Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (17): The Adventist Approach to Daniel

Any exegetical defense of historicism must begin with the clearest biblical example, found in Daniel chapter 2. While the text is quite familiar to Adventists, it bears another look, for it is foundational to an understanding of apocalyptic prophecy. The story of Daniel 2 clearly fits the definition of apocalyptic literature generally accepted today, and is of the historical sub-category. It contains a revelation delivered in a narrative framework, and that revelation is given directly by God (an otherworldly being) to Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, the human recipients. The vision and its interpretation disclose a transcendent temporal reality regarding eschatological salvation, and reveal the spatial reality of God’s will and purposes in the supernatural world.

Unless one approaches Daniel 2 with the assumption that it is outlining history after the fact, it seems clear that Nebuchadnezzar’s vision portrays a chain of empires, beginning with the time of the prophet, and running the course of history all the way to its eschatological climax.

The story of Daniel 2 begins with a sleepless night for King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:1). He was worried about the future and God gives him dreams which unpack that future (Dan 2:29). After futile attempts to get help from his closest advisors, Nebuchadnezzar turns to Daniel, the Hebrew prophet. Daniel testifies that the future is unknown to human beings, no matter how intelligent nor how connected to the occult (Dan 2:27– these same wise men are forced to agree, 2:10-11). There is a God in heaven, however, who is fully able to reveal what will happen in days to come, including the final events of history (“at the end of days,” Dan 2:28).

The dream is about a large statue, an idol, made from a succession of metals, declining in value (from gold to iron) but increasing in strength as you move from the head to the foot of the image (2:31-33). The feet of the statue are made of a mixture of iron and clay (2:33). At the end of the dream a supernatural rock smashes into the feet of the image, breaking the whole image to pieces (2:34). The pieces are then swept away by the wind, while the rock grows into a mountain that fills the whole earth (2:35).

While the vision of the statue carries Nebuchadnezzar to end of earth’s history, however, the explanation of the vision by Daniel is firmly grounded in the time and place of Nebuchadnezzar. All expressions are appropriate to a conversation being held in a king’s palace around 600 BC. The interpretation begins with a straightforward, unambiguous assertion, “You are that head of gold” (Dan 2:38). The interpretation grounds the beginning of that prophecy in the situation of Nebuchadnezzar’s time and place. That the head of gold is not limited to Nebuchadnezzar personally, but represents his whole kingdom becomes clear in that all the succeeding metals represent whole kingdoms, not just a series of kings. Nebuchadnezzar is addressed as the representative of his kingdom. The comment that the fourth kingdom will be “strong as iron” suggests that the various metals were designed to portray specific characteristics of each of the kingdoms.

The next stage in the prophecy is also clear. “After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours” (2:39). This second kingdom clearly comes on the stage after the time of Nebuchadnezzar. While the text does not explicitly state that this kingdom is represented by the silver of the statue, the inferior nature of the kingdom is appropriate to such a movement. The transition between Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom and the following one is marked by the story in Daniel 5. Babylon is followed by Medo-Persia.

To be continued.

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