Daniel’s Dream of Four Beasts, 1-14

Dan 7:1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
4 “The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it.
5 “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’
6 “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.
7 “After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.
8 “While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully.
9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

‘This passage [7-14] lies at the very heart of the book of Daniel, and is probably the most important scene in the entire work in terms of its impact upon subsequent Jewish and Christian thought. ‘ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

The court was seated

‘The background to this is the divine council motif, which is common in ancient Near Eastern texts. Among Israel’s polytheistic neighbors there would be a chief god who was king and head of the pantheon. The lesser gods served as part of his court and privy council. In Israel, of course, there was only supposed to be one God. The other heavenly beings were not normally called deities, but they were part of his council (1 Kgs. 22:19–22; Job 1–2; Pss. 82; 89:6–8; Isa. 6:1–7; Jer. 23:18). Psalm 82 is unusual because it does seem to allow that the members of the heavenly assembly were gods (Ps. 82:1). But God judges them and condemns them to death (Ps. 82:6–7). It concludes with a prayer that God will “rise up” and “judge the earth” (Ps. 82:8). Psalm 96 also proclaims God as judge: “he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with his truth” (Ps. 96:13). In the NT, Jesus promises twelve thrones for his disciples so that they might judge Israel (Matt. 19:28). There are also thrones in heaven for the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4:4).’ (Nelson)

11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
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 peoples, nations and men 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.

One like a son of man – ‘This figure is True Man by contrast with the beasts. He is able to bear the holiness of God and remain in his presence. In this figure the rock of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2:35, 44–45) becomes a man in whom the true image of God shines forth (Gen 1:26–28), the Messianic Man who will be God’s true regent (cf. Pss 2:8; 8:4–8; 72:1–11, 17; Heb. 2:5–9; 12:28).’ (NBC)

Waltke & Ue observe: ‘Jesus appropriated to himself the title Son of Man in Daniel 7:13, though in Daniel the epithet refers to the kingdom of Israel in contrast to the bestial nations that ruled prior to the advent of the kingdom of God in the Messiah. In any case, Jesus is the quintessential expression of that kingdom.’ (An Old Testament Theology)

The clouds of heaven – Consistently suggestive, in the OT, of a theophany.  ‘The act of coming with clouds suggests a theophany of Yahweh himself. If Dan. 7:13 does not refer to a divine being, then it is the only exception out of about seventy passages in the O.T.’ (J.A. Emerton)

He approached the Ancient of Days – The LXX translates this, ‘He came as the Ancient of Days’.

Davis comments: ‘The text is saying to you: ‘Here, you must see this scene [9–14] behind the “seen” [7–8]: the majestic Judge [9–10] and reigning King [13–14] have mortgaged none of their sovereignty over history and its scourges.’ Seeing this secret behind history may not keep God’s people from pain but should keep them from panic; we may still be fearful but should not be frantic.’

'Coming with the clouds of heaven'

Daniel 7:13f – “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.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men 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.

There can be little doubt that, when seen through the ‘lens’ of the teaching of the New Testament, this is applicable to Jesus Christ.  He is the ‘Son of Man’ who ‘comes with the clouds of heaven’, is led into the presence of his heavenly Father, and is given an indestructible and universal kingdom.

But what about this ‘coming’?  Is it a coming down from heaven (at his parousia) or a coming up to heaven (at his ascension)?

And what are we to make of the New Testament passages which quote or allude to this passage? –

Mt 16:27f  “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Mt 24:30  “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Mt 26:64  “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:62)

Mk 13:36  “Then everyone will see the Son of Man arriving in the clouds with great power and glory.”  (Lk 21:27)

Acts 7:56  “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

Rev 1:7  Look! He is returning with the clouds

Rev 14:14  Then I looked, and a white cloud appeared, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man! He had a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.

1. The Parousia?

Commenting on Dan 7:13, Nelson (UBCS) sees a clear application of this passage by and to Jesus.  However, he thinks that it is applicable to his return:

