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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Daniel Overview







Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford.




I. Personal history of Daniel.—Of the personal history of this great seer nothing is known beyond what is recorded of him in the Book of Daniel. Being apparently of royal descent (Daniel 1:3), and when still a youth, he was taken to Babylon captive by Nebuchadnezzar in the fourth year of Jehoiakim. As history does not state that he ever revisited his native land, it is highly probable that he continued in the East from the year of his exile till the third year of Cyrus, which is the last date mentioned in the book. Here his position and his well-known character, no doubt, enabled him to render much aid to his fellow-countrymen, whether at home or in exile.

During this long period he had witnessed the marvellous and rapid growth of the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar. He then watched the gradual decay of this mighty empire after the decease of its founder; he saw the final collapse of it, and witnessed the first beginning of the Persian supremacy, under which, as well as during the short period that a Median viceroy presided over Babylonia, he probably maintained the high position which he had filled during his younger days. The date of his death, like that of his birth, is unknown, but his prophetic activity must have lasted over seventy years. The first of the exiles himself, he lived to see the return of the Jews under Zerubbabel, and to hear of the opposition offered by the Samaritans to the progress of the works at Jerusalem. His fame spread among the exiles who resided in remoter parts of the Babylonian empire, and one of these, the prophet Ezekiel, mentions his wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3), and hints at his intercession (Ezekiel 14:14) for the lives of certain persons. (See Daniel 2:24.)

II. Authorship of the Book of Daniel.—The Book of Daniel is anonymous. No title is prefixed to it such as appears in the case of the books of Isaiah or Jeremiah. It begins abruptly with the statement of a historical fact connected with the reign of Jehoiakim. It then proceeds to state certain incidents that occurred in the lives of Daniel and of his three friends; it then gives an account of various visions and revelations which God gave to the seer; and concludes with the solemn words, “Thou shalt rest and stand in thy lot at the end of days” (Daniel 12:13). In no place is it definitely stated that the author of the book was Daniel himself.

A closer inspection of the book, however, brings to light a remarkable feature in it. Throughout the first six chapters Daniel is invariably spoken of in the third person. Throughout the last six chapters, with three exceptions, Daniel invariably speaks of himself in the first person. Hence a conclusion might be drawn that we have traces of two authors, a biographer and an autobiographer, and that the book is a compilation taken from the two sources. But is such a conclusion justifiable?

Apparently not. For throughout the last six chapters Daniel claims to have seen certain visions, and to have received certain revelations; a vision of four beasts (Daniel 7), which represented four kingdoms, three of which the reader has to identify for himself; a vision of two beasts (Daniel 8), which, according to the words of the heavenly messenger, represented the Medo-Persian and the Greek empires; a revelation of a period of seventy weeks (Daniel 9), which were closely connected with the destiny of his people; and, finally, a revelation concerning certain events which were to occur after the dissolution of the Greek empire. Each of these visions and revelations is introduced to the reader respectively by the words, “I saw in my vision,” “a vision appeared unto me,” “I understood by books,” “I lifted up mine eyes and looked.” It is obvious, therefore, that the last six chapters claim to have been composed by Daniel.

But we notice a remarkable correspondence between the first six and the last six chapters. Each chapter of the former series is a prelude to the latter series. The whole of the first series is essential to render the latter series intelligible. Again, the writer of each series is equally familiar with Hebrew and Chaldee. The same peculiar phrases and forms of language, some of them being exceedingly rare, may be noticed in each series. It is highly improbable that a work which is written upon so definite a plan, which has, moreover, such complete uniformity of style, should be the work of more than one author. If then the author of the latter part was a man named Daniel, it is reasonable to suppose that the former part was written by the same Daniel. In fact, the change from the third to the first person no more disproves that Daniel was the author of the whole work, than a similar alteration of persons in Jeremiah 24:1; Jeremiah 25:1, proves that Jeremiah wrote the former but not the latter chapter. It may then be assumed that the whole book claims to have been written by Daniel.

