Selections From the Prophets Week 12
The Ancient of Days: Daniel 7:1–14
By Jeffrey Keuss
Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology, and Culture
Read this week’s Scripture: Daniel 7:1–14
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9–10)
In his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes about his desire to find a unifying theme that draws all things together in the midst of a season of oppression. Writing as a parish priest in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in England, Hopkins saw a world literally being torn apart by commercialization and environmental destruction, and being left without a clear sense of God’s presence:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
This lament of Hopkins’ — that everything that is of God “is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell” — seems to be written with the same fervent concern we find in the book of Daniel. Written in the midst of exile — from the beginning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s rule through “the first year of King Cyrus” (1:21), who would release the captive people to return to Jerusalem — Daniel is an Old Testament book that is moving betwixt and among various cultures, eras, rulers, and even languages in order to demonstrate that which lasts beyond such diversity and division, and how the people of God will thrive even in the midst of oppressive circumstances.
In his reflections on the prophetic tradition, Walter Brueggemann states, “No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it.” [Author’s Note 1] As we have seen and heard thus far, prophets are individuals called to be deeply present in their communities and focused on the particular needs and concerns of the people to whom and for whom they were called to speak.
This is certainly true in the book of Daniel. As we enter into the first verse of the first chapter, we find that Judah is besieged by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon “in the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah,” whom God let fall from power, resulting in the captivity and exile of Israel. Daniel is brought into the king’s palace with other young men who are “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” (1:4), to learn the culture and language of the Chaldeans, and to eat the food and drink the wine of Judah’s captors — so that they eventually could “be stationed in the king’s court” (1:5) and, therefore, be seen as emblematic of what Babylon could do.
Yet we hear that Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (1:8) Instead, for 10 days he embraced a diet of “vegetables and water” — a radical diet in that culture — as an act of showing solidarity with the provision of God rather than accommodation to their captors. Later, Daniel also served as an interpreter of dreams for the deeply troubled King Nebuchadnezzar.
A Complex Book That Speaks in Multiple Times and Multiple Languages to Multiple Audiences
Daniel is a “now and not yet” book that reaches simultaneously between the grounded reflections of a life in exile and the apocalyptic hope found in the visions and dreams that swirl around the everyday and mundane. P.R. Davies sees Daniel as a prophecy split into two halves that communicates “different ideas in different forms” in order to tether the current pain of exile to eschatological hope. [Author’s Note 2] Davies notes that, while the first section of the book is composed of famous stories — the fiery furnace, the lion’s den, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast — the second half moves out of the ordinary narrative and into four strange visions of a yet-to-be-realized kingdom.
As a result, the book is remembered and recalled rather differently — when asked what Daniel is about, some groups will recall only the narrative stories, others only the apocalyptic visions. While scholars have yet to reconcile why the book speaks in so many voices, it appeals to multiple audiences in ways few sections of Scripture do.
In addition to being split between the now and the not yet, Daniel is also linguistically divided between sections written in Hebrew and sections written in Aramaic. The book begins in Hebrew (1:1–2:4), then abruptly switches to Aramaic (Chapters 2–7), and then back again to Hebrew (Chapters 8–12). While a number of theories have been put forward by scholars as to this strange switching back and forth between languages — everything from multiple authorship to attempting to appeal to both common and scholarly interests — this diversity of languages only further underscores that Daniel should not be read superficially, nor can it be said to speak to only one audience. Davies surmises that “the juxtaposition of different literary forms, intended audiences, and messages creates a strong tension in the book as a whole. Is this tension deliberate? The answer is probably yes.” [Author’s Note 3]
Apocalyptic Truth — Embracing the Now and the Not Yet
Daniel is also an apocalyptic text — pushing us to the horizon of our reason, known history, and capacity to grasp God’s kingdom fully. When we think of “apocalypse,” we often think in terms of big-budget movies in which nuclear war or alien invaders are threatening to destroy the earth, or a large meteor is about to crash into the planet. What is striking about apocalyptic literature in the Bible, though, is that, while the end of all things is certainly a part of the emphasis, the true focus is on that which endures beyond time.
As apocalyptic literature, Daniel, particularly in Chapters 7 and 14, moves back and forth between a third-person and a first-person voice — similar to the Revelation of John in the New Testament — and gives a summarized account of a realized end to all things: This is how all of history will come together, and this is what will endure to the end. In a similar way, Daniel speaks of the Ancient One on the throne of thrones, all powers and principalities of the earth submitting at last to his reign, and all things brought once again to wholeness and peace.
As John Collins states in relation to the book of Daniel, “The classification of Daniel as an apocalypse is fraught with theological implications. … There is no clear case of another apocalypse in the Hebrew Bible. … In short, Daniel cannot be adequately interpreted within the context of the canon alone.” [Author’s Note 4] By this Collins notes that throughout the appeals to different languages, and to various rulers both Jewish and Gentile, past, present, and future, Daniel reaches beyond Scripture itself and requires that we look throughout the world, both faithful and pagan, to find both the spectacular and the mundane ways in which God is working.
