The Vision and the Threat
Daniel lived during one of the greatest upheavals in Israel’s history. In the early stages of the Babylonian exile, he was taken captive as a young man during Nebuchadnezzar’s first attack upon the southern kingdom of Judah. Daniel and several of his friends were destined to eventually become servants in the court of the king of Babylon, mainly because of their perceived intelligence and potential. Though they were taken against their will and forced to serve Nebuchadnezzar as seers and consultants, the Lord never left their side and openly protected them through many adverse situations.
The help that God provided Daniel was to be unique among all his peers. Very early in Daniel’s service, the Lord began to reveal to him things that would occur in the near and distant future concerning the nations of the world. Daniel soon became the Bible’s principle prophet concerning the rise and fall of empires—some of which would not come upon the world scene for hundreds or even thousands of years. Through him the Lord would reveal the overall course of world history all the way up to the time of the second coming of Christ.
These key prophecies begin in chapter 2 of Daniel with the description of a very unusual event. In a strange way, the circumstances described in that chapter were going to soon lead to the unveiling of the Lord’s first prediction concerning the future of the nations. We are told that king Nebuchadnezzar…
“…dreamed dreams, and his spirit was troubled, and his sleep went from him…”
The king of Babylon, the leader of that powerful nation which had just subjugated the people of God, was actually chosen by the Lord to be the recipient of special divine knowledge through dreams. In fact, this knowledge would turn out to be a crucial piece of information for anyone wanting to understand the entire course of future events at the end of the age.
Nebuchadnezzar, however, had one small problem. No matter how he tried, he could not remember the exact details of his dream. He awakened from his sleep knowing that the vision he had was much more significant than just the average nighttime dream, but he couldn’t bring any more than mere impressions of it to his conscious mind. At that point, the king knew he could do nothing but call forth the only men he thought could solve the mystery. In the sixth century B.C. it was typical to have decisions endorsed by local astrologers and fortune tellers, so Nebuchadnezzar simply summoned these people to his court to reveal the secret of his dream. The king, however, made it extremely dangerous for anyone who attempted to interpret it, and he stated for all to hear,
“If ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation of it, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a refuse heap…”
Whew! He had already told his astrologers that he could not recall the dream, but how could they be certain that the king did not know at least some of the details? If they merely made up a vision in order to satisfy his curiosity, they could get their heads cut off, especially if Nebuchadnezzar somehow realized he was being “had.” The life of a false prophet was never made more difficult.
Obviously, none of these “psychics” could come up with the answer. If you don’t have special power from God it’s impossible to reveal something as hidden like a fleeting dream, particularly when the dream is not even your own. Nebuchadnezzar, however, was not so rational or forgiving. The Bible tells us,
“For this cause the king was angry and very furious, and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon”.
Unfortunately, this decree was also about to affect the lives of the prophet Daniel and his companions.
The Lord had protected Daniel through many trying times. Would the God of Israel now save him from certain death at the hands of an angry king? Daniel was not certain, but he at least wanted enough time to pray and ask the Lord to intervene; perhaps God would reveal the dream and its interpretation and let him live. Nebuchadnezzar also wanted it revealed, so he relented and allowed a temporary reprieve. After all, a dead prophet couldn’t tell him anything, but maybe this live one could—if he was given enough time.
Daniel immediately went back to his companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and together they began to pray for God’s mercy. The Lord’s answer didn’t take long, for the Bible tells us in the very next verse that
“…then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision”.
The Lord actually caused Daniel that very night to dream the same dream that Nebuchadnezzar had experienced several nights before. With this, he could return to the king and not only describe the details of his vision, but also tell him exactly what it meant. This is what Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar the following day:
“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee, and the form of it was terrible.
“This image’s head was of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze,
“Its legs of iron, its feet part of iron and part of clay.
“Thou sawest until a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon its feet that were of iron and clay, and broke them to pieces.
“Then were the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them; and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.”
The First Three Great Empires
Dreams have always held a place of wonder and curiosity in the thoughts of man. The number of books that have been written, and the amount of money that has been made on the significance of dreams must be enormous. However, if any dream is important enough to demand our full attention it is this one. Believe it or not, in one short paragraph Daniel literally revealed the secrets of present and future world history! Not only did he put his own generation on the map of God’s master plan, but he also plotted the rise and fall of every major empire that would affect the Jews from his day up until the time of the Second Coming. In the symbolic terms of a nightmarish dream, the Lord caused Daniel to figuratively see the consecutive rise of four major world powers. Some of these empires were not going to come on the scene for centuries after Daniel’s death, yet the Lord knew how important this information would be for his people to understand in future generations.
Some may ask, “If this dream is so significant, then why does it seem so mysterious and confusing?” In reality, it is confusing. In fact, without the benefit of Daniel’s interpretation we would be left just as mystified as Nebuchadnezzar. Fortunately, Daniel went on to say this:
“This is the dream, and we will tell its interpretation before the king.
“Thou, O king, art a king of kings; for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.
“And wherever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heavens hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold.”
According to Daniel’s description, the image that Nebuchadnezzar saw was actually in the shape of a human figure—a huge terrifying image of raw power and authority. This symbolism was certainly fitting to the prophecy, because what was literally to be a prediction of the course of human history was figuratively portrayed as a massive idolatrous image of man-made greatness. It was envisioned as having been constructed of several different metals, each of which was said to compose particular body parts of the figure.
The first of these distinct parts was the head of gold. Daniel tells us in the passage quoted above that the image’s head actually represented Nebuchadnezzar himself. Daniel said that as the king of Babylon he was to be the first and also the greatest in a long line of leaders, who would rule the known world—especially that portion of the world that would directly affect the land of Palestine and therefore God’s people.