‘Daniel 7 is of the utmost importance for understanding both the identity of Jesus and the plan of God for the end times. When the book was written, “son of man” was not a title, but rather the vision referred to a transcendent one who looked like a man. Originally it was probably understood to be an angel or archangel—Michael is the best candidate, since he figures prominently in the deliverance of the Jews (12:1). However, in the NT, Jesus uses “Son of Man” as a title for himself (for example, Matt. 8:20; 9:6; 11:19). Although he sometimes uses it to mean “man,” he identifies himself with the figure in Daniel’s vision at other times, predicting that he will return in power and glory riding on clouds (Matt. 19:28; 24:27, 30; 26:64). John also utilizes the imagery for Jesus in his apocalypse (Rev. 1:7, 13; 14:14). Daniel’s vision in chapter 7 gives us hope for the future. Jesus will return to raise from the dead those believers who have died (1 Cor. 15:22–26; 1 Thess. 4:14–17), to gather together his living followers, and to set up God’s kingdom in its fullness. The oppressive regimes of this world will disintegrate as they are replaced by the eternal, righteous, reign of God. This leads us to cry “Maranatha” (1 Cor. 16:22) and to pray “Your kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). For those who are suffering persecution for the name of Jesus, Daniel 7 holds out the certain hope of the eventual triumph of God’s kingdom and with it the vindication of God’s people for their faithfulness. It calls them to endure and persevere through their present trials with an eye fixed on the horizon awaiting their great future.’

So also Miller (NAC): ‘The phrase “coming in clouds” is understood in Matt 24:30 as a reference to the return of Christ.’

Wallace (BST) is another who thinks that, for Jesus, this passage was about ‘his second coming and ultimate triumph.’

Referring more widely to the ‘son of man’ figure in later Jewish writings, Harper’s Bible Commentary states: ‘This preexistent heavenly figure of Jewish tradition may be the one of whom Jesus speaks in such passages as Matt. 10:23; 16:27–28; Mark 8:38; and 13:26, in which he seems to be referring to some heavenly figure who will come on clouds as the judge of the Last Day.’

See this by Michael Vlach.

2. The ascension?

Calvin was decidedly in favour of this interpretation.  Bolt (The Cross from a Distance: the Atonement in Mark’s Gospel) provides quotations:

‘The great Reformation exegete, John Calvin, in his commentary on Daniel, also joined this stream of interpretation, claiming that these verses are ‘undoubtedly of Christ … He had been endued with heavenly power, and was seated at his Father’s right hand.’ Throughout his exposition, Calvin uses strong language that expresses his conviction: ‘This passage, then, without the slightest doubt, ought to be received of Christ’s ascension, after he had ceased being a mortal man’; 40, 44; ‘This, in my judgement, ought to be explained of Christ’s ascension; for he then commenced his reign, as we see in numberless passages of Scripture’ (cf. Rom. 6:10, John 16:7; 14:28); (p. 42); ‘He now arrives at the Ancient of days, that is, when he ascends to heaven, because his divine majesty was then revealed’ (p. 43); ‘He ascended to heaven, and a dominion was bestowed upon him’ (p. 44).’

‘This relates to his ascension, Acts 1:9–11, at which time, though King before, Matt. 2:2, yet now, and not before, he seems to receive his royal investiture for the protection of his church and the curbing of their enemies, which he says he had before, Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:25; chap. 2:44.’ (Poole)

Charnock writes that this is ‘not to be understood of his coming at the day of judgment, but his coming after his oblation. He comes not here to judge man, but to be judged by his Father; and upon being found to have performed the part of the Son of man, he hath a kingdom both extensive and everlasting bestowed upon him, which should not be destroyed by the subtleties or force of his enemies; a present only worthy of the Son of God. Again, he received not his power at the day of judgment, but upon his resurrection and ascension after his death; but this expresseth the first investiture of this power in him.’ (Works, Vol 5, p55)

‘This vision of Daniel’s was accomplished in Christ’s ascension, when they, that is the angels, brought him to the Ancient of days, that is to God the Father, who, to express his welcome to Christ, gave him glory and a kingdom. And so it is, and ought to be expounded. The Father received him with open arms, rejoicing exceedingly to see him again in heaven; therefore God is said to “receive him up into glory,” 1 Tim. 3:16. For that which, with respect to Christ, is called ascension, is, with respect to the Father, called assumption. He went up, and the Father received him. Yes, received so as none ever was received before him, or shall be received after him.’ (Flavel, The Fountain of Life)

Matthew Henry notes that ‘Some refer this to his incarnation…I think it is rather to be referred to his ascension; when he returned to the Father the eye of his disciples followed him, till a cloud received him out of their sight, Acts 1:9. He made that cloud his chariot, wherein he rode triumphantly to the upper world. He comes swiftly, irresistibly, and comes in state, for he comes with the clouds of heaven.’

Ovey writes that Dan 7:13 ‘arguably’ depicts ‘the transition from Jesus’ state of humiliation to his exaltation.’ (New Dictionary of Theology, art. ‘Ascension (and Heavenly Session of Christ)’.

