What John Believed: The Apocalypse of Daniel (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 10)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done.

What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


If Isaiah draws a picture of a peaceful, Edenic new age filled with harmony and justice under the rule of the Davidic “Branch,” and the psalms paint an image of an iron-fisted ruler crushing his enemies, Daniel introduces a new element entirely to the mosaic of the Messiah.

Reading the book of Daniel, we immediately become aware that something has shifted in the biblical narrative. In reality, several things have.

First, unlike the psalms and prophecies penned in the Holy Land, Daniel was written in Babylon. Its author was the prophet Daniel, a young Jewish nobleman who was carried into exile in the first wave of Babylonian conquest about a hundred years after Isaiah lived and wrote.

Its context is not warning about a future judgment but a quest to remain personally faithful to God in the midst of that judgment, and the discovery that God is present and faithful even when one is surrounded by enemies and has become a stranger in a strange land.

Its language feels different even in English translations, for good reason: in several of the book’s chapters, the underlying language is not Hebrew but Aramaic, reflecting a linguistic change that was underway in the Jewish communities the time.

The book of Daniel is part autobiography, part prophecy. But the prophetic portions of Daniel are quite different from anything we’ve encountered in the Old Testament so far. This is because they belong to another genre, one seen in Ezekiel and occasionally in Isaiah but not commonly anywhere else in the Old Testament.

That genre was called apocalyptic, from the Greek word apocalypse.

Apocalyptic is a poetic, visionary genre heavy with symbolism and coded meaning. It was often written in contexts of oppression, where coding meaning might have helped the writers escape charges of sedition by the ruling powers of the time. (This probably helps explain why Daniel and Ezekiel, both of whom lived and wrote in Babylon, used it—as did John in the New Testament book of Revelation, writing while he was in exile under the rule of Rome.)

But it was also ideal for capturing transcendent spiritual realities that existed over and against material realities. In Greek, apocalypse means “unveiling” or “revelation.” As a genre, apocalyptic helped readers look past the realities of the physical world to the spiritual dimension behind them.

As a faithful worshiper of Yahweh, Daniel sought God and had astounding experiences with him—made all the more powerful and poignant by the fact that he was in exile at the time. And God revealed a great deal about the future to him, especially showing him how the great drama of judgment and curse, redemption and restoration, and the coming of the kingdom of God would play out.

Three chapters of Daniel became especially significant to Jewish expectations of the future, the Messiah, and the Messianic Age. All three relayed supernatural visions and prophecies in the rich, sometimes bizarre language of apocalyptic.

And all three hinted at a spiritual dimension to future events that challenged and excited those who studied them in the years to come. There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Parallel Visions: Statues and a Stone, Monsters and a Man

The first of these chapters is Daniel 2. The chapter starts out as biography: Nebuchadnezzar, the incredibly powerful and psychopathic ruler of the Babylonian Empire, had a profoundly disturbing dream and called on all his advisors and magicians to use their supposed supernatural insight to interpret it. First, though, he refused to tell them what the dream was. He would trust their interpretation only if they first accurately relayed to him his own dream.

The advisors and magicians protested (naturally), and Nebuchadnezzar ordered them all executed. Fortunately for everyone, the category of “advisors and magicians” included Daniel and several other young Hebrew men in exile, who had been brought into the king’s household and trained up as professional wise men.

When the executioners arrived at Daniel’s door, he asked what was going on and sent word back to the king that if he would only hold off on killing everyone, Daniel would be able to interpret the dream—he just needed time to seek the God of heaven first.

Although the book does not specify exactly when, Daniel got his answer from God quickly. “The mystery was then revealed to Daniel in a vision at night, and Daniel praised the God of heaven” (Daniel 2:19). Daniel went before King Nebuchadnezzar and told him his dream—a dream, Daniel declared, that revealed the future.

My king, as you were watching, a colossal statue appeared. That statue, tall and dazzling, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was terrifying. The head of the statue was pure gold, its chest and arms were silver, its stomach and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron, and its feet were partly iron and partly fired clay. As you were watching, a stone broke off without a hand touching it, struck the statue on its feet of iron and fired clay, and crushed them. Then the iron, the fired clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were shattered and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors. The wind carried them away, and not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (Daniel 2:31–35)

Daniel went on to interpret the dream. Each distinct material in the statue, he said, represented a great kingdom, beginning with Babylon—the head of gold. After Babylon fell, three other kingdoms or empires would arise, represented by the silver and bronze and finally the legs of iron.

The last would be most terrible of all, “for iron crushes and shatters everything, and like iron that smashes, it will crush and smash all the others” (Daniel 2:40). The feet and toes of mixed iron and clay represented a fundamental instability in this final kingdom, however, apparently brought on by the multinational extent of its rule: though it would rule many peoples, they would not properly cohere. “You saw the iron mixed with clay—the peoples will mix with one another but will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with fired clay” (Daniel 2:43).

It was the last part of the vision, though, that mattered most. God was revealing to Nebuchadnezzar—and to Daniel, and to all who would read Daniel’s words—that one day all human empires would fall, even the most powerful.

And the agent of their fall would be small and simple, a stone cut out of a mountain without the work of human hands. It would destroy the greatest works of idolatrous, empire-building human beings. This stone, Daniel explained, would be the kingdom of God itself.

