Rome or Greece: Interpreting the Fourth Kingdom in Daniel 2

In Daniel 2, there is a prophecy about a large statue made from four different metals.  Within Daniel 2, each portion of the statue is stated to be symbolic of a kingdom.  The identity of the first kingdom is made explicit in Daniel 2:38 where it is identified as the Babylonian Empire, headed at that time by Nebuchadnezzar.  The identity of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th kingdoms, however, is less obvious, though the text seems to say that these are successive kingdoms (i.e. there do not appear to be gaps between the prophesied kingdoms). 

It has been common practice among Christians since Jerome (347-420 A.D.) to interpret the 4th of these kingdoms as being the Roman Empire.  The primary reason for this seems to be that Daniel predicted that, during the 4th kingdom a stone “not cut with human hands” (Dan. 2:34) would strike the kingdom and destroy it.  This stone has long been understood to be Jesus of Nazareth, who was born during the Roman era.  While symbolically satisfying for obvious reasons, this interpretation is simply not as strong as another, far older interpretive option which understands the 4th kingdom to be the Macedonian/Greek Empire as established by Alexander the Great.   As I will argue here, this interpretation ultimately does a much better job of staying true to the biblical text itself and to the historical events that Daniel clearly foretold several centuries earlier. 

At the end of the day, the identification of the 4th kingdom with either the Macedonian or the Roman empires is not of earth-shaking significance.   In either case we still have a clear example of detailed, predictive prophecy written several centuries before the events actually took place.  In either case, God’s sovereignty over the kingdoms of man is demonstrated to be absolute.  In either case, the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth is predicted, though in slightly different ways depending on which interpretation one ultimately accepts.  These are the most important issues here and none of them is undermined by either interpretation. Therefore, what is at stake here is, in some senses, inconsequential.

In another sense, however, what is at stake here matters very much.  While it is not obvious how understanding the 4th kingdom of Daniel 2 as the Macedonian or Roman empire will affect our lives or spiritual development, the accurate division of God’s Word is always of paramount importance, whether one can immediately see the personal impact or not. 

(Before considering the argument below, you might find it helpful to look at this summary chart of the details of the three prophecies: Daniel Chart)

Reasons for understanding Daniel’s 4th kingdom as the Macedonian/Greek Empire:

1.  The  4th kingdom in Dan. 2 (A), the 4th beast/kingdom in Dan. 7 (B) and the goat in Dan. 8 (C) all appear to be symbolic of the same earthly kingdom which Dan. 8:21 explicitly identifies as belonging to the “king of Greece.”  

a.  The first three kingdoms in Dan. 2 and the first three beasts/kingdoms in Dan. 7 are obviously parallel, leading us to assume that they will also be parallel in regards to their respective 4th kingdom. The connection between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd kingdoms in Dan. 2 & the 1st, 2nd and 3rd kingdoms in Dan. 7 is obvious and widely, if not universally, accepted.  If these two prophecies are each speaking about the same kingdoms in the first three instances, then it is most natural to assume that they are also speaking about the same 4th kingdom.  Even apart from any direct evidence of parallels between the 4th kingdom in Dan. 2 and the 4th beast/kingdom in Dan. 7 (see below), it would still be most natural to assume the two prophecies are detailing the same 4th kingdom simply because these two prophecies have been paralleling one another in the first three instances.

b. There are also explicit parallels of content between the 4th kingdoms of Dan. 2 & 7 and the goat of Dan. 8. 

(1) In all three prophecies, there is a reference to God’s activity in demolishing human kingdoms.  In Dan. 2 this happens during the 4th kingdom (a stone “not cut by human hands”, 2:34).  In Dan. 7 it happens during the 4th kingdom (the Ancient of Days destroys the 4th beast; 7:9-11).  These parallel references also seem to correspond to the statement in Dan. 8 that the small horn which came from the goat was “broken without human agency,” a phrase which is quite similar to the description of a stone “not cut by human hands” in 2:44.

(2) Similarities between the unidentified beast of Dan. 7 and the goat of Dan. 8 are substantial. 

