Jerusalem is under attack. Israel, its sister kingdom to the north has already been exiled (722 BC), and now Judah faces the same fate. In 605, the third year of King Jehoiakim (ca. 609-597 BC), the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and started the first of many deportations to Babylon (Daniel 1:1). Daniel and his three friends were among those first brought into exile, facing many fears and doubts. How were they to make sense of exile and the destruction of the temple, the center of their religion? Was the God of their ancestors still their personal God, and they his people? Through stories of God’s providence and visions of future salvation, Daniel wrote to inspire hope among his people and stir up faithfulness to God. Likewise (though written in a different time and context) God’s people today can be strengthened in their faith by reading these ancient words, knowing that God has made himself known and has provided salvation for his people through the person and work of Jesus Christ, as evidenced by his fulfillment of Daniel’s prophesied Messiah. In order to understand all the ways in which Jesus fulfills this prophetic material, a brief overview of the book will be beneficial.
The twelve chapters of Daniel can be divided into roughly equal sections. Daniel 1-6 contain six inspiring stories about Daniel and his friends, and Daniel 7-12 contain four visions and their interpretations. Daniel 1 sets the historical stage for the story and introduces the recurring theme that God provides for his faithful servants, clearly seen in how God blesses Daniel and his friends for maintaining the religious dietary laws in the face of potential persecution. How the rest of the book unfolds is quite remarkable. When comparing content and structure, one finds that Daniel 2 and 7 correspond to one another, as do Daniel 3 and 6, and Daniel 4 and 5. Daniel 2 contains the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the composite four-metal statue, which connects to the vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7. Picking up from Daniel 1, Daniel 3 shows how God provides for his faithful servants in the fiery furnace. Likewise, Daniel 6 demonstrates God’s providence for faithful Daniel, protecting him in the lion’s den. Daniel 4 and 5 both tell the same story, that earthly kings are ultimately under God’s reign, and God will humble and remove them as he pleases. These stories all serve a similar purpose: to give concrete examples of how God provides and protects his people (1, 3, 6), and to demonstrate God’s sovereignty over earthly kingdoms, whom he will humble and dispose as he desires (2, 4, 5).
The vision in Daniel 7 serves as the hinge of the entire book. It is the culmination of the back-and-forth pattern of the story section in Daniel 1-6, and is the first and most important of the visions that Daniel receives. Daniel 8-12, then, function as both exploration and explanation of this first vision. To sum up—the book of Daniel proves two things: God provides and God saves. He not only takes care of his people in their present affliction, but is bringing an everlasting kingdom of peace, which was only prophesied in Daniel’s day, but finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah.
The Two Prophecies
Understanding biblical prophecy, especially Daniel’s apocalyptic symbolism, can quickly become an overwhelming task. Throughout Daniel’s apocalyptic material, there are far too many different prophecies, tidbits, and details in Daniel’s apocalyptic material to examine all of them here (let the reader understand!) Further, there are some details that, even after much examination, won’t bear much comprehension (for example—exactly how long is a time, times, and half a time? Do 2,300 mornings and evenings equate to 1,150 24-hour periods, and when were we supposed to start counting? Can the abomination of desolation be assigned to a particular human figure or event?) Nonetheless, two prophetic visions, Daniel’s four kingdom framework (2, 7, 8, and 10-12), and the seventy weeks prophecy (9:24-27), prove fruitful and edifying through examining their fulfillment in Christ.
The Four Kingdoms
A large portion of Daniel is given to the historical prophecy of the four earthly kingdoms followed by God’s eternal kingdom. This framework is first seen in the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2, given more substance in Daniel’s vision in 7:1-8, and expounded upon in Daniel 8 and 10-12. In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a statue composed of four sections, a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron with some clay mixed in at its feet (2:31-34). Still dreaming, he sees a stone, not cut out by human hands, strike the image, shatter it completely, and become a great mountain that fills the whole earth (2:35). Daniel interprets the first kingdom (the head of gold) to be Babylon, which will be succeeded by a second kingdom and then a third. A fourth kingdom will follow, stronger than the others as iron is strong (2:40), but will ultimately be divided and brittle, as iron is when mixed with clay (2:42-43). Then, the stone representing God’s kingdom (2:35) will come “in the days of those kings,” that is, the fourth kingdom (2:44), and be established over the whole earth. At least two things are clear initially: first, since Babylon is the first kingdom, by consequence the other three kingdoms must also be real, earthly kingdoms; second, God’s everlasting kingdom will be established during the fourth kingdom, whichever earthly kingdom that might be.
The picture begins to clear up as Daniel recounts a terrifying vision of four beasts, which correspond to the four metals composing the statue. This analogous relationship is seen clearly in the description of the four beasts. The first beast, Babylon, will eventually be conquered by a second kingdom. Likewise, a third kingdom will overtake it, followed by a fourth which is comparatively greater and more terrifying than its predecessors. Though this fourth kingdom boasts its great strength, it will ultimately be destroyed when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat (7:9-11) and the Son of Man receives his kingdom unto everlasting dominion (7:13-14; cf. 2:35).
Daniel 8 and 10-12 expound upon this prophecy by providing more detail about these four kingdoms. Daniel 8 focuses on the second and third kingdoms, identifying them as Medo-Persia and Greece respectively. Chapters 10 and 11 provide even more detail about Greece, possibly describing Alexander the Great (11:3) and Antiochus Epiphanes (11:21-35), while also offering some more details on Rome, the fourth kingdom, though never explicitly stated as such but is nonetheless the historical successor to Greece. Finally, Daniel 12 offers more insight into how the end times will unfold. Taken together, the visions in Daniel 2, 7, 8, and 10-12 are understood as parallel accounts of the same historical outworking of salvation history. Earthly kings will reign, and be ruthless and terrible to God’s people, but God is sovereign even then, and the day is coming when his kingdom will be established with no end.
