Introduction to the Book of Daniel

SYNOPSIS:  An introduction to the Book of Daniel with background information and a brief overview of how the Book of Revelation applies passages from Daniel.

grayscale photography of click pen on top of opened book

The Book of Daniel is a well-structured literary work, not a collection of folk stories and random visions. At the very beginning, the key themes of the book are presented briefly, then worked out in detail in the subsequent chapters.

 The largely historical stories in Chapters 1-6 lay the foundation for the dream-visions detailed in the second half of the book (Chapters 7-12). Even the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel interpreted in Chapter 2 anticipates the detailed dream-vision of four beasts that the prophet saw ascending from the sea (Daniel 7:1-8).

Each of the visions from Chapters 7-12 includes subjects common to all; each vision builds on its predecessors to build a more complete picture by the end of the book.

For example, the cessation of the daily sacrifice in the Sanctuary is mentioned in the vision of the Ram and the Goat, in the vision of the “Seventy Weeks,” in the vision about the kings of the north and south, and in the concluding section of the book (Daniel 8:10-139:26-2711:31, 12:11).

Likewise, the “little horn” from the fourth beast “speaking great things” is described in the vision of the Four Beasts from the sea and the vision of the Ram and Goat (Daniel 7:87:20-218:9). The “abomination that desolates” is found in three of the four dream-visions, and in the concluding section of the book (Daniel 8:139:2711:3112:11). The several visions are interrelated and interpret one another.

The name Daniel means “God is my judge” or “God is judge.” He first appears as a Jewish youth who just arrived in the courts of Babylon.  No information is provided on his family history, though he was from Jewish nobility (1:3 – “of the seed royal and the nobles”). Nothing is known about his life prior to his arrival in Babylon. Almost all that is known is from the books of Daniel and Ezekiel (Daniel 1:3-6, Ezekiel 14:1414:2028:3).

Daniel was young at the time of his deportation to Babylon, probably a teenager. He received his final vision in the third year after the overthrow of Babylon by the “Medes and Persians” around 536 B.C. This means his prophetic career spent in the city of Babylon spanned a period of approximately seventy years. As far as is known, Daniel never returned to Judah after the overthrow of Babylon by Cyrus the Great; presumably, he died in Mesopotamia at an advanced age.

Daniel was given the Babylonian name ‘Belteshazzar,’ which means “Bel protect [the king].” ‘Bel’ was the Akkadian form of ‘Baal’ (“lord, master”) and referred to the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk.

Daniel is classified as a prophet in Jewish and Christian tradition, although the book itself calls him a “seer” (chozeh) and a “wise man” (chakham). In the royal courts of Babylon, he was a noted interpreter of dreams (Daniel 1:17, 2:13, 5:11-12).

He was a devout Jew living in a pagan culture that was occasionally hostile to the followers of Yahweh. Despite pressure and persecution, Daniel remained loyal to the God of Israel. His ability to interpret dreams won him high praise, honor, and position in the Empire. He later served faithfully in the court of Darius the Mede after the downfall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (Daniel 5:31-6:1).

Daniel was a loyal Israelite concerned with the Jewish people, but the book is focused on his role in the courts of Babylon and Persia (Chapters 1-6), and his visions about Gentile kingdoms and their significance to Israel (Chapters 7-12).

Daniel epitomizes the faithful Jew who lives by God’s grace while resident in a pagan society. He perseveres despite the downfall of the Jewish nation and his vulnerability to powerful forces within the Empire. Yahweh provides him with wisdom to confound opponents and astound kings. Though powerless from a human perspective, God uses his pronouncements before kings to change the course of history and empires.

Daniel served in important positions within the governments of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius the Mede. Nebuchadnezzar made him “chief of the wise men” and governor of the province of Babylon. Belshazzar appointed him the third ruler in his kingdom. And Darius placed him over the provincial governors of his domain centered in Babylon. Whether he served in the governments of the Babylonian kings who ruled after the death of Nebuchadnezzar but before the elevation of Belshazzar to rule the city of Babylon is not addressed (Daniel 2:48, 5:29, 6:1-3).

All the events recorded in the book occurred during the time of the Captivity of Isreal in Babylon. The stated purpose of the Captivity was to punish Judah for their sins (2 Chronicles 36:15-17Jeremiah 25:1-14).

The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria over a century before the rise of Babylon to prominence and the captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah, around 721-720 B.C. The last remnant of the Assyrian empire was destroyed at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. by Babylonian forces under the command of the crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 17:7-182 Chronicles 35:20Jeremiah 46:2).

After Assyria’s defeat, Nebuchadnezzar subjugated the several kingdoms of northern Palestine including Judah. He imposed tribute on each new vassal. In the case of Judah, this included the deportation of a select group of Jews to serve in the imperial civil service. Thus, in the assessment of the Book of Daniel, the captivity of Judah began around 605 B.C. with the subjugation of Jerusalem (Daniel 1:1-2Jeremiah 25:1-12).

atlas close up dark dirty
Photo by Aaditya Arora on

The rise of Nabopolassar to the Babylonian throne in 626 B.C. marked the start of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which endured until 539 B.C. when it was overthrown by the “kingdom of the Medes and the Persians”. Under its new ruler, the Babylonian kingdom rebelled against Assyria, a process that took several years to complete and culminated in the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. The Book of Daniel includes chronological references that coordinate key events with the reigns of kings of Judah, Babylon and Medo-Persia  (Daniel 1:1-21:212:15:30-316:28-31).

