His dominion is everlasting

In the first year of King Belshazzar’s rule – 553 BC, some fifty-two years after the first exile under Nebuchadnezzar – Yahweh gives Daniel a vision of four huge beasts rising out of the sea. Each beast is unique and represents successive earthly kingdoms, as we discover later in the chapter. These are the same empires represented by the four elements comprising the colossal statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2). 

The first beast, appearing as a lion with eagle’s wings, symbolizes Babylon. The second beast, a bear raised up on one side and clenching three ribs in its teeth, depicts the Medo-Persian Empire. The third beast, a leopard with four wings and four heads, foretells the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, whose kingdom is divided into four parts after his death. Finally, we encounter a fourth beast, which Daniel describes as “frightening and dreadful, and incredibly strong, with large iron teeth” (Dan. 7:7). 

The fourth beast devours and crushes, trampling what remains beneath its feet. What’s more, this beast is different from the other three, and it sports ten horns, with a little horn rising up to supplant three others. This little horn has human eyes and speaks arrogant words. Generally, this is considered the Roman Empire, although some commentators argue that the beast more accurately depicts the Islamic caliphate, rising up to become the false religion of the last days.

The vision distresses Daniel’s spirit and terrifies his mind. He asks “one of those who were standing by” (perhaps an angel) for clarification and receives additional details, particularly about the fourth beast (Dan. 7:15-28). While much could be written about these beasts, we are focusing on what Daniel sees between the vision and its interpretation – a scene from the divine court in heaven:

As I kept watching, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white like snow, and the hair of his head like whitest wool. His throne was flaming fire; its wheels were blazing fire.

A river of fire was flowing, coming out from his presence. Thousands upon thousands served him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

The court was convened, and the books were opened.

Daniel 7:9-10

A few verses later, we see a second divine figure:

I continued watching in the night visions, and suddenly one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him.

He was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14

Two divine figures

Who are these two divine figures: the Ancient of Days and one like a son of man? There is little doubt among commentators that the Ancient of Days is Yahweh – the eternal  God who takes his seat on the throne as chief justice of the universe. More specifically, from a Trinitarian perspective, this is the Father, who shares the throne with his crucified, resurrected, and glorified Son (Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 3:21). Daniel sees other thrones set in place. These may be reserved for the saints, who participate in some way in judgment, as Jesus, Paul, and John indicate (Luke 22:30; 1 Cor. 6:2-3; Rev. 3:21; 20:4). 

This is a rare glimpse of God the Father. In theophanies, he often hides his face or veils himself in smoke, clouds, lightning, or fire. It is the second Yahweh figure, the angel of the LORD, we encounter in human form throughout the Old Testament. But here, the Father is described as wearing clothing “white like snow,” symbolizing his absolute moral purity (cf. Isa. 1:18; Rev. 1:14). This stands in stark contrast to the evil empire and its arrogant little horn that Daniel has just described. The hair of the Ancient of Days is “like whitest wool,” an indication of his eternal nature and unchanging holiness. 

His chariot-throne and its wheels are blazing with fire, a symbol of judgment, and a river of fire flows from his presence. This depicts a sufficient stream of divine wrath being poured out on the wicked, particularly on the little horn and his kingdom. The phrase “ten thousand times ten thousand” (Dan. 7:10) is the square of the highest number for which ancient peoples had a word.

Finally, the court is convened and books are opened. These books may be symbolic of God’s infallible memory of every person’s thoughts, words, and deeds (cf. Exod. 32:32; Dan. 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev. 20:12). These do not determine one’s eternal destiny, for that rests in whether one’s name is written in the book of life (cf. Dan. 12:1; Rev. 20:12, 15). “After this is established, the reward of the believer or the degree of punishment for the lost will be fixed by what is inscribed in the record books.”

Since the kingdom of God immediately follows, it appears this is a view forward to final judgment after the second coming of Christ, which makes the approach of “one like a son of man” all the more timely. In fact, Daniel 7:13 is the most often-quoted portion of Daniel in the New Testament. 

