So far this season, my NFL team has knocked off a sleuth of Bears, a flock of Hawks, and a herd of Rams. All fearsome creatures these, but if you want a terrifying creature, let me commend to you the goat. Yes, the goat. It may be a tough sell for an expansion team name, but any shepherd worth his sheep knows that a goat’s temper and aggression can wreak havoc on a woolly flock (cf. Isa 14:9; Jer 50:8; Ezek 34:17; Zech 10:3).
It’s the terrifying goat that rises to the top of Daniel’s vision in chapter 8. This second terrifying vision, very similar to his first vision of four ghastly beasts in chapter 7, also occurs during the reign of Belshazzar, which means both chapters 7 and 8 turn back the clock to an earlier time in the book’s chronology. We had gotten as far as 539 BC by the end of chapter 6, where Medo-Persia was the reigning power. But Daniel’s first two visions happened a decade earlier during the reign of Belshazzar, the stand-in, son-of-usurping king, the character who gave us our first glimpse at a blasphemous king shaking his fist at Israel’s God. By the time we finish encountering Gentile kings in chapters 7–12, Belshazzar will look almost saintly.
In this second vision, Daniel finds himself beside a canal in Susa, and he sees a ram on its banks. The ram had two long horns, one coming up later and longer than the other. Aggressive and easily dominant, the ram had no competitors. It was king of the world.
The ram kept Daniel’s attention until a single-horned male goat appeared. The goat raged across the landscape and charged the ram, shattering its horns, flinging it to the ground, and trampling it. The goat then grew to even greater dominance than the ram, until its single horn was broken. In place of the single horn grew four horns, and from one of them sprouted a little horn—the primary character in the rest of the vision.
This little horn grew to astounding proportions, extending southward, eastward, and “toward the Beautiful,” a reference to Jerusalem. The little horn also grew upward to the host of heaven, and it threw some of the host to the ground, trampling them. Then in a supreme act of defiant arrogance, the little horn set itself up to be as great as the heavenly host’s commander—a reference to God. It took away the daily sacrifice in the temple, and it even threw down the sanctuary. In this string of shocking successes, the little horn appeared to be unstoppable.
(If all of this sounds a bit strange and even unclear to you, that’s because it is. Not to worry. I certainly won’t clear everything up, but I will try to sort out some of the strangeness as we go. For now, you’ll just have to live with the confusion.)
Then Daniel overheard some angels talking to each other, wondering how long the madness would continue. The answer sounds straightforward enough (at least, in English; just wait til we get to the Hebrew…): 2,300 evenings and mornings. At the end of that time, the temple would be reconsecrated.
At this point, we can be really happy that Gabriel showed up to help Daniel (and us) understand the vision. What Gabriel says is helpful—but trust me, you’ll still have plenty of questions left by the time he stops talking.
First, Gabriel gave Daniel something of a timeline for the events: the vision would be fulfilled at an appointed time. That’s helpful as far as it goes, I suppose. 🙂 More specifically, it would be fulfilled at the end of a period of suffering that most commentators agree occurred in the second century BC.
Then Gabriel really shines and provides remarkable specifics for some parts of the vision: the two-horned ram represented kings of Media and Persia, the goat was the king of Greece, and the large horn was the first king of Greece. The four horns emerged out of the first king’s domain. The little horn was a particularly ominous king who would ravage God’s people, Jerusalem, and the temple with what appeared to be supernatural strength. Gabriel’s interpretation comes to an end with the destruction of the little horn “not by human power” (v. 25).
His interpretation somewhat abruptly completed, Gabriel told a confused and wiped out Daniel to seal up the vision because it wouldn’t come to pass for quite some time yet. I’m not sure this gave Daniel any comfort or relief, and it certainly didn’t clear up any lingering questions he (or we) have.
In a subsequent post, I’ll translate Gabriel’s interpretation into historical terms, but for now, just know that Daniel glimpsed a horrific time of persecution for his people after they returned from exile and rebuilt their temple. That return and restoration was supposed to be a glorious fulfillment of God’s promises, but Daniel’s disturbing vision revealed that complete restoration had a few more obstacles than anyone anticipated.