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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 7

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

Verses 1-28

Chapter Seven Four Great World Empires

We now enter on the second part of the book of Daniel. In chapter 7 we have a new beginning, as you will readily see by referring to the chart, even though this chapter covers practically the same ground as chapter 2. It takes in the whole course of the times of the Gentiles; it begins with Babylon and ends in the overthrow of all derived authority and the establishment of the kingdom of the Son of man. But the difference between the first and second divisions is this: The first division is chiefly occupied with prophetic history as viewed from man’s standpoint; but in the second half of the book we have the same scenes as viewed in God’s unsullied light. In the second chapter, when a Gentile king had a vision of the course of world-empire, he saw the image of a man. It was a stately and noble figure that filled him with such admiration that he set up a similar statue to be worshiped as a god. But in this opening chapter of the second division Daniel, the man of God, has a vision of the same empires; he sees them as four ravenous wild beasts, so brutal and monstrous that no actual creatures known to man could adequately describe them.

There is something exceedingly solemn in considering history from God’s viewpoint. If you read history as viewed simply by the natural man, you will find that a great deal of space is given to congratulating humanity on its marvelous exploits. One would suppose that we have now almost reached perfection, so far as human government or political economy is concerned. Civilization and the progress of the race are presumably at the zenith of their glory. But if we read history in the light of holy Scripture, with the Spirit of God illuminating the page, we receive a very different impression. We then begin to realize that the things that are most highly esteemed among men are abominations in the sight of God. When we consider the great rulers of the earth who wield power over the nations, we are reminded of what is written in Psalms 49:12, “Man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.”

In Daniel’s visions he saw the course of each of the empires represented by these wild beasts. That is, each wild beast pictures the leading features in the history of the empire that it represents. For instance, the whole course of Babylon is depicted by the winged lion, which afterward had its wings plucked, a man’s heart given to it, and was made to stand erect on its feet. Then the whole course of Medo-Persia is pictured in the vision of the bear with three ribs in its mouth, which lifted itself up on one side. The entire history of the Grecian empire and its four-fold division is set forth in the four-headed and winged leopard. And the course of the Roman empire right on down to the time of the end (a condition which has not yet been reached) is depicted in the dreadful and terrible beast, with the great iron teeth and the ten horns. It is important to see this. Some take it for granted that, as the Roman empire has passed off the scene, all that is connected with this Roman beast is gone too. They think it has no further interest for us who live in the gospel dispensation, but the contrary is true.

But now, look at the 17th verse for a moment. There the four beasts are said to be “four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.” The context makes it plain, however, that the angel did not mean four individual kings; in prophetic scripture the term king is very frequently used for kingdom. In verse 23 we read, “The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon the earth;” necessarily the principle applies to all. Though, I would have you notice that in connection with each of them, one king comes out prominently. In each case but the last, the prominent king is the one under whom the kingdom first attains the dignity of a great world power. Thus Nebuchadnezzar comes before us as the one who stands distinctively for Babylon; he was told in chapter 2, “Thou art this head of gold” (38). But the winged lion represents both the glory and debasement of the Chaldean empire. Its wings were plucked, it lost its lion heart and was given instead the weak heart of a man. Cyrus the Great is the leading figure when we think of Medo-Persia. It was he who destroyed the chief cities of Babylon, symbolized by the three ribs in the mouth of the bear. The leopard clearly suggests Alexander the Great, the four wings speaking of the incredible swiftness of his conquests. The four heads depict the fourfold division of his dominions made among his leading generals after his death. But no great potentate in the past epitomizes in himself the Roman authority. We look to the future for one to arise who will do this-“the beast” described in Revelation 13:0. He will obtain sway over Europe just prior to the establishment of the kingdom of the Son of man, when all authority, power, and glory will be headed up in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though these kingdoms are successive in their rising, one does not necessarily completely destroy the other. The four great monarchies, with their characteristic features, are to run on in some form until Jesus comes. Until the dawning of that glorious morning without clouds, this world will never be free from strife and bloodshed, pestilence and misgovernment. Scripture shows us that all these things are going to continue; evil in the professing church will increase and abound until the long-awaited hour of the establishment of the liberty of the glory.

