BELSHAZZAR: DANIEL THE FORGOTTEN MAN
Studying this book chronologically we now turn to the seventh chapter. Between the royal edict of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 and the first year of the reign of king Belshazzar was a period of 30 years. Little is known of this period, and nothing to encourage us to believe that Nebuchadnezzar had come to a knowledge of Daniel’s Lord. For example, while with the aid of his wife Amytis Nebuchadnezzar spent these years in the embellishment of his capital, he also improved the temples of Marduk and Nabu establishing many shrines in Babylon for these gods and providing regular offerings for them. He also restored temples in Sippar, Marad, and Borsippa. These are hardly the actions of a man who has learned from his encounters with God.
Fifty years have passed since Daniel was taken as a small boy from Israel. Belshazzar was in fact the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. His father was named Nabonidus, and he had entrusted the army and the kingship to Belshazzar while he campaigned in central Arabia, where he eventually remained for ten years. The real authority in the nation lay with the Queen, Belshazzar’s mother. Daniel has fallen into disfavour, living in Babylon largely as a forgotten man. Belshazzar has not even heard of this man who is the spokesman of the living God. The bearer of God’s truth has been marginalised and life goes on at the hub of the Babylonian empire without any of the influence of the Word of God.
The Bible presents us with two developments in the history of the world. First, it tells us that the kingdom of God will spread and grow like a mustard seed that becomes a great tree. The nations will come like birds to a tree and find their homes in its branches. Again, God’s kingdom is like yeast or leaven that permeates a mass (Matthew 13:31-33). The climactic picture of this is described by the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 11 – a time for the future fullness of Israel and then great riches for the Gentiles. A time is coming when the acceptance of Israel into the favour and blessing of God will mean life from the dead for the rest of the world (vv.12 and 15). That is one picture in Scripture.
There is another theme in Scripture and that is of wickedness, vital and relentless, which goes on until the end. Multitudes continue to find the broad road to destruction and only few find the way to life (Matthew 7:13 & 14). People in the shadow of the end of the ages will be behaving no better than people did when Noah’s flood cascaded over the world (Matthew 24:38 & 39). The climactic picture for that is found in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2: vv.3-12 which tells of the Man of Sin (or ‘lawlessness’) who is going to be revealed, and a great rebellion against God taking place, perhaps fuelled by a backlash against the renewed vitality of the gospel and the great riches which the Gentiles have received. So there are these two contrasting but not incompatible perspectives, two kingdoms at war, and at times one seems to gain the ascendancy and then the other, with the ultimate denouement at the end of all things before the coming of the Lord Christ.
THE DREAM IN THE FIRST YEAR OF BELSHAZZAR. Daniel Chapter 7
Daniel 7 tells us that in the first year of Belshazzar coming to the throne, about 556 B.C., the prophet himself had a dream. Daniel had interpreted the dreams of others but now God speaks to him this way. That dream presented to him and to ourselves an outline of the course of history. God has a blueprint for his creation, and according to that plan he works all things – from the greatest to the least – after the counsel of his own will. There are some secret things which God hides from men and there are others which he reveals (Deut.29:29). He may communicate by a dream or vision. He calls his prophets into his presence and speaks to them, and they come forth with a message which they prefix with the words, “Thus saith the Lord.” Daniel, like the other writing prophets, “wrote down the substance of the dream” (7:1). Daniel did not explain every one of the details, even if he could have understood them all. We are not told the meaning of each constituent element, but we are given the big picture. Daniel sees first “the great sea” (7:2) and it is being lashed by winds from all directions, foaming, threatening and restless. This sea is a picture of the nations of the world, and there is never a calm – consider the continent of Africa, South America, the Middle East, Ulster and the Balkans. Then Daniel as he watches the tumultuous sea sees four beasts emerging from its depths one after the other. These great monsters rise up and for a while straddle the history of the world, and then, they simply disappear and others succeed them. Who are they ? “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth” (7:17)
Powers today are represented by symbols of beasts – the Russian bear, the American eagle, the Chinese dragon. Daniel saw four beasts, a lion (7:.4), a bear (7:5), a leopard (7:6) and then one so horrible that Daniel did not know what to call it (7:7). The sea does not represent any particular geographical area of water, but the vast limitless deep. But the beasts represent specific human kingdoms, and though they have particular application to Daniel’s time there is the bigger picture, that in world history one kingdom briefly succeeds another as top dog. Forces of extraordinary power and cruelty energise themselves, and for a while cast a shadow across the world. One will follow another until the ultimate one will be struck down by the breath of Christ’s mouth.
