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23 December 2018

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

four beasts from the sea
Daniel describes a vision he received of four “beasts” ascending from a chaotic sea (Daniel 7:1-14). The vision is followed by an interpretation given to Daniel by an angel (7:15-28).
The fourfold structure of this vision parallels the four divisions of the “great image” seen by Nebuchadnezzar in a dream (2:31-45). Verbal parallels confirm the correspondence.
In the earlier dream, the image’s “head of fine gold” was identified as Nebuchadnezzar. Each section of that image represented a “kingdom.” The parallels between the two visions mean Babylon is certainly the first of the four beasts from the sea.
While Daniel identified the “head of gold” with Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:37), the identities of the second, third and fourth kingdoms were allusive, the imagery too ambiguous to link them to known historical empires. Likewise, in chapter 7, the identities of the second, third and fourth beasts are unclear.
Since the four kingdoms appear in succession, presumably the second, third and fourth ones followed Babylon in succession.  Based on the historical record, commentators identify the last three kingdoms as the Medes and the Persians, the Greek kingdom and Rome, or, alternatively, as Babylon, Media, Persia and Alexander’s Macedonian empire with its offshoots.
The clues in chapter 2 are tantalizing but uncertain. They do not all fit neatly 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 which are uprooted to make way for an eleventh (7:24), a scenario that does not fit any known succession of Roman emperors.
The seventh chapter is transitional; it concludes the book’s first half and introduces subjects for the last half. Verbal links are included both to the vision in chapter 2 and the visions in chapters 8 through 12.
The four beasts correspond to the four parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier image (2:31-45). In both visions, the four parts represented four kingdoms. Chapter 7 opens with a reference to the first year of Belshazzar. Daniel received a “dream and visions of his head upon his bed” (7:1), around 553 B.C.
In the vision four beastly entities ascend in succession from the sea (7:2-8), followed by a judgment scene (7:9-14), then the vision’s interpretation and Daniel’s concluding remarks (7:15-28).
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”.
Daniel saw “the four winds of heaven” agitating the surface of the sea (cpDaniel 8:811:4Revelation 7:1-3). The turbulent sea symbolizes restive nations (Daniel 7:17Revelation 17:15). 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 were seen in the process of “ascending” in sequence from the sea.
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 of unnatural creatures combined with the use of simile demonstrate that what Daniel describes is symbolical, 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 2:32-38). 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; 4:408:1-29:2425:9-1449:19-22).
The lion was used in art and architecture to symbolize the Babylonian kingdom and one of its most important deities, 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.  Ishtar was linked to the planet Venus. Old Testament references to the “Queen of Heaven” have this deity in view (Jeremiah 7:1844:18).
The lion was a powerful predator. The presence of wings points to the rapidity of movement in the attack.  The wings are those of a neshar, an Aramaic term for the griffin vulture of the region, a scavenger that feeds on carrion. It is included in the Levitical list of “unclean” animals (Leviticus 11:13Deuteronomy 14:12).
Wings 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 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 (2:212:444:17). This infers that God caused this “beast” to achieve dominion.
The description of the receipt of a human heart parallels the 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 a time interval between each successive beast, but they appear to rise from the sea in quick succession.
This beast looks like a bear but with one side raised higher than the other. Based on the sequence of the earlier vision, it corresponds to the silver portion of the earlier image, the torso with two arms (2:322:39). 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 Nebuchadnezzar’s image and suggest two divisions a kingdom (2:32). The image is not a bear rearing on its hind legs but one that elevates its feet on one side as it steps forward.
The bear grips three ribs in its teeth; prey seized by a ravenous animal. They may represent nations subjugated by the bear. Whether three is literal or symbolical is not clear at this point.
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.
     This 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” (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 Hebrew or Aramaic that can refer to any kind of bird. Wings normally occur in pairs but “four” in the Aramaic text means a total of four wings, presumably two pairs. This feature points to motion in the four directions of the compass and rapidity in conquest.
The four heads are not connected to the four wings. “Heads” elsewhere in the vision represent kings and their domains (2:32-387:20). The four heads are grouped together, suggesting they contemporaneous rather than consecutive reigns, a fourfold division.
