God’s kingdom is a kingdom: considering the visions of Daniel

Christians typically ground their vision of the kingdom of God on Jesus’ words in John 18:36: “my kingdom is not of this world.” The decision to give primacy to this particular text comes as part of a thoroughgoing prioritization of the personal and abstract over and against the political and concrete. So, according to this vision, God’s kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world, has no material or political manifestation; it has no territory, no sword, no purse, no subjects. Instead, God’s kingdom reigns inside the hearts of those who believe. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ethical and theological system—not an actual earthly kingdom. Better yet, the kingdom as so conceived is the process by which eternal salvation transforms the inner lives of sinners through God’s spirit.

That this vision of the kingdom of God—emptied of its apocalyptic and political weight, as it were—would conform to Jesus’ own understanding of God’s reign is highly suspect; not least because the Jesus of Synoptic memory often spoke of the kingdom in socio-political terms. According to the parable-tradition, for instance, the kingdom that would soon descend on the world “in power” would achieve sweeping political realignment: tenants would be exchanged, cities given new governors, rebels slaughtered, towns destroyed, houses crushed, and debts forgiven or reckoned.1

Although the Christian mind has been trained to automatically convert these concrete images into mere spiritual and/or otherworldly realities, evidence from the book of Daniel—the progenitor of Christian apocalyptic—suggests that Jesus may have envisioned God’s kingdom in much more mundane ways than Christians usually admit. For, as we see in the book of Daniel, the heavenly kingdom functioned not as an alternative to the kingdoms of the world, but as their replacement. God’s kingdom was designed, in fact, to supplant the political and social authority once held by rival kingdoms. Apart from God’s ability and intention to bridle the nations according to his will in this way,2 there is truly no kingdom of God in the book of Daniel.

The heavenly rock

The first mention of a divine kingdom in the book of Daniel comes in Daniel’s interpretation of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream concerning the statue smashed by a rock “not made by human hands” (2:31-35). Daniel claims that this statue represents the various pagan empires that will dominate the known world. The rock, on the other hand, represents the kingdom God will establish over the earth, thus bringing to an end to all other empires (2:44-45).

The politically-charged logic of the dream, I think, is clear: God’s kingdom—the rock from heaven—will “crush” the kingdoms of the world just as the kingdoms represented by the statue “crush” the empires that came before (Daniel 2:36-45). This new heavenly kingdom will not exist within the kingdoms of the world or among the peoples of the nations, it will bring those pagan polities to a miserable end in the fullest sense—as rock pulverizes rock. The triumphant heavenly rock then, as if the tallest mountain, will demand the reverence once given to the pagan emperor.

A transferal of power

The second mention of a heavenly kingdom comes in Daniel’s vision of the one like a son of man. Whereas in the dream, pagan kingdoms had been represented by the different metals making up the statue, here the empires of the world are terrifying beasts which arise out of the abyss and are given dominion over the earth.

As in the dream of the statue, God does not permit this state of affairs to continue forever. Instead of sending a rock from heaven, though, the Ancient of Days (i.e. YHWH) summons the fourth and final beast to court. Standing before his maker, the beast is justly incinerated.

After this Daniel sees another figure, this time one that looks like a human being. To this human being the Ancient of Days gives “dominion and glory and kingship” in order that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:14).

Following this, an angel reveals to Daniel the meaning of what he has seen. The last king of the last kingdom3 (i.e. the final beast) will be “consumed” according to God’s judgement and “his dominion will be taken away.” Once this is accomplished, “the kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” such that “all dominions shall serve and obey them” (7:26-27).

The symbolic function of the “one like a son of man” is thus revealed: he represents “the people of the holy ones” of God, that is, those faithful Jews who suffer under the tyranny of the pagan kings (cf. Daniel 7:7-25). They, like the son of man, will be rewarded with the power once wielded by those idolatrous kings who “spoke words against the Most High” (7:25). The earthly dominion once maintained by these pagan kings will be transferred to God’s chosen such that now the nations and the peoples will “serve and obey” them.