III. Date of authorship of the Book of Daniel.—Let it be granted that there was only one author of the book, and this is now almost universally acknowledged, it remains to make an approximation to the period when it was composed. And first we must examine what the author states about himself. He claims to have “continued” (Daniel 1:21) from the time of Nebuchadnezzar to the first year of Cyrus, and also (Daniel 10:1) to have received a revelation from God in the third year of Cyrus. He thus gives the extreme limits within which his activity continued. He adds that he was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar “to be ruler over the whole province of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48). He was employed at court in the third year of Belshazzar (Daniel 8:27), and on the night when Belshazzar was slain became “third ruler in the kingdom” (Daniel 5:29). Some similar position he occupied during the obscure reign of Darius the Mede (Daniel 6:3). From what the author states of himself we gather that he lived chiefly under the Babylonian empire.

The internal evidence of the book bears this out. The author exhibits a very minute acquaintance with Babylon. He is aware of the three classes of magicians (Daniel 2:2), who are known from external sources to have existed in Babylon. He knows the magician’s phraseology “dissolving of doubts” (Daniel 5:12); their theology, which recognised “gods whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11); and the sacred character of Babylonian numbers (Daniel 3:1; Daniel 3:19). Besides other smaller points, he is acquainted with Babylonian dress (Daniel 3:21), and Babylonian punishments (Daniel 2:5; Daniel 3:6). Minute particulars like these, recorded as they are casually and parenthetically, betray an author living in Babylon.

His knowledge of Persia is very slight. He does not even profess to have lived later than Cyrus, and consequently he only knew Persia, as it were, in her infancy. He was only aware of three Persian kings after Cyrus (Daniel 11:2), instead of a series of monarchs whose united reigns extended over nearly two hundred years. He was aware of the existence of Greece, and claims to have received a revelation that the power of Greece would overthrow the Persian empire, and that the Greek empire would only last during the reign of the first king. But he is uninformed of the important stages by which the Persian empire was dissolved and superseded by the Grecian.

Of historical events that occurred after the establishment of the Greek empire he knows still less. It is revealed to him that the Greek empire would finally be divided into four parts, and perhaps also that two of these should materially influence the fortunes of his people; but it is remarkable that there is an absence of anything like minute accuracy in the delineation of many of the most important events of this time. While certain events, such as the wars of Ptolemy Philopator and Antiochus the Great, or the persecutions in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, may perhaps be pointed out, yet other events of great importance are omitted, such as the Maccabee wars, and others are described in such a way as is not recorded in history, such as the death of Antiochus. (See Notes on Daniel 11)

It appears then that the internal evidence, slight though it is, favours the hypothesis that the author lived in the Babylonian period rather than later. Difficulties have to be encountered under any hypothesis as to the date of the authorship of the book, but those that are involved in the hypothesis of an early date are the least formidable. (See below, § 6.)

Another fact deserves notice. The author, though not claiming the title of prophet, and not anywhere styled as such in the Old Testament, yet claims to have received certain revelations from God. If therefore he was desirous that his book should be received by his contemporaries, he must have lived at a time when the gift of prediction, or the spirit of prophecy, was still extant. But this gift was extinct in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is therefore necessary to place the author of the book of Daniel at an earlier period: it would certainly be inconsistent with the Maccabee times to suppose that so great a seer as Daniel could have then existed, for, according to the trustworthy historian of those times, the people then complained of the entire absence of prophets. (1 Maccabees 4:45-46; 1 Maccabees 9:27; 1 Maccabees 14:41.)

The external evidence bearing upon the date of the book of Daniel is very slight. We know that it existed in the first century of the Christian era, from the evident allusions to it in Matthew 24:15, John 5:28, Matthew 13:43. (Comp. Daniel 9:27; Daniel 12:2-3.) These references, and the words of our Saviour (Luke 21:27, where He refers to Daniel 7:13), are sufficient for those who believe in His divinity to establish the authority of the book.

To the testimony of the New Testament must be added that of Josephus. He cites largely from the Book of Daniel, and states that the author was favoured by God as one of the greatest of prophets, that his writings were then read, and that it might be inferred that Daniel had converse with God (Ant. x. 11, 7). Josephus states still further that Daniel not only foretold the future as other prophets had done, but that he defined the time when the events should occur. (See also Ant. x. 8, § 5.)

