The Four Beasts and the Son of Man

Hans Holbein, the Younger, woodcut, Wikimedia Commons

Red pill or blue pill? If you want the blue pill, you better stop reading Daniel here. Of course, the entire book—the entire Bible, really—is a very red-pill kind of text, but that is especially true of apocalyptic literature. We are leaving behind the Sunday school stories, and things are about to get weird(er). Daniel 7 is the first of four apocalyptic visions. I’ll tell you more about what “apocalyptic” means in just a moment, but the most important thing to know is that it has to do with revelation: apocalyptic literature reveals, unveils, the truth about something. It pulls back the curtain and discloses what’s really going on. And that’s why you should stop reading here if you want the blue pill. Daniel’s about to shove the red pill down our throats. 

Not everybody wants to know the truth. Even in The Matrix, Cypher eventually decided that his life would have been better had he chosen the blue pill. He longed for the fake world created by the computers as opposed to the harsh truth of reality. Remember that scene (watch it here) where he’s having a meal with Agent Smith, and he lifts up the bit of steak on his fork, and he says something like, “I know this steak is simply a projection of my mind, but I don’t care”? There are people like that, and it makes sense. There’s a reason that there’s a proverb that goes “ignorance is bliss.” 

The problem for Christians is, God doesn’t want us ignorant. He wants us to know something about the world we’re living in, and Daniel’s going to show us. 

Apocalyptic Literature 

The Introduction mentions a few points about apocalyptic literature that I’ll repeat here. I just mentioned above that the most important thing about apocalyptic is its connection to revelation. That’s how it gets its name. Apocalypse is a Greek word that means “revelation.” The Book of Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse, and the word apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) is the very first word of the book in Greek. (It was, in fact, the book of Revelation that gave the genre of apocalyptic literature its name.) So thinking about the distinctive features of the book of Revelation will help us think about apocalyptic literature in general. Probably the first thing you think of for the book of Revelation is the strange imagery. We’re going to get that in spades in the back half of Daniel. The appearance of angels is characteristic of apocalypses. That’s different from classical prophecy. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Hosea all receive messages from God, and no angel is mentioned. We’ll see, though, that Daniel does not hear directly from God but a heavenly intermediary is sent to him to explain things. Another difference from classical prophecy is that the prophets often (not always) aimed at getting God’s people to repent of sin, but in apocalyptic (certainly in Daniel and Revelation) there is little of that. The message instead is about hope. (Of course, the classical prophets also offered hope.) The idea is that although things look bad for us, actually, if you could see what’s going on in heaven, you’d realize that victory is ours. 

And so we come back to revelation. Apocalypses reveal to us what is going on behind the scenes, out of normal sight. We might think that the kingdoms of the world are all powerful, but Daniel learns that they aren’t. The kingdoms of the world might present themselves as wonderful benefits to humankind, but Daniel learns that they aren’t. We might think that the current domination by the kingdoms of the earth means that the God of Israel isn’t really in control, but Daniel learns that’s not true. All of this resonates with the book of Revelation. Probably no book of the Old Testament has had such a strong impact on the book of Revelation as has the book of Daniel. We’re going to see some of those connections as we read Daniel 7. 

Daniel’s Second Half 

The second half of the book of Daniel is all apocalyptic visions, more-or-less (ch. 9 is a bit different). All these chapters (even ch. 9) have angels revealing heavenly mysteries to Daniel about the future. There’s a lot of strange imagery. There are four visions in these six chapters, since the last vision extends over the final three chapters of the book. The visions are dated, thus: 

ch. 7: Belshazzar, year 1

ch. 8: Belshazzar, year 3

ch. 9: Darius, year 1

chs. 10–12: Cyrus, year 3

The apocalyptic visions do not, then, continue the chronology of the first half of the book, but go back to earlier times. Chapters 7–8 are dated before Chapter 5, for instance. Nevertheless, the time when these visions were delivered to Daniel is almost irrelevant since all of the content of these visions points to a time beyond Daniel’s lifetime. 

The Vision 

Basicaly, Daniel dreams about four strange creatures and then a judgment scene. 

The Beasts 

The four strange creatures each come up from the sea (7:2). They are described thus (7:4–8): 

  1. lion with eagles’ wings, but the wings were plucked, it stood up straight and was given a human mind.
  2. bear, raised up on one side, three ribs in its mouth.
  3. leopard, four wings, four heads.
  4. fourth beast, iron teeth, (claws of bronze, 7:19,) ten horns, then a little horn that displaced three other horns, and the little horn had eyes and a mouth. The little horn “made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient of Days came” (7:21–22, interpreted at 7:23–27). Note especially that the little horn “shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law, and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time” (7:25; cf. 12:7). 

