The Dream

In the post leading up to this one (, I suggested that Daniel 2—the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—proposes an intriguing take on the subject of divine revelation, how God speaks. The symbol of that revelation—no, more than a symbol, the manifestation of that revelation—is the dream. The dream, as we shall see in this post, contains a key to the interpretation of the times in which the people of God find themselves. Not just for that time, but for every time. 

In the usual reading of the Daniel 2, this powerful dream was dreamt first by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king. But was it? We are never quite told what Nebuchadnezzar actually dreamed. The cagey storyteller of Daniel 2 tells us only that Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams (note the plural). Later, when Daniel encounters his own “vision of the night,” we are told only that “the secret was revealed” (Daniel 2:19) and “the matter of the king was disclosed” (2:23).

The vision itself, when Daniel finally lays it out for the king, is a carefully worked out literary composition, a disclosure of the pattern of history from the time of Babylon to the time of the book of Daniel—the Seleucid era in the early second century BCE. It’s not, well, dreamlike. And the revelation is not to Daniel by himself. In the process of discerning the secret, he prays and consults with his friends—other members of the exilic community in Babylon (2:17-18). And when in the “visions of the night,” whatever that might mean, the mystery is revealed, the first thing Daniel does is recite a psalm (2:20-23). Worship.

All of this is at once mystical and ordinary. To the worshiping community, those trying to live faithful lives in Babylon, the “revealer of secrets” discloses the truth about the times in which they live. This breathes the same air as the Gospel of John where Jesus declares to his followers that “the Spirit will lead you into all truth” (16:13). It’s of a piece with the vision of one such follower of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, in which he is “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). God continues to speak in the community of faith—in dialogue with the scriptures and the church. Such visions take shape among those who pray for them and wait on them. The expectation is that God still speaks.

Of course, this is a dangerous notion. People say all kinds of crazy things on behalf of God. Churches do. Better, we sometimes think, to say that revelation has ceased. All that remains for us is to systematize it and keep it in front of us. This is what theologians are doing when they insist that it was all laid out at the time of creation. They want to nail down God’s will to the patterns of the past. By nailing things down to the past, they control what can be said on behalf of God. If anyone proposes something new, they accuse them of being Johnny-come-latelys and say that God’s will does not change. (Check out the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality on the website.)

But this is to deny what scripture itself seems to affirm. We are continuously called by God toward newness—new insights, new affirmations, new ways to be faithful. To affirm this is dangerous, although in its own way, to not affirm it is also dangerous. This is why it’s necessary, as 1 John 4:1 has it, “to test the spirits to see if they are of God.” And how do we test the spirits? By asking whether this new spirit is consistent with what has been disclosed before, and we do that in conversation with the scriptures and with the church. Perhaps better, the test is not consistency so much as whether the new insight helps us to greater depths in old truths.

The dream centers on a single image, an enormous dazzling statue (2:31) of a human figure. The statue is clearly of ‘adam, humanity itself, human civilization in all its glory. It’s worth noting that the writers of Daniel portray the human figure in terms like “shining” and “awesome.” This is not a negative view of culture. Daniel calls the statue a ṣĕlēm, the Aramaic cognate word for Hebrew ṣelem, the word used in Genesis 1:26-27 for the image of God. The statue represents what the image of God has come to—the wisdom and power (and decadence) of the human race.

But it’s also a story not of achievement but decline. Four epochs are represented by the statue: Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire, represented by the gold head; the Medes, by the silver upper torso and arms; the Persians, by the bronze lower torso and thighs; and last the Greeks, by the iron legs standing on feet partly of iron and partly of pottery. Each epoch is coarser and crueler than the one above. From the point of view of the writers of Daniel, no culture since has achieved what the Babylonian culture achieved. They have a point.

The sequence in the vision seems to follow the sequence of kingdoms in the Daniel stories (chapters 1-6), a sequence which is not entirely historical. But the sequence itself doesn’t much matter, although interpreters continue to argue over it. The four-empire scheme is portable. It can be applied wherever you are in history. What matters is the fourth kingdom and its successors. The fourth kingdom is always the empire under which you—whoever is interpreting the vision—happen to live. When the Greek empire gave way to the Romans, the fourth kingdom conveniently became Rome. 

