Overview of the Book of Daniel

Overview of the Book of Daniel

Overview of the Book of Daniel

Author: The prophet Daniel.


To assure the exiles and early returnees to the land that God was in control of history and that his prophet Daniel spoke the truth about prolonged troubles before the final stage of God's Kingdom.

Date: Shortly after 539 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • Daniel and his friends were loyal to God during their time in exile.
  • Daniel could be trusted to tell the truth because he never compromised with his captors.
  • God is in absolute control over all of history.
  • Israel's exile was extended until four kingdoms ruled over God's people because of their continuing sin.
  • Trials would come in Israel's future, but the Anointed One, the Christ, would come and bring salvation.


The authorship of the book of Daniel has been a matter of considerable debate among interpreters. Many scholars have dated the book between 170 and 165 B.C., during the lifetime of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, well after the time of the prophet Daniel. However, this late date is contrary to the book itself, which indicates that Daniel was its principal author (Dan. 9:2; 10:2) and that it was written shortly after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 B.C. Moreover, Christ himself explicitly associated the book with the prophet Daniel (Matt. 24:15).

Time and Place of Writing:

The controversy over dating the book of Daniel involves three basic issues: (1) the nature of prophecy, (2) alleged historical errors in Daniel, and (3) the linguistic features of Hebrew and Aramaic in the book.

Generally speaking, Israel's prophets were primarily concerned with the religious and social circumstances confronting themselves and their contemporaries. When the prophets predicted future events, they were concerned most often with incidents in the near term. For this reason some interpreters have held that Daniel's vision concerning the "king of the North" and the "king of the South" (Dan. 11:2-12:3) is too detailed to have come from Daniel, who lived 200-300 years before the events described in his prophecy.

However, this point of view disregards the supernatural character of prophecy and the occasional practices of other prophets (e.g., 1 Kings 13:2; Isa. 44:28; 45:1). Although Daniel 11:2-12:3 is unusual, it was certainly not impossible for Daniel to have known these details.

Some advocates of a late date have also attributed historical errors to the book of Daniel to support their view. They have raised questions about Belshazzar's relationship to Nebuchadnezzar (see note on Dan. 5:2) and the identity of Darius the Mede as the those of the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks (including the Seleucids and Ptolemies). This identification is problematic because there is no evidence for an independent Median kingdom in an interval between the Babylonian and Persian kingdoms. Cyrus, the Persian king (550-530 B.C.), conquered the Medes in 549 B.C. and the Babylonians in 539 B.C. (see notes on Dan. 5:1, 31).

Supporters of an early date for the book understand the sequence of the four kingdoms to be predictive of the Babylonian kingdom, the Medo-Persian kingdom, the Greek kingdom and the Roman kingdom. They are supported by the reference to "the Medes and Persians" in 5:28, which shows that the author considered the two as constituting one kingdom.

Those who date the book late argue that several Greek loanwords for musical instruments appear (see note on Dan. 3:5) and that later Hebrew and Aramaic terms also occur (see note on Dan. 2:4). Neither of these arguments is convincing. There is abundant evidence of contact between the Greeks and the peoples of the Near East prior to the time of Alexander the Great. Such contacts are sufficient to explain the use of Greek loanwords prior to the time of Alexander's conquests. The Aramaic and Hebrew of Daniel can be dated anytime between the late sixth and early second centuries B.C. In other words, the linguistic evidence does not lend much weight to either early or late proposals.

The arguments for a date in the second century B.C. contradict the biblical statements regarding the date and authorship of the book of Daniel, and do not sufficiently establish the case for a late date. A date shortly after 539 B.C. (see Dan. 1:21) accords best with the nature of prophecy, historical data, and the language of the text.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Daniel contains two different types of material. Six historical narratives appear in chapters 1-6 and four visions in chapters 7-12. The visions are almost exclusively predictive. Among the six narratives, chapter 2 is distinct because it also contains a prediction.