One like a son of man traditionally is understood in one of three ways: as Michael the archangel, a personification of Israel, or the Messiah. As the CSB Apologetics Study Bible notes:

The NT apostles (John 12:34) and Christ himself (Mark 14:61-62) confirm the latter view, specifically that the ‘son of man’ is Jesus of Nazareth. Early postbiblical Jewish literature (1 Enoch 46:1; 4 Ezra 13) also reflects the messianic view.

Jesus uses the name Son of Man roughly eighty times in the Gospels to refer to himself. It is his favorite self-designation. While it’s certainly true that Jesus uses this phrase rather than Son of God or Messiah to identify himself, it shouldn’t be assumed that Jesus has doubts about his identity or wishes to be coy with his followers. 

Jesus clearly makes claims of divinity. For example, he applies the divine name I AM to himself (John 8:58). He claims equality with the Father (John 10:30). He receives worship (John 20:28). He forgives sins (Mark 2:1-12). He teaches with divine authority (Mark 1:21-22). He affirms in advance what the apostles write concerning his deity (John 1:1-3, 14; cf. Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-16; 2:9; Heb. 1:1-4). And he fulfills the attributes unique to God (Matt. 28:18-20; John 1:1; 5:22; 16:30; Heb. 1:8; 13:8).

It seems the term Son of Man accomplishes two primary goals. First, it illustrates that Jesus shares humanity with us. In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul spells out the humble manner in which the eternal Son of God adds sinless humanity to his deity. But a second goal is of equal importance. In calling himself “Son of Man,” especially in front of the Jewish religious leaders, he reveals himself as the divine being of Daniel 7.

This becomes abundantly clear in Mark 14 as Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. After hearing multiple false testimonies against Jesus, the high priest Caiaphas puts it bluntly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61). 

“I am,” Jesus replies, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). 

The high priest immediately tears his robes and says, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your decision?” The members of the Sanhedrin condemn Jesus as deserving death (14:63-64).

There is much going on here. First, Caiaphas probably does not consider Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah blasphemy. First-century Jews did not necessarily expect a Messiah who was God incarnate. However, the high priest did see Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 as blasphemy. According to rabbinic sources,once Caiaphas hears what he believes is blasphemy, as well as a direct threat to the high priest, he acknowledges the capital offense by tearing his robes.

While Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven may preview his second coming, it also serves as a solemn warning to the Sanhedrin that God’s hammer of justice is about to fall on Israel – a prophecy fulfilled in AD 70 with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple.

Returning to Daniel 7, we see the Ancient of Days giving the one like a son of man “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom” (v. 14). People of every nation and language are to serve him as he rules sovereignly over an everlasting kingdom that neither passes away nor may be destroyed. Notice several clear truths in this verse:

First, the Ancient of Days presents the gift of a universal kingdom to the Son of Man, just as the psalmist describes in his glimpse of a future coronation (Ps. 2:6-9). 

Second, the Son of Man is to rule the kingdom, not simply receive it. 

Third, people of every tongue and nation serve their king, a reality John foresees in his view into heaven (Rev. 5:9). 

Fourth, the Son of Man’s supreme rule lasts forever; it is as incorruptible and invincible as the resurrected Christ, who promises his followers that as long as he lives, they live as well (John 14:19). 

Finally, while not stated here, we see the intimacy between the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man, and we learn later that when Christ receives the kingdom, he offers it back to his Father. The apostle Paul writes:

Then comes the end, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death (1 Cor. 15:24-26). 

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that Daniel is granted both a theophany and a Christophany in his heavenly vision. Vern Poythress writes:

The presence of a cloud and the presence of “the Ancient of Days” show us a theophany. The “one like a son of man” is a human-like figure, in pointed contrast to the bestial character of the four preceding kingdoms. He has the role of the last Adam, achieving the dominion that Adam lost. At the same time, he comes “with the clouds of heaven,” clouds that belong to the appearing of God in theophany. The figure is both man and God.

Thus, we have good reason to believe the one like a son of man in Daniel 7 is none other than the angel of the LORD, the preincarnate Christ. 

Next: God’s angel in the lions’ den 

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.