Daniel 11 is quite possibly the most difficult passage in Scripture. It is a highly symbolic text with many events that we may not be able to fully comprehend. Still, it was given to us and it is necessary to wrestle with it as we can. The passage flows from chapter 10 and continues through the end of the book in chapter 12, consisting primarily of prophetic communication. To make it easier, we will study it following the structure suggested by the text: first, we will talk about the conflict between Persia and Greece (verses 1-4), then about the conflict between the North and the South (verses 5-39), and finally, (in the next article) about the time of the end (11:40 through the end of chapter 12).
As we read in the beginning of chapter 10, Daniel perceived a great conflict in his vision. Now, in chapter 11, Gabriel gives him an audible message about this conflict, a message “that reminds [Daniel] of what he experienced previously (Dan. 8:13, 14) and also of Gabriel’s interpretations of his visions of previous chapters.”[i]
East-West Conflicts: Persia and Greece (vs. 1-4)
A clash between the Medo-Persian Empire and Greece had already been implied in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the four statues in chapter 2, as well as Daniel’s visions in chapter 7 and chapter 8, all which are chronologically prior to this last prophetic message Daniel received. The text is also quite clear here, mentioning the two empires by name.
1“In the first year of Darius the Mede, I arose to be an encouragement and a protection for him. 2 And now I will tell you the truth. Behold, three more kings are going to arise in Persia. Then a fourth will gain far more riches than all of them; as soon as he becomes strong through his riches, he will arouse the whole empire against the realm of Greece. 3 And a mighty king will arise, and he will rule with great authority and do as he pleases. 4 But as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom will be broken up and parceled out toward the four points of the compass, though not to his own descendants, nor according to his authority which he wielded, for his sovereignty will be uprooted and given to others besides them.” (Daniel 11:1-4)
The first thing we learn is that Medo-Persia had received divine help in its ascension to power. Gabriel recalls the expansion of the empire when Darius became co-regent in Babylon after the Medo-Persians overturned the prideful Belshazzar. History confirms the Persian dynastic developments implied in verse 2. After Cyrus’ initial conquest and kingship (with Darius coregent in Babylon), four kings were at the helm of the empire until its fall. These were: Cambyses (530-522), Darius (522-486), 1 Xerxes (486-465), also identified as king Ahasuerus in the book of Esther, and Artaxerxes (465-423),[ii] who lead the empire into battle against Greece.
While Medo-Persia came to power with divine help, the empire was not going to last forever, as no human empire can. In fulfilment of divine foretelling, Greece would succeed Medo-Persia. Again, the biblical text and history agree. Artaxerxes became the richest ruler of Medo-Persia and was skilled in intrigue, sowing discord among the Greek cities in his intention to divide and conquer. However, he did not succeed; instead, the Greeks united against their enemies and returned the offensive, conquering Medo-Persia under the command of Alexander the Great. It is worth noting here Artaxerxes’s significance in biblical history for two key reasons.
- His decree for the Jews’ return to Jerusalem, the last of three such decrees given by Persian kings, marks the beginning of the seventy-weeks prophecy and the 2300 days prophecy in Daniel 8 and 9. Interestingly, Daniel was given these prophecies in the first year of Darius’s rule, where the angel now begins the story. It is as if Gabriel wishes to remind Daniel that history is unfolding according to what had been predicted.
- Artaxerxes marks the end of the Medo-Persian empire, thus enforcing the prophecies concerning the succession of world empires (see chapters 2, 7, and 8).
Agreement between history and biblical data is also evident in regards to verses 3 and 4 as references to Alexander. In Daniel 2:39 we learned about “a kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth.” It conquered Egypt and extended as far as India during Alexander. In Daniel 8:8 we also learned about the
the male goat [which] magnified himself exceedingly. But as soon as he was mighty, the large horn was broken; and in its place there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.
As predicted twice in Daniel, Alexander’s rule was short-lived as he succumbed to illness in his early thirties and passed away without successors. The Greek empire was therefore divided between his four generals. Ultimately, the entire kingdom (as implied in the expression the four points of the compass in verse 4), irremediably divided, came under the sovereignty of another power:
as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom will be broken up and parceled out toward the four points of the compass, though not to his own descendants, nor according to his authority which he wielded, for his sovereignty will be uprooted and given to others besides them.
