Daniel 7 Bible Commentary

John Darby’s Synopsis

(Read all of Daniel 7)
The prophetic history of the last form of the Gentile empire

We come now to the communications made to Daniel himself, which contain not merely general principles, but details relative to God's people, and the Gentiles who oppressed them —historical details, though given beforehand prophetically.

The chief object of chapter 7 is the history of the fourth beast, or the last form of the Gentile empire, which commenced at Babylon—the great western power, in which was to be developed all that man in possession of power would become with respect to God and to the faithful. And with that its relation with the saints is given in the interpretation. But the introduction of this western beast is briefly given. Four beasts come up from the sea, that is to say, from the waves of human population. These powers are not looked at here as established by God, but in their purely historical character. We have seen the empire established immediately by God in the person of Nebuchadnezzar. But here—although every existing power is established by God—they are seen in their historical aspect. The beasts come up out of the sea. The prophet first sees them all at once arising out of the agitation of the nations. This part of the vision contains characteristic features, but gives no date.

1. Babylon

In verse 4 we have Babylon in power and then abased and subdued. The body of a lion with eagle's wings; that which, humanly speaking, was most noble and energetic in strength—that which hovered over the nations with the highest and most rapid flight—characterised this first energy of the human mind, when the will of God had committed to it the empire of the world. This place it loses.

2. Medo-Persia

The second beast devoured much, but had neither the energy nor the rapid flight of the first; it appropriated other kingdoms to itself rather than created an empire; twofold in its strength at first, it raised itself up more on one side than on the other. It is ferocious, but comparatively unwieldy; it is the Medo-Persian empire.

3. The empire founded by Alexander

This chapter says but little of the third; lightness and activity characterise it, and dominion was given to it. It is the empire founded by Alexander.

The fourth is the subject of a separate vision.

The division and arrangement of chapter 7

It will be well to remark, in passing, that the chapter is divided into three visions, followed by the interpretation given to the prophet. The first vision comprises the four beasts seen together, and the character of the first three slightly sketched. The second vision contains that of the fourth beast with much more detail. The third vision presents the appearing of one like the Son of man before the Ancient of days. They commence respectively at the first, seventh, and thirteenth verses; the interpretation occupies the remainder of the chapter from verse 15.

4. The fourth beast: its distinctive character: its "little horn"

The features of the fourth beast are clearly drawn. It is strong exceedingly; it devours and breaks in pieces, and tramples the residue under foot. It has not the same character as the preceding monarchies. It has ten horns; that is to say, its strength was to be divided into ten distinct powers. Strength and rapacity, which spare and respect nothing, appropriating everything, or trampling it under foot without regard to conscience; such are morally the characteristics of the fourth beast. Its division into ten kingdoms distinguishes it as to its form. The uniform simplicity of the other empires will be lacking to it. But this is not all. Another very distinctive and special element attracted the particular attention of the prophet. While considering the horns, he saw another little horn come up among them: three of the first fell before it; it possessed the penetration and intelligence of man; its pretensions were very great. Such was its character. A power rises among the ten by which three of them are overthrown. This power is clear-sighted and penetrating in its intelligence. It not only possesses strength, but it has thoughts and plans besides those of ambition and government. It is a beast that works morally, that occupies itself with knowledge, and sets itself up with pretensions full of pride and daring. It has a character of intelligence, moral and systematic (in evil), and not merely the strength of a conqueror. This horn has the eyes of a man.

The Ancient of Days: the session of judgment

Afterwards the thrones are set [1], and the Ancient of days sits. It is a session of judgment, the throne of Jehovah's judgment; it is not said where, but its effect is on earth. The words of the little horn are the occasion of the execution of judgment. It is executed on the beast, which is destroyed, and its body given to the flames. With respect to the other beasts, their dominion had been taken away, but their lives prolonged; the fourth loses its life with its dominion. The scene of judgment forms a part of the vision of the fourth beast, and especially relates to it.

The earthly kingdom given to Christ

In verse 13 there is another vision. One like the Son of man is brought to the Ancient of days, and receives the kingdom and universal dominion—the rule of Jehovah entrusted to man in the Person of Christ, and substituted for the kingdom of the beast. Observe that this is not the execution of the judgment that had been spoken of, but the reception of the earthly kingdom; for, in all this, the government of the earth is the subject.

The interpretation of Daniel's vision: its two great facts

There are two parts in the interpretation. Verses 17, 18 are general; and then, with reference to the fourth beast (v. 19-28), there is more of detail. The general part declares that these four beasts are four kings, or kingdoms, that shall arise out of the earth: but that the saints of the high places shall take the kingdom, and possess it for ever. These are the two great facts brought out in this history: the earthly empire, and that of the saints of the high places (the first being composed of four kingdoms). We are then given some details with respect to the fourth of these. It will be noticed here, that, in the interpretation, an element of the highest interest is added, which was not in the vision to which the interpretation belongs; namely, that which relates to the saints. In communicating to the prophet the meaning of the vision, God could not omit them. Verse 18 already presents them in contrast with the empires of the earth. These empires were seen to arise in the vision according to their public or external character. Here the Spirit of God tells of that which made their conduct a subject of interest even to the heart of God, who would testify this interest to the prophet. The saints are immediately brought into view, but in a suffering condition (v. 21). This is the first characteristic of the little horn, when his actions are in question.

