“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions.”
A story from my first year at university, when I was studying the Book of Daniel. In the room opposite mine a chap was hosting a Christian Union Bible Study.
They were getting rather bogged down in interpreting the Book of Daniel, for obvious reasons – much of it is weird, and opaque, and not open to easy interpretation. The dreams and visions are psychedelic. Properly the term is apocalyptic.
The consensus amongst most scholars, is that while Daniel depicts period the Babylonian exit in 6th c BC, it was almost certainly written a lot later. It has more in common with the Apocrypha, probably dating from 163 BC – so very late. I said this, trying to be helpful. And a quiet chap piped up “That’s a lie, from the pit of hell.”
You might not know me lost for words, but on that occasion, I really did not know what to say. You might not be surprised to know I did not go back to that Bible Study group again.
Let’s remind ourselves of the contents of the Book of Daniel to chapter 7. We have heard about the burning fiery furnace and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we have heard about Belshazzar’s feast, and Daniel has gone in and come out of the Lion’s Den. And now we hear of the dream of Daniel in the first year of the reign of Belshazzer. Our reading this morning does not give us it all in full. To some extent the book is building up to this section. It tells of world politics of the mid second c bc through the kaleidoscope of vivid dreams.
The night vision of Daniel chapter 7 depicts the rising of four great beasts: a winged lion; a ravenous bear; a leopard, and monster beyond description, with iron teeth and 10 horns.
Contemporaries would not have needed telling, that the four beasts are the four successive empires which dominated the Middle East between the sixth and second centuries BC: the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians and then the Greeks. The last beast, or empire, was the most fearsome, certainly in terms of how the vision depicts it. Its ten horns are ferocious. One of them, interestingly “a little one,” even speaks. It may be “dreadful and exceedingly strong” nevertheless it is presented pejoratively and contemptuously. But nothing hides its capacity for evil. Daniel sees something else. The Ancient of Days is seen, enthroned in the court of heaven. In the section, which is missed out in today’s reading, we hear “the court sat in judgement and the books were opened”. And over the noise coming from the “little horn”, before the heavenly court, the beast itself was slain, and the Son of Man appears, and to him was given “dominion and glory and kingdom that all peoples should serve him.” You are not wrong if it reminds you of the Book of Revelation.
We need a bit of history: in 175 BC Antiochus IV became the Seleucid ruler of Syria, Judaea and much of Mesopotamia. A descendant of one of Alexander’s generals who had been granted much of the near East, after Alexander’s death. Antiochus, called himself Epiphanes – God made manifest, which indicates something of how he viewed himself.
He had a fascination with the institutions of Judaism, and accepted bribes from different members of the High Priestly family in Jerusalem for the role of High Priest, who was de-facto vassal-governor of Judaea by dint of office. There’s a tussle between the HP and his usurped cousin Jason in 169, which causes Antiochus to storm to Jerusalem and after doing away with Jason in 167, Antiochus does something which will send shock waves through the Jewish world ever after. He sets up a Greek altar on the Temple mount, where the altar of sacrifice outside the Holy of Holies had been. For ever after, and crucially in key texts in the Gospels, this sacrilege is known as “the abomination of desolation”. And it prompts the Maccabean revolt, which lasts until 163 BC.
History does not recount exactly what happened in the Temple precincts at the hands of Antiochus, so shameful and abhorrent was it, but it marked Jewish consciousness ever after, and as we know it’s discussed the New Testament as well because the memory, shock and shame of it.
The Book of Daniel is a way of making sense of this horrendous trauma. Its visions and heightened language and reminder of the prevailing of the hero Daniel of another age, combine to tend and heal the wounds. And crucially to give hope. The book may well have been written before the final outcome of the Maccabean revolt, which sees off the Seleucids, and sees the brief period of Jewish self-rule before the Romans impose their own through Herod in the 1st c BC.
Those words from the stranger to Daniel, as visions of heaven and hell in a sense are before him ring out:
the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.
So, the whole of the Jewish nation are the saints. They are the ones who have been desecrated by the abomination, but together they will be vindicated, and repossess what has been lost. More importantly their holiness as a nation – their sanctity, their sainthood conferred upon them from the outset, as they became God’s people, is underlined. The re-sanctification of the Temple will restore their holiness too.
We hear as the Gospel Luke’s version of the Beatitudes as today’s Gospel:
Blessed be you poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now: for you shall be filled. Blessed are you that weep now: for you shall laugh.
Jesus, as Luke shows him, sees only the poor, the dispossessed, the hungry and the weeping. It is they (possibly even we) who live out the Gospel because to be one of those means to have followed him.
At this moment many are feeling poor and dispossessed, fearful of hunger and cold, and the uncertainty surrounding deteriorating international and environmental situations only compounds misery and fear. All have wept. Of course, we approach the season of remembrance with All Souls on Wednesday, and Remembrance in two Sundays’ time. Jesus promises blessing and holiness and even happiness to those, to us, for whom those gifts seem distant and unattainable. And here we are at the feast of this holiness, surrounded by the heavenly choir of angels and saints. Many of those listed in the litany we shall say shortly are depicted on our reredos, the arms of the tryptic reach out to us, enfolding us into this saintly band and give us hope.