Virtually everyone agrees Daniel 2 and 7 are in some ways parallel, but as John Goldingay observes the four-empire scheme need not be identical (Daniel2, 371). The four metals in Daniel 2 and the four animals in Daniel 7 describe a progression of empires culminating in a fourth powerful empire which will be destroyed and replaced by an everlasting kingdom of God. In Daniel 2 a stone “not cut by human hands” strikes the weak feet and destroys the statue, “crushing the kingdoms and bringing them to an end” (2:44). In Daniel 7, the final beast will be judged by a divine court, his power taken from him (7:26) and one like a son of man will be given authority to rule a worldwide kingdom that will never be destroyed (7:14).
Each of the first three animals are normally dangerous, but there is something hybrid or deformed about each of the beasts. The Law considered hybrid animals unclean and it was forbidden to cross-breed animals. In Babylon animals born with defects were considered bad omens. Are the unusual features important for identifying the empire implied by the imagery? If the bear is Persia, for example, do the three fangs or tusks in its mouth refer to some series of Persian kings or sub-regions of Persia, or is this simply a terrifying image of a mutant animal?
Although the interpretation of the vision in 7:15-28 does not make this specific interpretation, most agree the lion with the wings of an eagle (7:5) represents Babylon. This is based first on the parallel to Daniel 2 where the head of gold is identified as Babylon. Commentators often point to decorations of winged lions from Babylon’s the Ishtar Gate as evidence for this interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar is described as a lion (Jer 4:7) and an eagle (Lam 4:19, Ezek 17:3).
The lop-sided bear (7:5) does have some affinity with the Persian Empire since Persia is well-known from its massive (and slow moving) army. In Daniel 8 Persian is a ram against which no other animal could stand, but there is no allusion to massive size or that the ram was lumbering or slow moving. This bear is raised up one side and had three ribs in its mouth. The three ribs or perhaps tusks are sometimes identified as three major Persian conquests (Lydia, Babylonia, and Egypt) or three nations which rebelled against Babylon along with the Medes (Ararat, Minni and Ash-kenaz, see Jer 51:27-29; Gurney, 43). Or perhaps the ribs are simply a strange mutation associated with a bad omen.
The third beast is a leopard with four heads and four wings (7:6). The image seems to highlight speed, but also a divided leadership. Similar to the goat in Daniel 8, this animal moves quickly and is “given authority to rule.” Alexander the Great quickly conquered much of the eastern world, but his kingdom was divided when he died. The four heads are often seen as an allusion to the four generals who divided Alexander’s kingdom after his death: Lysimachus took Asia Minor, Ptolemy took Egypt, Cassander took Macedonia and Greece, Seleucus took Syria and Asia. On the other hand, four is sometimes used to say something “everywhere,” as in “they spread out to the four corners of the earth.” Even so, if the first two in the progression are Babylon and Persia, then this swiftly conquering beast seems to be Alexander’s Greek empire. But the four heads do not require the fourth beast to be Rome since the Seleucid dynasty was a terrifying beast like empire which sought to control Judea.
The fourth beast is terrifying and vague (7:7-8). It is frightening, powerful, terrifying, has iron teeth and smashed everything. Other than the ten horns there is no real description of the beast because it “defies and zoological category” (Montgomery, Daniel, 282). There are simply no good comparisons for this thing! Goldingay point out the coincidental similarity of this beast to an elephant, a terrifying beast used by Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he invaded Judea.
1 Maccabees 1:17 So he invaded Egypt with a strong force, with chariots and elephants and cavalry and with a large fleet.
1 Maccabees 3:34 And he turned over to Lysias half of his forces and the elephants, and gave him orders about all that he wanted done. As for the residents of Judea and Jerusalem…
The bizarre beast has ten horns. Horns normally are associated with strength or power and the little horn appears to refer to an arrogant ruler. It may be the case the ten horns parallel to the ten toes as a “divided kingdom” (2:41). Are the toes/horns kingdoms or kings? Are they sequential or do the ten rule at the same time? Most attempts to suggest ten kings leading up to Antiochus IV Epiphanes or ten Roman emperors are fraught with difficulties, so some commentators argue ten refers to completeness (suggested as early as Calvin).
As is often observed, in the interpretation of this vision there is no concern for the first three kingdoms, only the final kingdom. Nor is there any interest in the other horns, only the arrogant horn. And even then, the focus of the interpretation is on the judgment and punishment of this arrogant little horn. Although there is much interest in tracing the progress of kingdoms, Daniel’s vision is focused on God’s sovereignty and judgment on the arrogant little horn.
Before examining the little horn in more detail, it is important to pause and make some observations about what this progression of empires is saying about the kingdoms of man and the sovereignty of God. First, all human empires are twisted and evil. Just as a mutant bear with fangs is an abomination within nature, so too are human attempts to exert power over the whole world. Human empires are always evil in apocalyptic literature.
Second, in contrast to the mutant evil beasts trying to rule the world, God’s appointed rule is a son of man, a human (7:13-14). Whoever this son of man is, he is a real human, unaffected by the corruption of evil. While the empires try to control the whole world, the sovereign God gives his authority to the son of man to rule a kingdom that includes all people of every language and that kingdom will never pass away or be destroyed (7:14, 27).