In the Times this year (April 10,1997) there was a review of a book entitled The Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China. Over 100,00 people in the first years of the Cultural Revolution were murdered in China and actual cannibalism re-emerged. The author of this book is Zheng Yi – a former Red Guard. How could such horrors have happened ? Zheng Yi says ‘we attempted to bring about a beautiful society. We thought that after treading through the quagmire of blood … we would be able to face the most magnificent dawn in the history of mankind. Instead we consorted with beasts.’ Even more recently the Times reviewed a book on the subject of the reappearance of Fascism in Europe in the last decade of the twentieth century (August 8, 1997). That book has the significant title The Beast Reawakens. That image of the rise of beasts is the picture Daniel gives us here, rulers emerge who act in a sub-human way and with absolute power. This hideous century, now drawing to a close, has witnessed the greatest display since the fall of Adam of such beasts waxing and waning.
We recall that Nebuchadnezzar had had a dream in which the great figure of a man dominated everything. Its theme was the triumph of mankind’s culture, achievements, and beauty. The king saw a statue, and the words that are used to describe it in Scripture are ‘an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance’ (2:31). Nebuchadnezzar was dreaming of the same subject of which Daniel is given a dream in chapter 7 – world history. But Nebuchadnezzar sees the glories of man, his formidable achievements, what men can construct of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. We think of ancient Greece’s splendours, Rome under the Caesars, the sixteenth century Renaissance, Paris under Louis X1V, Venice and Genoa under its doges, Paris under Louis XIV, and today, the island of Manhattan. Consider what man has built, his universities, hospitals, space rockets and stations, satellites and the world wide web. Think of what man has created, his music, literature, art, architecture – all the glittering achievements of man – just like the golden figure of which Nebuchadnezzar dreamed, and of which men dream yet may emerge in the new Millennium.
When the man of God, Daniel, dreams his dream is the very same subject, the history of the world, but he does not see a man, he dreams of wild beasts. Not creations of high culture but creatures that live to get the mastery, put down any opposition and destroy. Daniel, with the Spirit of Christ in him, could never dream like Nebuchadnezzar as both looked on the world. When he was awake Daniel could look through his windows and survey the real glories of Babylon just as the devil showed Christ “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” (Matthew 4:8). But when God shows him the world of humanity he sees ferocious animals, a roaring lion, a hungry bear, a swift leopard, an unknown beast. We live our lives with that same tension, When we think of Rome we think of the majestic Coliseum but we also think of Nero, and the beastly cruelties within that awesome architecture. When we look at Manhattan’s skyscrapers they can take our breath away, but we also see in their shadow mammon, greed, drugs, sensuality and abuse. From one perspective the history of man is the story of extraordinary achievements and then from another perspective it is a decadent, depraved and bestial. The Word of God is saying, “You remember how Nebuchadnezzar had seen the history of mankind ? Now let me also show you this – great nations will devour small nations; the god of this world will always be at war with the saints of the Most High. The world system is ultimately anti-Christian. Its great power structures are like wild beasts that stalk the lambs of Christ’s flock. I am sending you forth as sheep amidst wolves.”
