2.THE ‘KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’ AS THE ‘FIFTH KINGDOM’ OF DANIEL
For an overall summary of the book of Daniel we refer to the one presented in Summary of the OT (chap.23). Here we recall the vision of Daniel ‘of the four beasts’ and that of the ‘son of man’, to which we have already alluded (chap.2/5).
In Daniel 7:17-18 it is written: “The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever”. ‘Holy’, in biblical language, means ‘belonging to God’, ‘set aside for God’, ‘pure’, ‘consecrated’; in other words, it is about unfeigned believers.
The ‘kingdom of the saints’ will have a ‘son of man’ as king, raised on the clouds to present himself before God, from whom he receives “authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14). Therefore, it was not wrong for the Jews to have excessive political expectations connected to the Messiah, since those expectations were justified by clear prophecies, which were moreover referring to that very moment.
Another essential prophecy of Daniel (9:24) had in fact set the advent of the kingdom of the saints about five centuries later (“seventy weeks”, that is 490 years)…and the Baptist preached precisely about five centuries after Daniel, with s message which was unequivocal to his contemporaries: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. It is evident that ‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘kingdom of the saints’ and ‘kingdom of God’ are synonyms.
Since to enter the kingdom of heaven it was necessary to be in harmony with God, then the Baptist invited people to put order in their own lives, confirming this inner attitude by the outward act of bathing in water, according to a scheme widely present in the law of Moses (e.g. Exo 30:17-21; Lev 17:15-16). In Mark (1:4-5) and in John (1:29) repentance seems only in view of the forgiveness of sins: this is also stated by Matthew (cf. 3:6), who, however, sees all this as a means to enter into a kingdom of heaven already on the horizon.
It seems evident that the kingdom of the saints has not yet arrived: does that mean that John has deceived his listeners? Perhaps he invited people to repent immediately because the kingdom of God would arrive after a few thousand years? Someone will object: “But then Jesus says…”; we will get to that in due course, but for now the subject is not admissible, because the listeners of John the Baptist could not have a better understanding by going a few pages later in the Gospel! The matter is complicated, however, because it would then have been Jesus sharing that announcement of John’s (Mat 4:17), instructing the apostles to do the same (Mat 10:7). Rather than denying the obvious meaning of the initial announcement made by John and Jesus, it is better to acknowledge it and see how and why the change then takes place.
We find several traces of this immediate expectation of the kingdom of God. The final part of the Baptist’s preaching reaffirms the concept: “The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. […] His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mat 3:10-12).
The beginning of Luke repeatedly reiterates an expectation of liberation (also politically). The angel already announces to Mary that this son will be given “the throne of his father David” (and that throne was certainly not in heaven!), continuing with words that recall the kingdom of the Son of Man prophesied by Daniel (Luke 1:32-33; cf. Dan 7:14). Mary herself in her song sees as having already happened what she supposes is about to happen, stating that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble […] He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, just as he promised our ancestors” (Luke 1:52-55). While in the song of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, it is written that God “has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David […] to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear” (Luke 1:68-74). What is most significant, however, is that the expectation of the immediate advent of God’s kingdom remains until shortly before the crucifixion (Luke 19:11). It remains even afterwards (cf. John 21:33; Acts 1:6; 1Thes 4:5; Rev 22:20); but we do not want to go into that here.
When one reads the announcement of the Baptist on the separation between wheat and chaff, that is, between the righteous and the wicked, one has also to confront the parable of the weeds, where Jesus instead points out the need for a postponement of the separation (Mat 13:24-30, 36-43): is there then a contradiction? Yes, if as often happens, we consider the Gospel as a theological treatise, which exposes its overall vision from the beginning. The Gospel, the New Testament and the whole Bible, on the other hand, are above all history, which begins, develops, and then reaches a conclusion. The parable of the weeds, then, is not in contrast with John’s announcement, but it is a development of it, as we shall see.
