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
Many of Jesus’ teachings on the second coming revolve around his favorite self-designation: Son of Man. In fact, Jesus uses the title Son of Man roughly eighty times in the Gospels to refer to himself. While Jesus prefers to use this title rather than Son of God or Messiah to identify himself, it shouldn’t be assumed he has any doubts about his identity or wishes to be coy with his followers. His use of Son of Man is purposeful.
Jesus clearly reveals his deity at strategic times. 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 Israel’s religious elite, he reveals himself as the divine being of Daniel 7:13-14:
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 (emphasis added).
Rev. 5:2 — I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. 4And I cried and cried because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it (HCSB).
John sees “a mighty angel” who proclaims in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (v. 2). It is interesting that angels are never numbered in scripture. People are numbered. The elders are numbered. The living creatures are numbered. The elect are numbered. Our days are numbered. Even the hairs of our heads, Jesus says, are numbered. But the heavenly hosts are described as “myriads,” or “countless thousands, plus thousands and thousands.” Why is this? We are not told. However, it appears all angels were created at one time. Since they do not die, and no new angels are being created, this innumerable host remains the same in number today as the day of their creation. No doubt, many angels followed Satan in rebellion against God, although that number is unknown (some commentators suggest one-third of the angelic host rebelled based on a single verse in Revelation).
Angels come in different classes, and a few are called by name. The most prominent of these appears in the Old Testament as “the angel of the Lord,” whom many commentators believe to be the pre-incarnate Christ. Satan once was known as the anointed cherub; he also has more notorious names: the father of liars, the ancient serpent, the Devil, the deceiver, and the evil one. Michael is the only archangel named in scripture. Other angels are named, such as Gabriel, who brought news of the pending birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Then there are cherubim and seraphim, which may or may not be angels but certainly are heavenly creatures. In this passage in Revelation, we are told of a “mighty” or “strong” angel. All angels are strong. They are more powerful than people but not omnipotent. They are more intelligent than people but not omniscient. And they are swifter than people but not omnipresent. But occasionally the Bible describes an angel in a certain way. In this case, John sees him as a “mighty” angel.
Mighty angels appear in two other places in Revelation (10:1 and 18:21). Is this the same angel, who makes three appearances in Revelation? Or are these three different angels? It’s difficult to know with certainty, although in 10:1 the angel descends from heaven, is surrounded by a cloud, and has a rainbow over his head. His face shines like the sun, and his legs are like fiery pillars. While this angel is similar to biblical depictions of the Messiah, likely he is not, for he is described as “another” mighty angel, implying that he lacks the uniqueness of Jesus. In any case, the mighty angel in Revelation 5 is distinguished by his “loud voice,” which is heard from the farthest reaches of glory to the four corners of the earth – and even into the abode of the dead. “Who is worthy,” he cries, “to open the scroll and break its seals?”
Who is worthy?
There is a thundering silence in response to the mighty angel’s question, broken only by John’s agonizing sobs. “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” is able to open the scroll or even to look in it, writes John. Not the four living creatures. Not the 24 elders. Not the countless angels inhabiting the throne room of heaven. Not John, or another apostle, or a prophet, soothsayer or magician, nor anyone else on earth. Not any of the deceased, whose bodies lay “under the earth” awaiting resurrection. Not even the “anointed cherub” who once stood in the very presence of the Almighty. No one across the farthest reasons of the universe is qualified to stand before the Ancient of Days and take the scroll he holds in His right hand.
No doubt John waits anxiously, searching the horizon, listening intently, hoping to feel the subtle breeze of some worthy creature’s robe or wings as he heroically approaches the throne. But to no avail. Just silence, until John breaks it with uncontrollable wailing. God’s hidden agenda for the climax of human history and the destiny of the church must remain just that – hidden. In chapter 4 John is promised a glimpse of “what must take place after this” (v. 1). Could it be – is it even conceivable – that the Son of Man would now break that promise?
Matthew Henry writes: “By what he had seen in him who sat upon the throne, he was very desirous to see and know more of his mind and will: this desire, when not presently gratified, filled him with sorrow, and fetched many tears from his eyes…. Those who have seen most of God in this world are most desirous to see more; and those who have seen his glory desire to know his will. Good men may be too eager and too hasty to look into the mysteries of divine conduct. Such desires, not presently answered, turn to grief and sorrow. Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Re 5:1–5).
But the beloved disciple’s dark gloom is about to lift.
Next — The Lion and the Lamb (Rev. 5:5-7)