So, these four beasts symbolise the power structures raised by men, and for Daniel and his first readers they were a succession of empires that were immediately recognisable. They also have a trans-historical significance representing that succession of world-dominant powers that rise and fall from Daniel’s time until the end. There is virtually no power of man that is not symbolised in the emergence and the swift disappearance of these creatures. The first is the lion and it corresponds with the head of gold in Nebuchadnezzar’s image The symbolism of the lion and eagles’ wings speaks eloquently of Babylon (cp.Je.4:7 & 49:19). The lion is the king of the beasts, and with its outstretched wings it is a fine symbol of Babylon whose influence spread over all the surrounding nations, even Jerusalem and Israel. But Daniel sees the wings torn off so that the power of Babylon is limited, and it is cut down to size, “so that it stood on two feet like a man” (7:4). A foretaste of this happened to Nebuchadnezzar in his madness, and it will happened to Babylon itself. Empires rise, they have their moment of glory, they are humbled. However the tyrants boast in their invincibility, down they fall. Only God’s kingdom endures. The dream is saying, “Do not be intimidated. The greatest powers of the earth are transitory beasts:”
And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all;
The city of God remaineth
The second beast is a bear (7:5) who has been devouring its prey, and there are three ribs still sticking out of his mouth. He has gorged himself on carrion and yet is raised up on one side, preparing to leap. He is hungry for slaughter and is being urged on by someone crying to him, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh !” (7:5) If the lion is Babylon, then the bear probably represents the Medes and Persians with their appetite for expansion. Aggrandisement is the characteristic of every nation because it is the characteristic of fallen man. Every nation, even little Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are hungry for wealth. The world’s bankers become bears. Given the opportunity every single nation would become a bear. The poorest nations test-explode nuclear bombs. Their statesmen say they are non-aligned, the descendants of Ghandi, and that they love peace, yet India has the fourth largest army in the whole world. Peace-loving little Ireland is full of bears as its island has become known for internecine strife and hundreds have been killed. Nations everywhere seize any opportunity of expanding their borders, retaliating, stockpiling weapons, encouraging economic aggression, heeding that mysterious voice crying to them, “Get up, get up, eat your fill of the flesh.!” That is the spirit of a rebel world.
The third beast is a leopard. It has four heads; it has four wings like a bird. Historically, after Babylon, and then the Medes and the Persians, Greece arose as swiftly as Alexander’s conquests themselves. The young king struck like lightning – his troops were so mobile that he turned his armies around from one nation to fall upon another within a matter of weeks. After he died his kingdom was divided into four, but the chief meaning of these four heads is to symbolise the universal expansion of this third kingdom out into the four corners of the earth (2:39). Daniel is observing things happening at greater speed. The cumbersome bear has become this swift panther. The process of self-exaltation and self-gratification becomes instant. But what is the rapidity of Alexander the Great’s military might compared to today’s push of a red-button with its potential of destroying continents ?
Then there is the fourth beast (7:7) and this one is not identified by Daniel. It must be a symbol of the historical Roman Empire but given a special significance as the power that put to death the Messiah and violently ended the covenant relationship of Jerusalem with Jehovah. It is antichrist in a way the preceding beasts were not. It is nondescript yet introduced with particular solemnity. No likeness in all the vast animal kingdom can be found for it. This beast has extraordinary power. It is grotesque and terrifying, half-animal and half-machine. We are told that it has large “iron teeth and bronze claws” (7:19), and it devours everything in its path. It has ten horns and one of them has “eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully” (7:8). It is some fearful genetically engineered combination of animal and human and machine. This beast is merciless even to itself for it can turn and uproot three of its own horns (7:8). “It was different from all the former beasts” (7:7), principally because it declares war on the people of God (7:21). This human development in technology is put to work in a war between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. Daniel longs to know “the true meaning of the fourth beast” (7:19). For him it is the final beast to appear after a succession of persecuting who have come into the world. This beast is also singled out as having ten horns upon its head, and for the presence of a little horn (7:7&8). So there are kingdoms which will exist during a prolonged second phase of the beast’s history. They will not necessarily arise immediately after the downfall of Rome, but they can trace their lineage back to Rome. Then a little horn will emerge and this stands for a man, a government, a coalition of governments or even an ideology. Whatever it is he opposes the saints until the judgment of God brings about the complete destruction of this final beast (7:11).
