Christopher J.H. Wright: Daniel Teaches Christians How to Live in Today’s Hostile World

Daniel’s angelic visitor begins with a surprisingly dismissive comment about the remaining years of the Persian Empire. A single verse (11:2) is enough to summarise about 200 years of an empire that ruled from the Aegean Sea to the borders of India! We are told that there will be a few more Persian kings until one comes who will attack Greece. In fact two Persian kings attempted to conquer Greece in the early years of the fifth century BC but were beaten back in some critical battles in 490 and 480 BC. Then another single verse (v. 3) suffices to mention Alexander the Great (the one-horned charging goat of ch. 8) and his conquest of Persia in the mid-fourth century BC. So by the time we reach verse 4 we have arrived in the four separate kingdoms that emerged in the so-called Hellenistic era. If a thousand years in the Lord’s sight are as a single day, then perhaps it is not surprising that two verses are enough to cover several centuries!

That epoch of Greek cultural dominance over the whole region lasted another two hundred years until Rome conquered Greece and extended its rule over the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern region. Only two of the four Hellenistic kingdoms, however, impinged upon the life of the Israelites in Judea: the kingdom of the Ptolemies, who ruled in Egypt and then the kingdom of the Seleucids, who ruled in Syria. In Daniel chapter 11 these are referred to, respectively, as the king of the South and the king of the North. Since the land of Palestine lay in between the two rival kingdoms, the fate of the Jews seemed to be at the mercy of one or the other. That is the way chapter 11 proceeds, outlining the cycle of plots and schemes and battles between the two powers in the South and the North. We really don’t need to spend time on the details (you can check them out in larger commentaries). The main thrust of the chapter is to lead up to the climax of the story—the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (11:21–39), who was featured in the previous visions (7:23–25; 8:23–25; 9:26–27).

But before focusing on him, notice an important feature of this narrative: the balance in tension between the sovereignty of God’s control of events (it is God, through his angel who is explaining what will happen) and the freedom and responsibility that humans have for their own choices and actions.

On the one hand, we read that certain things will happen “at the appointed time” (vv. 29, 35), and that “what has been determined must take place” (v. 36). But on the other hand, three times in chapter 11 we read that this or that king “will do as he pleases” (vv. 3, 16, 36). The phrase is applied at the beginning of the sequence to Alexander the Great and at the end to Antiochus. So it embraces all the human participants in the story. There is therefore no room for the accusation that, because God presents the history to come in the form of a prophetic vision, the characters are mere puppets on strings, manipulated by divine power to act without any choices or decisions of their own. On the contrary, they act freely and they are responsible for their actions since they can be judged and punished for them. And most of the time it seems that these human kings and commanders, just like the spiritual forces in opposition to God, are acting against God and God’s people in their ambitious vying for earthly power and greed. And yet God remains in control. Neither Daniel, nor his angelic messenger, nor the whole book makes any effort to resolve the tension between these twin realities. The Bible simply affirms both of them. People do what they choose to do, in pursuit of their own chosen goals, for good or ill. Yet God remains sovereign and works out the course of history over the centuries to fulfil God’s own purposes of redemption and grace on the one hand and ultimate judgment of the wicked on the other.

This, of course, is a tension to which the whole Bible bears witness. We cannot slide out of the tension either into dualism (the unending struggle between good and evil with no resolution) or into fatalism (the view that all human actions are mere out-workings of a cosmic fate, such that personal freedom of choice and moral responsibility are mere illusions). Daniel, like the rest of the Bible, simply tells us: people choose their courses of action and bear the consequences, but God knows and sees and ultimately works all things according to his own purpose.

Persecution: Lethal but Limited

In this mysterious combination of divine appointment and human freedom, the climax will come in the overwhelming evil, violence, oppression, and sacrilege that marked out the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Some details are listed in 11:31–35. Three things stand out.

First, the people of God will suffer. That in itself is not surprising; the Bible indicates that this is a regularly recurring reality. Now, sometimes such suffering is, we might say, self-inflicted, when it takes the form of the judgment of God in response to continued rebellion and wickedness. That was certainly how the prophets interpreted the terrible suffering of the people of Jerusalem and Judea under the Babylonian siege that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. We saw that very clearly in Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. But the Bible makes it equally clear that sometimes suffering cannot and should not be explained in those terms. The Hebrews in Egypt, for example, are not said to be suffering there because of God’s judgment on their own sin, but because of the sinful oppression of the Egyptians. And that is the case here, too. There is no hint in Daniel that the “wrath of Antiochus” was an expression of the wrath of God against Israel. Rather, they were the victims of an evil regime that set itself up against the God of Israel and his people. They could cry out in pain and anguish, but they are not called to repentance.

Second, such suffering can divide God’s people. Indeed, the tactics of their enemies can be precisely to create such division. It seems that Antiochus used both intense persecution and violence on the one hand, along with seductive flattery and deception on the other hand, to tempt some of the Jews to collaborate with him, while others remained firm in resisting him even to death. At such times there is a great need for people who will understand what is happening and give good guidance and leadership to the rest of the people. Such persons are here referred to as “the wise” (vv. 33–35). They themselves, however, will not necessarily escape the terrible, purging fires of persecution.

With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him. Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, the will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time. (Dan 11:32–35).

Third, however, the suffering of persecution has a limit. It will come to an end. Or rather, it will come to many “ends.” As we saw in chapter 8, the word “end” in a book like Daniel does not necessarily mean “the end of the world as we know it.” We know that eventually there will come a definitive, ultimate end to this world of evil. Or more accurately, there will come an end to evil so that the world can be restored to the goodness, beauty, joy, and peace that God intends for it. But even before that time, periods of intense suffering do not last forever. There is an ebb and flow in the history of persecution and oppression of God’s people. Daniel’s visions stress that such an “end” will come, in the appointed time, even to the excessive, blasphemous, and violent arrogance of Antiochus. Again and again this chapter points out that there will be a limit to the suffering—it will happen, but it will be only for a limited time, or within God’s “appointed time” (11:24, 27, 29, 35, 36, 40).

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Source: World Magazine