A sermon on Daniel 7 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 26 June 2022
If you went to Sunday school or are familiar with the Bible you know about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel chapter 3 and how they were thrown into the furnace. And you will certainly know about Daniel in the lion’s den in chapter 6. But you are probably not familiar with Daniel chapter 7. Which is a shame. Because chapter 7 is, in my opinion, one of the most important passages in the whole Bible.
When Jesus called himself the Son of Man, he was thinking of Daniel chapter 7. He wasn’t thinking that he was just a man. He wasn’t thinking, I’m only human like you. He was thinking of this ideal human being in Daniel chapter 7 who goes to God to receive an eternal kingdom. When Jesus was asked by his accusers, “Are you the Christ?” and he said,
I am and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven
he meant to say, “I am in Daniel chapter 7. Its words and sentences are about me.” This vision of Daniel of the four beasts and of the Ancient of Days and of the opening of the books and of the coming of the Son of Man shaped Jesus’ understanding of his life and mission and purpose in a way that no other passage of the Bible ever did. Only Isaiah chapter 53 comes close. So let’s look at this key passage in the whole Bible.
And if I was to describe it I’d say that Daniel chapter 7 is like a scary movie with a happy ending. Now I’m not going to spoil any movie that you haven’t seen yet. Okay, I’m going to spoil one movie that you’ve had the chance for the last 35 years to see. The Untouchables. It’s a scary movie with a happy ending. But you know how these movies go. The heroes have an adventure. They see and experience and suffer terrible things but they overcome in the end. Even if one of them or some of them or most of them or Sean Connery give their life in the process the sacrifice is worth it because it wins a better life for many others. It’s a scary story. For most of it you are on the edge of your seat. But it has a happy, satisfying, inspiring ending.
In the same way, Daniel 7 tells the story about terrible things done by terrible people. The people of the world and the Lord’s people in particular will experience and suffer things they wish they never did, that they never should. But God will triumph in the end and his people will enjoy the benefits of his eternal kingdom. And those who persevered through the scary party of the story will experience its happy ending.
In this chapter Daniel tells us about a vision he had while asleep in his bed. He saw four beasts come up out of the sea’s surging waters. The first beast was like a lion with the wings of an eagle. It stood up on its two back legs and walked and talked like a human being.
The second beast was like a bear with three ribs in its mouth. It was told, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh.”
The third beast was like a leopard with four wings on its back. It had four heads and was given authority to rule.
The fourth beast was more terrifying than the ones that had come before it. It crushed and devoured its victims and trampled whatever was left. This fourth beast had ten horns and one of the horns had human eyes and made proud boasts.
These beasts represent four kingdoms, just like the four different metals – the gold, silver, bronze and iron – in the great statue in Daniel chapter 2 represented four kingdoms. The first beast represents the Babylonian empire. Its armies were strong like a lion and swift like an eagle.
The second beast represents the Persian empire which overcame the Babylonians just like a bear isn’t afraid of the lion. The ribs in its mouth represents other smaller kingdoms that it swallowed up to make itself even bigger.
The third beast was the Greek empire led by Alexander the great. The beast’s four heads represent how after Alexander’s death his kingdom was divided between his four greatest generals. They made this arrangement in order to stop themselves for fighting over Alexander’s empire and then started to fight over Alexander’s empire.
I think the fourth beast is the Seleucid empire which was one of those four Greek empires that ruled over the Middle East for the next 200 years, and that the ten horns represent ten kings in that line, and that the little horn which spoke boastful words is the king of that line named Antiochus Epiphanes who ruled for 11 years from 175 to 164 BC. But this is an extremely controversial opinion, and you can watch lots of loud angry videos on the internet which will tell you that I’m a false teacher and I’m lying to you for telling you that and that the little horn is obviously Vladimir Putin and the return of Christ is next Thursday if not tomorrow. Another good guess is that the fourth beast is the Roman empire. Another guess is that it represents an empire still in our future.
Personally, I don’t mind being a little less certain of the details in this vision, although I’m pretty confident that I get the gist of its message. You see the earthly kingdoms are portrayed as beastly. Savage. Lions, bears, leopards, or creatures of nightmare, carnivores that would slice you open and gobble up your innards. Human empires, even the best of them, are built on cruelty and violence. Any peace and prosperity they ultimately bring is the result of suffering caused to smaller independent states and to the human lives that make them up. Like a bear chewing on the ribs of smaller animals, they prey on the weak and vulnerable. Human kingdoms like to pass themselves off as the peak of human culture and civilization, but at their heart they are vicious. They pretend to be human like a lion walking on its two back legs, but they are beastly, inhuman and inhumane.