A kingdom not of this world

These two Danielic visions of God’s kingdom demonstrate that apocalyptically-minded Jews of the second temple period expected the kingdom of God to drive pagan empire into the abyss of history. The pagan states that ruled Israel were to be destroyed not in some abstract or metaphorical sense, but rather as stones shatter idols or as fire devours monstrous beasts. In this singular political vacuum, God’s newly-erected kingdom, led by his saints, would acquire the submission of all the peoples in concrete fashion. Kings, aristocrats, priests, elders, and commanders would all abandon their idols to serve the living God and his son (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Philippians 2:9-11). The nations as nations, not just individual believers, would serve God and his righteous regents as they once served the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Greeks and Romans, even barbarians on the outskirts of the empire, would honor YHWH in their personal and civic lives.

While it remains fashionable in Christian circles to speak of God’s kingdom as a new way of living, as a better ethical system sprouting from the margins of an oppressive dominant culture, Daniel’s divine kingdom was set to replace the worldly kingdoms in as much as it secured the obedience from the “dominions” of the earth. Daniel’s heavenly kingdom then, though “not of this world” in the sense that it is established by God and not by man, was to be earthly in its outworking.

What all this means for the Galilean prophet who appropriated Daniel’s language of God’s kingdom and identified himself with Daniel’s son of man, I would argue, should not be understated.

 


1—Jesus’ parables are reminiscent of the prophetic speeches that warned of Israel’s looming exile under Assyrian and Babylonian regimes. See the symbology of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, Amos’ visions, and Ezekiel’s parables in particular.

2—This divine power should not be confused with the Reformed understanding of God’s all-encompassing sovereignty. In the Biblical writings, God’s supreme sovereignty has to do specifically with his control of geopolitics and history. God can save a helpless Jerusalem from Assyrian assault or humiliate Nebuchadnezzar, the king of kings, into submission.

3—Antiochus Epiphanes, Seleucid king and Hellenizer of Israel.

9 thoughts on “God’s kingdom is a kingdom: considering the visions of Daniel

  1. I would like to note that in the Hebrew Bible that God is compared to a Rock himself in Deuteronomy and Psalms and many other places so the image of the rock become the mountain that fill the terrain symbolise the the arm of God stretched to execute judgment on the world we live in, rather than at the mere end of days. Nebuchadnezzar tried to build a new complete gold statue to make the all his officials to worship the idol perhaps to represent his Babylonian empire lasting into some form of perpetuity but alas, the three Hebrew children resisted worshipping the idol symbolising the faithful remnant of Jews who remain faithful to Yahweh in spite of the humiliation in Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. God executes his judgment on Nebuchadnezzar and he goes mentally incapacitated for seven years (not recorded in any anicent annals other than being mentioned in the Prayer of Nabonidus). His descendant Belshazzar loses the territory and kingdom to Cyrus the newly minted Gentile ‘Anointed One’ (Isaiah 45) and the Jews would have seen this as God’s actual judgment on the atrocities committed by the Babylonians. c.f. Psalm 137 (smashing their babies against the rocks?!)
    The idea of a mere spiritual kingdom popular amongst Christians would be a very far cry from the material, physical kingdom that God establish, overthrowing the evil powers that inhibit the Jews and other Gentiles from gathering in Zion to behold the Anointed One. I suspect it could be due to the pervasive influence of Platonic Hermeneutics that undermine the ‘material nature of the kingdom’ that ironically became normative even after the Constantinain shift in the church.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. We are on the same page.

      As you alluded to, the Hebrew Bible is full of instances in which God establishes his kingdom by passing judgements on kingdoms and empires in dramatic and concrete ways within the confines of history. For most Christians, however, these acts have little to do with God’s kingdom—conceived as a merely spiritual commonwealth. For them, if God’s kingdom is material at all, it must transcend history, politics, and the world as we know it (i.e. a literal new creation at the end of time).

