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The Four Kingdoms of the Image of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream

Updated: Feb 1

This Old Testament book was written by the prophet Daniel, a sixth-century Jew who, along with many other Israelites had been taken captive by the Babylonians. Daniel put the book together in its final and canonical form c. 530 BC, after a long career of governmental service during the reign of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in the 590s to the rise of Cyrus the Great in the 530s. Daniel 2, 7, 8, 9, and 11 contain many absolutely remarkable prophecies that conclusively demonstrate the inspiration of the Bible to an unbiased reader. While the interpretation of these prophecies is clear to one willing to spend the time to examine them, some understanding of the history of the times within which Daniel so remarkably predicted the future is required, and shall be examined.

It is noteworthy that when Christ gave parables, He did so for two reasons: to explain the truth to those who were saved or searching (Mk 4:13, 34), and to hide the truth from those who were not saved or seeking or open (Mk 4:11-12). Daniel similarly states concerning its prophecies:

“The wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand” (Dan 12:10).

Thus, one who does not care about the truth enough to search for it and find it, but blindly holds to his own baseless opinions with a “don’t confuse me with the facts” attitude, will, in his ignorance, generally neglect to evaluate these predictions in Daniel, and so will not discover the strength of the evidence they provide for the Bible. However, one who is truly saved, “the wise,” will gladly study these things out in scripture, and those who are unsaved but open to receive the truth and study it out will actually study such a matter with an open mind and heart to see if it really proves the Bible is God’s Word.

Furthermore, consider that while these predictions employ the literary device of symbols, they cannot be twisted to signify whatever one wishes: Scripture has only one correct interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and the Bible explains the significance of the symbols it employs. Thus we must, to give the text a fair meaning, interpret these texts literally—that is, the symbols represent what other passages of Scripture define them to mean. For example, Daniel 8:6 mentions a ram with two horns. Daniel 8:20 then states, “The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia.” The ram represents the kings of Media and Persia, not the establishment of the United States, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or anything else. Daniel 8:5-8 mentions a goat with a notable horn, and Daniel 8:21 states, “And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king.” It is not possible to take the prophecies of these chapters and make them mean whatever one wishes—the Bible defines its symbols and definitively specifies its meaning. Correct interpretation is not speculative, but exegetical—it comes from evaluating the plain declarations of the text, not reading into it what it does not say to create “predictive prophecy.” Taking the text for what it says, the reader discovers that God has made amazing predictions.

The five sections of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream are said to represent four kingdoms and one almost kingdom, which will appear again in Dan 7, 8, 9, and 11, with a different emphasis in each of these chapters.

The passages that I will look at are out of Daniel 2:31-45 and Daniel 7:1-28 (click to access) and are also quoted at the end of this report.

While significant sections of Dan 7 relate to a future ten-kingdom confederacy and the time when the Antichrist (the king that will arise from it) will both reign over the revived Roman empire and suffer destruction at the coming of Christ, other portions of the chapter deal with a period of time now past. The description of the four beasts in Dan 7:1-7, as interpreted in 7:16 and following, confirms the predictions of Daniel chapter 2 in its sequence of the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman empires.

Dan 7:17 plainly states that the four beasts represent four kings or kingdoms (cf. Dan 7:23). These arise out of the sea and represent the mass of Gentile humanity (cf. Is 8:6-8, Jer 46:7-8, 47:2, Rev. 13:1; 17:1,15), the “earth” (Dan 7:17), the non-Jewish world. As Daniel 7 provided more details than Chapter 2 concerning the predicted series of kingdoms, so Daniel 8 unveils even more specific information about the two middle kingdoms, Medo-Persia and Greece.

Daniel 2:31-45, Daniel recounts and interprets the dream of king Nebuchadnezzar. He tells the king:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. [32] This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, [33] His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. [34] Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. [35] Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth. [36] This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king. [37] Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. [38] And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold. [39] And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. [40] And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things : and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. [41] And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. [42] And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. [43] And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. [44] And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. [45] Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.”

