Daniel’s visions were not just for one group of people living in one point in history. They are for us, and are relevant to God’s people throughout history. This chapter begins the second half of the book. The first half is narrative, set in the time when Judah was in exile in Babylon and the people of God were struggling to remain faithful in a hostile environment. The second half is full of ‘apocalyptic’ visions, with lots of monsters and symbolism and complicated interpretation; it takes us behind the scenes of world history to the conflict between God and the forces of evil. The passage before us is set in the middle of one such vision; there are powerful beasts around, symbolic of evil empires, and even while they are exercising their power we see that thrones of judgement are placed on earth, God the judge takes his seat, and the court is in session. What is going on?
We need to remember that for much of history the power to judge and condemn lay in the hands of the ruler. In Roman times the last appeal was to Caesar, for example. The one with the power to exercise authority had the power to exercise justice. So when the thrones are put in place, the judge who sits in session does so as the true ruler. The ‘Ancient of Days’ (God himself) is in power, regardless of what the beasts rampaging on earth may think; justice is being done on earth throughout history, as evil empires wax and wane. There will also be a final judgement, as we saw last week, when all loose ends will be tied up; but that does not mean God is sitting on his hands, waiting until then. Throughout history he is dealing with evil and condemning it, and at the same time thwarting it so that his good and perfect purposes are somehow progressed. As this chapter later on makes plain, God’s people may go through great suffering and defeat at the hands of evil authorities – look at various places in our world today. But in the end God is going to make his people ‘more than conquerors’. He is on the throne, not the monsters.
In the middle of this picture appears one ‘like a son of man’. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have instantly identified him as ‘the Messiah’. Jesus himself used ‘the son of man’ as his favourite title, referring back to this picture. The one like a son of man is seen coming with the clouds of heaven – a reminder that God himself appeared to Moses and others in a cloud. He approaches God and is given glory, authority and power over the whole world for ever – his kingdom will never pass away, unlike those of earthly emperors. Later in the chapter we discover that he is going to hand over his kingdom to be ruled under him by his people, who will share in his glory and authority. What is going on?
Jesus told his disciples, just before he ascended, that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him. He then ascended up to heaven in a cloud. Two angels appeared and told his disciples that he would return in the same way they had seen him go. So not only does he ascend in the clouds, he returns in the clouds. The picture in Daniel could well refer to both! When he ascended in the clouds, he returned to God and sits on the throne at his right hand, exercising all power and authority and extending his rule on earth in the teeth of evil opposition (and we are his servants in this task). He is coming back at the end of time to put an end to all evil and bring everything to their intended fulfilment. Then, and only then, will creation be in perfect harmony.
Meanwhile, we are living and serving God in days when monsters still roam the earth! The devil is still looking for his prey. But we do not despair even when defeated: Jesus Christ is King, he already has all authority in heaven and on earth, and in ways we find totally mystifying he is working out God’s purposes. All will be well.
1. Why pray, ‘Your kingdom come?’
2. How reasonable is it these days to believe that Christ is king now, and that he will make all things new?