At least 150 years previous to Josephus, if not earlier, we find references to the book of Daniel as a work already in existence. In three passages of the work already referred to (1 Maccabees 1:54; 1 Maccabees 9:27; 1 Maccabees 9:40) there appears to be a verbal allusion to the Greek version of Daniel 9:27; Daniel 12:1; Daniel 11:27, while it is hard to read the speech of Mattathias (1 Maccabees 2:49) without seeing references to the language in which Daniel spoke of the coming tribulation; and not only is the example of Daniel mentioned (1 Maccabees 2:60), but also the story of the three holy children is alluded to as one that was well known. It is highly improbable that a book of recent origin should have acquired so great a notoriety. And on the other hand, as there is no other known source of the story of Daniel except the book of Daniel, it is highly probable that if the story was known B.C. 167, the book must have existed also.

Unfortunately we are unable to find any earlier traces of the book. There are hardly any fragments remaining of Hebrew literature which belong to the period intervening between the last book in the Old Testament canon and the book of Maccabees. We are therefore led back to the times of Daniel himself, and then we find a man named Daniel mentioned by Ezekiel, who corresponds (see § 1) with the Daniel who claims to be the author of this book.

It must be remembered that very little is known of Hebrew literature or of Jewish history from the time of Nehemiah down to the Maccabee period. It is therefore impossible to give a series of authorities who bear witness to the existence of the book of Daniel up to the earliest times, and so to give a rigid demonstration of the date of the book. The following facts. however, have been stated above. (1) The Book of Daniel claims to have been written by a man named Daniel. (2) This Daniel was intimately acquainted with Babylon and many customs of Babylon. (3) He was much less acquainted with Persia. (4) He betrays still less knowledge of the Greek empire and of the Seleucidæ. (5) He lived at a time when the spirit of prophecy was extant. (6) The Book of Daniel was known B.C. 167. (7) Previous to the year B.C. 167 there is a blank of nearly 250 years in Jewish literature, but one of the latest Jewish authors, Ezekiel, was acquainted with a man named Daniel, who corresponds with the person who claims to be the author of the Book of Daniel.

IV. Place of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament Canon.—The Book of Daniel, though placed in the English Version after that of Ezekiel, and reckoned among “four prophets the greater” (Art. vi.), yet occupies a very different position in the Hebrew canon. It is there placed among the Hagiographa, or sacred writings, immediately before the Book of Ezra, and not in the collection of prophetical books. This is to be accounted for by the following reasons. (1) The Hebrew prophet had a special function to fulfil under the Theocracy. He was the authorised teacher of the people. This was his special task, and it was only incidentally that he predicted the future. The prophet was essentially the preacher of righteousness to the generation amidst which he lived, and it was God’s will that in every instance simple prediction should be a subordinate function. But the case of Daniel is just the reverse. He appears before us as one that reveals the hidden future, rather than as a preacher. This is apparent by a reference to Daniel 4:20-27; Daniel 5:17-28, where it will be noticed that while predicting the future he inculcates a moral lesson. This great difference between Daniel and a prophet strictly so-called will partly account for the position of the book in the Hebrew canon. But (2) not only is Daniel a prophet in an improper sense, but the style and matter of his predictions are totally different from those of other prophets. The reader of the Book of Daniel may be compared to a person looking down a long gallery hung transversely with curtains, on which are painted different scenes, and as curtain after curtain is drawn aside the scene behind it is unveiled to his view, till at last he sees the picture at the end. In this way the writings of Daniel are apocalyptic rather than predictive. He presents the future in a series of enigmatic pictures rather than in enigmatic language. But it is not only in style that his writings differ from those of the prophets—the subject matter which he reveals is of a different nature also. While the Holy Spirit limits for the most part the prediction of the prophets to the Captivity, and to the Messiah who is to come after the close of the Captivity, Daniel mentions the Captivity and the overthrow of Jerusalem only once, and taking this as his point of view, predicts that before the coming of the Messiah Israel has to undergo another period of tribulation. The first impression produced upon the reader by the words of the prophets is that after the return from the Exile a golden age will ensue. Daniel foretells the golden age, but places it in the remote future, and mentions a further probation of Israel, which must occur before the commencement of that epoch. It may be inferred that the great difference in matter and style between the Book of Daniel and the prophetical books, strictly so called, led the men of the Great Synagogue to “write Daniel” in a different collection from that in which they inserted the twelve prophets.

