Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.
Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.
“I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.
“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit who unites us in faith. Amen.
‘Tis the season for spooky ghosts and terrifying demons, so it only seems natural to preach about Daniel’s vision of four frightening beasts from today’s Old Testament scripture. It’s a vision that seems like it would have fit well in Pastor Mark’s “Game of Thrones” summer sermon series, but I trust by the end you will see why this scripture is well suited for today’s observance of All Saint’s Day.
Daniel’s vision is an example of apocalyptic literature. Except for an adult forum on the book of Revelation a few years ago, I don’t remember the subject of apocalyptic writing coming up much in the last few years around here. The genre got a bad rap back in the 90s when the popular yet ill-conceived Left Behind series of books was published. That book series was built around the idea that the apocalyptic Biblical texts were a coded depiction of the eventual destruction of the world corresponding with Jesus’ second coming to earth.
The Left Behind writers were correct that apocalyptic texts are mean to be decoded and interpreted to make sense of the present and future; however, their fundamental mistake was their failure to grasp that the apocalyptic literature in the Bible is always good news.
The depiction of the beasts is omitted from the lectionary selections. I will fill you in on what you missed so that you can meet our four beasts and see what good news they have for us.
“The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it.” (verse 4)
Daniel’s original audience would have associated this lion with the Babylonian empire that conquered the Hebrew people in the 7th century B.C. The imagery connecting lions with Babylonians was very ‘on the nose’ to the original Hebrew audience. The lion was the symbol used by the Babylonian King. Also, recall that Daniel, a servant in the Babylonian court, had survived an encounter in the lion’s den.
“[The second] looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’” (verse 5)
Ok, a giant flesh-craving bear ready to pounce. Not only is this my wife’s worst nightmare, but it is also a reference to the Median Empire—the ones who unseated the Babylonians and served as another brutal occupying force for the Hebrews.
“[The third] looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.” (verse 6)
This four-headed winged leopard refers to the Persians, who supplanted the Medes as the next in line to rule over the Hebrews.
Lastly, we have the “fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns…there before me was another horn…This horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully...the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them…” (Daniel 7:7-8, 20-21).
Though the artists have presented us with a visual image of the beast, it is interesting that no animal imagery is used in the scripture. That fact, combined with the sheer violence and domination attributed to this beast, tells us that it is wholly different from the ones that have come before it. So too, the empire it represents was wholly different from the ones that came before it. This makes the Greek superpower the most likely allegorical link. It’s worth noting that this empire more than all the others sets itself up in opposition to God’s rule. The talking horn, which is characterized by boastful speech (think of the Greek conqueror, Alexander THE GREAT), illustrates the danger inherent in rulers who lead out of pride, arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and blasphemy.
The original audience who heard the stories of Daniel and his visions would have recognized the four beasts as the four empires who had conquered the Hebrews. So where’s the good news in such a vision?
The good news comes at the end of the vision, when someone or something referred to as “the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom” (Daniel 7:22). The beasts were slain and “the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever” (Daniel 7:18).
The good news of apocalyptic literature in the Bible is that God always triumphs. Things may look bad. Thing may be bad. Things may get worse. But there is always hope. God will always emerge victorious. That’s the message people of faith are bold to believe in and act according to.
Daniel’s prophetic vision about the beasts is a warning to anyone who would place their trust in the worldly forces of boastful political leaders and concentrated power. The vision, as well as the scope of world history, makes it clear that these things manifest their monstrous nature against the people of God. But, and always more importantly, God will triumph over all the beasts and all the empires and all the boastful leaders.
This trajectory of despair to hope made me think of a quote that has been attributed to everyone from John Lennon to Ed Sheeran, from author Paulo Coehlo to the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:
“Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”
What better message to bear for All Saints Day, when we recall the lives of those who have gone before us and also contemplate our own mortality. Even in the midst of death and the death-dealing cultures of this world, “the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever” (Daniel 7:18).
Be aware of the beasts who threaten to destroy. Join with God in the divine battle against them. Be brave in the face of your own mortality. And trust that not even death will prevent you from participating in the kingdom of God for ever and ever. Amen.