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Introduction to the Book of Daniel

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General Info

The Book of Daniel is a highly intriguing and puzzling book.  On the one hand, it contains some of the best known stories that many people learned as a child, such as the mysterious writing on the palace wall, Daniel’s miraculous preservation in the den of lions, and the equally amazing story of God preserving Daniel’s friend in the fiery furnace.  It is important to note that, even though we often refer to these “tales” as “Bible stories”, we must remember that these are actual historical accounts rather than me fairy tales as unbelievers often claim.

On the other hand, the Book of Daniel also contains some of the most baffling visions in all of the OT.  There are also mysterious dreams and their interpretations.  Some of the visions and dreams include a great statue, a large tree, great beasts, a heavenly court, animals, horns, and future earthly conflicts.  Although Daniel prophesized from 605 to about 535 BC, the interpretations of his visions also involve historical events to come over the next several centuries, including the first advent of the Christ, and events yet to come at the end of days.  We further discuss these interpretations in the “Interpretation Hints and Challenges” section below.

Given the diversity of the topics in Daniel, it is no surprise that the book is assigned to different sections in the historical canons of Scripture.  In most canons, including the modern Protestant bible, we find Daniel grouped with the other Major Prophets.  It is placed just after Ezekiel, the other major prophet during the Babylonian exile, and just before the Minor Prophets.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, Daniel is placed in the third section or category of books, the Writings (Hebrew Ketuvim) or (Greek Hagiographa).   Perhaps this was to group the book with the “Wisdom” books, since Daniel was considered as being amongst the wisest men by the Jewish teachers, and this group also included the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes that were written by King Solomon, considered the wisest among the Kings of Israel.

The Greek translation in the third century BC (the Septuagint) first introduced Daniel into the prophets section of the Bible canon, but also introduced additional text such as the prayer of Azariah, the song of the three children, the story of Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.  These additions made their way into the Apocrypha, which is accepted as Scripture by the Roman Catholic church, but is not considered inspired Scripture by the Protestant Christian church.  Both accept the original text of Daniel as being the inspired and authoritative Word of God.

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Brief Survey

The book begins with Daniel and his friends being taken captive to Babylon (amongst other Jewish inhabitants) after the invasion of Judah in 605BC.  The first six chapters then contain the narrative of events primarily in the Babylonian court that demonstrate God’s faithfulness to Daniel and his friends as they remained faithful to God and His law despite the many attempts to indoctrinate them into Babylonian culture.  First, they refused King Nebuchadnezzar’s unclean food according to the Mosaic law, asking instead to remain on their own diet.  After three years, they were promoted since they were found to be healthier and wiser than those who followed the king’s regimen.

In chapter 2, God allowed Daniel to reveal the contents and interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a large statue, after all the king’s diviners and wise men failed.  Thus, Daniel and his friends were promoted again.  In chapter 3, Daniel’s friends refused to bow down to a huge, gold image of the king despite facing an edict of death.  The three friends were bound and thrown into a fiery furnace with flames so hot that the soldiers casting them in were killed.  Yet, when Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace, he saw the three friend walking around in the furnace with what appeared to be an angelic being.  As a result, the king ordered the friends released and decreed that anyone slandering the Lord of Israel wound be executed, and he promoted the three men again.

In chapter 4, Daniel interprets a second dream for King Nebuchadnezzar, that he would be plagued by an animal-like insanity.  After the fulfillment of the dream, and recovery of the Nebuchadnezzar, the king praised and honored the True God.  In chapter 5, we move forward to 539 BC, over twenty years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death.  Belshazzar is now ruling Babylon in place of his absent father Na-bonidus.  During a great banquet for the nobles and families, a hand appeared from out of nowhere and wrote a cryptic message on the wall.  Since none in attendance could decipher the message, Daniel was summoned.  The prophet interpreted the message to mean that Belshazzar had been measured and found guilty by using vessels from the Jewish temple to serve wine at the party, thus disrespecting the true Lord.  The message also revealed that Belshazzar’s kingdom would be conquered and divided between the Medes and Persians.  That very night, the Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia, and Belshazzar was executed.

