Finding Our Place in the Story of Israel1
Many of you wear glasses, which means that it is likely that at least some in this room are nearsighted. Nearsightedness is a condition in which you retain the ability to see objects up close, but distant objects are out of focus. An optometrist can diagnose this condition and make you a pair of lenses that will bend the light in such a way that it will line up correctly with your eyes and bring those distant objects into focus for you. Often times one of our greatest challenges in living the Christian life is a kind of spiritual near-sightedness. We can see the realities that are in front of us day to day: headlines about politics, culture, and wars. We can see the events of our lives unfolding before us: our jobs, our families, our educational pursuits, our relationships, our emotional hang-ups. But the spiritual reality behind these things is often out of focus. And when deeper spiritual realities are out of focus, we lose the ability to interpret correctly the events that we can see.
We all see the world through the lens of a big story, and context is everything. Every day, different forces compete to cause you to see the world through the lenses of their stories. Some politicians and institutions tell a left-wing Marxist story of oppression that must be overcome. Others tell a right-wing story that has a similar narrative, but the oppressors and oppressed have been switched around. Big businesses tell you to see yourself in the story of the American dream, and they are there to offer you the one thing that is holding you back from the good life for which you have always longed. The entertainment industry tells you to see yourself in the story of a society whose rules and traditions (especially pertaining to sex) are outdated, and the desires of your heart can lead the way to freedom and personal fulfillment. Perhaps your own family members tell you a story about what kind of success you must pursue and achieve in order to legitimize your place in this world. If you are spiritually near-sighted, you won’t see the lies you are being fed all the time from every direction.
But Scripture is a lens that can correct our vision. By narrating The Story, the all-encompassing narrative of God’s plan for the ages, Scripture gives us the proper context within which to interpret, not only the headlines, but also the events of our own lives. Are you prone to anxiety about your circumstances? Do you look at your daily responsibilities as meaningless drudgery? Do you give up easily in the fight against temptation and sin? Do you ever think that you can’t possibly face one more day of marriage difficulties or struggles with your children? Have you made yourself the star of your own personal life movie, and you’re frustrated with God because he hasn’t played his supporting role very well?2 These responses are often the result of failing to see ourselves in the context of God’s story. My aim in this final message from Daniel is to take up the lens of Scripture and let it correct our vision once again.
The book of Daniel has much to say about the story of Israel in God’s plan. It begins with Babylon’s conquest of Jerusalem and exile of the people of Israel. And then in two visions of the book—chapters 2 and 7—we see how the period of the exile and its aftermath will unfold. In two places the book of Daniel refers to a time period known as “the indignation” (see Daniel 8:19; 11:36), which appears to be the time during which the people of Israel are ruled by foreign powers.
The Five Kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7
THE PERIOD OF “THE INDIGNATION” (EXILE)
First Kingdom: The Babylonian Empire
Second Kingdom: The Medo-Persian Empire
Third Kingdom: The Greek Empire
Fourth Kingdom: The Roman Empire
THE PERIOD AFTER “THE INDIGNATION” (RETURN FROM EXILE)
Fifth Kingdom: The Kingdom of God
Even though Jews were allowed to return to their homeland as a result of the decree of King Cyrus of Persia, the period of indignation continued because rule over the promised land remained in the hands of a pagan king. Chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel give us visions that outline how the period of indignation would include a succession of four kingdoms, followed by the end of spiritual exile and the establishment of the kingdom of God. The first kingdom was the Babylonian Empire. The second would be the Medo-Persian Empire. The third would be the Greek Empire. And the fourth would be the Roman Empire. It would be during the days of the kings of the fourth kingdom (the Roman Empire) that God would establish his kingdom.
Now, just a quick word about what happens in the transition from one kingdom to another. It does not mean that the former kingdom has been obliterated. For example, when the Persians conquered Babylon, the kingdom of Babylon continued to exist, but it was subsumed under the authority of the Persian king. The reason that matters is because, when God established his kingdom through Jesus Christ in the days of the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire was not immediately overthrown. It continued to exist, but all of its emperors—though they didn’t realize it—came under the authority of the man Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father.
In our text today we are in the last section of a vision given to Daniel that covers chapters 10-12. We saw in the last message that this vision foretells events that would occur during the second and third kingdoms, with a lot of focus on the time of Greek rule over the land of Israel. The conflicts between the “king of the north” and the “king of the south” pertained to the conflicts between the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (both remnants of the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great). During that time, one particular “king of the north,” Antiochus IV, defiled the temple in Jerusalem and sought to obliterate the Jewish religion, but he ultimately failed because of the resistance of faithful Jews. I stopped at verse 35 last time because I believe there is a major new section that begins in verse 36.
