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23 December 2018

A Vision of Four Beastly Regimes (Daniel 7:1-14)

Storm Tossed Sea - Photo by Jeremy Bishop on
In Chapter 7, Daniel describes a vision he received of four “beasts” ascending from a chaotic sea followed by an interpretation given by an angel. The fourfold structure of this vision parallels the four divisions of the “great image” seen by Nebuchadnezzar in a dream. Verbal parallels confirm the correspondence between the two visions (Daniel 2:31-15, 7:1-14, 7:15-28).
In that earlier dream, the image’s “head of fine gold” was identified as Nebuchadnezzar. Each section of the image represented a kingdom. The parallels between these two visions demonstrate that Babylon is the first of the four beasts now seen ascending from the sea.
While Daniel identified the “head of gold” with Nebuchadnezzar, the identities of the second, third and fourth parts of the great image were allusive in Chapter 2; the imagery too ambiguous to link them to specific empires, at least, not with certainty. Likewise, in Chapter 7, the identities of the second, third and fourth beasts from the sea are unclear (Daniel 2:37).
Since the four kingdoms appear to be in historical sequence, presumably, the second, third and fourth ones followed Babylon sequentially.  Based on the historical record, commentators identify the last three kingdoms as the Medes and the Persians, Greece, and Rome or, alternatively, as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.
The clues in Chapter 2 are tantalizing but uncertain. However, they do not all fit into popular assumptions. For example, the four heads of the Leopard fit the division of Alexander’s empire into four smaller domains, but the ten horns of the fourth beast represent ten kings, three of whom are uprooted to make way for an eleventh, a scenario that does not fit any known succession of Roman emperors  (Daniel 7:24).
The seventh chapter is transitional; it concludes the book’s first half and introduces the main subjects of the last half. Verbal links are included in the vision of the four beasts from the sea to the vision in chapter 2 and the visions in chapters 8 through 12.
The four beasts correspond to the four metallic parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier image. In both visions, the four parts represent four kingdoms. Chapter 7 opens with a reference to the first year of Belshazzar. Thus, Daniel received a “dream and visions of his head upon his bed,” approximately, in 553 B.C. (Daniel 2:31-45). In this vision, four beastly entities are seen ascending in succession from the sea. This image is followed by a judgment scene and the interpretation of the vision of the four beasts from the sea.
The dream-vision was received when Babylon was still a powerful kingdom, though its glory was already fading. The “visions of his head upon his bed” is a verbal link to Daniel 2:28 where Nebuchadnezzar received a “dream and the visions of your head upon your bed.”
In the vision, Daniel sees “the four winds of heaven” agitating the surface of the sea. The turbulent sea symbolizes restive nations. The Aramaic describes the winds as “bursting forth upon the great sea,” suggesting the resultant turbulence caused the beasts to emerge. The verb for “ascend” is an active participle and, thus, denotes a process, “ascending.” The beasts are presented “ascending” in quick succession from the sea (Daniel 7:17, 8:8, 11:14, Revelation 7:1-3, 17:15).
The four beasts are unnatural, composite creatures with characteristics from disparate species (e.g., a lion with eagle wings). Each is driven by animalistic voracity to seize territory. The images combined with the use of simile demonstrate that what Daniel describes is not literal (i.e., “like a lion”).
The first beast corresponds to the head of gold of Nebuchadnezzar’s image. The winged lion represents either Nebuchadnezzar or the whole Babylonian kingdom. Daniel was familiar with the writings of Jeremiah who also used lions and eagles to symbolize Babylon as a swift and voracious conqueror (Jeremiah 4:13, 25:9-1449:19-22).
The lion was used in the art and architecture of Babylon to represent the empire. One of its most important deities was the goddess Ishtar, goddess of love and war. She corresponded to the Canaanite deity Ashtoreth (Astarte) and the Greek Aphrodite. Her symbols included the lion and an eight-pointed star, and she was linked to the planet Venus. Old Testament references to the “Queen of Heaven” have Ishtar in view (Jeremiah 7:1844:18).
The lion was a powerful predator. The presence of wings points to the rapidity of movement when it attacks.  The wings are those of a neshar, an Aramaic term for the griffin-vulture of the region, a scavenger that fed on carrion. It is included in the Levitical list of “unclean” animals (Leviticus 11:13).