Multiple Views on a Central Theme: The Kingdom of God
What is clear amidst these various levels of narrative that point both to the apocalyptic now and to the apocalyptic not yet — and the various times and places and alternating languages —is that in this incredible diversity of voices, tones, and cultures the central concern of what constitutes the Kingdom of God resounds again and again. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay states this rather pointedly:
The theme that is central to Daniel as it is to no other book in the Old Testament is the kingdom of God. The book as a whole concerns how the rule of God becomes a reality of this world in contexts where Jews as such lack political power but where the Gentiles who do exercise political power are assumed to have a religious responsibility. The purpose of God is to be realized on earth, but by the transcendent power of heaven. The stories [in Daniel] portray it doing so via the heathen ruler, who receives his kingly power from God and is responsible to act as his viceregent in his world, but they recognize that often the heathen ruler fails to exercise his power in a way that reflects this understanding of his calling. [Author’s Note 5]
What is key here is that Daniel speaks to the reality of God’s rule going beyond the Jewish people. Daniel underscores throughout the narrative that in the fullness of time God’s reign will be empowered and acknowledged by both Jew and Gentile, that the ways of God will be made manifest through a diverse and at times cryptic means, and that part of being faithful to God means living into the promise of God’s kingdom even during times of exile and oppression. As exemplified by the life of Daniel and put in bold relief through his visions and dreams, the challenge of God’s people will be to live out a life worthy of the now-and-not-yet kingdom — even though others will wish to throw them into a burning pit or feed them to lions.
Maśkîlîm: Wise and Resistant
Throughout this prophetic text, this call to a particular lifestyle is highlighted as a primary concern God has for the people. As Daniel is someone we are to emulate in addition to heeding his message, we are reminded that God gave Daniel “knowledge [madā] and skill [śākal] in every aspect of literature and wisdom” and “insight into all visions [hāzôn] and dreams [halōm]” (1:17). In Daniel 11, we hear that those gathered into this particular designation (the Maśkîl)
shall give understanding to many; for some days, however, they shall fall by sword and flame, and suffer captivity and plunder. When they fall victim, they shall receive little help, and many join them insincerely. Some of the wise shall fall, so that they may be refined, purified, and cleansed, until the time of the end, for there is still an interval until the time appointed (11:33–35).
Norman Gottwald says that the fact that they were a group who resisted oppression by those worshipping other gods evokes some similarities with the Maccabean revolt in 164 B.C. [Author’s Note 6], when a Jewish priest named Mattathias started a revolution against the Seleucid empire by refusing to worship Greek gods. The Maśkîlîm are noted in Chapter 11 as being the embodiment of heroism during this season of exile — those who were wise and sought to teach and encourage the people, and provide an alternative lifestyle for them to emulate as a form of piety.
Atiyq Yôm: The Ancient of Days
In Daniel 7, the phrase “Ancient One” in our NRSV translation could be literally translated “Ancient of Days;” the interplay of “Days” and “One” is helpful for us and bridges an earlier reflection. As we saw in the Lectio from Week 4, when we looked at the notion of the “day of the LORD” — yôm YHWH — the use of yôm for “day” does not merely or necessarily denote a 24-hour period. Rather, “day” in this sense speaks of a space and time that is meaningfully filled with the presence of the lordship of God. Where the “day of the Lord” is an expansive, meaningful time and place in which God’s people are to be freed from sin and consumed with God’s grace and mercy (as we saw in Joel 2 and other passages), this understanding of atiyq yôm — “Ancient of Days” or “Ancient One” — speaks to the enduring nature of God’s presence that knows no limits.
This “day” has always been and will be personified in taking up the throne of judgment, grace, and mercy, where “a thousand thousands” will serve him and “ten thousand times ten thousand” will attend him. (7:10) In Verse 13, we hear that coming to the Ancient One/Ancient of Days and being presented before him will be “one like a human being / coming with the clouds of heaven.” Some scholars have traditionally rendered the Aramaic expression translated in the NRSV “a human being” as “the Son of man,” and therefore anticipatory of Jesus’ self-designation in the New Testament as the incarnate One who is the Ancient of Days in our midst. [Author’s Note 7]
When Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” laments the destruction and lack of unity he sees around him, he does not end with lamentation. In the second stanza, Hopkins turns his face away from the destruction and looks though all the despair to see a hope bursting through:
And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshest deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah ! bright wings.
What Hopkins acknowledges and what Daniel calls us to seek after is that which truly lives, “the dearest freshest deep-down” reality in a world that is broken and in pain. This incarnate One, the Ancient of Days that Daniel declares, is not only the One coming at the fullness of time, but also the One who has filled time and space with His glory. For Daniel, to embody this truth — that God has not left us behind in the midst of turmoil, pain, loss, and grief, but stands with us in the midst of these trials — is to show the world that we are people of faith in more than words. It may mean a lifestyle that is so out of sorts with the world around us that we will be persecuted for it. It may mean eating differently from others, praying in public to a God no one else acknowledges as real, or even interpreting the dreams and visions of others through prayer and beyond our own understanding.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Part of the emphasis of Daniel is providing an example of a holy lifestyle, one that lives for and with God in the midst of the culture around us. What are some qualities of a holy lifestyle — a full commitment to God — in your context? What are practical examples you could live out in the coming weeks?
- The book of Daniel is complex in a number of different ways, and yet the Lectio writer reminds us that the coming Kingdom of God remains as a theme throughout. In what ways do you see this theme through your reading?
- Daniel finds comfort in knowing that the Ancient One will be on the throne at the end of all things, and this gives hope in the midst of oppression. Does this give you comfort in the midst of pain and loss? Is this difficult to hear, knowing that God will bring things into peace and healing, but perhaps not in your lifetime? Why or why not?
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