Behind a Frowning Providence

Behind a Frowning Providence

Daniel 8:1-27

William Cowper’s masterful poem-turned hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, has been a source of comfort to me over the years, especially during seasons of pain and confusion.  Over the course of four months, our son Nathan was hospitalized with COVID, my mother almost died, and a dear friend of mine suffered critical head injuries recently.  It has been the first three verses in Cowper’s poem that I have thought most about over the past four months:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head

If I could pick one scripture passage from Daniel that sums up the theme of the book it would be 2:20-22 which states: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might.  He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” 

I don’t know if you have ever been deep in a cave or under the earth’s surface in a mine, but without a lamp, I know of no other darker place.  Although life may seem darker than blackest night, we have a God who, “reveals deep and hidden things” because, “the light dwells with him.”  William Cowper understood this: “Deep in unsearchable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works his sovereign will.”  Daniel 8 is a case in point of this reality!

Two years after Daniel had his dream in chapter 7, he had a vision we learn about in chapter 8… in the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar.  The only difference between a dream and a vision is that one you experience while sleeping, and the other while you are awake.  What sets Daniel’s vision apart from his dream is that the vision was not about four kingdoms, but only two empires.  The first empire was represented by a two horned ram with one horn longer than the other; this empire represents the Medo-Persian Empire that eventually was dominated by the Persian side of the Empire to only become known as the Persian Empire. 

The second empire was represented by a goat who started out with a “conspicuous horn between his eyes” that eventually broke and was replaced by four conspicuous horns.  This goat represents the empire of Greece, the first horn represented Greece’s first emperor (Alexander the Great), and the four generals who took Alexander the Great’s place.  Daniel also noticed a little horn that came out from the four horns who represents another king in Greece who became “exceedingly great.”  Concerning the little horn, one third of the dream describes, and is the primary reason why, in verse 27, Daniel wrote: “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days.  Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”

What I would like to do with the time that we have left is briefly address why only the empires of Medo-Persia and Greece are mentioned, and then spend the rest of our time reflecting on the three kings that Daniel’s dream forces us to consider. 

The Rise of Empires

I want to be brief concerning the rise of the two empires that Daniel’s dream is about because they have been addressed multiple times in Daniel already.  The Medo-Persian empire was led by King Cyrus II, who at the time Daniel had his vision, would eventually invade Babylon, kill Belshazzar, and appoint Darius to oversee things in that region.  Eventually, the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians became one empire that was ruled by Ahasuerus (Artaxerxes I) who married Esther (see the book of Esther in the Bible).

Although some Jews elected to return to Judah, others chose to stay in Persia.  It was during the dominance of Persia as an empire that Ezra returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Jewish temple under King Cyrus’ reign (see the book of Ezra), and Nehemiah returned to Judah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem under the reign of Artaxerxes (see the book of Nehemiah).  Sometime between Ezra’s temple project and Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, Esther was instrumental in saving the Jewish people from genocide that one of the king’s chief officials (Haman) convinced the king needed to be done after he accused the Jews of the following:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” (Esther 3:8–9)

God used Esther to intervene and save her fellow Hebrews from Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews by murdering every single one of them.  The ram with the uneven horns represents the Medo-Persian Empire that continued long after Daniel’s death, and while the ram charged westward and northward and southward with a strength and power that no other kingdom was able to withstand, God preserved his people, rebuilt his temple, and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem’s walls through a small remnant a faithful Jews like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.  However, a goat came from the west who God raised up to overpower the ram, and that goat was the empire of Greece.

Why does a goat represent one of the most powerful empires in world history?  There is an ancient myth about the person who founded Greece whose name was Caranus, he wanted to find his own kingdom, so he visited with the Oracle of Delphi to get advice.  Caranus was told by the Oracle, “You should find your kingdom where you find plenty of game and domestic animals.”  Caranus and his entourage went north in search of land to establish his new kingdom.  Upon discovering a green valley, says the myth, Caranus noticed a large herd of goats, and it was there he built the first city of Greece.  God used the power of a mythological story the Greeks treasured to reveal that it is not a goat that determines the future of a nation or empire, but the God of Daniel who determines the future of nations and empires. 

King #1: Alexander the Great

The first conspicuous horn between the goat’s eyes represents Alexander the Great who was tutored by Aristotle as a youth, served as a general under his father Philip II, and succeeded his father after Philip II was assassinated (336 BC).  In 334 BC, Alexander invaded the Persian Empire and eventually stripped the empire of its power through a series of conquests that lasted about 10 years, and within his 13-year reign as emperor of Greece he conquered the known world. 

