The Horror of Human Evil
Daniel 7 August 1, 1999
What upsets every scene, domestic or political, is not man's desire to be so bad. So far I have never met a man who wanted to be bad. The mystery of man is that he is bad when he wants to be good.
-- George MacLeod, Leadership, Vol. 5, no. 3.
Evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has substance.
Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
Evil enters like a needle and spreads like an oak tree.
I do not fear the explosive power of the atom bomb. What I fear is the explosive power of evil in the human heart.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Evil is the real problem in the hearts and minds of men. It is not a problem of physics but of ethics. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
There is nothing evil in matter itself. Evil lies in the spirit. Evils of the heart, of the mind, of the soul, of the spirit- these have to do with man's sin, and the only reason the human body does evil is because the human spirit uses it to do evil.
A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)
Evil often triumphs, but never conquers.
Joseph Roux (1834-1886)
God is so powerful that he can direct any evil to a good end.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
God would never permit evil if he could not bring good out of evil.
Thomas Watson (C. 1557-1592)
Evil can never be undone, but only purged and redeemed.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
Many have puzzled themselves about the origin of evil. I am content to observe that there is evil, and that there is a way to escape from it, and with this I begin and end.
John Newton (1725-1807)
The last half of Daniel’s book is much different than the first half. The first half dealt with personal stories about Daniel and his life in the king’s court. We could call it court narrative. In several of those accounts, Daniel was called upon to interpret divine messages to the king’s of Babylonia and Media-Persia. Like Joseph in Egypt, he was God’s man in high places for the good of his captive people and to bring God’s message to the Gentile kings. But God didn’t stop there with Daniel because he was highly esteemed (just like the apostle John later in time to whom God gave the book of Revelation). Daniel was chosen by God to bring his message of sovereign victory to mankind throughout the ages. This is appropriate because we, like the Jews of his time, are seemingly captive to surrounding events and to a course of history we can’t understand. In short, we are captive to our own fallenness and the fallenness of the world. So the last half of Daniel delves into the private visions of future events that God gave him for the encouragement of his future readers. And we shall find out in the last half of Daniel as in the first, that God is in control.
So now God gives Daniel visions of his own. No longer is he just interpreting the visions of others. These visions come upon Daniel late in life after his heart has been more than broken over human sin and after he has earned most of his stripes. Wisdom and the ability to handle certain types of knowledge come with age. Notice the beginning lines of the next several chapters:
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. (Daniel 7:1 NIVUS)
In the third year of King Belshazzar's reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, after the one that had already appeared to me. (Daniel 8:1 NIVUS)
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom-- in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. (Daniel 9:1-2 NIVUS)
In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision. (Daniel 10:1 NIVUS)
In these visions we change from court narrative to a type of writing called apocalyptic. This word “apocalypse” is growing more and more popular as a Hollywood theme for motion pictures as we move closer to the millenium. The word in common use strikes us with doom and pessimism which is the world’s inner sense of judgment by God for sins. But it actually means “revelation”. The actual purpose of it for God’s people is not to overwhelm us with doom and gloom but to uplift us with joy and optimism as we look at God’s program to bring an end to human corruption and oppression. Apocalyptic does have an element of war to it, but it is the actions of our warring God against his enemies and not against his children. Apocalyptic scripture celebrates God’s victory over the enemies of the godly. So we move from the present circumstances of God’s people in captivity to their ultimate liberation. We move from the human evil so prevalent in the first six chapters to envisioning the perverse spiritual forces that stand behind them. We move from stories like deliverance from a burning furnace and a lion’s den to salvation from the power of death itself.
In these visions we suddenly find ourselves in a strange world of hybrid beasts and riders on the clouds. And we encounter timetables that seen impossible to penetrate. We wonder what to make of them. The metaphors and similes we encounter teach us by analogy. Light is thrown on difficult concepts and things by relating them to something else that we know from common experience. The images speak truly and accurately, but not precisely. Sometimes it is difficult to know where analogy stops. In this way, images preserve mystery about ideas that are ultimately beyond our understanding. So we cannot interpret apocalyptic images too finely. And perhaps we are not meant to. Perhaps God intends a certain intentional ambiguity and sense of mystery. But we can see and understand the themes that God wants us to know.
