Apocalyptic literature often serves as a great challenge for 21st Century Americans to read and inwardly digest. Part of the problem is that we like for everything to be explained. Apocalyptic literature simply does not lend itself to the simple explanation that we so value. The omens and portents and prophesies are hard to understand until they are seen in light of history, and some of those same omens, portents, and prophecies can be fulfilled multiple times or in more than one sense. We want to treat the literature like it is tomorrow’s headlines, when, in fact, it is often the headlines for events that have happened or are happening in our midst. But, it is part of the way in which God reveals to His people what is happening, so we cannot ignore it simply because it is hard for us to read. Instead, we should seek to understand it on His terms, that we might better witness to the world around us the truth of its claims. Better still, while the world likes to focus on the gloom and doom of apocalypses, God reminds His people that the battles discussed are causes of joy and celebration because He wins! Daniel 7, for that reason, is a valuable reminder for us about what to expect and the joy we should have in the face of those events.
Typical of our lectionary editors, we ignore an important part of the book. Though, in their defense, there is a limit to what can be accomplished in church. The first 6 chapters of the book remind us that God is in absolute control of events in the world. Those things which are meant for evil for His people are always being redeemed by His sovereign purpose. The wise men of Babylon like to threaten and plot against His people; sometimes the king rages against God and His people. Sometimes, natural disasters seem even to be conspiring against God. But, in the end, nothing is too difficult for God to overcome. He will not be thwarted.
Chapter 7 is important in the divine narrative, however, as we move from human evil to institutional evil and the spiritual forces which rebel against God. We ignore the first 8 verses of the chapter, but Daniel sees a vision with beasts. He describes these beasts as being “like” well known animals, but different. Do they represent the empires of the day (Babylon, Persia, Greek and Rome)? Do they represent specific kings in those empires? Do they symbolize evil in the structure as opposed to the individuals? Do they refer to all those understandings?
In any event, the scene shifts from a description of those beasts and their terrible infliction upon humanity to a courtroom setting that we read today. While the world seems to be railing and thrashing against God, things in the spiritual realm are moving to their own conclusion. “The Ancient of Days” is enthroned. The image presented about Him is one of righteousness and holiness and of one who sits on a throne of judgment. Presented before Him is one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. And all things are placed in subjection to this one like the son of man. His dominion is described as everlasting; and the reign of His kingdom is eternal. Set against the hopelessness and thrashing of the world, it is a remarkably calm and powerful image. The one like the son of man who approaches is God Himself, as He rides the clouds reserved only for God. Sometimes we struggle to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but I think even the blind can the Son and the Father in the image described by Daniel. We are left, however, trying to figure out the significance of the vision in our day, and the hope and joy which it should impart in our understanding of the cosmic warfare which surrounds us.
Last week, we looked a bit at human sin as individuals. This week, the focus is on the fact that human evil is institutionalized in the apparatuses of the state. The animals fight among themselves. They are always provoked to violence. They sometimes chip away at one another. And often, in the middle of their fights, they choose to target God’s people. The imagery is frightening, but so is real life. Who really thinks “the system” wants to help them? Who around here really thinks that our various institutions and systems have our best interest at heart? Does anybody really think that the stock market hopes to help you retire securely? Does anybody here really believe that the healthcare system is in the business of improving your health? Is our educational system really about teaching, or is it about indoctrinating, convincing us that this is as good as it gets? Does anyone here buy into the myth that the slaver really cares for his or her slaves? Of course, against all that evil and self interest stands His beautiful bride, right? We all know that all churches are concerned with doing the ministry God has given them and that we never chew people up and spit them out in the business of the church, right? I could go on and on. Heck, you can go on and on how the system care little for your predicament. That understanding is not new. But rather than serving as a hopeless reminder, Daniel’s images serve to encourage us!
First, there is a limit set for the thrashing and gnashing. Yes, God’s people are allowed to be attacked, for a time. But at some point in the future, God has decreed that the attacks will end. At some point, He will step in and execute the authority given Him. We might wish that greater attention was paid to the details of that limit and His ability to execute judgment in the end, but none of us can argue that there is any ambiguity regarding the end. At some point in the future, He will act. His sanctuary will be reconsecrated. And rebellion will cease. Period.
It really is that simple, and He really is that powerful. How do we know? The cross and Resurrection. Though the world, and the spiritual authorities behind it, could rebel and act to kill the very One by whom it has its being, still it could not be freed of His authority and dominion. By the simple but amazing power of the Resurrection, you and I and the rest of the world were taught that rebellion against God is, ultimately, its own vanity. To be sure, it will appear to us and others that the world is winning in its rebellion from time to time. But we are exhorted to be of good cheer for He has conquered it already. And when next He returns to claim His inheritance, His people will be restored and enthroned for all eternity.
Do we ignore those battles? No. Are we to be surprised that they are being fought? No. But it is our job to witness to a world caught in the talons and teeth of institutions that their Father in heaven loves them and that He alone cares for them and has power to do what is best for them. The rest, well, as Daniel says, they will be swept aside like the horn that boasted. So, for now, do not be surprised if you find yourself in the midst of a terrible struggle. Do not be surprised even if you come to realize that the battle you are in is of a cosmic nature. Instead, give thanks that the One who called you and redeems you, is the One with the power to slay all His enemies and lift up all His servants, even those placed among the lions or in fiery furnaces.