The book of Daniel tells the story of a young Israelite taken from Jerusalem in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (605–562 bc). Despite a life-long exile and much opposition he remained faithful to his God. Like Joseph before him (Gn. 37–50), he was gifted with the ability to understand dreams and visions (1:17); he rose to prominence in a foreign court and was privileged to receive insight into the future purposes of God in history.
While told largely in the third person, the entire second half of the book (7:2–12:13), containing a series of dramatic visions, is presented in an autobiographical fashion. Although in our English Bible the book is included among the Prophets, in the Hebrew Bible it is numbered among the Writings. In that context it illustrates the nature and blessings of a life lived in faithfulness to God’s covenant under inhospitable conditions (chs. 1–6) and reveals the conflicts in which God’s covenant people will be engaged and divinely kept (chs. 7–12).
Type of literature
It is immediately evident that Daniel is a different kind of literature from most OT history and prophecy. Unlike the former, it is dominated by visions; unlike the latter, its visions are frequently surrealistic, describing a world in which giant statues are demolished by mysterious stones and strange beasts arise to do battle with one another.
While elements of this are to be found in the prophets (e.g. Ezk. 1), it is clear that here we have a different type of literature. In a sense, the impressions created on the reader are as important as an understanding of the details. It is theoretically possible to understand the latter and yet fail to experience the impact which the book is intended to produce.
In view of this Daniel is usually classified as apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation (see Apocrypha and Apocalyptic). It is, however, probably wise not to define too rigidly what this implies for Daniel. Like the relatively modern literary form of the novel (which is normally dated from around the beginning of the eighteenth century), it did not arise overnight in a complete form with carefully defined features. What is characteristic of the apocalyptic writings, however, is that its message involves an ‘unveiling’ (Gk.apokalypsis) of the transcendent order and how this relates to history as it moves toward the consummation. As an unveiling, it carries the caption ‘come and see’ as well as ‘hear and understand’.
Daniel divides into two sections and is written in two languages: Hebrew (1:1–2:4a; 8:1–12:13) and its related language Aramaic (2:4b–7:28). Chs. 1–6 are biographical; chs. 7–12 are apocalyptic. The texture of the work is, however, more subtle than this, indicated by the use of Aramaic in 2:4–7:28 (i.e. in parts of both sections). It has been suggested that these are chapters which would have had special significance for non-Hebrews (hence the use of the international language). Furthermore, rather than radically separating the two sections this has the effect of linking them, while hinting that chs. 2–7 contain the heart of the book. If this is the case, ch. 1 serves as an explanatory introduction, while chs. 8–12 expand on the pattern of world history already set forth earlier in the book. The way in which the use of Aramaic spans both the biographical and the visionary sections is also a major argument for the literary unity of the book.
Within the central section (chs. 2–7) a further pattern, common in OT narrative, can be detected. Chs. 2 and 7 present visions of four world kingdoms set over against the kingdom of God; chs. 3 and 6 are narratives of miraculous divine deliverances; chs. 4 and 5 describe God’s judgment on world rulers. Thus, the motifs employed in chs. 2, 3 and 4 reappear in reverse order in chs. 5, 6 and 7. The effect is that of a narrative mirroring intended to heighten certain expectations in the reader who is familiar with the device, as well as to provide increased enjoyment.
Contemporary readers are generally accustomed to books which follow a straightforward chronological order. Even if set in the form of reminiscences related long after the events, themes tend to be developed in a time line. The book of Daniel does not follow this form. The experiences of chs. 1–6 do indeed follow a chronological sequence in their settings; but the revelations throughout the book have the form of progressive parallelism, covering the same time period. The literary structure is akin to that of a spiral staircase which moves round the same point time and again, but brings us to a higher vantage point from which we are able to gain a clearer and fuller view of things. Hence, the material covers the same ground on more than one occasion, but develops it more fully each time. The same pattern may be detected in Jesus’ teaching in Mk. 13 and in the book of Revelation itself.