Sometimes people say, “I do not see how you can charitably desire the Son of God to come back the second time if it is really true that when He returns the day of grace will be over for those who have rejected His Word.” But we know that the only hope of this poor world is the return of the true King. Matters will never be put right on earth until they are put right by judgment. The preaching of the gospel is never going to establish the kingdom; nor did God intend that it should. After nineteen hundred years of gospel preaching, there are far more heathen in the world than there were when the Lord Jesus Christ appeared the first time. Those who are really Christians are just a little handful compared with the multitude that do not know God. The gospel is not God’s way of bringing in the kingdom and converting the world. This will be brought about only through judgment. While we shrink from the awful thought of what is coming on this poor world, we realize it is the only way to receive the blessing creation is groaning for; so we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus” for we know that He is the only hope for its deliverance. Every conflict between nations, every class struggle, every cruelty that is inflicted on the weak and defenseless-all these things lead us to cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” For when He comes, He is going to put an end to it all; when He comes, He is going to dry the tears of the oppressed; when He comes, He is going to give men a righteous rule, as Daniel saw pictured in the last of these visions. First, the four brutal world kingdoms must run their course. Then, on the utter breakdown of power in the hands of man, the world kingdom of the Christ of God is to be set up and righteousness will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. But we may rest assured that our Lord will not come while there is one soul out of Christ who is still anxious to be saved.

Notice that the first three beasts are passed over in the interpretation given to Daniel. It has to do almost entirely with the dreadful fourth beast, for this beast was to be in control both at the first and second advent of our Lord.

But I now desire to notice the whole chapter a little more carefully. It was in the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, that Daniel had a dream and visions came to him as he was lying on his bed. He saw the four winds of the heavens churning up the great sea. The great sea was of course the Mediterranean; it is well known that every one of the empires described in the prophecy borders on the shores of the great sea. The kingdom of Babylon embraced the shores that stretched along the eastern and southeastern edge of the Mediterranean; Medo-Persia did the same; while Greece also took in the northeastern shores; and the Roman empire completely surrounded the sea. Hence the name Mediterranean meaning “midst of the earth.” That was the sea Daniel was looking on in his vision, and in a very literal sense every one of these empires seems to spring up from the great sea.

Revelation-a book that dovetails prophetically with the book of Daniel-gives us a mystical interpretation of the sea. In Revelation 17:15 we read, “He saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Isaiah also tells us that the wicked are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt (Isaiah 57:20). So we are clearly justified in interpreting the sea as a picture of the troubled nations. In other words, out of the unsettled state of the nations surrounding the Mediterranean sea these great empires will arise.

The four winds striving on the sea would indicate providential agencies working on the minds of the people. You will find the figure of the winds also used in that way in the book of Revelation. Of course, though men little realize it, all the great movements of the nations are in accordance with the actings of God’s providence. Thus, in a very real sense, as someone has aptly said, “All history is His story.” No matter what movements are going on among men, God is above them all. He may be hidden behind the scenes, but as shown so clearly in the book of Esther, He is moving all the scenes that He is behind.

When the human race lapsed into idolatry after the flood, God committed the promises of eternal glory to Abraham. But when Abraham’s seed violated the covenant, God set Nebuchadnezzar over all nations. However he also failed, though forced to acknowledge the power and mercy of God at last. In the rise of Babylon we see the providence of God working among the nations to take away royalty from Judah because of their sins.

In his vision Daniel saw four great beasts, all different from one another, coming up from the sea. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings-speaking of majesty, ferocity, and swiftness. It was in a marvelously short space of time that Babylon subdued all the surrounding nations and brought them beneath its sway. But as Daniel looked he saw the wings plucked and the beast lifted up from the earth; it was made to stand on the feet as a man and a man’s heart was given to it. Thus indicating that all progress was at an end and majesty had departed, for one can scarcely think of anything more awkward and ungainly than a lion standing this way. The man’s heart given to the lion symbolizes the weakness of Babylon displayed in Belshazzar. In fact, after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, declension at once set in and continued until the days when the Medes and Persians wrested the kingdom from his inglorious grandson. When this vision was given to Daniel, the last stage of the lion had almost been reached; Belshazzar was already reigning.

