19 December 2022
A world still reeling from an unrelenting pandemic watched aghast as war broke out in Ukraine late February this year. Sadly, Eastern Europe is not the only place seeing armed conflict today. Strife and skirmishes are going on in more than forty locations worldwide.
What are Christians to make of a world where aggressors rule and where the rule of law is trampled underfoot?
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts comes to mind. In Dan 7, the four beasts represent four earthly kings (v. 17). As the vision begins, the beasts arise out of the “sea” (v. 3), an ancient Near Eastern symbol of chaos and evil. These kings and the kingdoms they represent are thus portrayed as malevolent agents of chaos.
Such contrary nature is confirmed by the appearance of the beasts (vv. 4-8). Whereas in Genesis God creates animals “according to their kind” and calls this created order “good,” the beasts of Dan 7 are the very opposite.
The first and third beasts are like two land animals but they have wings. The second is lopsided and has three rib-like growths between its teeth. The fourth is so deviant it cannot even be associated with some known animal. In a word, the beasts do not conform to the good creation order but are contrary to it.
In addition to being agents of chaos, the beasts also symbolise oppressive rule. The animals to which the beasts are likened—lion, eagle, bear and leopard—are all predators that rule over lesser creatures. The order to “devour much flesh” (v. 5) intimates the brutal character of their rule.
But it is the terrifying, frightening and very powerful fourth beast that especially embodies oppressive rule. Not only does it have large iron teeth that devour the whole earth and bronze claws that trample it down and crush it, but it also has ten horns (vv. 7, 19, 23).
Horns are a symbol of power and pride. The ten horns are ten kings who come from the fourth kingdom (v. 24). The little horn that comes up after the ten particularly personifies hubris, having eyes like human eyes and a mouth that speaks boastfully (vv. 8, 20).
How does Daniel’s mid-6th cent. B.C. vision concern us today?
Some have focused interpretive efforts on identifying the beasts and horns with historical figures. But a referential reading fails to take into account the highly symbolic language of apocalyptic literature.
The symbolic use of “four” and “ten” suggests the repetitive, persistent nature of the beasts and the horns. This, considered alongside the ancient Near Eastern and biblical background to the imagery, shows that chaos-causing, oppressive rulers and regimes are present and persistent throughout human history.
The little horn is a case in point. The Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who around 167 B.C. desecrated the temple and persecuted God’s people, fits the profile of the little horn well. At the same time, the little horn epitomises all human rule, past, present and future, which is proud, rebellious to God and oppressive to his people.
A genre-sensitive reading, then, need not preclude historical referents. But the imagery and symbolism must be allowed to speak on their own terms. What comforted and strengthened Daniel and his first readers was knowing that no beastly ruler, whoever that may be and however formidable, surprised or overwhelmed God.
So, too, for us. The figural potential of Dan 7 prepares us to face a world in which beastly rulers are an ongoing reality. But that is not all. Daniel’s vision not only gives us a realistic picture of a world in which the beasts and the horns thrive, but it also tells of God’s sure and ultimate victory over them.
The setting to Daniel’s vision changes from the chaotic sea in vv. 2-8 to a magnificent court in vv. 9-14. In this court, the Ancient of Days, God himself, sits as judge on his fiery throne. The court is seated, the books are opened, it is judgment time (vv. 9-10).
What has led up to the judgment? The boastful little horn has waged war against the holy ones and defeated them (v. 21). He has spoken against the Most High, oppressed his holy ones and temporarily overcome them (v. 25).
When the court of the Ancient of Days sits (vv. 10, 26), it is the rebellious and repressive little horn that is judged. God pronounces judgment in favour of the holy ones (v. 22), swiftly and decisively sending the fourth beast, which bears the little horn, to its fiery end (v. 11).
Having stripped the beasts and horns of their authority (vv. 12, 26), the Ancient of Days gives the authority, glory and sovereign power to “one like a son of man,” another divine figure in Daniel’s vision (vv. 13-14). The holy ones of the Most High and his people also share in this ultimate victory (vv. 18, 27).
The volatile situation in Eastern Europe at the time of writing this article is a graphic reminder of the reality and persistence of the beasts and the horns of our world. Yet, as Dan 7 reveals, tyranny shall be restrained and limited because God, in his sovereignty and power, secures the ultimate victory over evil for his people.
By faith, God’s people know how it will all end: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (v. 14).
Dr Yee Chin Hong teaches Old Testament at Trinity Theological College. Before joining TTC in January 2020, he was on the staff of Cru Singapore (1994-2019), serving in various capacities, including student ministry, teaching, training and short-term missions. From 2016 to 2019, he taught Old Testament at East Asia School of Theology.