Deciphering Daniel 11 (Part 2: Daniel 11:21-35)


The previous post looked at the background and first part of Daniel 11 – a challenging chapter to understand in this Old Testament book that features exciting narratives but also complex visions that can baffle scholars. The first twenty verses in this chapter describe political events covering hundreds of years involving the Persian, Greek, Ptolemaic, and Selucid Empires. These verses offer something of a history lesson in advance of the events to remind us of God’s sovereignty in knowing and controlling all things and the fragility and finiteness of earthly powers and figures. A shift happens in 11:21, as the vision focuses on one particular figure and covers the events of a few decades in a similar amount of space it took to recount the events over centuries. While this historical figure is not necessarily well known, the longer description of him shows a special importance to him and the events of this time. In this post, we will identify this figure and his significance and importance for God’s people, both in Daniel’s time and for us today.

Daniel 11:21-35 – Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes
The ruler of the Seleucid Empire that follows Seleucus IV is his brother Antiochus IV, who would reign from 175-163 BC. Although a son of Antiochus III, Antiochus IV was not the rightful heir to the throne, as Seleucus IV had a son named Demetrius who should have succeeded him. Antiochus IV, however, would take advantage of Demeterius’ youth and his imprisonment in Rome and take the throne for himself. That action reflects the description of Daniel 11:21 of one who did not have royal honors but seized the kingdom in a time of peace. 

Like many of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic emperors, Antiochus IV would take another title along with the name related to the dynasty: Epiphanes, which means “God manifest.” This title not only points to the arrogance and self-exalting nature he displayed during his reign, but also allowed for an interesting wordplay, as many would call him “Epimanes” (which means “madman”) because of his bizarre behavior. The description of him in Daniel 11:21 as a “despised person” may seem harsh, but it is reflective of the way he acted and ruled. 

After taking his throne, Antiochus expanded his power. His methods to do so involved deceitful actions and the plundering of lands in ways that his father did not (11:23-24). His strategy of giving gifts to gain allegiance and allies (see 11:24) likely caused some financial hardship on the empire and thus was a reason for some of the looting and plundering. A way that he grew his power over the land of Israel was replacing the Jewish high priest, Onias III with his brother Jason. One finds an allusion to the Jewish high priest in the term “covenant prince” in Daniel 11:22. 

The fighting between the Selucid (the kings of the north) and Ptolemaic (the kings of the south) empires would continue in Antichous IV’s time. Ptolemy VI would attack but lose to Antiochus IV (11:25-26), with the Ptolemaic Empire also experiencing internal struggles due to brothers Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VII fighting over the throne before making an arrangement to be co-rulers for a time. Daniel 11:26-27 speaks to the political gameship of this time either within the Ptolemaic Empire or in their interactions with Antochius IV. Once again, the description reveals not only the deceit and lies at work in these political maneuverings, but also that they ultimately will fail due to God’s power and plan, as they come to an end at “at the appointed time.”

These interactions affect Israel. On the way back to his land, Antiochus IV would take action against “the holy covenant,” that is the Jewish people and their religion, shifting from toleration to outright hostility. This would get even worse after the Romans defeated Antiochus’ advance into the south in 168 BC; Antiochus seems to take out his rage against the Jewish people (11:29-30). This opposition to the Jewish people will include telling them to abandon key practices found in their covenant with God (11:30) and desecrating the temple through stopping the right sacrifices and setting up abominable practices (11:31). What the text describes is confirmed historically in the establishment of an altar to Zeus and offering of a pig in the temple, horrific practices to the Jewish faith. 

Some Jewish people would align themselves with Antiochus (as he offered power and wealth), but others would fight back and risk their lives (11:32-35). This resistance would be led by the group known as the Maccabees, featuring Judas (who got the nickname “Maccabeus,” which means “Hammer”) and his brothers Elezar, Simon, John, and Jonathan. They defeated Antiochus and would restore the temple, which is what the celebration of Hanukkah commemorates. A description of these events can be found in the non-biblical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees as well as the historian Josephus. While the historical sources recount the success of the Maccabees, the description in Daniel does not highlight that. Rather, it highlights the faithful deaths of those in the resistance, as they fall but are “refined, purified, and cleansed” until the end of time (11:35). Therefore, insteading of offering hope through promised victory, the text looks ahead and points to faithfulness to God even in the face of death.

Some scholars think the description of Antiochus IV continues in 11:36, while others believe  there is a shift here to a new figure in the future – the one commonly called the “Antichrist.” We’ll discuss why there are different views and those verses in the next post; now let’s look at the significance of the verses we’ve just walked through.

So What?
Whenever we read the Bible, it is good for us to understand what is being said and why it is being said. I call this the “so what?” question as we need to remember that the Bible is given not for information but for transformation. This passage has a lot of information, but why do we have it?

One thing to remember is that although these events that were in the past for us, they were in the future to Daniel and those who first encountered the Bible. Therefore, a value is once again showing that God knows the future and that nothing happens – even the struggles and hardships of God’s people – outside of God’s knowledge or control. It is also a reminder that God’s people would face challenges; just because they had returned to the Promised Land does not mean that things would always be smooth sailing for them.

Knowing those truths should help God’s people be faithful in those hardships. Even when there was pressure to adopt the Greek customs and practices that Antiochus was forcing upon the people and that even some Jewish leaders were then advocating for, the people were encouraged to remain faithful to God’s covenant. They knew that God was more powerful these things and that God would refine and purify His people whether that was through life or death.

In many ways, this call to remain faithful in the midst of suffering and pressure to turn away from God’s way is the overarching theme of the book; it applies to us today just as it did to those in Daniel’s time and in the time of Antiochus IV. While history does not necessarily always repeat itself, it does often play to the same tune. Antiochus IV himself has been gone for a couple of millennia now, but his spirit continues on. Rather than shrinking back in fear and giving up our faith or compromising it, may we remain faithful to the God who knows it all and outlasts all leaders and realms.

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