Before entering upon my present subject, I would point out an obvious proof that Dan. 1 has a prefatory character. The last verse of the chapter informs us that "Daniel continued unto the first year of king Cyrus." It is not merely an account of certain circumstances, before we are introduced to the various revelations or facts that are given in succession in the book; but we have the preparation for the place that Daniel was to keep. And then we are carried, as it were, on to the end. The continuance of Daniel is shown through the whole term of the Babylonish monarchy, and even to the beginning of the Persian. It is not meant that Daniel only lived to the first year of king Cyrus; because the latter part of the book shows us a vision subsequent to that date. The fact is simply stated, that he lived at the commencement of a new dynasty. And it will be found that the end of the last chapter is an equally suitable conclusion to the book; answering, as such, to the first chapter as a preface.
But before going farther, I would make one remark of a general kind. The book divides itself into two nearly equal volumes or sections. First, that which refers to the great Gentile powers, and the features that would mark their outward conduct; and, finally, to the judgment of it all. This is continued up to the end of Dan. 6. Then, from Dan. 7 to the close, we have not the external history of the four Gentile empires, but that which is of more peculiar interest to God's people. This was, evidently enough, indicated by the circumstance that the first portion of the book does not consist of visions that Daniel saw; for the only one, properly so called, was seen by Nebuchadnezzar. There is one in Dan. 2, and then another of a different character in Dan. 4; Dan. 3, 5, and 6 being facts that had to do with the moral condition of the first two monarchies, but nothing at all that was made known in the first instance to Daniel, or visions seen by the prophet himself; whereas the latter part of the book is occupied exclusively with communications to the prophet himself. And there it is that we find, not merely what ought to strike the natural mind, but the secrets of God that peculiarly affect and interest His people, and hence details also. The external proof of this is, that chapter vi., which closes what I have called the first section of Daniel, brings us up to the close again. "So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian." Now this is remarkable, because the next chapter goes back again to Belshazzar. "In the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions of his head," etc. That was long before Cyrus the Persian. Then in Dan. 8, "In the third year of the reign of king Belshazzar." And in Dan. 9, "In the first year of Darius, the son of Ahasuerus." So far all is regular. Next, we come down to Dan. 10-12. "In the third year of Cyrus, king of Persia, a thing was revealed unto Daniel," etc. The first part (Dan. 1-6) brings us down to the close in a general way, and the second (Dan. 7-12) with equal order; divided, not merely in this outward manner, but having the moral difference, already explained, i.e. the one external and the other internal. That this is not an unprecedented thing in the word of God is familiar to the reader of Matthew 13. There, we have an orderly setting forth of the kingdom of heaven under certain parables - the first of these being a prefatory one. Now, taking the other six parables (for there are exactly seven in all), you have a division of them into two sets of three, the first of which refers to the exterior of the kingdom, and the last to more inward and hidden relations.
This exactly answers to what we have in Daniel. First, the external history goes down to the close, and then the internal succeeds, or what was of special interest to those that had understanding of the ways of God. This will suffice to show that the book is characterized by that divine method which we ought to expect in the word of God. There is a profound design, which runs through the works of God, and more especially through His word. The finger of God Himself is evident indeed upon what He has made; yet death has come in, and the creature is made subject to vanity. Hence, we hear the groans of the lower creation; and, as you rise in the scale of animal life, the misery is more intense. Man is more conscious and capable of feeling the wretchedness that his own sin has brought upon the world, and upon that creation, of which he is made the lord. But in the word of God, although there may be slips and errors of scribes, they are for the most part but specks. They may obscure its full light; but they are trifling in comparison with the evident brightness of that which God gives, even through the most imperfect version. In passing through the hands of men, we discover more or less of the weakness that attaches to the earthen vessel; but through the great mercy of God, there is ample light for every honest soul.
