In the first year of Belshazzar, Daniel saw a vision of four beastly creatures ascending from the chaotic sea – Daniel 7:1-8.
Daniel received a vision in which he saw “four beasts ascending” from the sea. The first half of the chapter describes the vision, the second half presents its interpretation. The vision had a fourfold structure, corresponding to the four parts of the “great image” seen by Nebuchadnezzar in his earlier dream, with its golden head, silver arms and breast, brass belly and thighs, and legs of iron and clay.
The seventh chapter is transitional. It concludes the first half of the book and introduces the main subjects of the last half. Parallels are provided between Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the “great image” and Daniel’s vision of four “beasts from the sea,” as well as verbal links to the visions presented in the next several chapters.
The great image envisioned by Nebuchadnezzar had a “head of fine gold,” which represented his reign. Each of its four components signified a different kingdom, beginning with Babylon. Likewise, in Daniel’s vision, Babylon was the first of the four “beasts” that he saw “ascending from the sea” – (Daniel 2:31-45).
Previously, Daniel identified the “head of gold” as Nebuchadnezzar but did not identify the three subsequent kingdoms. And the pictorial clues provided in his interpretation were too few and ambiguous to link the other three realms to any known historical empires. Likewise, in chapter 7, the identities of the second, third and fourth beasts are allusive, although more details are given.
- (Daniel 7:1-2) – “In the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, Daniel beheld a dream and visions of his head upon his bed, then he wrote the dream and told the sum of the matters. I was looking in my vision in the night when, lo, the four winds of the heavens bursting forth upon the great sea; and four large beasts ascending from the sea, diverse one from another.”
The “first year of Belshazzar.” Daniel received the vision when Babylon was still the dominant power in the Near East. Belshazzar was the regent who governed the city for his father, King Nabonidus (reigned 556-539 B.C.). Belshazzar was killed when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians” in October 539 B.C.
“Daniel beheld…visions of his head upon his bed.” The description forms a verbal link to the earlier dream of Nebuchadnezzar when he received “visions of your head upon your bed,” concerning things “which must come to pass in later days” -(Daniel 2:28-29).
The verbal link is deliberate. The four beasts “ascending from the sea” correspond to the four metallic parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s “great image,” and in both dream-visions, the four parts represent four sequential kingdoms.
- (Daniel 7:3-6) – “The first like a lion, having the wings of an eagle. I looked until the wings were torn out, and it was lifted from the earth, and stood upon its feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it. And, lo, another beast, a second, resembling a bear, and on one side was it raised up with three ribs in its mouth, between its teeth, and thus were they saying to it, Rise, devour much flesh! After that, I was looking, and lo, another like a leopard, and it had four wings of a bird upon its back, and four heads had the beast, and dominion was given to it.”
“The four winds of heaven” were agitating the surface of the sea, symbolizing restive nations and peoples. The Aramaic text describes the winds as “bursting forth upon the great sea.” That is, it was the turbulence that caused the beasts to emerge from the sea.
The verb rendered “ascending” is an active participle, denoting action in progress; here, the process of “ascending.” The beasts were “ascending” out of the sea in quick succession.
The “four beasts” were unnatural, composite creatures with characteristics from disparate species; for example, the “lion with eagle wings.” Each creature was driven by its animalistic voracity to seize territory.
The “winged lion” corresponds to the “head of gold” from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. It represents the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Daniel was familiar with the writings of Jeremiah who also used lions and eagles to symbolize Babylon, a swift and voracious conqueror – (Jeremiah 4:13, 25:9-14, 49:19-22, Daniel 9:1-2).
In Babylon’s art and architecture, lions represented the glory and might of the kingdom. One of its most important deities was Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. She corresponded to the Canaanite deity Ashtoreth (Astarte), and to the Greek god Aphrodite. Her symbols included the lion. Ishtar was linked to the planet Venus, and Old Testament references to the “Queen of Heaven” have in mind this very Babylonian deity – (Jeremiah 7:18, 44:18).
The lion was a powerful predator. Its wings point to rapidity of movement, and their removal to its curtailment. Nebuchadnezzar conquered vast territories in only a few short years; however, that period of rapid expansion ceased after his death.
The lion was “lifted up from the earth, made to stand,” and “given” a human heart. The Aramaic verb qûm rendered “stand” here is the same verb that was applied earlier to Yahweh by Daniel, the Very One who “removes and sets up” kings. Likewise, God caused the “lion” to achieve dominion, and later, its diminishment – (Daniel 2:21, 2:44, 4:17).
The receipt of the human heart parallels the earlier loss of reason by Nebuchadnezzar and his downfall recorded in chapter 4, and subsequently, his recovery of a “human heart” – (Daniel 4:16, 4:34-37).
The second beast is likened to a bear, with one side raised higher than the other. It corresponds to the silver portion of the earlier image, the torso and two arms that was “inferior” to the head of “fine gold.”
A bear is as strong as a lion but lacks its agility, being more ponderous. Its two sides correspond to the two arms of the silver torso and suggest division. The image is not of a bear rearing up on its hind legs, but instead, of a creature elevating its feet on either side as it steps forward – (Daniel 2:32, 2:39).
The bear was gripping “three ribs in its teeth,” prey seized by the ravenous animal. The ribs represented nations subjugated by it. Whether the number “three” was literal or symbolic is not clear. The bear was commanded to “rise and consume much flesh,” a summons to further conquests. A bear was poised to strike while gripping three ribs, indicating its insatiable appetite.
The third beast resembled a leopard with four wings and four heads. The “dominion given to it” linked it to the third section of Nebuchadnezzar’s image that was destined to “rule over all the earth” – (Daniel 2:39).
A leopard is also an agile predator, and again, wings suggest speed. Wings normally occur in pairs; however, the number “four” means this creature has two pairs of wings, and “four” may point to its motion in the four directions of the compass.
The four “heads” of the leopard were not connected to its four wings. Elsewhere in the book, “heads” represent kings and kingdoms. The four heads were grouped together, suggesting they were contemporaneous, not consecutive; that is, a fourfold division of the kingdom represented by the leopard – (Daniel 2:32-38, 7:20).
IN REVELATION, the vision of four “beasts ascending from the sea” is modified. The four creatures become a single beast that is summoned by the “Dragon” to “ascend from the sea” and attack the people of God. It has the same features from the animal world that were possessed by Daniel’s four “beasts from the sea.” However, its characteristics are listed in reverse order.
Like the fourth beast from Daniel, in Revelation, the single “beast from the sea” has a “mouth speaking great things,” with which it “slanders those who are tabernacling in heaven,” and thus, wages “war against the saints and prevails over them.”
The information provided by Daniel on the first three beasts is minimal and allusive. As will become apparent, the focus of the vision’s interpretation is on the fourth “beast,” especially on its “little horn with a mouth speaking great things.”