    • Both overtake the whole earth with great power and speed
    • Both are initially unified under a single leader but are then split into factions
    • A small horn which eventually emerges from one of the splintered factions is described in considerable detail in both Dan. 7 and Dan. 8, including statements of the horn’s boastfulness and opposition to God’s saints.  This small horn was destroyed by the Ancient of Days in Dan. 7:9-12, a prediction which appears to be repeated in Dan. 8:25 where it is said to be “broken without human agency.”

It would appear that the unidentified beast of Dan. 7 is identified and further described by the prophecy of the goat in Dan. 8.

It seems clear that the 4th kingdom of Dan. 2 (A) and the 4th kingdom of Dan. 7 (B) correspond to one another, so A=B.  It also seems clear that the 4th kingdom of Dan. 7 (B) corresponds to the goat of Dan. 8 (C), so B=C.  If A=B and B=C then A=C; i.e. the goat of Dan. 8 must also correspond to the 4th kingdom of Dan. 2.  All three references of these passages prophesy about the same kingdom.  Since Dan. 8:21 explicitly identifies its 4th kingdom as being ruled by the “king of Greece”, then the 4th kingdom of Dan. 2 and the goat of Dan. 8 are also ruled by the “king of Greece”; i.e. this is the Macedonian/Greek Empire.

2.  The details of the 4th kingdom in Dan. 2 & 7 and the details of the goat in Dan. 8 fit the historical events of the Macedonian/Greek Empire extremely well.  Conversely, the specific details do not correspond naturally to events from the Roman era.

a.  Alexander the Great was the strongest military leader the world had ever seen.  This fits the descriptions of a kingdom of iron which tramples all the other kingdoms (Dan. 2) as well as the fearsomeness of the goat (Dan. 8) and the teeth of iron possessed by the 4th beast in Dan. 7.  There is no particular reason why this could not also apply to the Roman Empire as it was also wide-spread and extremely powerful.  However, there is no one individual closely associated with the rise of the Roman Empire in the ancient world and Daniel clearly associates a single leader with this kingdom’s earliest stages.

b.  Alexander conquered the ancient world in an astonishingly short time (about 3 years).  This fulfilled the prophecy about “coming over the surface of the earth without touching the ground” (i.e. advancing at great speed; 8:5).  There is simply no similar concept of rapid conquest associated with Rome.

c.  Alexander was the first non-oriental king to rule this area (i.e. he was “different from the others” since the Babylonian, Median and Persian Empires were all oriental; 7:7).  This would also be true of Rome and, as a republic in its earlier stages, its form of government might also fit this prophecy.

d.  Right after conquering the world, Alexander died unexpectedly, leaving no children.  His empire was splintered into four initial sections each headed by one of his four generals (a divided kingdom; 2:41, divided into four initial horns; 8:8, 8:22, also 11:6).  These eventually gave rise to multiple kings who warred with one another (10 horns; 7:7, 7:24]).  There is no easy way to fit these prophetic details with the Roman Empire. 

e.  The small horn which eventually grew up out of the remains of this 4th kingdom fits the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes very well.  His very name, Epiphanes, means “God manifest” (“magnified itself to be equal with the Commander of the host”; 8:11) and was self-chosen (boasting; 7:8, 7:20).  In 167 B.C, he destroyed Jerusalem, defiled the temple and rendered it unusable for sacrifices (which fits the details of Dan. 8 extremely well).

3.  Other details of Daniel beyond the prophecies of 2,7 & 8 also cohere well if we understand the 4th kingdom and the goat to be references to the Macedonian Empire.  In particular, the references to the king of the North and the king of the South in Dan. 11 fit perfectly with the Seleucid (northern) and Ptolemic (southern) regimes which emerged from the four-way split of the Macedonian Empire. 

Difficulties with this view:

The only real difficulty with understanding the 4th kingdoms of Dan. 2 & 7 and the goat of Dan. 8 as the Macedonian Empire is an artificial one; that is, it goes against popular interpretations which have dominated discussions about Daniel for some time.  As we have seen, though, it does not go against the biblical or historical evidence.  From that perspective, there is little or no problem with this interpretation.  However, since it flies in the face of presently popular understandings, this bears some address.

