This chapter is considered by most to be the most significant chapter of Daniel and also a key chapter of the Old Testament. There are some who have proposed that Daniel has borrowed from the ancient Near Eastern mythologies around him in this composition (such as the account of Adapa, Enuma Elish, or the Ugaritic Baal Cycle; see Goldingay 150-151), but Daniels dream and its explanation seem just far more likely to belong to the literature of the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and to Genesis and Psalms where there has been anything expounded upon, but he seems to simply have his own visions and explanations apart from these others as well as in addition to these others.
Chapter seven closes out the chiastic structure of chapters two through seven (see Goldingay 158) as well as concluding the Aramaic portion of Daniel:
Ch. 2 – A vision of four kingdoms and their end (Nebuchadnezzar)
Ch. 3 – Faithfulness and miraculous rescue (three friends)
Ch. 4 – Judgment presaged and experienced (Nebuchadnezzar)
Ch. 5 – Judgment presaged and experienced (Belshazzar)
Ch. 6 – Faithfulness and miraculous rescue (Daniel)
Ch. 7 – A vision of four kingdoms and their end (Daniel)
“Dan 2 offered world rulers a vision of their position as a God-given calling. Dan 3-6 has portrayed them inclined to make themselves into God; they are thus also inclined to put mortal pressure on those who are committed to God (chaps. 3; 6), but are themselves on the way to catastrophe (chaps. 4; 5). These motifs are taken up and taken further in chap. 7. The tension between the human and the bestial that appeared in chaps. 4 and 6 becomes a key motif: bestiality is now turned on God himself (Barr), but he puts an end to the reign of the beast and gives authority to a humanlike figure (Lacocque). As the real statue of chap. 3 follows on the dream statue of chap. 2, the dream animals of chap. 7 follow on the real animals of chap. 6. As people of all races, nations, and languages were called to bow before the statue (3:4; cf. 5:19), so now they honor the human figure of Daniel’s vision (7:14). Once Nebuchadnezzar testified to God’s lasting power (3:33; 4:31; cf. 6:27); now Daniel’s human figure has this power (7:14). Once Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation was limited to seven periods of time (4:13); now the humiliation of the heavenly ones will be limited to 3 ½ such periods (7:25). Once God demonstrated in history that as ruler in the earthly realm he could give royal authority to the most ordinary of human beings (4:14); now he gives it to a humanlike being at the end of the story of earthly kingdoms (7:13-14). Once Darius took hold of power (6:1); now the heavenly ones do so (7:18). Once Darius acknowledged that God’s rule would persist until the end (סופא עד) (6:27); now the king symbolized by the small horn has his authority destroyed permanently (סופא עד) (7:26). Dan 2-6 have affirmed that God controlled times and epochs, his decree being victorious over the decrees of kings (2:9, 13, 15, 21; 6:6, 9, 13, 16); now a king who think to control times set by decree will lose all power (7:25-26). Chaps. 3-6 indicate why the sequence of earthly regimes is destined to be brought to an end in the way chap. 2 describes. Chap. 7 combines the thrust of the preceding chapters as a whole, and puts them in a new perspective” (Goldingay 158-159).
7:1 – Daniel had a dream. The date indicated by Daniel places this dream between chapters four and five. Daniel states that it was the first year of Belshazzar’s reign: 550-549BC (Goldingay 157), or 553BC (Miller 194; Walvoord 149) or 552-551BC (Baldwin 153). Chapter eight then follows just two years later (8:1) and chapter nine is dated to between chapters five and six (9:1) with chapters ten to twelve concerning messages that were given sometime around or after the events of chapters six (10:1). Whereas in chapter two it was king Nebuchadnezzar who dreamed of four kings/kingdoms, here it is Daniel and it was still during the days of the Babylonian empire. Daniel proceeded to record what he saw and the interpretations he received.
7:2-3 – Four beasts from the great sea. What might the “four winds” refer to? Is this a sort of reference to the Spirit of God come from all directions? Also, what and where is this “great sea”? While some have proposed that it refers to the Mediterranean (which is the normal meaning of “great sea” in the Old Testament), it seems more likely to refer to the earth…that is to the nations and peoples of the earth according to the interpretation Daniel receives (Dan.7:17; cf. Isa.17:12-13; 57:20; Rev.13:1, 11; 17:1, 15). Who or what are the “four beasts” of Daniel’s visions? They are kings and kingdom—there is often overlap between the two where one may indicate the other (Dan.7:17; cf. Rev.13:1-7; 17:8). They were to be distinguished from one another and to arise in succession. Further, they would rule in ways not like lesser kingdoms, but as world powers who would act beastly in their rule though called by God to their places.
