illiam Barclay once said that the study of the book of Revelation “either finds or leaves a man mad.”1
Some people would say the same thing about the study of certain passages from the book of Daniel, especially chapter 11--which belongs to the category of some of the most difficult biblical texts to interpret. The chapter is long and packed with detailed descriptions of political, military, and religious action. The reader of the English Bible might be interested in knowing that the Hebrew original text is even more complicated and in several places even appears ambiguous.2
The presence of difficulties and complications in the text has led to a great variety of approaches and interpretations, all of which have resulted in differing, and sometimes conflicting, conclusions.
A Personal Confession
My own encounter with the challenge of interpreting Daniel 11 began during my seminary studies when I audited an excellent course on Daniel. Toward the end of the term, to my surprise, the professor said something like this: “All that I know about Daniel 11 I can tell you in five minutes.”
Later on, as I was given the privilege of teaching this same subject and doing seminars in churches, I always dreaded the moment when someone from the audience would ask me: “What can you tell us about Daniel 11, especially the last part of that chapter?” On those occasions my answers most often consisted of what I’d heard from others or what I’d read from various commentaries. Yet, somehow, deep within my heart I had a desire to study this passage in depth so that I would have something truly reliable and exciting to share with others.
I should also mention that I have witnessed in the past 10 years a renewed interest in the message of Daniel 11 and 12 among many people. As a result, a growing number of people forcefully argue that some of the prophetic symbols and numbers found in these chapters should be reapplied in a new way to the time of the end.3 This phenomenon was one more reason that I decided to take time to pray over this passage, read it in the original Hebrew, and then study it diligently in its biblical context.
At the end of my study I came to the firm conclusion that this extremely important part of the Bible is also one of the most Christ-centered. Moreover, I became convinced that Jesus Christ, who was a diligent student of Daniel’s book, when speaking about His second coming from the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), said a number of things that are very similar to what we read in the closing chapters of Daniel. Of course, all my studies not-withstanding, I remain aware that I do not have all the pieces of the chapter’s jigsaw puzzle in place. Yet what I’ve learned so far has made this part of Daniel’s book one of my favorite scriptures.
In the rest of this article I will share what I’ve learned from my in-depth study of Daniel 11.4 Let’s begin with a survey of the contexts of the chapter.
The book of Daniel consists of an introductory chapter (Dan. 1), followed by five stories about the life of Daniel and his friends in Babylon (Dan. 2Ä6). Next comes the prophetic part of the book, containing the records of four prophetic revelations received by Daniel (Dan. 7, 8, 9, 10Ä12). Each of these revelations is introduced with a precise dating. The first two found in chapters 7 and 8 are dated to Belshazzar’s first and third years, respectively. The last two are found in chapters 9 and 10Ä12, and dated to the first year of Darius and the third year of Cyrus, respectively.5
In Daniel’s book Belshazzar is presented as a negative person, and thus serves as a type of the future enemy of God and His people.6 The coming to power of the Medo-Persian kings, on the other hand, signaled the end of Babylon’s supremacy and rekindled the hope of a return from exile (Dan. 1:21). The prophet Isaiah had spoken of King Cyrus as “an anointed one” who would conquer Babylon and allow exiles to return home (Isa. 44, 45). In such a capacity, Cyrus was a type of the Anointed One, the promised Messiah, whose work is mentioned in Daniel 9:25-27. It is important to notice that Daniel 10Ä12 (including chap. 11) is dated to the reign of this king whose role is cast in a positive light in biblical prophecy.
