The book of Daniel is set in the time of the Jews’ exile in Babylon. This was the period that introduced the final stage of Israel’s Old Testament history, which led in turn to the new era that dawned with the coming of Jesus Christ.
From the New Testament it is clear that the book of Daniel had an influence in later generations. The name that Jesus commonly used for himself, the Son of man, came from Daniel’s vision of the God-sent universal king (Dan 7:13-14; Mark 2:28; 14:62). Jesus referred to Daniel’s visions in warning the Jews of troubled times ahead (Matt 24:15), and John, in the book of Revelation, recorded visions where many features come from the book of Daniel (cf. Dan Chap. 2, 7 and 8 with Rev Chap. 11, 12, 13 and 17). The writer to the Hebrews referred to the man Daniel as an example of the person who has genuine faith (Heb 11:33).
The long career of Daniel
Daniel was one of the first citizens of Jerusalem to be carried off captive when Judah fell under the control of Babylon in 605 BC. This was the fourth year of the reign of the Judean king Jehoiakim (third year according to Babylonian reckoning), when Judah was rapidly approaching its end (2 Kings 24:1a; Jer 25:1; Dan 1:1-6). (For the history of this era see introductory notes to Ezekiel.)
At the time of his removal to Babylon, Daniel was only a teenager. He was one of a select group of intelligent young men whom the Babylonians chose from the upper class families of Jerusalem, with the aim of training them to be administrators in the royal court at Babylon (Dan 1:4).
During his long career in Babylon, Daniel held some of the top positions in the government. He outlasted the Babylonian Empire and was still alive in the third year of Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon in 539 BC (Dan 10:1). He therefore lived to see the first Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem to rebuild their nation (Ezra 1:1-4).
A book for the times
Jewish affairs were greatly affected by the changes and crises that occurred throughout the period covered by the book of Daniel. But God’s people were not to lose their trust in him. A prominent theme in Daniel is the sovereignty of God. The book shows that God is in control of human affairs, whether everyday matters in the lives of his people or events relating to the rise and fall of nations.
The first half of the book records stories of Daniel and his friends that illustrate the care of God for those who were faithful to him. The second half shows, through a series of unusual visions, how God would continue his government in the affairs of his people during great events that were yet to take place.
These revelations were concerned mainly with the long period of confusion and conflict that followed the period of Persian rule and reached its climax in the events of the New Testament era. The New Testament writers, in turn, take details of these revelations and apply them to the great events connected with the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the age.
Features of the book
Because of his gift to understand and make known God’s will, Daniel has been referred to since New Testament times as a prophet (Matt 24:15). But the Jews who arranged the books within the Hebrew Bible (equivalent to our Old Testament) did not so regard him. They did not include his book among the prophets, but put it with the miscellaneous writings. This was probably because they looked upon Daniel more as a statesman in the Babylonian palace than as a preacher who brought God’s word to his people.
Nevertheless, Daniel was one through whom God revealed his purposes, and God usually did this by means of dreams and visions. As a result the book of Daniel has many characteristics of that kind of literature known as apocalyptic (from the Greek apokalupto, meaning ‘to reveal or uncover’).
In apocalyptic writings the visions are always strange or unnatural, with weird symbolism that frequently features fearsome beasts and mysterious numbers. The visions are given by God, interpreted by angels, and usually concern great conflicts out of which God and his people triumph. Although the
overall meaning of a vision may be fairly clear, the details are often difficult. In seeking to understand these visions, the present-day reader must always bear in mind that any suggested interpretation must contain an element of uncertainty.