Daniel 7:1-28,

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters. [2] Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. [3] And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. [4] The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man's heart was given to it. [5] And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. [6] After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. [7] After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. [8] I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things. [9] I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. [10] A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened. [11] I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. [12] As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time. [13] I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. [14] And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. [15] I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. [16] I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. [17] These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. [18] But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever. [19] Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; [20] And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. [21] I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; [22] Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom. [23] Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. [24] And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings. [25] And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. [26] But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. [27] And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. [28] Hitherto is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me: but I kept the matter in my heart.

First Kingdom — Babylon

Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon and representative of his empire, is said to represent the head of gold (v. 38). During Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, the Babylonians, who already controlled the ancient Near East, spread their dominion and influence as far as India, Tyre, Egypt, and further parts of North Africa. Other verses in Scripture refer to Babylon as the “golden city” (Is 14:4), “abundant in treasures” (Jer 51:13). Nebuchadnezzar enriched his capital with the spoils of other nations above any other city on earth, so that it became one of the wonders of the ancient world. Furthermore, his kingdom was more splendid than that of the world empires that were to follow, so that Babylon was appropriately denominated a head of gold.

Daniel 7. The first beast to arise “was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings” (Dan 7:4). This beast represents the royal power of the Babylonian empire, as does the head of gold in Dan 2. The lion is obviously associated with royalty and power (cf. 1 Ki 10:20; 2 Ch 9:19; Ezk 19:2-3; Gen 49:9; Joel 1:6); today it is commonly considered the king of the beasts, and similar associations existed in ancient times. Likewise, the eagle was the king of the birds. Winged lions guarded the gates of the royal palaces of the Babylonians, and the Babylonians’ swift conquests were appropriately compared to the swiftness of the eagle. Many passages of Scripture equate Babylon with both a lion and an eagle (Jer. 4:7, 13; 49:19, 22; 50:17, 44; Lam. 4:19; Ezk 17:3, 12; Hab 1:8). The image of the plucking of the wings and the replacement of a man’s heart for that of a lion appears to relate to the cessation of further rapid conquests in the Babylonian kingdom after the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the growing weakness of the kingdom; it is possible that it also relates to the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar detailed in Dan 4.

Second Kingdom — Medo-Persia

Daniel 2. Subsequent to Babylon, another “inferior” (v. 39) kingdom, represented by the breast and arms of silver (v. 32), would arise. This empire was Medo-Persia (see Dan. 5:28, 6:8, 10, 12, 8:20-21, 11:1-2; cf. Es. 1:3, 14, 18, 19, 10:2). Established when Cyrus conquered Babylon, and enduring through the reigns of his successors until subdued by Alexander the Great, it lasted from 538 BC to the overthrow of Darius Codomanus in 333 BC. The two arms of the image likely represent the alliance of the Medes and Persians. Medo-Persia lacked the central authority and fine organization that characterized Babylonian rule and was thus appropriately termed inferior to the empire of Nebuchadnezzar. Furthermore, while Cyrus was an effective monarch, his successor, Cambyses, was a madman. The Persian kings who followed Cyrus were distinguished only for folly and crime. Subsequent to the days of Cyrus, the kingdom was also remarkable for its succession of military defeats, including the devastating losses of Cambyses in Africa and the famous failure of Mardonius and Xerxes to subdue the Greeks. From the days of Xerxes (479 BC) onward, corruption multiplied and the central government declined in power so that, in the reign of Darius Nothus (423 BC), the rulers of the distant provinces paid only token obedience to the king, while they were, in effect, sovereigns over their own territories: they even conducted wars against other provinces of the empire.

Daniel 7. The next beast, the bear, represents Medo-Persia, as did the silver breast and arms of the image in Dan 2. The description of the animal as having “raised up itself on one side” (Dan 7:5) corresponds to the one-sided union of the Persians and the Medes; although Persia came up later, it quickly became the strongly dominant portion of the empire, as appears explicitly in Dan 8:3 and 20. The empire is apparently described as a “bear” in contrast to Babylon as a lion because, while it is powerful and ferocious (cf. Is 13:17-18), it was less majestic, swift, and glorious and was “inferior” to Babylon (Dan 2:39), as silver is to gold (Dan 2:32). The three ribs refer to the conquest of Babylon, Lydia, and Egypt, and the devouring of “much flesh” describes the various conquests of the nation, probably after it already had defeated Babylon (For more detail on the necessary connection of the bear to the Medo-Persian empire, see E. B. Pusey, Daniel the Prophet: Nine Lectures, Delivered in the Divinity School of the University of Oxford, with Copious Notes (Oxford: John Henry and James Parker, 1864), pp. 70–74).

