdom proved the stronger, though an attempt to cement its power by means of a marriage alliance proved a fiasco. The story of that fiasco would take too long to tell, but it had all the makings of an Italian opera: a divorce to make possible a diplomatic alliance by marriage; then that marriage ending in divorce as the king reconciled with his first wife; then that first wife, having never gotten over being scorned in the first place and not in a forgiving mood, apparently poisoned her husband, the wife who had replaced her for a time, and the son from that second marriage. So, when you’re despairing of American politics, take comfort. Bad as our situation is, it could be worse!
v.11 The king of the south at this point, Ptolemy IV, was a miserable ruler, a playboy who was not respected by his people, but somehow, largely because of the competence of his generals, he managed a great victory over the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, at the battle of Raphia, on the frontier between Egypt and Palestine, in 217 B.C. Remember, it was 535 B.C. when the vision was given to Daniel, so we’ve moved forward more than 300 years. Antiochus lost 17,000 in the battle, the Egyptians only 2,000. [Davis, 149]
v.13 Now remember, Judea lay directly between Egypt and Syria, so found itself in the path of these armies invading in either direction. What matters in the vision is the implications of all of this warfare for the Jews. Canaan, as you recall, had long been a highway between Egypt and the rest of the near eastern world. Much of Israel’s history had been shaped by that geographical reality.
v.14 In other words, some Jews sided with the northern kingdom in hopes of throwing off the yoke of their oppressor to the south. But they were unsuccessful. The reference to the vision at least raises the possibility that they thought they were fulfilling this very prophecy that we have in chapter 11. They knew what had been prophesied by Daniel and thought they found their situation in the prophecy. They rose up accordingly, but failed. [cf. Longman, 276]
v.16 The best troops of the Egyptian army throughout this whole period were not the Egyptian soldiers themselves but others that had been paid for by the king. The Seleucids made a comeback, perhaps partly due to the fact that upon Ptolemy IV’s death, he was succeeded by his four year old son.
v.17 It was Antiochus the Great’s plan, in marrying his daughter Cleopatra to Ptolemy V, not only to gain permanent control over Egypt but finally to forge a single kingdom out of the Syrian-Egyptian alliance. He sought to accomplish these goals by giving his daughter Cleopatra to Ptolemy V with the hope was she would be favorable to Syria in the court and gradually Egypt would be peacefully drawn into the Syrian orbit. But Cleopatra actually loved her new husband and, no longer Daddy’s girl, became pro-Egyptian in her outlook. This is not the Cleopatra who would be the mistress of both Caesar and Mark Anthony – that Cleopatra, the VII, would not appear for a century and a half – but it is this Cleopatra, The First, who gave her name to the Egyptian queens.
v.19 In any case, the Seleucid kingdom eventually did conquer the Ptolemaic under the king known to history as Antiochus the Great and, as part of its conquest, he exercised rule over Judea, a minor kingdom that sat between Syria and Egypt. But when Antiochus sought further to advance his rule and consolidate his power he was unsuccessful. He moved westward and attempted to invade Greece, after the Romans told him not to. Though outnumbering the Romans more than 2 to 1 he was soundly beaten in battle in 190 B.C. The Romans exacted such heavy tribute that he was forced to raise funds by looting temples and in 187 B.C., while looting a temple of Bel near Susa far to the east he was killed by an incensed mob of worshippers.
v.20 The reference is to Seleucus IV who died – not gloriously or, as we might say, “with his boots on” – but from poison administered by his Prime Minister in 175 B.C. You can’t make this stuff up! But, before his death, still obliged to send tribute to Rome, he sent an agent to loot the temple in Jerusalem.
Now the spiritual lesson in all of this, up to this point, at any rate, was to remind God’s people not to put their hope or confidence in any of these foreign kings, a mistake Israel had made many times in the past. In one case she would look to Syria for help against her enemies, in another to Egypt, in another to Assyria, even on one occasion to Babylon, always instead of turning to the Lord. But as the Lord often warned them, what victories such kings may win, what help they may provide would soon be turned to oppression, and if not to oppression, the advantage gained would soon be lost, because that particular king would then suffer defeat in battle with some other power. So the protection Israel sought from such alliances would always prove illusory. In fact, vv. 2-20 are a record of consistent failure. There may have been temporary triumphs scattered here and there, but nothing permanent and certainly nothing that helped Israel live her life as the people of God. It is a long story of defeat and death.
