It would be easy to preach our lectionary text for today as referring to Jesus coming on a cloud.
After all the image of Jesus as the Son of Man who will come with the clouds of heaven to save the people from all that threatens them has been dominant in Christian imagination -- the reference to someone like a son of man in verse 13 in particular anticipates the use of this self-designation by Jesus in the gospels. Moreover, the fact that this Sunday is the day in the church year on which we celebrate Christ as the King seems to further delimitate our interpretative options. However, if one takes a step back and considers the function of this text in its original literary and socio-historical context one may just end up with a richer understanding of Daniel 7, as well as its journey becoming part of the lectionary's selection celebrating Christ the King.
For instance, a close reading of Daniel 7 (keep in mind that Daniel 2:4-7:28 was written in the lingua franca of the day, Aramaic) reveals that the familiar translation of "the Son of Man" as in the KJV and NIV probably is not the best way to translate the Aramaic phrase bar enosh. Rather, as the NRSV translation would attest, someone "like a human being" appears on the cloud to deliver the people from the deeply threatening circumstances.
The identity of this proposed savior has been open to speculation -- from the coming messiah, the angel Michael, the angel Gabriel, the High priest Onias III, Judas Maccabeus, the collective Jewish people, and of course for Christian believers, Jesus the Christ, as is evident in Mark 13:26 where the gospel writer portrays Jesus in terms of Daniel's vision. However, to simply read this text through a Christological lens would not do justice to the powerful significance this imagery would have had for an audience who was severely threatened by empires.
The two sections of the lectionary text for today build upon a long tradition of the liberator God intervening to save the faithful. Demonstrating parallels with Ugaritic imagery, God is depicted in the Old Testament tradition in terms of El on throne (e.g. Psalm 29:10; 47:8; 99:1) and like the storm god Baal riding on the clouds whose appearance on a cloud signals deliverance (Psalm 18:10; 68:4, 33; Isaiah 19:1). However, in verse 13 instead of a deity, the deliverer proves to be a mortal -- one like a human being. To this unexpected savior is given "dominion, glory, kingship" and his rule is said to be forever, which shall not pass away, nor be destroyed.
In this regard, it is quite important to read this week's lectionary text within the larger context of Daniel 7's vision of the terrifying monsters arising out of the chaos water of the sea. By leaving verses 11 and 12 out, the lectionary text sanitizes the text and takes the vision of the divine throne room and the savior on the cloud out of context. These powerful visions very much emerge out of the feeling of being subsumed by the empires that quite fittingly are likened to monstrous beasts. Typically taken to denote the quick succession of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek empires, the fierce animals that are likened to a lion and a bear are used to depict the various empires' enormous capacity of wreaking havoc and destroying people's lives. Circumstances became even more urgent in light of the actions of the little horn speaking arrogantly (Daniel 7:8) that has been connected with the Selekeud ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanus whose actions of abolishing the Sabbath and sacrificing a pig in the temple have been viewed as exceedingly threatening, giving rise to the fear of being wiped out as a people.
In the midst of this living nightmare, the two interrelated images of God on the throne and God's saving agent entering into the chaos-filled world fulfill a pivotal function for the believers who are experiencing extreme duress. Faced with the possibility of being subsumed or even annihilated by the powers-to-be, the image of God on the throne, the Ancient One (or as the NIV translates it "the Ancient of Days") is a compelling way to convey the unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God. Daniel 7:9-10 proclaims that God is firmly on the throne even if the terrible monsters (empires) are around for a season and a time (7:12).
This reference propounds that even though God is present and reigning from on high, the threat of the chaos is not entirely eliminated, but God's presence contains and limits the empires, no matter how inhumane, in the interim. Moreover, the image of a valiant savior who appears on a cloud and represents God's intervention contributes to the powerful theological development that God is mobile, moving with the people in the most desperate of circumstances (cf. also Ezekiel's vision of the divine throne with wheels in Ezekiel 1).
Finally, in an important step in the development of a Trinitarian understanding of God, the two interrelated images in Daniel 7 assert that God is not just a far-away removed deity, but that God is present in the chaos of this world: moving, acting, and intervening in the real life struggles of the believers who are yearning for a Liberator God.
Sometimes when we switch on the morning news and read the newspapers over a cup of coffee, we may feel a bit like Daniel, frightened by devouring monsters in his night visions, when we seek to wrap our minds around everything that is happening in our country and around the world. However, the belief and hope in a Savior that enters exactly where the forces of chaos seem to be most rampant is what allows one to get up and face the day. Particularly as we are entering this season of Advent we take heart in the image of Christ our King who was born in the shadow of the empire; who was threatened and eventually persecuted and killed by the empire; but who has risen from the dead, reigning on high. It is this advent hope in the already and the not yet of our salvation that gives us the strength to endure.