If the Baptist announced the imminent arrival of the ‘fifth empire’, does that mean that the ‘fourth empire’ prophesied by Daniel is that of Rome? We continue to support what is written in Summary of the OT, that is that the ‘fourth empire’ is the Greek one, but we prefer to address the matter at the end of this chapter, in the Further insight n.5.
Further insight n. 5
Fourth empire of Daniel: Greece or Rome?
Elsewhere I have already expressed the conviction that the fourth empire of Daniel is represented by Greece and not by Rome (Summary of the OT, chap. 23 on Daniel; Fundamental Structure of Revelation, chap. 1/3/C on Daniel and Revelation). A reader of the first drafts found that what I have written so far implicitly suggests the opposite, asking me questions that I summed up in four queries. In addition to the given answers, other clarifications will come from considering the later parts of the Gospel of Matthew.
B. Is Daniel’s fourth empire Greek or Roman?
The various prophecies contained in the book of Daniel are ordered with the criterion of ‘zoom’, which starts with a first panoramic shot (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of ‘the great statue’, 2:32-45), followed by the vision of ‘the four beasts’ (7:1-27) and then that of ‘a ram and a goat’ (8:1-26). It is in these three visions that we speak of the four world empires that will precede the ‘kingdom of the saints’, which is therefore seen as the ‘fifth empire’. For the three visions of Daniel, we have compiled the table below, so as to make it easier to understand. Then Daniel will concentrate on the fourth empire, on Israel and on Jerusalem, until the resurrection of the dead “at the end of the days”, which are words used at the end of the book.
||V empire of saints
|Of bronze, will rule over the whole earth (v.39)
Strong as iron…breaks things to pieces…partly of baked clay and partly of iron…partly strong and partly brittle (vv.40-43)
|Kingdom of God for ever (vv.44-45)
|Leopard…had 4 heads (v.6)
Different from all the others…10 kings who will come from this, then a king anti God who will overcome the saints (vv.23-25)
|Son of Man… every nation … everlasting (v.14)
|A ram with 2 horns… none could stand against it… became great (vv.3-4). Represents the kings of Media and Persia (v.20)
A goat crossing the whole earth without touching the ground, ram attacked, but at the height of its power the large horn was broken off, replaced by 4 prominent horns. Out of one of them came another horn, which started small but grew until it reached the host of heavens. It threw down the sanctuary. Truth was thrown to the ground (vv.5-12). Is the king of Greece (v.21) … a fierce-looking king that will destroy the holy people. He will be destroyed, but not by human power (vv.23-25)
|Then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated (v.14)
It is clearly said that the third empire is the Persian one and that the fourth is the Greek one…Yet valiant and devout Christians insist that the fourth empire is that of Rome…that is a mystery! The three descriptions of the third empire are coherent and suited to the Persian one; the three concerning the fourth empire are also coherent and fit very well with the empire of Alexander the Great, not with the Roman one.
The reason why many Christians arrive at a ‘backward interpretation’ is that they are used to a ‘backward method’, that is, they begin to read the Bible from the Gospels, which they understand badly because they do not know the previous lessons of God. Then they study how to bend the Old Testament to fit that wrong understanding. In this case, having found that the Messiah came after the Roman empire, they deduce from it that the Roman empire must be the fourth empire, sometimes daringly throwing themselves into juxtapositions with modern history that are peddled as safe, but that last at most a few years. Of course, the matter of the relationship between the Roman empire and the kingdom of God arises and we do not want to avoid it, but deal with it by the ‘chronological method’, that is, trying to understand the revelations of God according to the order he chose, adapting later visions to previous ones, not vice versa.
The first of the four empires is said to be the Babylonian one of Nebuchadnezzar (2:38), while the second empire is given little importance (cf. 2:39a, 7:5) and it is not specified by whom it is represented. To those who come to visit me using the highway, I sometimes indicate not only which exit to take, but also the previous one, to make it clear for them: maybe even God did the same. However, since I believe that even the silences of the Bible are inspired, I avoid spending time on the second empire, which could be that of the Medes (as preceding the Medo-Persian one) or any other.
The subsequent vision of Daniel, that of the ‘seventy weeks’, concerns not which empires will follow, but the times in which the plan of God will be realised, and we see it immediately below.