In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not be left to another people. It will crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself endure forever. You saw a stone break off from the mountain without a hand touching it, and it crushed the iron, bronze, fired clay, silver, and gold. The great God has told the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its interpretation certain. (Daniel 2:44–45)

For Daniel, the story ended well—he not only escaped execution but was also honored and promoted by Nebuchadnezzar, who was probably relieved to hear the stone would not strike the statue in his own day. (Somewhat ironically, the next story in Daniel has Nebuchadnezzar building a giant golden statue and demanding that everyone in the kingdom bow down and worship it—not quite the inspiration he was supposed to take from the dream.)

But another dream was in store, this one given directly to Daniel. Parallel in its shape and reaching a similar conclusion, this one was far more lurid in its details and detailed in its scope. Interestingly, when Daniel had this dream, Babylon was on the cusp of falling—it would soon be taken over in the middle of the night by the kingdom of the Medes and Persians.

In the order of stories in the book of Daniel, chapter 5 tells the story of this sudden downfall, and chapter 6 relates the well-known tale of Daniel’s test of faith when was famously thrown in the lion’s den by the new king, Darius the Mede, under the influence of jealous advisers. Thematically, his experience in the midst of the lions bears a close resemblance to the apocalyptic story he earlier saw play out “in the night visions.”

Daniel’s vision begins at the opening of chapter 7, just after the story of the lion’s den comes to a close.

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream with visions in his mind as he was lying in his bed. He wrote down the dream, and here is the summary of his account. Daniel said, “In my vision at night I was watching, and suddenly the four winds of heaven stirred up the great sea. Four huge beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.”

The chapter goes on to describe these terrible beasts. They are not simply animals, but monstrous, deformed creatures that live to terrorize and dominate, gorging themselves on the flesh of their victims. Just as there were four types of building material in the Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, there are four monsters in Daniel’s vision. And once again, the worst of them is the last. Note, too, the recurrence of “iron” as a motif:

While I was watching in the night visions, a fourth beast appeared, frightening and dreadful, and incredibly strong, with large iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and it trampled with its feet whatever was left. It was different from all the beasts before it, and it had 10 horns. (Daniel 7:7)

While Daniel watched, suddenly a little horn came up from among the original ten on the great iron beast. This horn was small, but it had eyes like a man’s, “and it had a mouth that spoke arrogantly” (Daniel 7:8).

It was at this point that Daniel’s terrifying vision took an unexpected twist. Apparently provoked by the arrogant words of the “little horn”—an image which interestingly indicates one with a lack of real strength, relying instead on threatening and perhaps blasphemous or deceptive words for power —the scene suddenly shifted, becoming one of the most awe-inspiring moments in Scripture: the sudden convening of a heavenly court, with God himself as the Judge.

“As I kept watching,” Daniel says,

thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took His seat.
His clothing was white like snow,
and the hair of His head like whitest wool.
His throne was flaming fire;
its wheels were blazing fire.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from His presence.
Thousands upon thousands served Him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was convened,
and the books were opened.
(Daniel 7:9–10)

With God now sitting as Judge, justice was swift: the little horn was deposed and destroyed; the iron beast was killed and its body burned. But then something even more wondrous and mysterious took place, something almost unbelievably strange and wonderful:

I continued watching in the night visions,
and I saw One like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
He approached the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before Him.
He was given authority to rule,
and glory, and a kingdom;
so that those of every people,
nation, and language
should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that will not pass away,
and His kingdom is one
that will not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:13–14)

When Nebuchadnezzar had his dream, he was deeply disturbed and sought an interpreter. Daniel, interestingly, does the same. “Deeply distressed” and “terrified” by the visions, he approaches a mysterious angelic being standing nearby and asks for an interpretation of what he has seen. Thankfully, the angel is obliging.

So he let me know the interpretation of these things: “These huge beasts, four in number, are four kings who will rise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and possess it forever, yes, forever and ever.” (Daniel 7:16b–17)

This simple interpretive key makes it clear that Daniel’s vision is the same as Nebuchadnezzar’s. The four beasts are four kings or kingdoms—ruling powers, reigning on earth but perhaps empowered by something more frightening and unholy.

The Son of Man in the vision, who appeared among the monsters like Daniel in the lion’s den and who was brought before the Judge on his throne, represents not a person but a people, the holy ones (or saints) of the Most High. After the monsters had had their day, the people of God would be given an everlasting kingdom, never to be lost or taken from them. Fantastically, they would even seem to rule alongside God, sharing in his power and authority.

Not satisfied with this answer, Daniel presses for more understanding of the fourth beast, “the one different from all the others, extremely terrifying, with iron teeth and bronze claws, devouring, crushing, and trampling with its feet whatever was left” (Daniel 7:20). He also here lets us know a little more of what he earlier saw in the rise of the little horn:

As I was watching, this horn waged war against the holy ones and was prevailing over them until the Ancient of Days arrived and a judgment was given in favor of the holy ones of the Most High, for the time had come, and the holy ones took possession of the kingdom. (Daniel 7:22)

Before being given the kingdom, Daniel indicates, the holy ones would suffer beneath the rule of the monsters and even be nearly defeated by the little horn. The angel agrees with this. After giving Daniel more detail about the fourth beast and little horn, he warns:

He will speak words against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High. He will intend to change religious festivals and laws, and the holy ones will be handed over to him for a time, times, and half a time. (Daniel 7:25)

Nevertheless, this season will be limited. Daniel should keep his hope in the justice of God, which will surely come:

But the court will convene, and his dominion will be taken away, to be completely destroyed forever. The kingdom, dominion, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be given to the people, the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey Him. (Daniel 7:27)

And with that, the vision ended.

To be continued …


This is Part 168 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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