None of these beasts look exactly like animals with which we are familiar, certainly not Beast #4. Even the first three are described as “like a lion” and “like a bear” and “like a leopard.” A lion with wings like an eagle is not any kind of lion with which we are familiar. Same for a leopard with four heads and four wings. Apparently Beast #2, the one like a bear, looks more like an animal familiar to us, or at least it’s not described as looking very strange; but neither is it described in much detail. 

I do not know what all this imagery means. I have a feeling that some of it doesn’t mean anything, that its purpose is not to point to some reality but just to exist within Daniel’s dream. I think some of the imagery might be intended to disorient the reader, to signal that we’re not in the world that we know, but we’re in some strange new reality. So, maybe the three ribs or tusks in the mouth of the bear (7:5) mean something specific, but I don’t know what they mean, and I’m not convinced that they mean anything, except that this bear has started eating. The ribs in the bear’s mouth signal that this bear is dangerous, as also does the command to the bear to “devour much flesh.” Why three? Why not three? 

Likewise, why are the first three animals described as similar to a lion, a bear, and a leopard? Are we supposed to understand anything in particular about these specific animals? I doubt it. I think the meaning is that we’ve got three different animals, and they’re all scary, all animals that you shouldn’t mess with, because they’re all the kinds of animals that might eat you. 

The fourth beast might also eat you, and it apparently is not like any animal that we know, so it is all the more strange and ferocious. It also has this strange little horn—a horn with eyes and a mouth. It’s this little horn that becomes the focus later in the vision, but for now there is only the mention that the horn uses its mouth to boast. 

The Judgment Scene 

The second half of the vision (before the interpretation) shifts the perspective away from these strange animals to a judgment scene (7:9–14). Thrones are set up, and then the Ancient of Days (עַתִּיק יוֹמִין) comes, whose own throne is fire. Books were opened (7:10). During this time, that little horn on the fourth beast kept talking (7:11), but then the animal was killed, which silenced that horn. The other beasts continued to live but without so much power. Finally, into the power vacuum created by the removal of these beasts came one not like an animal but like a person, like a human being, like a son of man (7:13). This one like a human received everlasting dominion (7:14). 

Interpreting the Vision 

At this point, Daniel—in his dream—approached one of the heavenly host (7:16), apparentlly one of the “thousand thousands” that “served him” (7:10), to whom we had been introduced earlier. This angel explained the meaning of everything, and here’s what it all means: 

As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. 18But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

Daniel 7:17–18; cf. 7:22

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how brief this interpretation is compared to how detailed the dream itself is. I take that as some justification for my earlier hesitation to ascribe meaning to every detail of the dream. 

The interpretation makes it clear that this dream is very similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. The basic idea is that the kingdom of God is established and entails the diminishment of earthly kingdoms. Or, to look at it from the opposite end: “The basic issue with which this chapter is concerned, as with the dream in ch. 2, is God’s decision to delegate universal sovereignty to Gentile empires for a period of time and then to take back that sovereignty” (Carol Newsom, p. 219). 

Here, beasts = kingdoms (or kings). The beasts are all terrifying in their own way, and they all are focused on consumption. These beasts are not interested in creating peaceful societies, or in bettering people’s lives or promoting human flourishing, or in encouraging attention to important matters divine.

They are interested in eating. 

I said earlier that Daniel, and especially this chapter, had an influence on the book of Revelation. In that book, we also meet a beast, one that has characteristics of a leopard, and a bear, and a lion (Rev 13:2). It’s no coincidence that those specific animals are mentioned! Daniel 7 helps us to read Revelation 13, since we know that beasts = kingdoms. For Revelation, the kingdom is Rome. 

In Daniel, there are four beasts, and there has been a lot of controversy over which specific kingdoms are intended (just like in Daniel 2). I would suggest, as I suggested in respect to Daniel 2, that it doesn’t particularly matter. The characteristics of these kingdoms remain true for all kingdoms all over the world throughout time. This is the red pill of apocalyptic. Whatever earthly kingdom you’re talking about, Daniel wants you to know that it’s a beast concerned primarily with devouring. However powerful you think a kingdom is, Daniel wants you to know that its power is only temporary. 

