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Despotic rulers may do as they please, they may acquire great wealth and power; but they will all come to an end.
What on earth does this chapter have to do with us in the 21st century, with its kings of the South and the North, its wars, its shifting alliances and death and destruction? All Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16); but with some parts we need to dig a bit deeper before we find their usefulness - and this is one of them.
The explanation of Daniel’s vision begins with a prediction of events in the Middle East which can now be verified to have taken place. However, t is not quite that straightforward, for by the time we get to verse 40 we have reached “the time of the end”; and then in chapter 12 it moves on to a series of events which will clearly only take place at the very end of time. It is as if Daniel is looking through a prophetic telescope: some of the things he sees are not so distant, but others are a long way off; the things that are far away can be interpreted by those that are nearer; but it is not always clear which are which. Here, then, are some of the things which we can discern from this chapter.
We learn that history is so often shaped by wars fuelled by individuals: here we have the kings of the South and the North, daughters of kings, commanders, family members and the like, all conspiring, conniving, forming and breaking alliances and attacking each other. This is why we are urged to pray first of all for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:2). Over the centuries the church has struggled to balance this exhortation with God’s imperative for justice and fair treatment of all people, especially when faced with dictators who have come to power through violence - whether Hitler in Nazi Germany, Franco in Spain or a host of other dictators in Latin America.
Before we take the moral high ground, let us ask ourselves how often we descend into wars and fighting in our churches, in our workplaces, in our families. James perceptively asks us (4:1-2), What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have it. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.
This chapter exposes the reasons behind all the wars and fighting: power and wealth. These two words permeate the whole chapter (verses 2,5,6,8, etc.); and little has changed in the ensuing 2,500 years. I recently came back from a mission to Colombia, a most beautiful country, but one where many rural areas are wracked by a decades-long conflict between a bewildering array of armed groups, criminals and the army; and it is the civilian population who are suffering. Why? The armed groups seek power, to control territory and so to control the rich natural resources of this country. And they seek wealth, to get rich on these natural resources.
In all this conflict the people of God are ignored and trampled upon. The invader establishes himself in the Beautiful Land (verse 16); the king of the North takes action against the holy covenant (verse 28); he vents his fury against the holy covenant, shows favour to those who forsake the holy covenant and desecrates the temple fortress (verses 30-33). So it is today. Who cares about the 25.7 million Colombians who have been forced to flee from their homes in the past 30 years? Which political power has supported the 1 million Christians who have been forced out of Iraq since 2003 by violence and death threats? Which world leader has consistently spoken out in favour of the 2 million Christians caught up in the brutal conflict in Syria? Are these Middle Eastern Christians just seen as expendable pawns in a much larger political game? Is the world only concerned about them the day after the latest atrocity hits the headlines?
Despotic rulers may do as they please (verse 36), they may acquire great wealth and power (verses 40-43); but they will all come to an end (verse 45). God remains in control, whatever the political machinations and manoeuvrings of the powerful. That is the message of the chapter: God knows in advance what the hearts of rulers are planning (see 2 Kings 6:8-12) and he directs it towards his purposes (Proverbs 21:1), however confusing it may look from the outside. So when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come (Matthew 24:6).