The Four Beasts | Daniel 7

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter. Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different 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 horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

“As I looked,

thrones were placed,
            and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
            and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
            its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
            and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
            and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
            and the books were opened.

            “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
            there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
            and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
            and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
            which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
            that shall not be destroyed.

“As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’

“Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet, and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.

Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
            which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
            and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
            and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
            and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
            and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
            for a time, times, and half a time.
But the court shall sit in judgment,
            and his dominion shall be taken away,
            to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
And the kingdom and the dominion
            and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
            shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
            and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’

“Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart.”

Daniel 7 ESV

The second half of Daniel is marked by a distinct literary shift from narrative to apocalyptic literature. Robert Plummer provides seven broad characteristics that set the apocalyptic from other forms of literature:

1. The expectation of the inbreaking of God into the present age to usher in a qualitatively different existence in the age to come.

2. The use of an angelic mediator or mediators to communicate God’s message to a chosen recipient/spokesman.

3. The journey of the chosen human recipient into the heavenly realms, with ongoing interaction and communication with the angelic mediator(s).

4. Highly symbolic visions or dreams that describe both current hidden spiritual realities and future divine interventions.

5. Visions of final, divine judgment.

6. Warnings of coming distresses and trials to be faced by the faithful.

7. Encouragements to the faithful to persevere in light of the true spiritual realities and coming divine interventions.[1]

Plummer goes on to note that, while many passages of Scripture are apocalyptic, only Daniel and Revelation are generally considered to be canonical apocalyptic books. Indeed, we easily identify all seven elements in Daniel 7 alone. Yet perhaps the most important thought for us to remember as we begin our dive into one of the most mysterious portions of the Bible is that we have not transitioned into a separate book. Instead, the unifying message of Daniel is present throughout all twelve chapters. This message can be summarized into three parts: 1) our hope in never-ending sovereign reign of God, 2) the temporal and fleeting nature of all earthly powers, and 3) the call for God’s people to be faithful in the midst of suffering. These themes continue strongly into the second half as well, making Daniel a unified whole rather than two pasted together halves.

In fact, the halves of Daniel are so distinct from one another for good reason. In chapters 1-6, we view the historical narrative of Daniel and his friends as they navigate through captivity in Babylon. Chapters 7-12, however, peel back the spiritual curtain (after all, apocalypse means unvealing) to show us the invisible realities shaping the course of history. These final six chapters call our attention to the fact that Daniel was not wrestling against Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, or Darius but against the true rulers and authorities behind their thrones. Yet they ultimately point us toward Daniel’s unwavering hope while dwelling in Babylon: the absolute authority of the LORD.

THE BEASTS OF THE DEEP // VERSES 1-8

Chapter 7 opens by taking us back into the days of the Babylonian Empire during the first year of Belshazzar’s reign as king, but now the dreams and visions are being given to Daniel himself rather than to the Babylonian kings. In this first dream, he saw heaven’s four winds churning up the sea. If we are familiar with many of the various themes throughout the Bible, this imagery should immediately have our attention. Beginning in Genesis 1:2, the sea (or the deep) is portrayed as representing chaos and disorder. God seems to have formed the cosmos in such a state but then brought order during the days of creation. The later destruction of the earth via a flood was essentially God unleashing that primordial chaos upon the world once again, a kind of unmaking of creation. Furthermore, throughout the Scriptures, God’s control over the seas is a vivid picture of His total sovereignty, as we see in God’s description of the leviathan to Job, the parting of the Red Sea, and Jesus’ calming of the storm. Thus, the stirring up of the sea sets an ominous shadow of foreboding doom upon the beginning of this chapter.