The context in which the life of Daniel is set is summed up in the question asked by the exiles in Babylon, recorded in Ps. 137:4, ‘How can we sing the song of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ The entire book, biography and visions, teaches us that this world will always be a ‘foreign land’ to the people of God (cf. Jn. 17:16; Phil. 3:20a). God’s people are ‘strangers in the world’ (1 Pet. 1:1, 17), surrounded by malignant and destructive enemies (1 Pet. 5:8–9). Yet, it is possible to live in a way which brings praise and honour to God, just as Daniel did. He is the embodiment of the teaching of Ps. 1.
Such a life of faith (cf. Heb 11:33–34) is nourished on the knowledge of God (11:32b), consecration to him (1:8; 3:17–18; 6:6–10), and fellowship with him in prayer (2:17–18; 6:10; 9:3; 10:2–3, 12). It draws its confidence from the knowledge that God is sovereign over all human affairs (2:19–20; 3:17; 4:34–35), and that he is building his own kingdom (2:44–45; 4:34; 6:26; 7:14). Our times are in his hands (1:2; 5:26), since the affairs of earth are not unconnected with those of heaven (10:12–14, 20). He is a God who makes himself and his purposes known, so that his people may know him and rely on his word (1:17b; 2:19, 28–30, 47). Such knowledge enables God’s people to resist pressure knowing that they will share in the fulfilment of his kingdom (7:22, 26–27; 12:2–3).
Author and date
No explicit statement about authorship is made in the book of Daniel, although approximately half of it is in autobiographical form. Contemporary OT scholars widely (but by no means universally) adopt the view (first argued by Porphyry, the third century Neoplatonist opponent of the Christian faith) that the book was composed, not in the sixth century (its literary setting), but in the second century, in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes (see on 8:9–14, 23–27; 11:4–35).
According to this view, the stories in chs. 1–6 doubtless have their origins in the traditions of the Hebrew people. Daniel is presented as a hero figure, faithful to God’s law in the face of all opposition. The visions are largely interpretations of the past rather than supernatural revelations of the future. Rather than providing a historical account, Daniel’s autobiography and visions in various ways employ, expound and apply other Scriptures in order to bring strength and encouragement to second-century Jews. Thus, for example, his own experience is seen as modelled on that of Joseph (the exile who rose to power in a foreign nation yet remained faithful to God); his prayer in ch. 9 is seen as dependent on the prayers in Nehemiah; while parts of the visions are seen as subtle expositions of Scripture (11:33; 12:3 being viewed as an exposition of Is. 52:13–53:12). The author was composing his book in the 160s bc, when God’s people were suffering the fierce persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes and desperately needed to know that there was meaning to life, that faithfulness to God was significant, that suffering was not permanent, that God reigned and his people would triumph. The question raised in 12:6 (‘How long will it be?’) thus echoes the cries of God’s people. The cryptic prophecies contain the answer: It will not be for ever.
This view also suggests that the book of Daniel can be dated with greater precision than any other OT book. The author was aware of the profanation of the temple (which can be precisely dated in December 167 bc; cf. 11:31) and the heroic resistance led by Judas Maccabeus in 166 (11:33–35), but he apparently did not know of the death of Antiochus in 164 (11:40–45 is read as a genuine, but mistaken, attempt at prophecy). Critics suggest that, whatever earlier periods of composition and revision the book may have passed through, the final edition can be dated accurately around 165/164 bc. This, in turn, becomes a major argument for believing that the fourth kingdom in chs. 2 and 7 is Greece.
According to critical scholars, therefore, Daniel is a book of edifying legends and dramatic visions, a powerful piece of second-century bc resistance literature. Because it was written in such a way that none of its first readers would have mistaken it for a history of the past, or for prophecy of the future, they would have accepted it for what it was, would have been challenged by it and gained strength through its message—just as a reader today might be moved by reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
In seeking to confirm this view, appeal has often been made to evidence in the book itself, e.g. the use of Greek terms for some of the musical instruments in 3:5; the lack of solid evidence for Nebuchadnezzar’s madness or his decrees in ch. 4; the uncorroborated references to Darius the Mede in chs. 5 and 6 and the historical inadequacy of the description of the end of Antiochus Epiphanes. While discussed briefly in the commentary, more detailed consideration of these issues will be found in the commentaries of J. G. Baldwin (Daniel, An Introduction and Commentary [IVP, 1978]) and E. J. Young (Daniel [Eerdmans, 1949]).
