Thursday, 3 April 2014

Daniel 8 'Chaos never rules'

I have a friend who started going to a Bible Study where they loved to speculate about the end times.  They had their conspiracy theories and he began to think that the rest of us were naive because he had everything figured out and we didn't.  But what he lacked was historical perspective.  Throughout the generations many Bible teachers have confidently identified the final Antichrist and claimed that the Lord's return was imminent.  The leaders they identified as the final Antichrist came and went, and those Bible teachers went to their grave still waiting for Jesus to come back.

I believe that the value of these verses is not found in fanciful speculations.  These verses were given to us by God to help us trust God as we live in a world filled with seeming chaos and opposition.  These visions primarily describe events that took place before Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the first century.  They might also foreshadow events that will take place before Jesus returns in the clouds.  But they have a relevance for every time.  

Every generation of God's people suffer at the hands of tyrannical leaders and unsympathetic opponents but these verses tell us that even when it looks like evil is triumphing heaven rules; and that God is committed to keeping his people faithful to the end.

1.  God will never be taken by surprise

God will never be taken by surprise.  This is seen in the fact that he gives Daniel an accurate picture of what will happen in the centuries from his time leading up to the time of Jesus' birth.  

It is the third year of the reign of the Babylonian king, Belshazzar.  A number of decades previously many of God's people had been taken from Jerusalem into exile in Babylon.  They are in a foreign land, subject to a foreign power, amongst people who worship foreign gods.  They might have wondered where God was in all this.  The dreams and visions that Daniel has leave them in no doubt that God is on his throne and in control of history. 

Daniel was living in Babylon but the vision is set in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian kings.  The significance of these is seen in the fact that the Babylonians would soon be replaced by the Persians as the superpower of their day.  

The angel Gabriel explains to him that the two-horned ram he sees in his vision represents the kings of Mede and Persia (20).  Around the time Daniel is having this vision the Persian king Cyrus was conquering the Medes and uniting their two kingdoms.  But that kingdom was one of unequal power.  The Persians would be the dominant partner, which is why the ram has one horn bigger than the other.  

The Medo-Persians would replace the Babylonians as the world's superpower just a few years after Daniel has this vision.   But later the Medo-Persians would be replaced by the Greeks.  This is shown in Daniel's vision by a male goat replacing the mighty ram.  This goat comes from the west (the Greek empire that was west of both Babylon and Persia).  Gabriel explains, 'The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is the first king' (21).  

This first Greek king is Alexander the Great, who overthrew the Medo-Persian empire with amazing efficiency from 334-331 B.C.  The speed of this conquest is pictured in the fact that the goat travels across the whole world without touching the ground.

Notice that the goat is enraged (7).  Alexander the Great was the son of the king of Macedonia, a land north of Greece.  He was only twenty when his father was murdered and he took over as king.  Alexander was a gifted ruler who managed to unite the Greeks.  The Greeks were motivated by anger; they were angered by the way that the Medo-Persians had been attacking them and meddling in their affairs for the previous two centuries.

But Alexander's reign was short-lived.  He died in Babylon at the age of thirty-two.  His death was surrounded by rumours of poison.  He was soon to be replaced by four generals.  'The goat became very great, but at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, and in its place four prominent horns grew up toward the four winds of heaven' (8).  One of these generals began the Seleucid Empire.  From that empire would come a tyrant called Antiochus Epiphanes.  He is pictured, in verse nine, as the little horn.  

The accuracy of these prophecies has led those who deny the miraculous nature of the Bible to suggest that this story must have been made up after the events happened.  The same thing could be said about a prophecy of Jesus.  It is reasonable to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written around thirty years after the death of Jesus.  Yet in each of these gospels Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.  Liberal scholars either have to give a later date for the gospels or suggest that the prophecy was added to them after the events occurred.

The truth is that God has an exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Nothing in history will take him by surprise.  He knows the end from the beginning.  He knows what his people will face as we await the return of Christ and he has the power to keep his people faithful to the end.

2.  God is always on his throne

Forms verses nine to fourteen the attention is focused on Antiochus Epiphanes.  He moves throughout the world, including towards the 'beautiful land'.  This is a reference to the area around Palestine.  At the time of Antiochus God's people had returned from exile and were centred around Jerusalem.  