Third Kingdom — Greece

Daniel 2. Such internal cancers prepared the way for the empire of the Greeks, the third in the vision of Daniel 2, the “kingdom of brass” (v. 39). Succeeding Medo-Persia, the Greek empire dominated the known world until the ascendancy of Rome in the first century B. C. Brass was a metal peculiarly appropriate for the Greeks, who were distinguished by their brazen armor, and whom ancient writers most commonly termed “the brazen-coated Greeks.” Their empire could appropriately be said to “bear rule over all the earth” (v. 39) because it essentially covered, in addition to all that had been under the domain of Babylon and Medo-Persia, all of the known world from Yugoslavia to India, except for that under the sway of the small but rising power of Rome. Alexander the Great, who never tasted military defeat in his entire career, even commanded that he should be addressed as “the king of all the world.” The two legs of the image probably represent, from the standpoint of Israel, the division of the Greek kingdom between Syria and Egypt, the East and the West (see analysis of Dan 11 below). Ancient history records (Josephus—see below) that, after Alexander had conquered Tyre, he became enraged at the Jews for refusing to furnish supplies for his army during the siege, so he marched to Jerusalem, intending to take and to destroy it. Jaddua, the high priest, showed Alexander the prophecies of Daniel, which declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians. Seeing this writing, Alexander stated that he was the man intended and was glad. He then offered sacrifices in the temple and granted to the Hebrews the freedom of their country and the exercise of their laws and religion. Of course, Alexander did indeed subdue the Medes and the Persians, and his empire continued to hold sway until the rise of the Romans, who, under Pompey the Great in 63 BC, took over that part of the Near East that included the land of Israel.

Josephus, Antiquities, Book XI, chapter 8. While, of course, Josephus is not Scripture and thus not infallible, there are good reasons to conclude that his account here, as in the great body of the other material that he records, is accurate. Other ancient writers, such as Pliny, Arrian, and Justin, testify to historical facts mentioned in this passage. For more information, see Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament: Daniel, Vol. 1 (London: Blackie & Son, 1853), 54. See also the discussion in the section below entitled “Early References to the Book of Daniel in Other Works.”

Daniel 7. The leopard with four wings and four heads represents the Greek empire, as did the brass portion of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision (Dan 2:32). (A leopard was particularly appropriate as a choice for the Greek empire in light of the swiftness of Alexander the Great’s conquests—cf. Hab 1:8). The wings given the leopard further accentuate its swiftness; no conqueror in history spread his domains abroad as quickly. Further, the “four wings and heads” correspond to the four generals who assumed control of Alexander’s empire upon his death (cf. Dan 8:8): Cassander took control of Macedonia and Greece; Lysimacus held Thrace, Bithynia, and most of Asia Minor; Seleucus took Syria and the eastern lands, including Babylonia; and Ptolemy established control over Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia Petraea.

Fourth Kingdom — Rome

Daniel 2. The Roman Empire is described in the vision of Dan 2 as the empire of iron, which “breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise” (Dan 2:40). Iron, a considerably stronger metal than gold, silver, or brass, aptly designated the Roman empire, which was certainly superior to the kingdoms that preceded it in power, as it conquered all—from the eastern nations, to Africa, the Danube, the Rhine, and Britain. The description of Rome as a nation that “breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things” fits well. In contrast to the common practice of the previous empires of the vision such as Babylon, where subdued people were often allowed some degree of independence while they paid tribute to their national overlord, the nations Rome subdued ceased to be kingdoms. They were reduced to provinces, lost all independence, and were brought into the most entire subjection. While Alexander the Great conquered by the rapidity of his troop movements and seldom crushed the people he conquered, the Roman Empire ruthlessly destroyed all who contended against its power, killed captives by the thousands, and sold them into slavery by the hundreds of thousands. The two legs of the image represent the Eastern and Western sections of the empire, which embraced the entire Mediterranean region as well as western Asia, and was ultimately recognized by the political division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western portions under Emperor Valentinian in AD 364.