The Seventy Weeks
In addition to the four-kingdom historical framework, the prophetic imagery in Daniel 9 requires attention. Having already seen the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven to establish his kingdom, Daniel provides more detail about when this messianic kingdom will arise, and exactly what it will accomplish for God’s people.
After realizing the seventy years of exile prophesied in Jeremiah were coming to an end (9:1-2), Daniel prays that God would be faithful to the promises he made to his people and his city, that he would deliver them from exile, restore their land, and rebuild Jerusalem. Gabriel visits him in response, and informs him that a period of seventy weeks are established for an ‘anointed one’ to accomplish six specific tasks: “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place” (9:24). These seventy weeks, perhaps better understood as years (or, better still) as simply appointed periods of time, will begin when the “word goes out,” most likely referring to Cyrus’ decree in 538 to rebuild Jerusalem (see Ezra 1:1). This rebuilding process will occur over seven weeks. Then for the next sixty-two weeks, beginning with the time of Nehemiah (445 BC), God’s people will suffer troubled times (coinciding with the Hellenistic era during which the Jewish people suffered much persecution under Grecian rule, as Daniel 11 prophesies), until the anointed one arrives at the final week (Jesus’ birth ca. 4 BC). During this final week the messiah will be cut off and shall have nothing, but will nevertheless “make a strong covenant with many” (9:26-27). Things will go badly for God’s people, but there is a decreed end for “the desolater” at the culmination of these seventy weeks (9:27). The coming messiah or “anointed one” will accomplish all these tasks and fulfill this prophesied timeline when he establishes his kingdom.
Fulfillment in Christ
Though diverse and often obtuse, the sum and substance of all this prophetic material is fulfilled in the person, the work, the advent, and the return of Christ.
The Person of Christ (7:13)
Jesus leaves no room for speculation in his interpretation of Daniel’s Son of Man. As Jesus is teaching on the end times (Matthew 24, cf. Mark 13), he borrows themes and imagery from Daniel, even mentioning the prophet by name (Matt 24:15). During this discourse, he unequivocally identifies himself as the Son of Man who will come on “the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30, Mark 13:26).
Later, after his betrayal and arrest, Jesus is on trial before the high priest Caiaphas and the rest of the leaders. Desperate for anything with which to accuse him, the high priest asks Jesus what he makes of the claim that he is the Christ, God’s Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus answers, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt 26:64, cf. Mark 14:62). This was enough to receive the death sentence—not only did Jesus identify himself with Daniel’s Messiah, but he also invokes Psalm 110, claiming that he is the Lord who takes his seat at the right hand and receives the kingdom. Without a doubt, Daniel’s Messiah must be the personal savior encountered in the gospels, the man Jesus of Nazareth.
The Work of Christ (9:24-27)
In addition to being Daniel’s prophesied Son of Man, Jesus also accomplishes everything he was prophesied to do. As a result of these seventy weeks, six tasks were accomplished, all with messianic fulfillment (9:24). The anointed one must finish transgression, put an end to sin, and atone for iniquity, and the cross accomplished all these. Through his sacrifice, Jesus also brings in everlasting righteousness through his imputed obedience to the believer. His coming also seals both vision and prophet. God’s people no longer have any need of vision or prophecy; they have seen and know Jesus, the perfect image of the invisible God (Heb 1:1-3). And finally, he anoints a most holy place, the new covenant church, in which Jesus’ people will, through his Spirit, receive and partake in his blessings forever. He will anoint a most holy place, which he accomplished through his anointing and resurrection by the Spirit, in which his people also participate. Daniel’s prayer to restore his people is answered.
The Advent of Christ: The Kingdom Inaugurated (2:44; 9:26-27)
Finally, in two ways, Jesus’ kingdom fulfills the aspects and timeline prophesied of it. The stone that strikes the statue must arrive during the fourth kingdom (2:35, 44), and it’s into that kingdom, the Roman Empire, that Jesus is born. The fullness of time had come (Gal 4:4). God sent his Son, eternal and uncreated like a stone not cut by human hands, into the world, and all earthly kings and kingdoms were rattled by his birth. Even mighty Herod felt threatened by the mere existence of this child.
The advent of Christ is also the fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophesied timeline in 9:24-27. Jesus’ birth, ministry, and crucifixion all take place in this seventieth week. Through his crucifixion he is cut off, by his blood makes a new covenant with his people, and brings an end to the desolation of sin and death through his resurrection. But that’s not the end of the story.
The Return of Christ: The Kingdom Consummated (7:13-14, 23-27; 9:27)
Though Jesus already reigns, his kingdom has not yet been consummated. The Church grows and so Christ’s kingdom expands to every corner of the earth. Yet, his coming on the clouds of heaven, when he will put an end to sin forever and make all things new, remains set at a point in the future. We do not know exactly how all of this will take place, and of the various interpretations of the end times, many contain partial truths. Though interesting for speculation, we cannot forget what has been revealed to us: certainty of a personal messiah who has saved and is coming again. God’s people can still expect to face trials and tribulations. Sin and death, though defeated, are not yet done away completely. On this side of the cross, however, we have no need to fret or worry. We have already tasted the first fruits of Jesus’ kingdom—we have already received comfort and peace that transcends human understanding (Phil 4:7). His priestly benefits are bestowed upon us freely, and we now only await the day when he will come again, when together we will reign with our King, forever.
Levi Bakerink (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is a church-planting resident through the PCA and is serving on staff at a church plant north of Boston. In addition to pastoral ministry, he works at Hendrickson Publishers in Peabody, Massachusetts.