How Long? A reflection on Daniel 8
How long will this time of wrath, of destruction, last? When things aren’t going our way or when we think the world is going in the wrong direction, we’re liable to ask—how long? When will it all end? That is a question that was surely on the minds of those who experienced exile in Babylon. The Book of Daniel takes place during the Babylonian exile, which in round numbers lasts seventy years. That’s a long time. It’s enough time for a couple of generations to emerge. The Book of Daniel, which my Bible study group is working through, tells the story of a prophet, a seer, an interpreter and dreamer of dreams. Daniel’s life, according to the book, covers the entirety of exile. It begins in chapter one with Daniel and three friends, who had been taken into exile, are raised up in the court of the Babylonian king. In the course of time, Daniel will serve in the administrations of the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians. In these days he will interpret dreams for kings and receive visions he is mean to keep to himself. That’s the foreground of the story, but most scholars, and I’m in agreement, believe that whatever the provenance of the various components of the book, it came together during the times of trouble in Judah, when Antiochus IV had taken control of Jerusalem and instituted a reign of terror that was intent on ridding the people of Judah of their culture, their language, and their God, replacing them with “blessings” of Hellenization. In other words, Daniel is a book of liberation. Now, we have reached chapter eight.
In chapter seven, which takes place during the first year of Belshazzar, the final ruler of Babylon, Daniel receives a vision that parallels the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter two, a dream he was asked to interpret. In chapter seven, the last of the Aramaic chapters of Daniel, the prophet envisions four beasts emerging out of the sea, representing four empires that rise and ultimately fall. The first three are rather grotesque, but they are nothing in comparison to the fourth, which turns out to be the Hellenistic kingdoms that emerge out of Alexander’s conquests. We encounter there the “little horn,” which is identified with Antiochus IV, a figure we meet again in chapter 8.
As we approach the vision of chapter 8, which involves not four beasts, but two rather ordinary animals, a ram and a goat (though the second one, the goat, has a rather interesting horn set in the middle of its head, between its eyes). C.L. Seow write this of the comparison of the two chapters:
In short, Daniel 7 is cosmic and implicit, while Daniel 8 is nationalistic and explicit. The difference is such that one might think of the latter as a fleshing out of the former. The vision of Daniel 8 may, indeed, be viewed, as a contextualization of the dream vision in chapter 7, which is itself a reworking of the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream vision in chapter 2. (Seow, Daniel, p. 118).
So, we move toward that nationalistic and explicit vision, though we will want to clarify the word nationalist here. In contemporary conversation the word nationalist has a very different meaning, one that is disdainful of one’s neighbors and seeks to dominate. Here the context is one of experiencing oppression, and thus a call to resist a colonialist power that is seeking to dominate and destroy the very fabric of one’s self-hood. This is a word that would resonate with communities and nations that have suffered under the thumb of other powers. Think of all the independence movements of the past century as empires began to falter, whether British, Soviet, or American.
Daniel has a vision during the third year of the reign of Belshazzar, king of Babylon. He finds himself at Susa, then a rather nondescript Babylonian outpost that would eventually become one of the Persian capitals. He envisions a ram standing beside the Ulai River. It has two horns, one longer than the other (representing Media and Persia). This ram is powerful. No one can resist them, certainly not Babylon. It did as it pleases. At least for a time. Remember in Daniel no empire lasts forever, no matter how great and strong it became.
The vision moves in verse 5, as a goat appears in the west, moving quickly across the earth (its feet don’t touch the ground). It has a great horn protruding between its eyes. It attacks the ram with “savage force.” Enraged at its enemy, the goat breaks the two horns of the ram. It throws the ram to the ground and tramples it, and no one could rescue it. Daniel says of the goat that it grew exceedingly great. But, at the height of its power, the great horn was broken, and four horns emerge, moving toward the four winds. The reader would understand that Daniel is envisioning the conquests of Alexander, which quickly dispatched the formerly powerful Persian Empire and moving across the land with great speed. But they would also understand that at the height of his power, Alexander died of a fever, and his empire was divided among his generals, the Diadochi, four of whom were the most prominent, and two of most importance to the people living in Jerusalem—Ptolemy I and Seleucus I, kings of Egypt and Syria respectively. For the purposes of the Book of Daniel, it is Seleucus and his descendants, who will be of most importance in the story.
As I grew up, I was impressed by Alexander and the spread of Hellenism across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. As I read scripture, and began to understand its background, I came to understand that not everyone appreciated Alexander’s legacy. In the stories I read Alexander was a glorious hero, but to the people to home Daniel is written, he is a scourge, a colonizer who displaced local customs with his Greek culture. Now Hellenism may have had its value, even as the British Empire may have had some benefits. But the costs were great to local cultures. What can I say about the American expansion across the continent?
