Kingdoms in Conflict

Daniel’s prophecy begins with a description of his exile to Babylon. He was part of the first deportation, being taken to Babylon in 605 B.C., “in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah” (1:1). According to 1:3-4, Daniel was among the youths of nobility. His prophetic career continued throughout the duration of Babylonian exile, spanning the respective reigns of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius the Mede (or Cyrus; cf. 6:28). His last dated prophecy was given “in the first year of Darius the Mede” (9:1; 11:1), or 536 B.C.

Impressive Jewish teens like Daniel were brought to Babylon as part of Nebuchadnezzar’s program to transform them into cultured Babylonian statesmen. Ashpenaz, the head of the king’s royal academy, was commissioned to indoctrinate them in Babylonian culture, perhaps with a view to using them as liaisons between Babylon and Judah (1:3-4). This academic program would last for three years (1:5).

Daniel, together with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, was among the young adults enrolled in this program. To facilitate cultural integration, their names were changed. Their Jewish names contained either the syllable el (for God) or iah (for Jehovah). Their Babylonian names honored the gods of Babylon. Daniel (my God is judge) was given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar (Baal will protect). Hananiah’s name (Jehovah is gracious) was changed to Shadrach (Aku inspires). Mishael (Who is like God?) was renamed Meshach (belonging to Aku). Azariah (Jehovah helps) became Abednego (servant of Nebo ).

It is apparent that the Babylonian society was a strange mixture of secularism and paganism. The Babylonians prized science, philosophy, history, and other academic disciplines (1:4), but they also practiced astrology and magic, and worshiped the sun, moon, planets, and elements of the earth, i.e. fire, water, wind, etc. This secular/pagan duality parallels popular trends in the modern world and may be the reason that the fallen world order is identified as “Babylon” in the book of Revelation.

As one of king Nebuchadnezzar’s courtiers, Daniel soon faced a crisis. Any pious Israelite would find such circumstances challenging. How far could he go to comply with Nebuchadnezzar’s program without compromising his convictions? How could he be a faithful subject of God’s kingdom while living in a Babylonian kingdom that required him to violate the very first commandment? How could he sing Jehovah’s song in a strange (foreign) land?

This antithesis between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men is the primary motif of Scripture. The kingdom is His special project in the earth and is presented in Scripture in terms of contrast to the world. The Biblical message is that there are really only two kingdoms in the world: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of men. God’s kingdom is His new society in contrast to the fallen world system, a heavenly dominion as opposed to a mere earthly or human form of government. It is a counter-cultural concept describing a way of life that fundamentally differs from conventional structures.

The two kingdoms, consequently, are locked in perpetual conflict. The kingdoms of this world are antagonistic to the kingdom of God. Because our King makes certain claims upon the lives of His people, we will frequently find ourselves in conflict with the culture in which we live.

Daniel felt keenly this tension. When the king appointed a certain daily fare for Daniel and the other noble youths (1:5), Daniel conscientiously objected. Perhaps the diet would require him to violate the dietary laws God had prescribed in Leviticus. His conscience would not permit him to submit at this point. As one of the original “Separated Ones” (the group that eventually became known as the ‘Pharisees’), “Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself” (1:8). 

Daniel lived counter-culturally in the kingdom of Babylon. He did not attempt to change the Babylonian culture, but to maintain his own fidelity to the Lord. Though he served a human king, Daniel consciously and deliberately committed himself to obeying the King of heaven and earth.

And God took care of Daniel: “Now God had brought Daniel into favor and tender love [lit. sympathy] with the prince of the eunuchs” (1:9). Like Joseph before him, Daniel was befriended and respected by a foreign official. Though Ashpenaz was skeptical of Daniel’s request for a diet restricted to vegetables, he gave Daniel and his friends a ten-day trial. At the end of the trial period, they were healthier than everyone else (1:10-16). This program continued for three years, during which time God blessed them to make remarkable academic and physical progress (1:17).
When the program was completed, the king found these young men “ten times better” in all matters of wisdom and understanding than all his magicians and astrologers (1:20). These impressive and pious servants of the true God were superior to all the kings courtiers. Even in unpleasant circumstances, the principle is still true: “He that honoreth me, I will honor, saith the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:30).

God’s Kingdom and World History

The theme of Daniel 2-7 is God’s sovereignty, i.e. absolute authority, over the nations. Repeatedly, God is called the “most High” (El-Elyon) and the “King of heaven” in this section of Daniel’s prophecy. Chapters two and seven are parallel, each describing the contrast between the four “world kingdoms” and the universal superiority of the kingdom of God. The message of Daniel is that world history is a story of five kingdoms—four political, vulnerable, and temporary and one spiritual, invincible, and everlasting.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (2:1-36)

Daniel, the young Hebrew courtier to the Babylonian king, distinguished himself by his piety before the prince of the eunuchs. Now God would give him further influence before Nebuchadnezzar himself.

Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams night after night troubled him (2:1). To add to his general sense of uneasiness, he could not recall the details of these dreams (2:5). He commanded his magicians, sorcerers, and astrologers, under threat of death, to use their respective arts to both make known the content of his dreams and to interpret its significance (2:2-12). When they voiced complaint at the unreasonableness of the charge, Nebuchadnezzar decreed that all the wise men in Babylon should be slain.

