Have you ever noticed that Daniel tends to be more popular among children than among pastors? After a parade of inspiring stories in the first six chapters (think: fiery furnace, writing on the wall, lions’ den), the book becomes real weird real fast.
Don’t write it off just yet.
The 32nd (and latest) installment in InterVarsity’s New Studies in Biblical Theology series, edited by D. A. Carson, James Hamilton’s With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology is an “evangelical and canonical biblical theology of Daniel” that aims to unfold not only the meaning of Daniel itself but also how the book is strategically situated within the Bible’s grand storyline. Hamilton’s volume is a welcome companion for anyone seeking to preach theologically rich, Christ-centered, applicational sermons from this enigmatic blend of narrative and apocalypse.
I corresponded with Hamilton, professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, about common misconceptions, what surprised him most, how to preach Daniel 7–12 without boring people to tears, and more.
What are some common evangelical oversights or misunderstandings related to Daniel?
Across the board—evangelical and non-evangelical—it seems to me that the profound inter-connectedness of Daniel has gone unnoticed. There is a genre change in the book, with chapters 1–6 giving historical narratives and chapters 7–12 apocalyptic visions.
Still, what happens in chapters 1–6 anticipates what happens in the apocalyptic visions of chapters 7–12: Nebuchadnezzar attacks God’s people, plunders the temple (1:1–2), and then Belshazzar uses the implements from the temple to praise false gods (5:3–4). In the midst of all this, God’s people are tempted to compromise (1:5, 8) and threatened with death (2:13; 3:15; 6:7)—as the proud kings exalt themselves over God (4:30) until he brings an end to their kingdoms (2:44; 4:31; 5:25–28, 30). When the three young men come out of the fiery furnace (3:27) and Daniel comes out of the lions’ den (6:19–23), it’s like resurrection from the dead.
All this is precisely what the apocalyptic visions of chapters 7–12 depict: wicked kings will attack God’s people (7:21, 25; 8:12–13; 9:26; 11:34–35), destroy the temple and put a stop to sacrifice in an effort to stamp out the worship of God (8:11, 13; 9:26; 11:31), and exalt themselves in place of God (7:8, 25; 8:25; 11:36). In the midst of this God’s people will be persecuted (7:25; 8:12–13; 9:26–27; 11:34–35), but they are called to be faithful because God will deliver them just as he delivered Daniel and his friends. When the persecution is over, God will raise them from the dead (12:2).
What is Daniel’s primary theme and goal?
The glory of God in salvation through judgment!
The book’s chiastic structure shows this: at the center of the chiasm (chs. 4–5), proud kings are humbled; in the surrounding narratives (chs. 3, 6), Daniel and his friends are delivered from death; the visions of Nebuchadnezzar (ch. 2) and the revelations made to Daniel (chs. 7–9) depict a stylized set of four wicked kingdoms that will precede God’s kingdom; and the opening chapter shows exile (ch. 1) and the final vision depicts the ultimate return from exile at the resurrection (chs. 10–12).
2: Four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God
3: Deliverance of the trusting from the fiery furnace
4–5: Proud kings humbled
6: Deliverance of the trusting from the lions’ den
7–9: Four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God
10–12: Return from exile
God will save his people through the judgment on wicked rulers who persecute his people.
What surprised you most in your study of Daniel?
I was surprised to find that there are two different terms for “Most High” in Daniel 7. One of these is the typical Aramaic term used to describe God as Most High throughout the book’s Aramaic section (2:4–7:28). The other is a Hebrew term that Daniel has Aramaicized. This second term is used to refer to the “one like a son of man” (7:13) as Most High, with the result that he’s identified with the Ancient of Days—who is called Most High with another term—even as the two are distinguished from each other.
I don’t think Daniel had Chalcedonian Christology worked out, but he clearly depicts the “one like a son of man” as a figure already present in the heavenly court, identified with and distinguished from the Ancient of Days, and who will receive the kingdom promised to David. What a passage!
What major biblical themes are picked up and developed in Daniel? How do such themes relate to the growing messianic expectation throughout the OT?
Just one example: in the vision of the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, I think Daniel engages Genesis 1:26–28; Genesis 3; Psalm 8; and Psalm 110, among other texts. Daniel’s interpretation of and additions to what these texts contribute to the messianic hope feeds right into what the authors of the NT claim about Jesus.
How can we preach Daniel 7–12 without our sermons sounding like boring history lessons?
The passage most susceptible to this, it seems to me, is the very detailed prophecy in Daniel 11. I think attending to the literary structure of the passage and its similarity to other visions can help us see the overarching big ideas without getting so deep in the weeds we can’t get back on the fairway. This is what I try to model in my treatment of the passage.
What advice would you give pastors planning to preach through Daniel’s vision considering that their members likely hold to several different understandings of the end times?
The point I stressed repeatedly as I preached through Revelation also holds for the book of Daniel: even if we disagree on the specifics of how the prophecies will be fulfilled, we can agree on how Daniel wanted his audience to respond. Daniel wants his audience to “know God” and “stand firm and take action” (11:32). He wants them to resist persecution even unto death, just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in chapter 3, and just as he did in chapter 6, precisely because they believe that God will humble the proud kings (chs. 4–5) and set the one like a son of man on the Davidic throne (ch. 7), raising the faithful from the dead (12:2) to reign with him (7:27).
For Daniel to put himself and his friends forward as examples of faithfulness is not moralism. They are examples of faith, and God’s deliverance of them was written “for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). And their example also typifies the faithfulness of the Messiah, who will be cut off and have nothing for the sake of his people (Dan. 9:26), leaving “an example, so that [we] might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21, cf. 20–25).