Understanding the Book of Daniel (Part 1)

Understanding the Book of Daniel (Part 1).

 The Bible contains a number of prophetic books but, with the exception of the Revelation of St John, none are quite so intriguing and enigmatic as the Book of Daniel. In part this is because it contains a number of prophecies that have already been fulfilled. For several centuries—until the discovery of a number of fragmentary texts from it among the Dead Sea Scrolls—such prophecies could be dismissed as ‘after the event’. Indeed it became fashionable, even in clerical circles, to presume that the Book of Daniel was not written at the time claimed (i.e. during the period of the Jewish captivity in Babylon, c.605 BC – 536 BC) but much later — perhaps around 175 BC.  The discovery of, the oldest copy of the Dead Sea Daniel Scrolls dates back to the second century BC. It was clearly then accepted as an ancient and revered text, giving the lie to the idea that it was written around that time. In any case, as it contains prophecies from AFTER this time: that can be shown to have been fulfilled in the time of Jesus, it is no long tenable to assert that it was a late forgery. Indeed in my opinion, an unbiased commentator (i.e. one who is not a convinced atheist and therefore open to the idea that fore-knowledge of future events is a real possibility) must conclude that the Book of Daniel is both intriguing and most likely genuine. Not only that, since it contains prophecies for the future as well as those which have already been fulfilled, it becomes a matter of some urgency that it be examined for clues to what we can expect in our own times.

The book itself—or at least the oldest compilations of it that we have available for study—is written in two languages.  It contains twelve chapters and starts off in Hebrew. Then, from 2:4 to 7:28, the language changes to Aramaic before returning back to Hebrew for the remainder of the book. The implication of these language changes is that the book, as we have it today, is a compilation. Alternatively, this could be because at the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden away, only part of it had been translated into Aramaic, the rest of it remaining in the then dead language of Hebrew. Whatever is the case (and the jury is out on this) the book does have an overall plan but one which does not seem to match the language split. For chapters 1 through 6 concern history (including the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) while 7 through 12 contain Daniel’s own prophetic visions: given from the time of Belshazzar through to the time of Cyrus the Persian.  We therefore need to look at the work as a whole and need not concern ourselves too much with the languages used in the original document any more than we worry that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic while the New is in Greek or Latin.

Structure of the prophecies of Daniel

The Book of Daniel contains material of two types. First of all it is a history book concerning the period of the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the prophet’s own experiences during this time. Secondly it is a book of prophecies: both those given directly to Daniel himself (through visions) and those he interpreted for the knigs of Babylon. In the history Daniel tells us how he was among a group of boys—the sons of Jewish nobility—who were brought to Babylon following the Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 605 BC.  The king’s intention was that these boys should be educated in the ways of the Babylonians. Presumably so that they could later be given the task of administering the province of Judea in a way sympathetic to himself.

Daniel makes his mark and comes to the attention of the king, when he accurately interprets a troubling dream that no-one else in the kingdom is able to. Even more remarkably, he does so even though the king refuses (or more likely is unable) to tell him what the dream was. This dream, further elaborated with other visions of his own, concerns a series of empires that he prophecies will come in succession to that of the Babylonians and will each, in turn, hold world-dominance.

The dream of Nebuchadnezzar is of a huge statue. Its head is of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Daniel himself re-dreams the king’s dream and as he watches he sees a ‘stone cut with no human hand’ smite the statue on its feet and shatter them. Then all the other metals pieces were broken up and became like chaff in a summer threshing-floor. The wind blew away this chaff so that there was no trace left of them to be found. It is further revealed to Daniel that the head of gold symbolises the Babylonian Empire. This is to be followed by a Persian Empire (silver) and a Greek (bronze). Daniel is not told the name of the fourth (the iron) but we can recognize it all too clearly as the Roman Empire. This eventually gives way to a collection of successor kingdoms (the feet of clay reinforced with some iron) that we can understand now as symbolising the countries and powers of Europe. The identity of the stone that smites the statue is not so clear. It seems to be connected with the birth of a new world order that brings to an end the Babylonian succession of empires.


The second set of Daniel’s prophecies concern the lead-up to the coming of the messiah (understood by later, Christian interpreters as Jesus Christ). As far as we are concerned, these prophecies, which were very accurate, now belong to the past. Indeed, it is because they are so precise and fit so well with know history that later commentators assumed that the Book of Daniel was a forgery and must have been written after the events it describes. However, the discovery of copies of the book among the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that this is not the case. For at the time those scrolls were written, the messianic prophecies had yet to come to pass.

This set of prophecies builds on those given a generation earlier by the prophet Jeremiah. According to his prophesy, the Jews would remain captive in Babylon for seventy years and then they would be set free. This prophecy came true in Daniel’s own lifetime. For if the first Jews (Daniel among them) were taken captive to Babylon in 605 BC, then the seventy years was complete in 535 BC. History tells us that Babylon fell to the confederation of Medes and Persians (the two ‘arms’ of the statue) in 539 BC.  A few years later the first contingent of Jews, released by the Persians from their captivity in Babylon, returned to Jerusalem to re-build the Temple, thereby fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Daniel, who had evidently read Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles containing this prophecy, received further insights concerning the destiny of the Jewish people. His prophecies in this respect are contained in Chapter 9: 24-27.

Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people [the Jews] and your holy city [Jerusalem], to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet.

Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.

There are various interpretations of these prophecies, which we won’t go into here. However, most of these interpretations require that the abomination that makes desolate refers to the event in 167 BC when a Syrian ruler called Antiochus Epiphanes IV stopped Jewish practices in the temple and instead sacrificed a pig on its altar. His rule lasted for just three and a half years after which he was forced by the Romans  to retreat from Judea (in 164 BC).


The third set of prophecies are those which are perhaps of the greatest interest to us as they concern ‘the end of days’, a time which for Daniel himself was in the remote future but for us, who live at ‘the end of time’, is the present. Many people have tried to interpret these prophecies but generally with only partial success. However, material which has recently come into my hands (an unpublished book by a South African lady called Letta Pretorius) links Daniels prophecies for the end of the age to the sme date as the termination of the Mayan Long Count Calendar: the winter solstice of 2012 . I shall be publishing some of what she wrote in a later article to appear alongside the present but before reading this, it would be helpful if you first read through the Book of Daniel itself. At twelve chapters it is not very long and if you read straight through, this should not take more than an hour or so.

Copyright © Adrian G. Gilbert 2009.


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