But isn’t this a prediction about something that’s going to happen in the future, some specific future incident (the establishment of God’s kingdom) at a specific future time? Hmm, well, maybe, maybe not. Now, I don’t deny that some things in the book of Daniel are written as specific future predictions, like in Daniel 8 and Daniel 11. But it seems to me that in the case of Daniel’s dream, what we’re supposed to understand is not a timetable for when God will establish his rule but rather this simple lesson: things look different from heaven’s perspective. If we could look on this world from heaven, we would see that human governments are monsters whose rule is temporary and they stand under the judgment of God. 

Are we supposed to think about four specific kingdoms? Again, my answer is maybe, maybe not. Probably in regard to the four winds that stir up the sea (7:2), the number of winds simply denotes totality, not a specific number of winds (Newsom, p. 221). In respect of the four heads on the leopard (7:6), probably the number four denotes totality, not a specific number (Newsom, p. 224). With regard to the ten horns on the fourth beast (7:7), which stand for kings (7:24), probably the number ten denotes totality, not a specific number (Newsom, p. 225).1 So in the case of the four kingdoms, I think the number four might represent specific kingdoms, but it might just indicate universality, in which case the message would be: this is how all earthly kingdoms behave. What we need is not another kingdom of this world, but a kingdom altogether different (cf. John 18:36). 

From heaven’s perspective, earthly kingdoms are always temporary, and for the most part they remain even after their power is removed (7:12)—that is, except for cases in which God specially intervenes to take care of problems, like that boastful little horn (7:11). Earthly kingdoms often produce boastful little horns, and some examples that have been especially important in the interpretation of the book of Daniel have been the second-century BC Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the mid-first-century AD Roman ruler Nero, and the late-first-century Roman ruler Domitian. When such boastful little horns are removed from office, Daniel encourages us to see the hand of God at work. 

Despite the continuing presence of the beasts, Daniel’s dream and its angelic interpretation make clear that the beasts do not have ultimate authority. It is the Ancient of Days who determines times and seasons, who grants authority and takes it away. 

Daniel is most interested in the strange Beast #4, the one that expires before the others (7:11–12). Daniel further describes this beast and its arrogant horn (7:19–22). He noticed that this boastful horn made war against the holy ones, until God judged in favor of the holy ones (7:21–22). The angel adds further description (7:23–27), especially that this horn (= king, 7:24) will “wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time” (7:25), i.e., three and a half years. Again, I don’t take the reference to three and a half years literally; I think it means a short period of time, certainly short in comparison to the eternal dominion of the one like a son of man. 

A Human—Not Beastly—Kingdom 

But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

Daniel 7:18

The kingship and dominion

and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven

shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;

their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,

and all dominions shall serve and obey them.

Daniel 7:27

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Luke 12:32

Daniel dreams that a human-like being “was given dominion and glory and kingship” (7:13–14). This is the kingdom that corresponds to that rock cut without hands in Daniel 2, the rock that grew into a mountain, that represents the kingdom of God. This is the kingdom that will never be destroyed and thus is completely unlike the beastly kingdoms. 

Who is this son of man?

Who is the one who receives the kingdom? Answers vary, even within this chapter. At first, it’s this human-like one (7:13–14), and then it’s the holy ones (7:18, 22, 27); first an individual, then a group. We need to talk more about this human-like one. He is, literally, “like a son of a man” (כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ), just as the beastly kingdoms are “like a lion” and “like a bear” and “like a leopard.” The phrase “son of a man” or “son of man” simply means a human being. It’s a common way that God addresses Ezekiel, for instance: “Son of man, stand on your feet” (Ezek 2:1; the Hebrew expression here is ben adam). Phil Collins has a great song on the Tarzan (1999) soundtrack called “Son of Man,” all about how Tarzan will start acting like a son of man rather than a son of a gorilla. Same meaning at Psalm 146:3: 

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

Psalm 146:3

Even Daniel is called “son of man” at Daniel 8:17.

Of course, when you hear someone described as “son of man,” you’re not thinking about Ezekiel or Tarzan, and you’re certainly not thinking about someone “in whom there is no help.” You’re thinking about Jesus, and for good reason. He called himself “the Son of Man,” a lot—about eighty times in the Gospels. Some examples: 

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve …. 

Mark 10:45

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

Matthew 25:31

And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.

Luke 12:8

Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

John 1:51

It’s clear that Jesus is talking about himself, but it’s still a little strange as to why Jesus would talk about himself in the third person, and use this strange expression, “the Son of Man”—an expression that means, as we have seen, “the human.” The expression only appears on the lips of Jesus; no one ever calls him that, not even the narrators of the Gospels.2 People that heard Jesus thought it was strange for him to call himself that. At least once Jesus’ audience got confused about who he was talking about. “Who is this son of man?” they asked (John 12:34). 

