A Forever Kingdom
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
30 July 2023
We’ve finished with the legends that compose the first half of the Book of Daniel and today will look at one of the apocalyptic visions recorded in the second part of the book. Get ready for terrifying monsters and strange encounters. Hear now the Word of the Lord:
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
According to commentator C. L. Seow, what we have here is a “vision of chaotic terror.” Four terrifying beasts arising from the sea.
The sea, you might remember, throughout the Old Testament represents primeval chaos over which God’s Spirit moved at the dawn of Creation. In many Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the sea was the source of chaos and evil, and the creation of the world was brought about by the hero god slaying a sea monster and using her body (for it was usually a she) to fashion the world.
The Hebrew telling demythologized those stories. Instead of a pantheon of gods and goddesses and divine monsters, there was one sovereign Lord of all who brought the world into being by speaking. No fighting. No defeated monsters.
But still the monsters lurk in the pages of the Old Testament, like the Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job. And the sea retains its symbolic force as a representation of chaos and disorder.
An idea which we have never lost, of course. Moby Dick terrorizes sailors. Jaws lurks beneath the waters. Godzilla arises from the ocean to destroy the city.
So it is fitting that these images of terror arise from the sea. The vision suggests that creation is coming undone. Order is collapsing. And chaos has returned.
According to Seow the vision communicates the danger that “nothing less than world order is at stake as creation seems to become undone.”
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
If you’ve ever wondered where those images of God as an old man with long white hair comes from, this passage is it. The Ancient of Days enthroned in judgement.
This chapter in Daniel draws upon many images familiar to the people and the cultures of the ancient near east. Daniel takes them and refashions them and reinterprets them and puts them to new uses.
The image here of the Ancient of Days draws upon Canaanite mythology and the image of its High God El. And like that Canaanite deity did, soon a divine council is called.
But here instead of a pantheon of various Gods there is one God, Lord of the universe, passing judgement upon the forces of chaos and terror and bringing order and justice back to the world.
Before I read the next section, I want to point out that it too will take an image from Canaanite myth and reshape it. One of the Canaanite gods was Baal, the storm god. Earlier this summer we encountered Baal when Elijah was contending with Baal’s prophets during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. One of the common images of Baal was that he would appear as a rider on the clouds. So pay attention to how this book reshapes that image.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And the human came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To the human was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve the human. Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and whose kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
So instead of a storm god riding the clouds, who appears is a human being. This image will later develop into the concept of the Son of Man and how that title related to the Messiah. And the Gospel writers will claim that title and image for Jesus. And the Book of Revelation will interpret Jesus as the rider on the clouds.
But I think it is a mistake to read a prophecy about Jesus or incarnation into this passage. That’s not, I believe, what the author of this text was intending. Instead, this seems to be just a human, any human, an everyperson.
And with that something really incredible has happened. The agent of God’s judgement upon the forces of chaos and disorder isn’t some divine being or superhero, it’s just a human being. God will give power and authority to an ordinary human.
But wait, there’s more.
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask her the truth concerning all this. So she said that she would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”
I invite you on your own to read the rest of this chapter, which continues in more detail with the interpretation of the vision. I’ll summarize that here and then make a few general points that I believe are most relevant to us.
The divine attendant tells Daniel the meaning of the vision and the four beasts. They represent human empires. The forces of terror and destruction then are not really primordial monsters—they are human institutions. So, while this vision is apocalyptic and strange, it’s true meaning is about human history and power and what we humans do with it.
Of course there has long been speculation about the empires involved, even though the Book of Daniel itself doesn’t say. It seems to most scholars that the references are to the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians. The fourth beast are the Greco-Macedonian empires that came in the wake of Alexander the Great. And the arrogant horn is that great villain Antiochus Epiphanes IV, he of the abomination of desolation we talked about a few weeks ago.
Side note on late twentieth century apocalyptic ideas in American fundamentalism that tried to interpret these beasts for our time—the lion was the British empire of course, with the eagle’s wings being the US. The bear was the Soviet Union. Etc. Utter rubbish, but it demonstrates the lasting force of images like this and the ways that they have been used by humans to make sense of history.
For the interpretation of history is what is going on here. The author of Daniel is telling us that despite how things look, even when the forces of history seem to be controlled by chaos monsters, God is ultimately in charge and will restore order.
These images were deeply influential in the century following the Protestant Reformation, as people struggled to make sense of the chaos, war, and violence they were living through. One of the writers who influenced our Pilgrim parents was the French Huguenot Philippe Duplessis-Mornay. Mornay drew upon the stories of kings and prophets in the Old Testament in writing his book The Defense of Liberty Against Tyranny in which he claimed that “if the sovereign failed to keep faith with his subjects, and with God, then the people were free to be rid of him. If the covenants were broken, the people had to repair the breach with the Lord, even if that meant taking up arms against their king.”
Earlier this year I read a book about how apocalyptic writings such as this were central to the shaping of early modern thought and its new ideas of how societies should be governed.
For example, this particular vision in Daniel was one of the sources cited by the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt in 16th century Germany. The revolt that frightened even Martin Luther and led him to backtrack that he didn’t mean for people to assume they had that much liberty.
Why did this vision motivate one of the first truly radical revolts on behalf of ordinary people? It comes at the end of what I read a moment ago—"But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”
To whom is God giving power and authority? Humans. C. L. Seow declares in his commentary “the agent of God’s will has not only been demythologized; the agent of God has been democratized.” Instead of a storm god, an ordinary human. Instead of one specific human, the many. God is giving power to a plurality of beings, God’s faithful people. God’s people will be God’s agents to bring order. Seow writes, “the oppressed people of God are expected to become triumphant through this rule that transcends time.”
And so we understand the purpose of all these legends we’ve been reading the last few weeks. Stories about faithful people trying to live with integrity and courage in the midst of cruel and petty political systems. These stories have been providing examples of how God’s people persist through the disorders of human history and how they participate in using God’s power to create something better.
Despite the terrifying images and strange appearances, this vision is about how humans wield power. Do they create monstrous empires that enact cruelty and oppression upon the people and the world? Or do they wield it justly and democratically, upholding the dignity and the liberty of all people?
Yes, right here in this wild vision of Daniel is one of the sources that fired the imaginations of our predecessors four centuries ago who laid the groundwork for the democratic age.
And it remains a challenge to us—how do we use the power God has given to us? For it’s what we choose to do that makes sense of history. The meaning of history is in our hands.
Let me close with a bit of twentieth century political philosophy. For it says something similar to Daniel’s vision about the power we people have to shape history. It comes from the magisterial volume The Open Society & Its Enemies by Karl Popper:
It is we who introduce purpose and meaning into nature and into history. Men are not equal; but we can decide to fight for equal rights. Human institutions such as the state are not rational, but we can decide to fight to make them more rational. We ourselves and our ordinary language are, on the whole, emotional rather than rational; but we can try to become a little more rational . . . History itself—I mean the history of power politics . . .—has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both. We can make it our fight for the open society and against its enemies. . . It is up to us to decide what shall be our purpose in life, to determine our ends.
So, let us resolve to use God’s power for good—for justice and love and beauty and liberty, fashioning an open and pluralistic society where the dignity and conscience and integrity and autonomy of all are respected, so that together we all might flourish. And this shall be an everlasting reign—forever and ever. Amen.