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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Daniel

by Various Authors




The Book Itself

The Book of Daniel is one of the best known and yet one of the least understood books in the Bible. Its stories were learned in and are remembered from childhood, and their drama still captures our minds and grips our attention. Clear as the stories appear to be, the other material, including the visions recorded in chapters 7-12, is not so easily understood.

The structure and language of this remarkable book are by no means simple. One section is about Daniel (chs. 1-6) while the other is said to be by Daniel (chs. 7-12). To add to the confusion, there are two other divisions in the book which do not coincide with the division of stories and visions. The book itself is written in two languages: Aramaic (Daniel 2:4 to Daniel 7:28) and Hebrew (Daniel 1:1 to Daniel 2:3; Daniel 8:1 to Daniel 12:13). No completely satisfactory explanation of this linguistic shift has been offered to date, though many explanations have been put forward. Daniel is a book divided by inconsistencies in style, language, and literary form; yet these differences do not coincide with one another.

Obviously Daniel is a composite work which has drawn on several sources. Chapter 1 was probably written on the basis of a well-known story as an introduction by the author and then was followed by popular stories which were used for a particular purpose. Chapter 7, an independent piece, binds chapters 1-6 to chapters 8-12. Whether the original language was Hebrew or Aramaic is a debatable point, although our conclusion is that it was Hebrew. Whatever its sources and its language, the book came into its present form by means of the efforts of one author and compiler. It is a single work as it now stands, although a fabric of many strands.

Date and Authorship

Traditionally the Book of Daniel has been dated in the Chaldean period during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.) and following. Yet there are many evidences which contest this position.

On the surface it seems obvious that this book is what it purports to be: the memoirs of a Hebrew hero who lived in trying times and who had visions of a better day. Yet the reader upon closer study is introduced to the strange spectacle of a man living in one age about which he has the most sketchy knowledge, speaking not at all to his own time but speaking rather to an age 400 years in the future about which he has detailed and accurate information. That it is possible for God to inspire a man to thrust himself into the future we would not deny, but that such a projection is the basis for the Book of Daniel we would indeed question.

The alternative to the traditional date is to recognize Daniel in its present form as a book written at the beginning of the Maccabean period (about 168-165 B.C.), which was a time of terror, trial, and tragic persecution. This age is described firsthand from the point of view of the persecuted in the Intertestament book of First Maccabees.

Evidence for this date is almost overwhelming. As has been stated already, the author of Daniel possessed an incredibly accurate knowledge of the third and second centuries B.C. but had only a loose grasp of the historical situation in the sixth century B.C. The ethnic term "Chaldean" is used repeatedly (for example, in Daniel 2:2; Daniel 2:10; Daniel 4:7; Daniel 5:7; Daniel 5:11) to refer to professional wise men, not to a race or to a nation. In the era of Nebuchadnezzar, a Chaldean was a citizen of the Chaldean, or neo-Babylonian, Empire. It was centuries later that the Greeks came to use the term to describe wise men and interpreters of dreams. Thus Daniel’s use of the term points away from a sixth-century date and is striking evidence for a second-century setting.

Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar did not take Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim, but captured the city much later, in 598 B.C., a date which the author has confused with another date. In his third year Jehoiakim did transfer his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, but Jerusalem was not captured until after the Jewish king’s death (see 2 Kings 24:1-6; 2 Kings 24:10-15).

"Darius the Mede" (Daniel 5:31) is an unidentifiable person in the Medo-Persian period and therefore must be explained as having been created by a combination of fact and imagination. Doubtless Darius the Great, a Persian emperor, was the personage whom the author had in mind, but he ruled after, not before, Cyrus the Great. In any case, he was not a Mede.