But turning to this first great scene, we have the entire failure of the wisdom of the world. Unusual care was taken, at the court of Babylon, to have men trained in all wisdom and knowledge. The time was now come when this was to be put to the test. God was pleased, while the great Gentile king was meditating upon his bed, to give him a vision of the future history of the world: on the one hand, gratifying his desire to see the world's course thence onward unveiled; while, on the other hand, he was made to feel the utter powerlessness of all human resources. It was God's opportunity for displaying His own power, and the perfect wisdom of which even a poor captive was made the channel. This is a signal example of God's ways. Here were these Jews; and the proud king might have supposed that, if God was for them, they could not possibly have come under his hand. But if God's people are guilty, there are none whose faults He so much exposes. How do we know the wrong that Abraham did? or David? Only from God. He loves His people too well to hide their faults. It is a part of His moral government, that He is the very last to put or allow a veil over what displeases Him, in those even whom He loves best. Take a well-governed family. Is it the way of love to cover over the fault of the child, when the child ought to feel it? - and feel it he must if he is to be happy. So with God's people. Israel had abandoned Him - had denied their relationship to Him; and God shows that He felt their sin, and that they must feel it too. He disowned them as His people for a time - swept them out of the land in which He had planted them; and now they were the slaves of the Gentiles.
But in turn their conqueror must be taught that, after all, the mind - the heart of God, was with the poor captives. The power of God might be with the Gentile for a season, but the affections of God and His secret were with His own, even in the hour of their abasement.
The circumstances through which this was brought out strikingly illustrate the ways of God. The king dreams a dream: the thing departs from him. He summons his wise men, and calls upon them to make known the dream and the interpretation of it. But all in vain. They themselves are so struck with the unreasonableness of the demand, that they say, "There is none other that can show it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh." (Ver. 11) It was impossible to meet the king's request. Thus all was allowed to come out in its reality. Their wisdom proved to be unavailing for what was wanted. Daniel hears of the decree which went forth, that the wise men should be slain. He goes to Arioch, and begs for time to be given him. But mark this - and it is the characteristic of faith - he has confidence in God. He does not wait till God gives him the answer, before he says that he would show the interpretation of the dream. He proffers it at once. He is confident in God, and that is faith - a conviction founded on the known character of God. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him; and Daniel feared the Lord. Therefore, also, he was not alarmed at the decree. He knew that God who gave could recall the dream. At the same time, he does not in the least degree pretend to answer it himself. We have thus two great things brought out in Daniel: first, his confidence that God would reveal the thing to the king; secondly, his confession that he could not. He goes to his house, and makes the thing known to his companions. He wishes that they also should "desire mercies of the God of heaven concerning this secret." He has exceeding value for the prayers of his brethren - the witnesses with himself of the true God in Babylon. He gets them on their knees before God, as well as takes that place himself. But Daniel, having special faith, was the one that God therefore honours. "Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision." (Verses 14-19)
Neither does he go directly to the king, nor even to his companions, to tell them that God has made known the dream to him. The first thing he does is to go to God. The God that has made known the secret is the One that Daniel at once owns. He is in the place of one that worships God. And allow me to say, that this is the grand object of all the revelations of God. Do not suppose it is a question of making known to me my sin and a Saviour meeting all the need of my soul. What God works by His Spirit in His saints, is not merely that they should know they are delivered from hell, or that they should walk as His children. There is a higher thing still. God makes His people worshippers of Himself; and, if there is one thing, in which God's children fail more than another, it is in realizing their place as worshippers.
Now, Daniel understood this. Though comparatively young, he was well acquainted with the mind of God. And here we have this beautiful feature. He brings out in his outburst of praise the mind of God; and this, not so much in connection with His power - though it is true that "He changeth the times and seasons; He removeth kings and setteth up kings," etc. - but what his heart specially dwells upon is this: "He giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding." I call your attention to the words. It is quite true that the Lord looks with compassion on the ignorant, and shows His goodness to those that have no understanding. But Daniel is speaking of His ways with those whose hearts are towards Him; and in their case the Lord's principle is, "Unto every one that hath shall be given, .... but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." (Mat_25:29) Nothing is more dangerous, In the things of God, than to stop short in the path of learning His ways. What arrests souls is the consciousness that the truth is too practical; and they fear the consequences: for the truth of God is not a thing merely to know, but to live; and the soul instinctively shrinks back because of the serious present results it entails. In Daniel's case the eye was single, and the whole body, therefore, full of light. This is the real secret of progress. Let the desire only be towards God, and the progress is sure and steady.
