Sometimes, the world appears to be utterly chaotic. Evil can appear unchecked. It can seem as if there’s no-one at the driving wheel, no-one at the controls. History is one big runaway train.
It may well have felt like that to the Jews who were living in Babylon in the 6th century BC. They’d been taken there by king Nebuchadnezzar, and they tried to make a life for themselves. But as we’ve read the earlier chapters of Daniel, we’ve seen that the kings could sometimes be plain tyrants. Brutes who oppressed these Jews for their religion, and who terrorised their own court officials.
God’s plan, the land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, the temple – everything seemed to be falling apart.
The book of Daniel was written to encourage these Jews to keep going. To keep trusting their God. To keep living faithfully for him. Not to give up hope. And it’s encouraged Christians down the ages since. Whenever we’ve felt the temptation to despair, the pressure to stay out of trouble by compromising what God requires – the book of Daniel helps us to keep going.
This morning we move into the second half of the book of Daniel, and the book changes gear. You probably noticed as chapter 7 was read. Chapters 1 to 6 are stories. True stories, but stories all the same. They’re stories about Daniel and his three friends. Sometimes, the king has a dream, and Daniel steps in to interpret.
Daniel chapters 7 to 12 do not contain stories. They contain visions and dreams. Maybe sometimes you wake in the night, and you’ve had a weird dream that mixes up people from various parts of your life. I doubt you’ve had dreams as surreal as the ones we’ll meet in the second half of Daniel. Even Daniel needs help to interpret them.
These dreams are weird. Joanne Rowling produced a small spin-off book from Harry Potter, to raise money for charity, entitled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film companies have run with this; film one is out, and no fewer than five are planned.
To many people, these chapters of Daniel feel like the Bible’s answer to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. At times they may be frightening. But they are meant to be understood. They’re meant to capture our imagination, get under our skin, and give us hope. They’re meant to work with the first half of the book of Daniel, and help us to keep going as the Lord’s people.
This morning, we start with a vision of 4 beasts coming out of the sea, followed by an old man on a throne, the destruction of the last beast, and a human being invested with great authority.
It’s all designed to help us keep living for God when life feels chaotic, when it feels like the driver of the universe has fallen asleep at the wheel.
There are three stages of the vision: the beasts, the throne, and the man. I’m going to draw a lesson from each.
Things Can Get Worse
First, let’s think about these beasts. The lesson here: Things can get worse. Things can get worse before they get better.
I don’t want us to get hung up over which actual kingdoms these different beasts refer to. This chapter makes its point without you having to figure that out. It has to: People in Daniel’s day hadn’t even heard of Greece, so the explanation would make no sense to them.
For what it’s worth, I think these are the same four kingdoms as the ones in the statue of chapter 2. So, the lion is Babylon, the bear is Media, the Leopard is Persia and the fourth beast is Greece.
Now, as I say, the first readers of this would not have figured that out. But they would be able to work out that Babylon is the lion. Because you’ve got four beasts here, just like the four metals in the statue of chapter 2. And in the statue of chapter 2, we are explicitly told that the first empire, the head of gold is Babylon.
So the first readers of this lived in the time when the lion ruled. The dream tells of things getting better for the people of God. The bit at the end, with God on his throne, with the son of man being given the kingdom – that is a message of enormous hope.
But that hope will not come during the time of the lion. Because after the lion comes a bear. A carnivorous, devouring bear. With three ribs in its mouth, and a voice from heaven telling it to eat its fill of flesh. And then after the bear comes the leopard. A four-headed leopard.
Even then, the good times still have to wait. After the leopard comes a fourth beast. We’re not even told which animal this one looks like. He’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. He had unique power, unique strength, and just crushed everything that stood in its path. The fourth beast is a monster. Watch this bit in the cinema, you’d be hiding behind the seat in front. Watch this bit in an actual dream, you’d wake up screaming.
He had large iron teeth. He’s some grotesque mix of Godzilla, the T-Rex from the first Jurassic Park movie, and Jaws from James Bond.
But even then, the good things have to wait. Because this empire featured ten kings. And even with those ten, things have not yet hit rock bottom. Because an eleventh king comes up, a little horn, and uproots three of the first horns. This one little ruler does more damage than the beast has done to date. He has eyes like a human being, a mouth that spoke great boasts.