v.21 Here is introduced the main figure of the vision and the subject of the remaining verses of our reading this evening. This is Antiochus IV, known to ancient near eastern history as Antiochus Epiphanes. He seized the throne of the Seleucid kingdom to which his nephew was the rightful heir, an infant who was conveniently murdered five years later.
v.22 The prince of the covenant was the Jewish High Priest Onias III, deposed and assassinated in 171 B.C. His mistake was being pro-Egyptian. Antiochus replaced him with a man of his own choice, a man not of the priestly line, which offended the orthodox Jews and began the bitter contest between them and the Seleucid king.
v.24 He operated by deceit, corruption, and treachery. Alas, the Jews themselves were divided by Antiochus’ skillful use of money and power and some supported his program, no matter that it was overtly hostile to faith in Yahweh.
v.26 Ambition led Epiphanes, as it had his father and his father before him and so on, to embark on a war of conquest with the Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt.
v.27 “They shall speak lies at the same table…” pretty accurately sums up a great deal of diplomacy from that day to this.
v.30 The might of Rome now appeared on the scene and checked Epiphanes more thoroughly than the Ptolemies could have done. They required Antiochus to accept a humiliating abandonment of his designs on Egypt and it may be that personal humiliation that explains his savagery toward the Jews that followed his departure from Egypt with his tail between his legs. He had tried to tell the Roman commander that he needed time to make his decision. The Roman legate, however, drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus and demanded that he make his decision before he left the circle. Antiochus knew better than to disobey but the public humiliation must have been unbearable.
v.31 The “abomination that makes desolate” refers to Epiphanes’ despoiling of the temple by making it into a sanctuary of Zeus. Epiphanes, a lover of all things Greek, wanted to hellenize the Levant, all the territory under his control, and one of the ways to do that was to replace the local religions with the religion of Greece. The abomination itself was probably a meteorite that was supposed to represent Zeus, which was then placed in the Most Holy Place where years before the Ark of the Covenant had resided.
v.33 In his vicious pogrom against the Jews Epiphanes had many executed and many other sold into slavery.
v.35 The pressure will be so great, in other words, that even some of the wise, the faithful Jews, will stumble. This has always happened in times of persecution. This is an extraordinarily important verse and should have been referred to again and again and again in the controversies of the early church. Remember on two separate occasions there was an enormous division in the Christian church over the question of what to do with Christians who had consented to take the oath that was being demanded by Roman judges, an oath no Christian could take, or in some other way were required upon pain of punishment to forsake the faith in order to save their lives. And then when persecution relaxed they repented of what they had done and wanted to be restored to the church. There was a strict party that felt that they had forever lost their right to be numbered among the people of God and there was a more merciful party, Augustine being one of the chief exemplars of it, who felt that that was a sin like other sins that Christ had provided forgiveness for, as this verse seems clearly to suggest. The pressure will be extraordinarily great. That’s the point. But their stumbles will not separate them from God’s love.
The intensity of the persecution and the threat posed to Jewish life and faith explains the concentration on this short period of history. The first 19 verses of the chapter covered some 355 years of history; the next fifteen verses cover a period of only twelve years. [Davis, 154] As I mentioned in a previous sermon, the intention of Epiphanes was to eradicate the Jewish people as a religious community. The death penalty was imposed for the circumcision of Jewish boys or the observance of the Sabbath day; the liturgical life of Judaism was outlawed and replaced with that of the Greek pantheon; and all copies of the Torah that could be found were burned. The Jews were, humanly speaking, poised on the edge of the abyss and the pressure to conform was such that many surrendered their faith to save their lives.
Now the first thing to say about this prophecy is that there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the Bible; not in the OT and not in the New. Where else do we find an account with this detail covering centuries of history? This king will do this and that king will do that, this battle will be fought, this diplomatic alliance will be attempted but will fail, this king will die but not in battle, and so on. Think of the great prophesies of the future, whether the messianic prophesies of Isaiah or the prophesies of the end of history in Revelation. None of them is nearly as specific or detailed as this one.
