Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3
First of all, congratulations on following the lectionary and taking the challenge to preach on some of the really difficult passages of Daniel.
The exciting narratives from the first half of the book of Daniel (1-6) have served as preaching favorites for all types of congregations, particularly younger ones. You have stories of lions, fire, and stories of resistance against “the man,” in the form of King Nebuchadnezzar. This is the material of Jerry Bruckheimer movies. In contrast, the second half of the book of Daniel (7-12) presents as much more difficult sermon material with the four apocalyptic visions. Apocalyptic genres can be exciting, but they bring significant challenges in preaching such cryptic texts.
It is a mistake to preach solely on the stories of Daniel 1-6, while ignoring the visions of Daniel 7-12. The narratives of Daniel are meant to be read alongside the apocalyptic materials. Even the language suggests that that they need to be integrated, as in Daniel 1, Daniel 8-12 is in Hebrew, but Daniel 2-7 is in Aramaic. The stories all have to do with being faithful as a subject within a wider, oppressive empire. But these are complemented with the theological proclamation of a sovereign God, as underscored throughout the apocalyptic visions.
Daniel 12 launches the final scene of the four apocalyptic visions of Daniel. In the prior section, Daniel sees an angel who speaks of a “Prince of Persia” who will wage war and defeat many powers, and in the process defile the temple. A king from the North shall arise and wreak havoc on the land. Some will flee (Trans-Jordanian states), some will fall (Egypt), and some will follow this king (Libya, Ethiopia), but the king abruptly dies. As with any powerful monarch, this event is expected to bring a period of chaos in the wake of a sudden powershift.
At this point, Daniel 12:1-3 introduces a transition in both time and space. The opening phrase “In that time” signals a temporal shift from the present to a future eschaton. Within the passage, “that time” is paradoxically filled with both anguish and deliverance. Already, the book is set within the hegemony of Babylonian empire. This passage recognizes the particular severity of the moment, describing an upcoming time as “distressed,” (12:1), even more distressed than any other prior time since the primordial age. But the passage also indicates that the persecution is of limited time and will soon lead to a period of deliverance. These are not two different time periods, but rather the time of unprecedented anguish is also a time of salvation.
“That time” occurs within a new spatial framework. The introduction of the angelic character of Michael (Hebrew translation “Who is Like God?”) moves the setting from earthly to otherworldly realms. Michael is not merely introduced, but described as “The great ruler,” implying a level of superiority beyond the earthly rulers of previous chapters. Daniel 12:1 uses the word “arise/stand” twice: (1) Michael arises/stands; (2) He is the one who “arises/stands upon the children of his people.” The verb invokes a call to warfare in a spirit a parallel to military activities, both in historical narrative (for example 1 Samuel 17:3, 8, 51) and prophecy (see also Isaiah 50:8). This call to “rise” is long-awaited.
The paradox of anguish and delivery is manifest in two groups of people. Both groups share the following commonalities: (1) they were asleep; (2) they will awaken to a fate that will last for the ages. But aside from this, their fates are polar opposites. For one group, the awakening will lead to shame and death. But for another group, the address of “your people” specifies a small group within a collective identity as the hearers of this apocalyptic message. It is a qualified group of “all who are found written in the book.” Most will recognize the connection to the idea of a written document in Revelation, but it also bridges to earlier movements in the Old Testament that ascribe a growing awareness of textual authority. Why else would many passages, such as 1 Chronicles 1-9 or Numbers 1, dedicate so much space to a list of names? Inclusion in the written list is an emblem of power and protection.
The next verse describes the glories that await this group. The darkness of the preceding passages is overcome with a “brightness in the sky” and the “stars for the ages.” The passage proceeds with declarations that follow this imagery of magnificent light.
The thought of an afterlife is a pretty late development in Old Testament texts. The vast majority of passages dealing with death are much more concerned with the proper burial. But rather than obsess with the specific mechanics of an afterlife, I think the heart of the text is to provide hope. God is redemptive, even when it does not appear so in this life. The introduction of the afterlife in this passage is intended to provide relief for those under suffering, and for those who grapple with a perception of God as distant in the midst of chaos. Daniel 12:1-3 is a culmination of many challenging situations for the faithful, both in the narratives with Daniel in the foreign court, but also in the apocalyptic visions.
So rather than lead the congregation in a theological inquiry, which is important, I pray that beyond theological meditations you will develop a sermon to address realized pain and confusion in the congregation. A close reading of the passage may not mollify pain, but it can perhaps invite a wider, more divine understanding of the place of that pain. Although the passage perhaps intentionally leaves out many details on this awakening, the clear message promises complete and thorough relief to a distressed community. And this passage can invite the congregant to the peace of God in the midst of their own trials, where God seems so distant.