I think it’s time to talk about the four beasts in Daniel, even though my only confidence is that I still don’t know 100% that I understand it. The main goal is going to be figuring out who or what the four great beasts represent. If you want to take it literally and say that these are actual beasts that will walk the earth, then your anticipated reality will be much more exciting than what I present here.
Daniel has a vision of four beasts coming up out of the sea. Each of these beasts represents an empire that in the next several centuries would conquer the world (at least from the Jewish perspective). We know that they represent kingdoms because the interpreter tells him in verse 17. This prophecy seems to be a greater revelation of the events God revealed in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. It is the most extensive prophecy in the Bible that covers 1000 years (or 2000 years depending on how you date the Roman Empire). The prophecy is so accurate, that its greatest fault in the eyes of critics is that it’s too accurate. Most of the critics assume that prophecy is not possible, so Daniel could not have been written as early as the Babylonian Empire.
There are two prominent interpretations of the beasts depending on who you think wrote Daniel and whether or not prophecy can exist. The skeptic says that the first beast is Babylon, the second is Media, the third is Persia and the fourth is Greece. The more conservative scholar says that the first is Babylon, the second is Medo-Persia, the third is Greece and the fourth is the Rome.
The reason for the difference is the skeptics believe that prophecy is not possible so a Daniel who lived in 6th century BC could not have written this book. Their argument is that the book was written sometime around the 2nd century BC likely during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BC – 164 BC). The conservative scholar argues that it was written in the 6th century and that the prophecy & symbolism fit better with history by combining the Median and Persian Empires.
This article will support the more conservative theory. We are going to assume that Daniel was the author and that he wrote before the fall of the Babylonian Empire. If you would like to know more about the debate over the authorship of this book, then try the John Walvoord Commentary on Daniel.
The First Beast – Babylon
The first beast is easy because everyone agrees that this represents Babylon. It is a lion with wings like eagles, but the wings are plucked off and it is made to stand like a man. Babylon is said to have had winged lions at the gates of their royal palaces. Scripture alludes to Babylon using the symbolism of both a lion (Jeremiah 4:7) and an eagle (Ezekiel 17:3).
Most everyone agrees that the wings being plucked is a reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation earlier in the book of Daniel. The lion and eagle are both ruler over their respective domains and Nebuchadnezzar believed he was ruler over everything as well. However, God demonstrated that Nebuchadnezzar was only a man and it was only by His will that Nebuchadnezzar possessed this power.
The Second Beast – Medo-Persia
The second beast is a bear that is “raised up on one side” with three ribs in its mouth. It was told to “Arise and devour much flesh.” This beast represents the Medo-Persian empire. While the Medes did establish themselves as an empire separate from the Persians, they were conquered by Cyrus and the combined empire is the one who conquered the Babylonian empire in Daniel 5. The bear being raised up on one side symbolizes the two-sided empire which was actually stronger on one side since the Persians had absorbed the Medes by the time they conquered Babylon.
The three ribs in its mouth are less clear. Some have suggested that it represents the three major divisions of this empire: Babylon, Media and Persia. Others have said it represents the three major empires they conquered: Lydia, Babylon and Egypt. Still others claim it represents the empire spanning three different continents: Africa, Asia and Europe.
The command to “Arise and devour much flesh” may be symbolic of the vast expansion of the empire. The Medo-Persian empire was dominant for another 200 years before Alexander the Great. It is estimated that about 44% of the world’s population at the time lived under the Medo-Persian empire, making it the largest ever in percentage of total population.
The Third Beast – Greece
The third beast is a four-headed leopard with four wings which represents Greece. The leopard is less majestic than a lion or bear, yet it is very fast especially if it had wings as well. This is symbolic of the lightening fast expansion of the Greek empire under Alexander the Great, which he stretched all the way to the Himalayas by the time he was 30 years old. The four heads and four wings are representative of the four generals who divided up his empire upon Alexander’s sudden death.
The Fourth Beast – Rome
The fourth beast is given more consideration by Daniel than the others and the most interesting (terrifying) to him as we learn in verse 19. It was not compared to any other living creature, but was unlike anything Daniel had ever seen. Rome was the greatest empire that the world has ever seen, lasting from about 26 BC to the 5th century AD when Rome was sacked (though the eastern half of the empire lasted until 1453 AD). The effect that Rome had on history is unparalleled and can be found in all areas of modern life.
The Roman Empire would also be the most devastating to the Jews when they burned down the temple in 70 AD. The Jewish-Roman wars scattered the Jews and they would not retain a major presence in their homeland until 1948.
The most confusing part of the fourth beast is the ten horns. There is no consensus as to what the ten horns represent historically. We are told in verse 24 that they represent ten kings with an eleventh coming and putting down three of the ten. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of ten specific kings arising out of the Roman empire. Some have decided to take this number figuratively and that the number ten might represent a large number or maybe completeness. Others take it more literally and just acknowledge that we don’t know exactly.
Most people seem to think that this could represent ten future kings who will come out of a resurrection of the Roman empire. This idea comes from Revelation 13, where another beast arises that has the characteristics of these four beasts. In this interpretation, the eleventh horn represents the anti-Christ. Some, who take the number ten as figurative, have said that the ten horns represent the rise of the western world so we are technically still in the period of the fourth beast.