Biblical Commentary

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18



The book of Daniel belongs to a category of literature called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature usually comes out of difficult times. For example, the book of Daniel comes from the era (165 B.C.) when Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the temple and tried to impose pagan religious practices on the Jews. The book of Revelation comes from the era (95 A.D.) when Christians were being persecuted because they refused to worship the emperor.

While apocalyptic literature might seem strange to us, the word apocalypse means unveiling or revelation. Apocalyptic literature typically proclaims a message of hope in coded language not understandable except by insiders and therefore unlikely to draw the ire of hostile authorities.

Apocalyptic literature usually reflects a strong dualism—good against evil. It presents dramatic visions full of symbols—numbers, colors, and animals—codes that must be explained or interpreted. It sees time, not as cyclic (as the Greeks thought of time), but as a linear movement toward God’s final judgment. It regards present troubles as mere birth pangs that will lead to the final consummation of God’s reign. It holds out hope for the faithful who are suffering now, but who will receive a Godly reward in the end.


The book of Daniel seems almost like two books. The first six chapters tell of four young Israelites in the Babylonian captivity (chapter 1)—Daniel (also known as Belteshazzar), Hananiah (aka Shadrach), Mishael (aka Meshack), and Azariah (aka Abednego). These first six chapters include the stories of:

• Daniel interpreting two of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (chapters 2 and 4).

• The king making a gold statue and requiring that everyone worship it. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to do so, the king had them thrown in a fiery furnace—but God joined the three young men in the fire and prevented them from being harmed (chapter 3).

• Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for Belshazzar—followed immediately by Belshazzar’s death and the ascendancy of Darius to the throne (chapter 5).

• A plot against Daniel—Daniel being thrown in the lion’s den by King Darius—and being saved from harm by the Lord (chapter 6).

At chapter 7, the writing changes from pure narrative to apocalyptic narrative that includes visions of strange beasts, judgment, and angels. Chapters 7-12 include four visions. The first three (chapters 7, 8, and 9) parallel the events of chapters 4-6, while the last vision (chapters 10-12) “is the latest date recorded in the book” (Baldwin, 136).

While chapters 1-6 and 7-12 appear at first glance to be very different stories, they are, in fact, one story—the story of God’s providential care for God’s people—told from two different perspectives. Chapters 1-6 tell the story as it relates to God’s care for a handful of God’s people (Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego). Chapters 7-12 tell the same story as it relates to God’s care for the nation Israel—and, by extension, for God’s people throughout time.


In chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream and Daniel interpreted it (2:24ff.). The king’s dream was of a great statue made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron—and feet made of iron and clay. A stone struck the feet of the statue, and the statue broke into pieces. The wind carried away the pieces so that nothing remained of the statue, but the stone which had struck it grew to fill the whole earth.

Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was the head of gold. He then told of three other kingdoms that would arise—one of silver, one of bronze, and one of iron. These kingdoms would rule, one after the other, but the kingdom of iron would be a divided kingdom (like the iron and clay feet of the statue). But God was establishing a kingdom that would never be destroyed and that would stand forever.

There are, of course, various interpretations of the four kingdoms. In the scary days of the 1950s and 60s when schoolchildren were practicing “duck and cover”—crawling under their desks for protection from a nuclear explosion—some people thought that the kingdom of iron was Russia. However, it is more likely that the vision intended Daniel to understand those four kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.

In chapter 5, Belshazzar hosted a great feast for a thousand of his lords. Under the influence of alcohol, he ordered that the holy vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar from the Jerusalem temple be brought in so that he and his guests could drink from them. Then, immediately, handwriting appeared on the wall—”Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”. At the queen’s urging, Belshazzar had Daniel brought in to interpret the handwriting. Daniel told Belshazzar that he stood under the judgment of God, and that his kingdom would be divided between the Medes and Persians. “In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean King was slain. Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old” (5:30-31).

Chapter 6 tells of a plot against Daniel and Darius (against his will) having Daniel thrown into the lion’s den.


1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head on his bed: then he wrote the dream and told the sum of the matters. 2 Daniel spoke and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the sky broke forth on the great sea. 3 Four great animals came up from the sea, diverse one from another.