Indeed, quite similar to the terrifying might of the leviathan, four beasts emerged from the sea. The descriptions that follow are meant to unsettle us, for the first three beasts are respectively described as being like a lion, a bear, and a leopard. Yet I placed emphasis upon the word like for a reason. They are evidently not a lion, a bear, and a leopard; those were merely the animals that most closely resembled. They possess some likeness of these animals, but they are most certainly something other, something uncanny. The first lion-like beast possessed eagles’ wings until they were ripped off and it was given the mind and posture of a man. The second bear-like beast, lopsided and gnawing on three ribs, was told to devour much flesh (v. 5). The third leopard-like beast with four wings and four heads was given dominion. The fourth beast, however, did not even bear the semblance of any known animal. Possessing teeth of iron, it leaves destruction in its wake, for it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet (v. 7). Yet this beast only gets more terrifying as Daniel recounts that ten horns were upon its head, but a little horn quickly grew among them, uprooting three of the original horns. Furthermore, the little horn possessed eyes and a mouth that were like that of a man, and it spoke great things.

As an angel will tell Daniel in verse 17, these beasts represent kings of the earth, which means that this vision is a rhyming parallel of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in chapter 2. Indeed, just like in chapter 2, the tendency for studying this chapter is to speculate about the identity of the four kings being symbolized by the four beasts. The most common answers are either Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome or Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. However, I agree with Duguid that such speculation appears to run against the very point of the text. He notes:

The identification of the beasts as four past empires is the exact opposite of the message of apocalyptic literature. For apocalyptic, nothing less than the beginning of the new age can change this world. Until the coming of this new age, the darkness will not lift significantly. It is therefore better to take the number of the beasts as representing a symbol of completeness rather than a particular number of world empires. On such a view, the message of Daniel 7 is that life in this present age will always be this way until the end of this age. It is striking that the superpowers of our own age still customarily represent themselves by predatory animals, such as the Russian bear, the Chinese dragon, and the American eagle. The beasts of the present world order may change their shape as the centuries pass, but their violence and lust for power continues. Nebuchadnezzar turns into a Darius, who becomes an Alexander the Great and then an Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who brutally oppressed the Jews in the mid-second century B.C. These fierce rulers are in turn followed by a Nero and a Domitian. Their fires of persecution continued to be stoked centuries later by the Inquisition. In the last century, we have seen further manifestations of the beast in the persons of Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il Jung. The frightening beasts of this age were present in the gas chambers of Belsen, and on the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, and they are still tormenting the saints in Sudan and China, and in other parts of our modern world.

This continual presence of the beasts in our world ought not to surprise us because every human manifestation of evil is simply a reflection of the work of the Great Dragon, Satan himself. In Revelation 13, we see a beast rising from the sea representing the persecuting power of the antichrist, a beast that combines aspects of each of Daniel’s creatures into one, a lion-bear-leopard with ten horns. Whatever our location in space and time, frightening monsters array themselves against the Lord and his anointed. We inhabit a world in which there is good reason to have trouble sleeping at night. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6, we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.[2]

BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD ABOVE // VERSES 9-14

The purpose Daniel 7 is not to fixate our attention upon the beasts themselves, for the psalmist tells us that “the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain” (Psalm 2:1). Earthly rulers will always conspire to burst the creaturely bonds that the LORD places upon mankind, to ascend to heaven and become like God. Yet “He who sits in heaven laughs” at their puny attempts at usurpation (Psalm 2:4). Indeed, it is the throne of the High King of Heaven that Daniel beheld in verses 9-10.

In these verses, God is given the title, the Ancient of Days, which captures His eternality. After seeing Nebuchadnezzar replaced by Belshazzar who was then replaced by Darius, this title immediately tells us that this King is different. He is ancient, One who always was. He takes His seat in the midst of lesser thrones and the unnumbered multitude of His servants, One who is. And as we will read in verses 14 and 27, His kingdom and dominion are everlasting, One who always will be. This is God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, who sits upon His throne of fire. The throne is equipped with wheels, perhaps like a chariot, as a reminder that while heaven is His throne room, the heavens cannot contain Him. His clothing and hair are white, and the heavenly court began as books were opened before Him. As the ESV Study Bible points out, “The scene depicts in powerful imagery a judge who has the wisdom to sort out right from wrong, the purity to persistently choose the right, and the power to enforce his judgments.”