Chapters 10-12 of Daniel form a â¨single unit. All three chapters are dated to the same year, and the same angel speaks to Daniel in all three. As such, they should be studied together and no passage from them should be read in isolation from the rest of this unit. But while chapters 10 and 12 present the vision of the divine person dressed in linen and seen by Daniel as standing above the waters of the river, chapter 11 contains not a vision but a long audition.7
How is the audition from chapter 11 related to the vision found in chapters 10 and 12? In the opening verse of chapter 10 Daniel informs the reader that the key to the revelation about the great (long) war recorded in chapter 11 is to be found in the vision which he saw. In the verses that follow, he describes the vision of the person dressed in linen, and â¨a short report on the vision of the same being is also found in the second part of chapter 12. After reading Daniel’s description of the person dressed in linen, the reader of the Bible is convinced that the prophet saw not a created being but a divine person.8
A summary of the long war described in chapter 11 is found in the closing words of chapter 10. It is recorded in the Book of Truth, the angel Gabriel says, that “no one supports me [Gabriel] against them [the princes of Persia and Greece] except Michael, your prince” (verse 21). In other words, thanks to Michael, Gabriel was able to prevail against the prince of Persia and come to Daniel’s rescue. In the same way, thanks to Michael, Gabriel confidently stated that he will win in the battle against the coming prince of Greece.
Now we come to the most important question in this article: What is Daniel 11 about?
The Big Picture of Daniel 11
Both stories and prophecies in Daniel’s book are char-â¨acterized by plots and conflicts. In the stories Daniel and â¨his friends are often targets of professional jealousy and intrigue. In the prophetic chapters the faithful are often described as persecuted by political and religious powers that wage wars against one another and against God and His people. Much like the rest of the prophetic visions from Daniel, chapter 11 talks about political conflicts on earth (the horizontal level) stirred up by pride, arrogance, and greed that at some point in history assume religious characteristics (the vertical level) and, as such, appear to go out of control on toward their intended triumph.9 Yet the clear message coming from these (story) chapters is also present in Daniel 10Ä12, namely, the message of God’s supreme control over earth’s history and over the lives of individual human beings.
But even though Daniel 11 shares certain common characteristics with the earlier revelations from the book, this chapter has some notable differences. In the first place, it’s unusually long and presents a great number of details pertaining to future events. Also, its language appears to be more literal than the highly symbolic expressions used in the previous chapters. The main reason for these differences is the fact that Daniel 11 is the record of an audition and not of a vision. In other words, what we read from chapter 11 Daniel did not see but only heard from the angel, who most likely was Gabriel.
The chapter begins with a brief sketch of the conflicts between the kings of east and west (verses 2-4), which in the next phase switch to the wars between north and south (verses 15 ff.). Students of Daniel’s book have for a long time been debating the issue as to at which point in the chapter the conflicts between the two powers cease to be literal and assume more of a symbolic character 10 In reading Daniel 11 we should consider the bigger picture, the whole forest rather than individual trees. When we do that, we come to the conclusion that the chapter is a long report about conflicts on the face of the earth east and west, as well as north and south.11
The revelation recorded in chapter 11 was communicated to Daniel in such a way that it created a deep impression on his mind. For an extended period of time the prophet had been listening to Gabriel’s report of “wars and rumors of wars.” From heaven’s perspective most of our earth’s history looks like an endless series of conflicts prompted by pride, arrogance, and greed, and costing the precious God-given lives of tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. When the conflict assumes a religious character, the target â¨of the persecuting power becomes God’s representatives on earth, God’s truth, and God’s worship.
Where was Daniel’s attention directed during this long audition?
Details from chapters 10 and 12 tell us that during this audition the prophet was watching the great vision of the man dressed in linen standing over the waters of the great rivers (which in the Bible often symbolize the hostile powers of the world). According to the original text of Daniel 10, the divine person was seen as completely controlling the power from the north (the Tigris River), while according â¨to chapter 12 he is also in control over the power from the south (the river of Egypt).12
At Michael’s rise toward the end of earth’s history, he effectively puts an end to the end-time power that had intended to rule the whole world. The pretender is broken down “and no one will be able to help him.” Michael is most likely the same being as the person dressed in linen, and he is mentioned both in the beginning and at the end of Gabriel’s lengthy speech. Thus, he is presented as the Alpha and the Omega of earth’s history (Isa. 44:6; 48:12; Rev. 1:8, 17).
