Daniel 7 is another dream of four beasts such as we found in chapter 2 which represent four great empires: Babylon, Mede-Persian, Greece, and Rome. The purpose of this dream is to give the Jewish exiles hope, as is the whole book of Daniel. A generation of exiles had arisen that don’t even remember the land of Israel or Jerusalem. The pious among them must have wondered if they would ever get back, or if God’s covenant promises had failed. Daniel is written to assure them that this is most certainly not the case. The Lord, as we’re reminded over and over again in the preceding chapters, is the Lord of history, of empires, and all that happens. They, and we, can trust that he will bring everything to its perfect conclusion, that good will triumph over evil in the end.
Conservative Christians (liberals and skeptics believe Daniel was written in the second century BC, and is thus not prophecy at all, but history), especially since the rise of premillennial dispensationalism about 150 years ago, have treated Daniel 7 and following as a speculation factory. There are no doubt certain passages that lend themselves to speculation, but much or all of that speculation arises from the assertion that such passages must be taken “Literally.” Since I was introduced to amillennialism, I’m much more comfortable taking such passages metaphorically or symbolically. Witnessing the “speculation wars” about prophecy over my lifetime has convinced me that “literal” is a fool’s errand.
The big picture purpose of Daniel 7, then, is confirmation that God himself will reign forever with his “saints” (verse 18). Contra the Catholic church, saints or holy ones are not believers who do some miraculous work, but those who have been made holy by God. That is the clear implication of all of Scripture. We also get a picture that this reign includes the work of the Triune God. Verse 9 speaks of the “Ancient of Days” being seated on his throne, and multitudes before him as “the court is seated and the books were opened.” Judgment is coming. Then comes into the picture what Jews interpreted as a Messianic figure:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority,glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Both of these figures are clearly divine. One of Jesus’ favorite monikers for himself was “son of man.” It’s used 86 times in the gospels alone. Throughout his ministry Jesus was clearly saying that this “one like a son of man” is him! This one, and Jesus, must be divine because you don’t worship a man. Everlasting authority, glory, and sovereign power are not human attributes either. The problem for the Jews of Jesus’ time is that they were expecting this Messiah, and not the Messiah of Isaiah 53, even though he told them over and over again he was going to suffer and die. This Messianic expectation was why his disciples found it so hard to believe in the cross and resurrection, it was so contrary to their expectations.
The rest of the chapter is the interpretation of the dream, which is told to Daniel by one of those multitudes attending the Ancient of Days. The point of this dream is the end game:
27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the saints of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
To the people living in Daniel’s time, they are being given hope that they will not be exiles forever. God has a plan for his people, and it is to rule with him forever. Our is, and must always be, an eternal perspective. On this side of the resurrection, we know how God the Father accomplished this. We wait patiently through the toils, struggles, and tears of this life for “They kingdom come . . . “