7:4 – The first beast was like a lion, but with wings like an eagle (or vulture?) until the wings were torn from it. It was made to be human-like after the wings were torn from it. What might this refer to? (Jer.4:7; 49:19, 22; 50:17, 44; Lam.4:19; Eze.17:3; Hab.1:8) Many suggest it refers to the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling in Daniel 4. There is little question, but that this kingdom is Babylon. It is beastly: majestic and swift, powerful, but God determined to give it glory as a “man” and to raise it up in a manner that others would not be raised.
7:5 – The second beast was like a bear, but in some manner uneven. It would be less majestic than the lion-like creature, but still powerful and terrible. It is unclear what it means for a bear-like creature to be “raised up on one of its sides,” but it appears to refer to Medo-Persia and the unevenness of the dual empire with Persia as predominant. Also, it remains unclear just what the three “ribs” in its mouth refers to. Some have proposed the three primary kingdoms Medo-Persia conquered: Babylon (539BC), Lydia (546BC) and Egypt (525BC), but this is really nothing more than conjecture. It was further given instructions to eat more despite already eating. The idea would be that it would not be satisfied and look for more to conquer with a voracious appetite.
7:6 – The third beast was like a leopard, but with four wings and four heads. That it was like a leopard suggests speed and that it included four wings suggests that this speed was increased. The four heads suggests four kings or kingdoms in some way composing this empire. This is apparently the Greek empire as under Alexander the Great the empire grew in rapid succession beginning in 334BC until his early death (323BC) whereupon it was divided between his four generals: Antipater over Greece and Macedonia; Lysimachus over Thrace and much of Asia Minor; Seleucus I Nicanor over Syria, Babylon and much of Asia except Palestine that part of Asia Minor controlled by Lysimachus; and Ptolemy I Soter over Egypt and Palestine.
7:7-8 – The fourth beast was beyond description with iron teeth it destroyed everything and crushed underfoot all (for the proposal of what empire this is see below). This creature was truly terrifying and had ten horns which bothered Daniel enough to make him wonder about them. As Daniel watched he saw a “little horn” grow up and displace three of the ten previous horns and this little one had eyes like a man and a boastful mouth (cf. Dan.11:36-37; 2 Th.2:3-12; Rev.13:5-6). The eyes suggest intelligence and the mouth pride. The horns refer to kings specifically as will be explained later (Dan.7:24).
7:9-10 – The blazing court in heaven. While Daniel was bothered deeply by the turbulence of his visions and even the boastfulness and terribleness of this last beast, suddenly he sees the court of heaven convening in the midst of fire and thousands upon thousands standing before the throne. What are the plural “thrones” referring to? (cf. Luke 22:30; 1 Cor.6:2; Rev.3:21; 20:4) How should we understand the name and description of the “Ancient of Days”? Also, what does it mean for a throne to have “wheels” on it? (Eze.1:15; 10:6) What are the “books” that were opened? (Exo.32:32; Isa.65:6; Dan.12:1; Mal.3:16; cf. Luke 10:20; Rev.20:12)
7:11-12 – The judgment. Daniel is immediately wondering what will happen to the boastful horn given the scene he has just witnessed in heaven. Note that not only is the “horn” dealt with, but the fourth beast is “slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire” (cf. Rev.19:20). Why should the whole of the fourth beast be destroyed and thrown into the fire when it was the “horn” itself that was so boastful? In what sense can the kingdom and the king truly be separated from one another? What does this say about those who profess Christ as their king? What might Daniel mean by his comments about the other three beasts being stripped of their authority but being allowed “to live for a period of time”?
