The date of this chapter places it before Dan. 5:1-31, which was in the last year of Belshazzar, and Dan. 6:1-28, which was in the first of Darius; for Daniel had those visions in the first year of Belshazzar, when the captivity of the Jews in Babylon was drawing near a period. Belshazzar’s name here is, in the original, spelt differently from what it used to be; before it was Bel-she-azar—Bel is he that treasures up riches. But this is Bel-eshe-zar—Bel is on fire by the enemy. Bel was the god of the Chaldeans; he had prospered, but is now to be consumed.
We have, in these verses, Daniel’s vision of the four monarchies that were oppressive to the Jews. Observe,
I. The circumstances of this vision. Daniel had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and now he is himself honoured with similar divine discoveries (Dan. 7:1): He had visions of his head upon his bed, when he was asleep; so God sometimes revealed himself and his mind to the children of men, when deep sleep fell upon them (Job 33:15); for when we are most retired from the world, and taken off from the things of sense, we are most fit for communion with God. But when he was awake he wrote the dream for his own use, lest he should forget it as a dream which passes away; and he told the sum of the matters to his brethren the Jews for their use, and gave it to them in writing, that it might be communicated to those at a distance and preserved for their children after them, who shall see these things accomplished. The Jews, misunderstanding some of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, flattered themselves with hopes that, after their return to their own land, they should enjoy a complete and uninterrupted tranquility; but that they might not so deceive themselves, and their calamities be made doubly grievous by the disappointment, God by this prophet lets them know that they shall have tribulation: those promises of their prosperity were to be accomplished in the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of grace; as Christ has told his disciples they must expect persecution, and the promises they depend upon will be accomplished in the eternal blessings of the kingdom of glory. Daniel both wrote these things and spoke them, to intimate that the church should be taught both by the scriptures and by ministers’ preaching, both by the written word and by word of mouth; and ministers in their preaching are to tell the sum of the matters that are written.
II. The vision itself, which foretels the revolutions of government in those nations which the church of the Jews, for the following ages, was to be under the influence of. 1. He observed the four winds to strive upon the great sea, Dan. 7:2. They strove which should blow strongest, and, at length, blow alone. This represents the contests among princes for empire, and the shakings of the nations by these contests, to which those mighty monarchies, which he was now to have a prospect of, owed their rise. One wind from any point of the compass, if it blow hard, will cause a great commotion in the sea; but what a tumult must needs be raised when the four winds strive for mastery! This is it which the kings of the nations are contending for in their wars, which are as noisy and violent as the battle of the winds; but how is the poor sea tossed and torn, how terrible are its concussions, and how violent its convulsions, while the winds are at strife which shall have the sole power of troubling it! Note, This world is like a stormy tempestuous sea; thanks to the proud ambitious winds that vex it. 2. He saw four great beasts come up from the sea, from the troubled waters, in which aspiring minds love to fish. The monarchs and monarchies are represented by beasts, because too often it is by brutish rage and tyranny that they are raised and supported. These beasts were diverse one from another (Dan. 7:3), of different shapes, to denote the different genius and complexion of the nations in whose hands they were lodged. (1.) The first beast was like a lion, Dan. 7:4. This was the Chaldean monarchy, that was fierce and strong, and made the kings absolute. This lion had eagle’s wings, with which to fly upon the prey, denoting the wonderful speed that Nebuchadnezzar made in his conquest of kingdoms. But Daniel soon sees the wings plucked, a full stop put to the career of their victorious arms. Divers countries that had been tributaries to them revolt from them, and make head against them; so that this monstrous animal, this winged lion, is made to stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart is given to it. It has lost the heart of a lion, which it had been famous for (one of our English kings was called Coeur de Lion—Lion-heart), has lost its courage and become feeble and faint, dreading every thing and daring nothing; they are put in fear, and made to know themselves to be but men. Sometimes the valour of a nation strangely sinks, and it becomes cowardly and effeminate, so that what was the head of the nations in an age or two becomes the tail. (2.) The second beast was like a bear, Dan. 7:5. This was the Persian monarchy, less strong and generous than the former, but no less ravenous. This bear raised up itself on one side against the lion, and soon mastered it. It raised up one dominion; so some read it. Persia and Media, which in Nebuchadnezzar’s image were the two arms in one breast, now set up a joint government. This bear had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth, the remains of those nations it had devoured, which were the marks of its voraciousness, and yet an indication that though it had devoured much it could not devour all; some ribs still stuck in the teeth of it, which it could not conquer. Whereupon it was said to it, “Arise, devour much flesh; let alone the bones, the ribs, that cannot be conquered, and set upon that which will be an easier prey.” The princes will stir up both the kings and the people to push on their conquests, and let nothing stand before them. Note, Conquests, unjustly made, are but like those of the beasts of prey, and in this much worse, that the beasts prey not upon those of their own kind, as wicked and unreasonable men do. (3.) The third beast was like a leopard, Dan. 7:6. This was the Grecian monarchy, founded by Alexander the Great, active, crafty, and cruel, like a leopard. He had four wings of a fowl; the lion seems to have had but two wings; but the leopard had four, for though Nebuchadnezzar made great despatch in his conquests Alexander made much greater. In six years’ time he gained the whole empire of Persia, a great part besides of Asia, made himself master of Syria, Egypt, India, and other nations. This beast had four heads; upon Alexander’s death his conquests were divided among his four chief captains; Seleucus Nicanor had Asia the Great; Perdiccas, and after him Antigonus, had Asia the Less; Cassander had Macedonia; and Ptolemeus had Egypt. Dominion was given to this beast; it was given of God, from whom alone promotion comes. (4.) The fourth beast was more fierce, and formidable, and mischievous, than any of them, unlike any of the other, nor is there any among the beasts of prey to which it might be compared, Dan. 7:7. The learned are not agreed concerning this anonymous beast; some make it to be the Roman empire, which, when it was in its glory, comprehended ten kingdoms, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Sarmatia, Pannonia, Asia, Greece, and Egypt; and then the little horn which rose by the fall of three of the other horns (Dan. 7:8) they make to be the Turkish empire, which rose in the room of Asia, Greece, and Egypt. Others make this fourth beast to be the kingdom of Syria, the family of the Seleucidae, which was very cruel and oppressive to the people of the Jews, as we find in Josephus and the history of the Maccabees. And herein that empire was diverse from those which went before, that none of the preceding powers compelled the Jews to renounce their religion, but the kings of Syria did, and used them barbarously. Their armies and commanders were the great iron teeth with which they devoured and broke in pieces the people of God, and they trampled upon the residue of them. The ten horns are then supposed to be ten kings that reigned successively in Syria; and then the little horn is Antiochus Epiphanes, the last of the ten, who by one means or other undermined three of the kings, and got the government. He was a man of great ingenuity, and therefore is said to have eyes like the eyes of a man; and he was very bold and daring, had a mouth speaking great things. We shall meet with him again in these prophecies.