Daniel then goes in unto Arioch, and says, "Destroy not the wise men of Babylon: bring me in before the king, and I will show unto the king the interpretation." Accordingly, Arioch brings him in before the king in haste, and says, "I have found a man of the captives of Judah, that will make unto the king the interpretation." The king asks him whether it is true, that he is able to make known the dream and the interpretation. Daniel's answer is beautiful. Real, deep knowledge of the ways of God is always accompanied by humility. There is no greater mistake, nor one more unfounded in fact, than the supposition, that spiritual intelligence puffeth up; knowledge may - mere knowledge But I speak of that spiritual understanding in the word, which flows from the sense of God's love, and seeks to spread itself, if I may so say, just because it is divine love. Daniel intimates how impossible it was for "the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, and the soothsayers," to show the dream unto the king. "But there is a God in heaven, that revealeth secrets, and maketh known [he does not even say to Daniel, but] to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days." He desired that Nebuchadnezzar should know the interest that God took in him. "As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind, upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter; and He that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass." But he is not satisfied with that: he adds, "As for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart."
Then he enters upon the dream. "Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible." He had seen the course of empire, not merely in a fragmentary successional manner, but as a whole. In the latter part of the book, we have the succession more minutely marked, and the detailed ways of the different powers towards Daniel's people: but here it is the general history of the Gentile empire.
"This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass." That is, there was deterioration, as the empires departed from the source of power. It was God who gave imperial rule to Nebuchadnezzar. Consequently, that which is nearest to the source is seen as "this head of gold." There comes in a certain measure more of what was human in the Persian empire; "the breast and the arms of silver," an inferior metal, and so on down to the legs, which are of iron, and the feet, part of iron and part of clay. It is quite plain from this, that, as we descend from the original grant of power, there is a gradual debasement.
But it is well, now, to state a principle or two, which I believe to be of importance in looking at prophetic scriptures. One of the commonest maxims, even among Christians, is this: that prophecy is to be interpreted by the event - that history is the proper exponent of prophecy - that when the prophetic visions are realized upon the earth, the facts explain the visions. This is a false principle; it has not one particle of truth in it. People confound with interpretation of prophecy the confirmation of its truth. When a prediction is fulfilled, of course its fulfilment confirms its truth, but that is a very different thing from explaining it. The proper understanding of prophecy is just as difficult after the event as before it. For instance, let any one take the seventy weeks of Daniel. That chapter has furnished occasion for immense controversy and dispute among believers themselves. It is one of their commonest assumptions, that it is all fulfilled (which is not correct), and yet there is no such thing as agreement among them about its meaning.
Looking again at Ezekiel's prophecy: we find that the difficulty of prophecy arises from a totally different source. The first part of Ezekiel was fulfilled in the then ways of God with Israel; it extended over the time when Daniel lived. But that does not explain it. It is, in fact, more obscure than the closing chapters, which are future.
What, then, does explain prophecy? That which explains all Scripture - the Spirit of God alone. His power can unfold any part of the word of God. Do you ask, if I mean to say, that it is of no importance to know languages, understand history, and so on? I am not raising a question about learning: it has its use; but I deny that history is the interpreter of prophecy, or of any Scripture. And if there are Christians who know the history of the world, or the original tongues of Scripture, it is Christ that has to do with their spiritual intelligence, and not their knowledge or learning. Besides, even if men are Christians, it does not necessarily follow that they understand Scripture. They know Christ, else they would not be Christians. But real entrance into God's mind, in Scripture, supposes that a person watches against self, desires the glory of God, has full confidence in His word, and dependence on the Holy Ghost. The understanding of Scripture is not a mere intellectual thing. If a man has no mind at all, he could not understand anything: but the mind is only the vessel - not the power. The power is the Holy Ghost, acting upon and through the vessel; but it must be the Holy Ghost Himself that fills a soul. As it is said, "They shall be all taught of God."
There is a great difference in the measure of the teaching, because there is much difference in the measure of dependence upon God. The important thing is to bear in mind that the understanding of Scripture depends much more Upon what is moral, than what is of the mind - upon a single eye to Christ. The Holy Ghost can never give us anything to save us from the necessity of dependence and waiting upon God.