We learn more about him in verses 24 and 25: “After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.”
If the fourth kingdom represents Greece, it seems likely that this little horn represents king Antiochus IV, who reigned from 175 to 164 BC. He issued coins that proclaimed himself a God. He aggressively persecuted the Jews in Jerusalem. He made it illegal to observe the Sabbath, or to carry out the daily sacrifices required by the Jewish law. He confiscated any copies of the law of Moses, and anyone who was found with a copy was executed. Three and a half years of sheer terror.
Daniel chapter 7 tells of a day when evil will be destroyed, and when God and his people will triumph. And we’ll get to that. But it doesn’t occur in the days of the lion, in which Daniel lived. There are first three more brutal empires, before we get a fourth one that is worse than them all, climaxing in one particularly terrible king. Before things get better, things will get worse. So much worse, that you’d have woken up in a terrible sweat just having seen this as a dream.
This is the way God works. He has a plan to fix everything, but frequently he lets things go downhill before he does so. Israel was enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. The time had not yet come to be brought into their own land, because the sin of the Amorites had not yet reached its full measure.
Jesus of Nazareth came, proclaiming the kingdom of God. But before he rose victorious from the dead, he was rejected by the leaders, abandoned by his followers, and killed on a humiliating cross.
The church goes out with a message of good news, but before we see dramatic growth we find Christians are frequently imprisoned and even executed.
Things can get worse before they get better.
It’s like supporting England in any sport. England never gives their followers an easy ride. If we win at Wimbledon, it’s always from two sets down and two hours teetering on match point. If we win at football, it’s always 4-nil down at half time, and then tied all the way to the 7th penalty taker.
God has a plan. God will win. Good will win. But that doesn’t mean that things will instantly get better. If it looks like evil is winning now, it may be that evil scores a whole load more goals for quite some time to come. That’s the way God works.
God hasn’t lost control. If we go by what our eyes see happening in the next year, decade or century, we may give up hope and decide that God will lose. We need a vision like this to fix our gaze on a future beyond the immediate.
Things can get worse. Things can get worse before they get better. That’s the lesson from the beasts.
God will crush all evil
Second, let’s look at the throne. We see that God will crush all evil. God will crush all evil.
After all the noise of the beasts, and the boastful little horn, there’s suddenly a change of scene. All is calm, dignified, controlled.
We see an old man sitting on a throne. The throne is like a fixed-pitch chariot, utterly splendid. It’s on fire, because this is a vision of God. Whenever God appears in the Old Testament, he appears with fire. Fire that symbolises his judgement, his anger at all that is evil. He’s surrounded by more attendants than you can count.
And he’s old. Very old. Verse 9, he’s called the Ancient of Days. His clothing was white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. He’s been around long before any of these empires started to flex their muscles.
When we see that he’s old, we mustn’t think of someone old and doddery, should have retired long ago, going slightly senile. This is a picture of dignity, majesty, calm authority. If this were a film, he’s be played by Ian McKellen. Except that I’m not sure Ian would want the part, because he’s an atheist. Or Christopher Lee perhaps.
What’s striking is that someone is on the throne. The throne is not empty. The scene we were watching before looked like utter chaos. But in all that chaos, there’s someone on the throne. He could rein it in at any point.
And he does. Verse 10 ends: “The court was seated, and the books were opened.”
And as judgement is pronounced, the fourth beast, with its boastful little horn, is simply snuffed out. Verse 11: “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.”
If you lived through the boasts, the oppression, the violence of that fourth beast’s empire, it would have felt all consuming. Like this beastly empire was the only reality you’d ever experience. But then it’s a bit like a foggy morning in the height of summer. The sun rises, and warms up; the fog is simply burnt away, and suddenly everything is clear and sparkling. God the Father on his throne is able to judge and remove this evil empire. As simply as someone licks their fingers, and snuffs out a candle wick that’s still smouldering.
