How to read Daniel


  • Content: a series of stories about how God brings honor to himself through Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, followed by four apocalyptic visions about future kingdoms and God's final kingdom

  • Prophet: Daniel, one of the early exiles to Babylon, who was selected to serve as a provincial administrator in the Babylonian- and finally Persian-court

    • Date of composition: unknown; presumably toward the end of the sixth century B.C. (ca. 520), although many have suggested it dates from the early second century B.C. (ca. 165)

    • Emphases: God's sovereignty over all the nations and their rulers; God's care for the Jews in exile, with promises of final restoration; God's present overruling of and final victory over human evil


The book of Daniel comes in two clear parts (chs. 1-6 and 7-12). The first half contains court stories, mostly about Daniel and three friends who remain absolutely loyal to Yahweh even while rising to positions of importance within the Babylonian Empire. The emphases are four: (1) on the four Hebrews' loyalty to God (2) on God's miraculous deliverances of them, (3) on Gentile kings' acknowledging the greatness of Israel's God and (4) on Daniel as the God-gifted interpreter of dreams-all of which emphasize God's sovereignty over all things, including the king who conquered and destroyed Jerusalem.

Part 2 is a series of apocalyptic visions about the rise and fall of succeeding empires, in each case involving a coming tyrannical ruler (7:8, 24-25; 8:23-25; 11 :36-45)-most often understood to be Antiochus lV (Epiphanes) of the Seleucid rulers of Palestine (175-164 B.C.), who because of his desolation of Jerusalem and sacrilege of the temple was to become the first in a series of antichrist figures in Jewish and Christian literature. But in each case the final focus is on God's judgment of the enemy and the glorious future kingdom awaiting his people.


At the outset it is important to note that in the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is included among the Writings rather than the Prophets. In part this was due to its genre-stories about a "prophet" and apocalyptic visions, rather than prophetic oracles. Indeed, there is nothing else quite like Daniel in Jewish and Christian literature, with its combination of court stories and apocalyptic visions. Furthermore, its intent is to inspire and encourage God's people living under foreign domination, not to call them to repent in light of coming judgments. Daniel is thus never called a prophet, but one to whom God reveals mysteries.

It may be helpful, therefore, for you to review the brief description of apocalyptic in How to 1, since the dreams and visions in chapters 2 and 7 -11 have most of the features of apocalyptic-the book was born in a time of oppression; it is a literary work altogether; it comes by means of visions and dreams that are given by angels; the images are those of fantasy symbolizing reality; and Daniel is told to seal up the visions for the last days (8:26; 9:24; 12:4).

Interestingly, chapters 1 and 8- 12 arc in Hebrew, while chapters 2-7 are in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Near East from the sixth century onward through the time of Christ. Two things about this are important. First, the Aramaic portion consists of the stories, plus the first vision, suggesting that these are open reading for all, but the introduction and the interpreted visions are in Hebrew, implying perhaps that they are for God's people only. Second the Aramaic portion is arranged in a chiastic pattern:

    • Chapters 2 and 7 contain similar visions of future kingdoms, ending with God's final, eternal kingdom.

    • Chapters 3 and 6 are stories of miraculous deliverance, where opposition has been directed against God.

    • Chapters 4 and 5 are stories about the demise of two Babylonian kings, who both acknowledge the greatness of Israel's God.

Thus these stories tell us that God is in ultimate control of all human history (chs. 2;7), illustrated both by the stories of miraculous deliverance (chs. 3; 6) and of the "overthrow" of the two Babylonian kings (chs. 4, 5). In each case they are marvelously narrated; to get their full benefit, you might try reading them aloud, as they were origin ally intended to be.

Also important for reading Daniel is to be aware of two historical contexts: (1) Daniel's own and (2) that predicted in his visions. Thus chapters 1-6 describe affairs within the Babylonian court from Nebuchadnezzar to the first of the Persian rulers of Babylon (ca. 605-530 B.C.)-from the time before the fall of Jerusalem, when the first captives from Judah were brought to Babylon, to that just beyond the demise of the Babylonian Empire in 539.

