Introduction to Daniel

Audio (19:39)

Icon of the Prophet Daniel (1799 to 1816), oil on panel, Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Presentation of Mary in Hajdúdorog, Hungary. Daniel is carrying a rock in his hands, to remind us of the mighty rock that destroyed the empires in Daniel 2:34-35.
Icon of the Prophet Daniel (1799 to 1816), oil on panel, Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Presentation of Mary in Hajdúdorog, Hungary. Daniel is carrying a rock in his hands, to remind us of the mighty rock that destroyed the empires in Daniel 2:34-35.

If you're just getting familiar with the Old Testament, it's important to see where Daniel's prophecies -- and their fulfillments -- fall within the scope of Bible history.

  • Patriarchs (1800-1500 BC)
  • Exodus (1400 BC)
  • Conquest and Judges (1400-950 BC)
  • Monarchy (950 to 587 BC)
  • Exile (604 to 537 BC) -- the period in which Daniel wrote
  • Return and Rebuilding (537 to 400 BC)
  • Intertestamental period (400 BC to 6 BC)
  • Life of Jesus of Nazareth (6 BC to 27 AD)

While Daniel wrote from Babylon during the period of the Exile, the initial fulfillment of several of his prophecies span history from his time on. They cover the period of the return and rebuilding, the intertestamental period, the ministry of Jesus Christ, the last days of the Church Age, and the period of the Great Tribulation.

Themes of the Book of Daniel

The overriding theme of the Book of Daniel is that God is sovereign over the kingdoms of this world. One nation rises, another falls, but Yahweh is Lord of All, and, in the end, the Kingdom of God will prevail. The Book of Daniel also includes themes of:

  1. Faithfulness in persecution,
  2. Faithful prayer,
  3. Spiritual warfare,
  4. The Antichrist, and that
  5. The truth that evil will not ultimately prevail or last forever.

When Was Daniel Written?

Asking who wrote the Book of Daniel may sound like asking: Who is buried in Grant's Tomb? Since the earliest times, Daniel has been accepted as an authentic part of the Jewish canon of Scripture, as well as accepted by Jesus, the early church, and the Church Fathers.

But since the nineteenth century, many scholars have contended that Daniel's prophecies weren't prophecies at all. They claimed Daniel's visions were "pseudo-prophecies" circulated in Daniel's name around 168 to 165 BC to encourage the Jews who were suffering greatly under the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BC), a Greek king who controlled the Holy Land as well as a vast empire that ran from the Indus River in the East to Asia Minor in the West. I believe they are wrong. See my reasons for opposing this widespread belief in Appendix 3. The Case for a Sixth Century Dating of Daniel.

In spite of arguments to the contrary, I believe that an excellent case can be made for a sixth century dating of the Book of Daniel. My conclusion is that the Book of Daniel seems to have been written in Babylon by Daniel near the end of his life, about 530 BC -- or compiled in Babylon from Daniel's writings by his disciples shortly thereafter.


Daniel's interpretation of dreams in chapters 2 and 4 and his visions in chapters 7 through 12, belong to the genre of prophecy termed "apocalyptic." The word comes from the Greek apokalypsis, "revelation, making fully known," literally, "take the cover off," from apo, "from" + kaluptō, "to cover." In the Greek Bible the title of the Book of Revelation is Apokalypsis.

Daniel seems to be the earliest apocalypse, followed by a whole body of Jewish literature written between 200 BC and 100 AD in imitation of Daniel.[1] Apocalyptic literature is full of symbols that are seen in dreams and visions. For example, think of the rich symbolism in the Book of Revelation. Another characteristic of apocalyptic prophecy is a deterministic view -- that history must run its course, but the end is predetermined by God. The end of history will be a violent in-breaking by God to establish his kingdom. Other examples of apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament include Zechariah and parts of Ezekiel.[2]

Longman writes:

"Apocalyptic is a metaphor-rich genre. In this regard it is like poetry. Metaphors and similes teach by analogy. They throw light on difficult concepts and things by relating them to something we know from common experience. As such, images speak truly and accurately, but not precisely. We often do not know where the analogy stops."[3]

The symbols are designed to communicate not just facts, but also emotional feelings. It is important not to over-interpret these apocalyptic images. The course of history is littered with hundreds of dogmatic interpretations of Daniel and the Book of Revelation that, in hindsight, look overworked and bizarre. Let's be careful not to push too far in our zeal to understand fully.

