Deciphering Daniel 11 (Part 1: Daniel 11:1-20)


Many children’s movies these days seek to appeal to adults as well as the kids through the inclusion of jokes or references that only the adults may understand. However, there are very few movies (or actually anything) that appeals to both kids and scholars. The Old Testament Book of Daniel is one exception. Children’s Bible classes and books often discuss the first six chapters which recount different events that happened to Daniel and some of his friends when they were living as exiles after the fall of the Jewish kingdom of Judah. However, rarely do they focus on the last six chapters which contain visions and detailed predictions about events that would happen after Daniel’s time. Scholars love to discuss those chapters, debating whether they could truly occur hundreds of years ahead of time (spoiler alert: I think they can!) and what relevance they might have regarding events at the end of time. Because interest in the “end times” is not confined to scholars but Christians in general, the Book of Daniel has an appeal that leads them to want to study this book. 

I was recently asked by a Bible study group to help them understand Daniel 11, as it is a particularly challenging chapter to understand due to the number of details it includes. Not only did I greatly enjoy the time spent with this wonderful group of people, but I also enjoyed doing a deep dive study into this chapter and thought I would share the insights I gleaned here as well in the next few posts.

Background – Context and Overarching Content of Daniel 11
Daniel 11 is the middle of a wider section that encompasses Daniel 10-12. In chapter 10, we see that during the third year of King Cyrus of Persia, Daniel was praying and had a vision of an angelic messenger. That messenger shared about divine realities and why he was delayed in coming to visit Daniel in chapter 10 (which is worthy of its own study!), with chapter 11 marking the start of the content he is to share and continues into chapter 12. 

The content itself is essentially a history lesson with two key caveats. One is that this history has not happened yet when it is spoken to Daniel. Second, the history lesson does not feature names and dates, but rather some general descriptions. Other visions in Daniel also describe history but usually use various symbols in their description, often animals such as rams and goats (see Daniel 7-8). This description in this chapter is actually easier in that it is more direct in talking about kings. The directness does not mean it is immediately apparent, especially to modern American readers, so I’ll try to walk through who is being described.

Daniel 11:2-4: Kings in Persia and Greece
It begins by talking about three more kings arising in Persia, with a fourth who will be richer than the others but will rise up against the kingdom of Greece (11:2). Chapter 10 noted that Cyrus was the current king of Persia; the fourth king after Cyrus was Xerxes I who reigned from 486-465 BC (this would be the king described in the book of Esther, there called Ahaseurus). In line with the description, Xerxes would consolidate power and put down some revolts, but would also fight against Greece, being defeated in 480. That attack created some bad blood between Persia and Greece. 

Daniel 11:3 then describes a warrior king arising from Greece. This points to Alexander the Great, who would rise up about 100 years later (336-323 BC) and defeat Persia. The text seems to describe the fourth king of Persia and this king in quick succession, as if one leads to the other, when there is about 100 years between them. This has led some to posit that the fourth king is not Xerxes and that the list of “three kings, and a fourth” does not include all the kings between Cyrus and the warrior king (there appear to be 12), but only the significant kings of Persia. Such an approach runs into some problems and is not necessary, as the Bible can describe things as if they are back-to-back but are actually many years apart (one need only think of messianic prophecies, which can mix features of Jesus’s first and second coming together). 

After noting the great power of this Greek king (11:3), it mentions his quick end and lack of successor that causes the empire to be divided into four sections (11:4). This is exactly what happens a couple of hundred years after Daniel’s time, as Alexander dies after ruling his empire for a short time and it is divided between four of his generals since he has no son to succeed him. 

Daniel 11:5-20 The Kings of the North and South
Because this is not a general history lesson but one given to Daniel for God’s people, the vision then shifts to only focus on two of the powers that emerged after Alexander and focuses on them from the vantage point of the land of Israel. The king of the south is the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt (south of Israel), and the king of the north is the Seleucid Empire in the area of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon (north of Israel). Most of the “kings of the south” will be named Ptolmey, while the kings of the north will either be named Seleucus or Antiochus. Because Israel lay between these two kingdoms, their back and forth battles with each other would affect who ruled over the land of Israel and how they were treated.