Of course, just reading the text, you may not get that impression. Verse 36 refers to “the king,” and you might assume that it is still talking about Antiochus IV. But the content of verses 36-45 does not match what we know of Antiochus IV. In fact, the figure in verses 36-39 appears to be Jewish, as I will explain in a moment, so he couldn’t be the Greek ruler Antiochus. In addition, verse 40 says that “the king” of verse 36 will be there “at the time of the end,” meaning the end of the period of indignation. But that does not occur until the end of the fourth kingdom (Rome), but Antiochus belonged to the period of the third kingdom (the Greek Empire). So I take it that verse 36 begins a new section, one in which we have jumped ahead from the time of the third kingdom to that of the fourth, into the period of the Roman Empire.
So, as we put on this lens of the story of Israel, I want to note three contours of this story that can help us understand our place in it. First, in 11:36-45 we see
I. The End of the Indignation.
The final verses of chapter 11 narrate the final events of the period of God’s indignation against Israel. Verses 36-39 describe a climactic abomination committed by a Jewish leader. I say he is a Jewish leader because of verse 37: “He shall pay no attention to the gods of his fathers.” Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “gods of his fathers” could be either singular or plural, and every time that phrase is used in the Old Testament, it always refers to the God of Israel. So I take it that this means this king shall pay no attention to the God of his fathers, meaning he will be a descendent of the patriarchs of Israel, but he will not be a worshiper of Israel’s God. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that he will have regard for any god, but will act as though he himself is a god. According to verse 38, he will honor the god of fortresses, meaning the god of military power, over all else. And, until the time of the end of the indignation, he will succeed by with the help of this god.
Is this passage talking about an end-times figure that we might refer to as the Antichrist? Many interpreters think so. I myself held that view at one time. However, I have come to think that this passage is actually describing a man whom we can now look back on in history, at the time leading up to the second destruction of Jerusalem and the toppling of the second temple by the Romans, which happened in AD 70. In the time leading up to that event, the city of Jerusalem became a war zone as various factions of Jewish groups fought for control. A man named John from the town of Gischala became a leader of one of the Zealot factions in this conflict, and the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that John, who was not a king by birth, nevertheless “was setting up a monarchical power.”3 During his war with other Jewish factions, John of Gischala turned the temple into a military fortress, slaughtered worshipers there, and, when his supplies were running low, plundered the holy vessels of the temple to fund his military efforts. In Matthew 24:15, Jesus said to his disciples, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)…” I think Jesus was predicting the defiling of the temple that would occur under the leadership of John of Gischala, the final abomination that would lead to the desolation of the temple under God’s judgment. Moreover, Jesus gave a side comment, “Let the reader understand,” talking about the reader of the book of Daniel. It was his way of saying, “Yes, the temple was defiled before under Antiochus IV, but be aware that such an abomination will happen again.” In the Zealot temple siege of AD 68-70, Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled as John and his men committed shocking abominations in the temple.
So, Daniel’s vision says that during the time of the fourth kingdom a godless Jewish leader will once again defile the temple. Then what? Verses 40-45 tell us. Notice verse 40: “At the time of the end [of the indignation], the king of the south shall attack him, but the king of the north shall rush upon him like a whirlwind, with chariots and horsemen, and with many ships. And he shall come into countries and shall overflow and pass through.” You might get the impression from reading that verse that the king of the south will attack the king of the north. But I don’t think that is what is happening. Look back at verse 27: “And as for the two kings [of the north and of the south], their hearts shall be bent on doing evil. They shall speak lies at the same table, but to no avail, for the end is yet to be at the time appointed.” That verse indicates that the kings of north and south are at the same table, but they are still adversaries, because the time of the end has not yet come. The implication seems to be that at the time of the end, they will no longer be adversaries, but they will coordinate their efforts. Verse 40 begins, “At the time of the end,” which indicates that the kings of north and south are now working together. So I think it is best to read it this way: “At the time of the end, the king of the south shall attack him [the Jewish king mentioned in verse 36], and the king of the north shall rush upon him [the Jewish king of verse 36] like a whirlwind.” In other words, as the Jewish “king” is defiling the temple, pagan kings of north and south coordinate attacks against him.