The power of the little horn ended by the coming of the Ancient of Days

But verses 21, 22 demand a few more remarks. The little horn not only makes war with the saints, but prevails against them up to a certain time (that is, until the coming of the Ancient of days). Something more definite is given here than the fact that God will judge the audacity of man. We are no longer occupied with the public history and with general principles, but with explanations for the saints in the person of the prophet. It is the coming of the Ancient of days that puts an end to the power of the little horn over the saints.

The saints on earth and the saints "of the high places"

Other important events are the result of this great change, of this intervention of God: first, judgment is given to the saints of the high places; and, second, the saints take the kingdom. Observe here the especial title "of the high places." The little horn persecutes the saints on earth, and prevails against them until the Ancient of days comes. But it is only to the saints of the high places that judgment is given. "Know ye not," says the apostle, "that the saints shall judge the world?" Nevertheless we must not go beyond that which is here written. It is not said, "to the assembly"—an idea not found in these passages. It is the saints who are linked with the Most High [2] God in heaven, while the earth is in the hands of those who do not acknowledge Him, and while His government is not exercised to preserve them from suffering, and from the malice of the wicked. This applies in principle to all times since the fall, until the Ancient of days comes. But there is a period especially characterised by this spirit of rebellion, namely, that of the power of the little horn. There is another class of persons spoken of farther on—the people of the saints of the high places. "The kingdom is given to them." But in this case the Spirit does not say, "the judgment."

Thus, in verse 22, when the kingdom is mentioned, it is not said "the saints of the high places," but simply "the saints possessed the kingdom." We have thus the power of the little horn exercised against the saints, and prevailing against them, put an end to by the Ancient of days, the earth being the scene of that which is taking place. This event is accompanied by two other events. which result from it, and which change the whole aspect of the world. Judgment is given to the heavenly saints, and the kingdom is given to the saints. The first of these two events is confined to the heavenly saints. The second is more general, the saints on earth sharing it according to their condition, without excluding the saints in heaven according to their condition.

The general character of the fourth beast; its ten kingdoms; the "little horn"

In verse 23 begin the historical details of the little horn. The general character of the fourth beast is set forth. It devours, treads down, and subjugates everything. It is not only a consolidated empire, of such or such an extent; it ravages the whole earth as by right. There are, then, ten kingdoms arising in the bosom of the empire, and dividing its power. This is its outward and general character. But when the ten are already existing, another power arises of a different character from the ten, three of which it subdues. Now this horn speaks against the Most High—magnifies itself in words against Him. In its malice it destroys the saints who are united in heart to the God of heaven, and confess His name and His authority on the earth. It seeks to change the religious feasts and the laws; and they are given into its hand for three years and a half. In this last circumstance we find pretty clearly the oppressor of the Jews. Their whole system is given into his hands. These three characteristics are sufficiently plain and distinct: he speaks against the Most High; he persecutes those who own God in heaven, and whose hearts turn there (compare Psalm 11: 4); and he does away with all public evidences of the earthly religion.

The forms of the Jewish religion given up, but not the saints

It will be remarked that there is no question at all here of the assembly, except in such general terms as must apply to any saints whatever on the earth who looked up higher. It is well also to observe, that it is not the saints (as has been thought) who are given into the hand of the little horn, but the forms of the Jewish religion. God may will and permit, for the good of the saints, that there should be persecution; but He never gives up His saints to their enemies. He could not do it. He cannot leave and forsake His own. In a word, whatever may be the general principles capable of application during the course of the ages, this prophecy, as an especial and definite revelation, refers, like the whole Book, to the earth, of which the assembly is not, and to the Jews, with respect to whom God exercises His government on the earth.

The three characterisitics of the little horn: his dominion destroyed

This, understood, throws light on the three characteristics of the little horn. He rebels against the Most High. He speaks great words against God, and against all the saints who, rising in spirit above the earth, acknowledge the Most High God in heaven, and expect deliverance at His hand; whose hearts take refuge in Him, when the earth is given up, as it were, into the hands of the wicked. All those who thus maintain a true testimony against the man who arrogates to himself every prerogative on earth, and will have nothing to do with heaven, are persecuted by him. At length, the Jews having re-established their regular feasts and ordinances, his tyranny, which allows no power but his own, destroys all. traces of these ordinances; which, however vain, as restored in unbelief, were nevertheless a testimony to the existence of a God of the earth. But the judgment sits to take cognizance of all this pride. The dominion of the little horn is consumed and destroyed. We may notice here that it is in fact the little horn that in the end wields the supreme power. It is his dominion which is destroyed. Afterwards the kingdom and the dominion under the whole heaven is given to "the people of the saints of the high places." It appears to me that the meaning of this expression, remarkable as it is, is yet sufficiently plain. The Most High reigns, but He reigns in connection with the system which makes it manifest that "the heavens rule" (as it is said on this subject in the case of Nebuchadnezzar). The man of the earth would reign, and he defies heaven; and, withdrawing the earth from the government of Him who dwells in heaven, he would possess it independently of God. But the judgment proves his folly, and the Most High reigns for evermore. The saints who have acknowledged Him are given the judgment and the glory, and the people who belong to them on the earth have the supremacy and reign. These are the Jews. But, definitely, it is God who reigns.

