It’s the scary times I remember in life, like when I was seven and got locked outside in the cold dark. It’s easy to forget what came next–the relief I felt when I was brought back in, the happy tears, the hot chocolate with marshmallows plopped down in my lap. We tend to remember what’s upsetting rather than what’s relieving.
The text for today is hard to read, even harder to understand. It’s hard to bring it to you. I hope that what we find in the end is trust that God has good plans for us.
This is something of Daniel’s experience. Daniel has a dream, disturbing enough to haunt him after he wakes. In it, four beasts rise up out of the “great sea,” each one terrible in its own way, but the fourth beast is the one that is most “terrifying and frightening and very powerful,” Da 7:2, 7. It’s a dream he can’t seem to shake, but I’m looking for the happy tears that have gotta be in here somewhere.
The first beast was like a lion with wings like an eagle. Its wings were torn off, and it stood upright and was given a heart like a man. The second beast looked like a bear with three ribs in its mouth. The third looked like a leopard with four bird wings on its back, and it had four heads. The fourth beast had large iron teeth and ten horns; “it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.” A smaller horn grew up among the ten and uprooted three of them. It had eyes like a man and spoke arrogantly, Da 7:4-8.
Then he saw what looked like a court room with what appeared to be God all in white and seated on a flaming throne. A river of fire was flowing out from him in front, thousands attended him, and tens of thousands stood before him. The court was seated and there were books opened, Da 7:9-10.
Daniel saw the beast slain and destroyed in a blazing fire. Then “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” was led into God’s presence. “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him,” Da 7:11-14.
At this point in the dream, because he is “troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me,” he asks someone standing beside him (who is also in the dream) to explain the meaning of what he’s seeing. The man explains that the beasts represent four kingdoms yet to come, but that the saints of God will receive “the kingdom” and live in it forever and ever, Da 7:15-18.
Daniel wants to know more about the fourth beast with iron teeth and bronze claws and ten horns, and the little one that topples three of them. As he watches, the little horn wages war against God’s people and defeats them until the Ancient of Days comes in and judges in favor of the saints and the time comes “when they possess the kingdom,” Da 7:19-22.
The man explains that the fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will be different from all other kingdoms and “will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it.” The ten horns represent ten kings who come from this kingdom. After them, another king will rise, different from the earlier ones, and will subdue three kings. He will speak against God and oppress his people and “try to change the set times and the laws,” Da 7:23-25.
The saints will be handed over to him for “a time, times and half a time.” But his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever, and 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,” Da 7:25-27.
The man’s explanation doesn’t seem to help Daniel much. By the end, he’s still troubled. “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,” 7:28. I can’t say I blame him. I’d rather not write about his dream, too.
Daniel is famous for understanding the meanings of dreams. He’s the one kings bring in for consultation when their sleep is disturbed. But he can’t understand his own. It must have been terrifying. Maybe he’s thinking that if he can understand what it means, he won’t be so afraid. Knowledge about something can feel like a way to control it: if I can understand it, I can find a way to feel safe with it. I can figure out what to do. I can make a plan.
I don’t know about Daniel, but when things don’t make sense, it’s usually not more information that I need. It’s more faith, more faith to believe that God holds what I can’t understand, and I can trust him to carry it. Reading these words in Daniel can be frightening unless we remember what we know to be true about our Father: he is good; he makes good plans for us; he controls all the pieces of his good plans; we win with him in the end.
With the perspective of 2500 years since Daniel lived, we can see which nations in the flow of history best fit these beastly descriptions. Most agree on the interpretations of the first three beasts: the first represents Babylon, whose nation was depicted in their own art as a winged lion. The incident with Nebuchadnezzar’s humbling seems to be exemplified with the broken winged lion who is given the heart of a man, (for that story, see November 27).
The second is thought to be the Medo-Persian empire, who successfully crushed three powerful nations: Babylon, Egypt, and Lydia. The third is Greece and the famous Alexander the Great who conquered all known kingdoms by the age of 28. After his death, the Greek empire was divided into four pieces, hence the “four heads” on the leopard. The fourth is thought to be Rome, with some of the prophecy already fulfilled and some to be fulfilled at a future time. The little horn is thought to symbolize Antiochus Epiphanes and the Antichrist still to come, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/daniel-7/).
Why does God give Daniel a peek into the future without explaining it very much? What was God’s purpose in letting him see what was coming but not with enough detail to be clear? With the perspective we have of history, we can see much of it already fulfilled. But Daniel couldn’t have known that Greece and Rome would rise up to rule on his side of these events. So why does God bother to tell him about them?
I don’t know. But I think it might have to do with increasing our trust. When hard to understand chapters like this one come along in the Bible, what helps me is remembering who God is and what I know of him that’s already clear. I can rest in the thought that regardless of what’s ahead, God’s got a plan, and he’s in control of all the parts, and the good guys win. That’s enough. The dream wasn’t given in order to figure it all out, to dig down inside it and pull out meaning, hoping to find safety in the understanding of it.