Verses 41-45 then describe the triumph of the king of the north over the entire region. What could this refer to? Although kings of north and south during the time of the third kingdom referred to the Seleucid rulers in Syra and the Ptolematic rulers in Egypt, now that we are into the period of the fourth kingdom, it appears we are looking at Roman rulers, not Greek rulers. A man named Tiberius Julius Alexander was appointed prefect of Egypt by the Roman emperor Nero in AD 66. He would fit the description “king of the south,” and he ended up playing a role in the siege of Jerusalem. The “king of the north” appears to be Vespasian, who as a Roman general led a campaign through Judea and the surrounding regions (but he left Edom, Moab, and most of the Ammonites alone), before traveling to Alexandria, Egypt, to get control of the empire’s grain supply. While there, he received news that he had been named Emperor of Rome by the senate in AD 69. As a result of the ongoing war inside Jerusalem, Vespasian dispatched his son Titus to the holy city to finish the job in AD 70. Notice verse 45: “And he [the king of the north] shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the glorious holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with none to help him.” The “glorious holy mountain” is clearly the temple mount in Jerusalem. Now, here is another translation issue: in Hebrew, every noun has gender. The word that means “mountain” is a masculine noun, which means that a masculine pronoun would be used to refer back to it. The ESV translators decided that the masculine pronouns in verse 45 must refer to the king of the north, so the translation says, “he shall come to his end, with none to help him.” But the noun that is actually closest to those pronouns is “mountain,” and it makes better sense to me to see the pronouns in reference to the mountain. So I would read it this way: “And he shall pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the glorious holy mountain. And it shall come to its end, with none to help it.” In other words, this prophecy predicts the destruction of the temple as a result of the siege of Vespasian, through his son Titus. This is exactly what occurred in AD 70, just as Daniel foretold, and just as Jesus foretold in Matthew 24.
So, according to this vision, what will happen at the end of the indignation? Jerusalem and the temple will be defiled once again, and the result will be its complete destruction. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Romans marked the end of the indignation because it marked the death of old covenant Israel. Having served its purpose, the temple, its priesthood, and its sacrifices came to an end. Jesus Christ is the true temple, the meeting place between God and man. He is our high priest forever. His sacrifice was given once for all. But Israel rejected and murdered him, and thus the Israel that stood against Christ had to be put to death. And when that happened, the period of indignation was over.
But this is God’s story. So we know that something always comes after death, and that’s resurrection. So the next contour of the story of Israel in this passage is in 12:1-3:
II. The Establishment of God's Kingdom.
From a human perspective, it looks like Israel’s failure and eventual destruction by the Romans is God’s failure. Didn’t God promise to restore Israel and establish his kingdom under the reign of a son of David? How in the world can this vision of a future destruction of Jerusalem and the temple possibly signify anything hopeful for Daniel, for Israel, or for us? Verses 1-3 show us that all of the unexpected turmoil to come is part of God’s plan to establish his kingdom.
Verse 1 tells us, “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” That is a significant statement. We already saw in chapter 10 that there are angelic powers connected to earthly kingdoms. We saw past references to “the prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece.” We might refer to these as “patron angels” of corresponding earthly kingdoms. In the story outlined by the book of Daniel, each successive kingdom during the time of the indignation includes the installation of a heavenly, angelic (or, in some cases, we might say “demonic”) power. The prince of Persia has authority in heaven when the kingdom of men has been given to the Persian Empire. The prince of Greece has authority in heaven when the kingdom of men is given to the Greek Empire. There is no angel mentioned in connection with the Roman Empire in Daniel. However, in Revelation 12, we read an account of a war in heaven, and Michael the archangel (and patron angel of Israel) triumphs over Satan and casts him out of heaven. I’m speculating a bit here, but could it be that Satan is the patron angel of Roman Empire, and when Michael cast him out of heaven, that was an indication that the kingdom of men had been taken from the Roman Emperor and handed over to the people whom Michael represents, namely, Israel? So when Daniel says, “at that time shall arise Michael,” it appears he is referring to a time when Michael is installed in a position of heavenly authority as the kingdom of God is established.
But wait a minute: if Michael represents Israel, how could it be that the destruction of Israel in AD 70 could mark the installation of Michael as the patron angel of Israel and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth? It is because the destruction of Israel happened within a generation of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, Son of David. Jerusalem’s destruction was an event that vindicated Jesus’ predictive words and messianic authority. The death of old covenant Israel also marks the birth of new covenant Israel, a people who are defined by their connection to Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah. Notice verse 1b: “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people [true Israel] shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” Jesus apparently had that verse in mind when in Matthew 24:21 he told his disciples concerning the fall of Jerusalem, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” But Jesus also told his disciples that when they saw the defiling of the temple happening, they should get out of Jerusalem quickly and escape the coming destruction. Again, he seems to have had this verse in mind, foretelling of the deliverance of “your people [Daniel’s people]” a remnant of Israel who are the foundation of God’s new covenant people, an international family of God. That remnant is further defined as “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” What book? In Revelation we have several references to “the book of life,” that is, the roster of names of those who belong to God. And who wrote their names in that book? God did. When did he write it? According to Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, he wrote those names before the foundation of the world. In other words, long before creation God predestined his people to eternal life. This places a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation. Belonging to the true Israel, through union with Jesus Christ, is a matter of grace alone.
