Harry Whittaker
Visions in Daniel

5. Four Beasts (Daniel ch. 7:1-7; 17-23)

Here, there can be little doubt, is the counterpart to the four empires foretold through the symbolism of Nebuchadnezzar’s image. But a prophet of the Lord saw this vision; so, whereas the king saw bright impressive metals as symbols of human might, Daniel saw them as four horrible beasts. The reason for the repetition in a different form is simply explained by Genesis 41:32.

These four beasts are described as coming up from the sea. Accordingly, attempts have been made to interpret this detail as indicating their origination in the Mediterranean, the Great Sea. This will not do, for concerning Babylon and Persia it is simply not true.

More probably the “sea” is the fiery stream (Dan. 7: 10), the firmament (Ez. 1:25,26), the paved work of a sapphire stone (Ex. 24:10), the sea of glass (Rev. 4:6; 15:2) before the throne of the Almighty. In other words, these empires only rose to power through the design and control of heaven. Some would go even further, and suggest that the four foul beasts are representations of four angels of evil doing God’s inscrutable work among the nations of the world.

Verse 3 neatly introduces a quote from God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 22:17): “the sand of the sea”; a subtle hint that the prophecy is about Israel, the natural seed of Abraham and their enemies (cp. Rev. 13:1).

Confirmation of this conclusion, that the four empires are the oppressors of Israel comes from recognition that this vision was anticipated in Hosea 13:7,8, where note especially: “they (Israel) have forgotten me... “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself” (v.6,9).

The lion with eagle’s wings was already familiar to Daniel as a symbol of Assyria and Babylon, for in both countries such figures guarded temple and palace entrances. (For a Biblical interpretation see Jeremiah 49: 19; 50: 17). Cyrus’s bas-relief at Persepolis shows Babylon like a lion and his sword in its guts. Jeremiah’s writings, documents in Daniel’s library (9:2), had the same idea.

This beast was “made to stand upon its feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it” (7:4). This was not prophecy, but history, recalling the remarkable experience of Nebuchadnezzar’s recovery from animal madness (ch.4).

The bear, a mountain beast, was an easy figure of the threatening power of Persia. Its being raised up on one side anticipated the greater exaltation of the Persians over the earlier threat of the Medes.

All kinds of interpretations have been advanced to explain the “three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it” (v.5):

  1. The northern conquests specified in Jeremiah 51:27.
  2. The three much more important conquests: Babylon, Lydia, and Egypt.
  3. Three directions of territorial expansion: NW/W/SW.

The third beast, a fast-moving winged leopard, is a fitting symbol of the Greek empire. It took Alexander the Great only ten years to extend his conquests as far as India. The four wings and four heads suggest the sub-division of the empire into four territories, each ruled by one of Alexander’s generals.

The fourth beast, “dreadful and terrible”, is unquestionably Rome. The emphasis on its “great iron teeth” suggests a correspondence with the legs of iron in the image. And “brake in pieces” is the very phrase used about the fourth empire in Daniel 2:40.

The fate of these four beasts is summed up succinctly: “they had their dominion taken away, yet (before that transpired) their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (7:12). Possibly, but not certainly this last phrase refers to the Passover (“time”) when the Roman siege of Jerusalem began, and the “season” was the five month’s duration of the siege when the Gentile down-treading of the holy city brought all to an end. (On this, see commentary on Daniel 8).

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