Introduction to a commentary on Daniel 1–6
Abbreviations for Bible translations
NIV New International Version (2011)
ESV English Standard Version
NET New English Translation
CEB Common English Bible
NLT New Living Translation
HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible
Introduction to the Book of Daniel
To understand any book that is partly historical, it is necessary to understand who wrote it and the context in which it was written. This introduction briefly surveys these issues as well as the theological themes advanced by the author and the literary structure of the book.
Daniel, the statesman-prophet
Daniel was born into the nobility of Judah in (roughly) 620 B.C. Old Testament scholar Stephen Miller describes one probable experience from Daniel’s early years that deserves note: “Jeremiah was preaching in Jerusalem, and it seems almost certain that both Daniel and Ezekiel would have heard Jeremiah preach.” That would mean that Daniel was forewarned about the coming fall of the nation. Since Daniel held high office even after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C., he is believed to have lived to be about 85 years of age.
Daniel’s name means “God is my judge,” and he is mentioned by name five times in the Bible outside of the Book of Daniel (Ezek. 14:14,20; 28:3; Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). Miller explains: “Ezekiel’s ministry did not begin until about 593 B.C. (cf., Ezek. 1:2), over twelve years after Daniel’s deportation. … No satisfactory explanation exists for the use of the name Daniel by the prophet Ezekiel other than that he and Daniel were contemporaries and that Daniel had already gained notoriety throughout the Babylonian Empire by the time of Ezekiel’s ministry.”
Though some have questioned whether Daniel was an actual historical figure, the matter is conclusively settled by Jesus, who plainly spoke of Daniel and his prophecies as historical and authoritative (Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14).
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon
Miller makes a surprising statement: “With the possible exception of the pharaoh of the exodus, more is said of Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament than of any other foreign ruler.”
Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 634–562 B.C.) reigned over the neo-Babylonian empire from August of 605 B.C. to 562 B.C., a period of 43 years. After Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians and Assyrians at Carchemish in May-June of 605 B.C., his father King Nabopolassar, the conqueror of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, died in August of 605 B.C. Crown prince Nebuchadnezzar rushed home from the conquest of Jerusalem — bringing Daniel and many others with him — to ascend the throne of Babylon on September 6/7 of 605 B.C.
The Book of Daniel shows Nebuchadnezzar to be a man of great ability, towering pride and, when thwarted, burning rage. At the time of his choosing, Yahweh decisively humbled the king, probably with the result that Nebuchadnezzar gave his allegiance to Yahweh. Such unlikely faith seems indicated by Yahweh calling him “my servant” (Jer. 25:9, 27:6, 43:10), a title used only for men such as the Messiah, Abraham, Moses, David, Job, and Isaiah. No other foreign person is ever called “my servant” by Yahweh, and the only person who comes close is Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who is called “my shepherd” by Yahweh in Isaiah 44:28 (Isa. 45:1, 45:13). Cyrus also plays an important role in Daniel’s life.
Nebuchadnezzar’s reconstruction of Babylon, including the famed Ishtar Gate and the hanging gardens, was one of the great wonders of the ancient world.
Historical context of Daniel
The nation that God had established by covenant under Moses later divided into two nations — Judah and Israel (see 1 Kings 12) — at the end of Solomon’s reign (931 B.C.). This period (931 – 586 B.C.) is often called “The Divided Kingdom.” The Divided Kingdom may be considered along two lines, devotion to God and commitment to international alliances. Had these two nations remained strong in their faithfulness to Yahweh, they would never have needed any commitments to other nations. But Judah often followed the lead of its unfaithful rulers into idolatry, and Israel was much worse. Both Judah and Israel made frequent alliances with regional powers, resulting in a steady increase of idolatry.
In the late eighth century B.C., the two great world powers were Egypt and Assyria. After many warnings from his prophets, Yahweh brought Assyria to take the northern kingdom of Israel away into bondage, and this happened in 722 B.C. at the fall of Israel’s capital, Samaria.
Tossed like a leaf in the wind, Judah wavered between relying on Yahweh or, more frequently, on either fading Assyria or historically-dominant Egypt, the ancient regional power. When Pharaoh Neco came up from Egypt to aid the Assyrians at the Euphrates River, King Josiah of Judah blocked him at Megiddo and was killed (2 Kings 23:29). Pharaoh chose his own king for Judah, renamed him Jehoiakim, imposed tribute on Judah (2 Kings 23:34) and then continued northward.
However, on the Euphrates River, at a place named Carchemish, Pharaoh Neco and his Assyrian allies were crushed by crown prince Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (May–June of 605 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar quickly rushed south toward Jerusalem to deal with the puppet king Jehoiakim of Judah in Jerusalem, the home of a young man named Daniel.
There is no doubt whatever that Nebuchadnezzar believed himself to be in complete control of these events, but he would realize in time that Yahweh was calling the shots. What is more, he said so to the whole empire (Daniel 4)!
Daniel rose quickly to high office under Nebuchadnezzar and survived his death to hold a powerful position under the rule of Cyrus the Great of Persia (c. 600–530 B.C.).