The fourth description is more detailed than the preceding three; it is the focus of the vision, the others being more incidental to provide background. This beast has no analog in the animal kingdom.
It is “terrible and exceedingly strong…with great iron teeth.” It “devours and shatters (dekak) and tramples the rest with its feet.” Likewise, the fourth section of Nebuchadnezzar’s image was “strong as iron” and “shattered (dekak) and subdued all things” (2:40-43).
With its feet, this beast “trampled the remnant (she’ar).” The identity of the “remnant” is not given (cpDaniel 8:10). The “ten horns” may correspond to the toes of Nebuchadnezzar’s image (2:41), although the king’s dream mentioned toes but not their number.
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 the “little horn” removed them; the passive voice is used. The three horns are “removed” from before it by someone or something else.
The number “ten” may be symbolical or literal. Elsewhere in scripture the number ten can symbolize 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 this image 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.
This paragraph presents the second half of the vision; the reaction of the Heavenly Court to the four beasts. What is seen is part of the same symbolical world as the preceding paragraph, only now the reader sees events from the perspective of heaven.
Daniel gazed “until thrones were placed.” This is a judgment scene, which is confirmed by verse 10, “judgment was set and the books were opened” (cp. 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 (cp. Revelation 4:4). Daniel makes no attempt to identify the beings who sit on the other “thrones.” The 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 in control of historical events. Any such notion is now set aside by actions in the Heavenly court.
The throne’s fiery wheels suggest mobility, there is no place safe from His judicial reach.  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 to cause the rise of the four “beasts.”
The focus on the fourth beast is continued. It is “slain” because of its arrogant words, the “mouth speaking great things.” The impious natures of all four beasts reach blasphemous their height 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 just its “little horn.” This points to the “death” of a regime, not to the death or eternal destiny of an individual man.
The first three beasts now reappear (“the rest of the beasts”). In the historical record, each kingdom succeeded its predecessor. In the symbolical world, the four on some level are contemporaneous.
In the first half of the vision, nothing was said about the destruction the first three; symbolically all four exist until they are destroyed together by an act of judgment in the Heavenly court, just as in Nebuchadnezzar’s image all four sections were destroyed simultaneously by the stone cut “without hands” (2:44-45). In that dream, the four sections were constituent parts of one whole.
Each kingdom is “given lengthening of life until a time and season” (7:12). Each endures for the time allotted by God and no longer; each loses dominion at the appointed time; each receives the duration of life until the designated moment.  The end of the first three beasts is inextricably linked to the destruction of the fourth one, and 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 where the “stone” struck the image’s feet and caused the destruction of the entire structure (2:31-44).  The dominion of the hostile world power passes successively from one kingdom to another, as each exercises the same malevolent power. The form may vary but its nature 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” (2:21). This confirms God’s control over the kingdoms of the earth.
The lengthening of each beast’s life means its life continues in some fashion in the subsequent beasts. Nebuchadnezzar saw four individual kingdoms represented by the four sections of one figure. The world-power has multiple incarnations but remains a singular entity. Its form may vary 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” approached 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 “human being.” This figure is likened to a “son of man.” It does not state whether he was an actual human, divine or 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 Genesis 1:26-28 when Yahweh made man in His “likeness” and charged him to take dominion over the earth. The “son of man” succeeds where Adam failed.
The “Son of Man” does not receive the kingdom until after the books are opened, judgment is given, and the beast is slain (7:10-11). Recorded in the “books” are the deeds of the four beasts. The arrival of God’s kingdom does not produce their destruction; it only appears after they are destroyed.
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” (2:44-45).
All peoples, races, and tongues are to serve him” (7:14). This will be a realm not limited to national Israel or its ancestral territory but envisions all humanity under its reign. 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. Daniel’s prophecy comprehends a reality beyond the confines of national Israel.

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