The apocalyptic vision here under consideration is one of a number found in the book of Daniel in which we behold the course, conflict, and climax of Salvation History from the time of the Babylonian Empire until the coming the Kingdom of God in its fullness at the end of the age (Dan. 2, 7, 9, 11, 12).
The purpose of these visions is clear: to give God’s suffering people hope.
The method is also clear: to give them hope by means of repeated symbolic representations of: (1) God’s absolute sovereignty over history; (2) the necessity—and brevity—of holy suffering on the part of his saints; (3) the final overthrow of the enemies of God and his people; and (4) the final rescue, restoration, and vindication of the saints on the Day of Judgment, when the Kingdom appears in fullness, triumphing once and for all over the kingdoms of this fallen world.
Needless to say, such prophecies are of great eschatological importance. But given the abundance and complexity of the symbolism involved—and the multitude of interpretations offered—how can we interpret them with confidence?
The short answer is: When we employ the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH). (More here)
The long answer is: When we let Christ and the apostles be our theological guides; when we have understood the nature and structure of the two-fold spiritual Kingdom they proclaimed; when we follow them in seeing Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP) as NT truth mystically communicated under OT type and shadow . . . then, and only then, will we be able to approach these otherwise daunting visions with true spiritual confidence. (More here and here)
With Daniel 7 before us, let us see if these bold assertions are really true. In particular, let us see if this prophecy really does confirm the two-fold spiritual Kingdom of NT eschatology, thereby enabling us confidently to decide between the amillennial and premillennial interpretations, not only of Daniel 7, but of all OTKP.
The Four Beasts (1-8)
In the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream in which he beheld visions from God. In the first part of his vision he saw the four winds of heaven stir up the Great Sea in such a manner that four powerful and terrifying beasts rose up out of it, one after another (1-3).
The first was like a lion, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard (4-6).
The fourth— stronger and more dreadful than the rest—was largely indescribable, though Daniel does manage to convey its rapacity by mentioning its iron teeth (well suited for devouring) and its powerful feet (well suited for trampling). This beast had ten horns (2:41-41). While contemplating the horns, Daniel saw a little horn rising from among them: It tore out three horns by the roots, had the eyes of a man, and spoke boastful words (7-8).
The message of this vision—which is almost identical with that of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a huge, four-part statue (chapter 2)—is clear: The sovereign God has decreed that between the days of Daniel and the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, four earthly kings/kingdoms shall arise. Like monstrous, predatory beasts, they will emerge from the turbulent sea of fallen, sinful humanity (2:24ff; Isaiah 7:12, 13, 57:20).
Because of the particular symbols used to describe these four beasts, conservative commentators are nearly unanimous in identifying them as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
The NT gives further insight into this vision by unveiling Satan as the unseen ruler of all the kingdoms of this world (Luke 4:5, John 12:31, Eph. 6:12, 1 John 5:19); as he who (under God’s over-arching sovereignty) summons one evil empire after another onto the stage of history (Rev. 13:1); as he who, since the days of Babel, has sought to use proud and wicked men to consolidate the entire world-system around himself, thereby usurping the worship of God and mimicking his absolute sovereignty (Mt. 4:8-10). One day, according to Daniel and the NT writers, he will get his wish—and much more besides (2 Thess. 2:1f, Rev. 11:5, 16:14).
The Ancient of Days (9-12)
Even as the little horn continues to exalt himself, Daniel beholds the chariot-throne of God arriving upon the scene for final judgment. Immediately, other thrones are set up, and the Ancient of Days—He who was, and is, and is to come—takes his seat (Rev. 4:8). His garment and his hair are as white as snow and wool, emblems of his holiness, righteousness, and age-old eternity. His throne and its wheels are ablaze with fire, a token of his wrath, now fully kindled (9). A stream of fire pours forth from before him, ready to engulf his enemies. Ten thousand times ten thousand holy ones stand before him, ministering to him, alerting us to the cosmic dimensions of this Day.
The court is seated and the books are opened: The Judgment has begun (10). As soon as it does, the little horn is forever silenced, for the body of the beast from which it arose is now slain and cast into the blazing fires of hell (11). So too, one must assume, are the rest of the beasts, whose dominion was lately taken away, but who were allowed to live (perhaps as members of the fourth beast) only for a little time (12).
