The Coming of the Son of Man — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology

from Apr 16, 2012 Category: Articles

The vision recorded in the seventh chapter of Daniel is central to the book, and understanding it is crucial to grasping the meaning of a number of otherwise obscure passages in the New Testament. Daniel received this vision in the first year of Belshazzar (v. 1), so it occurred sometime after the events of chapter 4 but before the events of chapter 5. In the vision, Daniel sees the winds of heaven stirring up the sea (v. 2). From the sea, he witnesses four great beasts arise, each different from the other (v. 3). The first beast is like a lion with eagles’ wings (v. 4). Its wings are removed and it is made to stand on two feet like a man. The second beast is like a bear (v. 5). It is raised up on one side and has three ribs in its mouth. The third beast is like a leopard (v. 6), but it has four wings and four heads. The fourth beast is almost indescribable (v. 7). It is terrifying and strong. It devours with its iron teeth and crushes what is left with its feet. It also has ten horns. As Daniel considers the horns, he sees a little horn arise among the ten (v. 8). The little horn has the eyes of a man and a mouth speaking great things.

In the remainder of the vision, Daniel witnesses a scene of divine judgment at the very throne of God. As he looks on, the Ancient of days takes his seat on his throne (v. 9). As tens of thousands stand before God, the books are opened and the court sits in judgment (v. 10). As the little horn is speaking, the fourth beast is killed and its body given over to be burned with fire (v. 11). The dominion of the remaining beasts is taken away, but their lives are spared for a time (v. 12). Daniel then sees “one like a son of man” coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of days (v. 13). The one like a son of man is presented before the Ancient of days and to him is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (v. 14a). His is “an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (v. 14b). In the remainder of the chapter, an angelic being interprets Daniel’s vision giving particular attention to the fourth beast (vv. 15–28).

The parallels between the vision of chapter 7 and the dream in chapter 2 are obvious. In both cases, a symbolic image is used to reveal a succession of four earthly kingdoms, which are judged and followed by an everlasting kingdom established by God. There is much debate over the identity of the four kingdoms. The traditional view is represented by John Calvin, who identifies the four beasts as the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires respectively.i Calvin identifies the “little horn” of verse 8 with the line of the Caesars, while admitting that this interpretation of the little horn is not universally held.ii According to Calvin, then, the establishment of God’s kingdom occurred at the first advent of Christ.iii The conservative twentieth-century Old Testament scholar E. J. Young agrees with Calvin on the identity of the four kingdoms, but he identifies the “little horn” as the antichrist, whose power is to be manifested at the end of the present age.iv A variation of the Roman view is the dispensationalist interpretation. According to this view, the fourth beast, or Roman Empire is to be revived in some form at the end of the present age. According to the dispensationalist interpretation, the coming of the one like a son of man to receive the everlasting kingdom will occur at Christ’s Second Advent.v

Not all conservative scholars have adopted the Roman view of the four kingdoms. Both Robert Gurney and John Walton, for example, have proposed that the four beasts should be identified as the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek Empires.vi Gurney argues that most conservatives have rejected the Greek view because the coming of Christ occurred during the period of the Roman Empire (cf. 2:44). He observes, however, that the Roman Empire did not end for many centuries after Christ’s first advent. In support of his own position, he notes that Christ was born around 6 B.C., “very soon after the final obliteration of the Greek empire in 27 BC, when Egypt was made a Roman province.”vii Others who argue for the Greek view point out the similarity between the “little horn” on the fourth beast (7:8) and the “little horn” on the goat in Daniel 8:9.viii The “little horn” of chapter 8 is universally identified as the Greek Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. If the two “little horns” are identical, it adds weight to the argument that the fourth beast is to be associated with the Greek empire.ix

