The Big Picture of the Book of Daniel

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The Book of Daniel can be perplexing. It begins straightforwardly enough, with Daniel and his companions facing pressure to assimilate to the pleasures and vices of the Babylonian royal court. He must speak up to difficult bosses, make moral choices, and deal with competitive colleagues. But the narrative becomes increasingly strange as dreams, visions and prophecies come into the picture. At the halfway point (chapter 7), the book becomes unmistakably apocalyptic, portending the rise and fall of future kings and kingdoms, using imagery of bizarre events and creatures.[1] The apocalyptic genre is notoriously difficult to interpret, yet this material does contribute a few points to our understanding of work. In any case, Daniel, like Revelation — the other book-length apocalypse in the Bible — provides much valuable material relevant to work.

As it happens, the Book of Daniel offers a ready-made framework for unpacking its meaning in the workplace. That framework is a nested parallelism structure (in technical terms, a “chiasm”). This structure consists of multiple themes, introduced in the order ABC…, then revisited in reverse order, forming a structure like this:

  • Theme A, Part 1
    • Theme B, Part 1
      • Theme C, Part 1
      • Theme C, Part 2
    • Theme B, Part 2
  • Theme A, Part 2

To help the reader keep track of which theme is which, the writer highlights parallel elements in both Parts of each theme. For example, Theme A in Daniel consists of a vision in Part 1 and a parallel vision in Part 2, while Theme B has sufferings in part 1 and more sufferings in part 2.

This structure is common in many books of the Bible. In Daniel, the Part 1 of each theme is relatively straightforward. Part 2 of each theme is more difficult, but referring back to the corresponding Part 1 makes it easier to make sense of the more difficult passages. In Daniel, chapter one is an introduction, and then the nested parallels begin:

A. Vision of the future overthrow of pagan kingdoms and their replacement by God’s rule (chapter 2)        
     B. Sufferings, yet rewards, for faithful witnesses to God in the meantime (chapter 3)
          C. Humbling/overthrow of the pagan king (chapter 4)
          C. Humbling/overthrow of the pagan king (chapter 5)
     B. Sufferings, yet rewards, for faithful witnesses to God in the meantime (chapter 6)
A. Vision of the future overthrow of pagan kingdoms and their replacement by God’s rule (chapters 7-12)

This structure makes the big picture of Daniel clear. God is coming to overthrow the corrupt and arrogant pagan kingdoms where God’s people are living in exile. Although his people are suffering now, their faithful suffering is one of the chief means by which God’s power moves. This gives them a surprising ability to thrive now, a bright hope for the future, and a meaningful role to play in both present survival and future promise. We will explore the implications and applications that this big picture has for Christians in today’s workplaces. To do so, we will examine how each of the six movements outlined above are orchestrated into the overall theme.

The visions in chapters 7 through 12 — suitably interpreted — closely match the actual unfolding of events in the succession of the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian and Greek empires over hundreds of years. This is especially true of Antiochus IV Epiphanes ( 11:31-39), and therefore many scholars date the writing of the book to his times, ca. 165 BC. Language, historical references and genre are complicating factors. The dating of the book colors how the prophecies are interpreted. If it is dated ca. 165 BC, then the prophecies describe historical events under the guise of prophecy (i.e., after the fact). The chief problem with this viewpoint is it has the effect of undercutting the theology of the book itself. The ability of the prophet to foresee future events speaks to the key theological theme: God will bring about what the prophet has been given to foresee because of God’s sovereign rule over the nations. For a thorough discussion of the late date theory, see J. J. Collins, Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) and J. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989). For the traditional conservative view, see J. Baldwin, Daniel, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978) and S. Miller, Daniel, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), and T. Longman, Daniel, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). In any case, resolving this question is not directly necessary for understanding what the book says about work. In our discussion, we will accept the book’s attribution of Daniel’s words and visions to Daniel of the 6th century BC.