What is the Purpose of the Book of Daniel? An Excerpt from the Story of God Bible Commentary
“The book of Daniel is often read for its contribution to our understanding of end-times events, but sometimes Christians have been so obsessed with this that we have missed its main message…”
The book of Daniel is often read for its contribution to our understanding of end-times events, but sometimes Christians have been so obsessed with this that we have missed its main message: God is in control, no matter how things look, and his kingdom will one day fill the earth. This message grows out of the book’s primary theme: the kingdom of God — its king, its citizens, and its realization on earth. The book reveals why God is the king of all kings, and it offers perspective on how citizens of his kingdom should live while they await the full realization of God’s rule on earth.
The portrayal of God in Daniel is that he is the sovereign, eternal king — the king of all kings. At least two aspects of the book highlight this truth: terms and titles used to describe God, and his interactions with foreign kings. The personal, covenant name for Israel’s God, “Yahweh,” appears in only one chapter (ch. 9). The book is dominated instead by appellations for God “that make explicit that he is not merely a peculiarly Jewish god but the God in/of heaven, King/Lord of heaven, God of gods, Lord of Lords, great God, living God, Most High, august, awesome, and fiery.” But at the same time, he is not remote and distant: “he is also our God, my God, your God, the God of the covenant, the fathers’ God, one who is compassionate and forgiving.”
A second way the book points to God’s sovereign eternal rule is through the shenanigans of foreign kings and God’s responses to them. As each king flexes his royal muscles before the Most High God, he responds with a display of his infinite power and wisdom. The great (and not so great) rulers of the world discover they are no match for him, and, in fact, they depend on him for their lives and lordship. While God often shares his wisdom and power, he can also choose to withhold or withdraw them.
Yet neither his power nor his wisdom is necessarily obvious. In the opening verses of the book, we encounter a situation that any ancient Near Eastern observer would have interpreted as the weaker God of Israel losing to the stronger god of Babylon. But for the subtle hints of the narrative, it would be easy to misinterpret the circumstances in this way. But the narrative indicates that Babylonian Marduk had not defeated Israel’s God; rather, God had given his city, temple, and people into the foreign god’s hand.
God’s power is also restrained throughout the apocalyptic visions, where his faithful people
suffer to death and he suffers great loss with them. The narrative hints at his restraint in its repetition of an “appointed time” (8:19; 11:27, 29, 35; cf. 7:12): history may appear to be running amok, but all is not as it seems. Israel’s God has such control of the world that he does not rush about in desperation, marshal emergency forces, or play “Whack-a-mole” with antichrists: he does everything at exactly the right time, even though his people (and his name) may suffer in the meantime. The wisdom behind such apparent displays of weakness is not intuitive to us. We think God should always “show up,” defeating his enemy and rescuing his people.
In our way of thinking, he gets the most glory when everyone sees how powerful he is. Yet God regularly chooses to operate within the limitations of his creation rather than wowing the world with supernatural acts. Why he chooses to restrain his power is often a mystery to us, as are his reasons for allowing tyrants more power than any human should have. We often do not understand the way he works; his wisdom runs counter to our expectations. But the book of Daniel reminds us that, in spite of appearances, the God of Israel is the God of the nations. Things are not what they seem. So until his kingdom comes in all its fullness, we trust that he is in control — that he could wipe the planet clean now if he so chose, but that in his wisdom he chooses not to. He is all powerful and all wise, despite what the headlines may suggest.
People of the Kingdom
The book of Daniel also gives us a window into what it means to be a citizen of this eternal kingdom. God’s covenant people live in both exile and expectation, awaiting the unobstructed rule of God on earth. The book, of course, is set in exile, and as such, it speaks to a people devastated by the destruction of their identity as God’s people: their land, temple, and Davidic king were gone. Was the covenant null and void? Did God have any plan for them in the future?
The book of Daniel affirms that God was not done with his people — though they would continue to live under foreign kings for much of their existence. These foreign kings had varying responses to their God-delegated authority, and so they also responded to God’s people in different ways. Sometimes they created conditions in which God’s people could thrive — as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did, rising to high positions in foreign courts. Although the Judeans encountered isolated situations of hostility and danger, it appears they also enjoyed great opportunity to influence their surroundings for good. At other times, however, foreign kings oppressed God’s people with every intention of destroying them.
In the suffering that ensued, the book of Daniel offers glimpses of greater battles behind earthly battles. The conflicts we see on earth reflect a cosmic conflict that will continue until God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. God’s people will often get caught in this conflict, and although he is always able to deliver them, he won’t always choose to do so.
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