Chs. i.-vi. are narrative in form; chs. vii.-xii. are prophetic or apocalyptic -- they deal with visions. Curiously enough ii.4-vii.28, for no apparent reason, are written in Aramaic. In ch. i. Daniel and his three friends, Jewish captives at the court of Babylon, prove their fidelity to their religion by refusing to defile themselves with the king's food. At the end of three years they show themselves superior to the "wise" men of the empire. Then (ii.) follows a dream of Nebuchadrezzar, in which a great image was shivered to pieces by a little stone, which grew till it filled the whole world. Daniel alone could retell and interpret the dream: it denoted a succession of kingdoms, which would all be ultimately overthrown and succeeded by the everlasting kingdom of God. Ch. iii. deals not with Daniel but with his friends. It tells the story of their refusal to bow before Nebuchadrezzar's colossal image of gold, and how their fidelity was rewarded by a miraculous deliverance, when they were thrown into the furnace of fire. The supernatural wisdom of Daniel is again illustrated in ch. iv., where he interprets a curious dream of Nebuchadrezzar as a token that he would be humbled for a time and bereft of his reason. Ch. v. affords another illustration of the wisdom of Daniel, and of the humiliation of impiety and pride, this time in the person of Belshazzar, who is regarded as Nebuchadrezzar's son. Daniel interprets the enigmatic words written by the mysterious hand on the wall as a prediction of the overthrow of Belshazzar's kingdom, which dramatically happens that very night. Ch. vi. is intended to teach how precious to God are those who trust Him and scrupulously conform to the practices of true religion without regard to consequences. Daniel is preserved in the den of lions into which he had been thrown by the cruel jealousy of the officials of Darius' empire.
With ch. vii. Daniel's visions begin. Four great beasts are seen coming up out of the sea, which, according to Babylonian mythology, is the element opposed to the divine. The last of the beasts, especially cruel and terrible, had ten horns, and among them a little horn with human eyes and presumptuous lips. Then is seen the divine Judge upon His throne, and the presumptuous beast is judged and slain. Before this same Judge is brought one like a son of man, who comes with the clouds of heaven -- this human and heavenly figure being in striking contrast to the beasts that rise out of the sea. Daniel is informed that the beasts represent four kingdoms, whose dominion is to be superseded by the dominion of the saints of the most High, i.e. by the kingdom of God, which will be everlasting. In a second vision (viii.) a powerful ram is furiously attacked and overthrown by a goat. The angel Gabriel explains that the ram is the Medo-Persian empire, and the goat is the king of Greece, clearly Alexander the Great. From one of the four divisions of Alexander's empire, a cunning, impudent and impious king would arise who would abolish the daily sacrifice and lay the temple in ruins, but by a miraculous visitation he would be destroyed. In ch. ix. Daniel, after a fervent penitential prayer offered in behalf of his sinful people, is enlightened by Gabriel as to the true meaning of Jeremiah's prophecy (xxv.11f., xxix.10f.) touching the desolation of Jerusalem. The seventy years are not literal years, but weeks of years, i.e.490 years. During the last week (i.e. seven years) there would be much sorrow and persecution, especially during the last half of that period, but it would end in the utter destruction of the oppressor.
In another vision (x.-xii.) Daniel is informed by a shining one of a struggle he had had, supported by Michael, with the tutelary angel of Persia; and he makes a revelation of the future. The Persian empire will be followed by a Greek empire, which will be divided into four. In particular, alliances will be formed and wars made between the kings of the north (no doubt Syria) and the south (Egypt). With great elaboration and detail the fortunes of the king of the north, who is called contemptible, xi.21, are described: how he desecrates the sanctuary, abolishes the sacrifice, cruelly persecutes the holy people, and prescribes idolatrous worship. At last, however, he too perishes, and his death is the signal that the Messianic days are very soon to dawn. Israel's dead -- especially perhaps her martyred dead -- are to rise to everlasting life, and her enemies are also to be raised to everlasting shame. Well is it for him who can possess his soul in patience, for the end is sure.
Two facts are obvious even to a cursory inspection of the contents of Daniel (1), that certain statements about the exilic period, during which, according to the book, Daniel lived, are inaccurate; and (2) towards the close of the book and especially in ch. xi., which represents a period long subsequent to Daniel, the visions are crowded with minute detail which corresponds, point for point, with the history of the third and second centuries B.C., and in particular with the career of Antiochus Epiphanes (xi.21-45).
(1) Among the unhistorical statements the following may be noted. There was no siege and capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar in 605 B.C., as is implied by i.1 (cf. Jer. xxv.1, 9-11), nor indeed could there have been any till after the decisive battle of Carchemish, which brought Western Asia under the power of Babylon. Again, Belshazzar is regarded as the son of Nebuchadrezzar (v.), though he was in reality the son of Nabunaid, between whom and Nebuchadrezzar three monarchs lay. Nor is there any room in this period of the history (538 B.C.) for "Darius the Mede," v.31; the conquest of Babylon threw the Babylonian empire immediately into the hands of Cyrus, and the impossible figure of Darius the Mede appears to arise through a confusion with the Darius who recaptured Babylon after a revolt in 521, and perhaps to have been suggested by prophecies (cf. Isa. xiii.17) that the Medes would conquer Babylon. Again, though in certain passages the Chaldeans represent the people of that name, v.30, ix.1, in others (cf. ii.2, v.7) the word is used to denote the wise men of Babylon -- a use demonstrably much later than the Babylonian empire and impossible to any contemporary of Daniel. Such a seven years' insanity of Nebuchadrezzar as is described in Daniel iv. is extremely improbable; equally improbable is the attitude that Nebuchadrezzar in his decree (iii.) and confession (iv.) and Darius in his decree (vi.) are represented as having adopted towards the God of the Jews.
(2) Concerning the immediately succeeding period -- from Cyrus to Alexander -- the author is apparently not well informed. He knows of only four Persian kings, xi.2 (cf. vii.6). Ch. xi.5-20 gives a brief resume of the relations between the kings of the north and the kings of the south -- which, in this context, after a plain allusion in vv.3, 4 to Alexander the Great and the divisions of his empire, can only be interpreted of Syria and Egypt. From v.21, however, to the end of ch. xi. interest is concentrated upon one particular person, who must, in the context, be a king of the north, i.e. Syria. The direct reference in v.31 to the pollution of the sanctuary, the temporary abolition of sacrifice, and the erection of a heathen altar, put it beyond all doubt that the impious and "contemptible" monarch is none other than Antiochus Epiphanes. This conclusion is confirmed by the details of the section, with their unmistakable references to his Egyptian campaigns, vv.25-28, and to the check imposed upon him by the Romans, v.30, in 168 B.C.
The phenomenon then with which we have to deal is this. A book supposed to come from the exile, and to announce beforehand the persecutions and ultimate triumph of the Jewish people in the second century B.C. is occasionally inaccurate in dealing with the exilic and early post-exilic period, but minute and reliable as soon as it touches the later period. Only one conclusion is possible -- that the book was written in the later period, not in the earlier. It is a product of the period which it so minutely reflects, 168-165 B.C. The precise date of the book depends upon whether we regard viii.14 as implying that the dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C. is a thing of the past or still an object of contemplation. In any case it must have been written before the death of Antiochus in 164 (xi.45). Like all the prophets, the author of Daniel addresses his own age. The brilliant Messianic days are always the issue of the existing or impending catastrophe; and so it is in Daniel. The redemption which is to involve the resurrection is to follow on the death of Antiochus and the cessation of the horrors of persecution -- horrors of which the author knew only too well.
Thus the belief in the late date of the book is reached by a study of the book itself, and is not due to any prejudice against the possibility of miracle or predictive prophecy. But the late date is confirmed by evidence of other kinds, especially (1) linguistic, and (2) theological. (1) There are over a dozen Persian words in the book, some even in the Babylonian part of the story. These words would place the book, at the earliest, within the period of the Persian empire (538-331 B.C.). Further, within two verses, iii.4, 5, occur no less than five Greek words (herald, harp, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe), one of which, psanterin, by its change of l (psalterion) into n, betrays the influence of the Macedonian dialect and must therefore be later than the conquests of Alexander, and another, symphonia, is first found in Plato. Though it is not impossible that the names of the other musical instruments may have been taken over by the Semites from the Greeks at an early time, these words at any rate practically compel us to put the book, at the earliest, within the Greek period (i.e. after 331 B.C.). Further, the Hebrew of the book has a strongly Aramaic flavour. It is not classical Hebrew at all, but has marked affinities, both in vocabulary and syntax, with some of the latest books in the Old Testament, such as Chronicles and Esther.
(2) The theology of Daniel undoubtedly represents one of the latest developments within the Old Testament. The transcendence of God is emphasized. He is frequently called "the God of Heaven," ii.18, 19, and once "heaven" is used, as in the later manner (cf. Luke xv.18) almost as a synonym for "God," iv.26. As God becomes more transcendent, angels become more prominent: they constitute a very striking feature in the book of Daniel -- two of them are even named, Gabriel and Michael. Very singular, too, and undoubtedly late is the conception that the fortunes of each nation are represented and guarded in heaven by a tutelary angel, x.13ff.20.
The view of the future life in xii.2, 3 is the most advanced in the Old Testament: not only the nation but the individuals shall be raised, and of the individuals not only the good (cf. Isa. xxvi.14, 19) but the bad, to receive the destiny which is their due. These facts so conclusively suggest a late date for the book that it is unnecessary to emphasize Daniel's prayer three times a day with his face towards Jerusalem, vi.10, though this is not without its significance.
The interpretation of this difficult book loses much of its difficulty as soon as we recognize it to be a product of the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is best to begin with ch. xi, for there the allusions are, in the main, unmistakable and undeniable. Antiochus is the last of the kings of the north, i.e. Syria, regarded as one of the divisions of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great. Without enigma or symbolism of any kind, the Persian empire is mentioned in xi.2 as preceding the Greek, and in v.1 as being preceded by the Median, which in its turn had been preceded by the Babylonian. Here, then, in the plainest possible terms, is a succession of four empires -- Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek -- the last to be succeeded by the kingdom of God (ch. xii.); and with this key in our hand we can unlock the secret of chs. vii. and ii.
In ch. vii. the four kingdoms, represented by the four beasts and contrasted with the humane kingdom which is to follow them, are no doubt these very same kingdoms, as are also the four kingdoms of ch. ii., symbolized by the different parts of the colossal image of Nebuchadrezzar's dream: the little stone which destroys the image is again the kingdom of God. In ch. viii. the ram with the two unequal horns is the Medo-Persian empire, and the goat which overthrows the ram is symbolic of the Greek empire, founded by Alexander.
These great features of the book are practically certain. It is further extremely probable that, in spite of a noticeable difference in the context, the "little horn" of viii.9 is the same as the little horn of vii.8, 20: the detail of both descriptions -- the war with the saints, the destruction of the temple, the abolition of the sacrifice -- is an undisguised allusion to Antiochus Epiphanes in his persecution of the faithful Jews and his efforts to extirpate their religion. The one like a son of man in vii.13 is almost certainly not the Messiah: coming as he does with the clouds of heaven, he is the symbol of the kingdom of God, in contrast to the beasts, which emerge from the ungodly sea and symbolize the empires of this world. Again, his being "like a man" -- for this is probably all that the phrase means -- is meant to suggest that the kingdom of God is essentially human and humane, in contrast to the four preceding kingdoms, which are essentially brutal and cruel. This interpretation, which the contrasts practically necessitate, is made as certain as may be by vv.18, 22, 27, where the kingdom and dominion, which in v.13 are assigned to one like a son of man, are assigned in similar terms to "the people of the saints of the most High," i.e. the faithful Jews.
The passages whose interpretation is least certain occur in ch. ix. In each of two consecutive verses, vv 25f., is a reference to an "anointed one" -- a different person being intended in each case. The question of their identity involves the further question of the precise interpretation of the prophecy of the seventy weeks. In ix.2 Daniel is reminded by a study of Jeremiah (xxv.11f., xxix.10) of the prophecy that the desolation of Jerusalem would last for seventy years. But it is not over yet. Gabriel then explains, v.24, that the years are in reality weeks of years, i.e. by the seventy years prophesied by Jeremiah are really meant 490 years. The period of seventy weeks, thus interpreted, is further subdivided in vv.25, 26 (a passage almost unintelligible in the Authorized Version) into three periods, viz. seven weeks (=forty-nine years), sixty-two weeks, and one week (=seven years).
With the first and last periods there is no difficulty. Starting from 586 B.C., the date of the exile, forty-nine years would bring us to 537, just about the time assigned to the edict of Cyrus, which permitted the Jews to return and rebuild their city. Cyrus would thus be "the anointed, the prince," and it is an interesting corroboration of this view that Cyrus is actually called the anointed in Isaiah xlv.1. Now, as the book ends with the anticipated death of Antiochus in 164 B.C., the last week would represent the years 171 to 164; and in 171 the high priest, who, as such, would naturally be an anointed one, was assassinated. Attention is specially called to the sorrows of the last half of the last week, when the sacrifice would be taken away. This corresponds almost exactly with the suspension of the temple services from 168 to 165; and this period, again, is that which is elsewhere characterized as "a time, and times, and half a time," i.e. three and a half years (vii.25, xii.7), or "2,300 evenings-mornings," i.e.1,150 days (viii.14) or 1,290 or 1,335 days (xii.11, 12). These varying estimates of the period, not differing widely, probably suggest that the book was written at intervals, and not all at once. The beginning and the close of the seventy weeks or 490 years are thus satisfactorily explained; but the period between 537 and 171 represents 366 instead of 434 years, as the sixty-two weeks demand. Probably the simplest explanation of the difficulty is that during much of this long period the Jews had no fixed method of computing time. Also it ought not to be forgotten that the numbers are, in any case, partly symbolical, and ought not to be too strictly pressed. For the purposes of the author, the first and last periods are more important than the middle.
