Friday of Week 34 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 7:2-14

For our last two readings from Daniel we go to the second half of the book (chaps 7-12) which consists of four visions of Daniel expressed in what seems to us strange and obscure language. This is the apocalyptic style in which symbols and exotic images, used to describe apparently past events, are in fact conveying a prophetic message of hope to people living under oppression and persecution. It is a kind of code language only fully understood by the initiated.

We will be reading only one of these visions (from chap 7) followed tomorrow by an interpretation of its meaning. This first vision, known as the Vision of the Beasts, comes to Daniel as he lies in his bed. It is the first year of the reign of King Belshazzar.

The vision will correspond to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar in which he saw a huge statue made of different metals. To the four succeeding world kingdoms, Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek, is opposed the messianic kingdom of the people of God. The four metals (the kingdoms) of the dream, shattered by the stone breaking off from the mountain are now represented by four beasts succeeded by (in the NRSVue translation) “a human being”, but more commonly translated as “a son of man”. The imagery of this chapter is used extensively in the Book of Revelation, where it is applied to the Roman empire, the persecutor of the early church.

As the vision opens, Daniel sees the four winds of heaven stirring up the “great sea”. This refers to the world of nations and peoples. In its original sense, the term ‘great sea’ was the primordial ocean beneath the earth, according to the cosmological structure of the world in ancient times. This sea was thought to contain various monsters, and in particular, mythological monsters symbolising the chaos which God had vanquished at the time of the Creation (see Gen 1). But here Daniel speaks of a different kind of chaos, a spiritual and moral chaos, in the world.

Four great beasts now emerge from this sea, each one different from the other. Beasts are chosen because the insignia or symbols of many nations were represented by beasts or birds (think of the American eagle or the Russian bear).

The first beast is like a lion with eagle’s wings and, as the visionary watches, the wings are torn off and it stands up like a human and has a human heart. The winged lion represents the Babylonian empire, as this was a common motif in Babylonian art. The two wings plucked off represent Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, who were both removed from their thrones (perhaps Babylon is also represented by the lions in the den with Daniel who are rendered impotent by God’s protection of his servant). One may ask if standing up and having a human heart (considered the seat of reason) reflect the two kings’ positive reactions to Daniel’s predictions, even though they did not favour them.

The second beast is like a bear, rising up on one side, with three bones (perhaps ribs or tusks?) in its mouth between its teeth. A command is heard: “Arise, devour many bodies!” The second beast represents the Medes, who are seen by the author as the immediate successors to the Babylonians. The three tusks in its mouth symbolise its destructive nature. Hence the command to “devour many bodies”. The three ribs/tusks may also represent the three principal conquests of the Medes: over Lydia (546 BC), Babylon (539) and Egypt (525).

The third beast is like a leopard with four bird’s wings and four heads, to whom dominion is given. This is the Persian empire. The winged leopard represents the swiftness with which Cyrus establishes his kingdom. The four heads correspond to four Persian kings. The three kings who follow Cyrus are uncertain, since there were more than three Persian kings between Cyrus and the collapse of the empire. The fourth, however, seems to be Xerxes I (486-465 BC), the great campaigner against Greece (e.g. the famous battles of Thermopylae and Salamis). However, another commentator sees in the four heads the four main divisions into which Alexander’s empire fell after his untimely death in 323 BC: Macedon and Greece (under Antipater and Cassander), Thrace and Asia Minor (under Lysimachus), Syria (under Seleucus I), Palestine and Egypt (under Ptolemy I).

The fourth beast, described as “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” is normally identified with the Greek kings, Philip of Macedon and his famous son, Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole of West Asia and even reached as far as India. This beast differs from the others in that it came from the west (Macedonia) rather than from the east (e.g. Babylonia, Persia). This beast has iron teeth, eats its victims, crushes them and tramples their remains. It differs from the other beasts in having 10 horns. The horns represent the kings of the Seleucid dynasty formed after Alexander’s death when his empire was divided among his top generals. This is the part which particularly concerns the author.

While the visionary looks at the horns, he sees another little horn sprouting from the others. Three other horns are “plucked up” to make way for it. This refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who caused so much suffering to the Jews and who came to power only after getting rid of several rivals to the throne. This horn has eyes like human eyes and a mouth full of arrogance. This refers to the blasphemous tongue of Antiochus.

The text now moves into poetic form as it describes a very different vision. As the visionary watches, thrones are set in place. These are for judges. According to ancient Jewish tradition (the Book of Enoch), the saints of God are privileged to sit in judgement at God’s side. Later, the promises of Jesus are even more explicit. In Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples:

…you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matt 19:28)

Then the “Ancient One” takes his seat. This is a vision of the heavenly throne of God (the “Ancient One”), who sits in judgement over the nations. He has an appearance of pure whiteness, of absolute perfection:

…his clothing was white as snow
and the hair of his head like pure wool…

The throne itself is flames of fire with burning wheels. It recalls the divine chariot described in the first chapter of Ezekiel. A stream of fire pours out from his presence. Around the throne are innumerable courtiers (angels?):

A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.


The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.

These are the records of people’s actions, both good and bad. There are many references to these “books” in both the Old and New Testaments. The idea is central to the hymn, Dies Irae, once used in Requiem Masses. One verse reads:

Liber scriptus proferetur,
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus judicetur.

This translates as:

The written book shall be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world will be judged.

As Daniel continues to watch:

…because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking…the beast was put to death and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.

The “arrogant words” of the horn refer to the blasphemous arrogance of Antiochus. He is destroyed and his body committed to the flames. The other empires, however, are given a reprieve for an indeterminate period. They are no longer a threat to the faithful once God’s people cease to be subject to them.

Now comes the climax of the vision. As he gazes into the visions of the night, the visionary sees:

…one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven.

In contrast to the worldly kingdoms opposed to God, which appear as beasts, the glorified people of God that will form his kingdom on earth is represented in human form. Just as our Lord applied the figure of the stone hewn from the mountain to himself (see this past Tuesday’s reading), he also made the title, ‘Son of Man’ his most characteristic way of referring to himself, as the One in whom and through whom the salvation of God’s people would come to be realised.

As noted above, the more commonly used phrase, ‘Son of Man’, is translated in the NRSVue simply as “a human being” but, from the description, this human being is someone very special and points – in Daniel – to the expected Messiah, the King and Liberator of suffering Israel. And he will be enthroned as ruler over the whole earth (previously misruled by the four kingdoms mentioned), and his kingdom “shall never be destroyed”, whether on earth or in the life to come.

In Mark’s Gospel, during the trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus says to the high priest:

You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62)

This is a clear reference to today’s passage.

The “human being” (son of man) is now led into the presence of the Most Ancient One. On him is conferred “dominion and glory and kingship” while all nations and peoples of every language serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This is clearly a reference to the Messiah-Christ, the Saviour King who will come in the person of Jesus. But Daniel is speaking in terms of hope; he does not yet know who the Messiah is going to be.

We know, but that is not enough. We need to come to know our Messiah personally and not just know ‘about’ him. We have to make him truly the King and Lord of our lives and follow him along the Way he has shown us.

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