Quick Review: The Joy of the Apocalypse
The last half of Daniel is an apocalyptic book -- that is not a bad thing, as our movies and pop culture would have us believe. For a disciple of Jesus Christ, the apocalypse is the unveiling of a new world, when every wrong will be made right, every tear will be dried, and every joy will be complete; the idea of apocalypse is about heaven come down to earth. Therefore, reading about the apocalypse should be a joyful experience for a Christian. The apocalypse is central to our beliefs, for if we did not believe there was a better world coming, we would be a very sorry collection of souls. The idea of the apocalypse should bring the deepest joy to all of us who have lost loved ones, seen injustice prevail on earth, and longed for a better world.
But reading the apocalypse can be tricky. We have to remember some important rules!
First, apocalyptic Scriptures are True & Accurate, but not necessarily Precise! Just as a package from an online store may be scheduled for delivery “before 8pm Friday,” or Google says it will rain tomorrow -- true, accurate, but not precise -- apocalyptic scriptures are often dream-sequences with fluid timelines, wildly symbolic imagery, and circular retellings of the same events but with different symbols. The return of Christ is true -- it will happen. The return of Christ is accurate -- it will happen soon. But the timeline is not precise. Jesus says in Matthew 24:36, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”
Second, apocalyptic Scriptures are Scary, but Good! These tales are meant to make us a little afraid; they are meant to make us examine our loyalty to God and to truth and to justice. There is a reason almost all apocalyptic passages refer to a tribulation where God’s good people are tested by the horrors of human evil Some of us will be sifted out as merely casual Sunday followers, and others will be found faithful even under the harshest persecutions imaginable. We will be tested. We will be tried. Are you ready? That is the question on Daniel’s mind. That is the question on John the Elder’s mind when he penned the book of Revelation. For those who are found faithful, the reward is citizenship in a new heaven and a new earth. The scary parts are meant to inspire your faith, and that faith will produce joy.
Daniel’s Visions: Major Themes
Because prophetic books can be confusing, especially the last three chapters of Daniel, we need a framework for interpretation. Tremper Longman III, author of the NIV Application Commentary on Daniel sees a pattern of themes in Daniel’s prophecies, and I want to paraphrase them here, as these will guide my preaching through the rest of this book.
The Horror of human sin (especially government): We will see all kinds of brutality and evil at work.
Schedule for delivery: Even though the timeline is subject to interpretation, and even Jesus himself claimed not to know the day or hour, Daniel wants us to know that God does have a schedule. We’ll talk about that before the end of the message today.
Repentance brings deliverance: The only hope for any of us is to acknowledge the error of our ways, ask God for mercy, then turn our lives around by His grace and follow Him with all our might.
Cosmic war behind the scenes: We will meet angels and forces of darkness that underlie the narrative of Human history. Daniel wants us to know that the visible world is only the surface playing field of a much greater war being waged in the spiritual realm.
Certain justice for those who do evil: the bad guys will eventually fall, and fall hard.
Certain victory for those who do right: Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
These six themes can be found in each of the last six chapters of Daniel, and today we will focus on the second theme: the schedule for delivery. But first, I need to remind you of the main message of the book of Daniel.
The Main Message of Daniel:
The main message of this wonderful book of prophecy is this: “In Spite of Your Circumstances, God is in Control.” You may be dealing with an antichrist of a boss. You may be dealing with an antichrist of a neighbor. You may be dealing with the hell of a painful past, or the torture of an addictive behavior that has you feeling defeated. For every time you see the good getting pushed around; for every time you’ve been kicked while you were down, Daniel has a message for you. Listen to the milk and honey of this promise: In spite of your circumstances, God is in control. Are you in a den of lions? God is in control. Are you standing in the fire? God is in control. Have you lost everything you had -- everyone you love -- and been dragged from your home? God is in control. Listen to Daniel’s voice. He knows what it is to feel helpless and alone. But he also know what it is to be faithful to the One who never disappoints His faithful children. You’re not helpless. God is your help. You’re not alone. God is there with you, even in the unbearable fire.