The Book of Daniel as literature
While those who want to deny the possibility of predictive prophecy consider the contents of Daniel to consist mainly of “court legends,” we accept the position expressed by Miller: “Scholars who adhere to the traditional position understand the book to consist primarily of history, prophecy and apocalyptic. … Prophetic-apocalyptic may be the best designation, for Daniel takes on the character of both prophecy and apocalyptic.”
Apocalyptic is an intensification of prophecy. To highlight the difference between apocalyptic and prophecy, consider Samuel’s prophetic words to King Saul: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you!” (1 Sam. 15:28). God could have used Samuel to reveal this same truth by means of a dramatic vision in which the crown is roughly stripped from Saul’s head and placed on the head of David. That would have been an apocalyptic vision — though somewhat mild— in that it is an intensification of the plain, prophetic prediction that Samuel actually made.
New Testament scholar Grant R. Osborne says, “A basic element in defining apocalyptic is its pessimism toward the present and the promise of restoration in a sovereignly controlled future.” That is a simple sentence, but it bears careful thought since it provides a useful interpretive tool. Osborne also has a helpful insight when he explains, “One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’” He also gives insight about the use of symbols in apocalyptic literature — such as the gigantic tree in chapter 3 — and the way they change the way people think about the world: “The symbols have a special communicative function in addressing the social world of the original readers, thus opening up a new symbolic world for them.” He adds:
The visions guide readers into a [surpassing] reality that takes precedence over the current situation and encourages readers to persevere in the midst of their trials. The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation.
The vision of a future offered by Daniel would have greatly strengthened Jews in captivity in Babylon in the midst of a serious trial of their faith in Yahweh.
The literary structure of Daniel is simply presented by Miller:
Part One: The ministry of Daniel in Babylon (1:1–6:28)
Part Two: The visions of Daniel in Babylon (7:1–12:13)
An unusual feature of the Book of Daniel is that over half of it is written in Aramaic, while the balance is written in Hebrew. The dialect of Aramaic, known as “Imperial Aramaic,” was an official or literary dialect that was the dominant language of the Near East during the fifth and sixth centuries before Christ. Aramaic was for a time as dominant as English is today.
Conflict about the meaning and value of Daniel
Traditional interpretation of Daniel — both Jewish and Christian — has always held that the Book of Daniel was written during the sixth century B.C. by Daniel, a Jew exiled to Babylon, to whom God revealed reliable knowledge of future events. That is the view advocated by this study guide, and we have no doubt of its accuracy.
However, beginning in the nineteenth century, a number of scholars attacked many things about the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine. In short, they rejected supernatural acts by God (including the resurrection of Jesus Christ), they scorned the reliability of the Bible as a reliable revelation from God, and they denied the deity of Jesus. Man became the measure of all things. How these ideas are applied to Daniel may be shown by the comments of commentator John J. Collins:
Daniel is not a reliable source of factual information about either the past of the future. … This is apparent from the historical inaccuracies of the tales … as well as from the unhistorical claim that the book recounts the visions of a Jew in the Exile. … Its witness, however, is largely in the language of legend and myth, which appeals to the imagination rather than to the intellect.
It is difficult to understand why anyone holding such views would spend years writing a commentary on Daniel.
For those of us who regard the Bible as an infallible revelation from God to his people, the fact that both Jesus and Ezekiel regarded Daniel and his prophecies as historical, reliable and relevant to future events is sufficient to settle the matter.
The theological themes of Daniel
Miller offers four themes for the Book of Daniel with the first being the most important:
“Every page reflects the author’s conviction that his God was the Lord of individuals, nations, and all of history.”
God’s love and care for his followers;
The person and work of the Messiah;
Prophecies concerning the end times and the subsequent new world.
Commentaries and Bible studies on Daniel
Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994)
This commentary was written for pastors and Bible students but hides the technical details in the footnotes. It gives solid answers to critical and anti-supernatural attacks on the book for those who need them. Dispensational viewpoint.
Leon J. Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998)
This commentary was first published in 1973 but remains one of the best on history, language, exposition and theology. Dispensational viewpoint. Recommended.
John F. Walvoord, Daniel, The John Walvoord Prophecy Commentaries (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012)
This commentary was first published in 1966 and remains a classic presentation of Daniel’s prophecies from a dispensational viewpoint. More attention to theology than to the details of the text.
Beth Moore, Daniel (Nashville: LifeWay, 1996)
This personal Bible study contains considerable explanatory material and numerous diagrams. Designed in lesson form for personal study. Not technical. Recommended.
Other books and resources
Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)
This book does an exceptionally good job of summarizing the teachings of the Old Testament prophets on a book-by-book basis while also dealing with crucial issues. Aimed at college level.
J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965)
This 633-page work does a terrific job of explaining the vast reach of Bible prophecy and how the prophetic events are related to one another and sequenced. It is not technical, but the reader must know that organizing all these details is not for the faint of heart. No subsequent study has attempted the biblical scope of this one.
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
(1 Timothy 1:17, ESV)
Major empires of the ancient Near East
NOTE: All years noted on the chart below are B.C.
Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, vol. 18 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1994) 44.
 Miller, Daniel, 42–3.
 Miller, Daniel, 44.
 Miller, Daniel, 45.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 1.
 Osborne, Revelation, 22.
 Osborne, Revelation, 15.
 Osborne, Revelation, 14.
 Miller, Daniel, 19.
 John J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 123.
 Miller, Daniel, 50.