The theme that we can grasp in chapter 7 from the vision of the four hybrid beasts from the sea is the horror of human evil and what God does about it. He will defeat the seemingly unconquerable powers that oppress his people. Evil may seem like it has the upper hand, but that is a temporary deception. Comfort for the faithful rides on the wind of the Word of God. Like Jesus says in John 3:8, we might not see where it blows, but it is none the less real because we can hear it. It is this hearing of God’s prophetic plan that gives us hope. All that is evil will be judged and condemned. In these visions, Daniel sees the course of Gentile world history. We have already discussed Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the statue concerning this in chapter 2. Let us take another look at the diagram that we showed then. This chapter as well as the next will give us similar visions but with different themes. We have already identified the theme of this chapter, the horror of human evil. We can divide the chapter into three parts. They are, as you can see in the outline on the back of your bulletin ---
I. The beastly horror from the human sea, vv. 1-8
II. The almighty power of the heavenly throne, vv. 9-14
III. The assurance of holy victory over human evil, vv. 15-28
Let us take a more in-depth look at Daniel’s vision and what he wrote down for us.
I. The beastly horror from the human sea, vv. 1-8
The chapter opens with Daniel lying on his bed in the world of dreams. But these are no idle dreams. They are the message of God although not direct from God – they are through the mediation of dreams and angels. Daniel is not a prophet in the usual sense of the word. He is not commissioned to speak to the people but rather to write it down. This vision is for the faithful of all ages and not just for his specific time. This is the dynamic of apocalyptic, like the book of Revelation.
The vision is of the sea whipped into a frenzy from all directions, out of which arise four different beasts. The sea is understood to be a potent symbol of chaos and destructive evil. It communicates the mood of this message to us. In Near Eastern mythology the sea stands as a force ranged against God and his creation. The image ultimately exposes their idolatry because, as we shall see, nothing in all creation can overpower the Creator. Since the beasts stand for human kingdoms, these waters are the sea of humanity that arises from the forces of creation and struggle against God. The commonly accepted evolutionary theories of our own day speak falsely and foolishly of an intricate order of life arising from untendered chaos without the oversight of Almighty God. Man has not ceased to struggle against his Creator. The evil that has been inherited by us all from our first ancestors is the force that darkens the turbulent waters that produce the beasts. So God’s struggle and victory over evil is recounted as a fight against the sea and its monsters. There are other places in the Bible that speak of God’s victory at sea:
The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. (Psalms 18:15 NIVUS)
Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard? (Job 7:12 NIVUS)
Should you not fear me?" declares the LORD. "Should you not tremble in my presence? I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross it. (Jeremiah 5:22 NIVUS)
He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade. (Nahum 1:4 NIVUS)
You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters. (Habakkuk 3:15 NIVUS)
In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea. (Isaiah 27:1 NIVUS)
So this description of the sea at the beginning of Daniel’s vision evokes horror and anticipation of evil – a struggle of worldly, even cosmic, proportion. These beasts (except for the second) that arise from the sea are like none to be found in God’s creation. They are anomalies, aberrations, perversions of God’s created order. They are symbols of forces that oppose God’s created order. We are repulsed by these bizarre mutants. Recall that in creation God made everything according to its kind (Gen. 1:11-12, 21, 24-25). The different parts of creation were made to be unique and separate. We see this principle in O.T. Law such as Deut. 22:9-11 that commanded no two kinds of seeds to be planted together, or two kinds of animals to plow together, or two kinds of cloth to be worn together. All that God created was sacred just the way he made it. Any part of God’s creation mixed with evil defiles it. This is something that God has not intended to be. Evil has contaminated mankind and the beasts are spawned.
In conservative evangelical Christianity, we commonly, and rightly I believe, consider the beasts to stand for the successive kingdoms of Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome – world empires in which we can especially see evil concentrated in the power of the state, or government. Each of these world empires wreaked a swath of human destruction and misery at the expense of many for the benefit of a few. They epitomize man’s fallen tendency. The empires understood here are the same as those in chapter 2 with the image seen by Nebuchadnezzar. There it was man’s view of earthly kingdoms as precious metals. Here it is God’s view of earthly kingdoms as beasts. There the interpretation ended with a kingdom established by God that destroyed all these other kingdoms but itself would endure forever. Here we see this taken a step further by the description of this eternal kingdom as being handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. It will be an eternal kingdom for the benefit of God’s people (v. 27). There we saw that what destroyed the image by striking its feet of iron and clay was a rock cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. Here we see the identity of that rock as the Son of Man who was given authority over this everlasting dominion by the Ancient of Days.
