|n the fall of 1979, under the looming shadow of my twenty-fourth birthday, I had a dramatic, life-changing experience. For two and a half years I had been writing a novel. The book consumed me, controlling my life outside the pages more than I controlled the lives I had created on them. Then, that evening, the Lord Jesus spoke to me in my room: “Cliff, you have been playing with Me long enough,” He said. “If you want Me tonight, burn the novel.”
The novel was my god. And because we must have “no other gods before” the true One (Ex. 20:3), the book had to go if I wanted the true One, which by then I did. After hours of divine-human wrestling, knowing nothing about salvation, nothing about the three angels of Revelation 14, and nothing about myself as a sinner, I took the manuscript—two and a half years of my existence—and burned it on a small hotplate. That night in Gainesville, Florida, just after sunset, I became a born-again believer in Jesus.
Now, my experience that night was just that—an experience—personal, subjective, interior. No one standing in the room that evening would have heard the Lord speaking to me. Nothing logical, nothing scientific, nothing from the common academic disciplines could have explained the moment. What happened was mystical, supernatural, beyond rationality, perhaps like Saul’s overwhelming experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9).
The next day, in a health food store, I had my first-ever Bible study: Daniel 2. When our study came to the part of the prophecy describing the great statue’s feet and the toes of iron and clay, I read the text that said: “They shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay” (Dan. 2:43), symbolic of modern Europe. I burst into tears, looked up, and exclaimed, “It’s all true! It’s all true!”
There in my hands for the first time was powerful confirmation, not only of God’s existence but of His foreknowledge and sovereignty. There on the page before me in that health food store was logical, objective, and publicly available evidence for belief. With Daniel 2, my experience of the night before was now underpinned by a firm platform for faith, a platform that remains as solid, as affirming, and as rational now as it was nearly 30 years ago.
A Firm Foundation
There can be no question that the narrative of Daniel 2 isn’t exactly brimming with rationality. A king has a dream, the contents of which he can’t remember, and demands that the court wise men not only tell him the dream but interpret it for him. If they can’t or won’t, he will have their limbs ripped off and their houses torn down. When they plead their inability (looking into sheep livers wasn’t going to work this time), the king orders them all killed, including Daniel, who asks the king for time, goes home, prays, and is given the information in a night vision. Daniel then tells the king his dream, interprets it, and saves the day. Hardly the logic of geometry, to be sure.
Logic and reason exude from the prophecy itself, however. How could any man, living more than 500 years before Christ, unfold the history of the world from his time to the present were he not divinely inspired? Without supernatural intervention, how could he have traversed the centuries—millennia even—depicting so accurately the rise and fall and break up of those empires?
This is not some flighty ethereal phenomenon—the supposed appearances of the virgin Mary—to suggestible adolescents, or the magic spectacles reported to have enabled the translation of the Book of Mormon. We’re talking, instead, about reality as firm, as public, and as unchanging as world history. What firmer, broader, and more immutable foundation—the history of the world itself—could God have used to build for us an edifice of faith?
The logic and reasonableness of Daniel 2 is so powerful that critics have tried to get around it for centuries. The most entrenched attempt remains the so-called “Maccabean Hypothesis,” which claims that the book of Daniel wasn’t written when it says it was but centuries later, after the events themselves.
This idea was first advanced by a Neo-Platonist philosopher, Porphyry (c. A.D. 234-305), who argued that Daniel had been written in the second century B.C. by Jews under siege from the Seleucid Greeks. Today that view permeates most of Christendom, including a majority of commentaries. The book of Daniel, millions believe, was written around 167-164 B.C., during the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes. All the history that Daniel wrote about was, it is said, vaticinia ex eventu, a Latin phrase for “written after the happening took place.” In short, though the book of Daniel dates itself to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., it was supposedly written hundreds of years later.
Though the Maccabean Hypothesis has always been flawed, with numerous scholars seriously challenging it, the prophecy of Daniel 2 itself helps to counter the entire notion.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the book of Daniel was written in the 160s B.C. How could anyone, living more than 150 years before the birth of Christ, predict with such accuracy the dismantling of the Roman Empire into the smaller powers that would never “cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay” (Dan. 2:43)? European nations were fighting one another well into the twentieth century: some point to the ongoing Balkan crises as evidence that they still are. A mere two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union—two years!—the world’s best political scientists never saw it coming. And here was a man, supposedly 160 years before Christ, accurately depicting modern Europe today?
The essential point of the Maccabean Hypothesis was to deny predictive pro-phecy. Yet the prophetic reach of Daniel 2 is so great, extending so far into the future, that it overwhelms this ineffective attempt to nullify it. The hypothesis fails to strip the book of the one thing the hypothesis most aimed at, and that is, of course, the supernatural element of Daniel itself.
Look at the power of Daniel’s prophecy. Porphyry, writing in the third century A.D., was so challenged by the book, so concerned by the rational evidence it presented for the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible, that he “originated” the idea that it must have been written hundreds of years later than its internal evidence indicates. Porphyry wrote his novel thesis 1,800 years ago, and if 18 centuries ago the power of Daniel’s prophecies caused this reaction, how much more significant should the book be for us today when the unfolding of so much more history has demonstrated the uncanny accuracy of Daniel’s predictions?
And if Daniel was so accurate about the grand sweep of the future, isn’t it logical and reasonable to trust him on something so much more basic than making predictions hundreds of years in advance—on the dates that he gave for the book itself?