The visions (chs. 7 -12) pick up at that point. Babylon was followed by the long-lived Persian Empire (539 to ,ca. 330). Then came the short lived Greek Empire of Alexander (33 3-323), which at his death was divided among four generals (see 8:19-22). Of special interest for understanding intertestamental Jewish history is the long contest for Palestine between the Seleucids (of Antioch [the North]) and the Ptolemies (of Egypt [the South]), which is alluded to in the vision of Daniel 11 (see, e.g., the study notes in the NIV Study Bible). Crucial for Daniel is the rise of Antiochus I! described in ll:21-31, who in fact set out to crush Jewishness in Jerusalem by forcing them to adopt his policy of Hellenizing his lands. Thus he forbade the keeping of the law and showed special favors to those who Hellenized (see 11:28). Eventually thwarted by Rome from seizing Egypt,he returned home by way of Jerusalem and poured out his fury on the Jews who resisted him, finally desecrating the Holy Place by erecting a statue of Zeus there in 167 (11:30-3 1). This event, which eventually led to the Maccabean revolt recorded in the Apocrypha's 1 and 2 Maccabees, is envisioned in Daniel 7 -11. You can well imagine what it might have been like to read Daniel during this period-both the stories in chapters 1-6 (God honors loyalty and will humble arrogant kings!) and the visions themselves (God has foretold all this).

Finally, it is important to note that the coming of the messianic kingdom is pictured as taking place following the overthrow of Antiochus, which in fact it did a century and a half later-the only kingdom worth mentioning after Antiochus being not the Roman one, but that of Christ. In keeping with the whole Hebrew prophetic tradition, these coming historical events were seen against the backdrop of God's great final eschatological future.



Introductory Narrative: Daniel and Friends in Nebuchadnezzar's Court

Watch for the ways this opening narrative introduces you not only to the stories that follow, but to a good reading of the whole book. Verses 1-2 give the historical setting, but also anticipate 5:1-2. Daniel and his fellows outshine all other provincials pressed into the king's service-and do so precisely because they maintain covenant loyalty with regard to the food laws (1:6-20), but note also the little insertion in v 17, which anticipates the next story. And finally see that God is seen as directing these affairs (vv. 9, l7).


Nebuchadnezzar's Dream Interpreted by Daniel

This narrative serves three purposes: to exalt God over Nebuchadnezzar (w. 27 -28,36-38, 44-45, 47), including God's exalting Daniel in the king's eyes (w 46, 48-49); to present Daniel as God's agent in interpreting dreams (w. 14-45); and to anticipate the later visions (w. 31-45). Note how the latter two items are highlighted in Daniel's prayer (w. 20-23); note further that even though the dream is interpreted, there is no further interest in it at this point, merely intriguing you to read the coming visions. Note finally how verse 49 anticipates the next story, in which Daniel does not appear.


Saved from Nebuchadnezzar's Fiery Furnace

Now the "head of gold" (2:38) makes a monstrous image of gold and commands all provincials to worship it. But just as God watched over them in chapter 1, the three Hebrews are (now miraculously) delivered because of their absolute rejection of idolatry (3:16-18). Part of the power of the narrative lies in its fulsome repetitions. But its greater power lies in its point: The greatest king on earth is no match for the eternal God; not only does God deliver the three Hebrews in grand style from Nebuchadnezzar's arrogance and rage, but the king also promotes them (v. 30) and himself acknowledges the greatness of their God (w. 28-29), which in turn anticipates the next story.


Nebuchadnezzar's Madness

This ultimate expression of God's sovereignty over magnificently earthly kings is told, highlighted in part by the fact that the whole narrative is a report from the king to the nations (v. 1). It begins with the king's acknowledgment that only God's kingdom is forever (w. 2-3; cf. 2:44), again anticipating later visions (7:14, 18, 27), and it ends on the same note (4:34-35)-after the arrogant king is humbled by God to the role of an animal' Note that Daniel also reenters as the interpreter of dreams (vv. 8-27).


