Almost all interpreters are agreed that Daniel’s vision, like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Dan. 2, has to do with the course of coming international events. As to which set of international events is foreseen here, however, there is substantial disagreement. Three major interpretive possibilities have been offered, any one of which might be correct (or a multiple-fulfillment pattern including more than one). All of them are seeking to make sense of the general pattern of Daniel’s vision, which includes:
- First Beast (Lion with wings of an Eagle)
- Second Beast (Bear)
- Third Beast (Leopard with Four Wings and Four Heads)
- Fourth Beast with Ten Horns
- The Little Horn, which supplants three other horns
- The defeat of the Little Horn, and the reign of God’s covenant-people
Option #1: International History from Daniel’s Time (6th century BC) to the Maccabean Revolt in Israel (167 BC)
- First Beast (Lion with wings of an Eagle) – the Babylonian Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia from 626 BC to 539 BC
o Winged lions were common symbols of Babylonian rule
o The transition from beast to man described in v.4 parallels Nebuchadnezzar’s experience at the end of Dan. 4.
- Second Beast (Bear) – the Kingdom of the Medes, which in the 6th century BC stretched over Iran before being conquered by Cyrus and joining the forces of the Persian Empire
o The three ribs in its mouth may represent the three major kingdoms conquered by the Medes: the Urartians, Manneans, and Scythians
o Jeremiah 51:11, 28 agrees in presenting the Medes as the first major conqueror of Babylon
- Third Beast (Leopard with Four Wings and Four Heads) – the Persian Empire, which ruled the Middle East from 539 BC to 330 BC
o The four wings and four heads refers to four major kings of Persia (Daniel makes reference to these four again in Dan. 11:2)
- Fourth Beast with Ten Horns – the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and its successor kingdoms, which in one form or another ruled portions of the Middle East from 330 BC to 30 BC
o Ten horns represents either:
§ A round number for the kings of the Seleucid dynasty (one of Alexander’s successors) until Antiochus Epiphanes IV rose to rule in 175 BC
§ The number of Greek kingdoms in the Middle East that ultimately took form from Alexander’s conquests by the 3rd cent. BC
o The Little Horn that supplants three other horns represents either:
§ Antiochus Epiphanes IV rising to power despite being fourth in the line of succession (his brother and two nephews, ahead of him in the line of succession, were all murdered or exiled)
§ Antiochus Epiphanes’ wars to capture or keep other Greek kingdoms in Coele-Syria, Cyprus, and Egypt
o In either case, it is Antiochus Epiphanes who is foretold by the “little horn” under this interpretation, and his behavior in persecuting the Jews matches the descriptions given in Dan. 7; likewise, he was defeated by the Jews in the Maccabean revolt, which was interpreted as divine judgment against him.
o The “times, time, and half a time” is thought to be the approximate period of 3½ years of Antiochus’ persecuting reign over Israel.
- The Reign of God’s Covenant-People – under this interpretation, this element of the vision refers to the independent kingdom of Israel, beginning under the Maccabees and then stretching toward the coming of the Messiah (the only weakness in this position is the historical fact that Israel was subjugated once again, this time by Rome, during this period).
Bottom line: The symbols in the dreams all have plausible historical referents, and many prophecies in the book of Daniel focus a good deal of attention on the Maccabean period. However, the scriptural implication that the reign of God’s saints immediately followed this period doesn’t seem to fit the actual historical record of what happened.
- First Beast (Lion with wings of an Eagle) – the Babylonian Empire, as in Option #1
- Second Beast (Bear) – the Medo-Persian Empire which, as a united kingdom, conquered Babylon in 539 BC and ruled until Alexander’s conquest in 330 BC.
o The three ribs in its mouth may represent the three major Middle Eastern powers conquered by the Medo-Persians: Babylon, Lydia, and Egypt.
o Most of Daniel appears to consider the Medes and Persians as one kingdom, not two (see Dan. 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15), thus making this united designation more plausible than the separate representations in Option #1.
- Third Beast (Leopard with Four Wings and Four Heads) – the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and its successor kingdoms, which in one form or another ruled portions of the Middle East from 330 BC to 30 BC
o The four heads and four wings represents the fact that Alexander’s Greek empire shattered into four powerful kingdoms, each led by one of his generals, immediately after his death (and it’s worth noting that a four-part splitting of Alexander’s empire was a much more common way of representing the Greek conquests than was the 10-part splitting assumed in Option #1).