Structure and Language

The structure of Daniel is pretty straightforward. The first six chapters consist primarily of stories about how Daniel and his friends adapted to life in the Babylonian court (scholars call these "court tales"), including the great faith with which they handled persecution. The final six chapters consist of apocalyptic visions given to Daniel, several related to future persecution facing the Jews during the intertestamental period, and a couple that look forward to the Last Days.

One curious fact about the Book of Daniel is that part of it is written not in Hebrew at all, but in Aramaic, the language spoken in Babylon in Daniel's time. Aramaic is linguistically related to Hebrew, but has some vocabulary and syntax differences. The Aramaic section extends from 2:4 to 7:28.

Text and Canon

In Hebrew canon, Daniel was not placed among the prophets, but among the Hebrew Writings, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. This was probably because, unlike the great prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Daniel did not serve as a prophetic leader as they did. Nevertheless, Daniel was widely accepted as authoritative Scripture from the second century BC onwards.[4] Daniel was a popular book at Qumran, with eight fragments of the Hebrew text found in the caves there. The oldest of these (4QDanc; 4Q114) seems to have been copied in the late second century BC, only a half century after the Maccabean period (when some claim that the Book of Daniel was written).[5]

Since the Qumran community itself was of Maccabean origin, this testifies to the way in which Daniel was read and cited as Scripture in the second century BC. In the Greek Septuagint translation, Daniel was placed among the prophetic writings, following Ezekiel, but before the minor prophets -- a position it retains in English versions.

The Latin Vulgate (and Catholic Bibles) contain major apocryphal additions to Hebrew text: (1) Inserted at Daniel 3:23 is the Song of the Three Children (Prayer of Azariah); (2) the Story of Susanna is numbered as Daniel 13; and (3) Bell and the Dragon as Daniel 14.[6]

History of Interpretation

Over the last two millennia, the Book of Daniel has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations -- I mean hundreds of schemes to interpret Daniel's numbers and symbols. I could detail the main approaches to interpretation here to illustrate my point, but it would bore you.[7] In twentieth century American evangelicalism, we saw a dispensational (pre-millennial, pre-tribulation return of Christ) interpretation that became dominant. In fact, churches broke fellowship with others about their interpretation of the End Times. There are even people today who are so dogmatic about their particular interpretation of the Last Days that they are sharply critical of any who disagree with them.

My dear friends, in light of the many ways that God-fearing people have understood Daniel's prophecies, it's important for us to be humble as we seek to interpret it. Just because I -- or any Bible teacher -- call for a particular interpretation doesn't mean that it is right. There is much we can learn from Daniel, but unless we do it with humility and love, we become only "a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1).

As we work through Daniel, I'll draw your attention to various interpretations that are worth considering. I'll usually tell you where I come out, because I think that's both honest and helpful to you. But I exhort you, let's study with love, not as if we're trying to prove something to each other.

Double Fulfillment of Prophecy

One of the issues we encounter with Daniel's prophecies is the phenomenon of double fulfillment.

Direct fulfillment. Many of Daniel's prophecies have a direct historical fulfillment. For example, he prophesied Nebuchadnezzar's mental illness (Daniel 4) and the fall of Babylon (Daniel 5). Other prophecies were fulfilled in detail during the Syrian Wars and the depredations of Antiochus Epiphanes (especially Daniel 10). However, the fulfillment of some of Daniel's prophecies still appear to be in the future.