No wonder then that much of biblical scholarship, mostly liberal but even some evangelical, holds that Daniel chapter 11 is the Bible’s clearest example of vaticinium ex eventu, prophecy after the fact. That is, this kind of detail proves that Daniel was written not in the 6th century B.C. but in the mid-2nd century. He wrote not to predict what would happen but to describe what had already happened. According to this thinking the readers of the book would have known that Daniel had not been written centuries before and would have accepted the appearance of predictive prophecy as only a literary device. That, however, is very doubtful. There are technical reasons to doubt that argument, but, more to the point, the whole value of the information disappears if it were not actually a prediction made centuries before. It is no demonstration of anything and certainly no encouragement to believe in God’s sovereign control of history if everyone knows that the author is only giving a history lesson after the fact. A complete unbeliever could have written this chapter in that case!
Nevertheless, the unusual nature of this prophecy certainly explains why many a scholar finds it inconceivable that the vision was given to Daniel and then the report of it written in 536 or 535 B.C. or thereabouts, some four centuries before some of the events occurred that were described in the vision. I feel the force of that argument myself, so unlike other biblical prophecy is this one. But, there are too many reasons, too many convincing reasons to accept that Daniel was written in the 6th century B.C. and very good reasons to think that “prophecy after the fact” was not, in fact, ever an acceptable literary device for the Jews. As I argued in an earlier sermon in this series, the likelihood that the book of Daniel could have been written in the mid-2nd century B.C. and been accepted as Holy Scripture almost immediately is vanishingly small. The Jews knew what books belonged in the Bible and why they belonged there. In fact, it was a commonplace of Jewish conviction in the Lord’s own day that no prophet had appeared since Malachi who lived in the 5th century B.C. If Daniel is not a 6th century B.C. prophecy, the Jews were snookered! They thought it was the Bible because they thought it had been written centuries before it actually was.
So, accepting its unique character, what is the point of this vision? What does it teach us? And why was it thought so important that it deserved the impressive introduction that we were given in chapter 10? Several considerations are important in framing an answer to that question.
- Without doubt, the vision confirms the general and often repeated lesson of the book: “In spite of appearances God is in control.” That God knows precisely what is to happen, that he has his people’s welfare in view, and that history is moving toward its appointed conclusion are so fundamental to a Christian philosophy of life, no wonder Daniel rings the changes on that theme as often as it does.
- It appears that Antiochus Epiphanes serves in this prophecy as an epitome, a representative, a grand illustration of human power arrayed against the people of God. We will consider this next time, but the prophecy proceeds seamlessly from Antiochus to a figure who will represent a still greater threat, indeed a final threat to the kingdom of God, a person who will appear at the end of history. This would be the same figure we encountered in the prophecy of the seventy sevens: John’s Antichrist, or the beast of Revelation, or Paul’s Man of Lawlessness. Antiochus, in his determination to exterminate the kingdom of God in the world became a type, a foreshadowing of the final conflict that will precede the Second Coming.
- The concentration in the vision on Antiochus Epiphanes and his persecution of the Jews focuses attention once again, as often before in Daniel, on the suffering that is the lot of the faithful in this world.
- But fundamental to that recognition is also the promise that God will not allow his people to be tempted beyond what they are able. There are a number of phrases in this chapter that recall the Lord’s remark that if the times had not been shortened the people of God might have been destroyed by the machinations and the temptations of the forces of evil in the world. Notice the “for some days” in v. 34 – and the “time of the end” in v. 35. God will punish human wickedness – all these kings in Daniel 11 finally failed – and will preserve the faith of his people until the day that faith becomes sight.
- Finally, God’s people cannot escape the conflict. They cannot opt out. There is nothing here of monasteries. The Jews will find themselves having to make decisions, both small and great: whether to resist or conform, how to resist, and how to preserve the faith in their families. There is nothing new in this, of course. The concept of the faithful remnant is everywhere in biblical prophecy, and we are given many examples of faithful people who refused, sometimes at great cost, to follow the crowd in conforming to the world. Think of an individual like Obadiah, the faithful man who served in Ahab’s court and risked his life to protect the prophets of the Lord. Or think of the 7,000 more at that time who remained loyal to the Lord though risking the wrath of King Ahab by doing so. Theirs was no easy life, but in the midst of their daily lives, as life went on, as they continued they daily routines they remained steadfast, as multitudes have ever since.
