A Global Message and a Personal God: Understanding the Book of Daniel

The fiery furnace and the lions’ den; a disembodied hand writing on the wall; four ghoulish beasts rising out of a churning sea; the Ancient of Days and a flaming throne with 10,000 angels around it.

The book of Daniel is an attention-grabber with its compelling stories and shocking visions of the future. If all this weren’t enough, the book also features God-fearing characters who provide shining examples of how to live in a culture that opposes exclusive faith in God. It is no wonder that the book of Daniel is a favorite of so many people.

In spite of its popularity, the book can be difficult to interpret. It features two distinct genres (narrative in chapters 1–6 and apocalyptic/prophecy in chapters 7–12), two different languages (Hebrew and Aramaic), and prophecies unique in the Old Testament. Trying to answer basic interpretative questions—such as who wrote the book, when, and why—sends the serious student into mind-numbing scholarly discussions with few solid answers and even less help understanding the book’s message.

In my new Mobile Ed course, Daniel and Its Literary and Historical Contexts (OT366), I introduce these interpretative issues, clearly explain their implications, and help you navigate through them so that you can focus on what is most important: the overwhelming message of the book that God is sovereign, no matter how things appear, and his everlasting kingdom will one day fill the earth. Until that day, his people can expect to suffer, but his victory is assured.

The Jewish audience of Daniel, Jews of the exile, had endured the worst things their nation had ever seen: the brutal destruction of the holy city and the torching of their prized temple. This historical context poses the book’s questions: Was God finished with his covenant people after the fall of Jerusalem? Why does he allow wicked rulers to prosper? Why do his people suffer so? Is there any hope? The book’s literary structure creates a framework for answering such questions as it enables us to see more clearly God’s rule over Gentile kings, his care of his people in exile, and the triumph of his everlasting kingdom.

God versus the gods: Daniel 1

The book opens in Hebrew as the author introduces the characters, setting, and themes that will dominate the book. We meet two human kings, and we meet two gods: the god of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar and the God of Israel. In the opening verses of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar besieges Jerusalem, defeats Judah’s King Jehoiakim, and takes the vessels of God’s temple to the temple of his god in Babylon. It looks like Nebuchadnezzar’s god has defeated the God of Israel. To the victorious god went the spoils.

But the author of Daniel won’t let such an idea stand. He tells us the real story: the God of Israel gave Jerusalem into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand (Dan 1:2). God had let Nebuchadnezzar win for the moment and for his own greater purposes. Throughout the book of Daniel, we encounter the conflict between human kings and the divine king, and we discover that it’s no contest. The God of Israel has the power and sovereignty, and he bestows it on human kings for a time.

In chapter 1, we also meet Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). We discover their deep and abiding commitment to their God, and we see God’s blessing on their lives, even in captivity in a foreign land. They have to learn and live under a worldview that is alien to the ways of their God. Yet they serve their human rulers faithfully and with integrity.

A Global God Who Is a Personal God: Daniel 2–7

In this section we get a broad, sweeping view of human history and God’s role in it, and we get an up-close-and-personal view of God’s interaction with those who follow him faithfully in difficult circumstances. We also see his interaction with Gentile kings who respond to him appropriately (in the case of Nebuchadnezzar) and inappropriately (in the case of Belshazzar).

This six-chapter block of Aramaic text forms a chiasm (a literary structure with parallel elements corresponding in an inverted order; i.e., A-B-C-Cʹ-Bʹ-Aʹ[source]) with significant themes and impact for our understanding of the book. Taken altogether, the chiasm grounds us in the way we need to view the world and our place in it: God is king over all the world; God is actively involved in the lives of his people, and they can trust him no matter what; God’s people can—and should—be faithful no matter what; God is not asleep on the job with respect to Gentile rulers, those “in charge of the world” until his kingdom comes in all its fullness. These truths of chapters 2–7 also give us firm footing through the tumultuous visions in the chapters that follow (8–12).

The closing chapter of the chiasm (chapter 7 and Daniel’s vision of four beasts from the sea) has a unique function in the book. It links together the book’s two halves and forms the heart and center of the entire book. Structurally, it interlocks the two languages and genres: it shares language (Aramaic) with what precedes, and it shares genre (apocalyptic/prophecy) with what follows. Thematically, it links God’s past faithfulness to an uncertain and ominous future. Its astounding vision of “one like a son of man” and the “saints of the Most High” receiving the everlasting kingdom offers the hope needed to persevere through suffering until the reward is realized.