Double Fulfillment. We also see prophecies that seem to have a double fulfillment (though this is denied by some Bible interpreters). For example, Daniel spoke clearly of the "abomination of desolation." It was initially fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC. However, Jesus seems to place a future fulfillment of this prophecy in the destruction of the temple in 70 AD by the Romans. And the Apostles Paul and John saw this event as fulfilled by an Antichrist figure still to come (which we'll discuss in Lesson 7 on 9:24-27 and Lesson 9 on 11:36-45).

Daniel had a vision of these things, but he saw them through the context of events near to his own time, as if they were part of a mountain range visible beyond one close by, with no indication of the distance between the near and the far. We need to be careful that we don't impose our own interpretations on Daniel's prophecies, but seek the guidance of the apostles and the Book of Revelation as we seek to understand their fulfillments.

Principles for Interpreting Apocalyptic Prophecy

In the light of many, many widely divergent interpretations of Daniel's visions, we are wise to proceed with humility. It's unlikely that even Daniel himself understood fully what he was prophesying (1 Peter 1:10-11).

Tremper Longman III gives us four valuable guidelines for interpreting apocalyptic prophecy.[8]

  1. Reserve. Be reserved.
  2. Images. "We do this first by remembering that we are dealing with a type of literature that uses images with high frequency. Images communicate truth, to be sure, but not with precision. Now, the key to the interpretation of images is to find the point of connection and not push the peripheral elements of the comparison."
  3. Numbers are especially used in a symbolic manner in apocalyptic. "Whether it is the 'time, times, and half a time' of Daniel 7 or the 'seventy weeks' of Daniel 9 or the one thousand years of Revelation 20, we must expect that we are dealing with symbolic numbers because that is the nature of apocalyptic as a genre."
  4. Contemporary Viewpoint. "One important way we can guard ourselves against misinterpreting these powerful images is by imagining ourselves as among those who heard these things at the time of Daniel."

A Summary of Daniel's Life

To place Daniel in context, let's start from the beginning. The Northern Kingdom had fallen to Assyria in 722 BC. When Daniel was a young man, the Southern Kingdom of Judah had nearly ended, conquered in 605 BC and finally destroyed by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC.

As a young man, Daniel was exiled or deported in 605 BC along with a number of other youths from royal or noble families to be trained to serve in the king's palace in Babylon -- and probably to serve as hostages against a rebellion by the vassal kingdom of Judah against its Babylonian overlords. In Babylon, Daniel was given the name Belteshazzar ("protect his life") and underwent three years of specialized education and training (1:5). Because the food supplied was offensive to Jewish dietary laws, he found favor with his superiors, which induced them to change his diet and that of his comrades.

In about 602 BC, Daniel entered the service of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (605-562 BC) as a "wise man" (2:12). Daniel was not only well-educated, both in Jerusalem and later in Babylon; God had supernaturally gifted him with spiritual wisdom and insight as a prophet (1:17). When Daniel interpreted a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, he was honored with a high position in government (2:48; 4:9). Daniel served Nebuchadnezzar as a trusted official for about 45 years.

After Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC, he was followed briefly by three Babylonian kings from 562 to 556 BC. Then Nabonidus (556-539 BC) took the throne and reigned as the last of the Neo-Babylonian kings. His son Belshazzar served as co-regent with him from about 553 to 539 BC.

It appears that Daniel had semi-retired from governmental responsibilities by this time, though he had two visions during Balshazzar's reign (chapters 7 and 8). When a crisis occurred where handwriting appeared on the wall, Daniel was called in and interpreted the inscription, hours before Babylon fell in 539 BC.

Babylon was captured without much resistance by the Medo-Persian army under Cyrus II ("the Great"), who reigned 559-530 BC over the Persian (and later the Medo-Persian) Empire. Darius the Mede (5:31; chapter 6; 9:1; and 11:1) is probably another name for Gubaru, an Assyrian governor of Babylon. (See Appendix 3. The Case for a Sixth Century Dating of Daniel.) The Neo-Babylon Empire had fallen and the Persian Empire was on the rise.

