A Big Picture View of Daniel


The future always fascinates us, and the Bible’s many prophecies are no different. Even if you are sceptical about the Bible’s claims in some areas, the accuracy of its predictions do more than suggest it has supernatural access. Many of the greatest prophecies and most easily verifiable prophecies are recorded in the book of Daniel, the writings of an exiled Jewish prince who became prime minister of the kingdom of Babylon, his country’s conqueror.

In order to understand both the contemporary and future events portrayed in the book of Daniel, one needs to understand their historical background. An earlier book of the Bible, a book recording Jewish history, gives some background.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, invaded the southern Jewish states of Judah—the only part of Israel unoccupied in previous invasions—three times: in 605 BC (2 Kings 24:1), when it seems Daniel was taken captive, in 597 BC (2 Kings 24:10–14) and 586 BC (2 Kings 25:1–21). After the last campaign, Israel was a wasteland, no longer functioning as a sovereign state. Jerusalem was sacked and its magnificent temple built by Solomon burned. Its leadership was either dead or in chains, including the powerful and influential priests responsible for the temple services.

The population was either living in exile in Babylon, their land and possessions in Palestine confiscated or destroyed, or in subjugation in the ruin that was Palestine. They lived in absolute despair. Their situation is reflected in the lament of Psalm 137, which some 20 years ago was put to music in a popular song: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, . . . we wept, when we remembered Zion. . . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (verses 1, 4, KJV).

It was in this context that Nebuchadnezzar experienced the dream, recorded in Daniel 2:24–49. It came to him at the end of his second year in power, and despite Nebuchadnezzar’s successful campaign against Judah, all was not well in the Babylonian Empire. The year before, he had experienced considerable difficulty in destroying Ashkelon. In 604 BC, Ashkelon resisted paying taxes and although it was reduced to rubble, Nebuchadnezzar was concerned for his kingdom’s future. After all, if a single city like Ashkelon had presented such a problem, what could a knowledge of that do to the rest of his empire? Or to the aspirations of the surrounding, competing kingdoms?

In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar saw a huge statue of a man, its body composed of different metals, from head to toes. Their sequence implied a gradual decline in desirability and worth, from a head of gold to legs and feet of iron. Daniel was called upon to interpret its meaning, for which he received a huge promotion, although the explanation was inspired by God (Daniel 2:19–23), whom he acknowledged.

The dream itself is explained in Daniel 2:31–45, which describes a succession of kingdoms, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar (golden head), each possessing characteristics akin to their associated metal.

The Meaning Of The Statue

A look at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream reveals a number of points.

First, it is the first and fourth kingdoms described that are the most important, with the descriptions of the second and third very brief and almost no information given. The second kingdom is dismissed simply as “inferior.” Likewise, the third kingdom is said to “rule over the whole earth,” with nothing more described.

The first kingdom is important because of its immediate relevance to Israel and Babylon, its oppressor. The fourth is important because of its relationship to the final part of the dream—the stone that is supernaturally formed. The climactic focus of the dream is outlined in Daniel 2:28, 29 and centres on “days to come,” therefore the narrative involves future events.

Second, the idea of a sequence of metals to represent a series of kingdoms isn’t unique to the book of Daniel. Other ancient sources also use this motif. They include the ancient Greek writer, Hesiod, who wrote about a series of five ages, represented by five metals—gold, silver, bronze, a fourth that was not represented by a metal and iron. A Persian writer, Zoroaster, wrote of “a tree on which there were four branches: gold, silver, steel, mixed iron.” These were explained as four time periods that would follow his kingdom. What is unique about this account in Daniel 2 is that despite the fact that it was Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and he was represented by the golden head, it isn’t the “metal” kingdoms but the rock cut out . . . but not by human hands” that is Daniel’s focus.

This stone kingdom is established in the following sequence (verses 34, 35):

  1. The stone is cut out of a mountain, without human assistance.
  2. The stone strikes the image on the feet of iron and clay.
  3. The entire image is crumpled and is pulverised, the dust blown away
  4. The stone becomes a mountain that grows to fill the whole earth.

The stone kingdom refers to the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth following Christ’s second coming.

In fact, the description of the stone—God’s kingdom—stands in obvious and deliberate contrast to that of the fourth kingdom. It is:

  1. Supernatural. It is established supernaturally, without human assistance in direct contrast to the statue itself, a manufactured object of human origin.
  2. Conclusive. All human kingdoms are totally destroyed. This is the end of an interlude of human history in cosmic time, the beginning of a new age of God’s rule on earth. Again this contrasts with the sequential nature of human kingdoms depicted in the statue.
  3. Universal. The kingdom of God will cover the whole earth.

What is destroyed when the stone strikes the statue is not a particular country or nation, but rather a symbol of all that is opposed to God and the principles of love, justice and mercy that the kingdom of God is based upon. For Israel of the time, Babylon was both representative and the reality of this.

Throughout history this opposing force has been represented by many other powers, nations, systems and authorities. Their exact identification is less important than the realisation that their power is not forever and that God will step in and bring about the advent of a new kingdom.

At the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the situation of the Israelites was dire; they were captive, conquered, landless and alienated, and were unable to access the temple to worship God. Then, in the midst of all this, God speaks to them through Daniel’s explanation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and offers hope and a future. Daniel’s explanation would have buoyed Israel’s hope in three ways.

First, human kingdoms, such as Babylon, their oppressor, were shown to be finite and transitory—that eventually, despite themselves, they would pass. It said their situation was temporary—Babylon will not hold Israel in captivity forever. Freedom was assured.

Second, God is shown to be sovereign—ultimately in control. Humanity, sin, evil and suffering may all share centre stage now, but above and ruling over all these events is God.

Finally, God’s kingdom is to be seen as certain; He will intervene. While things run their course, eventually God steps in and ends the oppressive regime of suffering and death, and ushers in a new reign of life and freedom.

The experience of exile shook Israel. But in the process God’s love was revealed to them in a real and unmistakable way through the dream of the Babylonian king. In the same way, the story told in Daniel 2 has relevance today. Our situations, both personal and as collective humankind, is a little different to Israel’s those thousands of years ago: evil might affict us—war, starvation, racism, hate inequality, violence, pain—but just a little way off is peace.

For each of us in the twenty-first century, God has the same answers: this too will pass; God rules; and there is a bright and wonderful future for each of us, should we accept His sovereignty and submit to His rulership.

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