24 May 2021

First Three Beasts

Daniel saw four creatures with strange features ascending from the wind-tossed sea, representing four successive kingdoms

Dark Sea - Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
In a dream, Daniel saw “
four beasts ascending” from the chaotic sea, which corresponded to the four parts of the “great image” that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his earlier dream with the head of gold, the arms and breast of silver, belly and thighs of brass, and its legs of iron and clay. Daniel’s vision began with that same fourfold structure - [Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash].

The “head of fine gold” from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream represented his reign over the Babylonian Empire. Each of its four sections signified a different kingdom, beginning with Babylon. Likewise, in Daniel’s dream, Babylon was the first of the four “beasts” that was “ascending from the sea.”

When Daniel interpreted the king’s dream, he identified the “head of gold” by name but not the three subsequent kingdoms, and the clues from his interpretation are too few and ambiguous to link them to any known empires with any certainty. Likewise, in chapter 7, the identities of the second, third and fourth “beasts” are allusive, although more details are provided - (Daniel 2:37, 7:1-8).

Daniel received this vision in the “first year of Belshazzar” when Babylon was still the dominant power in the Near East. Belshazzar was the regent who governed the city for his father, King Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.). He was killed when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians” in October 539 B.C.

In his dream, Daniel saw “visions of his head upon his bed.” This description is a verbal link to the earlier dream received by Nebuchadnezzar:
  • (Daniel 2:28-29) – “There is a God in heaven that reveals secrets, and he has made known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Your dream, and the visions of your head upon your bed are these; as for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed, what should come to pass hereafter.”
In Daniel’s dream, the “four winds of heaven” were agitating the surface of the sea. This symbolized restive nations and peoples. The Aramaic text describes the winds as “bursting forth upon the great sea,” suggesting that the consequent turbulence caused the “beasts” to emerge from the sea.

The Aramaic verb rendered “ascending” is an active participle, denoting action in progress. It describes the process of the four creatures “ascending” out of the sea in quick succession - (Daniel 7:17, 8:8, 11:14, Revelation 7:1-3, 17:15).

The first three were unnatural and composite creatures, each with characteristics from disparate animal species. For example, the lion with “eagle wings.” And each of them was driven by animalistic voracity to seize and devour prey.

The “winged lion” corresponds to the “head of gold” in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. It represented his domain. Daniel was familiar with the writings of the prophet Jeremiah who also used lions and eagles to symbolize Babylon, a swift and voracious conqueror - (Jeremiah 4:13, 25:9-1449:19-22, Daniel 9:1-2).

In its art and architecture, lions represented the glory and might of Babylon. One of its most important deities was Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. She closely resembled the Canaanite deity Ashtoreth (Astarte), and later became identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Her symbols included the lion, and she was linked to the planet Venus. Old Testament references to the “Queen of Heaven” have her in view - (Jeremiah 7:1844:18).

The lion was a powerful predator. Its wings pointed to the rapidity of movement, and their removal to the curtailment of movement. Nebuchadnezzar conquered vast territories in only a few short years, but the rapid expansion of his empire ceased after he died.

Lion - Photo by Nashad Abdu on Unsplash
Photo by Nashad Abdu on Unsplash

The second beast appeared like a bear with one side raised higher than the other. It corresponded to the silver portion of the earlier image, the torso and two arms that were “
inferior” to the head of “fine gold.”

The bear is as strong as the lion but lacks its agility, being a more ponderous creature. Its two sides parallel the two arms of the silver torso, all of which suggest a divided kingdom. In Daniel’s dream, he did not see a bear rearing up on its hind legs, but one that elevated its feet on either side as it stepped forward - (Daniel 2:322:39).

The bear gripped “three ribs in its teeth,” the image of prey seized by a ravenous animal. Whether the number “three” is literal or symbolic is not clear. The bear was commanded to “rise and consume much flesh,” presumably, a summons to kingdom represented by the bear to further conquests.

The third “beast” resembled a leopard with four wings and four heads. The “dominion given to it” is a verbal link to the third section of Nebuchadnezzar’s “great image” that was destined to “rule over all the earth” - (Daniel 2:39).

The leopard is also an agile predator, and once again, its wings suggest speed. Wings normally occur in pairs; however, here, the number “four” indicates two pairs of wings, possibly pointing to motion in the four directions of the compass.

Its four “heads” were not connected to its wings. Elsewhere in the book, “heads” represent kings and their realms. The four heads were grouped together, suggesting they were contemporaneous and not consecutive, and a fourfold division of the kingdom - (Daniel 2:32-387:20).

The information provided on the first three beasts is minimal and allusive. As will become apparent, the focus of Daniel’s dream was on the fourth “beast,” and especially on its “little horn with a mouth speaking great things.”