Daniel 7A generation ago Ray Stedman put the matter this way:
All voices agree together, secular and sacred alike, that we are coming to an unprecedented time of trouble in the world, and we shall never again see anything that could be regarded as normal times.
As I read those words they seem as fresh to me as if they had been spoken this morning. Every part of that statement seems absolutely true. Then I pondered what our President said last Thursday night: “The state of the union has never been stronger.” And he took credit for the way things are going in America. Perhaps he is right. Who knows? Then on Sunday a friend commented on what the President had said. “Yes, the state of the economy is good, but the state of the American soul is not good at all.” Therein lies the paradox of these days. As we enter the 21st century our nation, and indeed much of the world, enjoys a time of economic prosperity. Where is the “unprecedented time of trouble” Ray Stedman spoke about? Perhaps he is just a prophet of gloom and doom.
Before we come to a final conclusion, we ought to heed the message of our text. Daniel 7 records one of the most amazing visions in the Bible. It tells of a strange dream Daniel had in the year 553 BC in which God revealed to him a symbolic outline of human history stretching from Daniel’s day to the very end of time. Although much of his dream has been fulfilled, the final parts are yet future to us. And if they are to be taken literally (as I think they must be), then Ray Stedman will in the end be proven correct and President Clinton’s optimistic words will be seen as (at best) a temporary respite from the troubles to come.
Biography and Prophecy
But first a word about the book of Daniel. This ancient book divides neatly into two parts. The first six chapters are biography, telling the story of Daniel’s deportation to Babylon and his adventures in the courts of various pagan kings. Again and again we see him standing firm under pressure, facing danger and death, and in the end being promoted by God to ever-higher positions of power. When we come to chapter 7, the book changes from biography to prophecy. The last six chapters detail four visions given to Daniel in the last 20 years of his life. These visions center around the nations and empires of the world, especially as they relate to God’s plan for Israel.
The first and greatest of these visions is found in Daniel 7. John Walvoord calls this vision the most comprehensive Old Testament prophecy of the future. Many of the Jewish scribes considered it the greatest chapter of the Old Testament. And the gospel writers quoted from it on many occasions.
Four Beasts from the Sea
Before going any further, let me summarize the vision. One night as Daniel was on his bed, he had a dream and then visions came to him during his dream. He saw the four winds of heaven whipping up the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Then without warning four beasts emerged from the sea, one after another. First came a lion with wings. Then a ferocious bear raised up on one side. Then a leopard with four wings and four heads. Then an unidentified beast more terrible than the first three. The fourth beast had iron claws and ten horns on its head. As Daniel watched, an 11th horn came up from among the ten horns and conquered three of them. Then the “little horn” began to boast of its power and to blaspheme God. At that moment thrones appeared and the Ancient of Days (a term for God) came to judge the world. The little horn and the fourth beast were destroyed and cast into burning flames. Then Daniel saw the Son of Man (a term referring to the Messiah, and so recognized by both Jewish and Christian expositors) coming in power and glory to set up his kingdom on the earth.
Let me put it in even shorter form: The sea … four beasts … ten horns … the “little horn” … arrogant words … the Ancient of Days … judgment … the Son of Man … His kingdom on the earth.
The Statue and the Four Beasts
This is what Daniel saw. But what did it mean? We can make a useful comparison between this dream and the dream King Nebuchadnezzar had in Daniel 2. In that dream the king saw a vast statue made of four metals: head of gold, chest of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron, feet of mixed iron and clay. A stone cut out of a mountain hits the statue at its feet (the iron and clay part), smashing it to bits. Then the stone grew until it filled the whole earth. Daniel explained to the king that the four metals represent four successive world empires—decreasing in value from top to bottom but increasing in strength. Nebuchadnezzar (and the Babylonian empire) was the head of gold. Three other empires would come later. We know from history those empires were Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Daniel explained that the feet of iron and clay represented the breakup of the fourth kingdom into various countries, some strong and some weak. The stone that hit the feet represented the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to destroy all manmade kingdoms and to establish his kingdom on the earth.
How do these two dreams relate to one another? In the second half of Daniel 7, an angel tells Daniel that the four beasts represent four kingdoms:
The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever (Daniel 7:17-18).
The “sea” Daniel saw was really the “sea” of humanity, the churning, roiling tumult of people and nations and politics and armies, as first one group and then another vies for power. Out of that chaos four kingdoms emerge (visually symbolized by the four beasts) one after another. In the Last Days there will be a “fifth kingdom"—the kingdom of God on the earth, which will be established when the Lord Jesus Christ returns in power and great glory.
The World as God Sees It
Let’s put the two dreams side by side and make a comparison.
Rome—Iron—Unnamed ferocious beast
What about the feet and toes of iron and clay? They approximate the ten horns of Daniel 7. What about the “little horn” who becomes dominant? He is mentioned in Daniel 7 but not in Daniel 2.
One final question. Why are the same four empires referred to as metals in one dream and beasts in another? Answer: The statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream shows us the empires of the world as man sees them
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