"The heavenly places"

There are two words translated "Most High," the one singular and the other plural. The latter signifies "the high (places)." I do not doubt that this word gave rise to the expression "heavenly places" in the epistle to the Ephesians, which however goes much farther in the revelation there made. For here government only is the subject, and in the Ephesians it is the things that belong to the heavenly places, or that are in them. This distinction enables us to understand the difference between the assembly, or even Christians, and the saints of the high places in Daniel 7. With respect to the Christians, it is those who enjoy—in spirit at least—the blessings of the heavenly places, sitting there in Christ, and wrestling against the spiritual wickedness that is there. Here, on the contrary, it is the government which belongs of right to the heavens and to Him that reigns there which is to be recognised, in the presence of a power that denies and sets itself up against this, choosing to own no other power than itself on the earth. The meaning of the prophecy is plain and easily understood. To recognise the right of government in the heavenly places, and to be sitting there in the enjoyment of the blessings proper to them, are two very different things. Everything has its own place in the mind of God, where perfect order reigns.

Summary of the interpretation given in chap. 7: 17 to 27

In sum we have, besides the power of the four beasts in general, the western power divided among ten, and at last the empire in the hands of the little horn, which subdues three of the ten horns, and sets itself up against God in heaven, persecutes and prevails against the saints, destroying by its persecutions those who identify themselves with the God of heaven, abolishing all the Jewish ordinances, and finally is itself destroyed. This abolition of the Jewish system continues for three years and a half, or 1260 days; which period of time belongs only to this last point. All the others are characteristic and not chronological.

The government of the earth, formerly given to man in the person of Nebuchadnezzar, is not again established—as it had been at Jerusalem—in a merely earthly throne. During the interval, in the presence of the rebellion of the earthly power against the Most High, the saints have assumed a character which is the result of their looking to heaven and to Him who reigns there (God, with respect to His government of the earth, having taken the name of the God of heaven)—a very intelligible position, seeing that He had forsaken Jerusalem.

Three elements in God's dealings; the character of Him who receives the kingdom

It is the saints of the high places who will take the kingdom; but after the judgment of the rebellious horn, the earthly people possess the dominion under the whole heaven, in dependence on those who are seated in heaven.

So that we have three clear and important elements in the dealings of God. Firstly, the earthly throne at Jerusalem is forsaken; the Gentile throne established by the authority of God, the God of heaven; the rebellion of this Gentile power against Him that had given it authority. Secondly, the saints are distinguished by their acknowledgment of that God whom the earthly power denied; they are of the heavens, where God had now His place and His throne, being no longer on earth at Jerusalem. Thirdly, we have, then, judgment executed on the rebellious power; judgment given to these saints of the high places; the earthly people established in the kingdom under the heavens, in connection with them. This was the dominion of the God of heaven which should not pass away. In connection with this is the character given to Him that pre-eminently receives the kingdom. It is not now the Messiah, owned as king in Zion, but ONE in the form of the Son of man; a title of far greater and more wide significance. It is the change from Psalm 2 to Psalm 8 [3]. Nor this only; for, when the events are accomplished, we find that it is the Ancient of days Himself who comes and puts an end to the power which afflicted the saints—that Christ (as the Psalms so largely shew and the gospels too) is Jehovah.

We have here the great picture of man's government—coming into all its characteristic development at the end—and its setting aside by the government of God, which establishes the faithful in authority, and, above all, the Son of man Himself, and His people on the earth.

The heavenly saints and the spared remnant on earth

The saints of the high places would be thus those who, when the assembly, not noticed here, is gone, look up and own power there, and, if put to death by power in rebellion, have their place above. We find them again in Revelation, specially in chapter 20, and there two classes. The people of the saints are the spared remnant on earth.

[1] This translation is almost universally considered to be correct.

[2] There are four names of relationship which God has taken with men: Almighty (Gen. 17) with the patriarchs; Jehovah with Israel (Ex. 6); Father, with Christians (John 17); and Most High, in the millennium (Gen. 14) and here in Daniel. Compare Psalm go. The name of Father makes a difference in the whole position, associating us with Christ, the Son in whom He is revealed. John's Gospel specially brings out this.

[3] Brought about by the rejection of the Messiah.