God Tells the Time

Ancient Dreams for Humbling Days

Providence Church | Frisco, Texas

Providence Church, it is a great honor and joy for me to open the Bible with you this morning. My wife and I were looking forward to coming and meeting you in person at the end of June. But, of course, these were not the only plans to be rethought in recent months! So here we are, by video, on the last day of May!

These have been unusual times, as all of us have experienced in various degrees — some pretty mild, others significant. These have been anxious, uncertain, even chaotic days. We’ve all felt the rumblings of collective panic at moments; some, in sustained ways.

But as scary as it can be to live in the midst of a global pandemic, these are good days to be Christian. And good days to be the church, and have the very word of God in our hands. The Bible was written by suffering people in difficult times, and often the Bible really comes alive in our hardest times. And my prayer this morning is that God would be pleased to have Daniel chapter 7 come alive for us, in some fresh way as we come to it, looking for real hope in our chaotic times.

Daniel’s Dream

Daniel was no stranger to difficulty. God gave him this vision about five-and-a-half centuries before Christ, when Daniel was in exile, far away from home. Jerusalem lay in ruins. No Israelite king was on the throne. And God’s people were in Babylon, of all places. Their situation felt dire, and it had felt dire for a long time, going on seventy years. And into this context, into these desperate times, God gives Daniel a dream designed to shock him and to comfort him. First, shock. Then, comfort. And then Daniel wrote it down, that his people, and even we today, might be shocked and comforted with him.

As disorienting as the dream can be, the layout of this chapter is actually simple. There are two clear sections: verses 1–14 and 15–28. The first section is Daniel’s dream; the second section is the explanation.

Daniel’s dream in verses 1–14 has four scene changes (signaled by “saw” and “looked” in verses 1–2, 9, 11, and 13):

  1. the “four great beasts” (verses 2–8),
  2. then the Ancient of Days takes his seat as judge (verses 9–10),
  3. then the beasts are judged and the fourth is destroyed (verses 11–12),
  4. and finally God gives the eternal kingdom to this mysterious figure called “one like a son of man” (verses 13–14).

That’s the dream, and the first half of the chapter.

What It Means

The second half of the chapter (verses 15–28) is even simpler. First, we learn in verse 15 of the vision’s effect on Daniel: he is anxious and alarmed. So, he asks a question in verse 16 to one of the angels standing there, and the angel answers in verses 17–18. Then Daniel asks one follow-up question in verses 19–20, and the angel’s answer in verses 23–27 is essentially the rest of the chapter. All that’s left is verse 28, where we find out again how the vision has affected Daniel. He writes,

As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed. (7:28)

So, verse 15: he was anxious and alarmed; and now in verse 28, “greatly alarmed” and his “color changed.” These details are not insignificant, because how Daniel responds to the vision and its interpretation is also how we, in part, are to see the vision.

This chapter (and the whole second half of Daniel) is a particular kind of writing that some call “apocalyptic,” which means it has to do with the end times and how God brings history to its dramatic conclusion. And this kind of writing does not aim to make specific, detailed prophecies about the future as much as to provoke powerful feelings. Which is why it’s so image-heavy. Images can communicate truth, but not typically with precision.

“The Bible was written by suffering people in difficult times.”

The point is not to give specifics about the identities of the beasts in history, but to look for single, often simple meanings that give God’s people hope in chaotic times. These prophecies are not meant to turn readers into investigators, but to inspire faith and hope and worship, to help us live in the present, and to instill confidence in us for however the specific forms of these visions become reality in the future.

So, these images are designed to affect us, like they did Daniel. And before we walk through the dream, perhaps there’s one more thing to say about the nature of the vision.

Seeing in the Dark

Verses 1–2 tell us the dream came to Daniel as he slept. And three times Daniel tells us it was at night (verses 2, 7, and 13), to make sure we get it: this is a dream. It’s not a precise script, but a distant prophetic glimpse, as in the dark.

Shadowy as it is, though, Daniel wrote down the sum of what he saw (verse 1), and it has consoled and inspired God’s people now for more than 2,500 years. And it meets us, as the church in 2020, with precious hope in the surpassing power of God. This vision has not yet passed. It has been partially fulfilled, as we’ll see, but not yet fully. While we may not be given specific details, we are given a certain hope, beginning right where we live, in our times of anxiety and alarm.

So, let’s look briefly at the four main parts to Daniel’s dream. First is the “four great beasts” that threaten God’s people.

1. Evil Powers Terrorize God’s People

In verse 3, Daniel sees coming up out of the sea (which represents chaos and disorder; see Revelation 21:1) four great beasts. Each is different from the others, and more threatening than the one before. The explanation in verse 17 is that these four beasts are “four kings who shall arise out of the earth.” Kings here likely means something like empires or dynasties.