Reflection on the content of the historical narratives reveals that they are independent narrative units that have been placed together for a specific purpose. The narratives do not give a history of Israel under Babylonian or Persian rule, nor do they provide a biographical history of Daniel or his friends. An overview of the narratives reveals two central concerns. On the one hand the stories emphasize how the absolute sovereignty of God operates in the affairs of all the nations (Dan. 2:47; 3:17-18; 4:28-37; 5:18-31; 6:25-28). Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple was in ruins, God's people were in exile, wicked rulers seemed triumphant, but God remained supreme. According to his sovereign pleasure he would intervene among the kingdoms of this world to establish a universal Kingdom that would last forever.

These narratives show Daniel and his friends as being prominent in the lands of their captors not because they compromised their loyalty to God but because they were exalted by God's blessing on them. This motif is central because it gives credibility to Daniel's prophecies, especially those related to the prolonging of Israel's suffering.

The visions (Dan. 7-12) contain predictions of times in the future during which the truths of the narratives would prove to be of particular importance for God's people. Although the Jews were persecuted during the time of their subjection to Babylonian and Persian rulers, there was no widespread and systematic attempt to abolish their faith. This did not happen until the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175-164 B.C. He attempted to eradicate the Jewish religion and to force the Jews to conform to Greek religious practices. Many Jews followed him, but others refused and suffered severe persecution. One of the major reasons for the writing of Daniel was to prepare God's people for the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and to provide encouragement for those living during that coming period of persecution. The book also looks beyond the time of Antiochus Epiphanes to the coming of Christ. It is Christ who will destroy all human kingdoms and establish his eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace. All of these things are in view in the prophecies of Daniel. The book has been of great encouragement to God's people in times of persecution and continues to inspire those suffering persecution today.

Christ in Daniel:

Daniel's concentration on Israel's restoration after exile draws attention rather directly to Jesus. Like other Old Testament prophets, Daniel predicted a glorious future for God's people that the New Testament explains as fulfilled in the first and second comings of Christ as well as in the entirety of Church history.

Much controversy surrounds many details of the fulfillments of Daniel's predictions, but the basic structure of Daniel's vision of the future leaves no doubt that Christ fulfills the prophet's hopes. This is most clearly seen in the way Jesus identifies himself as the "Son of Man" (e.g., Matt. 9:6; 10:23; 12:8). As Daniel used the term, the "son of man" was a great Davidic king who was exalted by God and who represented God on earth. Jesus, being the Messiah, was the ultimate Davidic king; he alone fulfills the predictions made of the son of man in Daniel's vision (see notes on Dan. 7:13 and Dan. 7:14).

Further, in chapter 9 Daniel learned that Jeremiah's prediction of 70 years for Israel's exile in Babylon would be extended to "Seventy sevens' of years" (Dan. 9:24), or about 490 years. In general terms, this prediction finds initial fulfillment in the first coming of Christ. The prolongation of exile corresponds to the series of four foreign empires that oppressed the people of God (Dan. 2:1-49) and to the appearance of the "rock that became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth" (Dan. 2:34), which Daniel later called "a kingdom that will never be destroyed" (Dan. 2:44). This great Kingdom is none other than the Kingdom of Christ, which began at his first coming, continues today and will reach its consummation at Christ's glorious return.

Other more specific events predicted by Daniel also come to the foreground in the New Testatment. For example, Jesus himself referred to Daniel's prediction of "an abomination that causes desolation" (see notes on Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11), which originally referred to the defilement of the Temple by the Greek Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see "Introduction: Purpose and Distinctives") as a precursor to the defilement brought by the Roman general Titus in 70 A.D. (see notes on Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). In one way or another, most Christian interpreters closely associate this typology with the antichrist, whose spirit is already at work in the world (see note on 1 John 2:18) and will come to full development, perhaps as an actual person, near the return of Christ (see note on 2 Thess. 2:3).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.