Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

On this Website, I’ve touched on the Apocalypse and apocalyptic impulses in our society many times. For instance, you can read my other research and ideas on this matter in the following essays:

There’s no question that Daniel 7 had a powerful effect on early Christian apocalyptic thinking. But modern readers have a serious misconception about what the term “the kingdom of God on earth” meant to people in Biblical times. It wasn’t a dramatic ontological break in physical reality, like the heavens renting open magically and the Lord descending. It was the Revolution: a new social order that believers would create, based soundly on religious principles. The Essenes were the forefathers of Christianity—John the Baptist was an Essene, and he was Christ’s mentor—and by living out their apocalyptic faith, in anticipation of the coming war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, they were trying to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

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Daniel 7 (King James Version)

Daniel 7

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters.

2 Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.

3 And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.

4 The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man's heart was given to it.

5 And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.

6 After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.

7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.

8 I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

9 I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

10 A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

11 I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame.

12 As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.

13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

15 I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me.

16 I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things.

17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.

18 But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.

19 Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet;

20 And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows.

21 I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;

22 Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

23 Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.

24 And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings.

25 And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.

26 But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end.

27 And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.

28 Hitherto is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me: but I kept the matter in my heart.

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

Daniel 7 stands at the crux between Old and New Testament theology. As far as Old Testament theology is concerned, the sentiment expressed in Daniel 7 is the end of the road. With the gradual disintegration of the Mosaic and eventually the Davidic covenants, the later prophets, ranging from Hosea to Isaiah to Jeremiah, were forced to formulate a theology that grew progressively apocalyptic. After the surrender of the Hebrew faith to despair under prolonged foreign oppression, the spiritual needs of the Jews gave way at last to the full expression of their apocalyptic-messianic-eschatological longings, as expressed in Daniel 7.

As such, Daniel also served as a model for the visionary vehicle that (allegedly) John used in the book of Revelation to express the dire eschatological hunger of the first Christians. In fact, John explicitly adapts specific figures (i.e., the hydra-headed beast, the triumphant celestial white-haired figure on the throne) from Daniel in general and chapter 7 in particular. When you come to realize the profound extent of the widespread appearance of such apocalyptic images in the eschatological thinking that came to dominate the succeeding body of Christian theology, you appreciate the key significance of the book of Daniel and of chapter 7 in the main corpus of Judeo-Christian tradition.

Daniel formulated his vision (or it occurred to him) as a response to the gross humiliation the Hebrew people suffered under the Alexandrine empire following the revolt of the Maccabees. Among Biblical scholars, it is generally agreed that the four beasts of Daniel's vision represent the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek empires respectively. (Certainly this interpretation is considerably strengthened by Daniel's use as a symbol of the griffin, which in ancient Mesopotamian iconography undoubtedly represents the Babylonian empire.) Taken thus, the vision stands as an overt prophecy of God's wrath unleashed on the four civilizations that subjugated Israel—a revenge effectuated through the agency of an apparently messianic being (the throned figure of verse 9).

There is little doubt that the last empire is regarded with the greatest terror and hatred. With its clearly leveling and culturally ameliorating intent ("it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet," v. 7), it is plainly identifiable as "Alexander's empire, with its policy of Hellenization" (2). In response to this threat of cultural assimilation and annihilation posed by the Greeks (and the monarch Antiochus Epiphanes in particular [3]), Daniel foresees the solution expressed by seemingly all religious minorities oppressed by an occupying force, a messiah. (4)

In Daniel's case, it is of special importance that the messianic "son of man" (v. 13) enacts the advent described in vs. 14 and 27, for it heralds what Jesus would call "the kingdom of God on earth." This importance stems not only from the fact that "the son of man" who serves "the Ancient of Days" (the Lord) is patently divine. As Arthur Jeffery notes, "In apocalyptic [,] men are symbolized by beasts, but celestial beings by the human form (cf. Enoch 89-90).” (5)

What is of superior significance concerning Daniel's vision of the advent is that it is explicitly the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, the contract of salvation through divine grace. Belief in this covenant fuelled the radical faith that inspired Jeremiah and the composition of the book of Job, when the Hebrew people failed to uphold the conditional covenants of Moses and David.

God's summons to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 entailed the promise of the homeland of Israel, a great historical destiny for his offspring, and sovereignty over the other nations of the world. In the same way, the mission of Daniel's "son of man" (quite possibly a messianic Davidic king acting as God's viceroy) is the fulfillment of God's bond, as vs. 14 and 27 clearly illustrate; the "son of man”’s anticipated works of glory correspond with the three major vows God swore unto Abraham.

In the moment of the deepest desperation Israel had yet known—the insidious campaign of religious/cultural eradication waged by Antiochus after the abortive Maccabean rebellion—the spiritual imagination of the Jewish people, as manifested in Daniel 7, turned to the foundation of their faith, Jehovah's covenant of grace with Abraham. In times of gravest crisis past—those of the authorship of the books of Jeremiah and Job, to be specific—Israel had reacted in a similar fashion with a return to the Abrahamic covenant combined with apocalyptic desires. (And be it not forgotten that Job, in Job 19:25-29, also hungered for a Redeemer.)

But never before had the thirst for an eschatological era been so overwhelming, or the need for a savior been so overpowering; it required a time of the sharpest emergency and desperation to bring into being the extraordinary longing of the character described in Daniel's vision. From subsequent historical evidence, it appears that the cultural tension intensified to the point that by the time of Jesus, it had reached the point where it could no longer be tolerated.

While some Hebrews continued to use visions similar to Daniel to express their crucial need for the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, others ceased to. By the reign of Tiberius, at least one body of believers was prepared to see the eschatological justification of the radical source of Israel's faith in Yahweh—his original covenant with Abraham—incarnated in the ministry of the man who advertised himself as Jesus the Christ.

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  1. Arthur Jeffery, Exegesis, "The Book of Daniel," The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VI. (New York, 1956), page 453.

  1. Ibid., p. 455.

  1. Ibid., p. 456.

  1. Vittorio Lanternari analyzes this significant phenomenon of nationalistic fervor as it appears in modern messianic cults in his The Religions of the Oppressed (New York, 1963)

  1. Jeffery, op. cit., p. 460.


Jeffery, Arthur. Exegesis. "The Book of Daniel." The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VI. New York, 1956.

Lanternari, Vittorio. The Religions of the Oppressed. New York, 1963.

Note: I originally wrote an earlier version of this academic paper in April 1977 for a Religion course while a senior at Princeton.

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