Daniel did not stop with the predictions of the rise of the Persian and Greek empires. He went on to describe one other significant power that would come after them. And it is this one last prophecy that describes the final empire, which turns out to be the most important of all for a full understanding of the last days. Just like the previous predictions, this one also came true with perfect accuracy.
Daniel continues in his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to say this:
“And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron, forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things; and, as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.
“And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.
“And as the toes of the feet were part of iron and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly broken.
“And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men; but they shall not adhere one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.”
During the course of history from Daniel’s time to the time of the end the prophet predicts that there will be only four significant powers which will control the world and affect Israel. The first three we have shown to be Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece. The question to be answered now is, “What power best represents the fourth part of this image—the part characterized by the legs and feet of iron?” This power is described in much greater detail than any of the other empires which preceded it. Daniel seems to be keenly interested in every detail, almost as if he somehow knew that a proper description would be very important to those people who would live to experience the end of the age. He also says that this empire would be extremely powerful, just like the legs of iron which characterize the image. It would devour everything in its path and crush the world under the power of its conquering feet.
The Rise of Rome
In the history of the world after Greece, there is only one power which could possibly fulfill this description—the Roman Empire. Not only does the old Roman Empire fall into the necessary category of being a true “world power”, but it also fits nicely into the overall chronology of the prophecy, arising on the world scene fourth, after Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Although Daniel does not mention it by name in any of his prophecies as he did with the other empires, no other power could possibly represent this fourth iron empire as well as Rome.
The Roman people have roots which stretch back further than all of the world powers which came before it in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The beginnings of the Roman Empire can be traced to the eighth century B.C., ostensibly to a man by the name of Romulus. It is not completely known whether this character was a part of mythology or reality, but it is nonetheless true that the Roman people had their start at about that time. For the next several centuries while other empires were controlling the world, Rome was slowly growing in power and influence within the Italian Peninsula. By the middle of the second century B.C., their strength was such that they had already defeated the major Greek power of the day towards the east (Antiochus III of Syria at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 B.C.) and had also destroyed their biggest rival on the Mediterranean, Carthage (3rd Punic War; 149-146 B.C.).
Even with these victories, however, it was probably not until the first century B.C. that Rome truly fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy. In 63 B.C. the Roman general, Pompey, sent his armies against the remaining vestiges of Jewish (Maccabean) independence and succeeded in conquering the city of Jerusalem. Roman control over the entire Middle East was the ultimate key that moved Rome to Biblical empire status. Once it controlled the land of the Jews, it fell within that infamous set of world powers that throughout time had subjugated God’s people. History tells us that it was only a few decades after that time that Octavian defeated Mark Antony (30 B.C.) and subsequently became the first emperor of Rome, named Augustus. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene there was no question of Rome’s universal dominance throughout the Middle East and Israel.
No other power in ancient history can be compared to the affect that the Roman Empire had on the world. Much of the culture and traditions of the western world can be traced back to the customs which were built over the centuries by the Roman people. Sometimes when we think of our cultural traditions here in the United States we become somewhat arrogant and proud of our heritage, even though we have only existed as a nation for a little over 236 years. When Roman society was this old, they were still in their infancy with a long way to go before they reached their pinnacle. In fact, for countless generations it seemed as though there never would be any other major power in the world except Rome.
The Legs of Iron
It is interesting to note that the symbolism created within the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream even implies the political and geographic make-up of each of the empires. The image of the second world empire consisted of two parts, the right and left chest and arms, which represented the Medes and the Persians. Within the symbolism of the image they were structurally represented by two arms made of silver joined into one at the chest. With the description of Rome the situation is very similar. It is prophesied to be one empire, but made up of two distinct parts—symbolized by the two legs made of iron. As it turned out, this was to be a perfect description of the way the Roman Empire actually evolved. When the empire had reached its zenith in approximately 117 A.D., the Romans had encircled the Mediterranean with their dominance. However, the one destructive tendency that always seemed to be present within the empire was toward division straight down the middle—a dividing of the kingdom into eastern and western factions, each with their own interests and cultures.
It seems that when East has met West in the past, especially in the Middle East, the traditions were often so very different between the various factions that almost every would-be conqueror had difficulty holding the parts together. Rome, despite its military and political power, was no different. In 409 A.D. the Roman Empire actually split into two halves as a direct result of this east-west tension. After the split, the western half still controlled most of Europe and kept its capital at Rome, while the eastern half extended throughout all of Asia Minor and the Middle East, designating as its capital the city of Constantinople (the present-day Istanbul in Turkey). By the middle ages, the empire of iron was thus fully divided into two “legs” just as Nebuchadnezzar’s image had figuratively portrayed.
The Ten Toes
Daniel’s prophecy of future world empires did not end at the ancient Roman Empire. In Daniel’s description of the image he said that the last world empire would be further divided into ten “toes”. According to the symbolism of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, the fourth power to arise upon the earth would undergo further divisions that would ultimately make it a fragmented power consisting of “partly strong and partly broken” components. The strong legs of iron which at first subdued the world with great strength would become feet and toes of softened texture—the iron would become weakened by the presence of “miry clay”.