The first is like a lion, with eagles’ wings (verse 4). Like the dream God gave King Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 2, this vision likely begins with Babylon and then gets more and more ambiguous. Babylon was symbolized at times as a lion or an eagle. (Ezekiel 17:3, for instance, depicts Babylon as an eagle.) And in Daniel chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God (his wings plucked), and then later restored (“made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it”). So, the first beast appears to resemble Babylon.

Then another beast arises like a bear, devouring flesh (verse 5). The identity of this beast is less clear, whether it might be the Medes and Persians together that followed Babylon, or perhaps just the Medes. It begins to get less certain. And that’s by design. The images resist precise identification.

Third, then, is a leopard with wings and four heads, and now, we hear, significantly, that “dominion was given to it” (verse 6). Which may mean a new height and extent of power. And there are two key words here that will echo again and again in this chapter (and through the book of Daniel): “dominion” and “given.” More to say on that in a few minutes. Beast three might be Greece, but with each beast, it’s less and less certain. The point is the pattern of escalating evil and power and rebellion against God.

Finally comes “a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” with “great iron teeth” (in verse 7). We’re told three times in chapter 7 that this fourth beast is “different from all the beasts that were before it” in its strength, the terror it strikes, and the extent of its power (verses 7, 19, 23); verse 23: it “shall devour the whole earth.”

This final beast (which is just a beast, not identified with any particular known animal) has ten horns, a symbol of great power. And Daniel says in verse 8, “There came up among them another horn, a little one” with “a mouth speaking great things.” So, this seems to be the climactic and most powerful ruler of the final dynasty, and, in fact, all of history. And twice more Daniel mentions the mouth of the little horn, who boasts great things (verses 11 and 20). Daniel also says this little horn “seemed greater than its companions” (verse 20) and was “different from the former ones” (verse 24).

“The Ancient of Days sits in judgment and effortlessly executes justice.”

In particular, this little horn takes aim at two targets: he turns his arrogant tongue against God and against his people. Verse 25: he will “speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High.” As much as he is talk, he’s not all talk. His threatening words give way to acts of persecution that seem successful for a time. Look at verses 21–22: He “made war with the saints [God’s people] and prevailed over them” — that is, “until the Ancient of Days came.”

So, we have this snapshot of world history: evil powers arise and terrorize God’s people. That’s the first scene (verses 2–8). Then comes the first scene change in verse 9.

2. The Ancient of Days Holds Court

Now, into the confusion and terror of these threatening, escalating, seemingly uncontrollable beasts, the vision pivots and Daniel sees that “thrones were placed” — this is a judgment scene — and “the Ancient of Days took his seat” (verse 9), presiding over all the nations, and over all history, to give and execute his final judgment.

As a name for God, “Ancient of Days” emphasizes his eternality as well as his fitness to be the one final and decisive Judge of all history, every nation, every empire, and every individual. This is a name for God on his judgment seat. Not only has God been there from the beginning, and seen it all, but he has presided over it all, reigning supreme as God, guiding the course of history as he wills (Ephesians 1:11), and acting decisively, in his perfect timing, to humble the proud and exalt the humble (James 4:6, 10).

And this Ancient of Days far surpasses the strength and authority and power of all the world’s kingdoms. This is God himself — the “Most High God” (throughout Daniel and four times in this chapter) — who takes his seat as Judge of all the earth, the earth he made and rules. He is the one of whom Psalm 90:2 says,

Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

But not only is he eternal. He is clothed in white to reflect his utter purity (verse 9). His hair is like pure wool to reflect the bottomless depths of wisdom amassed over endless ages. And he is surrounded by fire, which streams forth from his throne, flashing his power to conquer any challenger (verse 10).

With the Ancient of Days on his throne, in verse 10, “the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” Now the beasts face the final reckoning for their evil. Every deed has been seen and recorded in his books; nothing slides past the Ancient of Days. Verse 12 says the lives of the first three beasts “were prolonged for a season and a time,” but the fourth is immediately destroyed and the arrogant mouth silenced (verse 11; also verse 26).

This is an amazing display of the power of the Most High. As fierce and intimidating and powerful as these four great beasts are (and especially the fourth!), the Ancient of Days sits in judgment and effortlessly executes justice. No threat, no challenge, no prolonged struggle. He only says the word and the greatest beast is destroyed.

Which is what the book of Daniel has emphasized, in stunning fashion, from the very beginning. Over and over again, God is said to be the one who rules over the kingdom of man and gives dominion to whom he wills and takes it when he so chooses (Daniel 4:17, 25–26, 32; 5:21).