In the second instance Daniel saw a beast like a bear come up from the sea, and it raised itself up on one side. It had three ribs between its teeth and a voice said, “Arise, devour much flesh” (5). It was after the decay of the Babylonian empire that the Medo-Persian union was consummated. At first Media was stronger, but it soon became evident that the Persians were to have the superior place. Thus the bear raised itself up on one side. The three ribs between the teeth indicate that it had already destroyed its prey. It had destroyed the Babylonian lion; the three ribs might stand for the three chief cities of the Chaldean empire-Babylon, Ecbatana, and Borsippa, which were all taken by the united armies of Cyrus and Cyaxares. The command to arise and devour much flesh indicates the extreme cruelties often practiced by the Persians and the wide extent of their conquests.

The third beast had the appearance of a leopard, with four wings of a fowl on its back and with four heads. The leopard’s appearance demonstrates a synopsis of the history of the Grecian empire. Over three hundred years before Christ, Alexander the Great, as he is now known, was born as heir to Philip of Macedon. This was but one of the small kingdoms of Greece; but after Alexander’s accession to the throne, Macedon, and through it all Greece, took a place in the affairs of the world that it had never taken before. Alexander welded together the Grecian states and Asiatic kingdoms of the west, and then turned eastward, where he met and subdued the haughty Persians completely. He caused himself to be proclaimed emperor of the world and had divine honors paid him. But his glory was short-lived for he died in his early thirties as a result of licentious living and debauchery. Shortly after his death his dominions were divided among his four leading generals. The marvelous progress of Alexander-even greater than that of Nebuchadnezzar-is indicated in the vision; the beast that stood for Babylon had two wings, while the Grecian leopard had four.

There is an interesting story related by Josephus. After the conquest of Tyre, Alexander was marching through Syria with his armies headed toward Jerusalem, which he intended to destroy. The high priest and his companions robed thernselves in their priestly garments and marched in solemn procession out of the city to meet the conqueror. Alexander is said to have recognized the high priest as one whom he had seen in a vision. From his hand he received a copy of the book of Daniel, in which the prophecies concerning himself were pointed out. Because of what was written there he accepted the submission of the Jews, granted them religious toleration, and left their city unharmed. While we have no means of deciding the truth or falsity of this story, we can readily see that it is not at all unlikely.

As Daniel’s vision continues the fourth beast is described:

After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things (7-8).

In its turn, the Grecian empire was overthrown and, about half a century before Christ, Rome became the mistress of the world. The very birth of the Lord Jesus in Bethlehem was brought about, humanly speaking, by a decree going forth from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed (registered for a census). This brought Mary and her husband Joseph to the city of David, foretold by the prophet as the birthplace of Him “whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). On the chart, I have represented this beast as having a composite character, for I take it that it correlates to the beast described in Revelation 13:0. It has the head of a lion, the body of a leopard, and the feet of a bear; thus including in itself the chief features of all the kingdoms pictured by the other beasts. It was the boast of the Romans that they never destroyed a civilization when they conquered the people; they took from it everything of merit and combining all into one, produced the greatest civilization the world had ever known.

The course of this last beast has not yet been fully run. In the book of Revelation it is described as having seven heads, one of which was wounded to death and afterwards healed. The seven heads are said to be seven kings or forms of government. In John’s day, five had already passed away and the sixth, or imperial form, was then in existence. The seventh had not yet come, nor has it appeared up to the present time. It will have its fulfillment in the union of imperialism and democracy, which we have already seen is to take place in the time of the end. But as the interpretation of this vision is given farther on in the chapter, we will not go into it now.

Daniel next saw thrones set up. You will notice that the King James version says: “The thrones were cast down” (7:9, italics added). This is the literal rendering of the Chaldean expression that implies the casting down of rugs and cushions to be used as an oriental divan-throne. But the English translation would seem to imply the destruction of thrones; so it is better rendered “set up.” He continued:

And the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened (9-10).

Daniel then saw that because of the blasphemous words of the little horn, the last beast was slain and his body destroyed and given to the burning flame. The other beasts had not been dealt with so summarily. They had their dominion taken away, but their life was prolonged; this agrees with what we know as to their history.

The Son of man is then seen coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of days who gives him “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (14). This completes the vision; the interpretation follows.

