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The Four Beasts in Daniel 7

The Book of Daniel describes a detailed history of the Jewish people and must be interpreted from that viewpoint. The seventh chapter of Daniel describes a period of Jewish history involving four kings described as beasts, with the fourth beast having ten horns, each horn in turn representing a king. Many expositors like to apply that description of the fourth kingdom with ten kings to the Roman period or to the future end times, the latter often resulting in the creation of all kinds of wild scenarios, usually with an antichrist making general mayhem on Earth when Daniel is improperly mixed with the Book of Revelation, but both interpretations of the fourth beast are incorrect.

A correct interpretation can be achieved simply by applying what the Bible says to the Persian period of Jewish history, starting with the Achaemenid Persian Empire during the period when it was sovereign over the Jewish people after the Persians captured Babylon in 539 BCE. That conquest ended the Babylonian-Jewish period and began the Persian-Jewish period, which extended down to the beginning of the Greek-Jewish period of Jewish history when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire for the final time in 331 BCE. The Persian kings who reigned during the Persian-Jewish period are documented in history as shown in the following table of reigns:

The starting events of the prophecy in Daniel described in verses Dan. 7:3-7 and Dan. 7:17, which say that four beasts (kings) will arise from the earth. Then verses 7b and 24 clarify that the fourth beast is really a composite representing ten kings. The most straightforward interpretation of these statements is to assume that there will be three kings of an empire, then a dynasty of ten kings in that empire. When the Achaemenid Persian Empire is examined, the portion while it was sovereign over the Jews, that is exactly what we find in its history.

The Four Beasts and Ten Horns of Daniel 7
Cyrus II the Great (r. 546-530), began rule over the Jews with defeat of Babylon in 539, Jews allowed to return to Jerusalem.
Cambyses II (r. 530-522), son of Cyrus, added Egypt to the Persian empire, pushed the boundary toward Cush and Libya.
Smerdis (aka Bardiya, r. 522-521), son of Cyrus (or throne possibly occupied instead by Gautama, impersonating Smerdis); killed by Darius I.
Darian Dynasty with 10 horns (kings) as follows:
1st King
Darius I Hystaspes (r. 521-486), “the Great,” crossed the Bosporus in the year 512, expanded the Persian empire into Europe, initiated two centuries of Greco-Persian hostilities, defeated at Battle of Marathon in 490; Second Temple dedicated in Jerusalem in 515.
2nd King
Xerxes I (r. 486-465), invaded Greece, defeated Greek army at Battle of Thermopylae, burned the city of Athens and the Acropolis.
3rd King
Artaxerxes I Longimanus (r. 464-424), Egypt revolted, empire declined.
4th King
Xerxes II (r. 424), killed by Sogdianus.
5th King
Sogdianus (r. 424-423), killed by Darius II.
6th King
Darius II Nothus (r. 423-404), troubled times in Egypt, the renegade Jewish Temple at Elephantine destroyed.
7th King
Artaxerxes II Memnon (r. 404-358), oversaw further decline of empire.
8th King
Artaxerxes III Ochus (r. 358-338), initiated minor resurgence of the Persian empire, Egypt reconquered.
9th King
Artaxerxes IV Arses (r. 338-336), battled Phillip II of Macedonia.
10th King
Darius III Codomannus (r. 336-330), deposed Artaxerxes IV, later defeated by Alexander the Great at Granicus River (334), Issus River, (333) and Gaugamela (331); last king of Achaemenid Persian Empire.
End of Persian-Jewish period

The first king in the prophecy (the lion with eagle’s wings that is made to stand like a man, and given the heart of a man) is Cyrus II the Great, who began his reign as King of Persia in 546 BCE. It is Cyrus who is referred to in Scripture as God’s “anointed” (a messiah) in Isa. 45:1 and who was called to kingship by God for the sake of the Jewish people. He conquered and consolidated what is now most of the Middle East as his empire. His most famous action regarding the Jews was his decree circa 538 BCE (we can’t be sure of the exact year since the Bible doesn’t say and there is no secular reference to that exact decree) that allowed them to end their exile in Babylon and return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, both of which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

After his death in 530 BCE, Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II, who is the second beast/king in the prophecy (the bear with three ribs in its teeth). Cambyses extended the empire into Egypt, and pushed toward Cush (modern Sudan) and across the sand desert toward the Siwa Oasis near the Libyan border. These ill-conceived desert expeditions seriously depleted his army, with the result that his brother Smerdis led a coup back in the capital and was recognized as king in most of the Asian part of the empire. Cambyses was not able to reestablish his authority as king and either killed himself or was assassinated in 522 BCE.

Smerdis, the third beast/king in the prophecy (the leopard with four wings and four heads), reigned as king for only seven months, being killed in a coup.

In 521 BCE, Darius I Hystaspes became the fourth beast/king of the prophecy (the dreadful and terrible beast with ten horns), the first king in a dynasty of ten kings (see list above), exactly the number of kings called for in the prophecy about the four beasts.

No doubt, you have heard in sermons and read in study Bibles all kinds of exotic explanations for the four beasts/kings in Daniel, chapter 7. Those outdated interpretations make for entertaining theater. Hollywood and graphic artists on other prophecy websites have had a field day depicting them, but they are very bad exegesis of the Bible. The vivid descriptions of the beasts are an accurate record of what Daniel saw in his vision, but if you focus on the appearance of the beasts and try to give all the wings and heads and teeth and spots special meaning as a means of interpretation, then you will get all tangled up in distractions and miss the point of the prophecy.

When the correct interpretation of the chrono-specific predictive prophecy in Daniel 7 is understood as described above, with an interpretation that matches the biblical text and documented history exactly, describing documented Persian and Jewish history, errors like those made in today’s sermons and study Bibles can be seen for what they are, premature manmade interpretations describing things that were poorly understood until recent days, when the prophecies in Daniel were unsealed by events in modern Israel, in accordance with God’s timetable, so that they could be understood in these end times.

Of course, the most important message contained in the seventh chapter of Daniel is that given in Dan. 7:13-14 and in Dan. 7:27, verses which foretold that there would be an everlasting kingdom of God for one like the Son of Man, which history has revealed to us as the kingdom of God with Jesus as king under the New Covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The above article is adapted from Chapter Four of Daniel Unsealed, our book explaining the chrono-specific prophecies in chapter 4 and chapters 7-12 of Daniel. Check out the book in the bookstore: Daniel Unsealed

Published inArticlesChronologyExpositionProphecy