Previously, in verses 32 and 33 of the same chapter, we were told that the image consisted of five different materials as one scanned from the head down to the feet. The head of gold was epitomized by King Nebuchadnezzar, but in reality it represented the entire Babylonian empire and was the most costly and glorious of all the parts which were to follow. When the course of world history “reached” the chest and arms of the figure, the construction suddenly became silver—certainly still a desirable metal, but not as expensive or as sought-after as gold. Traveling down even further to the waist and hips of the image the composition again changed to bronze—considerably inferior to both the silver and gold before it. However, by the time Daniel’s eyes moved down to its legs, the image was found to be totally made of iron. This same metal was also found to be present in the feet, but there it was contaminated even further by being mixed with clay, an impurity which took away even more of whatever quality remained in the figure.
These compositional changes which occurred in the image directly correlate to the quality and glory of the empires that were to arise from Nebuchadnezzar’s time onward. Babylon would be the first and therefore the epitome of all the powers that were to follow it. However, those empires coming after Babylon would be far less glorious. As Daniel continues his interpretation in verse 39 this is how he describes the next two empires:
“And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of bronze, which shall bear rule over all the earth.”
Each of the empires which were predicted to follow Babylon in history would be successively inferior to those which came before. It is also interesting to note that as the composition of the image changed to less pricey material, the strength of the image generally increased. Iron is stronger than bronze, bronze is stronger than silver, and silver is stronger than the soft metal gold. It is only when we reach the feet of the image that we find a type of construction that does not totally follow this rule. The strength of the iron in the feet is said to be severely weakened by the presence of clay mixed in with it. These details may seem superfluous at first, but they are actually very significant in Daniel’s interpretation of the vision. They are also important in properly correlating the meaning of the dream to what really happened in world history. Ultimately, when we see how this prophecy fits into the political situation of the last days, we will understand how perfectly the symbolism of the image describes what has happened over the course of the last 60 years.
First, let’s interpret the vision one step at a time. The two kingdoms of silver and bronze which Daniel said would arise after Nebuchadnezzar’s golden Babylon need to be identified before we can go any further in our understanding of the dream. A quick look at any source on Middle East world history will reveal that there are simply no other powers that fit the description of this prophecy like those of the Medo-Persian and Greek empires. While Daniel doesn’t mention these two kingdoms by name in his interpretation in this chapter, we can be nonetheless certain that our guesses are correct. Not only do historians definitely say that the Persians and the Greeks came after the Babylonians in consecutive order, but more significantly, in two other visions, Daniel explicitly says so, too.
Within the entire book of Daniel, chapters two, seven, and eight are very similar in their content. Each of these chapters consists of separate visions, but all of them focus upon the political powers which would arise from Daniel’s time forward. In chapter eight, Daniel’s vision is so detailed that he actually mentions the Persian and Greek empires by name (more on this prophecy later). He tells us plainly that these two powers would arise in consecutive order immediately after the fall of Babylon. Therefore, in chapter two we must be correct in identifying these empires with the second and third parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s image.
Historically, the rise and fall of these major powers is known with a great degree of accuracy. The beginnings of the Babylonian Empire can be traced back to a king by the name of Nabopolassar who reigned from 625 B.C. to 605 B.C. During this period, Babylonian power and influence gradually increased, but the kingdom did not truly attain empire status until the coming of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.). With his defeat of Pharaoh Necho and the Egyptian armies at Carchemish (near the border of modern Syria and Turkey) in the summer of 605 B.C., the Babylonians were free to extend their hegemony over much of the Middle East. Nebuchadnezzar thus became the first king of the new empire, and the “golden head” of his own dream.
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the power of the Babylonian kingdom quickly began to wane. Some of the subjugated parts of the empire, especially the regions consisting of the Medes and the Persians, had their own ideas of world conquest. In the year 539 B.C., a full-scale revolt by these provinces actually led to the overthrow of Babylon. Cyrus (“The Great”) became the first leader and king of the new Medo-Persian Empire.
In the book of Isaiah, king Cyrus is mentioned in a fantastic prophecy which was uttered almost 200 years before he rose to power (see Isa. 44:28-45:4). Isaiah predicted that this king, which the Lord actually identified by name long before he was born, would be the very one who would allow the Jews to return to Palestine after the seventy-year Babylonian captivity. In direct fulfillment of that prophecy, the great Jewish leaders Zerubbabel and Jeshua led the first expedition back to the holy land as recorded in Ezra chapters one through three. Thus, the truth of Biblical prophecy again and again can be verified by known historical events.
The Persian Empire continued to reign supreme over the world for almost two centuries after it rose to power. It was not until the coming of one of the greatest military leaders in history that it finally became threatened. In the year 336 B.C., a Macedonian by the name of Alexander (later to be called “The Great”) began to lead a rather small army against the combined forces of their mortal enemies, the Persians (who were led by Darius III). In a series of three rapid victories over the Persian forces, the details of which have now become legendary, Alexander completely destroyed the defenses of the empire. By the year 331 B.C., the once proud Medo-Persian kingdom had given way to the rise of the Greek Empire.
By that time it was becoming quite obvious that Daniel’s prophecies were coming true to the very letter. So phenomenal were his prophecies of the rise and fall of these empires that Bible critics have tried to say that Daniel could not possibly have lived during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, they try to place him as living sometime during the second century B.C. This is very convenient, because that way they don’t have to encounter the possibility of divine inspiration and prophecy. If they say that Daniel actually lived long after the events of which he prophesied “came true”, then suddenly his words are not prophetic at all, but merely symbolic interpretations of known historical facts. However, even these liberal critics fall far short of explaining away the fulfillment of the remaining portions of his prophecies.
Next: The Final Empire