Old Testament Reading Daniel 7.1-18
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters. Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagles wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a mans heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things. I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened. I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time. I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
New Testament Reading Luke 6.17-31
And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases; And they that were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed. And the whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of mans sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets. But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
The first reading we heard this evening came from the book of Daniel. This is a book which has a mixed history. Children know well the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and of the three young men in the fiery furnace, Shadrach Meschach and Abednego and yet it is also a text with elaborate dreams and visions such as the passage we heard this evening. So what is this book about?
The book of Daniel falls into two distinct sections. It tells first of Daniel and his companions in the first 6 chapters then there are six chapters dedicated to Daniel’s dreams.
The book as a whole, scholars agree, was written after the desecration of the temple in 168 and before its restoration in 165 under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The second section dates from that time whereas chapters 1-6 are collected from the diaspora era. This was probably based on an oral tradition from the time of Alexander. Daniel is not perhaps so much an historic figure as a figure of legend reinterpreted by the author. The way that the character Daniel appears in other apocryphal texts like Susannah and Bel and the Dragon is reminiscent of the retelling of legends of Hercules and other heroes in secular literature.
Chapter 7 from which our passage comes takes cardinal place uniting the two sections of the book. Chapters one to six establish the life and character of Daniel and Chapters 8-12 are essentially a commentary on chapter 7. It’s also worthy of note that Chapter 7 is curiously a chapter written in partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic. Chapter 7 is also connected to chapter 2 which retells the king’s dream of four kingdoms.
So this is the history of the composition of the text but what of its meaning?
The passage paints a vivid picture such as to fire the imagination of great painters into painstaking recreation of the images involved:
The great storm churning up the waters of the sea and from that chaotic action the coming fourth of four huge beasts:
The first like a lion with eagle’s wings
The second a bear ravaging three ribs in its mouth
The third a four-headed beast like a leopard with four black birdlike wings
The fourth beast, the most terrifying of them all, with 10 horns and human eyes. Portrayed by some artists like a triceratops
Then we see the ancient of days on a fiery throne with wheels of fire sending out a river of fire which destroys the four beasts.
Then in contrast to the chaotic arrival of the four beasts, a man comes from heaven amidst clouds. This man is led to the figure on the throne and:
Verse 14 quote.
And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
The passage then continues to explain the significance of the four beasts as four kingdoms
These are generally agreed to be the four great kingdoms: Babylonians, Medes with the Persians, Hellenists or Greeks and the Roman empire.
And the last figure of course is associated with Christ
The beasts in the vision emerge from chaos whereas the son of man emerges from glory.
These great kingdoms will fall away but the kingdom led by the one who comes from heaven will not fade.
Yet many have gone further than the basics of this interpretation. For example in the medieval period the book of Daniel was the source for a book giving guidance on interpreting dreams and one man, named Joachim of Fiore used the book to describe the end not just of these kingdoms but of all kingdoms. His apocalyptic interpretation was picked up by the English Chronicler at St Alban’s. Matthew Paris’ used Joachim’s interpretation of this passage which described “a time two times and half a time” (verse 25) to predict the world’s end in 1250 (though he revised this somewhat dramatically in 1251).
Joachim and Matthew among many others treated the book of Daniel as a puzzle which required solving. The modern world is buzzing with all that lies within The Da Vinci Code, seeking desperately for a deeper mystery, but the Book of Daniel has been inspiring such reflection and puzzlement for many more years. Yet this passage of Daniel and similar passages in other books are more than puzzles and it is wrong to treat them as that as it devalues them. As Br John of Taize has said
“There is a love of the arcane and the convoluted, and the mystery of God is in danger of being reduced to a riddle or puzzle to be solved.”
The book of Daniel portrays the end times as this world outside attacking the kingdom until one comes to destroy the kingdoms of the earth yet as our second reading demonstrates Jesus is the one who comes and declares the kingdom is HERE the kingdom is NOW.
Our bible study should be informed by study and by history but it should not spiral into a fascination with the curious and the mysterious world of visions. It is important to understand the meaning of passages such as those in Daniel yet it is far more important for us to turn to the Good News such as the words of Jesus in our second reading.
The importance of the kingdom of God does not lie in the understanding of the complexities of Daniel’s vision but in the outliving of Jesus’ desire for his people. God’s kingdom is not built upon the destruction of the earthly kingdoms but in the transformation of the hearts of his people.
Quote first beatitude.
Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
Translated so much more clearly, for me in the modern translation:
God blesses those who realize their need for him; for the kingdom of Heaven is given to them
These beatitudes speak of God’s way for us to live and God’s rewards in opposition to the world’s way and the world’s rewards:
The kingdom of God does not lie in the overpowering of humanity. It is given to us. Yet we must be ready to receive it.
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
How can we be ready? Well it is not great mystery. It is not something that needs deep demystification and explanation. It is there clear for us:
But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.
The Mystery of God does not lie in the mysterious nature of of the details of visions like those of Daniel. The Mystery of God is that in spite of all we do to destroy God’s kingdom, God still welcomes each one of us and calls us to the kingdom.