Also called the great prince guardian of Daniel’s people (Dan. 12:1), Michael can be identified with the commander of God’s armies (Joshua 5:13-15) who defeated Satan and his angels (Rev. 12:7-9). For that reason many have rightly considered the term as another name for Christ, the Savior of the world.
Moreover, since the person dressed in linen in Daniel 10 and 12 is portrayed as a divine being, it is safe to say that this person, who revived Daniel three times during the vision, is the same Michael who will stand up in the end to defend His people. It is most likely that this being is the same person called “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13, 14.
As for Daniel, he was able to endure listening to this great revelation only because his eyes were transfixed on this divine being whose powerful hand touched him and revived him no less than three times. The opening and closing verses of chapter 12 state that Michael’s rise at the end of the long conflict precedes Daniel’s rise to receive his allotted inheritance. Verses 2 and 3 enlarge this same blessing on all the faithful in history.
A Life Application
I would like to propose that the original purpose for which the revelation found in chapter 11 was given to Daniel goes far beyond a mere decoding of historical details (that concern individuals, nations, or events mentioned in the chapter). This revelation was primarily given to create an impression on the reader’s mind about the length and extent of the long conflict on earth between good and evil.
Moreover, the record of the conflict was placed in the context of the assured outcome predestined by God, the One who is in full control of our destinies. Since the readers of Daniel’s book already know the outcome of this long conflict, they are called to be brave and faithful in spite of constant adversities in their lives of faith. Their eyes, just like Daniel’s, should be fixed on Michael, and thus they will not become discouraged or afraid of the activities of evil powers in this world.
It may be demonstrated exegetically that Jesus Christ was well acquainted with the message of Daniel 11 in its surrounding context. One example comes from His lengthy speech about the signs of His second coming, in which He explicitly mentioned Daniel’s name (Matt. 24:15). Christ, as did Gabriel, also talked about wars and rumors of wars, tragedies, persecutions, and deceptions that will characterize the ongoing and increasing conflicts in the world. Yet He called His followers to hold their heads up and fix their eyes on “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
Reading and rereading Daniel 11 makes us long for another impending intervention of our God in earth’s history. It also makes us hungry and thirsty for Jesus’ abiding presence here among us and also for His coming, which will bring about His final saving act in behalf of all of us who long for His return.
This chapter gives us courage so that we will not fear, regardless of what may come in life. It calls us, rather, to fix our eyes on the Lord, who is still in control of our own destinies. And if we would like to act as “the wise” children of God referred to in Daniel’s book, we will live our lives in such a way that through our witness many will be led to righteousness and will shine for God “like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).
1William Barclay, The Revelation of John, 2nd ed., The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster, 1960), 1:2.
2This is especially true of the usage of the personal pronoun “he.” In many cases in the chapter it is not clear to whom the pronoun is referring, hence the translators’ attempts to bring in some clarity.
3Some students of Daniel have argued that some of the numbers found at the end of chapter 12 should be applied to future time periods as literal days.
4This was a part of my study of the whole book of Daniel, which resulted in a published work titled Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2007).
5Donald J. Wiseman has persuasively argued that Darius the Mede was another throne title of Cyrus the Persian (W. H. Shea, “Darius the Mede in His Persian-Babylonian Setting,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 29/3 : pp. 235-257).
6P. R. Davies, Daniel, Old Testament Guides (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1985), p. 49.
7Auditions are found elsewhere in the prophetic chapters in the book, for example, in 8:13, 14 and 9:22-27.
8Cf. Eze. 1:25-28 and Rev. 1:12-18.
9Combinations of the horizontal and vertical dimensions are â¨commonly found in biblical apocalyptic texts.
10Jacques B. Doukhan in Secrets of Daniel: Wisdom and Dreams of a Jewish Friend in Exile (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2000) proposed that beginning with verse 5 “the allusions to the north and south become abstract and metaphorical” (p. 168).
11Merism(us): a literary figure in which opposite elements are used together in order to express the concept of totality.
12The original Hebrew term is ye’o-r, which is most often used in the Bible for the river of Egypt.
Zdravko Stefanovic teaches Biblical studies in the school of theology at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.