The vision doesn’t end there, with the statue. There’s one more part to it, what might be called “God’s bowling ball.” For this, Daniel adopts the passive voice: “A rock was hewn out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and pottery and shattered them” (Carol Newsom in her Daniel commentary, p. 60). The destruction is total: once the great rock rolls through nothing of the long chain of civilizations remains, not even the dust. Whether gold or silver or bronze or iron, it is all pulverized and blown away “like chaff from summer threshing floors” (2:35). What’s left is only the rock itself. It fills the whole earth and endures forever (2:44-5). The end of history.

What of this future kingdom? We are quick to rush in with our interpretations, but the reticence of the biblical writer should be respected. Human culture is transitory, the story tells us. What we build is not forever. The rock speaks to a great future discontinuity, one that cannot yet be described. The new kingdom is not built of the material of the kingdoms that preceded it; it is entirely new. This is important for later interpretation.

A Cultural Conversation

What do we make of this vision? Today? How should it inform our own thinking about the realms and cultures of our time? In the long history of the interpretation of this passage, two, quite distinct things, have been done with it. 

The earliest interpretation of the vision is found in the book of Daniel itself. In fact, the last half of the book of Daniel—the apocalyptic visions (7-12)—are extended interpretations of Daniel 2. Chapter 7, the first and oldest of these, still in the Aramaic language, takes the four-kingdom scheme and creatively reworks the imagery. Instead of a statue of a man constructed of four different metals (and some pottery), chapter 7 represents the four kingdoms by four beasts: a winged lion, a bear with prey in its mouth, a winged leopard, and a beast without a name, more terrifying than the others. 

In changing the metals to beasts Daniel 7 loses the idea of a single human culture, represented by the one statue, but it remains the same four-kingdom scheme. It retains at the end a description of the disintegration of the fourth kingdom into pieces (representing the breakup of Alexanders empire into various kingdoms by the Diodochi, Alexander’s generals). The vision in chapter 7 brings the four-kingdom scheme up to date by the inclusion of details about Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king who persecuted the Jews. Antiochus is the “little horn” of the vision. Since there’s no sign in the vision of the rise of the Maccabees, the vision would seem to date sometime in the period between 167 and 164.

The vision also articulates the coming kingdom of God in a new way. While the little horn (Antiochus) is still speaking its blasphemies, the divine court is set up on earth (7:9-10). Justice is about to be served. The little horn is slain and thrown into the fire. And then, in a strinking image, one who looks like a human (“one like a son of man”) arrives on the clouds of heaven. To this “one like a human” the Ancient of Days gives “authority, glory, and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him.” His dominion will not cease (7:13-14).

Who is this “one like a human being?” The text points to the people of God themselves: “Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High” (7:27; NIV). Scholars have lately suggested that the figure is the archangel Michael, the protector of Israel. There is much both in Daniel and in the literature of the time to support this interpretation. For Christians, the figure clearly is Jesus Christ, who called himself “Son of Man,” probably in reference to this passage. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. All point to the complexity of the vision. All point to the discontinuity of the new kingdom from the kingdoms of the past.

But the Daniel 7 reuse of the dream is just the beginning. The four-kingdom scheme was re-interpreted throughout history. For the early church, the four kingdoms were updated so that the fourth kingdom was no longer Greece but Rome. As long as Christians were a sometimes-persecuted minority in the empire, they saw the fourth kingdom in terms very much like those of chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel: a cruel, ravenous, destructive empire. They looked for the new kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The vision gave them hope.

But when Constantine became the first Christian emperor, the interpretation of the vision changed in a quite remarkable way. Eusebius, Constantine’s court theologian, proposed on the basis of Daniel 7:18 that the fourth kingdom would not be destroyed but changed. It would be passed from the cruel pagans who had been so long in power to the “the holy ones of the Most High” not by force but by conversion. This new community of the faithful would become the forever kingdom prophesied in Daniel 2 and 7. The Rome of the Caesars would become the Holy Roman Empire and would remain forever. Or so was the theory.