It was given to draw our hearts to the Planner, to give us hope that nothing is outside of his good plan, not even world powers, and that he will bring about the happy ending we all want in his good time.
God lets Daniel (and us) in on something of what’s coming, “I’ve got plans for you–here are a few of the highs and lows.” But he doesn’t make it clear, except to say five different times that his saints are in the picture, and that in the end, all of the power and control and greatness of all kingdoms will be given to God’s people. They will live in God’s everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him, Da 7:27.
We’re not forgotten in the events that are coming; we are key players in them. They are good plans from a good God. I’m reminded of these words in Jeremiah that were written for the exiles in Babylon, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” Je 29:11.
Maybe God was saying to Daniel–and to us–“Will you trust me?”
It’s easy to get distracted by the ferocious beasts and what they mean and miss the point: the best part is the promise of the Messiah who rides in on the clouds, beats up the beast, gets worshipped by everybody who breathes, and lives happily ever after with all his besties in the land of God, Da 7:11-14, 27. This is the happy ending in the kingdom God’s been planning since the beginning, where God and Jesus reign, where day doesn’t end, and where there are only happy tears.
I can get lost in the prophecies of the end times, trying to understand what they mean. Looking ahead in the One Year Bible, there are a few more chapters in Daniel still to come plus the minor prophets and Revelation in December. I feel intimidated to think and write about prophecies of what’s ahead.
But then I think, well, this is God’s word. And he’s written it for me to read. And if he’d wanted it to be more clear, he’d have made it more clear. There’s a reason it’s cloaked in mystery for now. One day we will see and understand. If our times are in God’s hands, then it’s because his hands are the safest place for them, regardless of what we know and don’t know. I can rest in his sovereignty. Because he knows, I don’t have to know. I can wait and watch for the signs he gives.
What’s clear to me today are these three things:
–God has a good plan to save his people.
–God is in charge of all parts of the plan, and he uses the rise and fall of world kingdoms to bring it about. [One example of this is Alexander the Great who brought Greek culture and language all over the known world in his day. By doing so, he made reading the New Testament, written in Greek, accessible for a wider audience than it might otherwise have had, (Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commentary/daniel-8/).]
–God will win, and so will his people. We know the end from the beginning. We can trust that God is already there, making our place ready. Jesus promises, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am,” Jn 14:3.
Exactly when and how the last days play out is uncertain, but the important things we know for sure: God will win, and we will be with him in exuberant joy without end. I’m expecting happy tears.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
1 John 1
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we have looked at and our hands have touched–
this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it,
and we proclaim to you the eternal life,
which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard
so that you may also have fellowship with us.
And our fellowship is with the Father and with the Son, Jesus Christ.
We write this to make our joy complete,” 1-4.
I feel like I just pulled a message out of a bottle.
John’s written a note for the world to read: I’ve seen him! I’ve touched him! I’ve heard him! He’s bona fide! He’s the real deal! Listen and believe! I’m so happy, I could pop!
John’s exuberance carries on with this sunshiny truth:
“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son purifies us from all sins,” 1 Jn 5-7.
I can’t claim to know God and not live his way. Light can’t live in the dark.
Sometimes the writer of this psalm is hard to relate to. His love for God’s word outshines anybody else’s I’ve ever heard of. He longs for it, faints for it, finds it sweeter than honey, delights in it like treasures in a box, rejoices over it like one who finds great spoil.
For all that I can’t connect with, I love the very last verse:
“I have strayed like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant,
for I have not forgotten your commands,” 119:176.
The psalmist has bad days?! He’s not always doing what he should? What relief! And there’s more: when he strays, he asks God to seek him. God’s the one who comes after him to bring him home. I’m reminded of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to look for that lost one.
It’s never been about me seeking God. If it were up to me, I’d have never opened a Bible. It’s God seeking me that’s given me the desire to seek him in return. It’s good to be reminded that “we love because he first loved us,” 1Jn 4:19.
If the psalmist depends on God’s seeking, I can, too. Thank you, God, that my being close to you matters to you enough to come find me.
My take away today is the seeking God does to find me when I stray. It’s hard to keep going after a child that won’t stay put, much less an adult who knows better, and I’m grateful to know God does it (Psalms). Living his way–in the light–matters (1 John). I can’t claim to know him and persist in the dark. I’m grateful that he forgives me when I wander and comes to find me.
His plan for the nations will unfold in his good time, after he’s sought and found all the lost sheep he’s got written in those books (Daniel). Today’s readings were difficult, but I don’t want to miss the good news in them. God is in control. Because he is on his throne, I can end today with the taste of hot chocolate in my mouth and the warmth of Jesus’ eyes when he comes in, riding on those clouds.
“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,”