Our Past and Future Hope – Chapter One: The Foundation of Apocalyptic Prophecy

Daniel 2

This is chapter one of Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

The paperback and Kindle versions are now available here.

The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

The State of Biblical Prophecy Today

I looked again, and then I saw in my dream that Christian continued his long journey on the narrow path to Mount Zion. Up ahead, he noticed an older veiled person by the name of Prophecy. As Christian approached, the man said in a clear voice, “You must take a map for the journey ahead, for the road to Mount Zion is still very far from here. There are no more guides ahead, except for the Spirit who lights the path directly before you.”

“Gladly, sir. What does it cost?”

Christian asked. Prophecy replied, “The map is given freely, but first let me ask: which type of map would you prefer? There is one here that will show you the last seven miles of the journey clearly.”

Christian wondered aloud, “The last seven miles… well, how much farther is there to go?”

“Hundreds, at least,” said Prophecy. “I have another map that will reveal the next seven miles from here, but then it is blank, except for a picture of the destination.”

“That’s not much better!” exclaimed Christian. “What else do you have?”

“This one is more like a guide to the terrain, flora, fauna, and creatures you should expect to encounter along the way,” replied Prophecy.

Christian began to despair. “None of these are like the maps I’m used to! Please tell me there is one that will show me where I am now, until I reach the destination,” he begged.

“Ah, here is one that was sealed, and no one except the Lamb of God himself was able to break its seals! Now it is opened to you, but know this: you will need to know the Master’s words well to understand it, and there are parts that only the wise shall understand. You must also be aware of the Master’s works in this land, and his careful provision for his bride. There are monuments along the way, erected by those who have gone before you. Heed them, and the map shall serve you well the entire way.”

God never leaves his people without direction. “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Yet at one point in history, during the exile and postexilic period of the Jews- up to the first coming of Christ- there was said to be a time without prophets.1 There was no one with the authority to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” who encouraged, rebuked, and shared God’s future plans for his people for nearly 400 years. These are sometimes called ‘the 400 years of silence.’

Even still, God never leaves his people without direction. Though there was no prophet in the land, our sovereign God left his people with a grand list of what he intended to accomplish in the world throughout the years of silence and beyond. He showed them the world empires that would come and go, and when to expect the founding of his eternal kingdom on Earth. He revealed the future of Jerusalem and the Temple, their restoration, and their second downfall. He warned them of the troubles they would face at the hands of wicked kings, yet ultimately prevailing. He not only told them about the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah, but also gave them a clear time of when to expect him. He showed them the future of wars between kingdoms in such detail that secular historians today insist it had to be written after they happened. Such scholars do not know the power of our God, who “reveals deep and hidden things” (Daniel 2:22).

In this way, biblical prophecy is like a map. To the original audience who receives it, it predicts the future. For the Jews before Christ, the Book of Daniel was their map during the years of silence. As time passed and passages were fulfilled, it eventually became a divine history. We are blessed to be able to study this divine history and see God’s faithfulness to his promises. We know that we can count on his future promises because of this.

God never leaves his people without direction. Here we are nearly 2000 years after Christ ascended into heaven, and the biblical canon has been closed for centuries. There are no new prophets with the authority to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” who confirm their words with power and miracles. These times can be said to be similar to the years of silence that Jews faced for centuries before the coming of Christ. Yet just as before, God has left us with another grand list of what he intends to accomplish in the world throughout the history of his church. He shows us the rise and fall of the final worldly empire, and the church’s victory over paganism. He reveals the terrible union of boastful, tyrannical leaders in the church and civil authorities in the state that oppose God’s people. He tells us about the rise of an oppressive power in the East and its deadly campaigns over a large part of the world. He shares with us the fate of the church, from its time of protection in the wilderness to its eventual triumph as God punishes her enemies. All of this is done in a similar awe-inspiring fashion as before, so that even secular history books give an eerily parallel account to God’s Word.

