In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, ‘Arise, devour many bodies!’ After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousand served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
For the early Christians, and many today, this passage from Daniel was, is, of high importance, for two main reasons. One is that, traditionally, “one like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven” was interpreted to be a reference to the pre-existent Word, Jesus Christ. The other is that in this graphic and apocalyptic language the prophet exposes the futility of world powers – they seem strong, like lions, beasts and great birds but really they are exposed for what they are before the throne of God, the Ancient One. They speak boastfully but all “earth’s proud empires” vanish before God. And in great contrast, God responds in great humility, even though all the power and glory is God’s, all dominion is given to the One who came with the glory of heaven (the clouds) but was like a human being. Remember the wilderness temptations? The Accuser offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in return for his worship. It was a test of how much faith Jesus had in his true identity; an existential test. If he “truly is the Son of God” then the Accuser’s offer was meaningless to the One who had been given “dominion, glory and kingship”. Other interpretations see the “one like a human being” as the nation of Israel – but, as a Christian, I feel it is out of kilter with the thrust of the passage – after all that would be just one more earthly power would it not? To Christians, oppressed by powerful dictators and the might of oppressive empires, this passage was, and is, very good news!
“So be it Lord, thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires pass away; thy kingdom stands and grows for ever, till all thy creatures own thy sway.” Humble, gentle, Lord, to whom all earthly powers and empires are accountable, we pray for encouragement for all those who suffer under power misused. May we always use the power we have to bless and help, never to trample or harm. To you be the glory. Amen!
The Rev’d Revd Peter Meek, East Midlands Synod Moderator.