How, then, are we to interpret prophecy? It is entirely independent of history; it was given to be understood before it becomes history. That this is true must be manifest. The great mass of prophecy is about the terrible judgments that are to fall at the end of this age. What becomes of the people who do not profit by the prophecies, till the facts have taken place? It is a serious thing to despise it. The believer that understands prophecy has got special help, which he lacks who neglects it.
Starting, then, with this great principle - that it is the Holy Ghost who gives us to read prophecy, as bearing upon the glory of God, and connected with Christ, who shall yet be exalted, and whose glory shall fill the earth and heavens, all usurpers and pretenders being put down - let us look at this scene, as that which shows us the course of the world, up to that time. First, consider the position of the parties. Here was the proudest king in the world. He had gone forth at the head of victorious armies, before his father's death - before he had properly come into the undivided kingdom of Babylon. And now he has laid open to him a sphere of dominion, perhaps, beyond his ambition. He learns, with certainty, that it was God, in His providence, who had put him in this position. But more than that: he sees brought before him, in a few touches, the whole chart of the Gentile world - the leading features of its history from that day to the day of glory and judgment that is coming. He has brought before him the rise of another and neighbouring power, that had been already alluded to in prophecy; so that there was therefore no difficulty at all in gathering what was meant by it. The prophet Isaiah, who lived a hundred and fifty years before Cyrus was born, had not only referred by the Holy Ghost to the nation and king of the Medes and Persians, but had called him by name.
Again: another empire was foreshown, that was then comparatively in its infancy, or consisting only of so many separate tribes, without any stable bond of cohesion among them - I refer to the Greeks. But, more remarkable still, the kingdom, which is most dwelt upon by the Spirit of God, was then one that was in a mere embryo condition, and probably not even known by name to the king of Babylon. For though that kingdom was destined to play the greatest part ever taken by a kingdom in the history of the world, it was then utterly obscure. It was engaged in home and neighbouring squabbles of the pettiest kind, without any thought of extending its dominion. The more marvellous, therefore, it is to look at that great king, and the servant of God that stood before him, unfolding the history of the world
"Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory." It was not a question of his own prowess, nor special wisdom, that he possessed. If Nebuchadnezzar had been allowed to carry away these captives - to triumph over the power of Egypt, that had wished to dispute the supremacy of the world, it was the God of heaven who had given it to him. "And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, hath He given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold." Clearly the Babylonish monarchy is meant. God had referred to this by Isaiah. And Jeremiah, who was a contemporary of Daniel's, had brought before him not only the length of period during which the Babylonish monarchy should last, but even the succession. There would be Nebuchadnezzar and his son, and his son's son. This had a remarkable fulfilment. So that we need not go beyond Scripture to understand prophecy. It is the right, spiritual use of what is in the word of God, and I bless God for it. If you find the simplest man who only studies with diligence the Bible, in his mother tongue, and is led by the Spirit of God, he has the elements and the power of a true interpretation. But as sure as a man tries to find an interpretation here and there, by the help of history, antiquities, newspapers, and what not, he is only deceiving himself and his hearers. Such is the universal moral sentence of God upon the soul that searches, in what is of man, the proper key to God's secrets. I must find it in God Himself, by a right use of what is in His own word.
An early Jewish writer, whose history is everywhere read and valued, Josephus, I had the curiosity to look at, and, finding the common version peculiar, I examined the original Greek of his history, but found the same strange sense still. He makes out that the head of gold means Nebuchadnezzar, and the kings that were before him! Thus, there is an entire want of understanding what the word of God says. The going away from Scripture, and allowing one's own thoughts, always leads astray. Babylon was first made an empire of in the person of Nebuchadnezzar, who here includes, as it were, those that were to follow. ''Thou art this head of gold." There is no reference to the kings that were before him. Babylon never was allowed to have the empire of the world till Nebuchadnezzar's day; therefore it was that he, and not his forefathers, formed the head of gold. He was the one in whom the imperial place of Babylon finds its beginning.