“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon” (v. 1a). Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon—killed by the Medes and Persians when they captured Babylon in 539 B.C.

Chapter 4 ends with Nebuchadnezzar praising God, and chapter five records the last day of Belshazzar’s reign, so “the first year of King Belshazzar” would fit between chapters 4 and 5.

Daniel 5:2 says that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, but archeological records “indicate that he was in fact the eldest son of Nabonidus, who was king of Babylon from 555 to 539, and of Nitocris, who was perhaps a daughter of Nebuchadrezzar. When Nabonidus went into exile (550), he entrusted Belshazzar with the throne and the major part of his army” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Belshazzar”; see also Clines, 455; Chavalas; Johnson, 423).

Scholars place “the first year of King Belshazzar” between 554 B.C. (Lederach) and 550 B.C. (Goldingay; see also Baldwin, 138). It is therefore 11-15 years prior to the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus in 539 B.C.—the event that would lead to the freeing of the Jewish exiles. 550 B.C. was the year when Cyrus ascended to the Persian throne.

“Daniel had a dream and visions of his head on his bed” (v. 1b). When Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he referred to it as “Your dream, and the visions of your head on your bed” (2:28). The parallel wording with this verse, where Daniel is the dreamer, ties it to the earlier occasion, where Daniel interpreted the king’s dream.

“Then he wrote the dream” (v. 1c). Daniel had four visions, but this is the only record of his making a written record of a vision. That is a significant step, because a written record of a prophecy, if shared with others prior to its fulfillment, makes the prophecy testable against its subsequent fulfillment.

• The Lord ordered Isaiah to write down prophecy “that it may be for the time to come forever and ever” (Isaiah 30:8; see also Isaiah 8:1, 16).

• The Lord ordered Jeremiah to “take a scroll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations” (Jeremiah 36:2).

• The Lord ordered Habakkuk, “Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets, that he who runs may read it. For the vision is yet for the appointed time, and it hurries toward the end, and won’t prove false” (Habakkuk 2:2-3).

“Daniel spoke and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the sky” (v. 2a). The fact that this vision takes place at night is significant. We are more likely to be afraid at night than in the daytime. If we awaken from a frightening dream during the night, the darkness and our aloneness make the situation seem more terrifying than if the sun were shining and other people were awake.

“The four winds of the sky” can refer to north, south, east, and west, and that is the way it is used in Zechariah 2:6. When used in that way, it is a way of saying “everywhere”.

In these verses, the four winds are associated with four great beasts (v. 3)—four kings that “shall arise out of the earth” (v. 17). The four winds are not the four beasts, but instead stir up the sea, freeing the beasts to come up out of the sea. The winds, then, represent the force of chaos at work in our world.

“broke forth on the great sea” (v. 2b). For people who sail the seas in small ships, the sea is a fearsome place. Winds come up suddenly, transforming an ordinary day into a life-or-death battle against the elements. Anyone who has been caught in a storm in a small boat can appreciate how frightening the sea must have been for people in Biblical times.

The “great sea” could be any large body of water, but in a Biblical context usually refers to the Mediterranean Sea (Numbers 34:6-7; Joshua 1:4; 9:1; 15:47; 23:4; Ezekiel 47:10, 15, 19-20; 48:28).

“Four great animals came up from the sea, diverse one from another” (v. 3). The people of that time, familiar with odd life-forms spawned by the sea, spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster (Job 3:8; 41:1; Psalm 74:14; 104:26; 74:14; Isaiah 27:1). They, who had seen strange and awesome sea creatures, would have no trouble imagining four great beasts coming up out of the sea.

These beasts are described in some detail in verses 4-8 (see below). In the interpretation of the dream, Daniel will learn that these four beasts are four kings that “shall arise out of the earth” (v. 17).

The fact that the chaotic sea has spawned these fearsome beasts suggests that these beast/kings will be “associated with the forces of chaos in the world and at odds with the powers of heaven” (Smith-Christopher).


These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them.

The first beast looked like a lion, with wings like an eagle—but then its wings were plucked off (7:4). The second beast looked like a bear with tusks in its mouth (7:5). The third beast looked like a leopard with four wings and four heads (7:6). The fourth beast had great iron teeth and ten horns—and then a smaller horn emerged—a little horn with eyes like human eyes and an arrogant mouth (7:7-8).