V. Object of the Book of Daniel.—The Book of Daniel has more than one aim. (1) In the first place it is essential to complete the continuity of revelation. At the time of the Exile the Israelite had before him the Law, the Prophets, and the Sacred Books so far as they had been received into the canon. These were sufficient to teach him the will of God, the certainty of the return from the Exile, and the coming of the Messiah. But, as was stated above, it might have been supposed that the Messianic days were to appear immediately after the return from the Exile. The book of Daniel corrects this impression, and prepares Israel for the period that is to intervene between the close of the Captivity and the advent of the Messiah. Those glorious days cannot come till a period has passed far darker than any that has been as yet known. In fact, just as the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah led the Israelite to expect a captivity, so those of Daniel prompted him to look for a period of persecution after the return from the Exile; but at the same time they comforted him with the assurance that the duration of the persecution would be no greater than what the mercy of God would enable His servants to bear. The examples of the three holy children and of Daniel would encourage them, and the words of Daniel would comfort the Israelite in his martyrdom, as the persecuted Christian derived hope from the Saviour’s sentence, “Behold I have told you before” (Matthew 24:25). (2) But, secondly, the Book of Daniel had a very distinct object to fulfil amidst the generation in which it was written. Israel was in captivity. Her last hope at Jerusalem—the temple—was destroyed. Must it not have been a temptation to the sufferer to think that God’s promises had proved false? And even though Jeremiah had foretold a return from the Captivity at the end of seventy years: if God’s promises to King Solomon had failed, Israel might argue, why should not Jeremiah’s prophecy fail as well? Accordingly the Book of Daniel shows by what means the hopes of God’s people were sustained. The two great miracles recorded in the Book proved that God was as close to His people in Babylon as He had been at Jerusalem or in the temple. They are led to believe that He is still with them, and that He will deliver them from Babylon as He did of old from Egypt. In this way the object of the Book of Daniel was to support Israel in times of doubt and despair. (3) A further purpose of the Book may be noticed. It will be remembered that there was a considerable amount of missionary zeal among the Hebrew prophets. Not only were there instances when men like Jonah were specially sent to preach righteousness to the Gentiles, but occasionally, in the ordinary course of their ministry, the prophets addressed nations who were outside the covenant. The Book of Daniel exhibits this missionary character. We know that it was a general belief among eastern nations that when a neighbouring tribe was conquered, its gods were conquered as well. Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar both held this opinion. They thought that when Jerusalem fell Bel-Merodach had conquered Jehovah. If we may take an inference from some of the Psalms, it appears that the children of the Captivity were taunted about the weakness of their God; the enemy are described as “blaspheming God’s name,” and asking, in mocking triumph, “Where is now their God?” The Book of Daniel shows us how God made Himself known to the Babylonians, how He asserted His own power, and how in the end the king himself was brought to own the sovereign authority of Jehovah. It may therefore be said that the object of the Book of Daniel is (1) to supply a missing link in the chain of the continuity of revelation; (2) to support Israel amidst the doubts and fears occasioned by the Exile; (3) to reveal to a polytheistic nation the eternal power of the One true God.