This remarkable rereading of the vision permitted Christians to shift sides. The original vision was all about discontinuity: the four empires were to be destroyed and a new kingdom, set up by God, would arise in their place. Nothing would be left of the great empires of history.  The new kingdom would be entirely new. The role of the faithful community was to wait and remain faithful. And testify to the provisional nature of all human culture. But now in the new Eusebian interpretation the emphasis is on continuity. Rome, once the persecutor of Christians, becomes “Christian.” The formerly pagan empire becomes holy. And not, as Daniel 2 has it, by God’s bowling ball, but by baptizing what had formerly been pagan to make it Christian. 

With that shift, apologists were eager to claim Rome for themselves. Byzantium—which called itself “Rome” and saw itself as the true heir of Rome—was the first of these, followed by Charlemagne and the Franks, and then others, including, notably, Russia, which claimed to be the “Third Rome” (see Brennan W. Breed in Newsom, p. 92). The present leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has embraced these ideas. They form part of the justification for his claim that Ukraine belongs to Russia. Eschatology has consequences.

In our own country, the claim that America is the new kingdom of God—the transmuted fourth kingdom of the vision—has given theological warrant to the idea that we were and are divinely destined to own all the lands to the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond. 

It does more. The Eusebian interpretation of the dream suggests that the problem is not power in itself; it’s who holds the power. This seductive idea has led the church to collaborate in oppression throughout history. It continues to do so. In recent years in the US, the evangelical church has sold itself to this idea. But when this happens, a peculiar consequence always follows. It’s not, as Eusebius suggests, that the church makes Rome holy; it’s that Rome makes the church unholy. The church becomes simply one more kingdom in the long line. And no better than the rest.

The Eusebian idea rests on a misinterpretation of the vision. In the vision, human civilization is of a piece. It’s one statue, whether the gold head or the iron legs. The kingdom which is to come—the rock carved from stone not by human hands—is of a different order. The change of emperors from pagan to Christian does not change the essential character of the empire. It does not make it divine or holy, a lesson that the church has not always heeded.

The vision portrays all human culture, all human enterprise, as provisional. That does not mean it is not valuable. Clearly, the writers of Daniel are suggesting that there was much in Babylonian culture that was gold. That there is in the history of human culture also some silver, some bronze, some iron, and even some breakable pottery is not to say that it is not valuable. What it’s not is absolute.

When we approach all human culture, regardless of the empire, whether Babylonian or Greek or Roman or American, as provisional, we do the best we can under the circumstances. And we wait for the coming of the great discontinuity—a discontinuity that we cannot begin to understand. 

This idea that culture is always provisional gives—or should give—to us a certain humility. It’s not up to us to build the kingdom of God. We are not God’s bowling ball. And when we try to be those who tear down human culture and build the kingdom of God, we make a royal mess of it. Often our best attempts are no better than, say, Nebuchadnessar’s.

I think this is what Daniel is saying to us and to the people of that time long ago. In part, it was “this too shall pass.” But it’s also that in this time and this culture—whatever this culture is—we are called to serve. Daniel models a way negotiating the place of faithful people in a time of empire. He does not try to overthrow it. To do so would be to empower another, perhaps worse empire. Instead, in this story, he speaks the truth that has been given to him with grace and power, and in the process, he challenges the king to embrace that truth. 

What is the truth? It’s that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, regardless of its achievements—and they were considerable—will be succeeded by other rulers and other realms. Nothing is forever. And that all of it is subject to the judgment of God. And the judgment of history. 

Imagine if in our time the church considered it a primary task to speak truth to power, even when that power claims to be Christian. What if part of this truth were the truth that our empire—the American empire—is of a time and place. Other times will come. Our gold—every civilization thinks it’s gold—will become their silver and their bronze But it’s okay. The eternal kingdom is not ours to create.

And so we wait. And so we live, in the meantime. Which is the only time given to us.



  1. Thank you, Clay. Yes, we wait, while attempting, inadequately, to fulfill the great commandment. Bless us with strength, courage, and resolve.

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