Why did Jesus call himself “the Son of Man”? No one particularly knows.3 He certainly doesn’t explain himself. It seems apparent that people weren’t expecting a figure called “the Son of Man”—in view of their confusion about the expression—whereas they were looking for a figure called the Christ or Messiah. No one ever said, apparently, “I wonder when the Son of Man will show up,” the way they probably said, “I wonder when the Messiah will come.”4 So maybe Jesus wasn’t using the expression as a title but as a description: he is identifying himself as “the human one.” 

On the other hand, there is this very important passage: 

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Mark 14:61–62

It sure sounds like Jesus has Daniel 7:13–14 on his mind—a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. With that passage in mind, why did Jesus call himself the Son of Man? At least partly, it seems, he wanted to identify himself with the figure in Daniel 7 who received eternal dominion. And after all, Jesus had come announcing the imminence of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:15). If Jesus interpreted the son of man in Daniel 7 as a messianic figure, he wasn’t the only one. At least some Rabbis also thought that the son of man in Daniel 7 was the Messiah.5 

How would the original audience have understood this figure, this one like a son of man? Perhaps they would have understood it as a reference to the Messiah, and perhaps not. The expression, again, means merely “human-like.” Perhaps they would have understood it as an angel?6 Later in the book of Daniel, angels are described as looking like a human (e.g., 8:15), and we will meet angels that are apparently in charge of nations in some sense, as in the “Prince of Persia,” for instance (10:13), and the “Prince of Greece” (10:20). Maybe the original audience would have suspected that the human-like one was an angel, the angelic guardian of God’s people (Michael? 10:13)—and that might explain why the human-like one receives dominion as well as the holy ones receiving dominion.7 On the other hand, elsewhere in Daniel, holy ones are themselves angels (4:17). 

However people may have understood the judgment scene in Daniel’s dream, we can say at least a few of things about this one like a son of man who receives dominion.

  • He is human-like, not beast-like. That is a major contrast, and it’s on the surface of the text, not something you have to dig for. There is a fundamental difference between the beastly kingdoms and the kingdom of the human-like one. What characterizes the beastly kingdoms—devouring, consumption—should not characterize the eternal kingdom.
  • This human-like figure works in concert with, or even as a representative of, the holy ones of the Most High. That much is clear from what we’ve already seen: he receives the kingdom, they receive the kingdom. They work together, they are joined: he is the head, they are the body. And despite what “holy ones” means elsewhere in Daniel,8 I think it must refer to humans here, to God’s people.
  • Jesus considered himself the ultimate fulfillment of this vision. He would rule as king over a newly established kingdom, and his followers, the holy ones, would rule alongside him (cf. Luke 22:28–30). 

The beasts, representing earthly kingdoms, rule the world in their horrible, beastly way. (Remember that in the New Testament it is Satan who has control of the earthly kingdoms [Matt 4:8–9] whereas Jesus came to inaugurate a “kingdom of heaven” [in Matthew’s parlance, e.g., Matt 4:17].) When God determines, he removes the biggest threat, Beast #4 with that boastful little horn, but he allows the other beasts to remain alive with diminished authority. Instead, he grants all authority over all peoples and for all time to (a) one like a son of man (= human-like one, not beast-like) and (b) the holy ones of the Most High, who had been persecuted by the fourth beast but now enjoy dominion. Daniel’s dream shows heaven’s perspective on the operations of the world. 


If we decide to take the red pill Daniel is offering us, what does it do to us? We will see who is really in charge of this world. We will see the kingdoms of the earth the way heaven sees them, as beasts concerned only with devouring and with only a temporary, contingent dominion. And we will understand that God’s holy ones—despite what they may look like from earth’s perspective—will exercise an eternal dominion in concert with the one like a son of man who rides on the clouds. 

I have used concepts from The Matrix to help us think about apocalyptic literature, but those same concepts are present in a lot of works. We could think about the novel 1984, how the government tells their own story about the world, a story it invents for the purpose of perpetuating its own authority. That’s beastlike. Or we could think about another George Orwell novel, Animal Farm, that literally (or is it metaphorically?) focuses on beasts to make similar points. 