The underlying assumption of the book is that the chronological order of empires was Chaldean, Median, Persian, and Greek. Actually, however, the Chaldean and Median empires were parallel empires from 625 B.C. onward. Cyaxares the Mede assisted in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire and cleared the way for Chaldean ascendancy under Nebuchadnezzar’s leadership. Apparently Median rulers continued to enjoy some semblance of autonomy during the short-lived Chaldean Empire. But when Cyrus ascended the throne of Babylon in 539 B.C., Median power was nonexistent except as an integral part of the Persian conquest and rule. There is no chronological place for a Median Empire between the Chaldean and the Persian, yet the author assumes that there was such a time of separate world empire for the Medes. It is largely because of this historical misunderstanding that "Darius the Mede" is regarded as the successor to Belshazzar the Chaldean, whose capital he destroyed according to Daniel 5, whereas in historical fact Cyrus succeeded Belshazzar.

Other evidence against a sixth-century date is plentiful. The stylized reports of the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar on several occasions (Daniel 2:46-49; Daniel 4:34-37) and of Darius (Daniel 6:25-27) create a picture that would hardly have been made in an age when the activities of these men gave little evidence that they had become genuine worshipers of the Lord. Later such a philosophy of history would have depended for its effectiveness not on exact historical accuracy but rather on the faith which validated it.

Having noted the author’s divergence from certain known facts of history, we must take care to note also that there are some quite accurate bits of information from the Chaldean period. For example, the author knew that Nebuchadnezzar was the builder of Babylon, a fact forgotten until recent archaeological investigations recovered it. Moreover, the historicity of Belshazzar as the de facto king in the absence of his father Nabonidus has been substantiated by extrabiblical evidence. Nabonidus apparently spent much of his later years in the desert at Tema pursuing scholarly interests, which held greater fascination for him than did the throne. The account of Belshazzar as king, understood in this sense, squares with authentic historical data from other sources.

Writing in 200 B.C., the author of the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus listed among the great men of Israel Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Prophets, but made no mention of Daniel. This can hardly have been an oversight. When a later Jewish writing (the Sibylline Oracles) was composed (after 140 B.C.), Daniel was a well-known figure. Largely because of the knowledge that Daniel was not, strictly speaking, a prophetic work, the framers of the Jewish Canon placed this book with Psalms, Proverbs, and other books in the collection known as "the Writings."

Practically all interpreters agree that Daniel speaks to the age of the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), whose rule began in 175 B.C., and that the atmosphere of this period is especially appropriate for chapters 7-12. It is obvious that the author of chapter 7 is using the four-kingdom idea as an approach to the center of his interest. The "little horn" in chapter 8 is Antiochus. Furthermore, the same point of denunciation is quickly reached in chapter 8 after the explanation of the Ram and He-Goat vision. The writer loses little time getting to the subject of central concern to himself and his readers. Moreover, chapter 11 is a remarkable and accurate narration of Seleucid and Ptolomaic history in the third and second centuries B.C.

Thus we conclude that the Book of Daniel, as it now stands, was written between 168 and 165 B.C., but that it doubtless drew on earlier sources for much of the material it contains.

The writer borrows from many sources for the full make-up of his central character. It should not pass unnoticed that as a dreamer and interpreter of dreams Daniel is very similar to Joseph, and that the course of his life at times is almost a copy of this ancestor of the Chosen People. Along with these influences the great figure of a certain "Daniel," remembered for his wisdom throughout the Near East, must be listed as a source of the Daniel image. An amalgamation of these sources was poured into a new mold to create "Daniel," representing the truest and best of Israel.

Actually, however, the touches of historical accuracy from the Chaldean period give some basis for the conclusion that Daniel was a person who lived in that period and around whom certain legends had grown up. To be sure, this person, like David, became greater as a symbol than he ever could have been as a historical personality. He became the one who under God’s guidance saw the future clearly and who enunciated the essential faith that the Almighty would ultimately be victorious in history.

The author was a person inspired of God, living under duress of persecution, who drew from the past and created a great hero-image which inspired the weak to be strong. Having established the hero, through his lips the author speaks that message of hope which God gave to a troubled day. The name "Daniel" itself is perhaps not to be overlooked since it means "God judges." What the author’s name or general identity was we do not know. In any case, he used a variety of materials and was influenced by the ideas of many, but it was the stamp of his experience and genius, under God, which made the book one of the truly great theological treatises of all time.