In chapter 6, we find one of the most beloved tales in the Bible.  A Median-Persian coalition under Darius the Mede is now ruling Babylon.  [Historical note: An extra-biblical reference to Darius the Mede has yet to be found.  Some have suggested that Darius was another name for Cyrus the Great or possibly his son, while others believe Darius either succeeded, co-reigned with, or ruled under Cyrus’s authority.  Note also that extra-biblical references to Belshazzar were not found until the twentieth century.]  Daniel is one of three high officials ruling over the 120 governors (called “satraps” in many bible translations) of the kingdom.  The other officials became jealous when they learned that the king planned to place Daniel over the entire kingdom.  They tricked the king into decreeing that anyone worshipping any god or man other than the king would be cast into a den of lions.  When Daniel heard of the edict, he continued to open his windows toward Jerusalem and and pray three times a day to the true God.  When the others reported Daniel to the king, he was greatly distressed, but had no choice but to order Daniel cast into the lion’s den with the words “May your God, whom you serve continuously, deliver you”.  Daniel was cast into the den of lions but God sent an angel to protect him.  The next morning, the king was overjoyed to find Daniel safe and order his accusers and their families cast to the lions.  King Darius then made a decree that all the kingdom should fear and tremble under the living, eternal God of Daniel.

In the final six chapters, the focus shifts to Daniel’s prophetic visions illustrating God's sovereignty over all of history, in particular the coming centuries (the inter-testamental period, that is the time between the OT and NT) and the end times.  Chapter 7 takes us back to a vision of Daniel in the early part of Belshazzar’s reign, four beasts emerging in succession from the turbulent sea, a lion with wings of an eagle, a bear with three ribs in his mouth, a four-headed leopard with four wings, and a terrifying fourth beast with iron teeth.  Chapter 8 contains the vision of the ram and the goat.  The visions in chapters 7 and 8 both point to the same future kings as the vision of the statue in chapter 2.  See the “Interpretation Hints and Challenges” section below for additional explanations related to these and other visions in the book.

Chapter 9 features Daniel’s marvelous intercessory prayer for his people that that was rooted in an understanding of their covenantal relationship with God and inspired by Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 25:11-12) of seventy years of servitude in Babylon that was almost at an end.  As a result of the prayer, the angel Gabriel appears to Daniel to explain the vision of the “seventy weeks”.

Chapters 10-12 conclude the book with Daniel’s vision of an angelic being with a thundering voice.  The angel outlined events that would involve a series of Persian and Greek rulers in the next few centuries.  This section contains more fulfilled prophetic events than any other section of the Bible.  In chapter 12, Daniel had one final vision that appears to point to the Antichrist and the final tribulation.  He was also instructed to seal up this final revelation until the end times (still in our future).

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Key Verses

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.  And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God...    Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility -- young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace.  He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians...  They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service.  Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego. (1:1-7)

The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”  Daniel replied, “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...” (2:26-28)

Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out!  Come here!”  So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them.  They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.  Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!  They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.  Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”  Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (3:26-30)

[Daniel said] “This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.  Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.  Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”  Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.  That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two. (5:26-31)

Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land: “May you prosper greatly!  I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.  For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.  He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.  He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”  So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian. (6:25-28)

In my vision at night I [Daniel] looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (7:13-14)

[The angel Gabriel said to Daniel] “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’, and sixty-two ‘sevens’.  It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.  After the sixty-two ‘sevens’, the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.  The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary.  The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.  He will confirm a covenant with many for one '‘seven’.  In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering.  And on a wing [of the temple] he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” (9:25-27)

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise.  There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then.  But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered.  Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.  But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.  Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.” (12:1-4)

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Author and Date

Internal evidence confirms the prophet Daniel as the author of the book that bears his name, which means “God is Judge”.  The latter half of the book (chapters 7-12) were actually written in the first person and he used the phrase “I, Daniel” several times (8:15 & 27, 9:2, 10:2 & 7, and  12:5).  In addition, none other than Jesus himself confirmed Daniel as the book’s author in his Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:15).

Some liberal interpreters question Daniel’s authorship because portions were written in Aramaic (most of chapters 2-7). They also argue these and the predictive prophecies were written “after the fact”.  Like with Isaiah and other Biblical books that contain predictive prophecy, their objections are based on their belief in anti-supernaturalism which assumes (among other errors) that prophets could not accurately predict the future events that they recorded in the Bible.  This philosophy also holds that the Bible is a mere product of human authors, and falsely denies its divine inspiration.  Thus, due to this false assumption, the critics contended that, the passages accurately predicting the future kingdoms and related facts were added by unknown editors during or after the Maccabean period (170-160 BC).