Referring to Mk 14:62, Ian Paul writes, ‘This cannot refer to Jesus’ return to earth (‘second coming’) unless Jesus was deluded about how soon that would happen. But more importantly, it cannot mean this because it is an almost exact quotation from Daniel 7, and refers to Jesus’ (the Son of Man’s) ascending to the throne of God and fulfilling the destiny of Israel. That is why the High Priest considered it blasphemy: in effect, Jesus was crucified because he anticipated his Ascension!’

Commenting on Mt 26:64 – ‘This,’ writes Ian Paul, ‘cannot refer to Jesus’ return to earth (‘second coming’) unless Jesus was deluded about how soon that would happen. But more importantly, it cannot mean this because it is an almost exact quotation from Daniel 7, and refers to Jesus’ (the Son of Man’s) ascending to the throne of God and fulfilling the destiny of Israel. That is why the High Priest considered it blasphemy: in effect, Jesus was crucified because he anticipated his Ascension!’

Ian Paul again: ‘This is associated not with anyone’s coming from heaven to earth, but rather the opposite—the exaltation of the Son of Man as he comes from the earth to the one seated on the heavenly throne. This is language both distinct from, and opposite to, Paul’s use of ‘coming on the clouds’ in 1 Thess 4.17. This would have been very obvious to Paul’s readers, since he uses quite different language for ‘coming’, the word parousia meaning ‘royal presence’.’

Tim Chester writes: ‘Luke describes the ascension from below. This is the ground level view and we see one ordinary-looking person rise into the clouds. Daniel describes the ascension from above. He shows us what happens on the other side as Jesus moves through the clouds – not into earth’s upper atmosphere, but into heaven.’ (The Ascension)

3. Christ’s entire journey from resurrection, through ascension, to exaltation and return

It may be that the text in Daniel may be applied with sufficient fluidity as to understood in relation to any or all of these events.  The ‘coming’ itself would refer primarily to the ascension, but this itself may be seen as completing what the resurrection began.  The passage in Daniel can readily be understood to refer also to our Lord’s heavenly session (as he exercises his ‘glory, authority and sovereign power’).  Nor should we, under this view, be surprised if the parousia is described in terms of his ‘coming with clouds’, given that, according to Acts 1:11 “This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (emphasis added).

Among older commentaries, JFB state: ‘This investiture was at His ascension “with the clouds of heaven” (Acts 1:9; 2:33, 34; Ps. 2:6–9; Matt. 28:18, “Jesus (after His resurrection, and just before His ascension) spake, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth”); which is a pledge of His return “in like manner” “in the clouds” (Acts 1:11; Matt. 26:64), and “with clouds” (Rev. 1:9). The kingdom then was given to Him in title and invisible exercise; at His second coming it shall be in visible administration.’

Bolt’s view is that this passage in Daniel, so far as the references and allusions in Mark’s Gospel are concerned, is fulfilled ‘in the event of Christ’s resurrection, ascension and exaltation.’

Commenting on Mt 26:64, Hendriksen understands Jesus’ words here as spanning an extensive period.  ‘Jesus is looking down history’s lane. He sees the miracles of Calvary, the resurrection, the ascension, the coronation at the Father’s right hand (“the right hand of the Power,” that is, “of the Almighty”), Pentecost, the glorious return on the clouds of heaven, the judgment day, all rolled into one, manifesting his power and glory.’

Goldingay’s interpretation probably belongs here: ‘The actual title “the Son of Man” is a literalistic rendering of the phrase in v 13, though such links between OT and NT are more formal than substantial. Yet Christ is indeed the one who was to come in human likeness from heaven, and the one still to come in human likeness on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom and to accept the honor of all nations. The rule of God on earth is implemented through one who is himself from heaven. Along with figures such as the prophet and priest, the angel is one of Jesus’ role models: he fulfills a place analogous to each of these… In the view of theologians such as John and Paul, he is so heavenly that he must share God’s own divinity: the similarity of judge and humanlike figure becomes a similarity of Father and Son… Thus the Christ event initiates the reign of God on earth that Dan 7 promises. It brings that unveiling of the mystery of God’s plan for the world (Eph 3:1–12) which is spoken of here as the opening of the books (v 10).’


I incline towards this last, the more ‘fluid’ interpretation.  The New Testament quotations and allusions, which would seem confusing and even contradictory otherwise, then become more understandable.  Among these, it is now one, and then another, aspect of our Lord’s glorification which is to the fore.

The Interpretation of the Dream, 15-28

15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this.
“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’
19 “Then I wanted to know the true meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. 20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the saints and defeating them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.
23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.
26 “ ‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
28 “This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”