Already the fourth earthly kingdom is alluded to in this text. As Greece succeeded Medo-Persia, Rome succeeded Greece. The focus from here on is this period through the time of the end.[iii]
North-South Conflicts: The King of the South and The King of the North (vs. 5-39)
The events described from here on take place during the last earthly empire to maintain prominence during the history of our world, before God Himself will establish His everlasting kingdom. More specifically, the events cover the same period of the toes in Daniel 2 and the little horn in Daniel 7 and 8. Doukhan notes two things that suggest this overlap:
- The parallelism between chapters 11 and 8 pointing to correspondence between the King of the North – King of the South conflict and the activity of the little horn:
Chapter 8 Chapter 11
Persia (verses 3, 4) Persia (verse 2)
Greece (verses 5-8) Greece (verses 3, 4)
Rome (verses 8, 9) Rome (verse 4)
Little horn (verses 9-12) North-south conflict (verses 5-39)
Time of the end (verses 13, 14, 17, 25) Time of the end (verses 40-45)[iv]
- The common features between the King of the North and the little horn. They both originate from the North (Daniel 8:9), challenge God and attempt to usurp his power (Daniel 10:11, 11:36, 37), defile the sanctuary and remove the daily sacrifice (Daniel 8:12, 12, 11:31), establish themselves in the “Beautiful Land” and destroy the people of God, respectively, attack the covenant (Daniel 8:9, 24, 11: 16, 28-30, 41-45), and share the same final outcome, being destroyed by supernatural powers (Daniel 8:25, 11:45).
The power of the north and the little horn therefore present the same characteristic features, the same behavior, come from the same direction, and share the same tragic death.[v]
The outline of the passage indicates that the King of the South and the King of the North take turns attacking each other, suggesting an ongoing struggle within the last earthly empire:
A South attacks North (verses 5-8)
B North attacks South (verses 9, 10)
C South attacks North (verses 11, 12)
A 1 North attacks South (verses 13-25a)
B 1 South attacks North (verses 25b-27)
C1 North attacks South (verses 28-39)[vi]
The literary structure of the text also indicates a certain symmetry. The first three attacks (A, B, C) mirror the last three (A1, B1, C1) structurally, thematically, and linguistically. Doukhan’s further analysis[vii] clearly illustrates this mirroring, therefore I will render it here in full but in table format for further clarity:
|A south (verses 5-8)
With great (rah) power (verse 5)
|A1 north (verses 13-25a)
With a huge (gadol) army and much (rah) equipment (verse 13)
|Alliances (yesharim) between the south and the north (initiated by the south) (verse 6)||Alliances (yesharim) between the north and the south (initiated by the north) (verse 17; cf. 22, 23)|
|Alliance fails (lo yaamod) (verse 6)||Alliance fails (lo taamod) (verse 17)|
|A daughter (bat) is given (verse 6)||A daughter (bat) is given (verse 17)|
|Standing at his place (we amad . . . kanno) and will enter his fortress (maoz) (verse 7)||Standing at his place (we amad al kanno) will turn back toward the fortresses (maoz) (verses 1 8-25a)|
|B north (verses 9, 10)||B1 south (verses 25b-27)|
|A great army (hayil) (verse 9)||A large army (hayil) (verse 25)|
|The sons of the king of the north will prepare for war (yitgare) against the realm of the king of the south (verse 10)||He will stir up his strength (yitgare) against the king of the north (verse 25)|
|Sweep on like a flood (shif) (verse 1 0)||Army swept away like a flood (shif) (verse 26)|
|C south (verses 11, 12)||C1 north (verses 28-39)|
|The king[‘s heart] (Zeb) will be filled with pride (verse 12)
|But his heart (Zeb) will be set up (verse 28)|
|Will slaughter many thousands (ribboth) (verse 12)||And many (rabbim) will join them (verse 34)|
As noted earlier, from verse 5 onward the language become symbolical. The abstract terminology, along with the stylistic features highlighted above and a development in seven stages (culminating with the time of the end), suggest that the conflict is of a spiritual nature. In order to grasp it, we need to unlock the symbolism.