In the book of Ezekiel, we also see animals portrayed as nations (Ezekiel 17:3-10; 19:2). In fact, even in modern times, nations often use animals as symbols of their might. The eagle is the symbol of the United States and the bear is the symbol of Russia.

Verses 9-10 tell of an Ancient One on his throne. Verses 11-12 tell of the arrogant beast being destroyed and the other beasts losing power. Verses 13-14 tell of “one like a Son of Man” (In a very unfortunate translation, the NRSV translates it “one like a human being” (v. 13).


15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was grieved in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. 16 I came near to one of those who stood by, and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. 17 These great animals, which are four, are four kings, who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.

“As for me, Daniel, my spirit was grieved in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me” (v. 15). There is a parallel between the awakenings of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, too, was troubled by his dream (2:1-3).

Who wouldn’t be troubled after such a dream? Who wouldn’t be terrified? Just as the chaotic sea inspired fear among those held in its grip, these exotic and fierce-looking beasts would also inspire fear in the person who witnessed their appearing.

“I came near to one of those who stood by, and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things” (v. 16). Earlier, we saw the Ancient One on his throne, attended by “thousands of thousands” and “ten thousand times ten thousand” (7:10). It is one of these attendants to whom Daniel goes for an interpretation.

This attendant is not named, but later, Gabriel will render assistance (8:15-16; 9:21), so perhaps this is Gabriel. We know Gabriel better from the New Testament, where he announces to Zechariah the birth of Zechariah’s son, John (Luke 1:11-19)—and to Mary the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38).

“These great animals, which are four, are four kings, who shall arise out of the earth” (v. 17). These four beast/kings parallel the four kings in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (2:1-49).

God’s attendant reveals to Daniel that the four great beasts represent four earthly kings (7:17)—probably the kings of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece—thus paralleling Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The little horn with the arrogant mouth probably represents Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king who desecrated the Jerusalem temple and imposed Greek institutions and worship there.

But we could also say that these four beasts represent every tyranny. This vision gave hope to the Jews of Daniel’s era, but we can also find hope here. This vision promises that the Hitlers and Stalins and Mao Tse-tungs and Pol Pots and Idi Amins and Robert Mugabes and Kim Jong-ils and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads of the world stand on feet of clay. Their kingdoms will crumble and fall (although they might wreak havoc while alive). God is in charge, and ultimately God will triumph over every evil.

“But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever” (v. 18). Who are these “saints of the Most High”? “Elsewhere in the book of Daniel, holy ones/watchers refer to heavenly beings, angels” (Lederach) (see 4:17; 7:21, 25, 27; 8:24). Earlier, God proclaimed his intention that Israel would be a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)—and Peter applies that term to the church (1 Peter 2:9).

The interpretation concludes with these words: “The kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole sky, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High: his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (7:27). That wording leads me to believe that the holy ones are the people of God—first Israel and later the church.

“It is essential…to notice that the focus of the chapter as a whole is not on the monsters…. The focus of Daniel 7 is rather on the coming day of divine judgment, when these monsters will finally receive justice and God will win the final victory” (Duguid, 112).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Daniel, Vol. 21 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978)

Clines, David J. A., article on “Belshazzar” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume One: A-DRevised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979)

Chavalas, Mark W., article on “Belshazzar” in Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)

Duguid, Iain M., Reformed Expository Commentary: Daniel (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008)

Encyclopedia Britannica 2009 Multimedia Edition, article on “Belshazzar” (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica)

Ferguson, Sinclair B., The Preacher’s Commentary: Daniel, Vol. 21 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988)

Goldingay, John E., Word Biblical Commentary: Daniel, Vol. 30 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)

Johnson, Marshall, article on “Belshazzar” in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: A-C, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006)

Lederach, Paul M., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Daniel (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994)

Miller, Stephen R., New American Commentary: Daniel, Vol. 18 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998)

Moule, C.F.D., The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Gospel According to Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965)

Pace, Sharon, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Daniel (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008)

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L., The New Interpreters Bible: Daniel, Vol.VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)

Towner, W. Sibley, Interpretation Commentary: Daniel (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984)

Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan