Discovering Daniel

Some of the most well-known Bible stories and often-discussed Bible prophecies come from this Old Testament (OT) book. But what is the purpose of this book? Why were these stories and prophecies given?

Background Information

This book was written by Daniel, a young Jewish teenager who was carried away to Babylon as part of a group of select individuals with aristocratic ties, whom Babylon believed could be of use to the Empire from a political standpoint. The prophet Isaiah seems to have prophesied that this would happen (Isa 39:5-7). Not only could these men provide valuable cultural insights to the Babylonian rulers, but they could also be used as leverage to ensure that those Israelites remaining in Palestine would pay the annual tribute which the Babylonian empire levied against them.

Daniel lived throughout the 70-year captivity in Babylon (Dan 1:21; 9:2). Upon his capture, Babylonians officials renamed him Belteshazzar (meaning “Bel protects his life”) and provided him with a complete cultural and political multiyear re-education. He and his soon gained unparalleled favor with the top-ranking officials, a stance that survived the transition from Babylonian to Persian rule. He eventually became one of only three administrators who outranked and oversaw the provincial governors throughout the empire (Dan 6:1).

We don’t know much about Daniel’s background other than that he was from the lineage of Jewish nobility and possibly even the Davidic kingly line (Dan 1:3). He was also highly skilled and well-trained (Dan 1:4), unmarried (Dan 1:5), and characterized by intentional integrity (Dan 1:6). Furthermore, God had granted him a special ability to understand the significance of dreams and visions (Dan 1:17). According to some biblical scholars, Daniel’s influence in Babylon was the reason why Babylonian and Persian rulers treated the Jewish people more kindly and less aggressively than they treated other subjugated nations and was also the reason for the eventual far east wisemen’s pursuit of the Messiah. In many ways, Daniel was to exiled Israel the kind of person that Joseph was to Israel in Egypt before the exodus. Even his contemporary, Ezekiel, recognized Daniel’s outsized influence and reputation (Ezek 14:14, 20; 28:3). We lose contact with Daniel’s life during the third year of the Persian emperor, Cyrus (536 BC).

Purpose for the Book

The original Jewish collection of OT books included Daniel in the Writings, along with Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, though our English Bibles include this book in the section called “the Prophets” today, in the subgroup called “Major Prophets,” along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. To be sure, this is a challenging book to categorize, because about half of the book features gripping historical narrative about Daniel’s experiences in captivity, while the other half features prophecies he received, which are marked by graphic imagery and vivid symbolism.

As a book written during the captivity of Israel, this book portrays God as sovereign over the affairs of this world, regardless of what his people may be experiencing or what government or nations may be in power at the time (see Daniel 2:20-22, 44; 4:17, 34-37).

In contrast to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, which are written as a warning to Israel about future judgment, this book is written as an encouragement to Israel as they experienced ongoing judgment. Though God had judged them for their sins, he would also yet fulfill all of his promises to them as a nation while also judging the nations of the world.

Outline and Content

This book divides neatly into two halves:

  • Historical Section (Chs. 1-6)
  • Prophetic Section (Chs. 7-12)

In the first half, Daniel explains the significance of dreams by other people, while also presenting some key experiences of his own and his close Jewish friends as God guided and preserved them at the heart of pagan government and society. In the second half, an angel interprets his own dreams. Through these various dreams and visions, we gain important insights into God’s unfolding and future plan for Israel and the nations of the world. We are also introduced to four major, successive world powers, which receive distinct attention in this book:

  • Babylonian (Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar)
  • Medo-Persian (Darius, Cyrus)
  • Greek (Alexander, the Great Four generals)
  • Roman Rule (the last of the Gentile Powers)

One interesting fact about this book is that it is bilingual, meaning that its material is provided in two different languages. It begins and ends in Hebrew (1:1-2:4a, then 8:1-12:13), but the middle section is written in Aramaic, the international language of the sixth century. It seems that the Hebrew text corresponds more closely to information with direct bearing upon the Jewish people, whereas the Aramaic passages align more closely with matters pertaining to the future of Gentile empires.

This book features some noteworthy references to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is called “the Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14), which would be Christ’s favorite way to refer to himself in the Gospels. He is called “Messiah” (“Anointed One”) and “the Prince” (Dan 9:25-26).

Of all the fascinating material provided in this book, Dan 9 is especially fascinating. In this chapter, he responds specifically to Jeremiah’s prophecy of a seventy-year captivity (Jer 29:10-14). In reply to Daniel’s actions, then, God provides a subsequent prophecy consisting of seventy weeks, which actually entail seventy “prophetic” weeks of seven years each, totally 490 years. When studied from a historical standpoint, this prophecy spans a timeframe from Israel’s return to Palestine to crucifixion of Christ and destruction of Jerusalem. By this accounting, seven years (one week) remains of this prophecy, which underlies the belief in a coming seven-year tribulation prior to Christ’s second coming.

Personal Takeaways

Reading and studying this book provides us with three important lessons.

  1. First, we are reminded that we serve the God who governs the affairs of human history. No matter what happens and who rules in the affairs of government, war, and nations, God exercises ultimate and final authority.
  2. Second, we are taught that it is possible to live a faithful and impactful life for God, even if we are surrounded by a godless culture.
  3. Third, we are encouraged to persevere, following Christ, God’s conquering Messiah, by faith, knowing that his complete and comprehensive triumph over all evil and nations is coming, just as God has promised and planned.

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