The Book of Daniel in Perspective: The Overarching Points
I was in Sunday School this morning and we were talking about something in John's gospel. Somehow or other the conversation drifted to the book of Daniel–a book I am currently making an extended study of for purposes that are my own right now. Nevertheless, we got there (to Daniel) and somehow started talking about Jesus being the Son of God. Or maybe we went there in order to talk about Jesus being the son of God. Frankly, I'm not altogether certain because for some reason the two ideas came together in my head and I started thinking hard about Daniel and from seemingly nowhere the book of Daniel opened up before me and I saw a theme stretched from one end of the book to the other–every 'chapter', every page, it is there. At this point it was only in my head and memory so it was a theory.
So I started checking my idea–throughout the rest of Sunday school and part of the worship time–and sure enough it's there. I had to be safe and double check because I am fully aware that to some the book of Daniel is a prop for a theological system that eminently benefits the Christian publishing houses in America and that looking at things in Daniel a little less finely might be troublesome. Yet that is precisely what I started to do. That is, I started looking at things less finely. In other words, I started to look at the forest instead of the trees. Looking at trees can be daunting when considering the book of Daniel because there are so many trees to look at. For example, trying to take a nice stroll through chapters 10 and 11 is nearly impossible. There are kings and beasts coming at the reader from north and south, land and sea. It's so overwhelming, that it even made Daniel sick most of the time.
And these kings and commanders come and go. They run roughshod over any and all that stand in their way. The decide morality, they collect taxes, they worship war (11:38), and make war wherever they go. What Daniel seems to be telling us is that it makes little difference where these rulers come from, they will have only one thing on their minds: destruction and self-aggrandizement. It seems to matter little, furthermore, when they rule. It might be the first year of a king; it might be the third year of a king; it might be kings who reigned in the past or kings who will reign in the future. They will all collect taxes. They will all blaspheme the Truth and the True King. They will be powerful–of this there can be no doubt. They will hold life and death in the palms of their hands. Nothing in the text of Daniel says, however, that we ought to live in fear or recoil in terror of these men. Nothing. In fact, the book's constant refrain is exactly the opposite: go and live.
From the first chapter to the last, the book of Daniel is about endurance. Consider 1:21: "And Daniel remained there until the first year of Cyrus." Daniel outlived all of them. Now consider 12:13: "As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance." Daniel will live.
I suppose we can read Daniel and see clues to 'unlock prophetic revelation' or we can read Daniel as a book designed to teach us three overarching truths.
First, there are two kingdoms in Daniel's book. The kingdom of man as represented by Nebudchadnezzer, Belshazzar, Darius, Cyrus, shaggy goats, horns, kings of the north and south, and others whom we cannot identify with any real precision. These kingdoms come and go. They are here and gone. But without fail, no matter how monstrous they are at any given point, the refrain is always the same. "Yet he will come to his end…" (11:45) Every kingdom in the book comes to an end at some point. Except one: "His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation" (4:3) a refrain found more than once in Daniel.
Second, these two kingdoms will clash, but both cannot win. Only one will win. Only one will endure. Kings of earth will try and try and try, but they will always fail: "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever" (2:44). And they will continue to clash over and over again throughout history. I don't think that just because Jesus came to earth that the book of Daniel has suddenly ceased to be relevant. Not at all. There are still wars. The wicked continue to be wicked (12:10). Violence is still perpetrated upon the righteous. And kings still do whatever they want (11:36).
Third, there is hope for those who trust in the Lord. I can't help but sense in this book a theme that the righteous will live not because, necessarily, they press on through tough times but because God is there with them. In chapter 1 we see it this way: "And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God." In chapter 3 it looks like this, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." Later in latter chapters, it looks like this: "Then I Daniel looked and there before me stood two others, one on this bank of the river and one on the opposite bank. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river" (12:5-6). In other words, wherever God's people went, he was with them. He was protecting them. I think Jesus said something similar, "And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
I think Matthew's book is excellent commentary on the book of Daniel. The Emmanuel promise is especially magnificent in Daniel's context. But the point is greater: we need not become unhinged in the face of all these absurd billy goats and many horned monsters who are running around as if they were something special or important. The writing is on the wall for all of them, not just Belshazzar. Yet, I might say the point is even bigger than merely seeing these earthly kingdoms trampled and all things put to rights: We have hope either way. Or: "But at that time your people–everyone whose name is found written in the book–will be delivered" (12:1). And: "Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days" (12:12). God will not leave his people without hope.
I have more to say on this matter, but this post is long enough. In conclusion, I will say this. It is very typical of those who study Daniel to fixate on identifying the who this guy is and who that guy is and to try and tuck them neatly into a historical context. They fixate, in other words, on the trees. And in trying to identify specific people and specific times and specific places they miss the overall point of the book of Daniel which is something like I have sketched above: 1) there are two kingdoms; 2) they are constantly at war and one will ultimately lose; and 3) God's people are not left without hope in the midst of it all. I need to explore this all a lot more and I will be posting my findings periodically. Just remember not to get so hung up on seeing trees that you miss the forest. It sounds cliche; it is. But that does not mean it's not true.
PS–I think it's especially important to understand the concept of Kingdom in this book and to explore the larger implications as they unfold later in the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus. I also think a good case can be made for the Emmanuel theme in Daniel. I'm convinced the book is teaching us that God went into exile with his people and did not abandon them their to their own devices or wholly to the whims of their pagan captors. In my next post I will show how important Kingdom is in every single chapter of Daniel's book.