Much like our own conflict between the North and the South from the American civil war, today’s text recounts the grim story of a very long war between two kingdoms that were North and South of Palestine.
Apocalyptic literature can be true and accurate, but not necessarily precise. Today’s text happens to be true and accurate and remarkably precise! Ancient historians documented with surprising precision the events predicted in this vision. We have to remember that the first job of a prophet in the Bible isn’t to tell the future. A prophet of God is not a fortune teller with a crystal ball that looks into the future. A prophet’s first job -- now and always -- has been to call God’s people into accountability to His Word. However, there are a few times in the Bible when prophets are given a vision of future events, and this is one of those times.
Let’s read Daniel 11.2-35. We are going to read in three segments: verses 2-4, verses 5-20, and verses 21-35.
Section 1: Verses 2-4: Persia vs Greece (334- 323 BC)
Greece defeated Persia under Alexander the Great in 331 BC. After Alexander died suddenly, his kingdom was divided into four parts and given to four generals: Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. That is exactly what this passage predicted would happen!
Section 2: Verses 5-20: North (Syria) vs South (Egypt) (323 - 175 BC)
These prophecies predict events that took place between successive rulers in the northern Seleucid kingdom in Syria and the southern Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt. These events took place over a period of about 150 years. It was a time of terrible bloodshed and instability in the middle east. Two of the four successive kingdoms after Alexander the Great, Egypt and Syria (which would be north and south if you were standing in Israel) hated each other. Each one wanted to take over the other. They tried war, royal intermarriages, intrigue, treaties -- you name it -- to try to take each other over.
What country was caught in between these two warring powers? Israel. That is the only geographical location where it makes sense to call Syria “north” and Egypt “south”. More importantly, this prophecy was meant to encourage the people of Israel long after Daniel’s death that God was in control of the future. As oppressed and hurting faithful Jewish people saw these events that had been predicted many years earlier unfolding before their very eyes, they could say, “See! God told us this would happen! Our God really is in control. He really does hold the book of truth!”
You might explore any of the events in this section online and you will find numerous corroborating references. I don’t want to slip you a sleeping pill by covering all of it this morning (although I’d be happy to fill you in with the details this week if you call me). But -- I am going to share just two rich details from this text that really happened exactly as the angel told Daniel they would.
First, the story of Berenice and Laodice in v 6: “And at the end of some years they shall join forces, for the daughter of the king of the South shall go to the king of the North to make an agreement; but she shall not retain the power of her authority, and neither he nor his authority shall stand; but she shall be given up, with those who brought her, and with him who begot her, and with him who strengthened her in those times.”
In 252 BC, Ptolemy II in Egypt wanted to give his daughter, Berenice, in marriage to Antiochus II in Syria. Problem was, Antiochus was already married to a woman named Laodice. But Ptolemy insisted, so Antiochus divorced Laodice, then married Berenice. A few years later, in 246 BC, Ptolemy died, and Antiochus re-married Laodice. Laodice didn’t take this situation very well, and eventually had both Berenice and Antiochus killed. “but she shall not retain the power of her authority, and neither he nor his authority shall stand.” That’s exactly what happened!
The second example is the story of Cleopatra I in v. 17 (This is not the famous Cleopatra who married Marc Antony, by the way. She was much later.) “He shall also set his face to enter with the strength of his whole kingdom, and upright ones with him; thus shall he do. And he shall give him the daughter of women to destroy it; but she shall not stand with him, or be for him.”
This took place in about 195 BC, more than fifty years after the situation with Berenice. Syria and Egypt were still fighting one another. The Syrian king gave his seven-year-old daughter Cleopatra I in marriage to the Egyptian king, hoping she would side with her father when he tried to take over Egypt later. It backfired, and Cleopatra remained loyal to her husband and Egypt. “And he shall give him the daughter of women to destroy it; but she shall not stand with him, or be for him.” Again, that is exactly what happened!
These are just two examples of predictions that came true exactly as predicted. However, each and every verse in this prophecy lines up exactly with history as we know it. That is truly remarkable! Isn’t God’s word amazing?
Section 3: Verses 21-35: Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BC)
Again, these predictions of Daniel’s are all perfectly aligned with the historical record. This next section predicts the worst of the worst, someone who is so bad that they serve as a foreshadow of the coming antichrist mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24 (see especially verse 15) and foretold by John the Elder in Revelation 13.
We’ve already looked at Antiochus IV (aka Antiochus Epiphanes) when we read Daniel chapter 8, but I’ll sum it up again for you: he was an awful, murderous, evil, no good, dirty, rotten scoundrel. Antiochus murdered faithful Jews ruthlessly -- over 40,000 in one massacre alone, including women, children, and babies. He took control of God’s temple in Jerusalem and set himself up as a god -- lowercase “g” -- to be worshipped. Again, it would be too much to go over this morning, but if you’d like to learn more, look up the story behind the Jewish feast of Hanukkah and you will see all of the events predicted in today’s passage as they came true.
Verse 36: Time Warp
After v. 36, something changes. There is a major shift -- a time warp. Daniel’s prophecy up to verse 36 is absolutely precise, but then, everything seems to fall apart. The events from verse 36 through the rest of the book of Daniel don’t have anything to do with Antiochus IV, and everybody reading it at the time would have known it.
