Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3
Today’s reading from Daniel 12 consists of an apocalyptic scenario — an unveiling (which is the meaning of the Greek word apokalypsis from which our term “apocalyptic” comes) of the end of human history.
Daniel’s writers understand this end to be in the near future, an imminent event. In this scenario, God’s angelic agent, Michael, will intervene during a time of intense distress and bring deliverance to the faithful who are living, while some of the dead will be resurrected and judged.
Looking For the End
Even a cursory glance at American popular culture today reveals that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are all the rage right now. These scenarios generally depict a future time of catastrophe that results in the end of the world as we know it. Some examples might be found in the movies 2012; The Children of Men; I am Legend; WALL·E; The Book of Eli; and The Hunger Games, just to name a few.
One can link this particular popular culture trend to various events — the end of the Mayan calendar (coming in December!), the catastrophic economic conditions of the last four years, the defining events of September 11th, Y2K and the turn of the millennium, the Cold War and the atomic bomb era, or any number of things really. In fact, Christians have been expecting the end in one way or another pretty regularly for 2000 years. Before them, Judaism, as the book of Daniel indicates, had its own interest in the end time.
Grappling with Confusion and Loss
A question that often comes up for readers of this literature is what motivates end time thinking? In the case of our popular culture depictions, it is not so difficult to spot their origins — the movies and books mentioned above all give voice to our culture’s anxiety about the fallout of environmental, biological, social, or technological meltdown. But apocalyptic literature such as one finds in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation often strikes readers as fantastic and detached from mundane concerns — their origins are not so obvious to us. Even so, these materials are struggling with important, not-so-esoteric human situations and theological questions.
In 167-164 BCE, when the foreign emperor Antiochus IV criminalized the practice of Judaism, desecrated the Jerusalem temple, and co-opted its leadership, a situation emerged in which important and once-cherished institutions ceased to function in ways that were meaningful to the population. The meltdown of these institutions, along with the threats to life and limb that came with the emperor’s decrees, caused profound confusion. How does one discern God’s presence and power in the face of such loss? How does one know what the path of faithfulness might be? Does it involve accommodating an unjust emperor, fighting the emperor, or resisting in other ways?
As a way of gaining perspective on such disorder, apocalyptic literature uses rich symbols to imagine the end of human history. After all, when viewed from an endpoint, chaotic events no longer seem so chaotic but instead may be seen as part of a larger discernible pattern. In this passage, the time of the end promises to bring deliverance from distress, injustice, and untimely death through resurrection.
Interestingly, the passage does not say that all the dead will be resurrected and judged (as later Christian thinking came to affirm it), but only some who have died (verse 2). Presumably, it will be those who have died in conjunction with the final events involving the foreign king. Perhaps the passage has in mind those, both good and wicked, who did not receive a just reward before death, but who will finally receive just treatment after death.
Wisdom and Righteousness at the End
What the passage does affirm is that those who have sought knowledge and discernment of God’s power at work in the cosmos, a group called “the wise,” will be especially visible in the aftermath of judgment. The wise “will shine like the brightness of the sky” (verse 3) and become like the stars. Since the stars and other heavenly bodies were thought to be angels in God’s heavenly council, this verse imagines the exaltation of the wise to a place of privilege within the divine courts; a place close to the God who had seemed so distant during the catastrophe.
The wise can find a pattern to follow amidst the chaos by following the example of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:11, to whom they are likened. They both “lead the many to righteousness.” That is, the wise are lauded for the way in which they lead others to understand God’s plans and resist (apparently in a non-violent fashion) the unrighteousness of Antiochus IV and his supporters. Moreover, the wise and the servant of Isaiah both suffer in the connection to this task (see Daniel 11:33), but both will be exalted (Isaiah 52:13).
What Comes After?
One of the great ironies about the end of days as it is depicted in the Bible (and often in popular culture) is that it is never simply a portrayal of the end. It is inevitably a portrayal of a new beginning, a turning point in human reality that becomes “the end and after.” Daniel 12 does not imagine an elaborate “after” (in contrast to Revelation 21-22), but nevertheless, it begins to hope for a time and place when justice and righteousness regain the upper hand; a time in which the gap between humanity and the divine is overcome.
Such apocalyptic imaginings are never just descriptions of what is out there. Rather, portrayals of “the end and after” are always reflections of one’s deepest yearnings about God and the world. As such they have the power to turn human knowing into faithful action; to urge readers to discern righteousness and justice in this world instead of simply waiting for it in the next. Daniel invites us into the rich and fantastic world of the apocalyptic imagination and asks us, what do we imagine the “end and after” to look like? What are our deepest yearnings about God and the world?