There can be no reasonable doubt that this majestic vision depicts the Last Judgment. As we have just seen, it is preceded by the destruction of the final earthly kingdom, and it is followed by the saints taking possession of the everlasting Kingdom of the Most High (7:18, 26-27). But if this is so, then NT teaching concerning the Last Judgment must be brought to bear upon the passage before us.
When it is, wonderful things suddenly appear before our eyes!
Who, for example, is the Ancient of Days? Verse 7:13 (and Revelation 4) make it clear that this is indeed the One we immediately think of: God the Father. Yet the NT calls for a more nuanced answer, since there we also learn that God the Father has committed all judgment to the Son (John 5:22), and that all must appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Mt. 25:31:f, Acts 17:31, 2 Cor. 5:10). The Ancient of Days of vv. 9-10 is, then, God the Father acting through Christ—the very Christ who, when he came to John on Patmos, appeared in the form of the Ancient of Days (Rev. 1:14)!
The NT answers other important questions, as well.
Where shall the Judgment Seat of Christ appear? According to the NT, it will appear in the skies above the earth (Mt. 19:29, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Rev. 20:11-21:2).
Who are the thousands of thousands who stand before him and minister to him? Doubtless the holy angels, but also the glorified saints, rejoicing in their new resurrection bodies and exulting in the justice of God (Mt. 13:43, 24:29-31, 1 Cor. 15:50-58, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Rev. 15:1-4, 16:6, 19:11-21).
Who is seated upon on the other thrones that were “put in place,” presumably around the throne of Christ itself? Again the NT fills in the blanks, assuring us that the thrones belong to the saints, who, under Christ, will judge both men and angels (Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:1-3, Rev.4:4, 19:11-21, 20:4).
And what of the books that were opened when the court sat for judgment? The NT helpfully identifies them as the Book of Life, and also the multitude of books in which God has recorded the deeds of men, so that all may be judged according to their works (Luke 10:20, Rev. 20:12).
We conclude, then, that the NCH does indeed richly illuminate this mysterious OT revelation of the Last Judgment.
The Coronation of the Divine Son of Man (13-14)
As Daniel continues to watch, still another vision appears before his inward eye. He beholds a Personage—One like a Son of Man—coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days. An entourage, presumably of angels, brings him near to the throne (13). At this point, God gives him dominion, glory, and a kingdom—or a right of universal sovereignty—so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. Unlike the dominion of the four beasts, the dominion of the Son of Man will be everlasting. Unlike the kingdoms of the four beasts, the Kingdom of the Son of Man—the realm that is the fruit of his universal reign—will never pass away or be destroyed (14).
Doubtless the OT saints found this text quite mysterious, for it raises three great questions arise that would remain unanswered until Christ and the apostles flung open the doors of truth for all to see: 1) Who is the One like a Son of Man; 2) What is the nature of the transfer of authority here envisioned; and 3) When exactly does the transfer occur?
As for the One like a Son of Man, nearly all evangelical commentators identify him as the Messiah, the divine-human Lord Jesus Christ (Dan. 9:25-26). True, there is a certain parallelism between the inheritance of the Son of Man (v. 14) and the inheritance of the saints (vv. 18, 27), a parallelism suggesting to some that the Son of Man symbolizes the saints. But our text explicitly identiﬁes this Personage as One who is like a Son of Man, and it uses the singular pronoun throughout to speak of him. As for the parallelism itself, the NT explains everything, declaring that through Christ the saints will indeed reign (and judge) upon the earth (Rev. 2:26-27, 5:10).
Very importantly, the Lord Jesus repeatedly spoke of himself as the Son of Man; it was, by far, his favorite self-designation. Moreover, towards the end of his earthly course he explicitly referenced this text when speaking to the Sanhedrin about his Parousia, lest there should be any confusion about who he understood himself to be (Mt. 26:64, Mark 14:62)!
But what about the nature and timing of the transfer of authority from the Ancient of Days to his Messiah? If we were shut up to the OT, having no recourse to NT teaching on this matter, it would indeed be most natural to conclude that God plans to bestow absolute and universal sovereignty upon the Messianic Son of Man at the (time of the) Judgment described in the vision immediately preceding; and that it may well be the Messiah himself who executes it (7:9-12). Interestingly, some of the OT apocrypha, along with a number NT texts, make it clear that this was the impression of at least some of Jews of Jesus’ day, possibly including John the Baptizer himself (Mt. 3:12, John 12:34). (1) Nevertheless, the ambiguity here is considerable, and stands as an open invitation to search the NT for much-needed help.