Historical Background

The actual historical background for the Book of Daniel must start with the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), a student of the great philosopher Aristotle, a brilliant military strategist, and a zealous disciple and exponent of Hellenistic (Greek) culture. In 334 B.C. he began the conquest of Asia Minor and the Middle East, and after two years most of the area was under his rule. With this conquest came a way of life including Greek thought, language, manners, morals, and religion. Alexander was never satisfied with physical conquest; he dreamed of one world drawn together under the "enlightened and superior" Greek way of life. Both military conquest and cultural intrusion were welcomed by some people in Palestine, but for others they were evil forces which must be resisted to the death (see 1 Maccabees 1:10-64).

When Alexander died in 323 B.C., Hellenism had already made a permanent impression on the Middle East. Greek was spoken everywhere. Stadia had been built in many cities and seasonal Greek games were held. Greek clothing was worn and Greek manners were imitated. In fact, the Hellenistic spirit exercised a major influence on religious ideas and values.

At Alexander’s death, there being no heir to the throne, succession became a matter for contest. After long struggle and much intrigue, four of the late emperor’s generals divided the empire among themselves. The spheres of their power were centered respectively in Greece, Asia Minor, Syro-Mesopotamia, and Egypt. For our purposes the Syro-Mesopotamian and Egyptian regions are most important, because it was in these regions that the Greek way clashed most violently with Jewish faith and life.

In Syria, Seleucus took power, bestowing his name upon the Seleucid dynasty, while in Egypt Ptolemy ruled, attaching his name to the Ptolemaic dynasty which he founded. Between these two centers of political power, Palestine became again a land bridge for commerce or military conquest, as it had been often since the dawn of civilization. As such it was a most desirable prize which could serve either as a foothold for conquest or as a buffer against attack.

For most of the third century Palestine remained under the sovereignty of the Ptolemies, although the Seleucids were not loath to challenge Egyptian rule at every opportunity. Under Egyptian (Ptolemaic) domination the Jews were left largely free to follow their own customs and practice their own religion, as they had during the Persian era. That situation, however, began to change imperceptibly after Antiochus III established rule over Palestine following the battle of Paneas in 198 B.C. Nevertheless, no overt repression of either life or faith began until Antiochus Epiphanes ascended the throne.

Early in his reign Antiochus Epiphanes, who believed he was Zeus incarnate, agreed to sell the office of high priest to the highest bidder. No conceivable action could have struck more horror into Jewish hearts or caused greater revulsion to Jewish minds, though such a procedure was quite normal in the lands neighboring on Palestine. Onias III, the legitimate high priest, was deposed in 175 B.C. when Jason bought the office. In 171 B.C., however, a higher bid was made by Menelaus. Upon the acceptance of Menelaus’ offer, Jason in his turn was deposed from office. In order to forestall any future claim, Onias was murdered. Jason, having fled into Ammonite territory, bided his time until the absence of Antiochus for a military advance along the Egyptian frontier afforded him opportunity to reimpose his power. When Antiochus returned from his unsuccessful military campaign he sacked the Temple, and Menelaus was returned to his priestly duties. These "high priests" thus embraced a liberal Judaism which made them willing to refashion their heritage into the form of Syro-Hellenistic religion.

Soon thereafter Antiochus Epiphanes turned his full attention and energy to the cultural integration of Jewish life and faith into Greek forms. This, as it turned out, was no small task. First, the royal general Apollonius took the citadel of Jerusalem and garrisoned it against counterattack. In December 168 B.C. the regular sacrifices at the Temple were discontinued in favor of the kind of worship more in accord with Hellenistic tradition. Instead of ancient, honored practice being followed, the pig — precisely the animal most despised by the Jews — was sacrificed on the holy altar. For three years the abomination continued. This period left a deep imprint on the mind of the author of Daniel and largely explains the utter contempt in which he held the Seleucid monarch. Zeus Olympus, not the Lord, was worshiped on Zion, while Zeus Xenius was the god installed at Samaria. Circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and the possession of the Torah were crimes punishable by death. Of course, regular sacrifice was forbidden (1 Maccabees 1:54-61). How deeply the righteous people felt about this is demonstrated in the Aramaic translation of the name "Zeus Olympus," which by slight change comes to mean "abomination of desolation."