In Jeremiah 25 we find not only the epoch of seventy years of captivity, but, farther on (Jer. 27), the succession is mentioned. "All nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son's son, until the very time of his land come." It happened that, after his son Evil-Merodach was cut off, there was one who took the throne, not in the order of succession, but called to it by the Babylonish people, with a sort of claim through marriage with Nebuchadnezzar's daughter. This man reigned for a time, and after him' his son, who was, therefore, the son of Nebuchadnezzar's daughter, not of his son. It might, so far, then, appear that the prophecy had failed. Not at all. A few months after, Nebuchadnezzar's grandson was called to the throne. "Scripture cannot be broken." It had been said, "Nebuchadnezzar, his son, and his son's son," and so it was. In Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, the whole thing terminated. For this then Scripture furnishes all the main parts. So that prophecy does, in fact, explain history, but history never interprets prophecy. The man who understands prophecy can open up history; but no understanding of history will enable him to explain prophecy. It may confirm the truth of a prediction, to a doubter, so far as it is clear. Thus, if the history of the taking of Jerusalem, as it is given in the Wars of Josephus, is a true one, it will, of course, coincide with the inspired notice told us by Luke. But it is quite plain, that if I have confidence in the word of God, there I have a much more certain account of it. In a word, the circumstance of being uttered before the event has nothing to do with the matter. The eye of God saw all along, and through the stream of Gentile empire; and the language is as plain in the prophecies of Daniel, as in the writings of the Greek and Latin historians.* And so true is this that those who have no sympathy with what is of God, even infidels, are obliged to acknowledge, that whatever clearly bears upon the subject coincides with what Daniel had said hundreds of years before the events.
* "The four empires are clearly delineated; and the invincible armies of the Romans described with as much clearness, in the prophecies of Daniel, as in the histories of Justin and Diodorus." - Gibbon.
"And after thee shall arise another kingdom, inferior to thee." Not inferior in territorial extent, but in splendour, and perhaps most of all in the admixture of control outside the ruler, instead of a man acting in the conviction that God had put him in his place of authority. Darius (Dan. 6) took the advice of unscrupulous subjects and suffered bitterly for it. Had he felt the sense of immediate responsibility to God, the snare had been avoided. Men naturally shrink from absolute authority, chiefly because it is uncontrolled power in the hands of a weak and erring man. But supposing it was one who had all the wisdom and goodness in his own person, nothing could be happier. This is exactly what will be true in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ, when full authority will be put into His hands, and all will be blessed and according to the will of God, and when the contrary will of men would only be rebellion.
What seems to confirm this, is, that when we come down to the third kingdom, the Macedonian, of which Alexander the Great was the founder, there we have a man, who not merely acted at the suggestion of his wise men, but was controlled by his generals. It became, in fact, a kind of military rule - a less respectable thing than the aristocratic interference of the Medes and Persians, and their inflexible laws.
Then we come down much lower still, and have a fourth kingdom, represented by iron. "And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron; forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things; and as iron breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise." There, strength is the great feature of the kingdom, and the quality of the metal is consistent with it. But it is of the commonest sort - not one of the precious metals; perhaps, because the Roman empire was distinguished by this, that it was nominally the people that governed. However despotic the emperor, he always pretended, in theory at least, to consult the people and senate. Even under the empire, the Romans had still the semblance of their old republican constitution; whilst, in point of fact, it was but an individual who had clothed himself with all the real power.
Here, then, we have sketched before us the whole course of empire. But it may be asked, How do you know these things? It is not said that the second empire represents Medo-Persia, or the third Macedonia, or the fourth Rome. I think it is. It may not be said here: but Scripture does not always hang up the key exactly at the door. It is not often that we find the explanation of one portion in the very next verse. God wants me to know His word, to be familiar with all that He has written, and to be assured that all is very good. To instruct even the unconverted child in the Scripture is always of great value. It is like laying a fire well, so that a spark alone is needed to kindle it into a flame. It is a good and wholesome thing for Christians to be most particular in training up their children in a thorough knowledge of the word of God.
