The Message of Daniel
The book of Daniel differs from the majority of Hebrew prophecy: it contains literature of an apocalyptic genre, focuses on political powers in the Ancient Near East (ANE), and does not mention the fall of Jerusalem or return from exile.»1 The characters of the book are the first exiles from Jerusalem and it is the issues which confront them which form the heart of its message.»2 Their life in exile raises questions about the relationship between God’s people and foreign nations, and, by implication, the relationship between God himself and those nations.
This paper will argue that the message of Daniel is to answer these questions, and to show that the answer to the former is dependent on the answer to the latter. That is, that the life to be lived under Gentile rule is determined by God’s relationship with the Gentile powers.»3 The overall message can be summarised as: encouragement of faithfulness to God, because of reassurance of God’s sovereignty.
1. Specific Issues
A variety of issues affect the interpretation of Daniel. A few of these are discussed here and their effect on the message of the book will be mentioned below.
It is most common to divide the book into the court stories of chapters 1-6, and the visions of chapters 7-12. This is because these sections cover sequential but overlapping time periods, indicating that the author has consciously ‘started again’ in chapter 7.»4 There is also a concomitant change in style from stories to visions»5 and a move from Daniel being an interpreter, to requiring interpretation.»6
A different division comes with the Aramaic section (2:4-7:28); within this is a concentric pattern which focuses on the challenge to the authority of God in chapters 4-5.»7 It may be that this section forms the heart of the book especially intended for a Gentile audience, while the later sections are specifically for Jewish readers.»8 This suggests that chapter 7 coming at the end of this section and beginning the second half of the book is the ‘hinge of the Book of Daniel as a whole’.»9 Further sub-divisions have been suggested»10 but they do not over-ride the main divisions outlined.
The majority opinion is that the court stories stem are from the sixth century b.c. while the visions come from the second, with some kind of incorporational theory hypothesised about the relationship between the two.»11 So, for example, Childs sees chapter 2 as true prophecy but chapters 7-12 written vaticinium ex eventu as a midrashic filling out of the details.»12 The arguments for and against second century material is summarised by Wenham.»13 The position taken here is for a complete sixth century writing, and the influence on the message of the book will be discussed below.
It is accepted that Daniel comprises two genres: historical narrative and apocalyptic prophecy.»14 With regard to the apocalyptic sections it is important to recognise that the mythical allusions serve to give expressive value to the particular powers referred to. They become referents not only for the historical king in question, but also for symbols of chaos which allude to the primeval conflict. This increases the theological import of the prophecy and allows it to transcend a specific historic event.»15
We should also note that apocalyptic does not simply differ from other prophecy in details such as angelology or numerology, but by the world view which it espouses.»16 That is a world-wide and cosmic view which draws back the curtain on historical events and reveals truths which stem from beyond time and space. As a result we should expect this to play into the message of the book as a whole.
The issues of dating above reveal that many presume Daniel to be a compilation of at least two authors writing on different themes.»17 However while there are differences in emphasis between the two halves of the book there is also great overlap. For example while foreign powers are presented more negatively in 7-12, the possibility of persecution in 1-6 is still present if only in a more intermittent manner. So Davies says, ‘The message of visions is essentially that of the tales also: namely the triumph of the kingdom of God.’»18 We will assume an underlying unity of message while accepting that the different parts of the book may emphasise different elements of it.
Reassurance of God’s sovereignty is achieved through the book in the following ways.
