Biblical Commentary

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14



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 Belshazzar), 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 Belshaazar—followed immediately by Belshaazar ‘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 visions (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.


While these verses (7:1-8) are not included in the lectionary reading, they are essential to understanding it. They tell of Daniel’s dream and vision of four great beasts coming up out of the sea.

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 whole thing 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.

It is the first year of King Belshazzar (7:1), and it is Daniel who is dreaming dreams and seeing visions—this time of four beasts. 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 interpretation of the dream as given by God to Daniel, 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 more broadly 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 accomplish terrible destruction while they are in existence). God is in charge, and ultimately God will triumph over every evil.

It is with this background in mind that we look at the lectionary reading which gives the continuation of Daniel’s vision, assuring the faithful that there is a greater power at work than that represented by these four terrifying beasts—that the greater power is God—and that God will triumph over these beasts.


9 I saw until thrones were placed, and one who was ancient of days sat: his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels burning fire. 10 A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

“I saw until thrones were placed” (v. 9a). Thrones are symbols of power and authority. For whom are these thrones intended? One is intended for the Ancient One, but we aren’t told how many additional thrones are set in place or who is to sit on them. The book of Revelation portrays twenty-four elders sitting dressed in white robes and golden crowns sitting on twenty-four heavenly thrones (Revelation 4:4), but we have no idea if those thrones correspond to the ones in Daniel’s vision. It is unlikely that there would be thrones for the “ten thousand times ten thousand” mentioned in verse 10. The “ten thousand times ten thousand” were servants—attendants to the Ancient One—not exalted beings who would sit on thrones.

“and one who was ancient of days sat” (v. 9b). In those days, age was venerated. People looked to elders for wisdom, and rulers were often older men. The term “ancient of days” therefore speaks of wisdom and power.

“his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool” (v. 9c). In the Bible, white suggests purity (Isaiah 1:18; Revelation 3:4–5, 18; 7:9, 12–14). The ancient of days is dressed in white clothing and has hair that is white like wool.

“his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him” (vv. 9d-10a). Fire was often used in Hebrew Scriptures to speak of God’s presence. God appeared to Abram as “a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch” (Genesis 15:17). Yahweh spoke to Moses from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Yahweh descended upon Mount Sinai in fire (Exodus 19:18). Yahweh led the Israelites with a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice—and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).

Fire is powerful—life-giving when used for cooking or warmth but life-threatening when out of control. In that primitive culture, with no electricity, people dealt with fire daily. They would be very much aware of its power.

The images presented here—a fiery throne, wheels of fire, and a stream of fire—suggest enormous power. The fact that the Ancient One can sit on a fiery throne without being consumed speaks to his deity.

“thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (v. 10b). In Hebrew Scriptures, the term, “one thousand,” is used to represent a very large number (Deuteronomy 5:10; 32:30; Judges 15:15; Psalm 84:10). “thousands of thousands” (millions) would be an extremely large number. “Ten thousand times ten thousand” (one hundred million) would be a number beyond imagining. Numbers of this sort are not used in Hebrew Scripture to represent precise counts, but to draw a word picture of heavenly hosts beyond number. In this case, these millions of servants are attending to the Ancient One—giving tribute to the Ancient One’s grandeur and glory.

“the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (v. 10c). This court has been enthroned for the purpose of rendering judgment. The books mentioned here would be those in which the Lord keeps the names of his faithful people (Exodus 32:33; Psalm 69:28; Malachi 3:16)—called in the New Testament “the book of life” (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15: 21:27).


11 I saw at that time because of the voice of the great words which the horn spoke; I saw even until the animal was slain, and its body destroyed, and it was given to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the animals, their dominion was taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

It seems unfortunate that the lectionary reading leaves out these verses, since a major objective of this vision is to encourage God’s people in the midst of their adversity. These verses portray the death and destruction of the worst of the beasts (probably Antiochus IV). The faithful who are suffering persecution are thereby assured that there is an end in sight—that God will prevail.

Apparently the framers of the lectionary left out these verses in order to focus this reading on the Ancient One and the One like a Son of Man who appears in verse 13.


13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man (Hebrew: bar ‘enas—Son of Man), and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man” (bar ‘enas—Son of Man) (v. 13a). Because of its inclusive language agenda, the NRSV translates this as “human being” rather than “son of man.” This is an especially unfortunate translation, given the significance of the title, Son of Man, in the New Testament, where Jesus refers to himself as Son of Man (Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41, 62, and parallels). Only four times in the New Testament (John 12:34; Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13; 14:14) does anyone other than Jesus use the phrase, and then always to refer to Jesus. In the New Testament, Son of Man is obviously a messianic title.

However, son of man in its original context probably meant simply “human being”—or, perhaps, “‘the saints of the Most High,’ that is, God’s loyal few, who had been ready to go to martyrdom rather than deny their faith” (Moule, 65; see also Pace, 245)—or, perhaps, Israel or “the angel Michael or Gabriel (or) a Davidic king or the messiah (or) Daniel himself (or) Judah Maccabee (or) a high priest; or a heavenly figure whose identity is not known” (Pace, 246).

Miller advocates a messianic identification of this one like a son of man, saying, “The most compelling evidence for (this) interpretation of the son of man is furnished by Christ himself. In Mark 14:61-62, he identified himself as that ‘Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ There is no other passage in the Old Testament to which Christ could have been referring…. Young asserts, ‘The employment of this title by Jesus Christ is one of the strongest evidence that He attributed Deity to Himself'” (Miller, 208).

We should note that Daniel, in his vision, does not see the Son of Man, but “One like a son of man.”

“there came with the clouds of the sky” (v. 13b). This is reminiscent of Sinai, where “the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10; see also Exodus 13:21; Deuteronomy 4:11-12; Mark 9:7; 13:26; Acts 1:9; Revelation 1:7).

“and they brought him near before him” (v. 13c). There are several thrones—perhaps many thrones (v. 9a)—but the One like a Son of Man is not presented to the panoply of judges but to the Ancient One—only to the Ancient One. This testifies to his unique status in this august assembly.

“There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (v. 14a). In the creation story, God made humankind (Hebrew: ‘a·dam) in God’s image and gave them “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Now this one like a son of man is given dominion over “all peoples, nations, and languages”—i.e., this one is given “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom” over the ones who were given dominion over the earth’s living beings.

“should serve him” (v. 14a). These peoples and nations are not to serve statues made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron (see 2:31ff.), but are to serve the One like a Son of Man.

“his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (v. 14b). The statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay (see 2:31ff.) was not forever. The stone struck its feet of iron and clay, and the whole statue crumbled and was blown away by the wind.

This One like a Son of Man is drawn in sharp contrast to that statue. His dominion is everlasting, and his kingdom will never be destroyed.


Daniel asked for an interpretation of his dream, and one of the attendants provided an interpretation in verses 15-27. To examine this interpretation is beyond the scope of this immediate exegesis. Suffice it to say that the interpretation is almost as mysterious as the vision itself.

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)

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

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)

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