But the problem is that this climax has yet to happen. Let me stir you up a little bit. We are 2,500 years after Daniel’s vision. We have seen what we think are the four kingdoms come and go and we still have to look to the future. Perhaps the best thing we can understand about these four successive kingdoms is that evil kingdoms will continue to succeed one another until the end of time – God’s time. And yet perhaps we are on the brink of it. But the people of God must recognize that the allowance of human evil is God’s plan for the redemption of many in an age of grace and we must prepare for persecution. Perhaps this is the intentional effect of the imagery of this vision – not so much writing history in advance as making a theological statement about the conflict between human evil and God that must go on until the time God decides. We must pay more attention to what is clear rather than what is not clear about prophecy.
Like Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, we – like they did almost 2,000 years ago – sometimes seem all too eager to let go of any sense of responsibility to work for God’s kingdom on our part and just let him do it because it is going to happen soon anyway. “Soon” gives us hope but it must not lead to complacency. In every church there are those who say, “Let someone else do the work of ministry and discipleship and temple housekeeping. I’m too busy caring for my own interests.” And we can get distracted by them and make a case for the lackluster of our own faith. But we must not focus on them but on what God wants us to do regardless of them. We cannot lose but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to win. You see, God doesn’t want to tell us everything in detail and he doesn’t want us to get distracted by every detail – it is just enough for us to know that he is in control and that there is hope. If we knew it all we would act like we ‘know it all’.
Let us take a detailed look at some of these beasts. The lion with wings like an eagle is obviously Nebuchadnezzar whom God had to trim down to size. Like picking the wings off a captive fly, God limits Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to exalt himself and be a bother to God’s people. The lion and the eagle are both proud and they are both animals of prey, striking fear in the hearts of other animals. They are symbols of royalty and grandeur and pride. But God lifts this now wingless beast up off the ground and gives it true humanity. Nebuchadnezzar is cleansed of his evil heart. He is no longer the beast he once was. This is the grace of God.
Now the bear is not a hybrid beast like the others but is still a ferocious animal of prey. We see it gnawing on a fresh kill and we hear a voice telling it to eat yet more. It is commonly understood that its raised side is the dominance of the Persians over the Medes and the 3 ribs are the 3 major conquests of their empire, Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt, although not all agree. The bear is stubborn, cunning, and powerful, and tenacious. The third beast, the leopard with four heads and four wings that has authority to rule, is commonly understood to be Greece, the empire of Alexander the Great. His empire was quickly conquered (symbolized by the speed of a cat with wings) and divided among his four generals at his early death.
The fourth kingdom is only vaguely animal-like, seeming like some science fiction monster. Indeed, it was different from all the rest. Its trademark was wanton destruction (perhaps similar to what we have seen recently by the Serbs in Kosovo). Its metallic composition highlights its destructive power and ruthlessness. If we go by historic sequence of world empires, it must be Rome. Notice how the beasts grow ever more grotesque. The world is not getting better. Evil is having its way and its heyday is yet to come. But it will come at its own expense because God will finally eliminate it. Now if the Roman Empire has come and gone, what is left? What is holding back the time of the end? It is God himself because we are in an age of grace, the church age, that has put this present parenthesis in world history for the salvation of mankind.
The ten horns on this beast could be a confederation of Roman states perhaps yet to come. An argument can be made that the Roman Empire has never truly been eliminated. It may live on in what we are now seeing as the European Economic Community that now has its own currency, the EURO, and its own government. Others say that the Roman Empire is still embodied in the Catholic Church. The one horn that overthrows three others is probably the antichrist that arises from within this empire. Since it has eyes like a man, it looks like a man. But looks can be deceiving. This is Satan’s man, and he has the personality to match. He speaks boastfully, has an anarchistic attitude (law unto himself) by trying to change the set times and laws (v. 25). 2Thes. 2:3, 8-9, speaks of him as the ‘lawless one’. In 2Thes. 2:4 he makes exclusive claim to deity. He is not a pseudo-Messiah posing as God’s messenger, he is a pseudo-God viciously opposing all other religions. He will work miracles by the satanic power of deception (2Thes. 2:9-10) and many will worship him as God. But his destruction is sure (2Thes. 2:3). The antichrist is the personal culmination of a principle of rebellion already working secretly (2Thes. 2:7). He is the culmination of all these beasts and all these world empires. He is the culmination of human evil under the power of Satan that will one day soon become complete – and then God will act. This same verse in 2Thes. 2:7 tells us that this present evil is now restrained by the power of the Holy Spirit, but he will be taken away at God’s timing. And then when evil is isolated and exposed, Jesus Christ will come personally to destroy him with light and truth (2Thes. 2:8). This is the vision of beastly horror from the human sea.
