Daniel 7 describes four beasts and the mysterious little horn. What does Daniel’s vision mean for us today? Here are keys to understanding Daniel 7.
Daniel 7 records an unusual vision that he received in the first year of the Babylonian king Belshazzar (555-556 B.C.). The vision predicts major world empires and events from the time of Daniel to the second coming of Christ.
The vision ended with Daniel saying, “My thoughts greatly troubled me, and my countenance changed; but I kept the matter in my heart” (Daniel 7:28). What did Daniel see?
In verse 1 Daniel had “a dream and visions of his head while on his bed.” This is the same expression that was used in Daniel 2:28 concerning King Nebuchadnezzar’s “dream and visions” that came in the second year of his reign (603-602 B.C.).
The two sets of dreams and visions were about 50 years apart; but as we will see, they both describe four world empires. The vision of the four beasts and the little horn found in Daniel 7 reveals more information about the same four empires that are first described in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great image.
Both visions present God as the supreme Sovereign over the entire world. He not only ruled over men during the time of Nebuchadnezzar, but He would also judge the empires that followed. The end result is that all worldly kingdoms will be destroyed and replaced by God’s eternal kingdom (Daniel 2:44-45; 7:9-14).
Ancient of Days and Son of Man
All three of the Bible’s references to “the Ancient of Days” are found in Daniel 7 (verses 9, 13 and 22). These refer to God the Father. It is also interesting to note that this chapter is the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase “Son of Man” refers to the member of the Godhead who would come to earth as Jesus Christ.
The explanation in Daniel 7 shows that the Ancient of Days has the greater authority of the two and that the Son of Man will come in the clouds to rule over “all peoples, nations, and languages” (verse 14). For further explanation of these references, see the article “Ancient of Days.”
Four beasts of Daniel 7 explained
In Daniel 7:3-4 Daniel records, “And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other. The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings. I watched till its wings were plucked off; and it was lifted up from the earth and made to stand on two feet like a man, and a man’s heart was given to it.”
In verse 17 we are told, “Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth.”
The first beast: the Chaldean or Babylonian Empire
The lion was symbolic of the kingdom of Babylon and the “man’s heart” was that of its most notable king, Nebuchadnezzar, who is written about considerably in the first four chapters of Daniel.
As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains, “The lion symbol was characteristic of Babylon, especially in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, when the Ishtar Gate entrance was adorned on either side with a long procession of yellow lions on blue-glazed brick, fashioned in high relief” (1985, Vol. 7, pp. 85-86).
Nebuchadnezzar ruled from Babylon to Asia Minor and from the Caspian Sea to Egypt. Biblically, his most notable conquest was that of the nation of Judah, with Daniel being the most famous captive from that nation.
Following his father’s death, Nebuchadnezzar reigned as king of Babylon for 43 years, from 604-561 B.C. (JewishEncyclopedia.com/Nebuchadnezzar). After his death, Babylon continued as a strong empire until 539 B.C., when it was conquered by the second rising power in Daniel’s vision, the Medo-Persian Empire.
The second beast: the Medo-Persian Empire
Daniel 7:5 says, “And suddenly another beast, a second, like a bear. It was raised up on one side, and had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. And they said thus to it: ‘Arise, devour much flesh!’”
This beast’s being “raised up on one side” represents the Persians being greater than the Medes in this federated empire. This is made plain to Daniel in a vision two years later when he sees a ram with two horns, one being higher than the other. Daniel is told by the angel Gabriel that the ram represents the kings of Media and Persia (Daniel 8:3, 20).
The three ribs that are devoured represent three empires conquered by Persia’s first great king, Cyrus the Great, and his son, Cambyses II. Cyrus came to power in 558 B.C. and conquered the Lydian Empire (Asia Minor) in 546 and the Chaldean Empire (Babylon) in 539; and Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 (ibid., p. 86).
The Medo-Persian Empire lasted for 200 years and, under later kings, expanded toward Greece in the west and to India in the east. At one point, the Persian Empire covered parts of three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. But, like the Chaldean Empire, the Persian Empire finally came to an end. A new beast was rising in the west, and its appointed time had come.
The third beast: the Greco-Macedonian Empire
Daniel 7:6 says, “After this I looked, and there was another, like a leopard, which had on its back four wings of a bird. The beast also had four heads, and dominion was given to it.”