But, returning to consider what light Scripture gives, we need not go farther than this Book of Daniel to find the names of these empires In chapter 5: 28, we are told, "Peres: thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians." There is the answer at once. We find the Babylonian kingdom just tottering and about to be destroyed. We are told that the Medes and Persians succeed. Nothing simpler or more certain. The only people I ever heard of that found difficulties, were some learned men who strove to make out that the empire of Babylon extends to Persia as well, so as to make Greece the second, Rome the third, and the fourth a distinct and purely future antichristian power. Another class of these scholars have contended that Alexander's kingdom is one thing, and that of his successors another wholly different: in fact, one the third and the other the fourth empire; so as to make even the fifth kingdom (that of "the little stone") a past or present thing. Had Scripture been read and weighed without an object, mistakes like these could never have been made. But the believer, instead of seeing in history things to perplex his mind, takes up his Bible, and finds the solution before he leaves the prophecy itself. For it is plain from Dan_8:20-21, that the empire of the united Medes and Persians gives place to the Grecian kingdom, with its fourfold division at Alexander's death. This again is succeeded by the fourth, or Roman Empire, the peculiar feature of which is, that in its last stage it is seen divided into ten separate kingdoms. (Dan. 7) Was this ever the case with the successors of Alexander? His kingdom was divided into four, never into ten. Thus we have prophecy explaining history; while the general use that mere learning makes of history is to obscure the brightness of the word of God. But let us understand the word of God first; and then, if we turn to history, we shall find it comes in as a human witness, and confirms, with its feeble voice, the divine testimony. It is obliged to do so. Thus, the man that does not know history stands upon at least as good ground as those who are learned, but find difficulties. He is not perplexed as others are, who look through the mist of their own speculations.
In the third kingdom a feature is introduced which is not in the second. It was to "bear rule over all the earth." How remarkably this was fulfilled in the Macedonian or Grecian kingdom! Because, although Cyrus was a great conqueror, it was altogether in the region where he lived. He overcame the whole of those parts to the north of Media and Persia, and also southward, as well as the west. All that was true; but he never went outside, so far as I know, the bounds of Asia.
But now we see a kingdom marked by extraordinary rapidity of conquest. One might challenge all ages to show anything that fulfils this prophecy, as the kingdom of Alexander did. In the course of a few years, that remarkable man overran almost the whole of the then known world. He even lamented, as we know, that he had not another world to conquer. This is a striking commentary upon what we have here. Do we need to go to history for it all? No. We find in this very book the explanation. In Dan_8:20-21, the third empire is shown to be the Grecian. "The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia." There you have also a confirmation of what I said before, as to the second kingdom. But when this ram was there, a fierce goat came that had a notable horn between his eyes. With the single horn that he has in his head, he butts against the ram, who represented these kings of Media and Persia. Here we have the third kingdom, that was to "bear rule over all the earth." What is its name? The 21st verse gives the answer. "The rough goat is the king of Grecia, and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king." We do not need history to explain prophecy We have here the distinct, positive answer from the word of God, as to what the third kingdom is; and all real research you may make in history will only confirm this, but you do not need it. If you take your stand upon the word of God, you are upon a ground that no history can touch for a single instant. God, who gives the only sure account, shows that the Medo-Persian Empire is followed by the Grecian. The sole great horn of the latter is broken, and "for it came up four notable ones, towards the four winds of heaven." The kingdom of Alexander, at his death, was broken up into four great parts, which his generals fought for. You have their comparative littleness in the presence of Alexander. He was the great horn, the first king and representative of the third kingdom. The next question is, What was to follow that? What other great empire was to succeed: and that, the last empire before God should set up His kingdom? The Old Testament history closes before the third empire begins. The last facts historically stated are in the Book of Nehemiah, while the Persian was still the great king, i.e. the second empire was yet supreme. But the New Testament history opens, and what is found there? I have only to read the beginning of Luke, and I hear of another great empire then ruling. "It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." There we have, at once, the fourth kingdom, without requiring to ask history for it. There is a fourth kingdom, and the word of God shows it to be universal; it summons men throughout the world to be enrolled in its register, and God takes care that there should be a legal acknowledgment even of His own Son's having been then born.
