Daniel wrote about “the king of the North” who would be involved in the Middle East prior to Christ’s return. Who is this person? What will he do?
In Daniel 11:40 we read of “the king of the South” attacking “the king of the North” at “the time of the end.” While the setting of this prophecy is quite clear (the time of the end), understanding who the kings represent is more complicated.
To understand who these kings are, we need to consider the context of the extensive prophecy found in Daniel 11.
The context of Daniel 11
The setting for Daniel 11—the chapter containing the most detailed prophecy in the Bible—is found in the preceding chapter. Here we are told that Daniel was given the message in the “third year of Cyrus king of Persia” (Daniel 10:1). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary edited by Frank Gabelein identifies the third year of Cyrus as 535/534 B.C., meaning this prophecy was given to Daniel more than 500 years before Christ’s coming to earth as a human.
The events prophesied began shortly after Daniel received the vision and will continue through the end time prior to the return of Christ.
Also consider the words of the angel who came to help Daniel understand the vision. This messenger from God told Daniel, “Now I have come to make you understand what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision refers to many days yet to come” (Daniel 10:14, emphasis added throughout).
Not only was the prophecy going to occur quite some time in the future from when Daniel received it, it was also primarily focused on what would happen to the Jewish people—Daniel’s people.
Daniel 11: the king of the North and the king of the South
The first four verses of Daniel 11 deal with events of the Persian and Greek empires. These passages contain amazing historical details that confirm the validity of the Bible. Verse 4 is a prophecy of the division of Alexander the Great’s kingdom into four regions following his death. In verses 5-6, we read for the first time in Daniel 11 of “the king of the South” and “the king of the North.”
Since the focus of this prophecy in Daniel 11 is what would happen to the Jewish people (Daniel 10:14), the directions of south and north in this chapter must be understood in relation to Jerusalem. While the details mentioned in Daniel 11 can be hard to follow, a careful comparison of the prophecy with history makes the meaning clear. A Bible help such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary can be quite useful in sorting out the historical record that fulfilled the predictions.
The Seleucids (king of the North) and the Ptolemies (king of the South)
The two major powers that existed to the south and north of Jerusalem after the death of Alexander the Great were Egypt to the south (with its kings referred to as Ptolemy) and Syria to the north (with its kings referred to as Seleucus or Antiochus).
The prophecy in Daniel 11:5-31 then documents the historical interactions between the king of the South and the king of the North.
Next, this prophecy seems to include the story of the Maccabees, a Jewish family that led the resistance against Antiochus and his successors because of their efforts to force the Jewish people to accept pagan Greek practices (verses 32-39).
The first fulfillment of the abomination of desolation
“In 167 [B.C.] Antiochus Epiphanes commanded that observance of the Jewish law cease and ceremonies of the Hellenistic cult be instituted. …
“An altar of Zeus Olympios was set up upon the altar of sacrifice at Jerusalem; sacrifice was offered there on the twenty-fifth of every month, starting with the twenty-fifth of Chislev (December), 167 B.C. (I Macc. 154, 59; II Macc. 6:1, 7). Since the twenty-fifth of the month was celebrated as the birthday of Epiphanes, these sacrifices were actually offered to him. Apocalyptic literature called this altar of Zeus ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ (Dan. 11:31; 12:11)” (Bo Reicke, The New Testament Era, pp. 55-56).
Read more about the multiple fulfillments of the prophecy of the abomination of desolation in our article “What Is the Abomination of Desolation?”
The reference to “the time of the end” in verse 35 is thought by some to be a reference to the time just before Christ returns. While this may be the case, we should also understand that it might simply be a reference to the close of the Maccabean time of testing. Or, of course, it may also be that this passage is dual—referring to the time of the Maccabees and beyond.
Verses 35-39 seem to describe some actions by Antiochus during the time of the Maccabees, and they also serve as a forerunner of actions that will be taken by the beast power that will exist just before Jesus Christ’s return to earth.
Gap in the history of the king of the North and the king of the South?
In 65 B.C. the Roman Empire defeated Seleucid Syria and in 30 B.C. it also defeated Egypt. So both “the king of the North” and “the king of South” now came under Roman rule. It is also interesting to note that the detailed early part of the prophecy seems to end before the first century and not resume until “the time of the end” referred to in Daniel 11:40.
Why is there a gap of approximately 2,000 years between these verses? Perhaps it is because there was no Jewish nation in the Middle East during this time.
With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, “the king of the North” and “the king of the South” once again have significance regarding the fate of Jewish people living in the Holy Land.
It is important to understand that the modern State of Israel is largely comprised of Jewish people. Judah—the patriarchal father of the Jews—was one of 12 brothers whose descendants were collectively called the ancient Israelites. There are other prophecies directed toward the descendants of the other brothers. The modern nation of Israel is primarily populated by Jews—not descendants of the other brothers. For additional study, see “12 Tribes of Israel.”
With this background, we are now ready to examine Daniel 11:40 and the verses that follow.
The king of the North at the time of the end
This passage tells us that the “king of the North,” which will likely be a revival of the Roman Empire (the fourth kingdom spoken of in Daniel 2 and 7 as well as in Revelation 17), will successfully counterattack the “king of the South.”“At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. He shall also enter the Glorious Land, and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon” (Daniel 11:40-41).
This passage tells us that the “king of the North,” which will likely be a revival of the Roman Empire (the fourth kingdom spoken of in Daniel 2 and 7 as well as in Revelation 17), will successfully counterattack the “king of the South.”
Verses 41-43 indicate that, in the process, he will enter the “Glorious Land” (the Holy Land) and that he will gain control over or “have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt.”
As for the identity of “the king of the South,” the reign of the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt came to an end long ago. Yet it appears that Egypt will once again either be “the king of the South” or be aligned with other nations representing this power that will exist at the time of the end before Christ’s return (verse 43).
Middle East conflict centered on Jerusalem
Why will the “king of the South” attack the “king of the North” to initiate this conflict at the end of the age? Perhaps it will be over economic disagreements. Perhaps it will be over the treatment of Muslims in Europe. Perhaps it will be a religious dispute because of the “king of the North” coming into the Middle East.
Regardless of the reason or reasons why the “king of the South” and the “king of the North” fight, prophecies in the book of Zechariah explain that Jerusalem will be a focal point of conflict before Jesus Christ’s return.
“I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling”
The venerable King James Version memorably recorded God’s warning as, “Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about” (Zechariah 12:2).
The New King James Version puts it this way: “Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it” (Zechariah 12:2-3).
The phrase “a cup of drunkenness” seems to refer to the confusion—perhaps because of angry emotions or because of the complexity of the issue—that the intervening nations will be in regarding how to solve the conflict. As for Jerusalem being “a very heavy stone for all peoples,” this historic city is destined to be a trouble spot affecting people far beyond its borders.
Those who try to “heave” the stone away—solve the problem—will pay a dear price for doing so. To understand the origins of today’s conflict in the Middle East, see the article “Middle East Conflict” and related articles.
Armageddon and the final battle for Jerusalem
While contention over Jerusalem may or may not be the catalyst for the initial conflict between the “king of the South” and “the king of the North” at the time of the end, God shows through the prophet Zechariah that eventually all nations are going to be drawn into a conflict centered in Jerusalem.
After the armies of the nations gather at Armageddon (Revelation 16:16), they will set their sights on Jerusalem. God says, “Behold, the day of the LORD is coming. … For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:1-2).
Continuing, the prophecy says, “Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations” (verse 3). After Jesus Christ decisively wins this battle and eliminates all opposition, He will establish the Kingdom of God here on earth.