Exposition of Daniel 7:1–8 Understanding the second half of Daniel and The vision of four grotesque beasts

Daniel 7:1–8

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
4 “The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it.
5 “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’
6 “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.
7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast — terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.
8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully.”

As stated in the Introduction, the Book of Daniel divides into two parts: Part One: The ministry of Daniel in Babylon (1:1–6:28), Part Two: The visions of Daniel in Babylon (7:1–12:13). Part one was largely historical in nature, though two dreams by Nebuchadnezzar eventually led the king to faith in Yahweh, the Lord of history. Part two contains four visions given to Daniel to demonstrate Yahweh’s mastery of the future as well as the past. These visions are apocalyptic in nature; that is, they are prophecies expressed in language that is highly symbolic and powerfully expressive.

The key thing about apocalyptic literature is that it shapes our present behavior by showing us how our behavior will affect our long-term future. For example, we are willing to suffer in likeness to Jesus because we will share in his triumph and live with him in the new heaven and new earth to come.

Though English versions of the Bible obscure the fact, the underlying languages of Daniel move from Hebrew (1:1–2:4a) to Imperial Aramaic (2:4b–7:28) and back to Hebrew (8:1–12:13). It is difficult to know what to make of this division. Perhaps the Aramaic section represents the period in which the nation of Judah spent in captivity under powers whose official language was Aramaic. On a wider canvas, God’s covenant with Abraham, empowered by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, will reach its consummation in the eternal kingdom promised by God. In this view, the Aramaic section is symbolic of the period of Gentile domination, which will come to a sudden and final end when the Messiah returns to rule.

The vision of four grotesque beasts

Daniel’s first vision came in the initial year of Belshazzar (553 B.C.), according to verse 1. In verse 2, we encounter the first symbol: “the great sea.” When the vision is interpreted, in verse 17, we will find that the great sea refers to the earth as the home of humanity, and the tossing waves of the sea symbolize how human kingdoms are thrown up and then fall away. If you have never seen such surging waves, YouTube offers some scary examples.

Not only are these human kingdoms, represented by the different beasts, stormy and transitory, they are also grotesque. Many scholars have noted the similarity of the first dream of Nebuchadnezzar (chapter 2) to the first vision seen by Daniel. Wood suggests that the normal human shape seen by Nebuchadnezzar, with different metals representing the intrinsic value of each empire (2:32–35), represents a human viewpoint while the monstrous beasts seen by Daniel give us the divine viewpoint of the same kingdoms. If so, God does not have a high opinion of either the great nations or world-spanning corporations that dominate our age.

The most common word in our first text (Dan. 7:1–8) is an Aramaic verb that means “[I was] looking” (5 occurrences), and, with equal frequency, an interjection meaning “Look!” So, we can say that Daniel was a passive observer of a shocking series of visions that were suddenly presented to him. By the end of the chapter, we will find that Daniel is rocked to his core by what he has seen. Word frequency is one means of discovering what an author emphasizes, but the tendency of English versions to vary vocabulary makes using this tool more difficult.

Winged lions are among the symbols found in the ruins of Babylon , so it is not surprising that the majority of scholars believe the first beast is Babylon and specifically refers to Nebuchadnezzar. Miller notes that Nebuchadnezzar is symbolized in Jeremiah as a lion (Jer. 4:7 and 50:17) as well as an eagle (Jer. 49:22). In figurative terms, verse 4 represents Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation as well as his restoration to rationality.

Next, a bear appears before Daniel (verse 5), but it has one side raised higher than the other — perhaps symbolizing the eventual dominance of Persia over Media in their joint empire. The three bones in the mouth of this predator are thought to symbolize the conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.), Lydia (546 B.C.) and Egypt (525 B.C.). At its zenith, the Medo-Persian empire more than doubled the territory held by Babylon or Assyria and stretched from Egypt to what is now India.

The phrase “after that” (verse 6a) seems trivial, but the reader should consider that in a book filled with prophecies from God, the exact meaning of phrases affecting the timing of events becomes crucial. When Daniel first wrote down his account of the dream, these events lay in his future. But the events lie in our past, and we can easily see that the third beast — representing Greece under Alexander the Great and his successors — immediately supplanted the second beast (Persia) without any gap in between. How this came about will be explained when we encounter Daniel’s next vision in chapter 8.

The actual explanation of how Greece conquered Persia has little to do with Alexander the Great or the innovations in military technology implemented by his army. Instead, “it [i.e. the third beast] was given authority to rule [by God]” (verse 6b). This type of passive-voice construction occurs often in the Bible as an indirect means of signaling God’s action while not naming him. For this reason, the grammatical form is called the “divine passive.”

The description of the third beast uses the number four twice: “four wings” and “four heads” (verse 6). Wood explains, “Since ‘heads’ in Scripture normally represent persons or governments, it is logical further to expect this development to concern some form of fourfold division of government; and that is exactly what did occur after Alexander’s death.” Four of Alexander’s generals divided the vast empire.

The fourth beast that suddenly appeared was unlike all the others, and Daniel does not liken it to any earthly animal. Instead, he emphasizes its exceptional strength, making it “terrifying and frightening” (verse 7) as it devoured its victims with “large iron teeth.”We must now look back to the terrifying image seen by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:31–45), where the legs of the image were made of iron and the feet were a mixture of iron and clay (2:33). The chronology of this image started with the head (Nebuchadnezzar) and ended with the iron legs — symbolizing Rome — followed by the mixed iron and clay in the feet and toes. The Iron and clay feet and toes are somehow related to the iron legs but also somehow different. Since the iron/clay feet and toes come last in the image, they must also be chronologically last. We said this meant that the Roman Empire would come in two distinct phases, one already past and one yet to come (from our perspective).

Since the vision we are following in Daniel 7 parallels the image in Daniel 2, we should be sensitive to any possible point at which this final empire divides into two phases. We suggest that the words “It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns” (verse 7b) start the description of the second phase of Roman dominance (yet future). The first reason supporting this interpretation is simple: Historic Rome never had ten kings, and verse 24 tells us the ten horns represent ten kings.

A second reason is equally compelling: We will see that this final Roman Empire is destroyed by the return of the Messiah to rule forever, and that did not occur with the historic Roman Empire. So, just as Nebuchadnezzar’s terrifying dream-image shattered when the stone struck the image on its iron and clay feet (Dan. 2:34), so this ten-horned beast will be destroyed by God.

Verse 8 begins to relate the role of the “little horn,” a powerful and blasphemous figure whose rule will be described later. If, for now, you imagine him to be the Antichrist, you will not be disappointed.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!