These arguments however are easily refuted.  The presence of Aramaic actually argues for an earlier date.  We know from extra-biblical historical resources that, Aramaic was the official language of Babylonian court.  Thus, Daniel records the events related to the court in Aramaic, then switches to Hebrew to record the future prophecies.  Daniel was likely a member of a royal or noble family in Judah before he was exiled (1:3), so he would have been well educated and fluent in both languages.  We see the same mixed language usage by the prophet Ezekiel, who was also in Babylon during this era.  In addition, there is one overwhelming piece of evidence for the early date.  The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek Septuagint around the middle of the third century BC.  Those who claim that Daniel was later edited in the second or first century BC fail to explain how the so-called additions were already present in the third century BC Septuagint.

The book was probably written shortly after Daniel’s last vision (chapters 10-12) in the third year of the reign of Cyrus (~536 BC, see 10:1), but before ~530 BC, the date of the first fulfillment of his predictive historical prophecies.  It is widely thought that Daniel died prior to this fulfillment date.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See the Historical Background of the OT History Books and the Historical Background of the OT Prophets for additional information.  See the Historical Background of Ezekiel, a contemporary prophet who was exiled to Babylon eight years after Daniel, for background information relating to the divided kingdom of Israel, and for other historical events in the region.  See the Historical Background of Jeremiah, another contemporary prophet of Daniel, for the latter days of Judah and events leading to their fall and exile.  Two other writing prophets, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, were also contemporaries of Daniel.

Daniel was born in Judah, probably about 620 BC.  As a teenager, he and his friends were exiled to Babylon during the first Babylonian invasion of Judah in 605 BC.  We've mentioned that he was likely a member of a royal or noble family in Judah before he was exiled (1:3).  Due to God’s favor and his education, he quickly rose in favor in the Babylonian royal court, serving and then becoming a statesmen and close confidante of the king.  He would then spend his entire ministry of approximately 70 years in the royal court, serving first the kings of Babylon and then the kings of Persia after the Persians conquered the Babylonians.  Thus, the Book of Daniel spans the entire Babylonian exile.  His last vision (chapters 10-12) can be dated ~536 BC, so it is highly unlikely that he ever returned to his homeland (the first Jewish exiles returned in 538 BC).

See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

627-580 BC Jeremiah Prophet of Judah
612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
605 BC Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles many of the Jews including the prophet Daniel
~605-535 BC Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah
603 BC Nebuchadnezzar’s First Dream (chapter 2)
597 BC Second Invasion by the Babylonians - Ezekiel Exiled
~593-570 BC Ezekiel Prophet to Exiled Judah
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians
~586 BC Jeremiah and Baruch taken to Egypt by Jewish rebels (chapter 43)
550 BC Daniel’s Vision of the Four Beasts (chapter 7)
548 BC Daniel’s Vision of the Ram and Goat (chapter 8)
539 BC Death of King Belshazzar (chapter 5)
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
539-331 BC Persian Empire dominates the Middle East
538 BC Cyrus Issues Decree allowing Exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem
332-164 BC Greek rule of Alexander the Great and his successors
320-198 BC Ptolemaic Kingdom (of Egypt) rules Judean territory
175-164 BC Rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
167 BC Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) defiles the Temple in Jerusalem
167-164 BC Maccabean (Hasmonean) revolt
164 BC Judas Maccabeus cleanses the Temple (Origin of the Festival of Dedication, aka Hanukkah)

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The overwhelming theme and theology running throughout the book of Daniel is the sovereignty of God.  As Daniel reveals, this sovereignty is not limited to just ancient Israel, but extends to pagan rulers and people throughout the world for all of history.  Only the true God who is in total control could inerrantly predict the future events as recorded in Daniel.  A closely related theme is God’s plan to restore His people from captivity, to send the Messiah for their spiritual deliverance, and to eventually establish His everlasting kingdom.

Another major theme, common to all the prophets, is to reinforce the covenants that offer blessings for obedience and judgment for disobedience by the people, but God’s wrath is almost always tempered by his mercy and grace.  Daniel and his friends are continually rewarded for remaining faithful to the Lord even in the midst of hostile environments.