The wings of the lion mean rapidity of movement; their removal, its curtailment.  Nebuchadnezzar conquered vast territories in only a few short years, including the destruction of Assyria. But this rapid expansion ceased after his death.
The lion “was lifted up from the earth, made to stand” and “given” a human heart. The verbs refer not to what the lion did but to what was done to it; the verbs are passive.  The Aramaic verb qûm or “stand” is the same one used for Yahweh who removes and “sets up” kings. This infers that God caused this “beast” to achieve dominion (Daniel 2:212:444:17).
The description of the receipt of a human heart parallels the earlier loss of reason by Nebuchadnezzar and his subsequent recovery of a “human heart” (Daniel 4:164:34-37).
The second beast ascends on the heels of the winged lion.  Neither the vision nor its interpretation addresses whether there is any time interval between each successive beast though they do appear to rise from the sea in quick succession.
The second beast looks like a bear with one side raised higher than the other. Based on the sequence of the vision in Chapter 2, it corresponds to the silver portion of its image, the torso with two arms. The silver was “inferior” to the head of “fine gold.” A bear is as strong as a lion but lacks its agility and cunning, being a more ponderous animal. Its two sides correspond to the two arms of the earlier vision and suggest a divided kingdom. The image is not a bear rearing on its hind legs but one that elevates its feet on one side as it steps forward (Daniel 2:322:39).
The bear grips three ribs in its teeth; prey seized by a ravenous animal. The ribs may represent nations subjugated by the bear. Whether three is literal or symbolic is not clear. The bear is commanded to “rise and consume much flesh,” a summons to further acts of predation. A bear poised to strike while gripping three ribs points to an insatiable appetite.
The third beast resembles a leopard with four wings and four heads. The “dominion given to it” is a verbal link to the bronze section of Nebuchadnezzar’s image that was to “rule over all the earth” (Daniel 2:39).
A leopard is an agile and cunning predator. Wings point to speed. They are the wings of a “fowl” or ‘ōph, a term in Aramaic that refers to any kind of bird. Wings normally occur in pairs but “four” means the creature has two pairs of wings, which points to motion in the four directions of the compass, as well as rapidity in conquest.
The four heads of the leopard are not connected to the four wings. “Heads” elsewhere represent kings and their domains. The four heads are grouped together, suggesting they are contemporaneous rather than consecutive, a fourfold division of a realm (Daniel 2:32-387:20).
The fourth beast is described in more detail than the preceding three; it is the focus of the vision. The first three are more incidental to provide the background to the vision of the fourth beast.
This beast has no analog in the animal kingdom. It is “terrible and exceedingly strong…with great iron teeth.” It “devours and shatters and tramples the remnant with its feet.” Likewise, the fourth section of Nebuchadnezzar’s image was “strong as iron” and “shattered and subdued all things” (Daniel 2:40-43).
With its feet, this beast “trampled the remnant (she’ar).” The identity of the “remnant” is not given at this point (but see Daniel 8:10). The “ten horns” may correspond to the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, although the king’s dream mentioned toes but not their number (Daniel 2:41).
A little horn emerges from among the ten horns.  It is not one of the ten but a smaller one that appears later. Three of the ten horns are “uprooted.” The text does not say whether the “little horn” removed them; the passive voice is used. The three horns are “removed” from before it by someone or something.
The number “ten” may be symbolic or literal. Elsewhere in scripture, the number ten symbolizes a complete set of something. But the removal of three horns and their replacement by an eleventh is quite specific, making it difficult to interpret the numbers symbolically. This level of detail more likely points to a known set of events or persons.
The “little horn” has human eyes and “a mouth speaking great things,” which points to intelligence and individuality. “Speaking great things” suggests something blasphemous; a challenge to the rule of God.
The paragraph in verses 9-14 presents the second half of the vision; the reaction of the Heavenly Court to the four beasts from the sea. What is seen is part of the same symbolical world as the preceding paragraph, only now the reader sees events from the perspective of the throne of God.
Daniel gazed “until thrones were placed.” This is a judgment scene. This is confirmed by verse 10, “judgment was set and the books were opened” (compare Daniel 12:1Revelation 20:12).