The strongest argument for the 4th kingdom of Dan. 2 and 7 being the Roman Empire is the arrival of the rock/Ancient of Days/”one like a son of man” during the 4th kingdom.  If this is Jesus, who did not arrive during the Macedonian Empire but during the Roman, then the 4th kingdom would have to be the Roman Empire, in spite of all the evidence considered above.  However, these are not all references to Jesus and in fact, the reference to Jesus (“the one like a son of man” which was Jesus’ favorite title for himself) is clearly distinct from the Ancient of Days.  Moreover, the “one like a son of man” arrives after the Ancient of Days has destroyed the 4th kingdom’s power…possibly a considerable amount of time later.

1.  The “rock not cut by human hands” in Dan. 2 is not the same as the “one like a son of man” in Dan. 7. 

It is clear in Dan. 7 that it is the appearance of the Ancient of Days who destroys the power of the beasts/kingdoms, but it is also clear that the Ancient of Days is not the same as the one “like a son of man”. The “one like a son of man” receives his power/dominion from the Ancient of Days, so they cannot be the same person.  The rock “not cut by human hands” of Dan. 2, the Ancient of Days in Dan. 7 and the power which destroys the small horn in Dan. 8:25 are likely the same, but the “one like a son of man” seems to be distinct (though obviously connected).

2.  The arrival of the “one like a son of man” in Dan. 2 seems to come sometime after the destruction of the 4th kingdom, not during it. 

Daniel says that the Ancient of Days destroyed the fourth beast and the power of all the beasts/kingdoms, but that an “extension of life” was granted to the beasts (7:13-14).  The “one like a son of man” only appears after this extension.  If the 4th kingdom is the Macedonian Empire, this works perfectly. God destroyed the small horn, Antiochus Epiphanes (who we know died not in battle but from either a sickness or a fall from his chariot…i.e. not by human hands), fatally wounding what was left of the splintered power of the Macedonian Empire.  The Maccabean revolt in Israel followed this, throwing off much of the Greek power over Israel.  However, the Greeks continued to rule Israel albeit in reduced capacity until the Romans came in 63 AD.  Jesus then appeared soon after Rome came on the scene and Rome was eventually swallowed by Christianity when it became a Christian empire.  In effect, Rome was a part of God’s final destruction of previous world powers in this region.

But if this rock not cut by human hands is not Jesus of Nazareth, then what/who is it?  I believe the best interpretation is that it is the Kingdom of God itself.  Obviously, Jesus accomplished the decisive victory by which the Kingdom was inaugurated with his crucifixion and resurrection.  However, even Jesus spoke of the presence of the Kingdom in present terms before his resurrection.  This is, undoubtedly, in many ways related to the incarnation – that is, the Kingdom was present because Jesus himself was present – but there is no particular reason why the beginnings of the Kingdom – which is, after all, the rule of God in human affairs – could not have earlier stirrings going back into the Macedonian period.

As discussed above, the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes eventually led to the Maccabean revolt which did two things.  First, it seems to have brought divine judgment upon him, leading to his death “not by human hands” which, in turn, dramatically undermined the power of what was left of the Macedonian Empire.  In this way, God’s actions broke the power of the 4th kingdom and set in motion events which came to a head with the arrival of Jesus.  Second, the Maccabean revolt did something extremely important with respect to Jesus’ ministry:  it stirred up longings for the arrival of God’s Messiah.  With a taste of freedom but also the knowledge that they would not be completely free until God moved, during the latter part of the Macedonian occupation, the people of Israel began to long for the Messiah to an unprecedented degree.  The messianic fervor that we find in the 1st century Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was directly related to the events which occurred during the Macedonian occupation of Israel.  I believe this is what is meant by the prophetic details of the 4th kingdom in Dan. 2, 7 & 8:  during this time, God would do something that would grow larger and larger until eventually it destroyed to power of all other kings and kingdoms.  Obviously Jesus was the “one like the son of man” who decisively declared the absolute power of this divine Kingdom and won its critical victory, but he need not be taken as the initial “rock” thrown in the pond of human affairs.