The attitudes toward the new order were manifold. To the very devout, assimilation of the ways of the Gentiles was the ultimate tragedy, to be resisted at all costs. But for a great many sophisticated and cosmopolitan Jews, accommodation to change was equated with enlightenment and progress. To understand this attitude it is necessary to analyze the feelings of those involved. Such a reform, according to the best Hellenistic view, merely meant that there was but one high God alternately called "Zeus" or "the Lord." In this instance a world view of religion was operative. Antiochus, not understanding the Jewish mind, thought that by removing the distinctive and separatist marks of this faith (such as the Torah, circumcision, the Sabbath, and sacrifice) he could cause the Jews to identify themselves with the whole family of man.

Many Jews quickly agreed to the idea and wholeheartedly supported the program. Stadia and gymnasia were built and Greek games became quite popular. Youth was especially drawn to the games and festivals wherein old restraints were relaxed. The use of a hat with a brim, associated with the pagan deity Mercury, and the removal of the mark of circumcision by painful operation became common (1 Maccabees 1:14-15; 1 Maccabees 1:41-50).

Resistance took two forms: outright defiance and withdrawal.

Most chose the latter way. Great numbers of people moved away from heavily inhabited areas and lived out of contact with Seleucid authority (1 Maccabees 1:53). This raised two problems for Antiochus. First, it constituted direct defiance of a royal decree, which could not be tolerated; and, second and more important, it reduced the tax receipts from these sources since a taxpayer who could not be located could hardly be taxed.

In order to complete his cultural and religious reform Antiochus sent royal officials to various areas for the express purpose of enforcing the royal decrees. His method of assuring local acceptance was simple. An altar was built and then before the eyes of the local citizens a designated Jew was commanded to sacrifice a pig to Zeus Olympus. This program was the spark which lighted the fires of rebellion.

Rebellion began in the small village of Modein in 168 B.C. when a renegade Jew, ready to conform to the new order, stepped to the altar to make the Gentile sacrifice. At that moment Mattathias, a local priest, filled with indignation and consumed with rage, struck down the renegade Jew and the royal officer who was the king’s representative (1 Maccabees 2:1-28). So began the Maccabean revolt, which was led initially by Mattathias until his death about a year later. At his death Judas, one of his five sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan), became the leader of effective guerrilla warfare against royal forces (1 Maccabees 2:65 to 1 Maccabees 3:60). He was nicknamed "Maccabeus," which possibly means "hammerer," and from the nickname the movement got its name.

It would serve no useful purpose to trace in detail the victories of Judas over the forces of Syria, since these can be followed in any competent history of the period. Victories at Beth-horon and Emmaus were followed by an inconclusive engagement at Bethzur. Negotiations brought hostilities to an end, with freedom of all religious practices restored. Judas finally took Jerusalem, and on December 25, 164 B.C., the Temple was cleansed and reconstituted for regular worship (1 Maccabees 4:52-61). A year later Antiochus Epiphanes, who was popularly called Antiochus Epimanes ("the madman"), died. But the author of Daniel apparently did not live to witness that event.

The composition of the Book of Daniel is properly set at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt when persecution of the Jews was at its height and when the issue was still in considerable doubt. Two major themes of the book are appropriately struck for such an age: courage in the present and hope for the future.

Antiochus IV was the contemporary figure who was target for the bitterest denunciation in story and vision. He is the "little horn." He arose as successor to one of the four claimants to Alexander’s empire as described in chapters 7 and 8. It was he who interrupted and abolished worship in the Temple for 2300 evenings and mornings (Daniel 8:14), or three and a half years (Daniel 7:25; Daniel 12:7), or 1290 days (Daniel 12:11), or 1335 days (Daniel 12:12). These numbers each represent roughly the time lapse between 168 and 165 B.C., when in fact no legitimate sacrifice was offered in the Temple. Prophetic prediction is seldom mathematically exact, so all of the above figures are to be understood as referring to the time when, by royal decree, regular sacrificial worship at the Temple was discontinued.