How could Daniel’s vision be so irrefutably accurate up to verse 36, and then fall apart after that? We will talk about this in the next sermon on this series, but most scholars agree, after verse 36, a different leader -- a future leader from “the time of the end” (v 35) enters the scene -- the antichrist. This evil figure, the antichrist, is prefigured in Antiochus Epiphanes, but Antiochus Epiphanes is not him. He is merely a foreshadowing of the evil that the antichrist figure will perpetrate. Again, we will cover this next section when we conclude our study in the book of Daniel.
So, What’s the Point Today?
Besides a rigorous Middle East history lesson, we learn one very important lesson today: God is in control.
No matter where you are or what may happen in your life, God is ultimately in charge. God is in control. It is all written in His book. That is a remarkable truth! History and the future are all known by Him. God cannot be shocked or spooked by the things that happen in your life or even by the sometimes senseless things you and I do. While He may allow sin to go on for a time, He will ultimately accomplish His will. You can’t surprise God.
God is not cold or watching you from a distance, even though you might think that when you experience suffering and pain. No, God is not far away at all! You see, even though the book of history is His book and He writes the introduction and the final chapter, He gives you and me and all of us the freedom to scribble on some of the pages. We call that free will. You have free will. I have free will. Everyone has free will. And the truth is that some of the time -- when we are pressed to make a choice between right and wrong, we end up choosing the wrong thing. Sometimes we do that because it is more convenient. Other times we do it because we are careless. Still other times, we are just plain mean. Tell a little lie to your teacher; act a little sick to get out of work; tell someone you’ll pray for them when you have no intention of really doing so because it just sounds nicer. We all do these things. We all scrawl smudged and childish entries on the pages of God’s history book. He allows it -- up to a point. Fortunately, you and I don’t get to touch the last chapter. Jesus still gets the last word.
Speaking of the consequences of sin …
Alan and I were driving in the front seat of my van on the way to Knott’s Berry farm with the youth group last weekend. Driving through Anaheim, we got to talking about how awful and senseless traffic is. We decided that traffic is a fantastic picture of the consequences of sin in the world.
When the day began, early in the morning, there was no traffic. The freeways were wide open and clear all the way to work. Then, at around 5:35am, one driver merged too soon in front of someone else and that driver tapped their brakes -- for just a second. The person behind them saw those bright red lights, and hit their brakes for two seconds. The driver behind them saw what looked like trouble ahead, and they braked for four seconds … and on and on it cascades until the entire freeway was filled with cars standing on their brakes for an hour. It doesn’t take long to see how one poor choice long ago -- one bad move from one single person -- could cause the traffic jam that we in the religious world call “sin.” We see an unrelenting picture of it every day on our freeways. And we never learn, do we? Every day, we get a fresh start, and every day the traffic piles up.
So, who is responsible for our personal traffic jams? It may have started with one person, but we all contribute to it. As soon as you enter the traffic, you are contributing to the problem because you have to step on your brakes. You have no choice, really. Your free will is constrained by the choices of others the moment you hit the roadway. Could it be, in the same way we contribute to a traffic jam from the moment we encounter it, that we are born into sin, entering into the dysfunction and the traffic jam of our family politics even before we are born? Don’t mothers and fathers and siblings and grandparents place expectations on a newborn from before day one, ushering these innocents helplessly into a life of traffic from the start? It’s heavy stuff, and I am certainly no psychologist, but I think it is inescapable. We are indeed desperately broken people, aren’t we?
There’s a whole sideline to that traffic metaphor involving an express lane, and how you need to have someone else very special in the car with you … But I’ll have to save that for another time. Broad is the freeway that leads to destruction, and many take that route. But narrow is the express lane that leads to life -- and only a few find it!
So how is God in control if we see so much pain and suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good people experience traffic too? It may sound strange, but it is because God is love.
Because He is love, God allows us to choose right or wrong. He is not interested in making you a robot that He can program; he is interested in having an authentic relationship with you. You are His daughter (or son) whom he loves dearly. Because He is love, God gives us freedom to choose, even to choose to merge poorly and to tap the brakes too long. Because He is love, like any good parent, although it breaks His heart, He also allows us to experience the consequences of our choices -- including the consequences of the sins of others.
All of the traffic on the freeways is totally unnecessary and senseless. But there is no arguing that traffic indeed exists -- it is really, truly there. You may think that the doctrine of original sin is totally unnecessary and nonsense, but there is no arguing that it is real, and the evidence of it is all around us as we see bitterness, depression, anxiety, frustration, and emptiness along life’s highways.
How many men, women and children are trapped in traffic because of their own choices or the choices of those around them? Your choices affect other people. Other people’s choices affect you. Nobody lives in a vacuum. That’s why it matters how you treat your kids, how you treat your parents, how you speak of others when they are not around -- it all affects everybody else.
Is God in Control of Your Life?
God is a gentleman. He will not force you to do things His way. But the message of Daniel -- the whole book of Daniel -- is that even when the traffic is impossible, God is still in control. You may be living on a page of His book where nothing seems to make sense. You might be living through a whole chapter that seems utterly unbearable! And like changing lanes in traffic, every attempt you make to fix things just seems to make it worse.
I have two things to tell you today. First, please remember that God is in control. He still writes the ending, and it is a great ending, and nobody will take that away from Him. He is in control. Second, you can get some relief if you ask him into the car with you and let him take the wheel. I’m not saying everything will be rosy. Even the express lane has other people in it, and that can create a whole other kind of traffic!
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16.33)
But if you had the chance, wouldn’t it be better to take the express lane? Wouldn’t it be better to let an expert lead the way? Wouldn’t it be better to let the author of the book have more of a say in the chapter you’re writing today?