For thousands of years we have been curious about the end of the world. Some of the earliest literature in the we have is focused on how the everything will end. For the past 100 years in this country, Bible studies on the end times and Christian fiction have been best sellers. The more dangerous and filled with conflict our lives have become the more these books have increased in sales.
The world seems like it is constantly on the eve of destruction. Wars and rumors of wars are good news for book sales about the doom awaiting us. Likely, everyone here read Hal Lindsay’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” when they were younger and then the “Left Behind” series in the 70’s and now the novels of Frank Peretti which have sold over 15 million copies. Lyrics to songs like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” are permanently wired into our brains:
Life was filled with guns and war
And everyone got trampled on the floor
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind
The father spoke the demons dined
The son has come and you’ve been left behind
Erin Smith at the University of Texas at Dallas wrote a book titled “What Would Jesus Read” and I think she is right about this:
“Popular religious books are frequently theologically incorrect, historically inaccurate, and aesthetically bad, but lay readers prize them for the guidance they provide in navigating everyday life. Historically, theology and aesthetic concerns often seemed beside the point. Ordinary people wanted books that offered them practical help navigating domestic and professional life, that reaffirmed their belief in a benevolent God, that spoke to their everyday difficulties, and that helped them live less anxiously.”
Throughout Scripture we read that it is necessary for angels to help interpret the dreams and visions but we have sometimes turned our Christian fiction writers into angels instead of mere authors with a point of view.
The generation that was taught to hide under their wooden desks in the event of a direct hit by the atomic bomb has lived with the prospect of annihilation for an entire lifetime. The end of the world would surely be in the form of a mushroom cloud that would obliterate civilization for hundreds of years. In fact there is an entire category of fictional books and movies given over to what is called “post-apocalypticism” or what happens after the end of civilization. Think about “Mad Max”, “On the Beach” or “Planet of the Apes”. Some survive but the world is not the same.
We are fascinated by the future, aren’t we? We are made both anxious and comforted by these books, movies and music. There is something about an approaching doom that attracts us.
Before we look at Daniel’s dream I think we should be clear about three words that are often confused: Apocalypse, Apocrypha, and Eschatology.
First, let’s look at apocryphal. The word is from the Greek meaning “hidden away” These are works that are outside our accepted canon of scripture. They were at first prized, later tolerated, and finally excluded. Although some are still included in Catholic texts they are not included in the official Protestant canon. Books with wonderful stories, miracles, teachings like Esdras, Judith and Tobit were favorites of the early Church but did not make the cut. Some of them, like Second Esdras, also have sections dealing with the end times and that was part of their popularity even then.Daniel is not apocryphal. It is Scripture. Much of what sells today is modern apocrypha.
Second, let’s look at Eschatology which literally means the study of last things and in addition to the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation there are a number of passages in the Old and New Testament about the end. Sometimes the end is about the salvation of the people of Israel and sometimes it is about the end of the entire world and the recreation. As just one example we are all familiar with the references to the end in Matthew 24
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
That passage made for me a few sleepless nights after the preacher’s sermon. I was in a constant state of anxiety about the owner of the house returning. It reminds me of the story of the Catholic priest looking out his window one day and seeing Jesus standing there. In a panic, he called his Bishop and told him that Jesus was standing outside his window and just staring – not saying a word. “What should I do?,” he asked. The Bishop paused and then responded, “Look busy.”
Then there is the word Apocalyptic. This is the word that we most often confuse with eschatology. The word literally means “to reveal” but is not always related to the end of the world. While it is at times and there are apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament that are revelations or mysteries revealed – like the dreams of Pharaoh interpreted by Joseph and the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel. Unfortunately, we have over time merged these two words and the word apocalyptic has become a synonym for catastrophe, fire and brimstone, violent explosions and a doomed world. Think about movies like “Apocalypse Now” or “Dr. Strangelove” or Christian books like “The Harbinger” and “Cabal” or “Upheaval: An Apocalyptic End-Times Thriller”
Unfortunately, the word apocalypse no longer means revealing a mystery but means catastrophic and explosive.
The power of apocalypse is not catastrophe and over the top violence but, as Nebuchadnezzar admits in chapter 2: “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.” Daniel 7 is a bit of both: eschatological and apocalyptic.
The writer James K.A. Smith puts it best, I think:
Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a matter of prediction. But this is a misunderstanding of the biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin.
So, let’s look at an apocalyptic dream of Daniel in Chapter 7.
First, all kingdoms arise out of a sea of conflict and the winds of change. That is the nature of history, isn’t it? Sometimes it is bloody revolution and at other times it is a response to unmanageable change but all kingdoms and empires have their roots in the winds that whip up events and create chaos. And they all have an end. They bring order but only for a time. As Daniel says in verse 12: The beasts are stripped of their authority but were allowed to live for a period of time. It is sometimes a slow demise from empire to a conquered and second rate nation.
