Poor Daniel has been languishing in his beastly vision for more than a month while I’ve been doing whatever it is I do instead of blogging…Where does the time go? And more importantly, where were we…?
Ah, right. The churning great sea. The “Great Sea” is a common Old Testament way of referring to the Mediterranean Sea, but it’s more likely here that Daniel was seeing the great mythological sea of primeval chaos, a force that forebode nothing good in the ancient world. Raging waters were a terrifying antagonist that required the strength of the gods to defeat and restrain. (For extra credit and a story about primeval watery chaos, you can go read the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish – or see Wikipedia for the summary.)
The Old Testament is familiar with such a notion about the sea, but the Israelites didn’t consider raging waters a threat to Yahweh. Their God could dispel chaos with a word and send the waves back with a rebuke (Gen 1:1–10; Ps 104:7). Not to mention Israel’s God took his people through the very middle of a sea that he blew apart with an overnight wind.
The Old Testament also associates churning waters with sinful humanity (e.g., Isa 17:12–13; 57:20; Jer 46:7–8), an idea the New Testament picks up in Revelation, where the waters are all “peoples, multitudes, nations and languages” (Rev 17:15). What this all means for us in Daniel 7 is that Daniel had good reason to be disturbed before anything even emerged from the tumultuous sea.
From the churning waters, Daniel watched four frightful beasts arise. Three of them resembled creatures he knew, but not quite. One commentator highlights this in his translation: the first beast was “like a lion, but it had eagle’s wings;” the second “resembled a bear, but it was raised up on one side;” the third was “like a leopard, but it had four bird’s wings on its back [and] four heads” (Lucas, Daniel, 158; emphasis added).
Like the sea, the first three creatures of Daniel’s vision were ominous, but all of this was just the precursor to something worse: the fourth beast. This beast confounded and terrified Daniel. It was different than what he’d already seen, and he couldn’t come up with an animal for comparison. All he could say was that it was “terrifying and frightening and very powerful” (v. 7). It had iron teeth, a fact Daniel reported mostly to say what the beast did with them: crushed and devoured its victims. Then he described its panoply of ten horns. Horns in the Old Testament are a common metaphor for power, so this beast with five times as many horns as a normal creature had extraordinary power.
But Daniel’s nightmare wasn’t over yet. Another horn emerged on the fourth beast, uprooting three existing horns. This eleventh horn, a little horn with human eyes and a mouth that wouldn’t quit, took over the scene, speaking arrogantly and blasphemously.
These beasts, we will learn, represent human kingdoms and kings. The interpretative tradition for their identities is weighty, and we’ll get there eventually, but for now let’s just see and feel the vision. Apocalyptic literature uses vivid images so that you will feel the force of its meaning. This vision is terrifying. And the worst is yet to come. Thankfully, though, the best is yet to come, too. Phew.