Verses 5-20 chronicles about 150 years of interaction between the Selucid and Ptolemaic Empires with remarkable precision and at a pretty fast clip. Selucus serves under Ptolemy for a few years while fleeing from Antigonus I, one of the other former generals of Alexander the Great who ruled some of the other territory of Alexander’s former empire, before returning the land, which reflects what verse 5 says about one of the King of the South’s commanders growing powerful – and eventually having a greater kingdom. Verse 6 then describes a political soap opera involving these empires, as Ptolemy II would give his daughter Bernice to be married to Selucid Antiochus II as a way to form an alliance between the empires, but this alliance would go off the rails when Antiochus II took back his former wife (Laodice) after Ptolmey II’s death. This move upset the alliance and also did not work out well for Antiochus II, as Laodice would poison her husband and kill Berenice and the son of Berenice and Antiochus, with Laodice’s son Selecus II then taking the throne. Berenice’s brother’s Ptolemy III then sought revenge and attacked Seleucus II, as noted in 11:7-9. 

War would continue between these empires, as Seleucus’s sons Selecus III and Antiochus III would attack the Ptolemies (as described in 11:10). A successful and brutal counterattack by Ptolemy IV leads to Ptolemaic superiority for a time (as described in 11:11-12), but this was short-lived as Antiochus III (also known as Antiochus the Great) would gain strength and attack again with a strong army and with allies from Israel (11:13-16), which leads to Seleucid’s control over Israel. We once again see a political marriage go astray, as Antiochus III gives his daughter Cleopatra (not the famous one) to Ptolemy V, but rather than strengthening Selucid power over the Ptolemies, she sides with her husband (11:17). Antiochus III would then focus on expanding his empire in other places, but be defeated by the Romans (11:18) and then go back to his own land, where he would be killed as he tried to plunder a temple (11:19). Selucus IV would follow Antiochus III but only reign for a short time, as he was poisoned by his tax collector and thus not die in battle – just as 11:20 says! 

Chapter 11:21 then describes his successor, but he receives a longer treatment in the text so we’ll look at that in the next post.

Why Do We Care About These Historical Details?
You might be wondering why all these details about ancient political events are included in the Bible. If so, you are asking not just a fair question but also a good question – it is always good to ask the question “so what?” when we read the Bible to think about its relevance and significance because the Bible is written to teach, rebuke, and train us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17)! An answer to this question is often twofold, as we should think first about the relevance for the original audience and secondly about its significance for us today. 

Daniel is the original audience of the message who shared it with his contemporaries and preserved it for future generations. For them, it was a reminder as God’s people remained in exile and then returned to their land only to become enmeshed in a game of political yo-yo that God had planned this all out and that these things were not random events. The prophecy of events shows God’s control of all things and superiority over all nations. That is a central theme in the Book of Daniel, showing up, for example, in the words of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2 and 4. Knowing these predicted events were fulfilled should lead to a similar conclusion for us as well. 

An additional truth that we should grasp from this chapter is the limited nature and ultimate insignificance of what seems like strong power on earth. The text briefly discusses – and does not explicitly name – very powerful and prominent rulers like Darius, Xerxes, and Alexander the Great. The flyby account of the battles between the Ptolemies and the Selucids note how they constantly try to gain more power, but then something happens and plans backfire or get turned upside down (there are a lot of “buts” in this chapter!). Earthly powers are limited, both in their power and also in their length. This may not seem true from our vantage point, as these earthly powers can seem so powerful and seem they will last forever, but when we look at things from a heavenly perspective (remember that these are the words of an angelic messenger), we gain the proper perspective. The people at Daniel’s time and the years that followed needed to hear that message, and so do we.

We don’t need to memorize all the kings’ names or everything that happened, but we do need to remember that God knows them all (before they happen!) and that His power is greater and more enduring than any power on this earth. Rather than taking time to memorize all these kings, take some time to worship and praise God for His power!

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