The fourth kingdom, then, was the Roman Empire. When I know that from Scripture,* I can go to history, which tells me that it was the Roman Empire which crushed the power of Greece. They got the Greeks first to join them in beating the Macedonians, and then they turned upon the Greeks, and soon put them down.
* I have no doubt that, in "the ships of Chittim" (Dan_11:30) we have a reference to the naval power of Rome which interfered with Antiochus Epiphanes. But as the allusion is less explicit than Luk_2:1, Luk_3:1, Luk_20:22-25, Joh_11:48, Joh_19:15, I add the direct proof from the New Testament.
Afterwards, the Romans extended their conquests all over Asia. What does God say about it? "The fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces . . . and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise." And if people do call in history, can they see things more clearly? Where can they show as just a description of that empire as that which God gives here? One well-known historian, when speaking about the empires, describes them in the liveliest imagery, derived from these very symbols of Daniel the prophet. He could find no figures so apt as those which the Spirit of God had consecrated to their use already, though every one knows it was from no lack of imagination, any more than from the wish to accredit Scripture.
Even this is not all that God gives us. "Forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise." Never was a description more exactly to the point. I could quote passages from the old Roman writers, which show that they themselves gave an account of their own empire and policy, in terms substantially similar.
But there was something they could not tell, and that was beyond what man could foresee. That power that above all other was distinguished for its strength in warring down every one that rose up against it, whatever its kindness to those who stooped to the conqueror - that very power is described here thus: - "And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potter's clay and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided." The Romans do not tell us this. History is not always a truthful speaker. Those who describe their own country's statecraft are not in general very trustworthy. If there was that which threatened extinction, they are as glad to hide it as they were ready to boast in whatever evidences their boldness, strength, and glory; but God tells all out; and we find that the same empire, that was to be so celebrated for its amazing strength, is to exhibit also the greatest inherent weakness. "There shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly broken. And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay."
The iron was the original element; the clay was brought in subsequently, and properly did not belong to the great metal statue: it was a foreign ingredient. When and whence did it come? I believe that the Spirit of God in using the figure of clay refers not to the original Roman element, which had the strength of the iron, but to the barbaric hordes, which broke in at a later period, weakening the Roman power, and forming by degrees separate kingdoms. I can, however, only state this as my own judgment, founded upon the general use of Scripture language and ideas. We have what was not properly and originally Roman, but was brought in from elsewhere: and it is the mixture of the two elements that is productive of the weakness, and that finally leads to division. These hordes of barbarians, that forced themselves in at first, professed not to be conquerors, but guests of Rome, and finally settled themselves within its limits. This it was that subsequently led to the division of the empire into a number of separate independent kingdoms, when the power and pride of imperial Rome was broken. Charlemagne, later on, cherished the desire of universal empire, which he laboured hard to realize; but it was a failure; and all that he acquired in his life was separated in his death. Another man attempted it in our own days; I mean, of course, the exile of St. Helena. He had at heart the same universal monarchy. What was the issue? His success was still more short-lived. All was completely broken up into its original constituents before he had breathed his last. And so it will continue in the main, until the moment spoken of here, but more fully entered into in the Book of the Revelation.
This is, I believe, what Scripture lays down about the matter. There will be, before the age closes, the most remarkable union of two apparently contradictory conditions - a universal head of empire, and separate independent kingdoms besides, each of which will have its own king; but that one man will be the emperor over all these kings. Till that time comes, every effort to unite the different kingdoms under one head will be a total failure. Even then, it will be not by fusing them together into one kingdom, but each independent kingdom will have its own king, though all subject to one head. God has said they shall be divided. This, then, is what is shown us. "They shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay." And if ever there was a portion of the world that has represented this incoherent system of kingdoms, it is modern Europe. As long as the iron predominated, there was one empire: but then came in the clay, or foreign material. In virtue of the iron there will be a universal monarchy, while in virtue of the clay there will be separate kingdoms.
