The book of Daniel, part of the “writings” and considered wisdom literature in the Jewish tradition, and part of the “prophets” in the Christian tradition, is both an easy and difficult book. When I and the men at my church had decided to study Daniel last fall, one of the men suggested we just use our Bibles with no other study materials. While this would be an adequate path to take for many books of the Bible, it would not work well for a book like Daniel. Why? Daniel is a book of stories and visions. The stories are basically easy to understand. Even a child can learn the basic lessons of famous stories like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the writing on the wall, and the three faithful Jews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. But the dreams and visions which encompass the second half of the book are apocalyptic in language and deeply rooted in the histories of kingdoms, empires, and armies of the ancient Near East. Without a good commentary or study guide, interpreting would likely devolve into guesswork or allegorical reading. One of the study aids I used to prepare to lead our study of Daniel was a book in the Bible Speaks Today series: The Message of Daniel by Dale Ralph Davis. It proved to be a valuable asset for preparing lessons, illustrations, and group discussion questions.
Davis walks the reader through Daniel in a series of sermons adapted for book study. Thus the tone of the book is conversational and sermonic—filled with illustrations, personal and church application, and dialogue with the audience. For a book like Daniel, this method of explanation is helpful, because so many commentaries read too much like theology or history textbooks. Davis is able to show how the main themes of Daniel are quite relevant for today. In every chapter he explains how beastly empires, temptations to cower before the state, faithlessness in the midst of persecution and exile, and the sins of idolatry are the same root sins that God’s people face in every nation (more or less). This balance of commentary, explanation, illustration, application, and exhortation is a welcome change from the usual format of other books in the Bible Speaks Today series.
As a conservative reformed and Presbyterian pastor-scholar, Davis approaches the book from a covenantal perspective. The simplicity and plausibility of this school of interpretation may surprise Christians who familiar only with the “Left Behind” dispensational school of reading Daniel. But Davis is no polemicist. He graciously presents various possible interpretations, pointing out their various strengths and weaknesses, and then lets us know which choice he goes with. Yet many of this interpretations are not dogmatic because he rightly senses that Daniel is a mysterious book in many ways. One of his many humorous illustrations of Daniel 9:24-27 demonstrates this kind of humility that exists throughout the book.
In a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon Linus is interpreting a nursery rhyme. He tells Charlie Brown, ‘The way I see it, “the cow jumped over the moon” indicates a rise in farm prices.’ Linus asks if Charlie Brown agrees. Charlie confesses, ‘I can’t say; I don’t pretend to be a student of prophetic literature.’ We may be ready to disqualify ourselves in a similar way as we face Daniel’s seventy weeks revelation. I well recall the first time I had to lecture on this passage in a liberal arts college. I worked through the Hebrew text and spent hours reading secondary sources—and almost came to a Charlie Brown position. But at least I had a title for my lecture: ‘Seventy weeks and twenty problems.’ (pg. 128)
The next nearly page-long paragraph delineates those twenty questions. Davis pays careful attention to the text, is relentlessly logical in his conclusions and not afraid to take “the road less traveled.” Yet he does not leave the reader in skepticism or confusion. After reading this book, you come to a Charlie Brown position either!
The Message of Daniel is divided into 14 chapters (most tackling an entire chapter of Daniel; chapter 9 of Daniel is divided into three) and an introduction. Don’t skip the intro, for it provides the framework and historical details that form the positions and presuppositions of the rest of the book. For example, contrary to the current critical consensus that Daniel is a late post-exilic book written in the second century B.C., Davis gives compelling reasons why the book ought to be read as the work of the historical figure of Daniel himself who wrote his book in the sixth century B.C immediately after the Jewish exile in Babylon.
If you’ve always been confused about the “dreams and visions” section of Daniel, if you normally skip over this portion of the book, if your pastor or Sunday School teacher has neglected or muddied your understanding of Daniel, or if you just feel the need to be encouraged by God in the midst of trial, pick up your Bible and carefully read Daniel. And choose a wise and accessible guide like this one.