As Rome continued through history, the characteristics of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream described perfectly what happened to the empire. Almost immediately after the split into eastern and western states, the western empire experienced a dramatic defeat which further weakened its influence. In the year 410 A.D., the Visigoths which had threatened Rome for quite some time from out of the north, actually succeeded in sacking the capital and almost totally bringing the western empire to its knees. From that time, Europe would be slowly divided by forces that had arisen from within and without the empire over the course of hundreds of years. The western empire did manage to survive somewhat crippled for a number of decades after that point, but in the year 476 A.D. the power of Rome finally fell to a host of forces which in the end changed all of Europe.
Although the western half of Rome was then fragmented into different countries, the eastern “Byzantine Empire” continued to prosper and exist for many centuries to come. It wasn’t until Mohammed II led his conquering Islamic forces toward the European western world that Constantinople finally fell. By the year 1453 A.D., it was quite clear that the Roman Empire had been fully divided into many parts just as Daniel had predicted.
These divisions eventually gave rise to a situation which continues even in our world today—a period when smaller nations and their independent interests now govern the political course of the descendants of the once great Roman Empire. It’s important to understand, however, that in the Lord’s view the essence of the empire really still exists even though its unity has been lost. Today, it consists of many powerful, independent states whose combined economic and military power could, if it were again united, far exceed that of the original Roman Empire. However, where once stood a single world-dominating kingdom made of iron, now sits a politically weakened group of nations which remain divided simply because of their lack of a centralized, controlling government and leader. The “iron” which still gives them at least the potential of becoming a dominant world force, has been “mixed with miry clay”, and just as iron and clay do not stick together, so Europe (or what is left of modern day Rome) has had continual difficulty establishing political unity. The importance of understanding these aspects of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is made even clearer when we take into account the final two verses of Daniel’s interpretation:
“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.
“Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter; and the dream is certain, and the interpretation of it sure.”
In Daniel’s explanation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the state of the world at the end would be symbolized by the feet and toes of the image. Since the feet are said to be made of both iron and clay, the empire’s power base will be “partly strong and partly divided”. However, eventually it will develop into a final form consisting of “ten toes”. According to the prophecy, these ten toes will arise out of the same political and geographical boundaries as that of the old Roman Empire, and they will exist in this somewhat less-than-unified state all the way up until the time that the “God of heaven” sets up a kingdom “which shall never be destroyed”.
So what do these “ten toes” represent? The answer is quite simple. Daniel made it clear that each part of the image Nebuchadnezzar saw in his original dream in some way refers to the political makeup of each of four world powers which would arise. The description of the ten toes is no different. In verse 44 we find the phrase, “…in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom…” To understand this prophecy, it is important to see that this phrase actually pertains to what came before it in the previous set of verses. These kings actually are the “ten toes” within the last part of the image.
From this prophecy and others that we will look at shortly, the ten toes are rightly interpreted to be ten leaders of nations that will arise at the end of the age. According to the last part of Daniel’s prophecy, they will arise just prior to the point that God establishes his kingdom. If this is the case, then this entire prophecy becomes extremely relevant for defining the world’s power structure at the end of the age.
From the Lord’s perspective, there have been a total of only four world powers of any significance that would arise from Daniel’s day (over 2,500 years ago) up to the time of the end. Moreover, a strict interpretation of the last few verses would confirm our previous conclusion that the Roman Empire never really ceased to exist, but it has merely broken apart into smaller powers consisting of individual nations. Therefore, not only is the essence of this empire still present in the world today, but as we approach the end it is predicted to once again consolidate into a visible confederation of ten nations, which will continue until the God of heaven establishes a new kingdom.
Daniel even gives us a hint as to how the kingdom of God will be established in the world. After he describes the image with all its various parts, he notices that a stone is fashioned as if miraculously (“without hands”) and made to strike the image at its base. At that point, the image is smashed into many pieces and falls down broken to the ground. The stone survives the impact, however, and grows into a great mountain which fills the whole earth. What this prophecy means is that just before the end of man’s rule on earth the Lord himself is going to actively intervene in the world system—first by destroying it, and then by setting up his own kingdom in its place. The point at which this will happen corresponds to the time when the “ten toes” are in power, because the stone is seen to smash the image right at that spot. In other words, when the last world empire once again comes together into a group of ten core nations in some confederated alliance, then that will be the time when the Lord will destroy all earthly world powers and set up his own kingdom.
As amazing as it may seem, in our generation there has developed an economic alliance of nations in Western Europe that at one point actually consisted of ten countries. Out of the same territory where once stood the united Roman Empire, there has arisen a union of nations which has no parallel in all of European history and will eventually become the fulfillment of the ten toes of Daniel’s prophecy. The leaders of this union also have tried to consolidate the group into one united state, but they have been continually frustrated by political divisions, which have kept it fragmented. If the coming of Christ is near, this “partly strong and partly broken” alliance is about to come together just as the prophet Daniel predicted.
However, before we can actually discuss in detail how these prophecies fit into the development of current events, we need to first consider another reference from the book of Daniel which adds some important information to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
Next: Daniel’s Four Beasts