The Fourth Kingdom
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream recorded in Daniel 2 was of a statue, world history symbolized in sculpture (Dan. 2:31-45). The common interpretation of the gold head (Babylon), the silver arms and breast (Media-Persia), the brass belly and thighs (Greece), the iron legs (pagan Rome), the iron-and-clay feet and toes (the divided nations of Europe) is not uniquely Adventist. Millions of Christians and Jews have interpreted the chapter this way for centuries, including most of the great Protestant Reformers.
Unlike the first three kingdoms, whose metals cease with their demise, the iron of the fourth kingdom remains until the end of the world, even if in the feet and toes the iron is mixed with “miry clay” (Dan. 2:43). The fourth kingdom, arising after Greece (and though changing form), extends its influence to the end of the world (Dan. 2:33, 34, 40-44). This fact helps identify it, for only one world power arising after Greece extends its influence to the end of time—Rome.
The identification of Rome with the fourth kingdom and beyond is strengthened in the parallel chapters of Daniel 7 and 8, which not only repeat the historical scenario established in Daniel 2 but express elements not stressed in it. In Daniel 7 the fourth kingdom, the one that arises after Greece, though changing form, continues to the end of the world (Dan. 7:19-28). In Daniel 8 the same thing occurs: the final power in the chapter, the power that arises after Greece, though changing some characteristics (symbolic of the transition from pagan Rome to papal Rome), endures to the end as well (Dan. 8:22-25).
In all three chapters—Daniel 2, 7, and 8—the power that arises after Greece’s fall in the centuries before Christ remains until the end of time. What power could that be but, again, Rome?
This identification becomes important because today many shy away from such a “politically incorrect” interpretation. Others, blinded by current events, have reinterpreted the chapters in light of these events, regardless of how those reinterpretations contradict the texts themselves. More than 20 years ago, during Cold War tensions, some Adventists—losing sight of the big picture—argued that the prophecies we always interpreted as Rome were to be fulfilled by (believe it or not!) Soviet Communism. Today, falling into a similar trap, others are arguing that Islam, not Rome, is the focus of these prophecies.
Yet the texts point to neither Islam nor Soviet Communism, for neither movement arose immediately after the downfall of ancient Greece. The texts point, inescapably, to Rome.
Daniel 2 is explicit about the meaning of the prophecy: four kingdoms will successively arise until, at the end of time, God will establish an eternal kingdom, symbolized by the stone cut out “without hands” (Dan. 2:34), which destroys all that preceded it. Daniel 2 identifies not only the number of these worldly empires but also the characteristics that positively identify them.
The same theme is found in chapter 7, where Daniel is told by the angel interpreter that the beasts symbolized four empires: “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth” (Dan. 7:17). As in Daniel 2, specific details help identify these empires. Daniel 8 not only describes the empires, but in verses 20 and 21 names two of them—Media-Persia and Greece. Between Daniel 2 and 8, then, three of the four earthly kingdoms are identified by name: Babylon in Daniel 2 (verse 38), and Media-Persia and Greece in Daniel 8 (verses 20, 21).
When we add the witness of the New Testament, the last kingdom is named for us as well. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles all unfold under one empire: Rome. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1). Caesar Augustus was the founding emperor of Rome’s imperial dominion. When depicting the future destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, Jesus linked this destruction to the prophecy of the book of Daniel (see Luke 21:20, 21; Matt. 24:15). Jesus Himself brought Rome into the prophetic picture of Daniel.
The combined witness of Daniel and the New Testament positively identifies all four worldly empires. Some argue, however, that these prophecies have multiple fulfillments—that in one era the prophetic symbols point to a certain power, but in another era the same symbols point to other powers or institutions. According to this hermeneutical approach, the meaning is fluid, dynamic, changing literally with the times. With multiple fulfillments and no controlling interpretive approach, the prophecies may be said to mean many different things, and ultimately are made of “none effect.”
Though Seventh-day Adventists accept, in principle, that there may be divinely ordained multiple fulfillments of certain prophecies, we have never seen this principle at work in apocalyptic books such as Daniel—and rightly so. Nothing in these texts hints at multiple interpretations. On the contrary: the powers are given distinct traits that greatly limit their possible identities; the prophecies unfold in a specific historical flow that limits their potential interpretations; and, if all that weren’t enough, the kingdoms are all but named for us—which really limits their identities.
No justification exists for the unhistorical notion that the prophetic symbols in Daniel may mean different things in different eras.
The Fifth Kingdom
Our focus on Daniel 2, however, shouldn’t be only on the past, on decayed and dead kingdoms, because the hope that the prophecy presents is for the future. It ought to be greatly reassuring that the same prophecy that has proved trustworthy in delineating—in advance—the grand trajectory of human history points to a “joyful end”—the coming of God’s eternal kingdom, the one that Jesus bought for us with His blood. The great statue, symbolic of this world, will be destroyed, crushed by the stone cut out without hands, and nothing will be left of these earthly empires (Dan. 2:35). Everything here, everything of this world—its glories and powers and achievements—will be gone. Only remaining will be those redeemed by Jesus, those covered and transformed by His righteousness, “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom. 3:22). Everything else will be “like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors” that the wind blows away and “no trace” remains (Dan. 2:35).
Yes, I still remember my first Bible study ever—Daniel 2. That was nearly 30 years ago, which seems so far in the past, but is a single breath in contrast to the long, windswept span of history depicted in the prophecy. And yet, what are all these millennia compared to what God has for us? His kingdom “shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Dan. 2:44).
That’s the promise, the reassuring promise of this final kingdom. And because Daniel was so right about the first four, how reasonable—how rational—to trust him on this, the last kingdom, the fifth one, which lasts forever.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide, published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and writes a monthly column, “Cliff’s Edge,” for the Adventist Review.