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Stuart Chase - 10 April 2022

A Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day (Daniel 8:1–27)

Did you ever start your day on the wrong foot and just know that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day? How did the start to that day affect the rest of the day? Did you approach it with enthusiasm, itching to get at it and face all the problems you knew were coming? Or did you feel like crawling back into bed and sleeping the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day away? Daniel 8 helps us approach our terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days in a hopeful way.

Scripture References: Daniel 8:1-27

From Series: "Daniel"

A sermon series in the book of Daniel.

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You may be familiar with Alexander’s complaints in Judith Viorst’s story about a little boy who had a notoriously bad day:

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there is gum in my hair when I got up this morning. I tripped on the skateboard and dropped my sweater in the sink when the water was running, and I could tell it was going to be a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad day.

 

In the carpool, Mr. Gibson let Becky have the seat by the window and Audrey and Elliot got seats by the window too. I said I was scrunched. I said I was smushed. I said, “If I don’t get a seat by the window I am going to get carsick.” Nobody even answered me. I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

 

There were two cupcakes in Phillip Barker’s lunch bag and Howard got a Hershey bar with almonds, and Paul’s mother gave him a jelly roll-up that had little coconut sprinkles in the top, and guess whose mother forgot to put dessert in his lunch. It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

 

There were lima beans for dinner. I hate lima beans. There was kissing on TV. I hate kissing. My bath was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, my marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad pajamas. I hate my railroad pajamas. And when I went to bed, Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep, and my Mickey Mouse night-light burned out and I bit my tongue. The cat wants to sleep with Anthony and not me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

Have you been there? Did you ever start your day on the wrong foot and just know that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day? How did the start to that day affect the rest of the day? Did you approach it with enthusiasm, itching to get at it and face all the problems you knew were coming? Or did you feel like crawling back into bed and sleeping the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day away?

I venture to guess that most of us are tempted to bury our terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days under the covers. I wonder if Daniel felt like that after receiving the vision recorded in Daniel 8.

Two years after the dream in chapter 7, Daniel received another dream about the future. This time, Babylonia and Rome played no role in the prophecy, which instead focused on the Greek overthrow of the Medo-Persian empire, and particularly on one Greek leader who would be responsible for a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day for the people of God. Happily—at least from our perspective—the interpretation of this second dream is much more straightforward than the first but, as previously, we don’t want to simply interpret the symbols correctly and leave it at that. This text speaks to us in our own day, and we want to consider what it says.

As was the case in chapter 7, chapter 8 can be broadly divided into two sections: the first detailing the dream itself (vv. 1–14) and the second offering an angelic interpretation of the dream (vv. 15–27). Each of those sections, however, can be subdivided into three parts: the vision/interpretation of the ram; the vision/interpretation of the goat; and the vision/interpretation of the little horn. As we did in chapter 7, we will move backward and forward between symbolism and interpretation for each of these three sections.

A word about the timing of the dream’s fulfilment is necessary before we begin. After receiving the vision, Daniel wanted to understand it. He writes,

When I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I sought to understand it. And behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man. And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision.” So he came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face. But he said to me, “Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end.”

 

And when he had spoken to me, I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground. But he touched me and made me stand up. He said, “Behold, I will make known to you what shall be at the latter end of the indignation, for it refers to the appointed time of the end.”

(Daniel 8:15–19)

The interpretation concerned “the time of the end” and “the latter end of the indignation.” Too often, when we read “the end” in the Bible we immediately assume that it refers to the end of the world in our future. But that is not always the case. It certainly is not the case here.

“The end” here refers to a time in Daniel’s future, now in our past, which would be “the end” of a specific era. Specifically, it would be “the end” of the old covenant era, which would soon transition into the new covenant era. Let us then consider the vision and its interpretation before we try to bring it into our own world.

The Two-Horned Ram

The first symbol in Daniel’s vision was a great ram.

In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar a vision appeared to me, Daniel, after that which appeared to me at the first. And I saw in the vision; and when I saw, I was in Susa the citadel, which is in the province of Elam. And I saw in the vision, and I was at the Ulai canal. I raised my eyes and saw, and behold, a ram standing on the bank of the canal. It had two horns, and both horns were high, but one was higher than the other, and the higher one came up last. I saw the ram charging westward and northward and southward. No beast could stand before him, and there was no one who could rescue from his power. He did as he pleased and became great.