In Scripture, the expression “north-south” suggests the idea of totality (Ps. 89: 11-12; Ezek. 21:3-4). However, the terms have different meanings when used alone. “North” symbolizes evil powers who attempt to usurp God (Is. 14:31, Jer. 1:14) – a symbolism rooted in the Babylonian threat which came from the north. Interestingly, the Babylonian god Baal was believed to reside in the north, and the usurping little horn also comes from the north.
The south symbolizes Egypt, which tended be the power on which Israel relied on instead of relying on God. Such alliances were a clear illustration of a faithless community (see Ex. 5:2, Is. 31:13, Daniel 11:43).
[Thus,] on the one hand, we have the north representing religious power striving to usurp God, while on the other, we have the south standing for human endeavors that reject God and have faith in humanity alone.[viii]
This imagery would have been clear to the Israelites given their historical location between these great powers. Stefanovic brings this point home when he writes:
Centuries before Daniel was born, the land of Palestine was sandwiched between some of the greatest and most ambitious political and military powers in the world. The land of Egypt, which lay in the south, was often more than eager to control the lands of Syria and Palestine. In a similar way, the great Mesopotamian empires, such as Assyria and Babylon, waged large-scale wars in an attempt to control this same region. During the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the whole region was eventually conquered and annexed to the kingdom. A neighboring nation, Syria, was also known for its periodic incursions into Israel’s territory. Thus, as far as the history of Israel and Judah are concerned, the conflicts between north and south do not begin with the divided Greco-Macedonian Empire. The language and imagery present in this chapter go much farther back into the past.[ix]
The historical correspondence is rather difficult and opinions differ, yet three themes emerge from this section of Daniel’s vision:
- north-south conflicts, which may represent the conflict between the church and secularism in directing human destinies, such as “philosophical and political movements, … the fight against obscurantism and fanaticism with the weapon of reason. …. the attacks of the Neoplatonists, the persecutions of the pagan emperors (Nero, Diocletian, Julian, etc.), the humanistic currents born of the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and … our present ideologies and secular and materialistic forms of government.”[x]
- north-south alliances, which may point to compromising attempts between these two powers, such as “attempts of compromise between the church and the state of Constantine, the medieval alliances on questions of law, territorial control, power, and philosophy, and the many religio-political forces at work in the present,”[xi] and
- conflict between the north and God’s people, which likely refer to historical episodes of intolerance and persecution against the latter.
The significance of these themes emerges in the last part of chapter 11 and in chapter 12, which describe the final and most important even in earth history – the final battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. This we will study in the next article.
Secrets to Success
While some of the events described here in symbolic language may have occurred and others lie yet in the future, the conflicts between Medo-Persia and Greece, as well as the fall of the Persian and Greek empires, are historical truths. For many Christians, the fulfillment of biblical prophecies has been a trust factor when it comes to the validity of the Bible as a whole. The transcendent nature of the central Bible message –salvation of humankind from sin and reconciliation with the Creator God, along with the spiritual realities of the divinity and other created beings often seem so remote from our daily life that it is tempting to forsake them. But there is one reminder we can be thankful for: conflict. It is ironic, I know. Things are difficult when we are in the middle of a conflict.
But conflict, unpleasant as it is, can also be a cause for rejoicing. Not because evil has a say in our world, but because conflict means that evil does not have limitless power. Conflict means that opposing powers fight over our lives. Conflict means that God has not given up on us when we sinned but has engaged with Satan in a battle for our trust. Conflict means that heaven is fighting to redeem us and bring us back into harmony with the universe. And if we have learned anything about God from Daniel so far, it is that God holds the supreme power. Not only supreme power of force, but the utmost power of love – a love that will break down all prejudices against His government and cause all to one day declare His righteousness, thus putting an end to this controversy.
[i] Zdravko Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2007), 398.
[ii] Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 167.
[iii] Doukhan, 168.
[iv] Doukhan, 169.
[v] Doukhan, 169.
[vi] Doukhan, 169.
[vii] Doukhan, 170-171.
[viii] Doukhan, 173.
[ix] Stefanovic, 403-404.
[x] Doukhan, 174.
[xi] Doukhan, 175.