II. The almighty power of the heavenly throne, vv. 9-14
Just as this vision by the sea is completed, the scene changes to that of a heavenly courtroom. And this marvelous vision no longer contains animal-like creatures but is superintended by two glorious beings described in human terms – The Ancient of Days, and One like a Son of Man. We have gone up the chain-of-being. Evil human kingdoms were described as horrifying hybrid animals, but the divine realm is imaged as human beings. After all, God created men and women in his own image. When we conform to his righteousness through Christ, we too will be fully imaged as human beings, sons of God, having been given the heart of a man as God intended a man to be.
Note God’s wisdom from his white hair, his righteousness from his white clothing, and his power of judgment from the flames of fire coming from his throne. The wheels of the throne symbolize his omnipresence and omniscience (since in Ez. 1:18 the wheels are full of eyes). So we see God in his role as judge. He is attended by thousands and revered by millions. These are probably angels if we read this in light of Rev. 5:11. If these are saints then they are those who have judged themselves so as not to be judged. And court is now in session. And then we see one like the son of man riding on the cloud chariot which is the prerogative of God alone.
Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds--his name is the LORD-- and rejoice before him. (Psalms 68:4 NIVUS)
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. (Psalms 104:3-4 NIVUS)
An oracle concerning Egypt: See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them. (Isaiah 19:1 NIVUS)
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (Nahum 1:3 NIVUS)
This one like a son of man must surely be the god-man himself, Christ Jesus. In this court vision he is given all things after the boastful beast is slain and destroyed. All other world powers are stripped of authority which is given to this one who comes upon the clouds and is ushered into the presence of Almighty God. He is given the dominion and worship of all peoples and nations everywhere-forever. God has decided and made the award to the One Most Worthy. His power and wisdom and justice never fail. The vision perfectly describes human evil and divine judgment, its conflict and clear conclusion. There can be no doubt. Though human evil thrives in the present, it will all collapse in the presence and before the power of God. The implication to us is to remain faithful in spite of appearances.
III. The assurance of holy victory over human evil, vv. 15-28
Now Daniel, like you or I if we had seen these things, was troubled and disturbed. His fear tells us the overwhelming force of this revelation. He has looked into the abyss of human evil and into the very throne room of God. He wanted further explanation so he went to one of the angels who was standing nearby. The angel gave him the abridged version as if the course of these events were commonly expected, at least in the heavenly realms. His answer was short and sweet and ended with the blessed hope that the saints, including the holy angels, would possess the kingdom forever with their Lord - yes the ending is affirmed. It is like, if we know how it ends, it will all be O.K. Everything is well that ends well. But naturally, this doesn’t satisfy Daniel. The thing on his mind is the same thing we all want to know, who is the fourth beast that intensifies the evil of its predecessors? And who are the 10 horns, and the 3 horns, and the 1 horn that comes up?
The picture of a horn reminds us of a proud and powerful animal that lifts its head high in rage and rebellious challenge. Here there is absolute refusal to submit to God. Like a motion picture of future history playing before his eyes, he sees the terrible war being waged by this horn of come-upance against the saints – and they are losing. But notice how God just simply announces victory. We cannot lose. But again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. God is watching the battle. As we who are seasoned Christians can attest to you, God works in a way that keeps bringing us to the brink of defeat without letting us lose so that our faith is made stronger in his power to save us from destruction. The reward for trusting God is his kingdom. He doesn’t give it to just anybody.
