Four kingdoms of Daniel
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The four kingdoms refers to four monarchies, or world empires, described in dreams and visions in the Book of Daniel of the Hebrew Bible. The actual term "four kingdoms" occurs once, found in Daniel 8:22. These four kingdoms are described in different ways throughout Daniel, beginning with chapter 2 and paralleling with chapter 7, chapter 8 and chapter 11. Since Classical antiquity, expositors on Daniel have offered various identities for each of the "four kingdoms", often with a historicist approach.
- 1 The four kingdoms as given by Daniel
- 2 Schools of thought
- 3 Traditional views
- 4 See also
- 5 Appendix
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The four kingdoms as given by Daniel
In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue with body parts made of different materials, which Daniel then interprets as four kingdoms:
- Head of gold
Interpretation given: The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold.[v.37-38]
- Chest and arms of silver
Interpretation given: After Nebuchadnezzar an inferior kingdom shall arise.[v.39]
- Belly and thighs of bronze
Interpretation given: A third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth.[v.39]
- Legs of iron with feet of iron and clay
Interpretation given: A fourth kingdom, strong as iron.[v.40] The feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, show it shall be a divided kingdom.[v.41]
In chapter 7, Daniel has a vision of four beasts coming up out of the sea, and then is told that they represent four kingdoms:
- A beast like a lion with eagle’s wings
- A beast like a bear, raised up on one side, with three ribs between its teeth.
- A beast like a leopard with four wings and four heads.
- A fourth beast, with large iron teeth and ten horns.
Interpretation given: The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it.[v.23] The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom.[V.24]
Schools of thought
Interpretations of the prophetic content of the Book of Daniel differ as to its significance, if any, in historical terms. Some secular historians and certain critics would say that the Book of Daniel has little to no significance beyond its own contemporary historical setting. From some Christian and Jewish religious points of view, the relevance of the Book of Daniel to our own and future time is upheld. Idealists, and the advocates of Realized/Sapiential Eschatology, would say that the Book of Daniel is primarily historical, but also significant as godly instruction.
From the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the 'four monarchies' model became widely used for universal history, in parallel with eschatology, among Protestants. There were still some defenders of its use in universal history in the early 18th century; but the periodization with a 'Middle Age' came in strongly from philology, with Christopher Cellarius, based on the distinctive nature of medieval Latin. The modern historicist interpretations and eschatological views of the Book of Daniel with the Book of Revelation, closely resemble, and are a continuation of, some earlier historical Protestant interpretations.
There are references in classical literature and arts that apparently predate the use of the succession of kingdoms in the Book of Daniel. One is in Aemilius Sura, an author who is quoted by Velleius Paterculus. This gives Assyria, Media, Persia and Macedonia as the imperial powers. The fifth empire became identified with the Romans. (After the 17th century, the concept of a fifth monarchy was re-introduced from Christian millennarian ideas.)
An interpretation that has become orthodox after Swain is that the 'four kingdoms' theory became the property of Greek and Roman writers at the beginning of the 1st century BCE, as an import from Asia Minor. They built on a three-kingdom sequence, already mentioned in Herodotus and Ctesias. This dating and origin has been contested by Mendels, who places it later in the century.
Two main schools of thought on the four kingdoms of Daniel, is:
- The traditionalist view, supports the unison of Medo-Persia and identifies the last kingdom as the Roman Empire.
- The Maccabean thesis, a view that supports the separation of the Medes from the Persians and identifies the last kingdom as the Seleucid Empire.
Roman Empire schema
The following interpretation is a traditional view of Jewish and Christian Historicists, Futurists, Dispensationalists, Partial Preterists, and other futuristic Jewish and Christian hybrids, as well as certain Messianic Jews, who typically believe that the kingdoms in Daniel (with variations) are:
- the Babylonian Empire.
- the Medo-Persian Empire.
- the Greek Empire of Alexander.
- the Roman Empire, with other implications to come later.
Use with Book of Revelation
Christian interpreters typically read the Book of Daniel with the New Testament's Book of Revelation. A beast in Revelation 13 was also interpreted as the empire of Rome. The "city on seven hills" in Revelation is understood by the majority of modern scholarly commentators as a reference to Rome.
Second temple theory
Full Preterists, Idealists, certain Reconstructionists and other non-futurists likewise typically believe in the same general sequence, but they teach that Daniel's prophecies ended with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and have little to no implications beyond that. Jewish and Christian Futurists, Dispensationalists, and, to some degree, Partial Preterists believe that the prophecies of Daniel stopped with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem; but will resume at some point in the future after a gap in prophecy that accounts for the Church Age.
Most secular historians and higher critics, and some contemporary Jewish and Christian scholars, hold that the Book of Daniel was written approximately 165 BCE as a vaticinium ex eventu of the events leading up to that era. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, the wars between his successors; the Seleucids and the Ptolemys (the King(s) of the North and the King(s) of the South), and the desecration of the Jerusalem temple by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes are described in detail in chapters 8 and 11. The four kingdoms are viewed as four empires that the author believed had ruled from the time of the mythic Daniel until the time of Antiochus:
- the Neo-Babylonian Empire
- the Median Empire, anachronistically implied in the Book of Daniel to be the successor to the Neo-Babylonian Empire rather than contemporaneous.
- the Achaemenid Persian Empire
- the Macedonian (Greek) Empire of Alexander, and continuing through the Diadochi, the successors to Alexander's empire, in particular the Seleucid Empire, up until the time of Antiochus, who is the "little horn" king of chapters 7 and 8.
"Four kingdoms" are mentioned again in chapter 8, now referring to the kingdoms of the four main successors to Alexander's empire, (the Diadochi, also mentioned in 11:4): Seleucus, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, and Cassander.