Happily, the NT does not disappoint. When was it, according to the NT, that Christ came to the Ancient of Days, riding upon the clouds of heaven (v. 13)? And when was it that God gave him dominion, glory, and absolute sovereignty over all creation, so that in the end all peoples, nations, and men of every tongue might serve both Him and his Father (14)?
As we have already seen, both Jesus and his apostles answer fulsomely: All this occurred when the Father highly exalted Christ by raising him from the dead, catching him up into heaven on clouds of glory, seating him at his own right hand, and bestowing upon him all authority in heaven and earth, so that he might apply and consummate the redemption that he achieved through his humiliation on earth, thereby bringing in the Kingdom in its full, final, and glorious form (Luke 19:12, Mt. 28:18ff, Acts 1:9-11, 2:22-36, Phil. 2:5-11, Heb. 1:1-3).
On this score, Rev. 4-5 is of special importance. Indeed, one might well argue that these two chapters constitute a NT elaboration of Dan. 7:9-14. In Revelation 4 we behold the Ancient of Days, the eternal Creator and Judge of the world, seated in glory upon his throne. Then, in Revelation 5, we behold the Redeemer. Using apocalyptic imagery reminiscent of Daniel 7, the Spirit here depicts the session of the Lord Jesus Christ. Having “prevailed” on earth to fulfill all righteousness and to atone for the sins of his people, the Lion/Lamb enters heaven, comes before the Father, and, in taking the scroll from his hand, receives all authority in heaven and on earth (Rev. 5:1-7, 12). Henceforth, he is authorized to “break the seals” on God’s last will and testament. That is, he is commissioned to superintend the remainder of Salvation History with a view to applying the merits of his redemptive work to God’s elect, gathering in a chosen people for his possession from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, thereby creating a kingdom of priests who will in inherit (the fullness of) eternal life and who will everlastingly reign upon the earth (Rev. 5:8-14).
This is Daniel 7:9-14, writ large.
But this line of interpretation raises a legitimate question: Why, in Daniel 7, would the Spirit represent the heavenly reign of Christ as coming after the Last Judgment? Several answers immediately come to mind.
First, the text itself hints that here we are actually dealing with two visions rather than one, for both begin with the telltale introductory phrase: “I saw in my vision by night” (7:2-12, 13-14). Yes, the chapter as a whole may indeed be reckoned as a single vision; but at the very least, these verbal markers suggest that 7:13-14 touches upon a new (though related) theme. The NT, as we have just seen, confirms this very thing.
Secondly, the burden of the chapter is to speak of the great inversion of cosmic rulership that will occur at the end of Salvation History. It is, then, altogether fitting for the Spirit here to touch on Christ’s heavenly reign in such a way as to emphasize its end result, precisely as he does in verse 14.
Finally, the sequence of the two visions effectively underscores a pervasive biblical theme: The Messianic Son of Man—though himself divine—is nevertheless subordinate to the Ancient of Days; the Ancient of Days is the fountainhead of the authority by which he (the Son of Man) will rule in such a way as to create the eternal Kingdom of God. As we have seen, the NT fleshes out this important theme in a number of texts, especially 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. (2, 3)
Given that Daniel received this vision in an era when God was pleased to veil the mystery of the Eternal Covenant, it should not surprise us that here much eschatological truth is fused, hidden, or (purposely) left unclear. This includes the two stages of the Kingdom, the Messiah’s heavenly reign, its distinctly redemptive character, the exact sequence of events leading up to the Judgment, the Messiah’s role in the Judgment, and his role in the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.
But in the NT—and especially in Revelation 4-5—all is finally unveiled, clarified, and set in good order. Therefore, the NT mysteries of the Kingdom—and the NCH built upon them—do indeed prevail, not only to open up Daniel 7, but all OTKP. Without them we are at sea. With them, we reach our desired haven and stand confidently upon solid ground.