In verses 11-12, judgment is enacted. The great boasts of the little horn drew Daniel’s attention toward it, for it did not humbly bow in muted speech before the great I Am as Isaiah had done. This blasphemous horn met judgment from the LORD when the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire (v. 11). For all the little horn’s arrogance, him and the entire fourth beast are devoured by fire, while the Ancient of Days sits upon it as His throne. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time (v. 12). But with the death of the fourth beast and the dominion being stripped from the other three, what king will rule the earth?

In verse 13, Daniel beheld one like a son of man who came with the clouds of heaven. The term son of man is frequently used in the Old Testament (especially the book of Ezekiel) to designate humanity, yet Daniel evidently calls Him like a son of man because He seems also to be divine. For what mere human dwells within the clouds of heaven. Furthermore, as He is presented to the Ancient of Days, the LORD gives Him dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (v. 14).

None of those words should be unfamiliar to us. Throughout chapters 1-6 we have witnessed earthly kings attempting to unite all peoples, nations, and languages under the banner of their own greatness, only to be taught again and again that God alone is everlasting King over His everlasting kingdom. Yet here the Most High grants His eternal and unending kingdom over to a human, yet also heavenly, King.

Thankfully, there is no need for us to speculate over the identity of this fifth King. As the Gospel display, Jesus’ most-used title for Himself was the Son of Man, and in Mark 14:61-62, His usage is of particular importance for how we are to understand Daniel 7:

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

In that text, Jesus explicitly identified Himself as the Son of Man within Daniel 7. Therefore, what Daniel saw was correct, although he did not understand it at the time. The One like a son of man is truly both human and divine, both God and man. The four other kings may have considered themselves to be gods because of their might and authority; however, through the lens of eternity, they actually made themselves into beasts, into something less than human. Jesus, however, did not consider His eternal and uncreated equality with God a thing to grasped but took the form of man, of His own creation. And through His humility, Jesus not only became truly human but the true human, the Second Adam who fully withstood sin’s tempting allure. John Owen speaks further to the difference between Christ’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world:

This is a perpetual antithesis and opposition that is put between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of Christ,–that they rise out of the strivings of the winds upon the sea; he comes with the clouds of heaven;–they are brought in by commotions, tumults, wars, desolations (and so shall all the shakings of the nations, to punish them for their old opposition, and to translate them into a subserviency to his interest); the coming in of the kingdom of Christ shall not be by the arm of flesh, nor shall it be the product of the strifes and contests of men which are in the world,– it is not to be done by might or power, but by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts.[3]

Indeed, the everlasting kingdom of the Son of Man is as distinct from the kingdoms of this world as the unearthly stone in chapter 2 differed from gold, silver, bronze, iron, or clay. As Christ told Pilate, His kingdom is not of this world; however, it is invading this world, growing from a small stone into a mighty mountain. Eternal dominion has already been given to Christ when He ascended to the Father’s right hand, yet one day He shall return as the conquering King to establish His physical and visible reign forevermore. Until that day, His kingdom expands not through swords of steel but through the sword of the Spirit.

THE VISION INTERPRETED // VERSES 15-28

In the second half of the chapter, we find that the vision left Daniel greatly distressed, so he asked a nearby angel to give him the interpretation. The reply is simple and matter-of-fact: These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever (vv. 17-18). Emphasis of this answer seems to clearly be upon the people of God, the saints, receiving the kingdom forever, forever and ever. Yet the fourth beast particularly had greatly disturbed Daniel, so he inquired for more information regarding it. He also provides for us more detail about the fourth, such as its claws of bronze (v. 19) and how its little horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and time came when the saints possessed the kingdom (vv. 21-22).