- Fourth Beast with Ten Horns – the Roman Empire, which conquered all of the Greek dominions and through its ruthlessly effective military subjugated a larger area than any previous empire in the first century BC and first century AD
o Ten horns may represent the sequence of leaders/emperors between the end of the Roman republic (and the conquest of Israel) up to the reign of Vespasian in 70 AD: Pompey (the dictator/general who conquered Israel and subjugated it to Rome), Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius.
o The Little Horn that supplants three other horns represents Vespasian’s rise to power, moving from the position of general to emperor by seizing power that the very brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius had failed to claim securely in 69 AD.
§ Vespasian (along with his son Titus) matches the description of the Little Horn because he was the general who led the Roman military response to the Jewish revolt, decimating Israel and culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. (A weak point in this interpretive position, however, is that Vespasian’s actions don’t quite fit the description in Dan. 7:25 as well as Antiochus Epiphanes).
§ The “times, time, and half a time” is thought to be the approximate period of 3½ years of the Roman invasion of Israel, from 67 AD to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
- The Reign of God’s Covenant-People – under this interpretation, this element of the vision refers to the coming of Christ (the “Son of Man” in Dan. 7:13-14) and the establishment of his church. Indeed, the Christian church would grow exponentially in the period following Vespasian’s rule (which corresponds roughly with the close of the apostolic age), until it had effectively “captured” the Roman Empire. The age of the church, conceived in the New Testament as the reign of the saints with Christ, proceeds throughout the remainder of history until culminating in Christ’s Second Coming and the eternal reign of God.
Bottom line: The symbols in the dreams all have plausible historical referents, and it connects well to the Christian understanding of Christ’s coming and the reign of the saints. It fits more naturally with the way ancient historians understood the dissolution of Alexander the Great’s empire than does Option #1, and it corresponds with the New Testament’s emphasis on the events of Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 (as, for instance, in Matt. 24). It also matches the Christian interpretation of the parallel vision in Dan. 2 (the four-part statue destroyed by the stone), as well as some interpretations of parallel visions in Revelation.
Option #3: International History from Daniel’s Time (6th century BC) to the Rise of Antichrist and the Day of Judgment
- First Beast (Lion with wings of an Eagle) – the Babylonian Empire, as in Options #1 & 2
- Second Beast (Bear) – the Medo-Persian Empire, as in Option #2
- Third Beast (Leopard with Four Wings and Four Heads) – the Greek empire of Alexander the Great and its successor kingdoms, as in Option #2
- Fourth Beast with Ten Horns – a minor immediate fulfillment in the rise of Rome, but in this interpretive position, it’s really a “prophetic telescoping” forward in time to predict the rise of the Antichrist’s kingdom at the end of history. (It should be noted that this position is prominent among Christians who hold a premillennialist view of the end times, but there are other groups of Christians, such as amillennialists and postmillennialists, who do not think that apocalyptic prophecies like these in Daniel or in Revelation have much to do with the rise of a future Antichrist).
o The ten horns are often thought to be rulers that form a coalition of some sort shortly before the rise of Antichrist.
o The Little Horn is thought to be the Antichrist himself, who supplants three other rulers or countries in his rise to power.
o The “times, time, and half a time” is thought to be a period of 3½ years, representing half of a future time of tribulation in which Israel and/or the church are particularly targeted for persecution.
- The Reign of God’s Covenant-People – under this interpretation, the events of Antichrist’s rise immediately precede the Second Coming of Christ and (in certain systems of thought) the Millennial Reign, so these portions of Dan. 7 would have a quite literal and eternal fulfillment.
Bottom line: This position depends upon fitting it into a larger theological system that also makes use of information from Revelation and other biblical passages. It certainly may represent an authentic prophecy of a future end-time period, but it’s worth remembering that this is not a unanimous position among Christians. In this, as in the other systems, the main point is not the “Little Horn” himself, but rather, the ultimate triumph of God and the saints over him.
Bonus Option: Multiple Fulfillments including Some or All of the Above
It may be the case that this vision has more than a single set of events in view. Many biblical prophecies follow a pattern of one or more partial fulfillments in the near future, followed by ultimate fulfillments further on in the future. For example, the “sign of Immanuel” in Isaiah 7 has a partial fulfillment in the royal family of Isaiah’s time, but also a fuller, ultimate fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. In the same way, Daniel’s vision may point to repeated cycles of pagan empires all being ultimately defeated by God’s plan: Antiochus Epiphanes defeated by the Jewish rebels in the time of the Maccabees, the Roman Empire defeated by the rising power of Christianity, and, ultimately, the powers of this world (and possibly an Antichrist figure) defeated by Christ’s return at the end of history.