Commentary on Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Though general wisdom counsels one to preach the text rather than the day, this text—both in content and in genre—fits the day of All Saints quite well.
Daniel 7 recounts the dream of Daniel, described as a young Judean exile in the Babylonian court, though Babylon here acts as a cipher for the Greek Empire, the super-power of Daniel’s day. The portion of the chapter assigned for All Saints Day describes only the beginning of Daniel’s dream, in which four great beasts arise out of the sea (Daniel 7:3), and the interpretation of the dream by a heavenly being (7:15-18). In response to Daniel’s terror and misapprehension at the end of his dream, this heavenly being explains that the four beasts represent four kings (or kingdoms) but that the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom in the end. The “holy ones” likely refers to heavenly beings, though their exact identity remains disputed. 1
What is clear is that they are on the side of God and on the side of good. Neither the beasts nor the empires that they represent will be victorious in the end. Although the four kings/kingdoms are not identified in the passage, history shows them to be the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks.
The redacted description of the dream includes not only descriptions of the four beasts and their terrifying power, but ten horns arising from the fourth beast, with an eleventh horn erupting noisily at the end. In response to this last beast with its mouthy eleventh horn, the Ancient One appears to put the beast to death and to deprive the other three beasts of power. Then, a human figure descends from the heavens to reign, at the behest of God, the Ancient One.
Should one decide to preach on Daniel 7, one might decide to read the redacted verses or to describe them in the sermon. While the “message” of the dream is captured in the verses selected, the experience of the apocalypse is missing and thus the whole—with its strangeness and its terror—is not fully communicated, making the interpretation somewhat less than the hopeful news that it is.
Daniel 7 as apocalypse
As an apocalyptic text, this chapter describes earthly political matters, particularly as they pertain to the people of Judea, in light of a larger cosmic narrative in which the outcome is already certain. Daniel 7 is set in light of the harsh Hellenization efforts of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek king of the Seleucid Empire and ruler in Judea from 175-164 BCE. The apocalyptic material in the book of Daniel provides hope for a rather powerless people who have experienced affronts such as having their observations of Torah forbidden and the cult of Zeus set up in their Temple in Jerusalem. Their faithfulness may have been under attack, but they could look forward to a day when they will be victors, thanks for the faithfulness of God.
Scholar Anathea E. Portier-Young maintains that one of the roles of apocalyptic writings is to make visible a system of imperial domination and hegemonic discourse that would have preferred to operate under the cloak of darkness and to counter the totalizing discourse of that imperial power with an alternative vision. 2 In other words, a savvy empire will work its machinations in such a way that its people will accept the empire’s requests for fealty as normal and reasonable. An apocalypse cries, “This is not reasonable!”
It is ironic that the apocalyptic writing meant to make an oppressive force visible would be written with such strong recourse to symbol and metaphor. Yet, such associations do more than offer a cloak of plausible deniability against treason or slander. The genre allows one to represent the oppressor in ways that are dangerous, and chaotic. So, for instance, Daniel depicts the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks as monsters in Daniel 7, veiling their identity but also using metaphor to communicate the monstrous extent of the situation (Daniel 7:4-8, 17). They arise out of chaotic waters, suggesting their obstruction to God’s good ordering of creation (see also Genesis 1; Exodus 15).
With the true motivation of their rulers revealed, albeit symbolically, the opposing vision of the Ancient One handing over the kingdom to the Holy Ones cuts through the attempted obfuscation of the empire. The real, reasonable, faithful vision of God’s world is this one, and it will come to pass.
Death and promise
At least two possibilities for preaching this text with an eye to All Saints Day present themselves.
First, part of the work of All Saints Day is naming the reality that is death. One could even call it a hegemonic discourse. Each one of us will one day die. We mourn it. We may even fear it, envisioning it as a beast rising up out of the waters. Yet, the larger truth is that in Christ Jesus, the firstborn of the dead, death has been overcome. Ultimately, the saints—the holy ones—will sit as inheritors of God’s kingdom, with death no more a threat.
A second possibility is to consider not just death itself but a death-dealing culture or world. What are the messages that, like the empire of Daniel’s time, try to make sin and evil the more reasonable reality? In what ways does the world around us subtly turn us from the radically inclusive and grace-filled love of God toward a vision that looks more like the beasts rising up out of the sea? For saints—the holy ones of God—living yet on this side of the resurrection, the alternate vision in Daniel’s dream gives hope for a different future and perhaps confidence to work in God’s name for such a future, such a vision, in the here and now.
1 John J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 313-17.
2 Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 35.