The Book of Daniel is the chief example of apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament, a form of writing that came into use largely in response to the disappointments that were experienced by the Hebrews. For centuries, they had looked forward to a reign of justice and righteousness on earth. Instead of these hopes being realized, the lot of the Hebrew people was becoming more difficult with each generation, while at the same time the forces of evil were constantly becoming stronger. These circumstances led to a conviction that only a supernatural intervention by Yahweh could bring about the desired goal. Prior to this time, the forces of evil would continue to grow stronger, and persecutions of the righteous would become even more severe. At the appointed time, a great catastrophic event would engulf the world. The wicked would be destroyed, and the messianic kingdom would be established for all time to come. The purpose of the apocalyptic literature was to offer encouragement to the righteous to remain true and faithful to the principles of their religion. Apocalyptic literature gave them the assurance that the time was not far distant when their deliverance would be at hand.
One of the chief characteristics of apocalyptic writing is an account of a dream or vision given to someone who lived a long time before the date of the actual writing. In such a vision, a series of predictions is made concerning events that will occur prior to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. These predictions will come to pass exactly as outlined in the vision, with the exception of the last ones before the coming of the catastrophic event. The recital of these apocalyptic fulfillments inspired confidence that the remaining ones would take place in the near future. Apparently, the apocalyptic writers assumed that Yahweh knew the future as well as the past and could reveal these secrets to individuals who were chosen to receive them. These predictions concerned specific events and definite time periods, thus indicating the exact time when particular events would occur. The occasion for writing an apocalypse was always a period of crisis during which righteous people were persecuted and threatened with death at the hands of their enemies.
The persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes led to the writing of the Book of Daniel. During this period of crisis, the Jews were threatened with death if they refused to worship images, continued to offer prayers to Yahweh, observed their dietary laws, and worshiped on the Sabbath day. Many Jews yielded to the demands of Antiochus and his Syrian officers in order to save their lives, but others remained faithful to their customs and beliefs despite certain punishment. To encourage these persons whose faith was being put to so severe a test, the Book of Daniel was written.
The book consists of two parts, one of which is a series of stories about Hebrews who lived at the time of the Babylonian captivity and who experienced hardships similar to those faced by the Jews under Antiochus. The other part, which is more directly apocalyptic in form, consists of a series of visions that predict future events.
Among the stories related in the first part of the book is one concerning four young Hebrews who refuse to follow the king's dietary laws even though they are ordered to do so and are threatened with death if they disobey. The young men remain faithful to the principles of their religion, and as a reward for their loyalty, they are not only spared any punishment for their disobedience but are given high honors and declared to be superior.
In another story, three young Hebrews, commanded by the king of Babylon to bow down and worship a statue erected in his honor, refuse to obey this command and, as a result of their decision, are thrown into a fiery furnace heated to seven times its normal temperature. But Yahweh works a miracle on their behalf, and they emerge from the furnace unharmed and without even the smell of smoke on their clothing. In still another story, a plot is formed to destroy Daniel, who, though a Hebrew, holds an important position in the government of King Darius. The king is urged to sign a decree making it a capital offense for anyone, during a certain period of time, to offer prayers to any god except those approved by the king. When Daniel ignores this decree and continues to pray to Yahweh with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he is thrown into a den of lions. Again Yahweh rescues his faithful servant and delivers him from the lions.
In the apocalyptic portions of the book, certain dreams and visions are interpreted as predictions concerning the rise and fall of nations from the time of the Babylonian captivity to the establishment of the messianic kingdom. In one chapter, we are told about King Nebuchadnezzar's dream in which he sees a great image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, a belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. In another vision, Daniel sees four beasts emerging out of the sea. One of these beasts is a lion with eagle's wings; another is a bear with three ribs in its mouth; the third beast is a leopard with four heads and four wings; and the fourth beast is described as great and terrible: It has seven heads and ten horns, among which is another horn with humanlike eyes and a mouth that speaks terrible things. Other visions include one of a ram and a he-goat. Prophetic periods of 2300 days, 70 weeks, 1235 days, and other specific periods of time are described and interpreted. Toward the end of the book, we find one of the first definite references in the Old Testament to a resurrection of the dead.
The Book of Daniel has sometimes been classified with the prophetic books of the Old Testament, a mistake owing largely to a failure to distinguish between the predominant characteristics of prophetic and apocalyptic writings. Daniel belongs to the latter group, a type of writing that in many respects sharply contrasts prophetic literature. For example, predictions of coming events in the apocalyptic writings are definite and specific, thus indicating the precise time when certain events will occur; predictions made in the prophetic writings are of a general nature and are always conditioned by the decisions of people with reference to moral issues. In other words, the prophets' statements concerning the future are always consistent with the free choice of human beings, which is not true of the apocalypses. So far as the apocalypses are concerned, what was predicted would necessarily come to pass; nothing that anyone could do would alter the situation. The impression that predictions made in the distant past were fulfilled accurately is due to the fact that the apocalypses were written after these events had already taken place, but their predictions are presented as though they were made prior to their predicted events.
Evidence in the Book of Daniel supports the idea that the book was written during the period of the Maccabean wars, but many of the book's predictions are presented as though they were revealed to one of the Hebrews involved in the Babylonian captivity. Nebuchadnezzar's dream is interpreted to mean a prediction concerning the rise and fall of four great world empires: the kingdom of Babylon; the kingdoms of the Medes and Persians; the kingdom of Greece; and the monstrous power under which the Jews suffered persecution at the hands of Antiochus. The stone that is cut out of the mountain and that strikes the image on its feet, grinding the stone to pieces, symbolizes the destruction of this evil power and the establishment of the messianic kingdom. The same set of predictions is made again in Daniel's vision of the four beasts emerging out of the sea. In this vision, a more specific characterization is given of Antiochus and the power that he represents. He is designated by the little horn among the ten horns, rooting up three of them in order to make room for itself. This horn, with eyes like a human's and a mouth, speaks words of blasphemy, persecutes the saints, and endeavors to change laws. A further account of this same evil power is given in the vision of the ram and the he-goat. The specific time periods cited in the book all have reference to the time when this evil power will be destroyed through supernatural intervention and when the new kingdom of righteousness will be created. The reference to a resurrection of the dead indicates that the idea of resurrection was beginning to find acceptance among the Hebrews.