In this time of desperate trial for the Jewish faith there were doubtless many among the Jews who felt that God had abandoned them. Some, on the other hand, were enthralled by the attractiveness of the new way. To reinforce the abiding value of true religion and to assure the persecuted that God would have his way, this remarkable literary piece was written. It was a "tract for the times," drawn out of adversity and trial to speak God’s word to that adversity and tribulation.

So that the reader may have ready access to key dates in this complicated era we list the following significant high points:

605 B.C. Beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign

539 B.C. Accession of Cyrus to throne of Babylon

323 B.C. Death of Alexander the Great

198 B.C. Beginning of Seleucid control of Palestine

175-163 B.C. Reign of Antiochus Epiphanes

175-171 B.C. Jason, high priest

171-162 B.C. Menelaus, high priest

168 B.C. Mattathias’ revolt at Modein

167 B.C. Leadership by Judas Maccabeus

164 B.C. Restoration of the Temple and religious privileges

The Message of the Book

The Sovereignty of God

The sovereignty of God was not a new concept discovered by the author amid the fires of Maccabean adversity, but it was given a new dimension by this remarkable theologian. He recognized constantly that all earthly power exists only at the sufferance of the Almighty. God is sovereign over the four world empires, whose domain at best is ephemeral. It is his rule and his Kingdom alone that shall be everlasting. He can watch over youths in bondage and can extricate the righteous from fiery furnace or lions’ den. His judgment drives the great to madness and brings to nought the most ostentatious king and kingdom.

God’s rule and authority, which are the basis for all earthly sovereignty, will finally establish an everlasting Kingdom at an appropriate time. Daniel apparently believed that this Kingdom might immediately be established upon earth. In a spiritual sense that final Kingdom was and is being established in Jesus Christ. The intuitive and theological assertion by the Church that such is the case is quite correct, but it is not a conclusion which this writer foresaw in detail.

Conformity and Faith

The enticements of a new way of life were current in the era from which this book arose. Pagan culture in its Greek form was very attractive, and hence it presented a serious challenge to hereditary Jewish faith. The Book of Daniel served to unmask Greek cultural claims and reveal what they really were.

These stories are combined with apocalyptic visions to call men to a faith that will not conform to the latest fashion or follow the customs of the day. Under threat of the fiery furnace three men said that even if they were not released by the power of God, still they would not submit to the degradation of heathen practice. It is interesting to note that Mattathias when exhorting his followers to courage makes reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (1 Maccabees 2:59). In each of the early chapters the way of loyal faith is shown to be the right way, and the visions teach that faith is the ground of assurance of God’s ultimate victory.


Daniel takes a step forward in his understanding of "salvation." To him final redemption was presaged by the individual experiences of rescue and support evidenced in the first six chapters. This view was not new to the Israelite mind. The Kingdom of God, however, which shall intrude into history replacing all other kingdoms (the four kingdoms), is an extension beyond the earlier prophetic understanding from which the idea originally came. God’s universal involvement in history and his Kingdom as a universal replacement for all other rule is a concept which was later incorporated in New Testament thought. In Daniel a time of destruction will precede the establishment of this everlasting Kingdom in which the persecuted-the saints and martyrs-will be caught up.

Finally, in Daniel there is the concept of individual resurrection from the dead for both the just and the unjust By the time the book was written this article of faith had already gained wide popular acceptance. So for the author, salvation transcends the political limits and destiny of Israel and the boundaries of terrestrial existence. Here were intimations of a new dimension to the meaning of salvation, but it remained for Jesus and the Early Church to give these their fullest extension.


Stories and Dreams. (Daniel 1:1 to Daniel 7:28)

Daniel and His Friends (Daniel 1:1-21)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (Daniel 2:1-49)

The Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:1-30)

The Madness of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:1-37)

Belshazzar’s Feast and Condemnation (Daniel 5:1-31)

Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6:1-28)

Daniel’s Dream of Four Beasts (Daniel 7:1-28)

Visions and Promise. (Daniel 8:1 to Daniel 12:13)

Vision of the Ram and the He-Goat (Daniel 8:1-27)

Prophecy and Prayer (Daniel 9:1-27)

Vision of the Last Days (Daniel 10:1 to Daniel 12:13)

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