This view, formerly held only by theologically liberal scholars, has more recently come to be shared by others from more conservative traditions. It is argued that the book itself indicates that the stories are not meant to be understood as literal history and that the visions are obviously interpretations of the past (not revelations of the future). A passage such as 11:4–12:3 is ‘quasi-prophecy’ and would not have been read as actual prediction by the audience for whom the book was originally intended. In undergirding this position theologically, it is said that while God could, if he so wished, save men from burning flames while others died, and give detailed predictions of future events, these are not the kind of things the God of Scripture actually does.
While this view has for the past century virtually overwhelmed the conservative view, it faces considerable difficulties, only some of which may be mentioned here.
1. Were the book so obviously fictional in character, we would expect to find the first hints of this in the tradition of interpretation, prior to and independent of Porphyry’s attack on Christianity, but these are absent. If the book is ‘obviously’ composed of legend, it is hard to understand the apparently unbroken tradition of interpreting it as theological and autobiographical history and vision.
2. The writers of the NT viewed the book of Daniel as historical. Jesus regarded Daniel as a prophet (Mt. 24:15) and, therefore, the contents of his book as genuinely prophetic of the future. The author of Hebrews refers to two events from the book in the context of other historical events and characters (Heb. 11:33–34). It is hard to resist the conclusion that Jesus and the NT writers regarded the book of Daniel as truly historical and prophetic. If so, both the knowledge and the authority of Christ as the Lord of Scripture are put in doubt by a late dating. So too is the NT writers’ ability to detect fiction two centuries after it was written—a remarkable failure, akin to someone today reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as though it were history.
3. There is a theological and psychological flaw in the notion that a piece of known and obvious fiction is well suited to inspire readers to be faithful to death. According to the second-century dating theory this is not merely a possible effect but the actual function of the book. But this is asking people to trust in the power, knowledge and wisdom of God when in fact the evidence for these attributes was a figment of the writer’s imagination, not the actual revelation and activity of God. Despite protestations that God could work the miracles of Daniel and reveal the future in detail although he has not done so, we are left with no grounds for believing he can or will do such things. Here Paul’s logic in relation to another miracle is not inappropriate (see 1 Cor. 15:15–17).
4. A number of incidental features in the book point to a Babylonian origin and a knowledge of Babylonian life which could hardly be expected of a second-century bc Palestinian Hebrew. These include the use of the Babylonian dating system (1:1); familiarity with the Babylonian love for the number six and its multiples (3:1; niv mg.); the implication that Belshazzar’s title ‘king’ implied his acting as regent (5:7); and the reference to the Persian custom of punishing the relatives of a guilty party (6:24). Even the reference to ‘the plaster of the wall’ (5:5) is striking since we know from archaeological discoveries that the walls of the palace at Babylon were covered with white plaster.
5. The second-century dating theory assumes that Daniel was written in 165/164 bc and was mistaken in its genuine attempt to prophesy Antiochus Epiphanes’s downfall. Given the authority of the canon of the OT it is inexplicable (on this view) why the book was not revised for accuracy or how the book was accepted as canonical in the full knowledge that it contained errors.
The approach adopted in this commentary follows the long-held view of the Christian church that the book of Daniel has its origin in the sixth century bc and in Babylon. This is not to say that there are no difficulties concerning the historical contents of the book, or in believing its prophecies and miracles. The former continues to require the research of scholars; the latter, however, is related to our view of God. Part of the message of the book of Daniel is that God can and does do what his creatures cannot do (2:10–11). No interpreter of this book can avoid the challenge it brings to trust in a God who quenches fire and shuts the mouths of lions (Heb. 11:33–34), or, for that matter, in a God who raises the dead (12:2; cf. Mk. 12:18–27). (See also the chart ‘The prophets’ in The Song of Songs.)
S. B. Ferguson, Daniel, CC (Word, 1988).
R. S. Wallace, The Message of Daniel, BST (IVP, 1979).
J. G. Baldwin, Daniel, TOTC (IVP, 1978).
G. L. Archer, Daniel, EBC (Zondervan, 1985).
E. J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (Eerdmans, 1949; Geneva Series, Banner of Truth, 1972).
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
niv New International Version
CC The Communicator’s Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Dn 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.