The Vision Interpreted (15-28)
As the vision draws to a close, Daniel inquires as to the meaning of what he has seen, and then receives a measure of further illumination from one of the angels involved. The section falls nicely into four parts. I will comment briefly on each, highlighting aspects of special relevance for our study.
In verses 15-18, we find the prophet—grieved and troubled by the persecutions yet in store for God’s people—asking for more light on the vision as a whole. One of the angels responds, identifying the four beasts as four kings/kingdoms that will arise “out of the earth.” However, the emphasis here, as elsewhere, falls upon the eternal Kingdom of God, which the Most High—the sovereign LORD of all history—will bestow upon the saints from heaven above (2:44-45). As we have seen, verses 13-14, supplemented by an abundance of NT teaching, reveal that God will accomplish the final inversion at the Parousia of the glorified Son of Man. This is the blessed hope of all the saints, both OT and New (Titus 2:13).
In verses 18-20, Daniel relates that even after this broad explanation, he remained curious about the fourth beast. As if in answer to his curiosity, the vision suddenly resumes, so that now he sees the little horn making war against the saints and prevailing over them (v. 21). In a moment, the angel will explain the meaning of these ominous symbols. Meanwhile, the prophet’s vision ends with yet another sighting of the coming of the Ancient of Days (who is Christ at his Parousia), vindicating the faith (and the faithfulness) of the saints, and bestowing upon them the joys of eternal life in his Kingdom (1 Thess. 1:3-10). By now, the motif of the entire vision—indeed, of the entire book—has become clear: God warns of coming conflict with a view to producing endurance, but also promises coming triumph with a view to producing courage, hope, and eager expectation.
In verses 23-27, we have the angel’s (partial) explanation of the vision of the fourth beast. Several key points—much illumined by the NT—may be made.
First, the fourth beast, which is emblematic of the final earthly kingdom, will be different from all the rest, largely because it will succeed in devouring the whole earth (v. 23). Here, the global hegemony of the ancient Roman Empire is partly in view. However, that very hegemony anticipates something far greater, something eschatological, and the true burden of this verse: In the days of the fourth beast, Satan will finally achieve his age-old purpose—manifested from the very beginning at Babel—of creating a counterfeit kingdom that overspreads the entire world (Gen. 11:1-9). Later, the apostle John foresaw much the same thing, writing, “And all the world marveled and followed the beast” (Rev. 13:3; 12:9, 16:4). Only “the saints”—the true spiritual Church of all generations, but especially of the last generation—will refuse to marvel, follow, worship, and otherwise receive his mark of ownership (Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:4).
Secondly, the verbiage of verse 24 suggests to some commentators that the life of the fourth beast is destined to unfold in three separate stages. In the first, the beast arises from the Great Sea: This marks the advent of the ancient Roman Empire. In the second, “ten” horns (i.e., kings/kingdoms) arise from head of the Beast: This marks the totality (symbolized by the number ten) of the serial manifestations of Greco Roman culture subsequent to the fall of ancient Rome. In the third, one final horn arises, subduing “three” of its ten predecessors. This speaks of the final eschatological embodiment of the Roman Empire, achieved by the Antichrist, who suddenly consolidates the residuum of Roman power and influence (symbolized by the number 3). This approach, advocated by E. J. Young, is quite attractive in that it allows us to see how, from the time of Christ right up to the Consummation, the territories, peoples, and culture of the ancient Roman Empire remain near the center of the drama of world history.
There are, of course, other views. For example, many of our Dispensational brethren, adopting a highly futuristic interpretation of this verse, look for an end-time confederacy of ten European nations, over (the remnant of) which the Antichrist will rule after subduing three of them. However, this approach seems too futuristic: Certainly the text itself does not teach it explicitly. Moreover, if the numbers ten and three are meant symbolically, then the Dispensational view becomes a prescription for fruitless speculation and failed “fulfillments” based upon the ebb and flow of European politics. By my lights, Young’s approach is far preferable.
Verse 25 sketches the character and career of the Antichrist. He is arrogant and blasphemous; he will attempt to alter well-established customs and laws (including many pertaining to religious observances); and—for a brief, divinely ordained season—he will “wear out” the saints (i.e., persecute them to the point of apparent defeat). This, as we have seen, is none other than the Last Battle, which, according to the NT, will be pitched by the Man of Lawlessness and his subservient world-system against the true spiritual Church of Christ (Mt. 24:9-13, 2 Thess. 2:1f, Rev. 11:7-10, 16:14, 20:8).