As with many other books, the purposes of Daniel are closely related to the themes.  Daniel wrote to demonstrate to his immediate and future readers that historical events didn’t take place merely by chance, but were all due to God’s sovereign plan.  This included events that had already occurred (primarily in the inter-testamental period), those still to come in Israel’s future, also known as the “times of the Gentiles” that began with the exile of the Jews and would end with the Second Coming of Christ to establish His kingdom on Earth, and events that are still in our future.  He also likely wrote to prepare the Jewish people for the coming tribulation during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BC that would prefigure the coming end-times tribulation under the Antichrist.

Daniel himself may not have been fully aware of all aspects of the prophetical purposes, but the Divine Author certainly was.  The book of Daniel is key to understanding almost all future prophecy, particularly the prophetic portions of the NT.  From Daniel, we learn many details of the anti-Christ (portrayed as the little horn in Daniel), the tribulation period (portrayed as the seventy weeks in Daniel), and many other aspects of coming events.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Daniel contains both history and prophecy.  To properly interpret the book, we must first recognize which portions are which.  For the most part, chapters 1-6 are historical narratives involving Daniel and his friends, while they were exiled in Babylon.  One notable exception is the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2.  While the narrative of the dream and the resulting predictive visions are historical, the interpretation is prophetical, pointing to the future.  The visions recorded in chapters 7-12 are likewise historical, but like the interpretation in chapter 2, have been and are typically interpreted as prophecy.  These prophecies also contain Apocalyptic language which recognizes that God is in control of all historical events still to come.  See our article on Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature for more info on this genre.

Therefore, in addition to recognizing and understanding the book’s genre, a knowledge of the historical period from the exile in the sixth century BC through the time of the Maccabees in the second century BC.  This would encompass the Babylonian period in which Daniel lived, plus the future Persian and the Greek (Hellenistic) periods in which many of the prophecies were fulfilled.

For additional information, including a interpretive chart illustrating the fulfillment of the various visions and prophecies in the book of Daniel, see our Interpretations and Fulfillment of the Visions of Daniel article.  This accompanying article also contains a short discussion on the difficulties of the prophecies of Daniel 11:36-12:3 that involve Antiochus IV and the Anti-Christ.  We also have articles in progress on the various views of the Book of Revelation and of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ and will add the links here when uploaded.

In addition to disagreements amongst interpreters concerning the various prophetical details, a few other difficulties have been raised.  We begin with a couple of discussions related to the fiery furnace in chapter 3, an event described in the “Brief Survey” section above.  First, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Daniel’s three friend executed by being thrown into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow down to a pagan golden statue.  Since Daniel wasn’t mentioned, some have claimed that he must have bowed down to the idol.  The rebuttal of this false claim is actually quite simple.  Since Daniel was a high government official, his job undoubtedly required some travel, so he was likely away on business.  Since he was willing to be thrown to the lions (chapter 6) rather than betray the true God, it is unthinkable that he would have bowed down to a false idol had he been there.

The second challenge related to the account of the fiery furnace is the identity of the fourth figure in the flames having “an appearance like a son of the gods” or like a divine being.  The identify is made more difficult since the words were spoken by the pagan king rather than on of the Jewish friends.  The two most likely possibilities are an angelic being or a pre-incarnate appearance of the Christ.

The interpretation of the seventy “weeks” (literally “sevens” in the Hebrew) has been much debated.  There is not enough space here to adequately explain the various viewpoints.  See our article, The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9 - Four Interpretations for a treatment of the most common views.

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Outline

The Book of Daniel can be sub-divided into two parts of six chapters each.  The fist six chapters contain narratives of historical events focusing on Daniel and his friends as they served in the King’s court.  Chapters 7-12 shifts the focus onto Daniel’s prophetical visions of future events that have since occurred and are still to come.

1:1 - 1:21 Exile of Daniel and friends to Babylon; Promoted into King’s Court
2:1 - 3:17 Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Building of a great Statue
3:8 - 3:30 Daniel’s friends Protected in the Fiery Furnace
4:1 - 4:37 Nebuchadnezzar’s second Dream, Pride, Madness and Restoration
5:1 - 5:31 Cryptic Message at Belshazzar’s feast
6:1 - 6:28 God Preserves Daniel in the Lion’s Den
7:1 - 7:28 Daniel’s Vision of the Four Beasts and Son of Man
8:1 - 8:27 Daniel’s Vision of the Ram and the Goat
9:1 - 9:27 Daniel’s Prayer for his People; Gabriel brings the Answer (70 “Weeks” - the Coming Messiah)
10:1 - 12:13 Daniel’s Final Vision of future Persian Kings, Second Century BC, and the End Times

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