The ‘one like a Son of Man’ in Daniel chapter 7

  • Question 211, from Jacob

    Hi freelance theology, can you please clarify whether Daniel chapter 7, verse 13 is a reference to the Second Coming or to the Ascension of Christ. If verse 14 is describing a post-Second Coming situation and if Daniel chapter 7, verse 13 is the Ascension, does that not imply a roughly 2000 year gap between verses 13 and 14?

    I hope you can make this easier to understand.

    Hi Jacob. Thanks for your question. One of the things that tends to happen with Daniel is that it gets interpreted very literally, when it probably should not be. Daniel’s vision of a person he describes as ‘one like a Son of Man’ being received triumphantly in Heaven has been interpreted by Christians to refer to Jesus Christ. The temptation is therefore to make the ‘vision’ fit the known events of Jesus’s life, or in this case, events after his resurrection.

    Caution is advisable when interpreting parts of the Bible that are written in the style known as ‘apocalyptic’. It’s important to remember that they were written as messages of hope to people facing oppression. In the case of Daniel, this would be to Jewish people suffering under foreign, pagan rule.

    Daniel’s statements in verses 13 and 14 follow descriptions of four empires (beasts) that rise and fall, before ‘one like a Son of Man’ appears in Heaven and is enthroned. In contrast to the other empires, the kingdom belonging to the ‘Son of Man’ will not end.

    Daniel’s chronology has been interpreted as relating to the Babylonian empire that Daniel was living in (first beast) being consumed by the Persian empire (second beast), the Empire established by Alexander the Great, who conquered Palestine (third beast), and finally a period of continual warfare between the Ptolemieic empire and the Seleucid empire, during which Palestine swapped hands several times (the fourth beast with horns that uproot each other). This war eventually produced the brutal ruler Antiochus IV (represented by the small horn that appears on the fourth beast’s head in verse 8), who erected pagan images in the Temple in Jerusalem. The desecration of the Temple by Antiochus was the spark that triggered the Maccabean revolt.

    Gordon Fee notes that “the coming of the messianic kingdom is pictured as taking place following the overthrow of Antiochus… the only kingdom worth mentioning after Antiochus being not the Roman one, but that of Christ.” (Fee, 2002, p.206) Fee goes on to say “In keeping with the whole Hebrew prophetic tradition, these coming historical events were seen against the backdrop of God’s great final eschatological future.” (p.207)

    This could be disputed. It seems unlikely that such a vision would ignore the Roman empire. As a book Daniel is split in two, with the first six chapters written in Aramaic and the following chapters written in Hebrew. This may mean the second half was actually written much later, so the ‘foreknowledge’ of the various empires was actually history, rather than prophecy. If the Hebrew part was written under the rule of Antiochus, it makes sense for it to be set in the distant past rather than a direct criticism of contemporary events. The key message to the people reading the ‘prophecy’ is that Antiochus’ empire will fall, like all human empires, and that God’s liberator will come and save his people.

    As a messianic messages applied to Jesus, this does seem to support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary leader, aided by supernatural forces. This may well have fed certain expectations of what Jesus would do. After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples ask him if he is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts chapter 1, verse 6), meaning is he going to lead a revolt against the Romans. Certainly messianic prophecies like Daniel’s would have fuelled this idea among Jesus’ followers.

    To summarise, the vision of the ‘one like a Son of Man’, which Christians take to refer to Jesus is primarily eschatological – it’s about the end times when God’s natural order will be restored. Chapter 7, verse 13, is therefore not referring to the Ascension. It is a general statement about how God is in control even in situations where those who believe in him are oppressed by earthly empires.


    Fee, Gordon (2002) How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Zondervan

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