(Daniel 8:1–4)

The interpretation of the ram symbolism is found in v. 20: “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia” (v. 20).

“In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar” (v. 1), Daniel was evidently sent to “Susa the citadel, which is in the province of Elam” (v. 2) on some form of diplomatic errand. While there, he had a dream-vision in which he was standing on the bank of the Ulai Canal. Across the canal, was a ram with horns of unequal length. These horns evidently grew as he watched. The first grew to a great length; the second grew to an even greater length. The ferocious ram charged westward, northward, and southward, defeating every enemy in its path. The interpreting angel explicitly identified the ram as “the kings of Media and Persia” (v. 20). (Note that, as in chapter 7, the interpretation treats the animals as both kings and kingdoms—as kings representative of their kingdoms.)

With the benefit of hindsight, the dream is straightforward to understand. There is very little debate among commentators as to the interpretation of this vision. As we saw previously, Medo-Persia was an unequal alliance. While the Medes (the first horn) first gained ascendancy, and Persia later joined Median dominance, the Persian forces (the second horn) eventually grew to dominance in the coalition. In chapter 7, the three ribs in the lopsided bear’s mouth represented the three kingdoms that the Medo-Persian empire conquered: Egypt, Lydia, and Babylonia. The same is represented by the threefold charge of the ram. At the height of its power, Medo-Persia was a seemingly unstoppable force. Egypt, Lydia, and Babylonia were hardly insignificant world powers at that time, but each of them crumbled before Medo-Persian might.

Having decades before survived the Babylonian invasion of Judah, Daniel no doubt did not face the thought of another military conquest with any sense of delight. As he considered the reality of what lay before him, he knew it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

The Shaggy Goat

Daniel’s focus shifted to a shaggy goat that overpowered the ram.

As I was considering, behold, a male goat came from the west across the face of the whole earth, without touching the ground. And the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes. He came to the ram with the two horns, which I had seen standing on the bank of the canal, and he ran at him in his powerful wrath. I saw him come close to the ram, and he was enraged against him and struck the ram and broke his two horns. And the ram had no power to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and trampled on him. And there was no one who could rescue the ram from his power. Then the goat became exceedingly great, but when he was strong, the great horn was broken, and instead of it there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.

(Daniel 8:5–8)

Interpreting the vision, the angel continued:

And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power.

(Daniel 8:21–22)

The once-unstoppable force of Medo-Persia would not last forever. As Daniel watched, a horned “male goat” (the word refers to a shaggy goat) came speeding toward the ram from a westerly direction. The goat moved so quickly it appeared to be flying. It completely overpowered the ram and continued to grow in power. The shaggy goat represented “the king of Greece” and “the great horn between his eyes” represented “the first king.”

As we observed previously, Alexander the Great, king of Greece, overpowered the Persians and conquered the known world with immense speed. Within twelve years, the known world had fallen before him. It is significant to observe, in light of what we will read in a moment, that Alexander did not attack Jerusalem. It is said that, as he was on his campaign of conquest, Jewish representatives brought him Daniel’s prophecies and showed him how specifically Israel’s God had foretold his conquest. He was so impressed that he chose to leave Jerusalem alone.

At the height of his power, however, Alexander was cut short. He died at the tender age of 33 without appointing an heir. While he had two sons, he believed that no one was worthy to replace him and so left his dominion open-ended. Within a short period, his sons were murdered and four of his generals divided his empire into four parts, each assuming leadership over one part. This is the meaning of the “four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.”

The shaggy goat would not directly oppose God’s people, but the vision was not yet over. Daniel would soon see a far more terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

The Little Horn

The ram and the goat were but the curtain raiser for the main event. In chapter 7, a little horn arose from the fourth empire. Here, we see a different little horn, this one connected to the third empire:

Out of one of them came a little horn, which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land. It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them. It became great, even as great as the Prince of the host. And the regular burnt offering was taken away from him, and the place of his sanctuary was overthrown. And a host will be given over to it together with the regular burnt offering because of transgression, and it will throw truth to the ground, and it will act and prosper. Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one who spoke, “For how long is the vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled underfoot?” And he said to me, “For 2,300 evenings and mornings. Then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.”