There is a story shared by the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, that I think is worth sharing.  Many critical scholars do not think Josephus’ story is true because they do not think the book of Daniel could have been written before the rise of Greece due to its prophetic accuracy.  So, what is the story Josephus shared about Alexander the Great? 

According to Josephus, during Alexander’s military conquests, he had a dream of a man dressed in purple who told him it was time to attack the Persians.  After conquering Israel, Alexander approached the Temple in Jerusalem that Ezra rebuilt, but unknown to Alexander, God had also spoke to the Jewish High Priest in a dream and instructed him to offer a sacrifice for their sins, open the gates, and greet Alexander in white garments while he and those in the priestly order wear their priestly garments.  He was assured that they had no reason to fear, “any ill consequences” from the coming king.  When Alexander approached the Temple and saw men dressed in white and the high priest wearing purple, he approached the high priest by himself and saluted the high priest. 

When asked by one of his generals why he treated the Jewish high priest with honor and respect, Alexander reportedly answered: “For I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dion in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea and would give me dominion over the Persians…”.  What happened next, according to Josephus, is astonishing!  The high priest brought to Alexander the book of Daniel and showed him chapter 8 and that he, as the first horn, would conquer Persia.  Alexander believed the high priest and granted the Jews religious freedom before riding off to conquer Persian just as Daniel 8 said he would.  As you know, it was through Alexander the Great’s conquests that he Hellenized the known world that included a common language that most people under his empire shared, and he did all of this in 13 short years before he died in 323 BC.  

King #2: Antiochus IV

After the death of Alexander the Great, we are told that four horns replaced him.  These four horns were the four generals who succeeded the emperor.  However, Daniel saw a little horn, “which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land” (v. 9).  The “glorious land” is Israel, and the little horn is not the future antichrist spoken of in Daniel 7:8, but a foreshadowing of him in the person of Antiochus IV who made it his mission to force all people, including the Hebrews, to worship the gods of Greece.  Literally, Antiochus Ephiphanes (his full name) literally means “god manifest”, and is best known for conquering Egypt and persecuting the Jews.  In fact, the Jews nicknamed him, “the mad one.”  We are told in Daniel 8:23-26 of the timing of Antiochus’ reign:

And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints. By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great. Without warning he shall destroy many. And he shall even rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand. The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.” (Daniel 8:23–26)

This is exactly what Antiochus IV did; he sacked Jerusalem, murdered 40,000 Jews within days, walked into the temple, set up a statue of Zeus, and then sacrificed a pig on the alter.  Antiochus IV was an evil king who hated the Hebrew people and hated their God, which is the same traits of the coming antichrist that we are warned about in the same manor Daniel was warned concerning Antiochus.  It is said that Antiochus IV contracted some form of bowl disease or worms that resulted in him emitting an odor that not even he could stand; this disease of the bowels resulted in his death.   Daniel 8:25 prophesied that the death of Antiochus IV would come by no human hand, but by divine judgment.  Antiochus pursued and persecuted the people of God, so God poked the king in the belly and filled it with worms. 

King #3: Jesus the Christ

This leads me to the third king who, although unnamed, is the reason why the ram and the goat were necessary.  When Daniel saw the vision and sought to understand it, we are told that it was Gabriel who appeared to him.  Gabriel is the angel whose role throughout history was to serve as God’s messenger, particularly when it comes to God’s redemptive plans regarding human history.  In his dream in the previous chapter, it would be the Son of Man who would “given dominion and glory and a kingdom” over the kingdoms of earth.  Although dark days were coming, the dawn of a kingdom that would endure forever, forever, and ever would dispel the dark evil that plagues our world.  The Old Testament prophet, Malachi speaks of this day: 

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 4:1–3)

Under the cloud of the darkness of a sin-cursed world, the promised Son of Man of Daniel 7 was born to be the King of Righteousness (see Isaiah 32:1), and it was the angel Gabriel who first announced it to Mary: “And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30–33).  Then Gabriel announced it to the world: “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).

God moved empires and shaped history to make possible the birth of Jesus and the word of his birth to be communicated in Greek on Roads that the Roman Empire developed (see Galatians 4:4-5).  There is a fourth and fifth animal unmentioned in Daniel 8, he is one person, for he is both the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah.  

The final word is not had by the ram, or the goat, but the Lamb who delivers and redeems all who seek refuge in him (Psalm 2).  I think it is fitting to let William Cowper conclude with his third and fourth verses from his poem, God Moves in a Mysterious Way:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.