Daniel 11:36-12:3 – The Willful King

“The Antichrist interpretation of these verses is exegetically witless and religiously worthless.” (Hartman and Di Lella, Daniel, 303).

For many interpreters, Daniel 11:36-45 shifts away from Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the persecutions which lead to the Maccabean Revolt to a future, ultimate persecutions by an ultimate enemy of God, sometimes called the antichrist. Those who take a second century view of Daniel take the entire chapter as referring to Antiochus. Seow, for example, considers this a “recapitulation” of Antiochus’ offenses, with some general predictions which are only accurate in the most general sense, i.e. Antiochus will die (Daniel, 182).

Daniel 11:36-40 appears to say Antiochus will launch a new attack against the Ptolemaic Egypt, Judea will suffer greatly although Moab, Edom, and Ammon will be spared. Antiochus will be successful in plundering all of North Africa, including Egypt, Lydia and Ethiopia. As he is waging a successful war in the south, he will hear a rumor from the north, likely from his Syrian base, and return there. He will, however, make camp between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea, where he will be killed.

Who Is the Antichrist?The problem with this reconstruction is that it never happened. Up until verse 36, reasonable connections may be drawn between historical events and the words of Daniel, but after 36 the connections become strained at best, or contradictory to the historical record at worst. Antiochus was not successful in his second invasion of Egypt, there is no record of a third invasion which was successful. He did not return home after hearing a rumor, but Rome told him to leave. He did not die in Judea at all, but in Persia after raiding a Temple in Elymas in 168 B.C.

This is why some read this as a shift from a historical survey to actual prophecy about “the last days.” Typically, the leader of this end-times rebellion is called antichrist, although Daniel never uses the word and is not a part of the vocabulary of apocalyptic until the Christian era. Daniel calls this person a willful king and describes his activities as defiant against God. This willful defiance is reminiscent of the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14.

Why should we begin to read Daniel as prophetic of the great end time conflict between humanity and God? It is difficult to harmonize Daniel 11:36-45 with events in the life of Antiochus. But as John Collins suggested, Daniel 11:36-45 may be a “deliberate polemical distortion” (Daniel, 386).

It is possible the writer of Daniel 11-12 begins making a prediction of events that have not yet occurred in his lifetime, but hopes they soon will (Towner, Daniel, 164, Montgomery, Daniel, 465). “The quasi-prophecy closes with an evaluative summary of Antiochus’s religious attitudes as king” (Goldingay, Daniel1, 304). Daniel 11 is expressing wishful thinking about how the current conflict might come to an end, but that prediction was mostly wrong. For example, the death of the “king” 11:45 takes place in Israel, but Antiochus died in Tabae, over a thousand miles from Israel. It is also possible the writer is generally right about the events he predicts, although not precisely so. Daniel got the “gist of things” right (Seow, Daniel, 185). The general idea that Antiochus would be killed I the near future is right, but the details are not correct.

But there are several indications the writer has shifted focus to future events in the passage. [NB: I am following Paul Tanner, “Daniel’s ‘King of the North’: Do We Owe Russia an Apology?” JETS 35 (1992):315-328. His commentary in the EEC series was released March 2020 but I have not had the chance to read his comments yet.] First, The subject of verse 36 is not referred to as the “king of the North” but only as “the king.” Normally in chapter 11 a qualifier such as “south” or “north” is included (except in vv. 2–3, which refer to the Persian kings, and verse 27, which refers to both the kings, clearly implied the north and south).

Second, in 11:21–35 Antiochus IV served in the role of the “king of the North,” as did the other Seleucid kings before him. In v. 40, however, “the king” is apparently in contention with both the “king of the North” and the “king of the South.” This argument assumes some exegesis on verse 40, noted below.

Third, 11:35 still anticipates the “end time,” but 11:40 indicates the “end time” has finally arrived. This is also anticipated in 10:14, in which the angelic visitor says the vision which Daniel saw concerns “the days yet future,” or the “latter days.” Those who hold to the Greek view see this as the end of Antiochus rather than “the end times” eschatologically.

Fourth, Daniel 12:1-3 begins with “Now at that time,” and refers to a “time of great distress” in 12:1 and the mention of the resurrection in 12:2 gives the whole unit an eschatological setting.

Fifth, A leap forward in time from Daniel 11:35 to 11:36 is consistent with other leaps in time throughout the chapter. For example, 11:2-3 cover 200+ years of Persian history without comment.

Sixth, the comment in Daniel 11:36 that the king “will exalt himself above every god” is not precisely true in regard to Antiochus. Antiochus exalted Zeus on the reverse side of his coinage.

Seventh, if the description of Antiochus found in Daniel 11 is an expansion of the previous prophecies in Daniel 2, 7 and 8, then the “final kingdom” is destroyed by the kingdom of God. Antiochus does not represent the last kingdom, rather, he is one of the last kings of the third kingdom. To a large extent, the activities of Antiochus III and IV are responsible for drawing Roman attention to the eastern regions, including Palestine. Antiochus’ kingdom was not replaced by the kingdom of God in any way, nor was the Maccabean revolt ultimately successful in establishing a real messianic kingdom. In fact, the rulers that follow the war are fairly corrupt high priest / kings who are nearly as evil as Jason and Menelaus were!

Is there any precedence for multiple fulfillment of prophecy?  Daniel 11 seems to predict in remarkable detail the general outline of history down to about 164 B.C. If it also looks beyond the Maccabean period, then there seems to be two (or more) “fulfillments” of the prophecy. This is analogous to several Old Testament prophecies which are literally fulfilled in the context of the prophet’s life, but also again at a later date, usually the ministry of Christ. A possible objection to these examples is that they assume the New Testament for the second fulfillment. For this reason, we might better speak in terms of “second application” of a prophecy.

In the case of the “sign of Immanuel” in Isaiah there is an immediate point of contact in the prophecy (a woman in Ahaz’ household will give birth, and before the child is a few years old, the kingdom of Damascus will fall), but also a distant fulfillment / application in the birth of Christ (Matthew 1: 22-23). The call of Isaiah included a prediction of futility. The people to whom Isaiah was sent would be “ever hearing, but never understanding.” This text is quoted in Matthew 13 by Jesus to explain why he taught in parables, a “second fulfillment / application” of the prophecy.

It seems appropriate to interpret Daniel 11:36-12:3 as referring to an ultimate, final eschatological persecution on a grand scale. Antiochus foreshadows a future persecution prior to God’s decisive action in history to restore a kingdom to God’s people.

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