As with the second beast, the third beast is clearly identified by the angel Gabriel. It was Greece, and the “first king” was Alexander the Great. After his untimely death in 323 B.C., his empire was divided into four smaller kingdoms (Daniel 8:21-22).
The symbol of the leopard with four wings portrays the swiftness of Alexander’s sudden rise and conquest of the Persian Empire from 334-331 B.C. After his death, several years of struggle ensued that resulted in the division of his empire into four kingdoms. The new kingdoms were (1) Greece and Macedon, (2) Thrace and Asia Minor, (3) Middle East-Asia and (4) Egypt-Palestine.
“After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.”The last two were ruled by Seleucus, who began the Seleucid Empire, and Ptolemy, who began the Ptolemaic Empire. These two kingdoms are called the king of North and the king of the South in Daniel 11.
Approximately two centuries later, the fourth beast conquered all of these kingdoms and expanded far beyond the lands conquered by the previous beasts.
The fourth beast, dreadful and terrible: the Roman Empire
Next in Daniel 7:7 we read, “After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.”
The devouring teeth of iron and the trampling feet correspond with Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the fourth kingdom being strong as iron, breaking in pieces and crushing all others (Daniel 2:40-41). When the Roman Empire came to power under the Caesars (44 B.C.) it devoured, broke in pieces and trampled the residue of its enemies with its feet—as was described in Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7.
The fourth beast is quite different from the previous beasts, in that it has 10 horns. Daniel 7:24 says, “The ten horns are ten kings who shall arise from this kingdom.” Historically, these revivals began to rise after the fall of Rome in A.D. 476, with the later ones under a new name: the Holy Roman Empire. (For additional information, see “What Is Babylon?”).
This fourth beast would continue to be revived off and on for over 1,500 years until the end-time 10th revival. The 10th and final revival will be destroyed by Jesus Christ at His second coming (Daniel 7:26-27).
This leads to one other unusual feature of the prophecy of the fourth beast.
The little horn
Daniel 7:8 says, “I was considering the horns, and there was another horn, a little one, coming up among them, before whom three of the first horns were plucked out by the roots. And there, in this horn, were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking pompous words.”
This little horn represents a powerful religious system that would align with the last seven of the 10 political horns that were to arise after the fall of Rome. This coordination between church and state produced what ultimately became known as the Holy Roman Empire.
In verses 21-22 and 25, this little horn makes war against the saints, speaks pompous words against God, intends to change times and law, and persecutes the saints for a “time and times and half a time” (literally 3½ years, but using the day-for-a-year principle of Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6, 1,260 years).
Evidence of this persecution can be seen through the centuries, as hundreds and thousands of people in Europe lost their lives through the inquisitions of the Roman Catholic judicial system. They were tortured for confessions of being heretics and killed because they would not submit to the authority and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and the pope.
Though the inquisitions of that time were abolished, the Bible indicates religious persecutions from the “little horn” will come back and result in the death of many before the return of Christ. Daniel also saw the conclusion concerning the “little horn”—that when Jesus Christ returns, “the court [judgment] shall be seated, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and destroy it forever” (verse 26; Revelation 18:2).
A different little horn in Daniel 8
A “little horn” is also spoken of in Daniel 8:8-9. Although this reference is to a specific leader (Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the third beast) rather than a religious system (associated with the fourth beast), the two have at least one commonality. They both hate and persecute God’s people.
See the article “Daniel 8: The Vision of a Ram and a Goat” for further explanation.
Change times and laws
An interesting aspect of the prophesied activities of the little horn in Daniel 7 is that in addition to speaking pompous words against God and persecuting His people, this false religious system would “intend to change times and law” (Daniel 7:25). History shows that the Roman Catholic Church has done this.
Believing that it had the authority to change God’s laws, this church switched the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday and substituted its own annual days of worship for the holy days of the Bible. For further explanation, see “When Did the Change From Saturday to Sunday Occur?”
The Kingdom of God
The vision of Daniel 7 could not end with any greater news: “Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him” (verse 27).
This prophecy ends by revealing that Jesus will establish the Kingdom of God on earth and give it to the saints of the Most High. What is the biblical definition of a saint? How does an individual become a saint and inherit this Kingdom? The study of the prophecy of the four beasts and the little horn may be very interesting, but the answers to these most important questions of life are what matters in the end.
For additional study, see the articles in the section “Kingdom of God.”