VI. Objections to the authenticity of the Book of Daniel.—The objections to the early date of the Book of Daniel are weighty and numerous, and require more space for discussion than can here be given. They depend partly on the language, and partly on the history recorded in the book. It is asserted that (1) many names in the Book of Daniel are not of Babylonian origin, while some betray a very late date, showing that the writer must have lived as late as the Macedonian period. The proper names which are stated to be of non-Babylonian origin are Ashpenaz and Hamelsar; while neither Shadrach nor Meshach have as yet been found in Babylonian inscriptions. Nothing, however, as to the date of the Book can be inferred from these words. All that is proved by them amounts to nothing more than that certain exotic words were prevalent in Babylonia during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, just as French and German words occasionally appear among us in an English garb. Further difficulty in identifying these names is caused by the difficulty of transliterating foreign words into Hebrew characters. Again (2) the derivation of the name Belteshazzar (ch. ), has been stated to be erroneous. It must be remembered, however, that the authority for this statement is the king himself, who, perhaps, did not excel in philology so much as he did in military tactics. Another word, saknu, is stated to be used in a wrong sense. Whereas the word really denotes a high civil officer, it is used in ch. 2:48 to mean an arch magician. On this point, as well as on the presence of Greek words, we must defer our judgment till we have more evidence before us. The principal historical difficulties are with regard to Belshazzar and Darius the Mede. The latter is spoken of as son of Ahasuerus. Now if by Ahasuerus is meant Xerxes, and by Darius the Mede Darius Hystaspis, the author has fallen into a considerable chronological error; but as neither of the two kings has been as yet identified, the inconsistency is only assumed. We know from Esther 1:1 that there was more than one Ahasuerus, and Greek tradition knows of more than one Darius. It is possible that Darius, like Sargon, may some day be brought to light unexpectedly, and then the difficulty about the satraps (ch. vi. 1) may find a solution. The difficulty with regard to Belshazzar is not insuperable. (See Excursus C.) We know that Nabonidus had a son named Belshazzar, and that Maruduk-sarra-usur (probably Belshazzar) was the last king of Babylon. When the queen speaks of Nebuchadnezzar as being Belshazzar’s father, the words are not to be taken literally. That Daniel lived at a late date has also been inferred from the absence of his name in the list of worthies mentioned in Sirach 44:1. It is not plain upon what principles exactly the list was drawn up. It is certainly surprising that the names of Ezra, Mordecai, and Esther should be omitted. It appears as if the writer selected the names from the books of the Law and the Prophets, and then mentioned Nehemiah (Sirach 49:13) as the most noteworthy saint that is recorded in the Hagiographa. Of course Ezra or Daniel would seem more naturally mentioned instead of Nehemiah; but the writer had his own peculiar views, and omitted both names. But objections of this nature are of no value, compared to those which are to be drawn from the language and history contained in the Book of Daniel. In the course of time it is possible that further discoveries will be made, which will make us as well acquainted with the period of the Exile as with the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. Till then, we must suspend a hasty judgment pronouncing this Book to be “obviously” of a later date.



605. Deportation of Daniel.

604. First Year of Nebuchadnezzar.

598. Submission of Jehoiakim.

597. Deportation of Jehoiachin. Reign of Zedekiah commences.

593. Rebellion of Zedekiah. Date of Ezekiel 1-7

592. Date of Ezekiel 8-19.

591. Date of Ezekiel 20-23.

590. War of Cyaxares with Alyattes.

389. Nebuchadnezzar comes to Riblah. Date of Ezekiel 24-25.

588. Date of Ezekiel 29:1-16.

587. Fall of Jerusalem. Capture of Zedekiah. Date of Ezekiel 26-28, Ezekiel 30:20-26; Ezekiel 31.

586. Siege of Tyre resumed. Ezekiel 32-34, 35 (?), 36-39 (?)

582. Deportation of Jews, mentioned Jeremiah 52:20 (Nebuchadnezzar’s 23rd year).


577. Probable Capture of Tyre.

573. Date of Ezekiel 40-48.

571. Date of Ezekiel 29:17 to Ezekiel 30:20.

562. Death of Nebuchadnezzar. Evil Merodach.

561. Release of Jehoiachin, aged 55.

560. Murder of Evil Merodach. Neriglissar or Nergal-Sharezer.

559. Accession of Cyrus to the Median Empire.

556. Laborosoarchod. Nabonidus.

541. Probable date of Daniel 7 Belshazzar’s 1st year (?)

539. Date of Daniel 8 (?) Fall of Babylon, Daniel 5. Dariuo the Mede. Date of Daniel 9.

538. First year of Cyrus according to the Scripture reckoning. Return of the Jews under Zerubbabel.

537. Foundation Stone of the Temple laid.

536. Samaritan Opposition. Date of Daniel 10-12.