Belshazzar's Feast and the Demise of Babylon

Picture the drama as you read; also be watching, however, for the ways the story functions-to remind you that the Babylonian Empire came to an end because her king did not honor the true God (v.23)and to relate this in a context where the king is defying God by using the sacred utensils from the Jerusalem temple (v.2; cf. 1:2) for idolatrous purposes. Again, Daniel is the central figure, now interpreting the hand- writing on the wall.


Daniel in the Lions' Den

This third attack on Jewish faith (see chs. 1; 3) again features Daniel, but now with Babylon under Persian rule. Note how much it corresponds to chapter 3: Daniel knows the decree, as well as its purpose and consequences-being thrown to immediate death-but he refuses to stop praying to his God he is divinely delivered, and the king does homage to the "living God" (v.26). And note how Darius echoes Nebuchadnezzar's acknowledgment of God's eternal kingship (vv. 26-27; cf. 4:34-35).


The Vision of the Beasts from the Sea

The four visions of these chapters are all dated-when Daniel is a relatively old man. This first on, both echoes items from 2:36-45 and, sets up those that follow. Note that in this case the interest centers on the little horn and the coming messianic kingdom.

These are highlighted (1) by the way the narrative is set up (the little horn is introduced [v..8], followed in turn by the divine court scene [vv. 9-10] and then by his ultimate demise [v. 11] and the eternal kingdom of the Most High and his "saints" [v. 18), (2) bv the lack of present interest in the other kingdoms (see ch. 8), and (3) by Daniel's singular interest in the fourth beast and the little horn (w. 19-20). Note also that the last part of the vision itself, the little horn's oppression of the saints, has been left until verses 21-22 so that the interpretation can focus on this feature, on his ultimate defeat, and on God's everlasting kingdom (vv. 25-27).


The Vision of the Ram and Goat

The second and third kingdoms of chapter 7 are now envisioned as a ram and goat and are interpreted as the Medes and Persians, followed by Greece. Pictured are Alexander the Great's victory over Persia (vv. 6-8, 21) and the subsequent fourfold division of his empire among his four generals (vv. 8b,22), from whom eventually would come the little horn (vv. 9-13, 23-25). Note again the focus of the vision-that he attacks the saints and their worship, and that he himself will be destroyed but not with human power.


The Interpretation of Jeremiah's Prophecy

Daniel's prayer (vv. 4-19) is the theological centerpiece of the book, reflecting Israel's deserved exile for covenant unfaithfulness, but expressing hope in Yahweh's forgiveness and mercy (the only place in Daniel where the name Yahweh appears). This is enclosed by the need for a new application of Jeremiah's seventy years (w. 1-3, in light of the devastation to be caused by the little horn). The answer (vv. 20-27) is a typical apocalyptic use of numbers, where the original number is multiplied by seven (: at the end of the devastation by the little horn), which, again typically, is portrayed against the backdrop of the final end.


The Angel's Revelation of the Future

All of the visions have been pointing to this final one. Note the elaborate preparations for it in Daniel's encounter with the angel in 10: 1 -21. What follows, after an introduction (11:2-4) that picks up from the vision in 8:19-22, is a forecast of the struggle between the Seleucids and Ptolemies over "the Beautiful Land" (1 l:5 -20; cf. Jer 3:19). But, as before, everything leads to the rise and fall of Antiochus IV (Dan 11 :21-45), concentrating especially on his devastation of Jerusalem but also again predicting his end. And, as before, his demise is set against the backdrop of the end (12:1-4), which will have the resurrection of the dead and eternal reward of the righteous as its centerpiece.



Note that Daniel's concluding questions "How long these will it be before astonishing things are fulfilled?" and "what will the outcome of all this be?" arc again given with cryptic number schemes, while Daniel himself will rest until the resurrection.

The book of Daniel, though focusing primarily on one period in Israel's history, looks forward to the great eternal reign of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ; as such it had great influence on the imagery of John's Revelation.