Daniel was deeply exercised in spirit over all that he had seen, but an angel seems to have been standing by, and Daniel asked for understanding as to “the truth of all this” (16). The angel told him that the four beasts represent four kings or kingdoms, as we have already seen; but “the saints of the most High [places] shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever” (18). But Daniel desired fuller information as to the meaning of the fourth beast and especially of the little horn “that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows”; who rooted up three of the ten horns, and who “made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High [places]; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom” (20-22). The angel explained that ten kings will arise out of the fourth kingdom-clearly at one time. From among these another will arise after them who will be different from the first and will subdue three of them. He will be characterized by blaspheming the name of the Most High. The little horn can be none other than the beast of Revelation 13:0 and 17. He will persecute the saints of the most high places-the remnant-saints, of whom Scripture has much to say in connection with the last days. In Daniel 9:0 we read that he will confirm a covenant with the Jews for seven years, but will violate his covenant in the midst of the specified period. As stated here, he will “think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time” (25); that is, he will be the persecutor of the Jewish remnant for the last three and a half years of the time of the end. But at the expiration of that time, the Lord Himself will return from Heaven, and the beast’s dominion will be taken away; he himself, as we learn in Revelation 19:0, will be cast alive into the lake of fire.

Then “the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (27). Thus will be brought in that everlasting kingdom for which the groaning earth has been waiting so long.

I am quite aware that there are many interpreters who think they see in the little horn, as in the king of Daniel 11:36, the papacy, which pretended to universal dominion after the downfall of the Roman empire. But the little horn is not to rise up until after that empire has reached its ten-kingdom condition, and we have already observed that this condition has never existed in the past. At no time after the dismemberment of the Roman empire, did ten kingdoms formed from its fragments unite in one. And then it is also important to remember that the papacy existed before the break-up of the empire; therefore the pope, instead of rising up on the head of the beast after all the other horns had obtained their strength, came up before the ten horns existed at all. This is clearly contrary to what is stated in Daniel concerning the blaspheming little horn. And it is further to be observed that the little horn is wielding supreme power on earth at the coming of the Son of man to set up His kingdom; whereas it is evident that the papacy has not been supreme, nor indeed recognized as a world power for many years.

In the Revelation, the papal church is represented by the scarlet woman riding the beast. But in the time of the end, the ten horns are to unite in seeking and carrying out her destruction. Notice carefully that in Revelation 17:12-13, it is written: “And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast. These have one mind and shall give their power and strength unto the beast” (italics added). Whereas, in the sixteenth verse we learn that their power will be used for the destruction of Babylon the great: “And the ten horns which thou sawest, [and] the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.” Thus it should be plain to any careful reader that the little horn of Daniel is the Roman beast of Revelation. He will be acknowledged by the ten kingdoms as supreme arbiter of Europe in the coming day of tribulation. He will be permitted to prosper and to persecute the faithful remnant of Israel, after the church has been translated to Heaven. His power will continue until the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints for the destruction of those who have refused His Word.

The great bulk of prophecy has to do with the events of this brief season called the time of the end. The present age is one never referred to in the Old Testament, except in the most general way; for the calling out of the church was a mystery hidden in God throughout all past ages and only revealed in this dispensation for the obedience of faith. The church may now be completed at any moment. Then the next great event will be the descent of the Lord in the air and the translation of His bride, this preparing the way for the things that are coming on the earth.

In the last verse of our chapter, Daniel wrote that he kept these things in his heart. May we do the same. Surely as Christians, nothing will help us understand our present place and portion so well as to have a clear apprehension of the place that Israel and the nations have in the mind of God, as revealed in His Word. In the present age we should consider it a happy privilege to pass through this world as strangers and pilgrims, sharing with Christ in His rejection. For us, this is the time to suffer for righteousness’ sake-the time to rejoice if accounted worthy to endure shame for His name’s sake. The glory is coming when He returns to take His great power and reign. Until then may we “go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (Hebrews 13:13).

O unsaved one, you too should ponder these things in your heart so that you are not blinded by the false and deceitful glare of the tinseled glory of this world. It is all doomed to pass away, and your lot will be unhappy if you have no interests in a more secure world. “The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). See to it, I plead with you, that you are numbered among those who have part in the everlasting kingdom so soon to succeed all the passing dominions of this world. God in grace has given His Son to die for your salvation, but remember that it is written: “As it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:27). If you would welcome with joy His promised advent, you must know Him now as Savior. Otherwise His return to this earth to reign would find you numbered among His enemies, to be destroyed from before His face.

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Daniel 7". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/isn/daniel-7.html. 1914.
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