So, to summarize this point: the destruction of Israel in AD 70 by the Romans marks the end of the period of indignation, the death of old covenant Israel, and it is the definitive end of the time of the fourth kingdom, giving way to the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father, has claimed all authority in heaven and on earth. The kingdom of God, which is the reign of his Messiah over a new covenant Israel (Jews and Gentiles), has been established.
Verse 1 speaks of events related to the inauguration of God’s kingdom in the first century. Verses 2-3 then speak of events related to the consummation of God’s kingdom at the end of history. But even though these events are separated in time (now close to 2,000 years), they are telescoped together in this vision because they are all related to the coming of the kingdom of God. At the end of history, verse 2 tells us that multitudes who sleep will awake, a metaphor for resurrection from the dead. Both the righteous and the wicked will be raised from the dead, but the righteous will inherit eternal life, and the wicked will inherit shame and everlasting contempt. Verse 3 says speaks of the glory of “the wise” and “those who turn many to righteousness,” which are both ways of speaking of God’s faithful people who walk in his truth and bear witness to it toward others. People who fear the Lord inevitably influence others to pursue righteousness. What glory will they inherit? They will shine like the brightness of the sky above, like the stars forever and ever. There is an allusion here to Genesis 15, where God told Abraham to look up at the night sky and try to count the stars if he could. His promise to Abraham was, “So shall your descendants be.” The wise who turn many to righteousness will be raised from the dead one day to shine with the glory that belongs to the children of Abraham. Old covenant Israel gives way to a new covenant Israel whose glory is beyond imagination.
And if you are in Christ, you are a son or daughter of Abraham, a citizen of the kingdom of God, a participant in new covenant Israel, grafted in as a wild branch to the olive tree of God’s people. But if the pattern of death and resurrection applies to Israel as a whole, it also applies to us as individuals. Finding your identity among God’s people requires dying to any attempt to establish your identity on any other basis. In the path of discipleship, we must die to ourselves, we must die to sin, we must die to the desire to control our lives, we must die to every impulse to find our sense of identity in what we have done or hope to do. And in doing so, we will find that death is a prerequisite to resurrection. As Augustine prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our restless hearts are so often oriented to dreams that displace God himself as our supreme desire. In his mercy, God kills those dreams so that we may learn to give our restless hearts to him, and in doing so to find new life on the other side of death.
And that is how the last vision of the book of Daniel ends. But we still have the final ten verses of the passage to finish out the book, where we see the third contour of the story in verses 4-13:
III. A Call to Persevere.
Verse 4 sets the stage for this section, where Daniel is told to seal up the book of the vision until the time of the end. That is a way of saying, “The vision is complete, so roll it up and seal it so that it can be preserved and passed on through generations until the events it foretold comes to pass.” So this vision, and the whole book of Daniel, has been completed and preserved for our instruction. So, in light of that, what do we do now?
The answer is we persevere in faith to the end, no matter what it may cost us in the meantime. The angelic being who revealed these things to Daniel refers to the intense suffering of God’s holy people in verse 7 as “the shattering of the power of the holy people.” That is a way of characterizing this present age and its tribulations. It is a time when we, exiles from our homeland, are sojourning in the territory of our enemies. Increasingly in America, we who follow Jesus find ourselves out of step with mainstream culture, and over time, I expect that, like generations of believers before us, we will find ourselves more and more pushed to the margins of society. Those of you who are children and teenagers, you are growing up in a very different world from the one I knew growing up. You are likely to face greater difficulties for following Jesus than your parents and grandparents have faced. Be ready for it. I pray that you may have deep roots in the faith we are teaching you, because if your roots of faith are not deep, you will not survive as a believer in the kind of world that is coming.
Again, speaking with the book of Daniel in mind, Jesus said to his disciples about the tribulations of this present age in Matthew 24:22, “And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” I think this is exactly what the angel means when he says in verse 7 that the time of suffering will be “for a time, times, and half a time.” One time plus two times plus a half a time equals 3 and ½ times. In the Bible, seven is the number that indicates completion. But “a time, times, and half a time” is exactly half of seven. It is a way of speaking that indicates a time that has been cut short by God for the sake of his elect people. In his sovereignty, God has appointed the end of our sufferings, and though it may seem like forever now, in light of eternity it will appear as nothing.