The heavenly interpreter explains that the fourth beast is a kingdom unlike the other three kingdoms, and from it shall raise up ten kings, which are the ten horns. Yet the little horn is another king who is unlike the previous ten and shall put down three kings (v. 24). Verse 25 describes the sins of this wicked king: he speaks against the Most High, he attacks and wearies the saints, and he tries to change the times and the law. Recall from Daniel 2:21 that God alone “changes times and seasons,” which makes this act a blatant rebellion against God’s created order. The conclusion of the verse is often read as declaring that this king will be allowed to oppress for three and a half years (a time being one year, times being two, and half a time being half a year).

Perhaps the two most common interpretations are that this king is either Antiochus Epiphanes IV from the 2nd Century or the still future Antichrist. Of course, nothing would prevent the vision from applying to both. In fact, I would argue, similar to Duguid’s point above, that plenty of figures and even ideologies throughout history fit this verse quite well. After all, does not the French Revolution as a whole fall easily into this mold? They elevated themselves and their own reason against God, persecuted the saints, and attempted radical changes in time and law. This seems especially true whenever we pair it with Paul’s warning in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 as he describes the coming of the man of lawlessness (who many believe to be the same figure as the little horn here in Daniel 7):

Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Furthermore, could it not fit our culture’s worship of autonomy that is expressed in the LGBT movement and in the willingness to rip infants apart within the womb? Is this not people believing what is false, attempting to change the very laws of nature, and refusing truth out of taking pleasure in unrighteousness? Could it not describe Islam’s persecution of Christianity today and throughout history? My point is that, even if there is still a final fulfillment of this little horn still to come, there are certainly no shortage of candidates even in our own day. It’s all Antichrist, worldliness, the seed of the serpent, the little horn. Indeed, I believe the times of the little horn’s rule to be symbolic of a significant but ultimately short time period. In His providence, the LORD allows the persecution of His people for limited times, and we should take comfort knowing that in the span of eternity such periods are nothing more than a passing vapor.

Verses 26-27 interpret the events of verse 11-14. The little horn shall be judged, dethroned, consumed, and destroyed. Then the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. The chapter concludes with Daniel noting that he was greatly alarmed and kept the matter to himself. For all the terrifying imagery in the vision and how deeply it disturbed Daniel, its message is ultimately one of hope rather than fear. As the angelic interpreter noted twice in verses 18 and 27, the saints of God will ultimately reign for eternity in the LORD’s eternal kingdom, whereas all the kingdoms of the world will pass away into the fires of judgment. This is a message of hope for our brothers and sister in China who are presently enduring as the little horn sets itself against the Most High and attempts to weary God’s church. It is a message of hope for we who are continuing to find our culture running into open blaspheme after the Ancient of Days. Godlessness will not last, whatever form it takes. Sin’s days are numbered, just as death itself has a time limit that will soon run out. Satan and all his followers, both human and demonic, will be cast for eternity into the lake of fire, while God’s people will dwell for endless days in the presence of Him who is both God and man, who loved us and gave Himself up for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness.

Before we conclude, we should address one final question. The angel twice declares that the saints shall receive the kingdom but verses 13-14 depict Jesus as receiving it, as we noted by citing Mark 14. Is there a contradiction here? Not at all, for God’s people are made into saints (holy ones) through the sacrificial death of Christ, the Holy One. His atoning death cleanses us from all our sins, restoring us to communion with the Father through Him as our resurrected mediator. And as Ephesians teaches, we are now in Christ. We are united to Him. He is our head; we are His body. He is our husband; we are His bride. He is the cornerstone; we are His temple. As a husband withholds no good thing from his bride whenever she has been united to his flesh, so Christ withholds no good thing from His people. As 2 Corinthians 3:21 tells us, “all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” As the Son of Man sits at the right hand of the Father, we are seated with Him and in Him. Even as shadows and suffering fall, we are sustained by every spiritual blessing that flows from our Savior and by the hope that the light of His presence will soon dispel all shadows once and for all. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And that kingdom shall endure forever, forever and ever. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


[1] Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, 213-214.

[2] Iain Duguid, Daniel, 111-112.

[3] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Vol. 8, 376.

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