Commentary on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Since the earliest churches, Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 have informed a wider picture of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, particularly aspects of his divine being.
Thus, it is a fitting passage for the Sunday when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. But in studying the text, I would like to briefly encourage you to take a moment and consider the reading of Daniel within its narrative context. Daniel is set within a group of Judeans under oppression from the Babylonian Empire. As you think through the text, try not to think of Jesus. Instead, consider the perspective of a Judean long before the time of Christ.
The immediate context indicates that the oppression is much more severe than a colonized group of displaced Judeans struggling to maintain their identity as in the earlier chapters of Daniel 1-6. Rather, the opening dream in Daniel 7 suggests a very different realm of direct persecution and a fight for physical survival, as symbolized by a set of terrifying beasts.
This context leads way to the introduction of a divine being. Within forms of poetic apocalypse, the passage displays rich imagery for this “Ancient of Days.” The moniker “Ancient of Days” articulates a defining characteristic of this person. He is literally one of many days, meaning that he surpasses any temporal boundaries of the specific events of the narrative. Immediately after the introduction, the “Ancient of Days” sits on a throne, an act of authority and a precursor for enforcing judgment. You can think of a modern parallel moment when someone of ascribed authority enters a designated space, like a judge entering a hushed courthouse, or a principal entering a classroom filled with anxious children.
The text then gives a physical description of God, a rare occurrence in the Old Testament. The few physical descriptions of the divine within the Bible are laconic and mysterious. This particular example of Daniel 7 is within an apocalyptic dream. God is pure and in this particular passage, it is symbolized through physical whiteness, a known literary association in the ancient Near East. This description contrasts with that of wicked rulers in earlier chapters, such as the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar.
The “Ancient of Days” is surrounded by a burning throne and wheels made up of fire. In the midst of a night vision, the image of a massive fire transforms the setting. The fires represent multiple meanings. This is a dominant fire, which “burns” (verse 9) and “flows out.” (verse 10) Primarily, the fire symbolizes a mysterious divine, similar to Exodus 3:2. It also illuminates and reveals. It purifies. It punishes. None of these symbolic functions are mutually exclusive.
This pure and fiery deity then sits with many, who “serve him” and “stand before him.” (verse 10) Whereas the opening lines shift the scene from four beasts of the night, these lines move the setting to a much more ordered place. The image depicts the setting of justice and power, mediated through a proper council with legions of attendants. The reference to opened books reveals an impending execution of justice.
The tension reaches culmination with the appearance of “One Like a Human Being.” (verse 13) He appears before the “Ancient of Days,” and accordingly receives the promise that all will serve this “one” and his dominion will last for the ages.
Were you able to read and meditate the passage without thinking of Jesus? Without the Christian lens, one can see that this passage brings great relief to a community that is scattered in fear. I would suspect that many of the readers could relate to the themes of fear and uncertainty within the preceding verses of Daniel 7, particularly the fourth beast (verse 7). Collectively, such fears are certainly relatable during this present season of our nation’s history. Individually, we all have experiences of loss and fear.
But today’s passage shifts this narrative of loss to a narrative of victory. The people knew suffering, but they longed for a time of deliverance. This deliverance is promised by the “Ancient of Days,” a pure and fiery ruler, who brings forth a divine figure who is also “Like a Human Being.” This is good news. Fear will not reign. Justice will be restored. For the fearful refugee seeking protection, the natural reaction would be joy and gratitude to both the “One Like a Human Being” and the “Ancient of Days,” who commissions him.
At this point, one can then overlay the place of Jesus Christ in this position. Jesus quotes Daniel 7 to refer to himself in Mark 14:62, as well as Matthew 24:30. The New Testament adjusts some of the messianic expectation of Daniel 7 and perhaps gives insight on what it means to be “Like a Human Being.” Rather than focus on this glorious image of purity and fire, the “Son of Man” in Mark is decidedly human. Jesus makes the claim of messianic identity, but it is so ironic that the high priest declares blasphemy, and the others call for a punishment of death. Within a few more verses in Mark, the Son of Man is abandoned, condemned to death, and crucified.
Of course, we can celebrate that this crucifixion leads to the crowning glory and the fulfilment of the explicit messianic expectation of Daniel 7. Jesus emerges from divine space and receives a divine commission. God will give this “One Like a Human Being” all of the kingdoms and it will be eternal. The persecutor will meet judgment, and the persecuted will find relief, as “All peoples, nations, languages shall serve him.” The victory is assured. Acknowledging Christ the King must include full recognition of dominion and power, but it is also kingship informed by the reality of fear and loss, personified by the cross.