We have been given a map just as before, yet most Christians in the West have forgotten how their ancestors read it. We are now told that it reveals the distant future, and that none of the events it describes have come to pass these nearly two millennia since it was written for us. Or sometimes it is taught that it was made purely for the use of the original audience, and that nearly all of its promises were fulfilled in the century it was inked. But as careful study reveals, this is not how the map that was given to the Jews before their years of silence functioned at all. To understand the hope that God’s people clung to when there were no prophets in the land- to learn how to read our own map- we need to take a hard look at the promises that were fulfilled in the divine history before the first coming of the Messiah.

The best place to start this journey is the first prophecy given to us in Daniel, arguably the easiest to understand and one of most agreed upon in the history of interpretation in the church.2 We will take a quick look at the context and run through a summary of the narrative, then slow down and take a more detailed look at the actual prophecy. After that, we’ll analyze how the traditional interpretation differs from the modern one we are typically taught today. This same format will be used for each passage we will look at in the following chapters of this book.

This book is an introduction to the traditional interpretation of prophetic passages in the Bible, not an exhaustive or academic commentary. Any beginner should be able to follow along! But if you’d like to study more, there are many excellent, accessible, and free resources available listed in the appendix. I rely chiefly on the commentaries by Albert Barnes, considered a ‘master’ of this traditional interpretation, and Fred Miller, one of the few modern authors who presented it.

Daniel 2: The Beginning of the Eternal Empire

This is the dream God gave to the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar, the statue that reveals the four world empires, and the beginning of God’s eternal empire that grows to fill the whole Earth.

At this point in history, the Kingdom of Israel had already long been laid to waste by the Assyrians. The Kingdom of Judah had just faced the first of three stages of exile (606 B.C.) by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar, in which Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (called Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by the Babylonians) were among those taken to Babylon. Being sent into training to learn to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, Daniel and his companions had already shown their worth and moral fortitude by obeying God’s commands while under tremendous pressure to conform to Babylonian norms. They were recognized by Nebuchadnezzar for the surpassing wisdom and understanding God had given them, and entered into the king’s service (Daniel 1).

In the second year of King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, he had dreams that greatly troubled him, and he expected his court “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2) to tell him what the dream was about, as well as its interpretation. Either King Nebuchadnezzar remembered the dream and gave his court the impossible task of telling him what it was to prove themselves, or he could not recall the dream. Either way, when his court explained that “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among humans” (Daniel 2:10-11), the king flew into a rage and ordered their deaths.

The commander of the king’s guard came to Daniel and his companions to fulfill the king’s order and put them to death as well. This was the first they had heard about the king’s ordeal, so Daniel asked the king for time to interpret the dream. Daniel and his friends prayed to God for mercy about this mysterious dream, so that they wouldn’t be put to death with the rest of the wise men. God reveals the mystery to Daniel, and he praises the God of heaven:

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.
I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king. (Daniel 2:20-23)

What a beautiful prayer! God is sovereign, and the fate of kings and nations is under his control. Additionally, our God does not leave us in the dark, but graciously reveals his plans for the human race, even to pagan kings. Daniel tells him, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come” (Daniel 2:27-28).

History Looks Like a Statue

Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar his dream:

“Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:31-35)

This is the vision without interpretation. Thankfully it is interpreted for us by Daniel in the next part of the chapter. But before we move onto that, a few notes about the vision that might not be apparent at first:

  • The rock was cut out of a mountain – The description says the rock was cut out, but out of what? Later in verse 45, Daniel says, “This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain…”. Albert Barnes notes that this is also expressed in the Latin and Greek translations of this passage. “The vision appears to have been that of a colossal image ‘standing on a plain’ in the vicinity of a mountain, standing firm, until, by some unseen agency, and in an unaccountable manner, a stone became detached from the mountain, and was made to impinge against it.”3
  • The size and meaning of ‘the rock cut out, but not by human hands’ – The word translated as rock does not tell us the size of it, but it seems to be implied that it was surprisingly small for how much damage it did to the statue, especially in that it ground the statue down to ‘chaff.’ As for not being cut out by human hands, it moved on its own. It was detached from the mountain and projected at the statue, but not by anything that could be seen.4
  •  It struck the statue – The statue was likely struck once in the feet and fell into pieces, but then repeatedly struck until it became like chaff or fine dust that blew away. It was a longer process of continual striking that ground the pieces to powder. The reason for this is that the word ‘struck’ used here is nearly identical to the Hebrew term (Daniel 2 is primarily written in Aramaic) for clapping hands, as in Psalms 98:8,  Isaiah 55:12, and Ezekiel 25:6. The word for pieces is also not just fragments, but ‘ground to powder,’ like the golden calf idol in Exodus 32:20.5

And now for the interpretation by Daniel:

“This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.

