As I have said before, the study of eschatology does not begin with ends. It would be unreasonable to expect that we could understand the end of a book without understanding its beginning and middle too. And so, I’ll be starting in the middle today, by investigating a set of passages from the book of Daniel that center around the concept of “The kingdom of heaven”. A good deal of eschatological study is trying to nail down what scripture teaches us about what the kingdom of heaven is, where it is, whose it is, where it is headed, etc. Someone who calls themselves a king, lest he be a lunatic, has a kingdom somewhere, after all. If we call someone a king, we ought to also know where his kingdom is. My essay The Eschatology of Christmas is my first and feeble attempt to exalt Christ as the King who came in the flesh to win and to rule the Kingdom of Heaven, to the end that if we know our King, we ought to understand what His Kingdom is like too. This post, and hopefully many others, build upon that.
The book of Daniel is quickly becoming one of my favorites to study for its great theological richness. Chapters 2 and 7 are both profound passages concerning the kingdom of heaven. Chapter 2 is the story of a dream which greatly troubled King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The pagan king saw a great statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. In his dream, this marvelous statue was smashed on the feet by a great stone, which then became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. He was so desperate to know the meaning of this dream that He threatened to destroy all the wise men of Babylon because there was no one with the wisdom to interpret it. Daniel, of course, had wisdom from God, and explained the vision to the king: four human kingdoms, and then a divine kingdom. These four kingdoms would be crushed by a divine kingdom, which would be established by God (Daniel 2:44), and holy, without needing human effort for construction, since it was “cut out of the mountain without hands” (Daniel 2:45). Of this kingdom, the text says in Daniel 2:44,
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.
Because this kingdom is divine, it is also everlasting. It will not, unlike human kingdoms, be pillaged or overrun by another human kingdom, nor will it be usurped internally with a treasonous coup or clever espionage. The four kingdoms which the pagan king saw are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, as the identity of the first kingdom, Babylon, is given to us in the text (Daniel 2:36-38). The fourth kingdom is Rome, which would be spiritually and authoritatively crushed by the advent of the divine kingdom: the kingdom of heaven.
Daniel 7 describes the same events that are described in Chapter 2, but with more detail. There are “four beasts coming up from the sea” (Daniel 7:3), just as there were four pagan kingdoms in Daniel 2. “The sea” is a common scriptural metaphor for the world of the Gentiles, and indeed the text makes it clear that these beasts plainly are four kingdoms (Daniel 7:17), described here in typical apocalyptic fashion. The identity of the fourth beast, a great monster with iron teeth that treads down the world underneath its feet, is given special attention in this passage as “a fourth kingdom” which will “devour the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), which had a horn (ruler) which “uttered great boasts” (Daniel 7:8), that would “wage war against the saints” (Daniel 7:21). That sounds like Rome to me, and corresponds with the fourth kingdom of iron and clay presented in chapter 2. After this, we get a vision of God in heaven, and Daniel gets a glimpse of the ascension of Christ, where the Son of Man is presented before the Ancient of Days. Daniel says,
“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Honor, and a kingdom, so that all the peoples, nations, and populations of all languages might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
In Daniel 2, we had four human kingdoms, and a fifth kingdom which was divine and reduced them all to chaff. Here in Daniel 7, we have four beasts representing four kingdoms, and a Son of Man who is the king of a divine kingdom. There, we had a stone which became a great mountain which filled the whole earth, and here, this Rock, Christ, is given an everlasting dominion (Daniel 7:14). That stone obliterated the pagan kingdoms, and this Rock annihilated the rule of the little horn (Daniel 7:26). Et cetera. When this Son of Man comes before the Ancient of Days in Heaven, He comes to take the world by establishing an everlasting dominion over all peoples, nations, and men of every language (Daniel 7:14). Lest we are tempted to believe that this passage is referring to events surrounding the second coming of Christ, we must take care to observe that when the Son of Man “comes” in Daniel 7, He “comes before” the Ancient of Days, far from “coming back to” planet earth. There will be a second coming of Christ, but this isn’t it. This passage is ascension language, not second coming language (Acts 1:9). This is consistent with Jesus’ own testimony about His status as King of kings, when he says “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18), and fits with Jesus’ predictions regarding His own “coming” (to the Ancient of Days) culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem before “this generation” (the generation of the disciples) passed away (Matthew 24:30,34).
What we can conclude from these passages in Daniel is unmistakably postmillenial: the kingdom of heaven is here on earth, now, and it is going forth. It was established back in the first century with the advent of Christ, and continues to fill the whole earth as the Great Commission is accomplished through the preaching of the Gospel. Its conquest is a slow and progressive process, like yeast being worked into a lump of dough, or a great mustard tree growing from a tiny seed (Matthew 13:31-33), and though history may fluctuate through periods of lawlessness, persecution, and calamity, we can be sure that in the long run the victory of Christ will cause His kingdom to go forth just as it has from its beginning.Share this post:
Chris Carter is the Editor in Chief of The New England Reformer. Chris earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Clarkson University, but his post-univserity studies have taken him through various topics in theology and church history. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, but he also occaisionally preaches at a small baptist church in his hometown in Vermont.