The New Testament speaks of the “coming of the lawless one which will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders and in every sort of evil that deceives” (2 Thess. 2:9&10). The only event after his appearing will be the coming of the Son of Man. This beast tries to change set times and set laws (7:25). He seeks to control world events, and rule providence itself – “he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (I Thess.2:4). Jesus speaks of this in Matthew 24:22, the great distress prefigured in the destruction of Jerusalem with the ending of God’s covenant with the land of Israel., which time of tribulation one day is to be repeated but with more intense fierceness so that it seems impossible for those who love God to survive. Then Daniel says, the end is at hand; “the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favour of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom” (7:22). That cruel time will be cut short, the Lord Jesus promises. He will not allow the turtle dove to be torn in pieces by the wild beasts. The Good Shepherd will save his sheep from being destroyed.
Daniel’s dream presents us with the backcloth for these two and a half thousand years against which the Church of God so far has sought to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ in this world. She has lived her life before the beasts, and always must. The people of God have a commission to be always abounding in the work of the Lord, and in that work they cry at times, “Save me from the lion’s mouth” (Psalm 22:21). They want to annexe principalities and communities and bring them into the true kingdom. They respect no boundaries. They will not be intimidated by any power structures. They must obey God rather than man. Giving in to weariness is to sign their own death warrant. Their growth is the condition of their survival. Their obedience to their King’s great commission is the mark of being true subjects. What is the determination of a beast compared to theirs in bringing all the world under the Saviour’s rule ? All the world must bow to King Jesus. Without iron teeth and bronze claws they have a mouth full of good things, and stretch out their hands all day long to a disobedient people. Such weapons as these are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.
That is the dream and the interpretation of the four beasts. Then Daniel sees something else of far greater significance, a mighty throne (7:9ff). He must not be distracted by the remorseless procession of beasts so as to fail to look at what is set high above the beasts, and the sea. It is from this throne that these monsters are being controlled. All the time Daniel gazes at this new sight he can hear the distraction in the background of the mouth of the little horn speaking boastfully (7:8 & 11). But ‘the Ancient of Days’ is seated upon the throne, that is, God seen as mature as the universe itself with all the wisdom of its Creator reigning over everything. From this throne he is head over all things – including those beasts – to the church. He is like a divine lion-tamer, and it is when he gives permission that the beasts may emerge from the ocean’s depths. When Daniel takes his eyes off that throne the world itself is in a state of turbulence, but let him look up and there is the glorious peace of an unshakeable throne.
Daniel has the difficulty of any creature in describing the figure of God, so he uses these images of white, dazzling white clothing and hair, a throne flaming with fire, wheels ablaze, rivers of fire, and all the time thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand stand before him, all looking to God and waiting for him to give the decree, and they move at his bidding.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I ?
Finally he comes, while the last beast has risen from the sea, “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (7:13&14). The beasts have a Judge to whom they must give account. The greatest of them can do nothing without his decree, and he also must answer to this son of man. It was this vision that our Lord had in mind when he referred to himself before the high priest and the court of the Sanhedrin as the Son of Man (Matthew 26:64). In the heart of the Old Testament this vision of the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ is given. All things are of him, and all things are to him. The command comes from him even for the times of persecution to arise and the church to be hunted like a partridge in the wilderness.
Sovereign Ruler of the skies, ever gracious ever wise;
All my times are in Thy hand, all events at Thy command
Plagues and deaths around me fly; till he bids, I cannot die;
Not a single shaft can hit till the God of love sees fit.
He does according to his will amongst that innumerable company in heaven, yes, but the beasts too must do what he bids. The greatest events in world history are to be judged by him, yes, and the smallest things too, every idle word, evaluated by him, with nothing overlooked. We must all stand before this great throne, and sitting upon it will be this Son of Man. All our comfort in that great day will derive from one fact, that the One who died to be our Saviour is sitting upon that throne. The One who will vindicate us is the Lamb who on Golgotha bore our sins. The beasts have no choice in obeying him. For them the yoke is not easy nor the burden light. They too must give account when they will bow before him. But his people cry with longing, Maranatha, even so, come, Lord Jesus. It is this message that comes to Daniel at a time when the word of God seems to have been consigned to oblivion in Babylon: “The Sovereignty lies with the Lord.”