The picture of “one seated on the throne” symbolizes God’s sovereignty over events; fire issuing from the throne points to judicial power (compare Revelation 4:4). Daniel makes no attempt to identify the beings who sit on the other “thrones”; their plurality may serve to highlight the majesty of the Ancient of Days; likewise, the picture of “thousands upon thousands that served him.”
The portrait of four ravenous creatures ascending from the sea gave the impression that human kingdoms were under the control of historical events. Any such notion is now set aside by the actions that occur in the heavenly court.
The throne’s fiery wheels suggest mobility: there is no place safe from the judicial reach of the divine throne.  Yahweh’s rule is dynamic, not limited to heaven; He determines the course of history. The four beasts can only exit the sea when and as He permits. He is the ultimate source of the forces that stirred the surface of the sea that cause their arrival.
The fourth beast is “slain” because of its arrogance, the “mouth speaking great things.” The impious natures of all four beasts reach their blasphemous limit in the mouth of the “little horn,” consequently, the fourth beast is destroyed. But the text states it was the “beast” that was slain, not its “little horn.” This points to the “death” of a regime, not necessarily to the death of an individual ruler.
The first three beasts now reappear (“the rest of the beasts”). In the historical record, each kingdom succeeded its predecessor. In the symbolical world of this vision, the four realms on some level are contemporaneous with the “little horn.”
In the first half of the vision, nothing was said about the destruction the first three beasts; symbolically, all four exist until they are destroyed together by an act of judgment by the heavenly court, just as in Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier vision all four sections of the image were destroyed simultaneously by the stone cut “without hands.” In that dream, the four sections were constituent parts of one whole (Daniel 2:44-45)..
Each kingdom is “given a lengthening of life until a time and season.” Each endures for the time allotted by God and no longer; each loses dominion and receives the duration of life at the appointed time.  The end of the first three beasts is inextricably linked to the destruction of the fourth; especially, to the downfall of its “little horn.”
The destruction of the fourth kingdom brings the entire world-power to an end, just as in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream when the “stone” struck the image’s feet and caused the destruction of the entire structure.  The dominion of the hostile world-power passes successively from one kingdom to another; each exercises the same malevolent power. The form may vary but the nature of each beast remains the same.
The length of a “season and time” is undefined. This is a link to Daniel’s earlier statement that God “changes times and seasonshe removes kings and sets up kings.” This confirms God’s control over the kingdoms of the earth (Daniel 2:21).
The lengthening of life means that each beast on some level continues in each subsequent regime. Nebuchadnezzar saw four individual kingdoms represented by one figure composed of four parts. Thus, the empire has multiple incarnations but remains a singular entity. Its form varies over space and time, but its true nature does not. Daniel previously declared that the “Most-High has dominion over the kingdom of men,” singular, and “gives it to whomever he pleases,” also singular.
One like a son of man” approaches the “ancient of days,” presumably after the destruction of the fourth beast. “Son of man” is an Aramaic idiom that, by itself, means no more than a “human being.” This figure is likened to a “son of man.” It does not state whether he was an actual human, a divine or a cosmic being; the description is part of the vision. As with beasts being compared to animals, this is a simile that describes what Daniel saw.
The human-like “son of man” is contrasted to the monstrous “beasts.” The nature of God’s kingdom differs fundamentally from the beastly nature of the world-kingdom. Behind the image is the Genesis account; Yahweh made man in His “likeness” and charged him to take dominion over the earth. This “son of man” now succeeds where Adam failed (Genesis 1:26-28).
The “Son of Man” does not receive the kingdom until the books are opened, judgment is given, and the beast is slain (verses 10-11). Recorded in the “books” are the deeds of the four beasts. The arrival of God’s kingdom does not produce their immediate destruction.
In the vision, the “son of man” does not arrive from heaven but approaches the Ancient of Days where he receives a kingdom that will not be destroyed. This is another link to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which the “stone cut out without hands” filled the earth and became “a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44-45).
All peoples, races, and tongues are to serve him.” This will be a realm not limited to national Israel or to its ancestral territory but, instead, Daniel envisions all humanity under the reign of this final kingdom. The term “saints” points not to a national or ethnic group, but to men and women from every nation set apart for service to Yahweh.

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