Daniel 7. The fourth beast, which is not compared to a specific animal as were the lion, bear, and leopard, is described as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly,” with “great iron teeth.” This animal “devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it” (Dan 7:7). The “iron teeth” make it clear that this beast corresponds to the iron section of the image of Dan 2; Rome is again in view. The great strength of the Roman power, distinguishing it from the empires that preceded it, is apparent in its longevity. From its first expansion in the subjugation of Sicily in 241 BC, it next defeated Spain and then Carthage. In 202 BC, Rome conquered the area north of Italy and then moved east to take Macedonia, Greece, and Asia Minor. In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem after defeating remnants of the Seleucid power. During the following decades, Rome subjugated southern Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany west of the Rhine; it continued to grow gradually for several centuries, reaching its height in AD 117. Its decline was likewise gradual, becoming obvious only in the fifth century. Byzantium, the capital of the eastern leg of the Roman empire, did not fall until AD 1453.

The Almost Kingdom — Revived Roman Empire (AntiChrist)

Daniel 2. The image in Daniel is said to have feet with ten toes. The toes pertain to the ten horns of Dan 7, which are stated to represent ten kings, and about whom the reader receives more information in the book of Revelation (Rev 12:3; 13; 17). The “little horn” of Dan 7 is the Antichrist, the “prince that shall come” of Dan 9, and the ruler who will head the one-world government, which will accompany the one-world religion centered at Rome, in the Tribulation period, as described in Rev 17. However, since none of these events have yet been fulfilled (although the present-day ecumenical movement is preparing the way for the establishment of one-world religion at Rome), this study will now proceed to an examination of the prophecy of Dan 7, focusing upon the sections that have been fulfilled up to this point.

The feet of the image, made partly of iron and partly of clay, speak of the time when Israel will again be God’s institution for His work in the world (Ze 14; Ezk 40-48; Hos 1:10; 2:19-23; Rom 11). For the entire period described in the body of the image up to the description of Rome, Israel had served as God’s institution on earth (see notes below). After the revelation of the "man of sin" (2 Th 2:3) which is the Antichrist, the 70th week or period of seven years described in Daniel’s prophecy in Dan 9 will commence. This segment of future history is known as the Great Tribulation Period and is described in detail in Rev 4-19. After this period of seven years, Christ will come again to establish His kingdom on earth for a thousand years (Rev 20); then the eternal state will commence. The saved will fellowship with God forever in perfect joy, while the lost are doomed to damnation in the lake of fire (Rev 21-22).

Biblical prophecy often proceeds without further notice from the time when Israel fell from her status as God’s chosen instrument for His work on earth through the Church Age to Israel’s future restoration. For example, Is 61:1-2, which Christ quotes in Lk 4:17-18, proceeds directly from a prophecy of the Lord Jesus’ first coming (Is 61:1-2a) to His second coming (Is 61:2bff.). For this reason, Christ quotes to His hearers only Is 61:1-2a to His hearers as fulfilled before them in that day—the rest of the prophecy still awaits future fulfillment in the Lord Jesus’ future thousand-year kingdom (Is 2; Rev 20). The Bible teaches that the return of Christ will occur unexpectedly, so that men cannot know beforehand the day or the hour (Matt 25:13).

Daniel 7. The Babylonian religion, Rome’s legacy, continues to this day in the Roman Catholic church, which exercises political control of the Papal states in Italy; and, although not as prominent as when it controlled the spiritual and temporal affairs of Europe in the Dark Ages (cf. Rev 17:18), the Roman Church-State sends ambassadors to the nations of the earth and wields tremendous influence, much of what we do not know. In fact, Rev. 17 states that it overrules the kings of the earth. This Roman influence will continue to exist until the Roman Empire (i.e., the European Union) revives, a situation projected to occur after the the revelation of the Antichrist, as related in Dan 7:7-8. As noted before in the description in Dan 2, so here in Dan 7, details of the Church Age are largely passed over and the vision passes directly from the ancient Roman empire to the revived Roman empire where the Antichrist, the horn of Dan 7:21, will oppress God’s people in the Tribulation period until Christ, the Son of Man, destroys him and sets up His own everlasting kingdom.

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