C. What is the relationship between Daniel’s vision of the four empires and that of the 70 weeks?
In this vision a time of 70×7 = 490 years is indicated, at the end of which the kingdom of God will come (9:20-27). On the interpretation of the first 69 weeks there is wide convergence, while the seventieth week is enigmatic and so everyone sees in it…what he likes to see. We can do nothing but refer to chap. 23/5 of Summary of the OT, limiting ourselves here to some brief considerations.
‘The anointed one who will be put to death’ is evidently Jesus and this happened under the Roman empire, but it is not evident that this vision remains within the temporal limits of the visions of the five empires. For example, Jeremiah describes a return from Babylon after which he does not show any problems (Jer 29:10-14; 31:40), while in Ezekiel transitional difficulties are announced (Eze 37:21-28: chap. 38-39) and in Zechariah (Zec 10:8-10) a new dispersion! I therefore believe that the visions of the five empires stop at the beginning of the fifth empire of saints, giving a summary description of them, while the vision of the 70 weeks describes certain difficulties after the advent of the fifth empire and therefore including the first part of the Roman empire.
- How to interpret the seventieth week of Daniel?
The decisive argument for me, however, is another, because the examination of the Old Testament convinced me that the main task of a prophet is to accompany the people of God to the next prophet, who updates the previous prophecies, reorienting the vision of the future. Everyone agrees that the Old Testament does not distinguish between the first and second coming of the Messiah: how, then, is it possible to base themselves on the Old Testament to know what will happen after the arrival of the Messiah? I believe that Daniel’s task was to lead the people of God to the appearance of the next prophet (the Messiah Jesus), so it is incorrect to try to understand the times after the Messiah starting from the prophecies preceding his coming. To understand the times after Jesus, one must go to his eschatological discourses (understood in the light of the earlier prophets) and then to those of the later prophets (Letters of the Apostles and Revelation).
To quickly conclude this point, I find it ‘fanciful’ to interpose a ‘suspension of time’ of at least 2000 years between the two parts of the seventieth week: it would be like promising the scooter to a teenage son within seven months, and then suspend the counting of time, giving him the scooter when he is 50 years old! Seven years after the crucifixion of Jesus, announced by Daniel in the seventieth week, it was clear to John that the last week should not be interpreted as literal, but as a summary… and this interpretation is applied by him in Revelation.
- Considering the Greek empire as the fourth one, is it not in contradiction with the coming of the Messiah and his suppression under the Roman one?
This question presupposes others more or less explicitly and that it is good to clarify: 1) Has the kingdom of God already come or is it to come? 2) Was the Roman Empire against God or not? Matthew expresses the conviction that the kingdom of heaven has come because the king (Jesus) has come, who has planted a seed of the kingdom that will grow unstoppably; its full realization will come at the end of time (13:24-43; 25:31-34).
Jesus considered Rome in a similar way as Jeremiah considered Babylon: an instrument of God to punish a people who has become corrupt, and to keep a remnant of them obedient. I will not explain the reasons for this here, but I refer to what is written in my book on Revelation (chap. 12, par. 1/B and 2/C). However, a clear demonstration of this is the Roman citizen Paul (Acts 22:27-28), who escaped the murderous will of a majority of God’s people now off-track, appealing to Caesar (Acts 23:12; 25:11). On the relationship between Rome and Christianity, the matters that arise are many and very complex, but on the historical level there is no doubt that Christianity, outside the Roman empire, has grown less and worse. Also for this reason, it is difficult to regard the Roman empire as the fourth empire of Daniel, which expresses the maximum of wickedness, attributable instead to that branch of the Greek empire represented by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who set himself explicitly against the people of Israel and against the God of Israel.
After these premises, the answer follows more easily and is more understandable: I do not believe that the kingdom of God announced by Daniel came (or will come) after the Roman empire, but I believe that it came into the Roman empire, after the various ramifications of the Greek one. Of course, not immediately after the end of the Greek one, but still within those about five centuries indicated by the prophecy of the seventy weeks.