The traditional interpretation of the four kingdoms, shared among Jewish and Christian expositors, for over two millennia, is that of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. This view conforms to the text of Daniel, which considers the Medo-Persian Empire as one, as with the “law of the Medes and Persians”(6:8, 12, 15) These views have been supported by the Jewish Talmud, medieval Jewish commentators, Christian Church Fathers, Jerome, and Calvin.
Jerome specifically identified the four kingdoms of Daniel 2 in this way. The 'four monarchies' theory existed alongside the Six Ages and the Three Eras, as general historical structures, in the work of Augustine of Hippo, a contemporary of Jerome.
The view which sees the sequence ending with Greece and the Diadochi, thus excluding Rome, is not without historical precedent however. The pagan critic of Christianity, Porphyry, suggested a variation of this interpretation in the third century CE. In the following centuries, several Eastern Christians espoused this view, including Ephrem the Syrian, Polychronius, and Cosmas Indicopleustes.
During the Medieval ages, the orthodox Christian interpretation followed the commentary by Jerome on the Book of Daniel. It tied the fourth monarchy and its end to the end of the Roman Empire; which was considered not to have yet come to pass. This is the case for example in the tenth-century writer Adso, whose Libellus de Antichristo incorporated the characteristic medieval myth of the Last World Emperor. The principle of translatio imperii was used by Otto of Freising, who took the Holy Roman Empire to be the continuation of the Roman Empire (as fourth monarchy).
The eschatological theory of four monarchies was particularly emphasized by a series of Protestant theologians, such as Jerome Zanchius, Joseph Mede, and John Lightfoot. Mede and other writers (such as William Guild, Edward Haughton and Nathaniel Stephens) expected the imminent end of the fourth empire, and a new age. The early modern version of the four monarchies in universal history was subsequently often attributed to the chronologist and astrologer Johann Carion, based on his Chronika (1532). Developments of his Protestant world chronology were endorsed in an influential preface of Philipp Melanchthon (published 1557).
The theory was topical in the 1550s. Johann Sleidan in his De quatuor imperiis summis (1556) tried to summarise the status of the "four monarchies" as historical theory; he had already alluded to it in previous works. Sleidan's influential slant on the theory was both theological, with a Protestant tone of apocalyptic decline over time, and an appeal to German nationalist feeling in terms of translatio imperii. The Speculum coniugiorum (1556) of the jurist Alonso De la Vera Cruz, in New Spain, indirectly analysed the theory. It cast doubts on the Holy Roman Emperor's universal imperium, by pointing out the historical 'monarchies' in question had in no case held exclusive sway. The Carion/Melanchthon view was that the Kingdom of Egypt must be considered a subsidiary power to Babylon: just as France was secondary compared to the Empire.
The Catholic Jean Bodin was concerned to argue against the whole theory of 'four monarchies' as a historical paradigm. He devoted a chapter to refuting it, alongside the classical scheme of a Golden Age, in his 1566 Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem.
In the conditions leading to the English Civil War and the disruption that followed, many Protestants were millennarians, believing they were living in the 'end of days'. The Fifth Monarchists were a significant element of the Parliamentary grouping and, in January 1661, after Charles II took the throne following the English Restoration, 50 militant Fifth Monarchists under Thomas Venner attempted to take over London to start the 'Fifth Monarchy of King Jesus'. After the failure of this uprising, Fifth Monarchists became a quiescent and devotional part of religious dissent.
Seventh-day Adventist view
The Seventh-day Adventist Church shares the traditional view that the four kingdoms of Daniel, as paralleled in chapters 2 and 7, correspond to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, the Macedonian Empire and the Roman Empire. Futhermore, they hold the view that the ram and goat correspond to the Achaemenid Empire, and the Macedonian Empire. They also hold to the traditional view that the "little horn" in Daniel 7:8 refers to the Papacy; the reference to changing "times and law" (Daniel 7:25) refers to the change of the Christian sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and the attack on the sanctuary (Daniel 8:11) to the mediatorial ministry of Roman Catholic priests. The "time, times and half a time" (Daniel 7:25) represents a period of 1260 years spanning 538 CE and 1798 CE, when the Roman Catholic Church dominated the Christian world. The feet of the statue in Daniel 2, made of mixed iron and clay, represent modern Europe. The Adventist interpretation depends on the day-year principle", the established idea that when used in prophetic context, a day is equivalent to a year.
The general Adventist view is that the little horn spoken of in Daniel 8:9-12 cannot be the same as the one appearing in Daniel 7:8, as it grows out from among the four horns which are the four kingdoms of the Diadochi. Their view is that the second mentioned little horn refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Furthermore, they reason that his transgression of desolation, was only a physical foreshadowing of the much more devastating spiritual transgression against the spiritual sanctuary, by the papacy, i.e. the first mentioned little horn.
|Interpretations of the Four Monarchies|
|Chapter||Interpretation of Daniel as understood by Reformation Historicists|
|Chest & 2 arms
|Belly and thighs
|2 Feet with toes
Clay & Iron
God's unending kingdom
left to no other people
|Daniel 7||Winged Lion||Lopsided Bear||4 Heads/4 Wings
|A son of man comes in clouds
Given everlasting dominion
He gives it to the saints.
|Daniel 8||2-horned Ram
|Uni- / 4-horned Goat
4 Winds (Greece)
A Master of Intrigue
|Cleansing of Sanctuary
Leads to: -->
|(Kingdom of God)|
|North & South Kings
4 Winds (Greece)
|North & South Kings
Person of Intrigue
Pagan & Papal Rome
|North & South Kings
|Michael stands up
Many dead awake
To everlasting life
|(Nations in parentheses are interpretation of symbols as given in the text. Nations in small italics are Historicist interpretation. "One like a son of man" and "Michael" are understood to be the same being.)|
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