From Bad to Worst—and Beyond: Daniel 8–12

The book returns to Hebrew for these five chapters in which Daniel sees startling visions of Israel’s future. Along with the vision of chapter 7, the apocalyptic/prophetic visions of chapters 8–12 shift our perspective from narrative accounts of Jewish captives living and working in the foreign court (chapters 1–6) to future events that would happen back in the land of Israel. These future events would happen to the Jews, their holy city, and their rebuilt temple. The vagueness of Daniel’s earliest vision (chapter 7) invites a great deal of speculation, but as the visions progress in chapter 8–12, the picture gets less fuzzy. The details are sharper and the imagery is clearer, such that the final vision in chapter 11 reads like a historical account where we merely need to write in the exact names and places.

Putting It All Together

The first half of the book of Daniel puts us in the aftermath of the worst the Jews had seen—exile and the loss of temple, king, and homeland. But the second half of the book reveals a future that was even more terrifying than what they had already endured. Things would get much worse before they got better. Yet the sovereign God of those early chapters is still and always on the throne. He has evil on a leash. And he will call an end to it—at just the right time. His kingdom would break into the world and begin the process of setting things right, setting up an indestructible, eternal kingdom, which would be given to the “one like a son of man” and the “holy ones of the Most High” (Dan 7:13–14, 18). From the vantage point of the New Testament we can say this inbreaking of the kingdom has already happened. The one like a son of man has come, announcing that the kingdom had arrived. Yet we wait for the total fulfillment of that kingdom, the day when, like the rock of Daniel 2, God’s rule fills the entire earth and evil is no more.

Before that time comes, the world will see horrific evil such as it has never seen before. The book of Daniel sets us up for this in chapter 5 with the story of Belshazzar, the blasphemous king with no regard for the Most High God. Yet even the wretched Belshazzar was but a pale foreshadowing of worse kings. In Jewish history, the most notable despot was Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century bc, a key figure in Daniel’s visions, but the prophecies of Daniel 11 give us hints that even Antiochus IV was not the end of the line. There is a worse king to come, a king/ruler that nt authors call the “man of lawlessness” or the antichrist. The pattern established in Daniel transcends the historic events of the Jews during the Second Temple period. It is a pattern that the apostle John picks up in the New Testament book of Revelation.

But just as Daniel establishes a pattern for evil that grows exponentially worse, so it establishes a pattern for God’s eternal, immutable, indestructible, unchallengeable sovereignty. Just as he held Belshazzar’s life and breath in his hand, so he has held the life and breath of every ruler since who has opposed him. And so he will hold the life and breath of the human ruler who will stand in ultimate opposition to him.

On the surface, it may sometimes appear that the God of Israel has lost or is losing. He appears to be powerless in the face of evil. Where is God when life goes so far awry? Daniel 1 tells us where he is: sometimes God “gives” his people into the hands of suffering. The world is not on our side. But we stand on the side of the God who wins. The God who will destroy every human kingdom and set up his own to fill the earth, an everlasting kingdom where we will reign with him. That is the hope and promise of the book of Daniel.

In our uncertainties about the future, our unease with earthly rulers, and our clash in cultures with values so foreign to those in the Bible, the book of Daniel shows us how to live faithfully in the midst of such tension. It shows us how to serve the God of heaven while living on such a fallen earth. Journey with Logos mEd through the book of Daniel for a greater appreciation of the book’s power as literature, its incredible beauty, its great complexity, and most importantly, its timeless and inspired message of God’s sovereign rule over all the earth.

Wendy Widder holds a PhD in Near Eastern studies from the University of the Free State, South Africa, an MA in Hebrew and Semitic studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently writing commentaries on the book of Daniel for two new series by Zondervan (The Story of God; Hearing the Message of Scripture). Her greatest passions are writing biblically and theologically solid materials for laypeople, as well as teaching the Bible in an engaging way.


Pre-order Dr. Widder’s course, Daniel and Its Literary and Historical Contexts (OT366), and get 40% off the regular price. Order now.

Written by
Wendy Widder

Wendy Widder (PhD, University of the Free State) is an author, teacher, and scholar with a passion for helping people understand the Bible better. She is the author of several books, including two commentaries on Daniel (Story of God Bible Commentary; Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament) and Every Road Goes Somewhere: A Memoir about Calling. She blogs at wendywidder.com.

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