7:13-14 – The vision of the “son of man”. John Goldingay seems correct when he writes that Daniel 7 “invites us to focus on the humanlike figure’s role rather than on its identity” (172). However, this should not exclude our asking who is this one “like a son of man” (Aram. kĕbar ’enāš)? Jesus certainly takes up the language of Daniel here and applies it to himself in the Gospels (Mark 14:64), but the term itself had not been unknown and had before really only referred to being truly “human” (cf. Ezekiel’s regular usage of the term in just this fashion), but did take on great significance in other places in the OT (Eze.1:26; 8:2; and even somewhat in the human significance of the “son” in Psalm 2 and 8:4 among other places in the Psalms). In what sense is the one only “like” a son of man? This one is described in divine terms by “coming with clouds of heaven” and receiving worship in the very presence of God. This one could be none other than God himself…the Son of God as he revealed Himself in the New Testament. Though Daniel was far from such an explanation in his visions. Daniel notes that the kingdom and dominion of this one is forever and ever in comparison to those beasts and that whereas they came from below this one was from above.
7:15-28 – The interpretation of the dream. Daniel was actually bothered by his visions and inquired of one of those (an angel?) who was nearby. The explanation he received was that the four beasts were four kingdoms though he was not told just who the four kingdoms were. He was also told that the “saints” would actually receive the “kingdom” forever despite the ferocity of the kingdoms (and particularly the fourth kingdom and the little horn) that would come and go and all they would try to do against the saints. The only kingdom which Daniel receives explanation of is the fourth one. This one also receives a further description as having bronze claws. The “little horn” (one of the ten kings) would destroy and replace three others and make war against the saints of God until the very end of days when the final judgment would commence and the saints receive their reward. This fourth kingdom was declared to be very different from the others before it and be truly global and utterly destructive. Part of his agenda will be to “try to change the set times and the laws”. What does that mean? Some believe this refers to his abolition of the Jewish calendar and therefore the setting himself in the place of the LORD, but another likely explanation is that he will try to rule history and determine the course of events against the plan and purpose of God’s will (see Dan.2:9, 21). Daniel is informed that the persecution of the saints will be successful for “a time, times and half a time” which is later connected with approximately 3 ½ years (the 1290 days of Dan.12:11 and the 1335 days of 12:12; the 42 months of the beasts authority in Rev.13:5; the trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentiles for 42 months in Rev.11:2 and1260 days in Rev.12:14; and the breaking of a covenant in the middle of the seventieth “seven” which points to the mid-point of a seven year period in Dan.9:27; see Miller 215). In other words, there is a definite limit set to the time for this king and his kingdom and to the suffering of the saints and their endurance.
One should compare this fourth beast with the beast of the Revelation (Dan.7:7, 11, 19, 23; Rev.13:1-2; 17:3). They are both opposed to God and blasphemers (Dan.7:25; Rev.13:1, 5-6); both have ten horns (Dan.7:7, 20, 24; Rev.13:1; 17:3, 12, 16); both persecute the saints (Dan.7:25; Rev.13:5); both have power for three and a half years (Dan.7:25; Rev.13:5); and both are destroyed at the coming and kingdom of Christ (Dan.7:26-27; 2 Th.2:8; Rev.19:19-20). So just what empire is this? Some have proposed it was the Seleucids and the “little horn” was fully fulfilled in Antiochus Epiphanes, but this would be excluded by the NT parallels to this beast and final ruler. Some have proposed an Islamic Caliphate or a revived Rome (with the latter being the more popular view) – as the first Rome has since passed away and the end has not come. Certainly Rome fulfilled some of what constituted this final world power according to certain elements in the NT, yet John in the Revelation speaks of what is still future. Is there a sense in which this kingdom will be Roman-esque in its severity, but not actually Rome? That seems likely. In fact, it seems likely that Rome was only a type pointing ahead to a final world power and ruler that would exalt himself beyond all others and would make all other kingdoms and powers before him seem rather mild in comparison which is why Daniel describes it as peculiarly “different” than all the others he saw (Dan.7:7).
Judgment is certain and the end of that kingdom will be forever. But better than just the end of all earthly (and beastly kingdoms) is the rule and reign of the Most High and His saints forever and ever. Why might Daniel be so bothered by his thoughts rather than comforted by the ultimate victory of the LORD? “The chapter’s ending on this note of perplexity encourages us as we find ourselves in some perplexity over key aspects of it. If we thought we had a clear and certain understanding of it that would be a sign that we had misunderstood it” (Goldingay 182).