Briton Rivière (British painter, 1840-1920), 'Daniel's Answer to the King' (1890), oil on canvas, 74x47-7/16 inches, Manchester Art Gallery, UK.
Briton Rivière (British painter, 1840-1920), 'Daniel's Answer to the King' (1890), oil on canvas, 74x47-7/16 inches, Manchester Art Gallery, UK.

Daniel, now probably 80 to 85 years old, found favor in the eyes of Darius, who appointed him as one of three administrators over Babylon. He was set to become chief administrator, but to have a Jew in such a high position made the other rulers jealous. They tricked Darius into passing a law making it illegal to pray to any god or man except Darius himself (6:7-9), which resulted in Daniel being thrown into a den of lions -- and escaping. We read:

"Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian." (NIV, 6:28)

 In Darius's first year, Daniel prays a prayer of confession and intercession for his people to return to the Holy Land (Daniel 9). In Cyrus's third year after conquering Babylon, Daniel has troubling visions of the wars between the Kings of the South and the North (chapter 11), of an Antichrist figure (11:36-45), and more visions of the end times (chapter 12). Daniel died in Babylon about 530 BC, never to return to his homeland.

 For more than 60 years Daniel served at the top rungs of pagan governments under a variety of kings without compromising his relationship to God. He is considered one of the most righteous men in history -- placed by God alongside Noah and Job in Ezekiel 14:14-20. Jesus referred to him as a prophet (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14).

The Exiles

In order to subdue the rebellious peoples of its growing empire, the Assyrians -- and the Babylonians after them -- had a policy of deporting the leaders and artisans from a conquered country, leaving only the poorest. These were often replaced by conquered peoples from other lands (2 Kings 17:24).

It will help you to understand the historical background of the Exile that so radically shaped the history and character of the people of Israel. You can learn more about this in Appendix 5. The Babylonian and Assyrian Exiles.

The Intertestamental Period

Some ignorant people think that God took a vacation between the conclusion of the writing of the Old Testament about 400 BC and the New Testament era, but, of course, that's silly. I won't detail the history of God's people in Judah and Jerusalem here, but when we study chapter 11, where Daniel prophesies in detail wars of the Greek kings (called the Syrian Wars). The Seleucids ("the kings of the north") and the Ptolemies ("the kings of the south") fought each other, their armies going back-and-forth through the Holy Land, devastating it. In 168-165 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes attacked Jerusalem, slaughtered its inhabitants, and replaced worship of Yahweh with the worship of Greek gods, setting up an "abomination of desolation" in the temple and sacrificing pigs on the altar.

Daniel: Faithful Discipleship in a Foreign Land, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in book formats: paperback, Kindle, PDF

In 165 BC, members of a priestly family, led by Judas Maccabeus, rallied the Jews, fought a series of successful battles, and freed their land from Greek rule. You can read this exciting story in 1 and 2 Maccabees, two books in the Apocrypha. We'll discuss this period further in Lesson 8.

Hopefully, I've given you background that will help enrich your study of Daniel. May God richly bless you as you study.


[1] Some of the Jewish apocalyptic writings include: First and Second Enoch, Book of Jubilees, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Psalms of Solomon, Assumption of Moses, Fourth Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Baruch.

[2] George Eldon Ladd, "Apocalyptic Literature," ISBE 1:151-160; also George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1964), chapter 3, later published under the title, The Presence of the Future.

[3] Longman, Daniel, p. 178.

[4] There is an apparent borrowing of Daniel 7:9-10 in the pseudepigraphic 1 Enoch 14:18-22, which was written prior to 150 BC.

[5] Eugene Ulrich, "Daniel Manuscripts from Qumran. Part 1: A Preliminary Edition of 4 QDan a,"Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 268 (November, 1987), pp. 17-37.

[6] In the common Septuagint version we have today, there are only minor differences from the Hebrew text. However the Greek translation of Theodotion included major apocryphal additions to the book of Daniel that were included in the Latin Vulgate and Catholic Bibles today.

[7] See Wade D. Tucker, Jr., "Daniel: History of Interpretation," DOTP, pp. 123-132.

[8] Tremper Longman III, Daniel, pp. 191-193.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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