One day this will happen. One day, every evil empire will be destroyed. One day, the Lord Jesus will return, and he will personally destroy everything that causes evil, that spoils this world. The book of Revelation has a lake of fire, a bit like the one in verse 11. The devil and all his angels will go in there. So will every world power that has done the devil’s work. Tyranny will end.
God will crush all evil.
That’s the lesson from the throne.
Jesus will rule with his people
We’ve looked at the beasts, and the throne. Lastly, let’s turn our attention to the man. The lesson here: Jesus will rule with his people. Jesus will rule with his people.
There are two climaxes to this vision, not one. After the chaos of the beasts, two things happen. First, God takes his throne and destroys evil. Second, a human being is led into God’s presence to be given authority over every nation for all time. And as the vision is explained to Daniel, each time we get those same two end-points.
So here’s the relevant bit of the vision. Verse 13: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was 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 nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
The phrase “one like a son of man” just means that this is a human being. It’s in contrast to the animals. So, in verse 4, he saw something like a lion. In verse 5, something like a bear. In verse 6, something like a leopard. The fourth beast wasn’t like anything, nothing you’ve ever seen. And then in verse 13, one like a son of man. The others were animals. This time, it’s a human being.
God’s plan was always for human beings to rule the world for him. He put us in charge, to take care of things, to look after his world, to take things forwards. Psalm 8 marvels at the dignity God has given to human beings. “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels crowned them with glory and honour. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; put everything under their feet.”
But then what’s happened is that people abused this authority. World leaders, not exercising their power under God’s rule, but instead wanting to be gods. Tyranny. When that happens, they don’t become more human. They become less human. They become animal.
So what a relief in Daniel’s vision, when finally a human being comes to God to be given authority. Not to snatch it. Given it. A human.
George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, tells the story of a farm where the animals revolt against their human owner. They’ve had enough of humans running the farm. The motto of the farm is changing. Instead of “two legs good, four legs bad”, it’s going to be “two legs bad, four legs good”. Everything goes OK, until the pigs decide that they want to be in charge of the new arrangement. They need some way to differentiate themselves, so they learn to stand on two feet. And the motto changes again. It’s back to “two legs good, four legs bad”.
It’s a great book. It’s a comment on what happens whenever there’s any kind of social revolution. You just end up with different tyrants in charge. The problem is that we often have rulers who rule on four feet. Like animals. God’s plan is to put a man in charge.
And that man is Jesus. One of Jesus’ favourite titles for himself is “son of man”, taken from this chapter amongst other places in the Old Testament. God’s plan is not just to remove evil from the earth. It’s to put a human being in charge again. One who truly rules as a human, on two feet, under God the Father’s authority. And that’s Jesus of Nazareth.
But there’s more to say. I said the lesson from the man is that Jesus will rule with his people.
When the vision is explained to Daniel, this second climax morphs into something slightly different. Verses 17 and 18: “The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it for ever – yes, for ever and ever.”
In this version, the kingdom that lasts forever is not ruled by one man, but by all the holy people of the Most High. It’s ruled by God’s people. By us.
We get the same thing at the end of the chapter. Verse 27: “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.”
This son of man figure in Daniel 7 is a figurehead. He stands for all the people of God. God’s plan is to have his people ruling the world. Jesus is their representative head, but we will rule with him.
The New Testament consistently says exactly the same thing. Here’s 1 Corinthians 6, verse 2: “Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? … Do you not know that we will judge angels?” Or 2 Timothy chapter 2, verse 12: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Or the very end of the Bible, Revelation chapter 22, verse 5: “They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
This is how history will end. Evil will be crushed and removed. But not to be replaced by a vacuum. Instead, we’ll have the glorious future of the Lord Jesus ruling heaven and earth, forever and ever. And we shall reign with him.
Jesus will rule with his people.
Frequently the world looks like chaos. We, the people of God, need God’s help to hold onto him, to keep trusting him, to keep following him faithfully, when everything looks like it’s falling apart. We need this all the more, because things so often seem to get worse rather than better.
But God is on his throne. There is someone at the wheel, and it’s our good and gracious God. And one day, he will crush all evil. One day, Jesus Christ will rule heaven and earth, and we will rule with him.
So keep going. Keep following him. Even if things get worse in the short-term, history is going somewhere truly wonderful!