Taking these observations together, what can we say? Well, this: how different everything appears from the bird’s perspective high above. At ground level, and moment by moment, all we can see are events unfolding one after another. This one seems encouraging; this one a threat. Take our present situation in the West. The church is in decline, steep decline. Our influence in the culture is increasingly negligible. The church herself is under pressure to conform to our culture’s orthodoxies, no matter that they are direct contradictions of the truth of God’s Word. By conforming much of the church has eviscerated her testimony and lost her influence. The same time Christians loyal to the Word of God are so easily tempted to think that this political development or that national leader will get us back where we want to be. The Jews fell prey to that temptation in the 2nd century B.C. during the persecution ordered by Antiochus Epiphanes. While we are certainly not to abandon political involvement, politics is not the basis of our hope. It will always, inevitably disappoint us. Today’s victory will lead to tomorrow’s defeat just as it did time and time again between Daniel’s day and the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Jews had to live in the political world of their day; they had no choice. But they needed to do that, as we need to do it, with their eyes wide open, remaining faithful to God and letting the chips fall where they may. It may be very rough going, but it is the only path to final vindication and triumph.
The fact is, if you love God, if you revere his Word, if you are committed to living according to his law, you are going to find yourself out-of-step with the culture around you, any culture, any time. How out-of-step and how violent the reaction of the culture differs from place to place and time to time. The fact that many Americans have only recently sensed that they are out-of-step with their culture is the index of our longstanding spiritual complacency. The church failed far too often to point out to her people that the political and social life of our nation was hardly faithful to true Christian conviction and that the interests of the culture were manifestly different from the interests of the kingdom of God. And so Christians in very large numbers contented themselves with a Christian faith from which all the bite and power had been removed. I grew up in that Christian culture. Racism was pure evil; so was materialism, but we tolerated them and then accommodated them, and then, God forgive us, we actually defended them. American television was corrupting of virtually every Christian grace but we watched it nonetheless and let our children watch it. Madison Avenue dictated the choices of Christian believers as surely as it did the choices of everyone else. And so on.
What we have in this prophecy is a picture of God’s people as an embattled community in a world that cares nothing for and is actively hostile to our most sacred loves and convictions. That has always been the case and is today. We are beset by adversaries and if we are not fully awake to their animosity toward our faith they will sweep us away before we know what happened. That has happened times without number. Even the wise among us can be taken in, at least for a time. What we should want most for ourselves and for our children is that we be found among those “who stand firm and take action.” When the Oxford Movement of the 19th century influenced the Church of England to introduce a lot of high church falderal, Bishop J.C. Ryle would lean out of his stall at St. Paul’s just so that everyone could see that he was not turning east to recite the Creed! Every one of us should be doing something of the same thing every day in front of our children, in front of our friends, in front of our co-workers: identifying ourselves with Christ and the Bible for our own sakes, for the sake of our children and other believers, and for the sake of our witness to the world. We may even be required to do something much more painful, but we’ll be ready to make the sacrifice if we have been practicing our resistance to the culture and its politics and its morality and its worldview on a daily basis. Anyone can die a martyr’s death who has been dying to the world every day after day for years on end!
Did you know the people being described in v. 32, the faithful people of God who refused to bend to the persecution of Antiochus and his Jewish quislings, are celebrated at the end of Hebrews 11, the chapter often called the “Hall of the Heroes of Faith?” Their resistance to the effort of Antiochus to eradicate the faith cost many of them dearly but the Lord took notice. He numbered them among the heroes of the faith. They’re the only ones to whom reference is made who are not figures of Holy Scripture in the first 39 books, the Old Testament. This is one of the few instances in the Bible where a prophecy of faithfulness, then fulfilled in history, is celebrated in a still later part of the Bible. Their eventual victory and their rededication of the temple, celebrated in the Feast of Dedication, what we now know as the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, a feast the Lord Jesus himself celebrated during his ministry, is one of the great achievements of believing history, along with the early years of the Gentile mission, the Protestant Reformation, and the modern missions movement.
You may not have realized that this history is referred to in Hebrews 11:36-38. “Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance that they might obtain a better resurrection.” The particular form of torture suggested by the verb there was precisely the punishment meted out to Eleazar, one of the confessors of those terrible days, a man who went to his death willingly rather than deny his loyalty to Yahweh. In the book entitled II Maccabees the account of his martyrdom is then followed by that of his mother and his seven sons who likewise endured torture rather than transgress God’s law. One of the sons said to the king:
“You accursed wretch [– remember Antiochus in called a “contemptible” person in Daniel 11:21 –], you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” [2 Maccabees, 7:9]
Another held out his limbs to be mutilated, saying:
“I got these from heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” [7:11]
And still another at the point of death:
“One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” [7:14 The above from F.F. Bruce, Hebrews NICNT, 338.]