“After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.

“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.” (Daniel 2:36-45)

God gave the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar a vision of the successive empires that would come after his own. The vision gives a picture of the history of world empires that looks like a statue. The majority of interpreters throughout history have agreed on the identity of these empires: The head of gold is Babylon, as told to us by Daniel himself. The chest and arms of silver are Medo-Persia, which succeeds Babylon even in Daniel’s time and is mentioned in Daniel 8. The belly and thighs of bronze are Greece, as hinted at in Daniel chapter 10 and also mentioned by name in Daniel 8. The legs of iron and feet mixed with clay is Rome, at first united, later weakened and divided.

The rock is the kingdom of the Messiah, arriving in the time of the Roman Empire, and growing to fill the whole earth. The question is, has this happened yet, or is it still future? There are three reasons we can be confident that this occurred in the time when the Roman empire still existed: (1) it is in harmony with the image given to us in the vision; (2) Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was ‘at hand’; (3) the church starts small but is growing to fill the earth.

Harmony with the Vision

The image of the rock hitting the statue around the time of Christ’s first advent is the interpretation that harmonizes best with the vision. We see this in how the proportions of the different parts of the statue match the length of time each world empire existed, as Fred Miller demonstrates:

For the head [Babylon] was barely 69 years (unless you date it from Nebuchadnezzar’s first taking of Babylon, which would add a few more years) before the portion of chest and shoulders allotted to the Medo Persians, came and went, consuming some 214 years, from Cyrus to Alexander. If we date the beginning of the Roman Empire at the Battle of Actium, as many do, then the Greek period of the loins stretches 290 years. From that point the legs, and feet, representing the Roman Empire are 511 years long. That would make the upper torso and head be 504 years long and the rest of the body 511 years long. If you will use those proportions you will find that not only did Daniel predict the coming four empires but gave an accurate prediction of their proportionate rules.

If you used this proportion allowing seven inches for the head, twenty one for the chest, twenty nine from diaphragm to hips, and fifty one from hip joints to feet, you will find that history indeed does match the proportions of a statue. And the church starting in the days of the Roman Empire, with its consequent struggle that saw the old pagan system pass away and Christianity take its place, fits the vision exactly, by the little stone striking the image, chronologically as well as physically in the spot, at or toward the latter times of that Empire, but before it was divided into ten kingdoms.6

On the other hand, if the rock hitting the statue is not yet fulfilled- if the Kingdom of God is interpreted to begin with the Millennium after Christ’s second coming- the harmony of the picture given in the vision is shattered. The first four kingdoms are well past gone, so we would be living in the time of ‘the toes’ now for over 1500 years. The toes of the statue would be over twice as long as the statue is tall! The image below shows just such a grotesque statue from Clarence Larkin, who earnestly tried to illustrate such a timeline (except in truth, the toes would be even longer).7

This is not the picture God gives us in the vision. It has obviously been distorted to try to make it fit an interpretation that does not match the vision of history God gave Daniel.

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

Not only does the timing of Christ’s establishment of the Church match the rock striking the statue, but he himself proclaimed the beginning of the Kingdom of God with his first coming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV). He also said, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21, ESV). Barnes says about this verse, “The Messiah has come. John has ushered in the kingdom of God, and you are not to expect the appearance of the Messiah with great pomp and splendor, for he is now among you.”8 In another passage, Jesus says, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God, and he had arrived. John the Baptist heralded the Kingdom of God, and Jesus inaugurated it.