Second, it comes several years before the previous account of Daniel and Belshazzar at Belshazzar’s banquet. The writing on the wall is years after the beginning of the reign of Belshazzar but Daniel’s dream is in the first year of Belshazzar’s reign. The end of the Empire of Babylonia is already firmly in the mind of Daniel long before the final writing on the wall. For Daniel, the end was inevitable. In some ways you could say that oftentimes prophecy is not always prediction as it is projection. The prophet has the ability to project the character of a king or a nation into the future and see a pattern that is obvious. Leaders without character, without dignity, without reverence and marked by stupidity and ignorance are often reflections of a population overall.
The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge said,
“It is impossible for one man, however determined and cunning he may be, to impose his will on other men for long unless they recognize themselves in him.”
Belshazzar had become a living symbol of an entire nation and Daniel knew the inevitable future of such a nation and the dream certainly confirmed that. Unlike his predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar, he was a beast without sense. The first kingdom in the dream is Babylonia symbolized by the lion with wings and the beast who was given the heart of a man. That is the story of Nebuchadnezzar who was given the mind of an animal until his sanity was restored. Instead of a beast he became a man – but too late for the kingdom of Babylonia. What remains of the kingdom is scattered among museums around the world.
Now, the next three kingdoms in the dream.
The second kingdom is symbolized by the bear with the ribs in his mouth. Likely, this is the kingdom of the Persians who were renowned for their cruelty and oppressive rule. The three ribs symbolize the three kingdoms they had conquered – Babylon, Egypt and Lydia which would be part of Turkey today.
The third kingdom is represented by a leopard with four wings. Most of the commentaries I have read equate this with the kingdom of Alexander the Great. He quickly, like a leopard, conquered the known world by the time he was 28 years old. Nothing in the history of the world was equal to the conquests of Alexander who ran through all the countries from Illyricum and the Adriatic Sea to the Indian Ocean and the River Ganges and in twelve years subdued part of Europe and all of Asia. But when he died his kingdom was in chaos for forty years and divided into four parts (the four heads in verse 6) and we will meet with one of the descendants of the heads later in the figure of Antiochus IV or Antiochus Epiphenes who set up an altar to Zeus in Jerusalem and sacrificed a pig on the altar. This would be the “little horn” in verse 8.
Now, the fourth kingdom.
“It is in the fourth kingdom that the world power manifests fully its God-opposing nature. Whereas the three former kingdoms were designated respectively, as a lion, bear, and leopard, no particular beast is specified as the image of the fourth; for Rome is so terrible as to be not describable by any one, but combines in itself all that we can imagine inexpressibly fierce in all beasts. Hence three times it is repeated, that the fourth was “diverse from all” the others.”
Is this the Roman Empire or another empire yet to be born? I don’t know, honestly. Growing up I was taught it was the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and the European Common Market. It certainly does describe the Roman way. Rome crushed and incorporated those it conquered and trampled underfoot what was left. It devoured the whole known world. But, it also established the Pax Romana across the Empire, a network of safe roads, security for those it conquered, Roman law that protected the citizens, a universal language that has been the foundation of Western thought and literature, a government that served as a model for generations to come along with cultural and artistic accomplishments that are unmatched and have survived for centuries. In other words, this terrible and awesome beast that is unlike any other in its pride and opposition to God is probably the most creative and innovative of them all. That’s the paradox of worldly kingdoms, isn’t it? It is sometimes the most cruel and beastly that created the Western culture we inherited and fight now to preserve.
Clearly, it is this fourth kingdom (the kingdom that embodies the imperial spirit of Rome) that is the greatest threat to the saints. The leader of this fourth kingdom will speak boastfully against the Most High (verse 25) and oppress (literally wear out the patience of) his saints and try to change “the set times and the laws.” He will consider himself above the law and undermine the fundamentals of the culture. One commentator, Grant Richison, put it this way, “He will disregard natural law and ignore the laws of economics, government and morality. He will dare to think of himself as the solution to the problems of man. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time – or three and a half years and then God will pull the plug on him.”
But God’s supreme court will convene and his power will be taken away from him and he will be completely destroyed forever. “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.”
Let’s not live in fear of the spirit of the fourth kingdom whenever it shows itself. Instead of living in anxiety or morbid preoccupation with the end, let’s prepare ourselves for the time when all of the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the saints. Our future role is what we are preparing for now. Remember what Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more things of this life!”
The spirit of the fourth kingdom is to some degree in every kingdom. Every kingdom to an extent desires the beastly power to trample the laws, devour its foes and hold itself up as something to be worshiped in the place of God or, sometimes worse, along with God.
But we are to keep our eyes not on trying to figure out and fight over all the mysteries of these times unless an angel should visit us with the gift of understanding what has been hidden for centuries. We are to be what C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity:
“If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next world..Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you get neither.”
Let’s have our eyes toward heaven and live with our feet on the ground.