So far in Daniel you might get the impression that God always delivers his faithful people from their present suffering. Three men go into the fiery furnace and aren't even singed. Daniel faces the lions and doesn't have a paw laid on him. The message of this book might seem to be 'don't worry, nothing will hurt you.' This chapter tells us otherwise.
History is filled with martyrs who laid down their lives for the faith. One preacher suggests that the outrage we twenty-first century Western Christians feel when we hear of religious persecution elsewhere in our world, may partly be due, to our lack of historical perspective. No one should have promised you that being a Christian is easy. Jesus warned that in this world we will have troubles.
This chapter tells us of unseen realities behind the kingdoms of the earth and yet assures us that the violence and chaos is subject to the greater power of God. The message of Daniel is not, 'don't worry, nothing will hurt you' but 'don't worry, God remains in control, and we have a future hope.' As Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four, 'heaven rules.'
1. God's people will be opposed by beast-like kingdoms (1-8, 15-17)
The book of Daniel is set about six hundred years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem during a period known as the exile. The exile had been a disaster for God's people. Great swathes of them had been taken from their homeland by the Babylonians. They are living in a foreign land under foreign rulers who worshiped foreign gods. That might have called into question whether God really is in control and whether heaven does rule. But then Daniel is given a glimpse of reality from God's perspective.
Daniel is asleep one night during first year of the reign of Belshazzar. Belshazzar was the ruler we met in chapter five, the one who saw the writing on the wall. Daniel had a dream and visions, and he wrote down the substance of what he saw. “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea" (2-3).
The four winds come from the four points on the compass. The sea was thought to be the place of chaos and hostility towards God (which is why in the New Heaven and New Earth, in the book of Revelation, their is no sea). The vision is fearful. These beasts seem scary. But what is this all this about? We can see if we jump down to verse seventeen: 'The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth'.
Back in chapter two Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about four kingdoms represented by the different parts of a great statue. Here, it seems, we have these same kingdoms. So, the lion-like creature represents the Babylonians; this creature had its wings plucked off, picturing how king Nebuchadnezzar was humbled (in chapter four). As we saw at the end of chapter five, the Babylonians were replaced by the Medo-Persians; this kingdom was ruled by two unequal countries, therefore the bear is raised up on one side. The leopard, represents the Greeks; in particular Alexander the Great who was known for his speedy conquest of the known world at the age of thirty-two. The fourth creature, which has been labelled 'Robo-beast' by one commentator, had 'large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns' (7). This seems to be the Roman Empire.
What about the 'little horn', in verse eight, who makes war against God's people and defeats them? This refers to a Greek emperor called Antiochus Epiphanes who killed many of God's people in the second-century before Christ.
So Daniel is being shown that in the centuries leading up to the coming of Christ there would be kingdoms who would act in beast like ways. Not everyone will be unharmed by the fiery furnace and see the mouths of the lions held shut. These pictures could be applied to many other kingdoms; to the beast-like kingdoms of Hitler, or Stalin, Pol Pot or North Korea. And such beast-like behaviour is not limited to totalitarian regimes. It shouldn't shock us when the media give Christians unfavourable coverage, when laws are drafted that contradict what we believe to be holy and true, when family members dislike us for what we believe, and when those who are brave enough to stand for their faith in school and work are teased and bullied for what they believe. There is a sense in which every Christian lives in a wicked and depraved generation.
2. God will judge beast-like kingdoms (9-12, 19-26)
The picture changes dramatically in verse nine. There had been aggression and fury, now there is calmness. As we see that God will judge beast-like kingdoms.
“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened (9-10).
This is God, 'the Ancient of Days', who takes his seat. The fact that he is called the Ancient of Days suggests that his reign, unlike that of the beasts, is not limited in time. God in his brilliant piercing purity for he exercises his rule with integrity and justice. The symbol of fire is regularly used as a sign of God's immediate presence in judgement and in mercy. God sits as judge. The little horn receives his judgement. 'Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire' (11). God does not tolerate these beast-like kingdoms for ever. One day justice will be done and all opposition to God will be removed from the world. Each of those four kingdoms was judged and brought to an end, God's judgement may break into history and an empire falls but ultimately we wait to the end of time when all will be judged.
This final day of justice is good news. A tyrant dies peacefully in his palace at a great age. It looks like he got away with his crimes against humanity. But he will face a day of divine judgement. We must be warned. The Bible teaches that apart from Christ you are hostile to God, you resist his rule, and this day of judgement will be awful for you. It also teaches that if we place our trust in the sin-bearing work on the cross and have him living within us then we have nothing to fear. There is now no condemnation, nor will there ever be, for those who are in Christ Jesus; thanks be to God!
3. God will establish his perfect king (9-14, 18-28)
God will judge these kingdoms, but he will also establish his perfect king. 'In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was 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 nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed' (13-14).
What a contrast to rulers who are beast-like. In the creation account humankind is to rule with God's authority. But we rebelled against God. The kingdoms of the world descend into beast-like behaviour. Now we see the Son of Man acting as God's perfect ruler.
But when is this rule established? When is this perfect king crowned? In the gospels the title Son of man seems to be Jesus' favourite title for describing himself. Daniel looked forward to the time when the Son of man would approach God and be given his rule. We look back at Jesus, birth, death and ascension to heaven to be crowned as God's perfect king.
In the book of Revelation, John on the island of Patmos has a vision in which he sees 'someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire (1:13-14). Notice that even what was said of the Ancient of Days was ascribed to Jesus. Jesus is now enthroned, he is with the Father, ruling from heaven. Yet all people do not yet acknowledge that rule. There is a 'now' and 'not yet' in the fulfilment of these verses. Mark's Gospel tells us a future time when all people 'will see the Son of Man coming in clouds ... with great power and glory.'
4. God's people will share the perfect king's rule (26-28)
Finally, take note, God's people will share the perfect king's rule. 'But the court will sit, and (the little horn's) power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him' (26-27). We will do what we were designed to do - to live perfectly under God's authority and to excuse rise his rule.
Life may be challenging in the present but a great future awaits us. We live in the time between Jesus' ascension and his return. The Son of man has been crowned but he has not yet returned in the clouds. Understanding the 'now' and 'not yet' of Christ's kingdom is crucial if we are going to answer the call to be godly with contentment. This world is not as good as it is going to get for us. We still wait for the fulfilment of our future hope. Jesus is king but his kingdom is not fully consummated. We have been accepted into fellowship with him but we have not yet arrived home in the New Heaven and New Earth. So stop demanding that this world be trouble free. In the life we will face temptations, trials and discipline. In this life we are subject to the reign of death. In this life their will be opposition. But chaos does not reign because Christ is on his throne. And he will return, defeat all his foes, judge all in rebellion against him, bring an end to the suffering of his people, and allow us share his glory.