The same reality seems to be communicated by the numbers in verses 11-12: “And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days. Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days.” The first number, 1,290, indicates a period of 3 and ½ years. A lunar year is roughly 360 days (12 months of approximately 30 days each). 360 times 3 and ½ is 1,260 days. But in the Hebrew calendar, an extra month had to be added periodically to keep the seasons from drifting, due to the fact that 12 lunar months don’t quite cover an entire solar year. So, adding one extra month for that to the 1,260 days, we arrive at 1,290 days as a way of representing 3 and ½ years, or a time that has been cut short by God. The whole time period from the defiling and destruction of the temple until the end of the age is pictured as a time of tribulation cut short by God. But then what about the 1,335 days? This would be forty-five days after 1,290. I see this as an indication of the time of blessedness that lies beyond the suffering. That’s why a blessing is pronounced on the one who endures until that time. Some will fall away from the faith as the pressure grows, but those who are truly blessed will remain faithful to God until the time of suffering is over and our final redemption has come. They will outlast the time of suffering.
Several weeks ago Lee made reference to a movement known as “revivalism” that deeply affected church practices throughout the 20th century and beyond. Revivalism places a heavy emphasis on analyzing our state of mind at the moment we were converted to Christ. Countless revivalist preachers have asked, “Did you really mean it?” to congregations over and over again, because their assumption is that assurance of salvation must be tied to knowing how sincere you were when you came to faith. But as Lee has also pointed out many times, it is always possible to doubt the sincerity of a past experience. And if we put all of our focus on “settling” the matter of salvation at a single moment, we won’t give much attention to the numerous calls in the Bible to persevere in faith to the end. But perseverance is absolutely essential to our salvation. If you are seeking assurance of your standing with God, don’t obsess over your state of mind when you were converted. Ask yourself this question: “Am I trusting in Christ alone, bowing to his lordship over me, right now?” That is what matters. Hold on to that faith, no matter what it may cost you, until the end, and you will be saved.
So, what do we do now? Verse 13 is a fitting end to the book and a fitting word of instruction to us: “But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.” Go about your life. Keep fulfilling your responsibilities, keep seeking the face of God, keep bearing witness to his truth as you seek to turn many to righteousness. Keep showing up each day, and don’t lose sight of the inheritance that awaits you.
So, as we put on the lenses that God has given us in the book of Daniel, what do we see? We see the story of the death of an old Israel giving way to Israel redefined around Jesus the Messiah. We see that the Most High has taken the kingdom of men away from the power of Rome and given it to Jesus Christ, Son of David, risen from the dead. We see ourselves as citizens of his kingdom, called to persevere through the sufferings of this age until the end, when God will raise us from the dead to shine like the stars of heaven in glory. Whatever stories you may hear from the voices of this world, telling you to see yourself in this role or that role, may it be this story that defines your identity and gives you the framework within which to interpret your life. When you go to work every morning, when you face the difficulties of marriage and of raising children, when you set off on a new educational or career pursuit, when you pick up the pieces of a broken dream, when you love the people you encounter each day, when you serve the poor and marginalized of society, you are doing all of these things under the reign of King Jesus. Living with that reality in view changes everything.
If you are not a believer, the reign of King Jesus over you is the greatest threat imaginable. In Psalm 110, God says to the Messiah, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God, and his enemies will become his footstool. Rebellion against his lordship will not be tolerated forever. That’s why there is a coming judgment that threatens to exile you from the presence of God and his blessing forever. But this same Christ who will make his enemies his footstool in the future is the Christ who opens his arms wide to you now. If you are outside of Christ, the coming judgment still lies ahead of you, but if you are in Christ, judgment is all over, because Christ took it all for his people on the cross. If you will turn from the sin of living for yourself and turn to him, trusting in his death and resurrection alone, he will receive you into his kingdom. Come to him and be baptized to declare that you too are part of this story.
Baptism marks us out as those who have entered the story of Israel by turning to Christ in faith. It is to be applied to us once. But eating the Lord’s Supper marks us out as those who continue to hold to Christ alone as our only hope and who continue to submit to his lordship. So if you are a baptized believer who is in good standing with a church that believes the gospel, you are welcome to eat and drink with us. Come and welcome, to King Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, sovereign over the kingdoms of this world. Amen.
1 I want to acknowledge my dependence on Jason Thomas Parry, “Desolation of the Temple and Messianic Enthronement in Daniel 11:36-12:3,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54.3 (September 2011): 485-526. I found most of Parry’s approach to this passage to be unique, yet persuasive.