Maybe you’re thinking that if God’s kingdom is here today, it sure doesn’t look like much- ruthless tyrants oppress their subjects, nation wars against nation, and in many countries God’s own people are still martyred every day. This is due to the ‘already, but not yet’ aspect of the Kingdom of God you have probably heard of. The already aspect is that Jesus has inaugurated, or begun the Kingdom. The not yet aspect is the consummation, or finalizing of the Kingdom. Before leaving Earth, Jesus said that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19). He has not lost his authority; he is still king. Speaking of himself from Psalm 110, Jesus quoted: “‘The Lord said to my Lord: sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’” (Matthew 22:44). In Psalm 2 it says, “He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:7-9). The time is coming when Jesus returns as the conquering Son of Man, under whom every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess as Lord.

In the meantime, the Kingdom has begun with the coming of the meek and lowly Lamb of God, just as he said it would. It is the perfect picture of a little stone striking a huge and imposing statue, breaking it to pieces, and grinding it to powder. The Kingdom has been inaugurated- it is here, now- and we are citizens of it. We eagerly await the consummation of the Kingdom, the day when all people will declare Jesus is Lord. While we wait, we obey the King’s command, making disciples, and watching God’s Kingdom grow to fill the whole Earth.

The Mountain that Fills the Earth

The rock that hits the statue is not a large one- the vision is astonishing in that such a little stone can bring down a giant statue, grinding it down to chaff that blows away with the wind. This stone grows and becomes a huge mountain that fills the whole Earth. Daniel says that this image symbolizes the Kingdom that God sets up “that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44). The world empires are not immediately destroyed, but in the end they are nowhere to be found, replaced by the Eternal Kingdom.

As we have seen, the vision of the statue foretold God’s Kingdom beginning in the time of the Roman Empire, when Christ came to Earth. We also know that in the Gospels, Christ preached that the Kingdom had come with him and all authority was his. The vision is also accurate in the way that it shows God’s Kingdom growing from a little rock to a mountain that will eventually take over the whole world.

Jesus was not the warrior King that the Jews had anticipated. They expected the conquering Son of Man who would throw off Roman oppression and set up an earthly kingdom. When the Pharisees asked Jesus when they could expect this earthly Messianic kingdom, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21, ESV). They would not see the earthly kingdom they expected, yet the King was standing right there before them. Even John the Baptist began to wonder, sending his disciples to ask Jesus, “‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Luke 7:20). Standing broken and bloody before Pilate, Jesus said “’My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Just as the little rock was cut from the mountain without human agency, God’s kingdom had arrived ‘from another place.’ Instead of coming as the vengeful conquering king, he tried to explain to his disciples that he had to suffer and die, just as Isaiah and other prophets had foretold. The Kingdom of God was beginning in a way no one expected it to.

The Kingdom of God also grew in a way that no one expected. Christians did not form armies and bear weapons against the Roman Empire, taking power by force. Theirs was a counter-cultural revolution, “a radical change in the way human society thought of the individual, the family, work, religion, community, attitudes toward life and death, and even government.”9 The growth was slow but sure over centuries:

Beginning with the precedent set by Nero in Rome in the midsixties of the first century, Roman law increasingly targeted Christians, and especially the leaders of the Church. By the end of the first century, Christians were tortured and executed simply for admitting to being followers of Christ… In spite of the persecution, the Church grew steadily throughout its first three centuries, until there were some urban areas with a Christian majority, and Christians could be found among the ranks of the poor and the rich, even in the imperial court. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.10

No amount of persecution or human effort could stop God’s Kingdom from expanding. It grows to this day, to the point where there are now more Christians in the global South than in the West. The growth continues in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.11 One day, The Kingdom of God will be like a vast mountain filling the entire world, and every nation, tribe, people, and language will worship the conquering King.

Traditional Vs. Modern Interpretation

Throughout this chapter, we’ve seen that the most cohesive understanding of the vision of the rock breaking the statue fits with the first advent of Christ- the timing of the world empires fits the proportions of the statue; the Gospels are full of Christ declaring that the Kingdom of God had arrived with him; Christians collectively further the Kingdom as the Church, which has steadily grown and continues to grow.