Daniel 8: A Ram, A Goat & A Little Big Horn
Now let’s dive into Daniel 8. This prophecy is different from the one in chapter 7, but it covers some of the same events. It is a close-up look at just a small portion of the prophecy in chapter 7, and it has some of the same mysterious imagery of wild beasts and horns. Fortunately the archangel Gabriel appears and interprets the vision for us, and based on Gabriel’s interpretation, we can pinpoint this prophecy to historical events that have already happened. Even so, we also have a foreshadowing here of an Antichrist who is yet to come in our day.
According to Gabriel:
The Ram represents the Medo-Persian Empire. The lopsided horns are reminiscent of the lopsided bear in chapter 7. The Medes were weaker than the Persians, and their joint venture was uneven to the end.
The Goat represents a Greek conqueror. This would be Alexander the Great, who died suddenly at age 33 after conquering the known world in one of the fastest campaigns in ancient history.
The Four Kings represent Alexander’s successors. He had no son, so his empire was divided among four of his war buddies: Ptolemy got Egypt, Philip got Macedonia (present-day Greece), Demetrius got Turkey, and Seleucid got the “East” - that is Palestine, Israel, Syria and Persia (modern Iran and Iraq).
The Little Big Horn represents a truly bad historical figure. Even though Gabriel doesn’t name him, nearly every credible historian and theologian agrees, this must be Antiochus Epiphanes.
Antiochus Epiphanes ruled the east for about seven years, from 172-164 BC. He was a master of intrigue, who stole the kingdom from his relatives through a series of broken alliances. He was one of the first rulers in his area to proclaim himself god, even printing coins saying “Antiochus Epiphanes, God Incarnate.” He was opposed to Jewish worship, and did everything in his power to crush orthodox Jewish faith and life. More than that, he was a bloodthirsty, genocidal tyrant, killing women and children without a second thought if they stood in his way.
Listen to this account from the book of Maccabees (the story of the faithful Jews who overthrew Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 AD -- the story of Hannukah):
11 When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, he left Egypt and took the city by storm. 12 He commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly everyone they met and to kill those who went into their houses. 13 Then there was massacre of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of young girls and infants.14 Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting, and as many were sold into slavery as were killed. (2 Maccabees 5.11-14)
But beyond all of these atrocious cruelties, Antiochus Epiphanes was committed to erasing the name of Yahweh, the God of the Jews, from the face of the earth forever. In Jerusalem, he fired the true high priest from the line of Aaron and appointed his own pagan priest. Then he took all of the gold items from the temple and made them part of his personal collection. Then he sacrificed a sow -- a pig -- in the temple and scattered its blood into every corner -- an abomination that caused the temple to be desolate for God-fearing, kosher Jews. And then to top off his trampling of the house of God, he set up an idol to Jupiter (the roman equivalent of Zeus) and demanded that all Jews must worship Jupiter alone in the place where their one true God once allowed his name to rest. All of these things lead every serious historian and theologian to believe that the little horn in Daniel 8 must be none other than Antiochus Epiphanes.
But it doesn’t seem to end there. The picture of this trashy little horn with the fat mouth seems to be repeated from Daniel 7, and later in the great final prophecy of Daniel in chapters 10-12. So, for those of you who really get into this stuff, here’s the big question: was Antiochus Epiphanes the Antichrist we read about in Daniel 7 and Daniel 10-12? Probably not. In those prophecies, the “horn” -- or Antichirst -- will be much more powerful than Antiochus Epiphanes was; it “shall devour the whole earth” (Daniel 7.23). Furthermore, the “King of the North” in Daniel 10-12 is not even close to a good historical match for Antiochus Epiphanes. Furthemore, Daniel 10-12 seem to be talking about events that take place after the reign of the evil Antiochus Epiphanes. Louis Tablot, in his book, The Great Prophecies of Daniel, summed it up well: while Antiochus Epiphanes was a horrific and evil ruler, he was nothing more than a “Shadow of the Antichrist” who is to come.