      I think I know what you mean but can you elaborate on how you see Platonism redirecting Biblical religion?

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      1. I am no church historian but let me give my two cents. Platonism influence can be found in Philo who was more interested in deciphering the allegorical interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. He present Moses as summit of philosophy rather than a mere prophet. He wrote many things as well and accepted the Stoic idea of virtue but let me just emphasise how Philo also presented the Logos as the From of Froms and the Image of God cf. Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy. This could explain the influence of Philo on the Prologue in the Gospel of John
        In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him… John 1:1

        More concrete evidence can be found on the Internet Encyclopedia for Philosophy entry for Philo
        Below is a brief extract fron the article. https://iep.utm.edu/philo/#H3

        “The pivotal and the most developed doctrine in Philo’s writings on which hinges his entire philosophical system, is his doctrine of the Logos. By developing this doctrine he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought and provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of the Christian Pauline myth and speculations of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century. All other doctrines of Philo hinge on his interpretation of divine existence and action. The term Logos was widely used in the Greco-Roman culture and in Judaism. Through most schools of Greek philosophy, this term was used to designate a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe. This principle was deduced from an understanding of the universe as a living reality and by comparing it to a living creature. Ancient people did not have the dynamic concept of “function,” therefore, every phenomenon had to have an underlying factor, agent, or principle responsible for its occurrence. In the Septuagint version of the Old Testament the term logos (Hebrew davar) was used frequently to describe God’s utterances (Gen. 1:3, 6,9; 3:9,11; Ps. 32:9), God’s action (Zech. 5:1-4; Ps. 106:20; Ps. 147:15), and messages of prophets by means of which God communicated his will to his people (Jer. 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek. 1:3; Amos 3:1). Logos is used here only as a figure of speech designating God’s activity or action. In the so-called Jewish wisdom literature we find the concept of Wisdom (hokhmah and sophia) which could be to some degree interpreted as a separate personification or individualization (hypostatization), but it is contrasted often with human stupidity. In the Hebrew culture it was a part of the metaphorical and poetic language describing divine wisdom as God’s attribute and it clearly refers to a human characteristic in the context of human earthly existence. The Greek, metaphysical concept of the Logos is in sharp contrast to the concept of a personal God described in anthropomorphic terms typical of Hebrew thought. Philo made a synthesis of the two systems and attempted to explain Hebrew thought in terms of Greek philosophy by introducing the Stoic concept of the Logos into Judaism. In the process the Logos became transformed from a metaphysical entity into an extension of a divine and transcendental anthropomorphic being and mediator between God and men. Philo offered various descriptions of the Logos.” The acceptance of this hermeneutics would pave way for Jesus to be pre-existing divine figure, the Logos.

        But I do not wish to overstate my claim on the influence of Platonism because some church fathers like Irenaeus were not reliant on Platonism for their interpreation of Salviton hitory and creation.

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        1. I imagine to some degree a lack of persecution and marginalization allowed Greek Christians to think ontologically or philosophically rather than historically and politically. That is, Greek Christians were largely not facing immediate threats to their physical well-being. So they didn’t desire or need dramatic historical change in the ways the readers of Daniel might have.

          Regardless, it is fascinating how the early Christian texts became theological treatises about the nature of (the Triune) God and about the process by which people can be redeemed in the next life. God’s logos—the very means by which he deals with the world in order to change history for the sake of his people (Isaiah 55)—became instead an ahistorical element of God’s identity.

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  2. I used to argue the author of the 4th Gospel believed in an earthly political kingdom like the authors of the synoptics, but now I think it may be more likely his community abandoned belief in an earthly messianic kingdom and shifted the location of the kingdom to heaven.

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    1. Interesting. Where in John do you see this shift in the kingdom’s location?

      One thing we know for sure is that John is not nearly as interested in “kingdom” as the Synoptics. Perhaps “eternal life” (“life of the age”?) has taken its rhetorical place.

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