Daniel and his fellows were numbered among the wise men. When the captain of the king’s guard proceeded to implement the king’s decree, Daniel appealed to Nebuchadnezzar himself for a brief stay of execution. He promised to reveal the dream and the interpretation (2:13-18).

When God revealed the matter to him in a night vision, Daniel praised the God of heaven. His benediction is a celebration of Divine sovereignty: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: and he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings…He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him…” (2:20-23).

When Daniel appeared before Nebuchadnezzar, he carefully ascribed glory to God: “There is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets…But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living…” (2:25-30). Then he described the things that Nebuchadnezzar had seen in his dream.

Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a giant colossus. This figure was a composite image. The head was of gold, the torso of silver, the midsection of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet of both iron and clay. Daniel proceeds to describe how the king saw a little stone smite the statue in the feet so that the entire image toppled and crumbled. The wind blew the pieces away and the little stone that smote the image grew to a mountain that filled the whole earth (2:31-35).

The Meaning of the Colossal Image (2:37-43)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Colossus describes four “world empires” or earthly kingdoms. Notice that though the image is made of composite materials, it is a single entity, suggesting the thought that all earthly kingdoms are essentially the same. Whatever the particulars, every earthly kingdom is something purely physical and political. The kingdom of God, however, is depicted as an entity separate and external to the Colossus. It is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands” that smites the Colossus and dominates in its stead. The point is identical to the Lord’s teaching: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jno. 18:36).

Each of the kingdoms represented by the metals of Nebuchadnezzar’s image is a “world” empire (cf. 2:39). This does not mean, however, that each exercised global dominance, but rather that the sway of each was expansive. Babylon and Persia, for instance, ruled every land between the rivers Tigris (in modern day Iraq) and Nile (in modern North Africa). Greece increased its territorial dominance even further, and Rome, further still.

The composite image also suggests the thought that one empire would succeed another in world history. Regardless of the apparent dominance of each respective kingdom, another would rise to conquer and replace it. No earthly power will continue forever.

Notice also the deteriorating value of the metals represented in the image. The head of the image is composed of the most precious metal, i.e. gold. The following kingdoms are represented by metals of lessening value, i.e. silver, then brass, then iron, and finally iron mixed with clay. Probably, this declining value of the elements comprising the Colossus indicates the decrease in absolute authority exercised by each successive kingdom.

Daniel explains the image beginning in verses 37-38: “Thou, O king…art this head of gold.” Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom—the Babylonian Empire—is represented by the head of gold. After Babylon, Daniel says, “another kingdom inferior to” the Babylonian would arise. This kingdom, represented by the breast and arms of silver, was a coalition of Medes and Persians, often called the Medo-Persian Empire. The third kingdom, represented by the belly and thighs of brass, refers to the Grecian Empire under the rule of Alexander the Great. The fourth and final kingdom, represented by the legs of iron, speaks of the mighty Roman Empire (2:39-40).

An intriguing prophetic detail is added to the description of the Roman Empire. Though it would successfully subdue and break its enemies (v.40), the Roman Empire would eventually deteriorate. Verses 41-42 describes its decline: “And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken [lit. brittle]”. 

The mixture of clay with the iron indicates inherent weakness. Every earthly kingdom, or political empire, is inherently weak by virtue of the human element that comprises it. The Roman would be especially so in lieu of the various divisions and subdivisions it would experience.  

The Coming Dominance of God’s Kingdom

Daniel then explains the significance of the little “stone” that smote Nebuchadnezzar’s Colossus. “And in the days of these kings, shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (2:44). 

Notice the specific time table given for the inauguration of God’s kingdom – “…in the days of these kings”. The point is obvious. In the days of the Roman Empire, especially when it began to decline, God would set up His kingdom. Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth appeared on the stage of history preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” during that very era. Though Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom was viewed with suspicion by the kings of his day, it is evident that the kingdom he intended to establish was essentially spiritual, not political. 

Daniel’s prophecy describes four characteristics of God’s kingdom that distinguish it from the political kingdoms of men. (1) It will be invincible – “…shall never be destroyed”. Unlike the empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, the kingdom of God would never fall to enemy conquest. (2) It will have no successor – “…shall not be left to other people”. God’s kingdom will never slip into irrelevance. It will not be replaced by a successor like Babylon was replaced by Persia, etc. (3) It will achieve universal dominance – “…it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms”. The kingdom of God is aggressive in character. It aims to dominate. Though it will never fall to a rival kingdom, God’s kingdom will, in fact, overcome every rival. Jehovah the King intends to be the object of universal worship. His program will not be complete until every earthly monarch dismounts his throne and bows the knee in acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is the “only Potentate, King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). (4) It is an everlasting kingdom – “…and it shall stand forever”. Unlike the transitory kingdoms of men, the kingdom of God will last forever.

The little stone cut out of the mountain, Daniel explains in 2:45, will smite the Colossus in the feet and topple it. Interestingly, the Roman Empire fell shortly following the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ some two millennia ago. Since that time, no further “world empires” have emerged. Now, the gospel of the kingdom calls men to a life of separation from the kingdoms of men (2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 18:4). One day, the last trumpet will sound and the angel will say, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). 

– Michael L. Gowens