As we are reminded in Hebrews 11:36 these martyrs were mocked as well as tortured as the Lord Jesus was. And when we read in Hebrews 11:38 of those of whom the world was not worthy, who wandered about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth, once again the reference is to these sufferers of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, who at last fled to the wilderness with their families. They were hunted down and many of them found and executed for their loyalty to the Lord and loyalty to his commandments. These folk are numbered among the martyrs in heaven crying out, “How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood?” But, you see, we are being taught in Hebrews 11 that you and I are to have that same faith and that same determination to live not for this world but for the better resurrection, for the heavenly country, and for the city that has foundations whose builder and maker is God. Here in Daniel 11, in Hebrews 11, in Revelation, and in many other places we are being show what faith is. Faith is best observed in the sufferer, the martyr, who trusts himself or herself to the Lord in defiance of the opposition of the world. The martyr is the representative Christian in the Bible. You know what “martyr” means. It means “witness.” And the most powerful witness is that of faith and obedience when it is the most costly. This is why this attention is paid to the period of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was to be the next terrible period of Jewish suffering and one of the worst that will ever have been experienced by the people of God both for its ferocity and for its intention to annihilate the Jews as a people of biblical faith. There were fewer Jews in those days than at the time of the Holocaust, but the pogrom of Antiochus IV was more dangerous to their survival as a community of faith, because in the 1930’s and 1940’s so many Jews lived beyond the reach of the Nazis.
For that reason this history became exemplary, a flesh and blood illustration of what faith is and what faith does and what it means to be a child of God in the devil’s world. And so the question Daniel 11 poses to each one of us, young and old, man and woman, new believer and veteran follower of Jesus Christ is this: are you such a man or woman who would stand firm and take action? Do you know yourself to believe like that, to that extent, with that conviction and determination? No one, of course, can say precisely how he or she will do when the terrible day comes – which is why we are reminded in vv. 33-34 that even some faithful folk faltered – but knowing that this is what has happened before, knowing that this is what faithful men and women must be prepared to do, reminding yourself that only loyalty that stands the test is acceptable, I say that is more than half the battle. To determine ahead of time that you will consider it an honor and a privilege to suffer for the name is the only way to prepare yourself for the day of testing.
Now to be sure, this is not the only thing the Bible says about the Christian life. There is joy and peace and fruitful service of both the church and the world, there is growth in grace and the knowledge of God, there is the communion of the saints, there is walking with the Lord, there is the battle with one’s own sins and temptations, and there are times of prosperity. It isn’t all Daniel 11 all the way through the Bible. We know that. Indeed, during most of the history reported in Daniel 11 God’s people weren’t tortured as they were under Antiochus. But there is a lot of Daniel 11 in the Bible and in the history of God’s people ever since. And so if we are to be faithful, authentic Christians, there must be this readiness to resist the opposition of the world, even to the extent that we would give up our lives rather than to betray the Lord. At one time or another, this will be required of Christians.
Three noteworthy books have been published recently each of which in its own way describes the death spiral of America as a nation and culture and its growing and probably irreversible hostility to the Christian faith. Each book calls upon Christians to realize that their responsibility is to accept that living the Christian life is going to require a much more intentional resistance to and separation from the American culture in which we live. The titles tell the tale: 1) The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation; 2) Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World; and 3) Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. None of these authors thinks that a reformation of American culture along Christian lines is possible in your lifetime. Each of them is a summons to Christians to remain faithful in a deeply, aggressively unfaithful land. This is where we are, like it or not. Our culture may not be as openly intentional in its efforts to eradicate Christianity as was Antiochus, but that is the drift of its influence and the focus of many of its specific efforts. And it is hardly unlikely that it will get worse, much worse.
Henry Ford thought history was nothing more than the succession of one damn thing after another. Many academics nowadays pontificate about the meaninglessness of history. But history bristles with meaning because it is going somewhere and carrying men and women along with it. Who we worship and how we live will have everything to do with what happens to us at the end. It is only that fact that justifies a man or woman giving up life itself to be true to a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. But it is that fact supremely that Daniel 11 is intended to illustrate and to confirm.