Or worse like the little horn they make great boasts. They defy the true and living God and set themselves up as the centre of life and worship, forcing all their subjects to conform to their evil agenda at the risk of pain or death. Under their rule, God’s people, obedient to his will and seeking to follow his ways, suffer terribly.
Antiochus Epiphanes was that kind of ruler. As king over large parts of the Middle East he decided that he would forge unity between its different parts by imposing his Greek culture and gods upon all his subjects. Most people signed up for the plan. For them Greek culture was the key to a prosperous future. But many Jews resisted this imposition of foreign gods and foreign values.
In response Antiochus Epiphanes banned the practice of circumcising boys. He put a stop to the daily sacrifices of the temple of Jerusalem. He himself, a Gentile, a non-Jew, went into its most sacred place the Most Holy Place and slaughtered a pig on its altar. And he executed those who continued to defy him.
When human empires insist on conformity in the name of unity, those who are different stand out. They are enemies of the state and are treated like vermin.
The four beasts that follow one after the other highlight the fact that human history is a scary story. Like a troubling vision in the night. Like a nightmare. One empire follows another and the little people suffer.
This scary story, however, has a happy ending. The eternal God, the Ancient of Days, is the king of kings and calls all human empires to account. While the little boastful horn was still shooting off its mouth
…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.
He shines a blinding white and like flaming fire. His appearance is dazzling in its glory. Millions and billions serve him. And he sits down. Books were opened. The court was seated. It was time for judgment.
In the books are recorded the choices and actions of those who have treated their fellow human beings with contempt and have made them suffer unjustly. It is time for those things to stop and for those who do them to face the consequences. The fourth beast was slain and its body destroyed. The other beasts were stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period.
This is not a picture of Judgment Day at the end of time. The fourth beast was judged, but the others were allowed to keep living. This is the promise of a specific judgment in history, of one kingdom, the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, that caused untold suffering that was weighed in the balance and found wanting and brought to an end.
But it is also, of course, the promise that all kings are under the rule of the king of kings and that they will not be allowed to wreck havoc forever. Though allowed to live on and other human kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen and been replaced by others, they have been stripped of their authority. They have no power, no right to command obedience in defiance of God’s will because their beastly, savage heart has been exposed.
And then, in his vision, Daniel saw
… 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 worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
While the earthly kingdoms are beastly, savage and cruel, this ruler is human. Not just human. Not merely human. But truly human. The ideal human being as created and intended by God. His kingdom begins while the beastly kingdoms were allowed to live for a period of time. But his kingdom outlasts them all.
Jesus said, this is me. It reminds us that our Lord Jesus is the one, true human being who lived the one, true, authentic and genuine human life. Who shows by his love for others and his trust and obedience for his heavenly Father what we were made to be. His kingdom is not built on violence and threats but on the good news that announces that the Ancient of Days is our heavenly Father and that Jesus Christ is his one, true Son. Nor is his kingdom won by armies and battles, but by the world changing events of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Are you the Christ? he was asked by the high priest, the Son of the Blessed One? “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Might One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Jesus isn’t talking about a second coming in the remote future, but something that the high priest will see in his lifetime with his own eyes. And what the high priest saw was the crucifixion of Jesus, the one, true human being giving his one, true humane life for the inhumanity of lost humanity. With this sacrifice Jesus won the right to approach his Father, the Ancient of Days, and to receive his eternal kingdom for the sake of those who will believe in him and find their broken humanity restored in him. His kingdom will outlive the United Nations, the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Australia. Long after both the Liberal and Labor parties are forgotten, Jesus will still rule. When Kim Jong Un is dead and buried, Jesus will still live for us.
It reminds us that history is a scary story with a happy ending. The news on the TV or in the paper or on the internet is full of scary stuff. Things that should not happen happen every day. But injustice will not go unpunished. Violence and cruelty will not reign forever. And humanity will not be lost for all time in its inhumanity. For the Son of Man, Jesus, has come. He has won the right to his eternal throne by his obedience to his Father’s will. He rules over a kingdom of forgiveness and love and of justice and peace. And those who persevere and maintain their faith in him will not perish but live with him forever.
It is a call for us not to be frightened. It is a call for us to trust in the Lord Jesus and to seek in him a better and more humane humanity.