The book applies a theological concept to the period it covers, the time of “the indignation” (za’am), a divinely ordained period of correction. When Daniel speaks of the “time of the end,” he means not the end of History but the end of the “indignation.” For example:

(Daniel 8:17-19) – “So he came near where I stood, and when he came I was terrified and fell upon my face, but he said to me, ‘Understand, O son of man, that to the time of the end belongs the vision’…Then said he, ‘Behold me, causing you to know that which shall come to pass in the latter part of the indignation, for at an appointed time shall be an end.”

(Daniel 11:36) – “And the king will do according to his own pleasure, and will exalt and magnify himself against every god, yea, against the God of Gods will he speak wonderful things and will succeed, until exhausted is the indignation, for what is decreed must be done.”

Indignation” or za’am normally refers to the indignation of God with the resultant punishment of Israel for national sins. In the Book of Daniel, the “indignation” began with the overthrow and captivity of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar (Isaiah 10:5, 10:25, Jeremiah 10:10, Daniel 1:1-2, 9:4-19).

Based on the internal evidence, Daniel was composed after the start of the Babylonian Captivity and completed by the early years of the Persian Empire. The range provided for the career of Daniel is from the “third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim” (606 B.C.) to the “third year of Cyrus king of Persia” or 536 B.C. (Daniel 1:1-2, 1:21, 5:31-6:1, 10:1).

The Babylonian Captivity developed over several stages, beginning in 605 B.C. with the subjugation of Jerusalem. It culminated in its destruction in 587-586 B.C. There were at least three deportations of Jews to Babylon (606, 598, and 587 B.C.).

The historical sections of the book describe events in the lives of Daniel and three of his Jewish companions during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius the Mede (Chapters 1-6). The dream-visions were received between the first year of Belshazzar’s reign and the third of Cyrus the Great (Chapters 7-12).

The dream-visions are built around a framework of four successive kingdoms that are to precede the establishment of the everlasting kingdom of God. This fourfold structure connects the historical and visionary sections. Three of the four kingdoms are explicitly identified:  Babylon, the “Medes and Persians”, and Greece. Though not named, the fourth kingdom is one of the four divisions of the Greek empire that resulted from the death of its first king (Daniel 2:24-45, 8:20-2511:1-4).

The main theological theme is that God rules over the kingdoms of this world and gives rulership to whomever He pleases, “even to the lowest of men.” Despite appearances, human resistance, and machinations, God’s purposes are not thwarted. Daniel is the perfect example of how He directs the course of history through the lowly voice of a man without the military, economic or political power.

The first chapter and Chapters 8-12 were composed in the Hebrew language. The section from Chapter 2 through Chapter 7 was written in an Aramaic dialect related to the imperial Aramaic of the Persian Empire. The switch to Aramaic occurs at Daniel 2:4 when the “Chaldeans spoke to the king in the Syrian language.” The change back to Hebrew occurs in Daniel 8:1. This change is too specific to be accidental or the product of later copyists.

The Hebrew and Aramaic sections point to a date of composition during the Babylonian Captivity; the man who wrote Daniel was familiar with both languages and uses grammatical and idiomatic features specific to the Mesopotamian area. The change from one language to the other marks off major literary sections.

There are verbal and literary links between the first and last literary units of the Aramaic section. For example, Nebuchadnezzar had a “dream and visions of his head upon his bed”, just as Daniel had “a dream and visions of his head upon his bed.”  Nebuchadnezzar’s dream left him “troubled,” just as Daniel was “troubled” by his dream-vision. Both dreams featured a fourfold division of kingdoms beginning with Babylon, to be followed by the establishment of God’s everlasting kingdom (Daniel 2:1-4, 2:28, 7:1-1528).

The narratives of the Aramaic section confirm the book’s claim that God gave Daniel “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams…in all matters of wisdom and understanding the king found Daniel and his companions ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers in his realm” (Daniel 1:17-20).

The accounts in Chapters 2-7 validate these claims.  God enabled Daniel to use the language and learning of the Chaldeans provided by Nebuchadnezzar to demonstrate that Yahweh rules over the kingdoms of the world and, additionally, to confound the supposed “wisdom,” ideology and religious beliefs of the Babylonian elite.

The use of Aramaic fits the historical setting; by the time of Nebuchadnezzar, it was the language of diplomacy and commerce among the nations of the Near East. Aramaic became the common tongue of many Jews by the end of the Babylonian Captivity (2 Kings 18:17-37, Ezra 4:11-22, 5:7-17, 6:6-12, 7:11-26, Nehemiah 8:8).

The contents of the Aramaic section concern events that occurred during the career of Daniel in the Babylonian kingdom and the first few years of the subsequent Medo-Persian empire. In contrast, the visions of the Hebrew section concern events subsequent to Daniel’s life and the fall of the Babylonian Empire.

In the Book of Revelation

Verbal allusions from the Book of Daniel are used repeatedly in the Book of Revelation. Source material from Daniel often shed light on the symbolism of Revelation (see, for example, Daniel 2:28 used in Revelation 1:14:1-222:6).

The little horn that “made war with the saints and prevailed against them” in Daniel is echoed in Revelation 11:712:1713:7 and 17:14. The single great “beast seen ascending from the sea” is built on Daniel’s vision of four beasts from the sea (Daniel 7:1-8Revelation 11:713:1-2).

Revelation does not just quote the Book of Daniel; it reinterprets it in the context of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Events once predicted to occur in “latter days” become “what things much come to pass soon.” The enthronement of Jesus signified that the time of fulfillment is at hand (“the season is at hand”). Daniel was told to “seal” the book “until the time of the end,” whereas, John is commanded NOT “to seal the book, for the season is at hand” (Daniel 2:27-2812:4, Revelation 1:1-3, 22:10).

[Click here to Download PDF copy of this post]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s