The little horn 'grew until it reached the host of the heavens, and it threw some of the starry host down to the earth and trampled on them' (10).  This is a reference to the fact that Antiochus killed thousands of God's people within just a few years.  The reference to the 'Prince of the host' (11) and the 'Prince of princes' (25) probably refer to God.  Antiochus set himself up as a divine figure.  Coins from his reign have his head with an inscription of deity on them.

There is something demonic about Antiochus's rise to power.  The end of verse twenty-two ascribes his rise to something other than his power.  Antiochus fiercely opposed God's people.  He banned circumcision, he stole the treasures from the temple in Jerusalem, he put an end to the sacrifices, he desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, he built a pagan alter over the alter for burnt offerings, he burned copies of the scriptures, he banned the law and slaughtered those who sought to remain faithful to God. 

So imagine you are a faithful follower of at the time of Antiochus.  You know that God has worked in the past.  Your history tells you of how God delivered your people from slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land.  You know that when your forefathers rebelled that were taken into exile in Babylon.  You know that God had foretold how the Medo-Persian king, Cyrus, would conquer the Babylonians and send your people home from exile.  But now where is God?  Antiochus is killing thousands of your people.  People from your own family have been slaughtered.  Is God still on the throne?  Absolutely!

One of the lessons that we learn when we study history from the Bible's perspective is that evil people act with evil intent, doing what they want to do, and will face judgement for their actions.  Yet no one ever frustrates God's plans.  They unwittingly contribute to his purposes.  God is never absent from his throne.  This is most clearly seem when Jewish leaders plot to have a man called Jesus killed, when a crowd cry 'crucify him', when Roman soldiers nail him to a cross, and in all this God fulfils his plan for Christ to take the punishment of our sins.

Look at verse twelve.  'Because of rebellion, the Lord’s people and the daily sacrifice were given over to it (the little horn) ...'  God had allowed Antiochus to come to Jerusalem to discipline them for their repeated disobedience.  The primary thing we can learn from this is that God remained in control.  Chaos never rules.  There is a parallel between God's people of the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament.  When they strayed he disciplined them.  He was calling them to return to him.  Likewise he is committed to the welfare and health of the church.  In our own individual lives we take comfort from the knowledge that God disciples those he loves (Hebrews 12:5-6).

But don't assume that every trouble you face in life is God disciplining you for your sin.  After all it was those who were faithful to God who were persecuted most severely by Antiochus.  Surely some of these people had also been faithful before Antiochus turned up.  Jesus warned us that in this world we will have many troubles.  God is till on his throne.  God will keep his people to the end.  You may be considered a fool by your colleagues because you are a Christian; you may be mocked by those in your school because you love Jesus; you may be thought of as a self-righteous prude by your family because you follow Jesus' way of purity and love, all over the world many Christians are put to death by tyrannical regimes but God is always in control, no one thwarts his plans, he has the power to keep us faithful, and he will honour us eternally for ever sacrifice made for his glory.

Finally, God does not let tyrants rule for ever.  As predicted in this chapter Antiochus did not die by human hands.   The circumstances of his death are mysterious.  He died in 164 B.C. from a painful disease while returning from Persia.  Every evil empire comes to an end.  Sometimes the ruler faces a judgement in this life.  They always have to face the day of judgement to come.  There was a very definite time frame with regards to Antiochus's does creation of the temple -  two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings (either three and a half or a little over six years, depending on how you read it).  If we take it to be six years then it is the time from the assignation of the High Priest Onias in 170 B.C. until the Jewish freedom fighter Judas Maccabeus liberated Jerusalem and re-dedicated the temple in 164 B.C. 


I said at the beginning of this sermon that God did not give us this passage of Scripture so that we might speculate about events that will immediately preced the return of Jesus.

In Antiochus people have seen a foreshadow of the final anti-Christ who will oppose God and persecute his people.  In truth Antiochus is not just a foreshadowing of that final tyrant, he is a foreshadowing of all demonic regimes.  The term antichrist can be applied to all opposition to God and his people.  If you are resisting the rule of Christ in your life you too are on the side of the anti-christ.  You will share his judgement.  You need to repent and be embraced as one of Christ's people.

Remember that God has given us these verses of Scripture to teach all God's people that we can expect to face opposition and endure terrible times; that we are not to be surprised when evil looks like it is triumphing and remember that Heaven rules; and that God is committed to keeping his people faithful to the end.

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