So, the Ancient of Days need only snap his fingers — better, he only speaks a word — and any human empire is destroyed. But he doesn’t just take dominion from and destroy the fourth beast. He then gives rulership to a singular divine-human figure called “the son of man.”

3. The Son of Man Receives the Kingdom

The scene changes again in verses 13–14. Look with me there:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
    that shall not be destroyed.

So, the Ancient of Days now gives his own dominion (which will not pass away) over all the nations to this “son of man.” This “son of man” (which means he’s human) rules over all, and he will not be destroyed like the fourth beast. His kingdom is eternal (the very kingdom that was attributed to God at the end of chapter 6: “his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end,” Daniel 6:26).

But this strange figure is not only “one like a son of man.” He also comes “with the clouds of heaven.” Daniel says “behold” because he doesn’t want us to miss that. Get this: “behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man.” Who is it that comes with the clouds? It’s God himself. Psalm 104:3 says, “He makes the clouds his chariot,” and Isaiah 19:1 says, “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud.”

“Despite your present circumstances, and regardless of appearances, God is in control.”

God himself is the great cloud-rider, the one who comes with the clouds. And yet this “one like a son of man” in verse 13 is not the Ancient of Days himself — because “he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.” Two persons here. So, we might ask, what in the world must Daniel have been thinking about this vision? What singular human figure might receive the everlasting kingdom from the hand of God himself? Why, Daniel might say, the heir of King David, of course. God had promised this to David about his offspring in 2 Samuel 7:

I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. . . . [M]y steadfast love will not depart from him. . . . And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:13–16)

This Son of Man, though human, far surpasses any other human king. No other past, present, or future king has reigned, or will ever reign, forever. And as you may know, the most common way Jesus refers to himself throughout the Gospels is “the Son of Man.”

But there’s one big surprise left in verses 15–28. Remember verses 1–14 are the dream, and then verses 15–28, the explanation. But one important detail is left out of the vision, and then dominates the explanation.

4. The Saints Join with Him

Remarkably, the divine-human figure, who receives God’s everlasting kingdom, is not alone. A people — called “the saints” — reign with him. And this is where this vision becomes strikingly personal for us today.

Not only does Daniel’s dream present our God as the one with the wisdom, authority, and power to judge the nations and history (and give the eternal kingdom to the Son of Man, who we now know to be Jesus Christ), but we are involved. Not just as spectators, but as recipients. The people of God, the saints — the church — play a stunning part in the culmination of history that lies before us.

Look at verse 18, which introduces the saints for the first time: “The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” The eternal, divine kingdom comes not only into the human hands of the one Son of Man, but now also, through him, to all his people.

The fourth beast and arrogant mouth were given dominion for a time; and the saints were given into his hand and worn down for a season (verse 25). And even the little horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them for a while (verse 21). But the days were numbered “until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom” (verse 22).

In the end, to our amazement, in verse 27, “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given . . .” To whom? To us. To the church, “to the people of the saints of the Most High.” How can we not marvel?

God meant for this to give great comfort to his people, through Daniel, in exile 2,500 years ago. Despite your present circumstances, and regardless of appearances, God is in control. He rules. And he will humble and destroy all human kingdoms precisely when he decides, and give the everlasting kingdom to his Son and his people with him.

Solid Hope in Humbling Times

This glimpse of the end is meant to give great hope in our times of chaos, like a global pandemic. And this vision, which came to its first fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, gave great comfort and hope to him, as he stood before the Caiaphas the high priest, and alluded to Daniel 7: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). And it gives us hope today in our chaos and anxiety: hope to remain faithful, despite appearances.

Brothers and sisters, our God is in control. Heaven rules (Daniel 4:26). He rules over all the kingdoms of men and over every time and season — including ours.

For some, this pandemic is a major trial; life and death are at stake. For others, at least to this point, this trial may have been relatively small — nothing like it will actually be when the end does come. And yet it is a trial still. It is preparing us for what’s to come. And to whom to look: the perfect justice of the Ancient of Days, who will right every wrong. And to the eternal reign of the Son of Man, fully human and fully divine, who himself suffered under the hands of an evil empire — until the Ancient of Days raised him up and gave him the kingdom.

Daniel’s dream, and Jesus’s fulfillment as the Son of Man, and God’s promise to us as his church that we will reign with him, gives us solid hope, come what may, not only because of the majestic transcendence of the Ancient of Days — eternal, fit to judge, unsurpassed in power — but also because of his nearness to his saints. He not only sits to judge; he gives his Son and the saints his kingdom.