Now, the only remaining tricky part -- the last piece of the puzzle in this chapter -- is the timeline: we are told that the sacrifice would cease for 2300 “morning-evenings” (that’s the literal interpretation of this Hebrew phrase in verse 14 -- not “days,” but “morning-evenings”).
Some interpreters think that could mean a literal 2300 days - which would be about the span of time between when Antiochus fired the true high priest of Aaron’s line in 171 BC to when the high priest was reinstated in 164 BC. That’s seven years, or about 2300 days. Or, if the wording “evening-mornings” is a reference to the evening and morning sacrifices made each day -- two sacrifices per day -- it could mean 1150 days, or about 3 and half years (Remember “time, times and half a time”? There is some significance to that timespan of three and a half … “times” in Daniel). If we’re talking about 1150 days, that would also line up with the span of time between 167 BC, when Antiochus Epiphanes ordered the end of Jewish sacrifice altogether and 163 BC, when Antiochus dies. Either interpretation could fit.
But there is yet another option -- the number of days could be symbolic. Which brings us to an important point when it comes to the Schedule of delivery in any apocalyptic literature. We must remember that prophetic numbers should not always be taken literally. Now, before you spit out your coffee and call me a madman, I want to remind you that we all use these two kinds of numbers all the time, literal and symbolic.
If I say I spent a hundred bucks at the grocery store, when I really spent 99 dollars, I am speaking symbolically, and we all accept that. I’m rounding. We have rounding in the scriptures: how many days was Jesus in the tomb? Did you say three days? Well, that’s not quite right is it, it was more like a day and a half. But it took place ON three days -- Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Se we say (and Jesus himself said), three days. It’s rounding. It’s normal. Everyone does it in every culture. It is a normal convention of language. And we get it.
Here’s another kind of symbolic number: exaggeration. Did your mother ever say to you, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times …” We know that isn’t precise. It was more like a million times with my mom! But it paints a picture that we understand and accept as users of language. How about this: Mark 1.5 says “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized” speaking about John the Baptist. Really? “All” the people of Jerusalem? Even Caiaphas the High Priest? Even Herod? Even Pontius Pilate? Probably not. But we understand what Mark means when he writes that -- it means a lot of people. It is an exaggerated number; a symbolic number -- and it is ok because we get it.
Now, my point is not to shake your confidence in the truth and authority of scripture. Remember, it can be true and accurate, but not necessarily precise. My point is imply this: don’t be fooled by those who are dogmatic about these numbers. One prominent religious group staked their whole existence on a literal interpretation of this particular number: they believed that the 2300 “evening-mornings” was referring to 2300 years between Ezra’s reconstruction of the Temple and the second coming of Christ. According to their founder, a baptist minister named William Miller, this meant that the revelation would unfold in early 1844. When early 1844 came and went, they shifted the date to Late 1844. When Late 1844 came and went, they shifted the date again... and it still didn’t happen. That group edited their prediction a few more times, and has basically given up on thatt, but they still hold to a “2300 year” interpretation of this text. They’re known today as Seventh-Day Adventists. Not bad people. I would say faithful followers of Christ. But this part of their doctrinal past has been misguided by a literal interpretation of that number.
Here’s the bottom line, and what you need to remember: Don’t be dogmatic about dates, and beware anyone who claims to know the day our hour -- or even the month and year. Only one person knows for sure … God the Father.
The Good News
Now, that was more like a history lesson than a sermon. A good message has to have a practical application, and I don’t want to leave you without something you can take home and use this week. Here is the takeaway message for you and me in all of this: “In Spite of Your Circumstances, God is in Control.”
Even if it seems that God is not working, He is. As my wife often says to me: God is rarely early but never late!
As you wait for Him to show up in your circumstances this week, whatever those circumstances may be, remember that. He is probably not going to show up early, but He will never show up late. No matter what your circumstances may be, God is in control.
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness,
but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3.9)