Alternatively, the modern understanding pushes the idea that the statue still stands, even if the toes are getting kind of long. But ignoring that unsightly part of the picture, Jesus is still the rock that will strike them, but with his second coming, not the first. The modern futurist interpretation is that the Kingdom of God begins when Christ reigns personally on Earth, during the Millennium mentioned in Revelation 20. The empire he is said to strike will be a future alliance of many nations, or a new world order of some sort. This interpretation is unnecessarily forced onto prophecies like this one in order to bolster a similar interpretation of Revelation.

What is gained, and what is lost by doing violence to the vision of the statue, pushing it into the future? It becomes another piece of evidence of the future glory of Jesus’ consummation of the Kingdom, at the cost of de-emphasizing his first advent and the inauguration of the Kingdom. Take the already, but not yet principle- the already is lost, and the not yet aspect of the Kingdom is all that’s left. There’s not much to do other than wait patiently for the fulfillment of the strange and mysterious vision, hoping for the Kingdom of God to start soon.

But what if the traditional understanding of this prophecy is true? First off, the harmony of the vision is restored- the picture and interpretation God gave Daniel make perfect sense! God’s Eternal Empire began in such an other-worldly, unassuming manner, breaking onto the scene right on time in the midst of the pompous and imposing Roman Empire. The vision becomes an amazing testimony of the importance of Christ’s first advent, and how the Kingdom of God truly was in our midst, just as he testified. The rule of the King of Kings has begun, and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.

Secondly, we as citizens of the Kingdom have important work to do in helping God’s kingdom to grow. The King left us with commands before he left: to go and make disciples of all nations. We do not stand by merely hoping and waiting for God’s Kingdom to start- it began long ago, and it has grown so much already. In the preface of Dynamic Diversity, author Bruce Milne describes a ‘wave of worship’ that travels across the globe every Sunday, starting at the South Pacific islands and ending at the South Sea islands, passing through every continent and nation in between.12 Between one and two billion Christians are united in this international celebration each week, representing a vast diversity of forms, styles, shapes, colors, and ages, all focused on the King of Kings, Jesus Christ: “What ranges of generation and gender, language and culture, customs and worship styles, social status and wealth indices, educational levels and forms of employment; what degrees of freedom, involving in some places intrusive restrictions and even persecution; what varieties of personal faith stories, and levels of comprehension and commitment!”13 The King is alive, and there is much to celebrate as well as work to be done as we await his return and the consummation of the Kingdom.

  1. J. Julius Scott Jr., “Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament”, 111. ↩︎
  2. Fred Miller, “Revelation: A Panorama of the Gospel Age”, 27.
    Available online at http://moellerhaus.com/rev666.htm ↩︎
  3. Albert Barnes, “Notes, Critical, Illustrative, and Practical”, Daniel 2:34.
    Available online at https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/daniel-2.html ↩︎
  4. Barnes, ibid, Daniel 2:34. ↩︎
  5. Barnes, ibid, Daniel 2:34. ↩︎
  6. Miller, ibid, 29. ↩︎
  7. Clarence Larkin, “Daniel and Revelation Compared”.
    Available online at https://www.blueletterbible.org/assets-v3/images/bibleMedia/larkin/c74.jpg
    Fred Miller writes that “if the proper proportions were used it would take at least another page to draw the toes, even if the artist’s view of history were used!” (ibid, 280).
    Available online at http://moellerhaus.com/statue.htm ↩︎
  8. Barnes, ibid, Luke 17:21. ↩︎
  9. Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea, “Seven Revolutions, How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again”, 11. ↩︎
  10. Aquilina and Papandrea, ibid, 16. ↩︎
  11. Gina Zurlo, Todd Johnson, and Peter Crossing, “World Christianity and Mission 2020: Ongoing Shift to the Global South”, 10.
    Available online at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939319880074 ↩︎
  12. Bruce Milne, “Dynamic Diversity, The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow”, 9 ↩︎
  13. Milne, ibid, 11. ↩︎