We don’t stop with Alexander, for if he is the Great Horn, a Little Horn will emerge, which will grow exceedingly strong. It will fight glorious battles, but also attack the Beautiful Land (most likely Jerusalem/Mount Zion. It will grow as high as the heavenly realm. In other words, it fights battles that are local and cosmic. We’re even told that the Little Horn will storm heaven and throw down the heavenly host to the ground and trample on them. It will attack the Prince of the Host (God?) and take away the daily sacrifice and overturn or make desolate the Holy Place. Let the reader understand, this is a reference to Antiochus IV’s desecration of the Temple. Yes, a different set of offerings and sacrifices will take place in the Holy Place, as a different host takes root (Zeus?). The holy ones, the Jewish people, cry out, wondering how long. Daniel overhears two “holy ones,” perhaps angelic beings, discuss the question of how long it will be before the Temple offerings are restored and the sacrilege taking place will end. The word he hears is 2300 evenings and mornings. Now that number is difficult to decipher, and scholars are of differing opinions. Let’s just say, it will take time for restoration to take place, but the time of desolation is not forever.
That’s the vision in a nutshell. Like most apocalyptic visions it is cryptic and colorful. As Seow notes it is more local than the vision of chapter seven, and yet it has its cosmic dimensions. What happens on earth seems to affect what happens in heaven. Even God is affected by these actions. In Daniel’s vision of divine sovereignty, of course, God permits, at least for a time. We might argue with that vision. I have a different vision of sovereignty than some might have, which would mean rethinking some of this. But it’s important that we hear him out.
As one might assume, Daniel is having trouble figuring this out. As he ponders the message, a human-like figure stands in the river and calls out to Gabriel, asking Gabriel to interpret. Now, it should be noted that this is the first time that an angelic being is named in the Biblical text. When Gabriel comes near, Daniel prostrates himself, in recognition of Gabriel’s position. For his part, Gabriel addresses Daniel as Son of Man or O Mortal, letting him know that this is a vision of the end, of a future moment. Daniel falls into a trance as he lies prostrate, but Gabriel lifts him up and offers an interpretation of what will happen during the period of “wrath.” He lets Daniel know that ram represents the kings of Media and Persia, and that the goat is the king of Greece. He doesn’t name Alexander, but it’s clear that Alexander is the Great Horn, that the broken horn is the Diadochi.
When we reach verse 23, which focuses on the Little Horn, the text moves into a more poetic mode. The message here in verses 23-25 is that the time is coming when the Goat’s rule will reach its climax, and a king of “bold countenance” will emerge, who is “skilled in intrigue” or as the CEB puts it is a “master of deception.” This Little Horn, as it reaches its height of power will wreak unbelievable destruction, succeeding in all it does, destroying the power and the people of the Holy Ones. In other words, he will wreak destruction on Jerusalem, and on the Saints. He will be cunning and deceitful. He will think of himself as being great. Without warning he will rise up against the prince of princes. In other words, this king is so arrogant that he doesn’t even regard God’s power but is willing to challenge God. All I’ll say here, to our context, “let the reader understand!” But all is not lost. Despite the arrogance. Despite the unwillingness to give reverence to God. Even the Little Horn will be broken. But apparently, this will not occur with human hands.
The bad news is that Jerusalem is suffering. The good news it is not forever. A time will come when even the “great” and powerful will fall. That is the message of the vision in chapter 2 and the vision in chapter 7. Empires rise and fall, but the kingdom of God endures forever. Daniel is told to seal up the vision, because it is for a different time. As for Daniel, he still doesn’t understand. He is still troubled, feeling sick for several days, but in the end, he returns to the king’s business. He’s troubled by what he’s seen, but he doesn’t let it keep him from living. He moves on, letting the word speak where it needs to speak.
It spoke to the time of Antiochus IV, giving comfort and encouragement to a people suffering under occupation. In answer to the question of "how long," the vision promised that the times of wrath are not permanent. The question for us is what message we can take from it. I don’t read it as some do as a mysterious timeline that leads to Armageddon. I do, however, believe it has message for today. Yes, and its political one. Who will you give your allegiance to. As I write this, I am reflecting on the 2018 Midterm elections. I heard some good news and some bad news. There is hope to be found there, but even there we are not to put our full hopes in that process. However, there is the promise that empires rise and fall, but the realm of God is eternal!