"And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." Mark those words, "in the days of these kings." They are a complete answer to those who have tried to make this the birth of Christ, and the introduction of what they call the kingdom of grace. At the time here spoken of, the empire is broken up and divided. Was that the case when the Lord was born? Could it be said then "in the days of these kings "? Nothing of the sort. Rome was then in its fullest power; there was not the smallest breach apparent throughout the empire. There was but one ruler, but one will predominant. It was not therefore "in the days of these kings." What then does the verse refer to? I believe to the closing scene of the Roman Empire: not to the time when Christ was born, but when God "bringeth in the First-begotten into the world" - when the Lord Jesus is brought in, not as the Nazarene to suffer and to die, but when He comes with divine power to judge. The "stone cut out without hands," though in a sense applicable to Him at any time, applies really and fully then. We have the interpretation here. It does not refer to His person, so much as to the kingdom that the God of heaven shall set up in Him and by Him. No doubt He is the stone; but this is a destructive stone extinguishing the kingdoms of the earth. Can any one deny it? The stone was "cut out of the mountain without hands, and it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold." There was the crash of all the image. Was that the case when Christ was born Did Christ attack the Roman Empire? Did He destroy it? On the contrary, Christ was killed, and it was its minister that was the official means of His crucifixion. The image, we may say, smote Him, instead of His smiting the image. Such an interpretation is unworthy of serious attention.
The stone falls upon the feet of the image, the toes of which were part of iron and part of clay; that is, upon the last condition of the Roman Empire. After all the division, the stone smites it. Thus its action is not grace, but judgment. It is not a sower sowing seed, to produce life; still less is it leaven diffusing itself over certain limits. Its blow falls destructively upon the image and shatters it completely. It is evident, then, that the first coming of Christ is not the question here. His birth is wholly passed by. It took place during the course of the Roman Empire and in no way destroyed it. Whereas what will deal with the Roman Empire yet, is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in a day that is future.
But some will say, How can that be? There is no Roman Empire now. But let me ask, How does this show that there is not to be a Roman Empire? Can you prove that the Roman Empire is not to revive? What is given me here is that the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold were broken in pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors.
Further, we are told in the Revelation that the beast, representing the imperial power of Rome, is remarkably characterized as "the beast that was, and is not, and yet is." (Rev_17:8) The last clause, which in the English version is so obscurely rendered "and yet is," should be "and shall be present."* There is no doubt about this at all: no man that knows the Apocalypse properly would dispute it. If so, it follows that the beast, or empire that existed, when John was there, was to be in a state of non-existence, and then to appear again, ascending out of the bottomless pit. That is, it will be the power of Satan that will accomplish the reunion of the fragments that make up the Roman Empire. And it is remarkable that when the beast is seen again, this chapter shows that there will be ten kings who will agree to give their power to "the beast," or person then raised up of Satan to organize and govern the empire. He will use this vast power against God and the Lamb; every appearance of Christianity will be destroyed, idolatry will be restored, and Antichrist set up. Then God, as it were, will say, I will endure this no longer; My hour is come. The Lord Jesus will leave the right hand of God, and will execute judgment upon these vile pretenders.
* It depends on an indisputably good various reading.
"In the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom . . . it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." The first action of that stone is to destroy. It is not a question of saving souls; it is judgment and destruction: putting down kingdoms and everything that exalts itself against the true God.
But a difficulty may arise here as to how it is that, when this destructive blow falls, we have the gold, the silver, and the brass all jumbled together, with the iron and clay - as if these successive empires existed together at the end. The truth is that though Babylon, for instance, lost its imperial place, it existed subordinately under the powers that succeeded; and so with each following empire till Rome. (Comp. Dan_7:11-12) So that when the final judgment of the fourth empire takes place, there will still be the representatives of its three predecessors, distinct from itself. And this makes evident that by the last empire is meant what is exclusively western, and not that which had belonged to the previous empires.
Thus it is the great seat of modern civilization (i.e. the ten kingdoms of the beast) that will be the scene of this tremendous apostasy. And this will be allowed in the judicial wisdom of God, because men have not received "the love of the truth that they might be saved." God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: "that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." I have not a question that this is the future history of the world, on the authority of the word of God. This remarkable prophecy brings us down from the first beginning of imperial power, and finally shows us in the last days, before God sets up His kingdom, the judgment of the world as it is, when God will deal with the quick, not with the dead merely. "He will judge the [habitable] world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead."