Daniel stands before the king declares the wise men of Babylon could not reveal the dream, but the God of Heaven reveals all mysteries (2:27). That Daniel states “there is a God in heaven” who will reveal the mystery is an indication he does not intend to interpret the dream the way the Babylonian wise men would nor will he consult their dream-texts to interpret the dream. He will rely only on the Lord his God.
In his vision Nebuchadnezzar saw a statue of a man made of four metals. Daniel says the statue was startling, an Aramaic word דחל referring to something dreadful. The body sections and metals are fairly straightforward: The head of the statue was made of pure gold; the chest and arms were silver; the belly and thighs were bronze; the legs were iron. The feet of the statue were partly iron and partly of baked clay. This is a terra cotta type of pottery and would weaken the feet considerably.
As Nebuchadnezzar observes the statue it is destroyed by a stone “not cut by human hands” which strikes the feet, the obvious weak point. The stone destroys the whole statue and it becomes like chaff in the wind. This rock becomes a mountain and fills the whole of the earth.
Daniel interprets the head as Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon Empire and says the following three metals refer to kingdoms which will arise after Babylon (2:39-43). The last of these kingdoms will be destroyed by a kingdom of God (2:44-45). The metaphor of a stone which becomes a mountain which fills the whole earth resonates with Isaiah 2:2 (the mountain of God as the highest mountain) and Isaiah 11:9 (the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God).
What are the four kingdoms in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision? The substance of the vision is that there will be a succession of four earthly kingdoms, the last of which will be destroyed by a heavenly kingdom (the rock not cut by human hands). Before comparing the two main competing views, there are several interpretive questions which will shape the interpretation.
First, since Daniel identifies the head of gold as Nebuchadnezzar, the first empire is Babylon. This is non-controversial, although Philip Davies suggested the four metals were the next four kings of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-Merdoch, Neriglassar, and the fractured iron is Labashi-Marduk, Nabonidus, and Belshazzar, and the destruction of the statue is the fall of Nebuchadnezzar’s dynasty (“Daniel Chapter 2” JTS 27 (1976): 392-401).
Second, should Daniel 2 be read in parallel with Daniel’s vision of four beasts in Daniel 7? The parallelism of the book of Daniel seems to imply a conscious pattering between chapters 2 and 7. If so, then the final kingdom may in fact be the Seleucids since the “little horn” is Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Third, is the second kingdom the Medes and Persians? In Daniel 5:25-28 Daniel reads the handwriting on the wall as stating Babylon will fall to the Medes and Persians. Daniel 6:28 combines Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian.
In general, the assumed date of the book of Daniel influence the final kingdom. If Daniel was written in the second century B.C., then the final kingdom as Greece, or the remnants of Alexanders empire, the Seleucids. This brings the prophecy up to the date of the writer and predicts (of it predicts anything) the fall of the Seleucids and God’s judgment on Antiochus IV Epiphanes. For the most part, this progress of kingdoms is vaticina ex eventu, a literary review of history up to the time of the writer designed to appear to be a prophecy.
Often those who argue for the traditional date for the book in the sixth century B.C. interpret the third kingdom as Greece and the final kingdom as Rome. In this case, the “little horn” in Daniel 7 is a Roman emperor (Nero or Domitian are the usual suspects). This view is associated with scholars who accept the possibility Daniel is prophecy rather than a literary construction after the event (vaticina ex eventu). An exception to this is Robert Gurney, who lists the kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Medo-Persia and Greece, but accepts a sixth century date for Daniel (“The Four Kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7” Themelios 2 (1977): 39-45).
The view that Rome is the fourth empire is often combined with a futurist, premillennial interpretation of Daniel. The fourth kingdom is not just historical Rome, but a future evil empire led by the ultimate enemy of God, the AntiChrist. The weakness of the feet and ankles of the statue is taken as a prophecy of the kingdom of man which will be destroyed by the return of Jesus as the Messiah and the coming of his kingdom.
I have several observations about these two views of the kingdoms in Daniel 2. First, it is entirely possible to maintain a high view of Scripture and hold either position. Sometimes conservatives will vilify the Greek view as making Daniel out to be a liar. This is not the case, since the genre of apocalyptic often veils recent history as prophecy (See the Animal Apocalypse, for example). Second, the interpretation of the fourth kingdom as Rome is not necessarily driven solely by a commitment to inerrancy. Although not everyone would agree, there are good reasons to see the second empire as Medo-Persian and the third as Greece. A third problem I will return to later is the use of Daniel in the book of Revelation. By A.D. 90, the final kingdom destroyed by the coming Messiah is Rome.
What difference do theological assumptions make with respect to these two positions? Does a faith commitment to inspiration or inerrancy demand an early date for the book of Daniel? Does the theological emphases of the chapter change if the vision describes God’s judgment on Antiochus IV Epiphanes, on the Roman Empire, or on a (still) future ultimately-evil empire?