In verses 26-27 the angel brings his message to a close by once again sounding a note of final triumph. The NT fully illumines his words. At Christ’s return, the Son of Man will execute final judgment, destroying not only the antichrist and his followers, but also “the dragon” that inspired and empowered them all (Mt. 25:41, 2 Thess. 2:8, Rev. 17:14, 19:19-21, 20:10). After this, the kingdoms of the world will become the (universal) Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ: He—and the saints with him—will reign forever and ever (v. 27, 1 Cor. 15:28, Rev. 11:5, 22:5). Amen.
From all we have just seen, it certainly appears that the NCH powerfully opens up this majestic but deeply mysterious OTKP, giving us a simple, biblically coherent interpretation, thereby warning and encouraging the saints of all subsequent generations.
Alas, premillennial views do not fare so well.
Premillennarians assert, for example, that verses 9-12 do not describe the Last Judgment at all, but speak instead of a lesser judgment that will immediately precede Christ’s millennial reign. This is counter-intutive in the extreme.
Regarding verses 13-14, some commentators, following Scofield, argue that Daniel is describing a special “investiture” in heaven, by which Christ, just prior to his millennial reign, will receive authority from the Father to descend to the earth and rule there (Rev. 5).
Others, such as Fausset, Walvoord, and Pentecost, contend that these verses—and verses 26-27 as well—simply describe Christ’s Second Coming in order to inaugurate his millennial kingdom upon the earth.
The great difficulty with both of these views—apart from the fact that they are needlessly complicated and confusing—is that they miss the thrust of the chapter as a whole. For again, the Spirit’s purpose in giving Daniel this vision was clearly to illumine, prepare, strengthen, and encourage all the saints—both OT and New—with a revelation of the entire course and sequence of “the kingdoms of this world;” a revelation of all that must occur up to and including the Consummation, after which God’s everlasting Kingdom will appear in its glorious fullness.
But premillennarians, bound by their eschatological commitments, are forced to deny what is right before their eyes, and so to assert that the prophecy merely takes us to the end of the present age, after which there must still come to pass the Millennium, the (last) Last Battle (Rev. 20:7-10), and the Last Judgment, all of which the Spirit somehow neglected to mention, not only here, but in chapter 2, as well!
The net effect of this fundamental error is to eclipse the grandeur what God actually revealed, to becloud the vision of the saints, and to defer their fondest dreams for an extra thousand years!
We conclude, then, that unlike premillennarian literalism, the NCH does indeed supply the most satisfying interpretation of Daniel 7; an interpretation that helpfully equips Christ’s Church for the dramatic closing scenes of the present evil age, even as it kindles their hopes for a glorious, everlasting, heavenly Kingdom soon to come!
1. See George Ladd, New Testament Theology, p. 136.
2. 1 Cor. 15:20-28 makes it clear that Christ’s heavenly mediatorial reign is temporary, and that after the Consummation he will subject himself afresh to the Father. Whatever the nature of this further and final subordination, it is clear from a great many other biblical texts, including Daniel 7:14, that Christ will indeed rule forever, with and under the Father, over the eternal Kingdom of God (Psalm 72:7, Isaiah 9:7, Ezek. 37:25, Luke 1:32-33, Rev. 5:13, 11:5).
3. It is true that Jesus, in speaking with the Sanhedrin about his Parousia, referred to Daniel 7:13. This does not mean, however, that he would endorse the conclusion of those commentators who argue that Daniel saw the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days at the Parousia in order to receive sovereignty and a kingdom. As I argued above, either this view seriously misunderstands the structure of NT eschatology, or else it refuses to bring it boldly to the (interpretation of the) text. No, in speaking as he did, Jesus was not saying that he will fulfill Daniel 7:13 at the Parousia. Rather, he was saying (to us, his NT saints) that just as he came to the Ancient of Days upon clouds of glory to receive his heavenly Messianic reign, so, at the Parousia, he will come from the (right hand of the) Ancient of Days on clouds of glory to consummate it. A great many NT texts confirm this very thing (Mt. 24:30, 13:26, Acts 1:9-11,1 Thess. 4:17, Rev. 1:7).