Angels We Have Heard on High – A Reflection on Daniel 10
I have been walking through Daniel with my Wednesday Bible Study Group. We’re nearing the close of the journey, which I’ve been sharing here, having reached Daniel 10. The final vision in Daniel covers the final three chapters, beginning in with a prologue in chapter ten and concluding with a postscript in chapter 12, with the vision itself appearing in chapter 11. Because of the length of the section, I’m dividing the vision into three sessions.
Session One, which takes place today, sets up the vision. Daniel is in the midst of a three week fast from rich foods, meat, and wine, while choosing not to anoint himself. We learn that the fast ends on the 24th day of first month of the Jewish year (the month of Nisan), a time period in which the Passover would have been observed (except that during the exile and later under Antiochus, it couldn’t be celebrated, as they still awaited liberation). Daniel, we’re told, is situated on the banks of the Tigris River (the eastern branch of the Great Rivers that formed the backbone of Mesopotamia). It is during the third year of the reign of Cyrus, and thus after Cyrus had released the exiles to return to their homeland. Daniel, however, has stayed behind in the land of exile.
It is here on the banks of the Tigris that Daniel receives a visitation. It appears he is with others, who sense something is happening, and thus they flee, but only Daniel the figure clothed in linen, with a gold belt, a face like lightning, a body like a precious gem, and arms and legs like burnished bronze. A similar description of a heavenly being is found in Ezekiel 1. As often happens Daniel faints, is lifted, and spoken to. He learns he is greatly beloved and has been heard because of his humility and desire to understand.
This leads to the point I want to explore here. The figure is an angelic being, probably Gabriel, though he remains unnamed in the chapter. For our purposes, we’ll call him Gabriel. Gabriel speaks of an opponent, the Prince of Persia, with whom he has been doing battle. We also hear of another prince, one of the chief princes, named Michael, who comes to help Gabriel and is left behind to do battle, while Gabriel appears to Daniel to inform him about the future (a future to be elaborated in in chapter 11). Who is Michael? In 1 Enoch 20, he is named as one of seven archangels, along with Gabriel, Raphael, and a few others. In this chapter of Daniel, Michael is described being the prince of Israel, the patron or protector of Israel.
Soon, we learn that there is another prince to be encountered, the Prince of Greece. While this prince might be Alexander, it is also likely that there is a corresponding angelic prince representing Alexander and his political descendants, including Antiochus IV. It would seem from reading this that while there are earthly battles there are also heavenly ones. This is an ancient view of things. Consider the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses sings of the time when the Most High (Elyon) divided the nations between the gods, with Israel going to Yahweh (Deut.32:8-9). As the Jewish people moved from henotheism to monotheism, the gods became angelic beings, with Yahweh being the only true God. Thus, in this scenario, Michael represents Israel in the heavenly council, and resists the challenges of princes who would seek to harm Israel.
Since the season of angels is upon us, with angelic visitations to Mary, Zechariah, and Elizabeth, as well as angelic song on the night of the savior’s birth, it is fitting to reflect on these references to angelic beings, acting on behalf of God. The passage, it seems to me, invites us to consider the possibility that there is more to reality than meets the eye. As heirs of the Enlightenment, we are skeptical of things we can not see or touch. This is the foundation of the scientific enterprise. Don’t just trust, verify through experimentation and exploration. This is all well and good. I affirm the scientific enterprise. I believe what scientists tell us about evolution and climate change. It is for our good that we accept their descriptions of earthly reality. However, does this rule out another aspect of reality, the spiritual dimension.
As I read passages like this, I am reminded of the prayer that my congregation and many others recite every Sunday. We pray to our father who is in heaven. We hallow this God’s name, and we ask that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. This suggests that there is a connection between earthly and heavenly realities. Consider the message of Ephesians as well, where Paul or a Pauline descendant writes that “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Part of our difficulty with this conversation about heavenly and earthly realities is that scripture tends to picture this as up and down—up in heaven and down on earth. Perhaps, as Richard Beck, drawing on Walter Wink, suggests, this is more an internal/external battle. The spiritual is what goes on inside us. Beck speaks in his book Reviving Old Scratch about discerning the spirits, that is discerning the spiritual climate that is at work in various places. Pointing to Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Final Solution, he suggests that Eichmann “was possessed by the dark angel of Nazism when he followed Hitler’s orders.” That is the dark side of things, but there is a flip side. Thus, “when spiritual climates are healthy and life-giving, we could call those climates angelic, naming them as locations of grace and peace where the kingdom is experienced on earth as it is in heaven. Locations where God is worshiped and Jesus reigns.” [Reviving Old Scratch, pp. 114-117]
Having introduced these thoughts about angels and heavenly battles, I would like to suggest we consider the spiritual realities that inform our current tensions. What is demonic and what is angelic. I don’t mean that we need to get all “Frank Peretti” here (Frank Peretti wrote these fantasies about the last days and spiritual warfare, in which demons seemed to be everywhere), but let us consider the possibility that there is something spiritual going on in our midst and not all spirits are the same. Thus, like Daniel, let us be humble and ready to listen so we might understand what is going on around us.