The two interpretations of the four beasts, then, are: (1) the traditional Roman view, which identifies the four beasts as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, and (2) the Greek view, which identifies the four beasts as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece.x Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. A strength of the Greek view is the similarity between the “little horns” of chapters 7 and 8. A strength of the Roman view is the use in chapter 8 of a single symbolic animal to represent the Medo-Persian Empire (cf. 8:3–4, 20). A weakness of the Greek view is a lack of explanation for Daniel’s failure to say anything here about the Empire that was to be in power at the first advent of Christ. A weakness of the Roman view is the continuation of the Roman Empire for centuries following the first advent of Christ.xi While not without its difficulties, the Roman view is strongest.xii

The coming of one like a son of man to the Ancient of days (vv. 13–14) is the climactic section of this vision, and it is of crucial importance. Much confusion has been caused by the assumption that this text is a prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ. The context precludes such an interpretation. As this section of the vision begins, Daniel sees the Ancient of days take his seat upon his throne (v. 9). The Ancient of days is God, and the scene is set in his heavenly throne room. While Daniel himself experiences this vision on earth from his bed (cf. 7:1), the vision itself is a vision of the heavenly throne room.xiii After God is seated at his throne, the court sits in judgment and the books are opened (v. 10). The fourth beast is then judged and destroyed, while the remaining beasts are given a temporary reprieve (vv. 11–12). This sets the stage for Daniel’s vision of the one like a son of man.

In verse 13, Daniel witnesses “one like a son of man” come with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of days to be presented before him.xiv The Aramaic phrase bar ‘enash, literally translated “son of man,” is a Semitism that simply means “human being.”xv What Daniel sees, then, is one “like a human being,” as opposed to another beast “like a bear” or “like a leopard.” This one like a son of man comes to the Ancient of days and is presented before him (v. 13). The “coming” that is seen in this vision, then, is not a coming of God or a coming of the one like a son of man from heaven to earth. It is a coming of one like a son of man to God who himself is seated in heaven on his throne.xvi The direction of the “coming” is not from heaven but towards heaven. It is for this reason that this vision is not a prophecy of the Second Coming of Jesus from heaven to earth. Rather, as Calvin long ago explained, it is better understood as a prophecy of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God after his resurrection (cf. Acts 1:9–11; 2:33; 5:31).xvii

The one like a son of man is presented before the Ancient of days for the purpose of his investiture.xviii When he is presented before the Ancient of days he is given a dominion and a kingdom that all should serve him (v. 14a). There seems to be an allusion here to the event described in Genesis 1:26, when the first man was given dominion over all the creatures (cf. Ps. 8:4–8).xix The establishment of the kingdom will restore God’s creational purposes. This kingdom given to one like a son of man is to be everlasting (v. 14b). As in the vision of Daniel 2, we see here a depiction of four human kingdoms followed by the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. Both texts seem to indicate that God’s kingdom will be established sometime near the end of the fourth human kingdom.


i Calvin, Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 13:11–25.
ii Calvin, Commentaries, 13:26–31.
iii Calvin, Commentaries, 13:31–34.
iv Edward J. Young, Daniel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 150, 163; cf. Joyce G. Baldwin, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1978), 161–62, who also defends the Roman view.
v Kenneth L. Barker, “Evidence from Daniel,” in The Coming Millennial Kingdom, eds. Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 139–43.
vi Robert Gurney, “The Four Kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7,” Themelios, 2 (1977), 39–45; John H. Walton, “The Four Kingdoms of Daniel,” JETS, 29, no. 1 (1986), 25–36. Neither argues for this position on the basis of the critical presupposition that Daniel is a second century composition. Both argue that the prophecy is a genuine sixth century prophecy.
vii Gurney, “The Four Kingdoms,” 39.
viii Ernest Lucas, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 188; cf. also John E. Goldingay, Daniel (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 174–75.
ix Another conservative interpretation of the four kingdoms is suggested by Tremper Longman, who proposes that the vision was never intended to provide definite historical identification of the final three beasts. Instead the vision simply indicates that an unspecified number of evil kingdoms will continue until the end of time [cf. Longman, Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 184, 190]. This view would be less difficult to accept if the first beast were not specifically identified with the concrete historical empire of Babylon. Granted, the imagery describing the final three beasts is often ambiguous and the numbers in the book can surely be symbolic, but some kind of definite historical referent for the final three beasts of this vision seems to be demanded by the admittedly definite historical referent of the first beast. It also seems to be demanded by the concrete historical referents of the beasts in the related visions of chapter 8, which are universally acknowledged to be Medo-Persia and Greece (cf. 8:20–21).
x The dispensationalist view, which posits a future renewed Roman Empire does not seem to have any warrant in the text. There is nothing in the text itself that gives any indication of two incarnations of the same fourth beast/kingdom separated by a gap of thousands of years. A revived fourth beast is posited by dispensationalists only because it is assumed that the coming of one like a son of man to the Ancient of days (7:13) is a prophetic reference to the Second Coming of Jesus [cf. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 267]. Of course, if it is a reference to the Second Coming, and if it occurs in the days of the fourth beast, and if the Second Coming has not occurred yet, then the fourth beast must exist in some capacity at the time of the future Second Coming. It is not necessary, however, to assume that the coming of one like a son of man to the Ancient of days in 7:13 is a prophetic reference to the Second Coming of Jesus. If instead it is a prophetic reference to something that occurred in connection with Christ’s first advent, then there is no need to posit a future revived Roman Empire.
xi The coming of Christ “in the days of those kings” is compatible with either view. If the fourth beast is the Greek Empire, his first advent occurred after its collapse, which is similar to the implied chronology of Daniel 7:12–14. If the fourth beast is the Roman Empire, his first advent occurred not long before its collapse, which is similar to the implied chronology of Daniel 2:44. The implied chronologies, however, should not be pressed too literally, however, because of the nature of the symbolic language.
xii This view seems to be confirmed by John’s understanding of Daniel as expressed in the Book of Revelation.
xiii Contra Goldingay (Daniel, 167), who asserts “The court is seated on earth…” For an explanation of one problem with Goldingay’s view, see Lucas, Daniel, 181.
xiv See Michael Shepherd, “Daniel 7:13 and the New Testament Son of Man,” WTJ, 68 (2006), 99 for the argument that the one like a son of Man is an individual.
xv Goldingay, Daniel, 167. The Hebrew equivalent is ben ‘adam. Ezekiel is addressed over ninety times as “son of man” in the book of Ezekiel. Earlier uses may also be found in Psalm 8:4 and 80:17.
xvi Cf. R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 169. Beasley-Murray [Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 28–9] argues that the vision is a theophany in which God is seen riding the clouds to earth, where the beast/kingdoms are to be judged. Goldingay (Daniel, 167) concurs. The problem with this interpretation is that the vision is not one of God coming with the clouds to earth, but of one like a son of man coming with the clouds to God. The Ancient of days (God) is seated on his heavenly throne. It is the one like a son of man who is coming with the clouds to him.
xvii Calvin, Commentaries, 13:44. Those who object to the idea that Christ was given the kingdom at his first advent because the Roman Empire continued to exist must keep in mind the possible typological parallels between the anointing of David as king and the anointing of Jesus as king. The establishment of the Davidic kingdom occurred in stages. He was anointed the true king by Samuel even though Saul was not immediately removed from the physical throne (1 Sam. 16:1, 12–13). He was later anointed king over Judah (2 Sam. 2:4). It was only after a long war (2 Sam. 3:1) that he was anointed king over all Israel (2 Sam. 5:3–4).
xviii Lucas, Daniel, 185; O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 334.
xix Baldwin, Daniel, 143.


Adapted from From Age to Age by Keith Mathison. ISBN 978-0-87552-745-1
Used with permission of P&R Publishing Co. P O Box 817, Phillipsburg N.J. 08865 www.prpbooks.com

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