The little horn will be defeated at the conclusion of the great cosmic struggle, a point to which the world has not yet arrived. Even if this beast of horn and metal is not the Roman Empire, we can be sure that there is at least a succession of evil empires from the time of the Jewish exile to the time of the climax of history when God will intervene and once for all judge all evil and bring his kingdom into existence. The rebellion of the little horn will arise quickly and seem like it will last forever, but it will be suddenly cut off. This is the meaning of ‘time, times, and half a time’. His time will end, v. 25. Many understand this to be a period of 3 1/2 years during the Great Tribulation. Even though we are told that God announces victory, it comes at the expense of immense cosmic struggle. God’s kingdom is worth fighting for, and it is assured, and it is ours, and God will be glorified. And Daniel wisely kept this to himself for awhile.
Daniel wisely says in v. 28 that this is the end or conclusion of the matter. He was still troubled and awed by what he saw. What he saw was a world view on the cosmic scale, much broader than he had ever imagined. But he was willing to let it rest with God, keeping the matter to himself. He learned three things:
(1) The nature of human evil is affirmed by God. He sees our plight and hears our cry. Our misery is not forgotten or overlooked. He knows that we are all sinners. Every man and woman at heart is a self-seeking rebel against God, and we would crawl over the bodies or our fellow human beings in order to seek some small advantage for ourselves. In a classic string of quotations from the O.T., Paul exposes the scope and depth of sin in the human heart, a universal condemnation of natural humanity, in Rom. 3:10-18.
As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." "Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit." "The poison of vipers is on their lips." "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness." "Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know." "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-18 NIVUS)
No one can escape judgment (except those covered by the righteousness of Christ) because the beast is in the heart of each one of us. Cornelius Plantinga writes about sin as the breaking of God’s shalom, or peace. He says, “Shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption, sin is blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder.” But God did not create us to be vandals. He created us in his image. The Garden of Eden was a perfect picture of shalom until the serpent appeared – a classic setup by Satan. But our ancestors were not framed or coerced beyond there own choice. They took the side of the serpent against God. So they were ejected from the garden into an environment of their own making. And we are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are born sinners, acting the same way from birth. We are born rebels, vandals, breakers of shalom. The corporate rebellion of the beasts, the evil power of the state, is the product that flows from individual sin. The beasts represent an organized plurality of sinners. We see this on a smaller scale even in our own families. All marriages have problems at some point or other. That is what happens when you bring two sinners together. If that can happen with two Christians, imagine what happens when thousands or millions are brought together and given the power to make decisions with incredible destructive forces. Kosovo and Serbia are a case in point. Nationalism, racism, sexism, denominationalism, factionalism – great evil can arise when sinners come together with a common purpose against someone outside the group. We depersonalize them to the point where we can rationalize that harming them is not the same as harming “one of our own”. Power corrupts, and the power of the image of the beast is as true today as it was for Daniel.
(2) The warring activity of God. But ultimately the battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). The O.T. here anticipates the spiritual battle behind our earthly struggles, but the N.T. rips away the curtain so that we see the heart of this battle. And this battle will continue until the final day. Indeed in Rev. 13:1-2 reveals once again the beast from the sea, only this time the beast is the composite of all the ones we see here in Daniel chapter 7. Notice that the order of the beasts is reversed. John is looking back whereas Daniel was looking ahead. It is raised out of the sea of humanity by Satan himself, birthed by the vulnerability of mankind’s ignorant susceptibility to the deception of selfishness and pride to oppose all that is God.
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. (Revelation 13:1-2 NIVUS)
But our champion from the clouds in Daniel 7 is the same as in Revelation 19:11 who comes to rescue those oppressed by beastly human kingdoms under the control of demons. Jesus is the divine warrior who will defeat the beast and the forces of evil at the end of time.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. (Revelation 19:11 NIVUS)
(3) The certainty of ultimate victory. How can we be sure that he will gain the victory? The cross is our guarantee. Jesus defeated Satan upon the cross.
having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:14-15 NIVUS)
From the beginning to the end of our Bible we are told that our Lord fights for us against the evil that oppresses us – both our external enemies and the enemy of sin that remains in our own hearts.
Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:13-14 NIVUS)
Timeless Truth: The horror of human evil doesn’t frighten God.
The existence of evil is not so much an obstacle to faith in God as a proof of God's existence, a challenge to turn toward that in which love triumphs over hatred, union over division, and eternal life over death.
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948)