On the evening of September 11, 2001, I began teaching a course on Daniel and apocalyptic literature. Students were stunned by the tragic events still unfolding through the afternoon hours into the evening. A student whose husband, daughter, and son-in-law were working in the World Trade Center was sitting in the corner of the room.
She refused to go home and wait for phone calls. Instead, she chose to stay with the class through those agonizing hours. (She would later learn that her immediate family all survived, but she lost her niece in the tragedy.) It was more than a coincidence that I had adopted my course’s subtitle from the theme identified by Tremper Longman III in his commentary on Daniel: “In spite of present appearances, God is in control.”1
Daniel was written at a time of great national peril to encourage Jews by reminding them that the sovereign God was still in control, despite their suffering in exile. This timeless message has appealed to generations of saints—from the exilic community of the sixth century BC to the faith communities of today. It spoke to the rise and fall of kings and empires in Daniel’s time, and it speaks to the turbulent and chaotic situations on the current world scene.
Yet this message comes through a difficult text. Decoding the apocalyptic timetables and demystifying the exotic dreams and visions to a full extent are both beyond our reach. We lack the tools necessary to gain a firm grip on the meaning and specifics of Daniel’s visions.
Throughout the book, we find that God is the revealer of mysteries; he is truly an “apocalyptic” (revealing) God. At the same time, he also leaves us in suspense regarding heavenly secrets. It is the function of apocalyptic literature to unveil end-time mysteries, but to do so in a way that conceals these mysteries from those who are not meant to understand. So the key to uncovering the significance of Daniel is to engage the question of how to handle the element of mystery in our faith.
A book of questions
Wars and conflicts among nations, global catastrophes that are beyond human control, and the magnitude and intensity of senseless human suffering—all these have the potential to shake our faith to its core. We share Daniel’s genuine need for answers, and with him we ask: “How long?” (12:6).
As in the case of Daniel’s community in captivity, we look to the future with a high degree of uncertainty but with glimpses of hope. In our thinking about God, we need to include the idea that God is the one who reveals mysteries—and yet leaves us in a certain degree of suspense. As we read Daniel, we are reminded that a great deal is happening “underwater,” though oftentimes we see only ripples. This understanding is, potentially, a transformative path leading to enduring faith and perseverance.
Pursuing this transformative path involves the process of “appropriation,” in which the experiences of others in an ancient text— in our case, the book of Daniel—are brought into conversation with modern faith. Appropriation occurs in the intersection between text and reader, through the interplay of their perspectives, and takes two distinct steps: reliving and reexpressing.
What, then, are the implications for those of us who are pilgrims on this journey? We are invited to relive the turbulence of Daniel’s time and to reexpress the significance of this aspect of the apocalyptic God. This is how we may appropriate the message of Daniel in our daily lives. To illustrate what I mean, allow me to share an example from my own life.
Reliving: I used to swim 10 laps daily at the YMCA. But instead of counting the laps, it was my habit to pray for one person in need during each lap of my swim. Earlier this year, I lost three friends to cancer, all within a period of six weeks. When I was at the pool after attending the third funeral, the harsh reminder of the reality of losing everyone I had prayed for struck me really hard.
Reexpressing: Months later, I was still overwhelmed by sadness and loss. My felt emotion paralleled what Daniel says in chapter 10: “I am overcome with anguish because of the vision, my Lord, and I feel very weak. How can I, your servant, talk with you, my Lord? My strength is gone and I can hardly breathe” (10:16–17). Many times in my distress, I have come before the Lord and have experienced uplifting moments when God spoke to me, “Peace! Be strong now; be strong” (10:19)—and I was strengthened.
Somehow, through this reliving and reexpressing, we can come to terms with the extent of human evil and the intensity and magnitude of human suffering in our chaotic world. In spite of current appearances, the sovereign God is still in control.
A book of promises
Amid the uncertainties of Daniel, the theme of God’s sovereignty emerges from both portions of the book: the court tales (chs. 1–6) and the apocalyptic visions (chs. 7–12). God is in control amidst the evil powers of the world, and he is triumphant over the cosmic heavenly conflicts.
Through Daniel’s six court tales, the original audience learned of and preserved the acts of God as they played out in history. In a similar way, our faith is built on God’s promises and our experiential knowledge of him. God saves, protects, guides, comforts, sustains, and empowers us through his intervention in our lives.
Through Daniel’s first-person vision reports, he never ceases to ask for a fuller understanding of the meaning of the visions (7:19; 8:15; 12:8). Faced with bewilderment and frustration time and again, Daniel never gets a concrete answer. But he is assured and reassured of the promise of the sovereign God: Everything will happen “at the appointed time” (11:24, 29).
As we embrace life’s trials and questions, we find ourselves in the same situation. Like Daniel, we have an earnest desire to know “how long?” (12:6). The promise of God’s sovereignty encourages us to seek a deeper level of experiential understanding of what is happening in our lives and in our world. With faith as our basis, we may seek to understand and experience more and more of God’s sovereignty and mystery.
A journey of faith
Through the inquiring spirit of Daniel, we are reminded of our limits to fully comprehend but are encouraged to embark on a journey of faith that is fueled by the quest for understanding. The text of Daniel does not provide us with the “how,” but it does give us glimpses into the mystery of the sovereign God. Time and again, we are assured of the certainty and truth of the events yet to come. The book allows us to perceive the hand of God working in human history—and over and beyond the present human era.
Our interpretive goal should not be to decode the mysteries of Daniel, but to renew our faith in the most high and sovereign God—the God of gods (11:36). The text drives this point home most strongly at the end of the four visions, when Daniel is given a promissory charge: “But you, go on to the end, and you shall rest and stand in your lot at the end of days” (12:13). This final verse calls us, as well, to put our trust in the eternal promise of the sovereign God: “But you, Barbara, go on to the end, and you shall rest and stand …”
In our own faith journeys, perhaps this assuring hope is enough—in spite of current appearances.
Adapted from Glimpsing the Mystery by Barbara M. Leung Lai (Lexham Press, 2016), chs. 1, 5, 6. Scripture quotations are the author’s translation.
1 Tremper Longman III, Daniel, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 13.