How about The Truman Show (1998), about a man who lives in a fake world constructed for the very purpose of fooling him, so that he will continue in life without reflection. After all, as the mastermind behind this cruel experiment (= reality television show) intones at one point in the film: “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” Of course this mastermind would be named Christof; he thinks of himself as Christ-like or even as a God. He created the world for his creature’s enjoyment, and at the end of the movie, after his voice from the clouds appeals to the man to stay in the world created for him, he is crushed that the man rejects the fake world in favor of reality. As Paul wrote, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). 

Daniel’s dream intends to help us choose reality instead of the fake world constructed so that we continue in life unreflectingly. This dream pokes holes in the propoganda of Big Brother. It is the red pill that shakes us awake from the pleasant sleep induced by the matrix. 

And what does the dream show us? 

Earthly kingdoms are beastly in general, and some are worse. It is no great compliment that Winston Churchill bestowed on democracy when he called it the worst form of government except for all the others. His comment is an acknowledgment of the truth of Daniel 7: even the best form of human government is beastly, but there are worse forms of government. Americans routinely refer to their country as the greatest country in the world, and they routinely complain about their government. People generally acknowledge that Hitler’s government was one of the worst forms, something like the fourth beast. Same for Stalin, and Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea, and that’s just a few recent examples. Certainly the government of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC (at least, from a Jewish perspective) would fit this pattern, as would the governments of Nero and Domitian in the first century AD (from a Christian perspective). 

The rule of the beastly kingdoms is temporary, however long it lasts. Sometimes it seems like it lasts a long time, but it’s all a matter of perspective. See 2 Peter 3:8. One time I was walking down the road with my dog, and a bigger dog ran at us. I picked up my little dog, and the big dog jumped up and bit the back leg of my little dog, and hung on to the leg. The whole thing may have lasted a second and a half, but in the midst of it, it seemed like it was lasting much longer, as you can imagine. The rule of the beasts is like that. From earth’s perspective, we imagine their rule as absolute and everlasting. From heaven’s perspective, they’re a blip on the radar. 

This chapter—similar to Revelation—warns us about cozying up too much with human government. I do not mean to say that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics. I do mean to say that Christians need to have a proper perspective on what politics can accomplish, and always recognize that they have gotten involved with a beast. Daniel himself lived a political life, but as we’ve already seen, he kept Babylonian culture (and government) at arm’s length. On a few occasions, at least, he was almost eaten by the beast. And now his dream reveals to him the true nature of the beast that he served. 

God establishes a new dominion to rival—nay, rather, to replace—the dominions of the beasts. The one like a son of man is not like a beast at all. He doesn’t even make war against the beasts. (War would be a rather beastly enterprise; cf. John 18:36.) The beasts are rendered powerless before he shows up. His rule is altogether different, as it fulfills God’s desires for the governance of the world and guarantees the security and happiness of God’s people. 

The point of it all: God will judge in favor of his saints. 

Discussion Questions

What do the beasts in Daniel’s dream represent? Why do the beasts look the way they do?

Who is the “one like a son of man” (7:13)? Why does he receive the kingdom at 7:14, but others receive the kingdom at 7:18?

What do we learn about the little horn in this chapter?

Do you think Daniel’s dream points toward (or is fulfilled by) specific incidents in history or indicates something more general about human society and history?

Do you think Jesus has Daniel 7:13–14 in mind when he responds to the high priest’s question at Mark 14:61–62? If so, how does Daniel 7 help us to understand Jesus?


(1) On the other hand, Newsom, Daniel, 225, thinks the three horns displaced by the little horn (7:8) denote three specific people (Seleucus IV and his two sons).

(2) The dying Stephen does use the expression “son of man” in reference to Jesus at Acts 7:56. See also Rev 1:13; 14:14, but the expression isn’t quite the same in Greek. 

(3) See Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen, eds., ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

(4) But see 1 Enoch 37–71, the so-called Parables (or Similitudes) of Enoch, written around the time of Jesus, and which has a figure called the Son of Man. Unfortunately, this document is preserved only in the Ethiopic language, which complicates comparison to Greek expressions. 

(5) See the Babyonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a; Numbers Rabbah 13.14. See Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 47–50, who associates this view with Rabbi Akiba (see also 48n23 for Akiba’s support of Bar Kokhba) and says that it was a minority view. 

(6) Newsom, Daniel, 219, takes this view; see also Segal, Two Powers, 49n25. 

(7) This is the interpretation pursued at the end of the first chapter of Peter Schäfer, Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), who points out that later in the book of Daniel the angels explicitly appear in human form (8:15; 9:21). See also Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 290. 

(8) And despite the argument of Newsom, Daniel, to the contrary; she says that it means “angels” even here in Daniel 7, even in view of 7:25. 

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