The precise interpretation of the enigmatic writing on the wall (mene, tekel, peres, v.28) is uncertain. It
It is difficult to account for the fact that part of the book, ii.4-vii., is written in Aramaic. It has been supposed that the author began to use that language in ii.4, either because he regarded that as the language spoken by the wise men, or because they, being aliens, must not be represented as speaking in the sacred tongue; and that, having once begun to use it, and being equally familiar with both languages, he kept it up till he came to the more purely prophetic part of the book, in which he would naturally recur to the more appropriate Hebrew. Ch. vii., on this view, is difficult to account for, as it, no less than viii.-xii., is prophetic; and we should then have to assume, rather unnaturally, that the vision in ch. vii. was written in Aramaic because it so strongly resembled the dream of ch. ii. Besides it is not certain that the word "in Aramaic" in ii.4 is meant to suggest that the wise men spoke in that language: it may have originally been only a marginal note to indicate that the Aramaic section begins here, just as vii.28a may indicate the end of the section. Some have supposed that part of a book originally Hebrew was translated into the more popular Aramaic, or that part of a book originally Aramaic was translated into the sacred Hebrew tongue. The difficulty in either case is to account reasonably for the presence of Aramaic in that particular section which does not coincide with either of the main divisions of the book (narrative or apocalyptic), but appears in both (i.-vi., vii.-xii.). Probably, as Peters has suggested, the Aramaic portion represents old and popular folk-stories about Daniel and his friends, that language being retained because in it the stories were familiarly told, while for the more prophetic or apocalyptic message the sacred language was naturally used. Ch. vii., however, presents a stumbling-block on any view of the Aramaic section. The Aramaic of the book is that spoken when the book was written: it was certainly not the language spoken by the Babylonian wise men. It is most improbable that they would have used Aramaic at all; and if they had, it would not have been the dialect of the book of Daniel, which is a branch of western Aramaic, spoken in and around Palestine.
In spite of its somewhat legendary and apocalyptic form, the religious value of Daniel is very high. It is written at white heat amid the fires of persecution, and it is inspired by a passionate faith in God and in the triumph of His kingdom over the cruel and powerful kingdoms of the world. Its object was to sustain the tried and tempted faith of the loyal Jews under the fierce assaults made upon it by Antiochus Epiphanes. Never before had there been so awful a crisis in Jewish history. In 586 the temple had been destroyed, but that was practically only an incident in or the consequence of the destruction of the city; but Antiochus had made a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jewish religion. It was to console and strengthen the faithful in this crisis that the book was written. The author reminds his readers that there is a God in heaven, and that He reigns, iv.26. He bids them lift their eyes to the past and shows them how the fidelity of men like Daniel and his friends was rewarded by deliverance from the lions and the flames. He bids them lift their eyes to the future, the very near future: let them only be patient a little longer, xii.12, and their enemies will be crushed, and the kingdom of God will come -- that kingdom which shall know no end.
It is of especial interest that Antiochus died at the time when our author predicted he would, in 164 B.C., though not, as he had anticipated, in Palestine, xi.45. In the kingdom that was so swiftly coming, the lives that had been lost on its behalf would be found again: the martyrs would rise to everlasting life. The narrative parts have an application to the times not much less immediate than the apocalyptic. The proud and mighty, like Nebuchadrezzar, are humbled: the impious, like Belshazzar, who drank wine out of the temple vessels, are slain. Any contemporary, reading these tales, would be bound to think of Antiochus, who had demolished the temple and suspended the sacrifices. So Daniel's refusal to partake of the king's food was well calculated to encourage men who had been put to the torture for declining to eat swine's flesh.
Man's extremity is God's opportunity. However cruel the sufferings or desperate the outlook, yet the Lord is mindful of His own, and He will Himself deliver them. For one of the most impressive features of the book is its utter confidence in God and its refusal to appeal to the sword (Ps. cxlix.6). It counsels to patience, xii.12. Without human hands, God's kingdom comes, ii.34, and His enemies are destroyed, viii.25. In the most skilful way, the book reaches its splendid climax. It moves steadily on, from a distant past in which God's servants had been rewarded and His enemies crushed, down through the centuries in which successive empires were all unconsciously working out His predetermined plan, and on to the darkest days in history -- so dark, because the glorious and everlasting kingdom of God was so soon to dawn.