1.5 Sovereignty in the court stories
Three main themes are shown in the court stories with regard to God’s sovereignty.»19 Firstly he is the one who reveals what is unknown: this begins at 1:17 and continues in chapter 2, 4 and 5. Daniel’s prayer and thanksgiving»20 on the first of these occasions should be seen a paradigmatic of them all: God knows and controls all human events and can reveal them if he so wishes. While the dream of chapter 2 has clear predictive value with regard to ANE history, the immediate focus is not so much on the content of the revelation as the fact of it.»21
Secondly God’s sovereignty means he is able to act to save his people. This lies behind the success of Daniel and his companions in chapter 1, but is especially prominent in chapter 3 and 6, both of which involve God sending his angel to protect his faithful servants. This ability to intervene and overrule in human affairs is the concluding note of both these chapters.»22
Thirdly God’s sovereignty is seen in his dealings with secular rulers: Nebuchadnezzar is humbled because of his pride until he acknowledges God’s sovereignty;»23 and the removal of Belshazzar, who failed to learn from Nebuchadnezzar, reinforces this message.»24 There is also repeated reference through the Aramaic section to God’s everlasting kingdom in comparison to the transience of earthly kingdoms.»25
In addition the use of particular names for God in this section stress the fact that he is the sovereign Lord of all the earth and not simply the covenant God of Israel.»26 As a result the stories present a sovereign God who rules over all humankind.»27
1.6 Sovereignty in the visions
The visions of chapters 7-12 are overlapping and complementary pictures of subsequent ANE history. That no one vision gives an exhaustive account demonstrates they are not trying to convey a ‘univocal truth that can be expressed precisely in one exclusive way’.»28 Rather we should expect the visions to have a cumulative impact.»29
God’s sovereignty is seen in the visions in his ability to predict the future, and the correlate assumption that he is in control of the historical processes. The first vision in chapter 7 and its interpretation can be taken as paradigmatic of the others.»30 The vision asserts that even when political forces wreak havoc on earth and embody forces of primeval chaos, God remains in control and will bring history to its predetermined outcome. It, and the later visions are primarily ones of assurance:
the saints below may assuredly know that the course of history does not run blindly on, uncontrolled, but even now behind the wings of history the authoritative moves which affect the ultimate future of men have already been set in place.»31
This point makes the issue of dating exceptionally important. A number of scholars assert the visions are written vaticinium ex eventu as a ‘prophetic declaration of faith in divine control over history’.»32 This view sees writing history in this supposedly predicted way as affirming a belief that ‘God is somehow in control’.»33 However if it is written retrospectively it remains unclear what control God possesses. In fact the whole theme of Daniel’s God knowing and revealing the future, unlike the gods of Babylon, disappears»34 and the ‘predictions’ make no further claim on the reader.»35
This issue subtly but dramatically affects the message of the book: taking the apocalyptic prophecy as predictive sees it as assuring that God truly is in control, and so laying a foundation for the faithful life of the believer. Without this predictive element it becomes a call to trust that God is control without any basis to believe that he is. Hence those propounding this view speak of a call to ‘naked faith.’»36
Other elements in the apocalyptic section add to this reassurance of sovereignty. The emphasis in chapters 8 and 9 is that the timing of various events is already set. While debate rages over the nature of the timing given, what is clear on a pastoral level is that great assurance is given by the knowledge that God’s timetable will not be altered.»37 Likewise the introduction to the vision of chapter 10-12 is not to cause concern over angelic battles but to explain to Daniel (and later readers) that there are reasons for a lack of response – it is not that God isn’t listening or doesn’t care.»38
1.7 Final victory
The control of history outlined above leads into the final victory of God’s kingdom. That is the climatic final picture of chapter 7 and 12.»39 Chapter 8 asserts the final destruction of the forces opposed to God, and chapter 9 reassures that God’s final purposes (9:24) will be brought to pass. God’s people should therefore be assured that despite appearances to the contrary God’s kingdom will reign supreme and they will receive their inheritance.»40
The assertions of God’s sovereignty outlined above are for the purpose of encouraging faithful living by God’s people. The supremacy of other nations both in the exile and even after the return would cause them to wonder if loyalty to the God of Israel was worthwhile. The message of Daniel is that because God is sovereign and his eternal kingdom will reign, his people should and must be faithful to him.
1.8 Faithfulness in the court stories
This is seen in the stories by way of reward or rescue for those who are faithful. The pressure to syncretism or apostasy is acute but examples are given of those who do not bow to them and whose faithfulness God honours.»41 This section therefore emphasises how life is to be lived in diaspora.»42 The life style encouraged allows great involvement in the life of the Gentile nation as far as conscience allowed, and shows that while faithfulness to God will entail great dangers it is in fact the key to success.»43
1.9 Faithfulness in the visions
The encouragement of faithfulness continues in 7-12: the course of world history is already determined, therefore the action of the wise person is to ‘understand and takes one’s position accordingly’»44, i.e. remain faithful. It is accepted that there is a change of emphasis here, but this is simply to say that faithfulness will mean different things at different moments: political powers may become less human and more set against God’s people, but now matter how threatening they appear God’s people can remain loyal knowing that victory lies ahead.»45 They must live life in the light of their convictions about the end just as the heroes of chapters 1-6 did.»46
These sections steel God’s people for times of great hardship. While this hardship comes more intensely in different times it is generally true for all God’s people throughout time.»47 In that sense the predictions of second century history have relevance for those living in the sixth century b.c. or the twenty-first century a.d. We can identify with God’s people suffering the persecution of the world, and we too must know that ‘the historical processes may sweep over and will scar the people of God but their reward is sure.’»48
Daniel reassures God’s people that he is sovereign and so encourages faithfulness to him. This is even more the case for Christians who know that the Son of Man has come once to defeat evil, will come again to establish his kingdom, and that they live in the last days of conflict. It is no surprise then that Revelation picks up many motifs from Daniel and encourages believers to stand firm because of God’s final victory.