(Daniel 8:9–14)

Since the events prophesied were far in Daniel’s future, the interpreting angel once again came to the interpretive rescue:

And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints. By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall become great. Without warning he shall destroy many. And he shall even rise up against the Prince of princes, and he shall be broken—but by no human hand. The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.

(Daniel 8:23–26)

Alexander’s generals each inherited a quarter of his empire. Two of those empires eventually rose to prominence: the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. Eventually from the Seleucids, a particularly notorious king, portrayed here as a “little horn” arose. Unlike Alexander and his generals, this “little horn” would become a vicious opponent of God’s people. The saints would face a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day at the hand of the “little horn.” His name was Antiochus IV.

When Antiochus III died, his oldest son, Seleucus IV, ruled in his place. Seleucus IV’s younger brother, Antiochus IV, was studying in Athens and slowly growing in stature. While he was studying, his older brother died, leaving the kingdom to his son (Antiochus IV’s nephew). Antiochus IV manipulated the situation to depose his nephew and take the throne “by his cunning” (v. 25).

Antiochus IV initiated military campaigns in Egypt (“toward the south”) and Syria (“toward the east”) before eventually turning his sights on Jerusalem (“toward the glorious land”) (v. 9). This was the first time in 150 years that any of Alexander’s descendants set their sights on Jerusalem. Daniel saw this and knew that it would be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

Antiochus killed many Jews (“the stars,” v. 10), and he did so “without warning” (v. 25). First Maccabees tells us that Antiochus sent a contingent of soldiers to Jerusalem to feign an alliance with the Jews. Once they had gained a degree of Jewish trust, they seized control of the temple and killed many Jews in the city. “The regular burnt offering was taken away” (v. 11) when Antiochus IV erected a statue of Jupiter in front of the altar. He also sacrificed a pig on the altar and sprinkled pork fat around the building, thereby defiling the temple and putting an end to the sacrifices.

Antiochus IV would “throw truth to the ground” (v. 12) by burning every Torah scroll he could find. First Maccabees tells us that “the books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king” (1:56–57). In all this opposition, he would “act and prosper” (v. 12). It would be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

All of this would happen “because of transgression” (v. 12). In other words, like Nebuchadnezzar before him, Antiochus IV would prosper because of Judah’s sin. He would be God’s instrument of judgement, though he would overextend his hand in such a way as to invite God’s judgement on himself. In fact, Antiochus IV would exalt himself “against the Prince of princes” (v. 25)—against Yahweh himself. Antiochus IV nicknamed himself “Epiphanes,” which means “the manifest god.” He raised himself as a god against the people of God—and therefore against God himself.

As he witnessed all of this, Daniel heard a conversation between two “holy one[s]” in which it was determined that this would all last “for 2,300 evenings and mornings.” Historically, Antiochus IV’s defilement of the temple lasted for 1,150 days—2,300 morning and evening sacrifices—before temple worship was restored. There would be 1,150 terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days.

During Antiochus IV’s reign of terror, a group of faithful Jewish rebels withdrew from the city into the wilderness, where they consolidated their power. Eventually, after 1,150 days, the Maccabean family led the faithful remnant to seize control of the city and restore order and temple worship. In the end, Antiochus IV was “broken—but by no human hand” (v. 25). He was not killed in battle. His own overindulgence in alcohol, and an unidentified nervous disorder, led to his untimely death. There was hope that the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day would end.

The Appropriate Response

Having considered the prophecy and its interpretation, we cannot leave this study, content that we have enjoyed a good Bible study. We must ask what we can learn from the text. As we seek to bring the text into our own lives, it may be helpful to observe how Daniel responded to the vision: “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it” (Daniel 8:27). Daniel’s threefold response to his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day helps us to respond in a right way to our terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days.

Humility

First, Daniel responded with humility: “I … did not understand it.” This confession is startlingly ironic for a couple of reasons.

First, God had told the interpreting angel to “make this man understand the vision” (v. 16). Even with the interpretation before him, Daniel still did not fully grasp everything about it.

Second, Daniel confessed ignorance. Daniel was the great interpreter of dreams. He had interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s two dreams (chapters 2 and 4). A few years after receiving this dream, the queen mother would herald him as a man with “an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems” (5:12). This man, who had previously shown such great wisdom, now confessed ignorance. What humility!

Of course, we are in a far better position than Daniel ever was. The dominion of the Medo-Persians and the Greeks was something of a mystery to him. The angel specifically told him to “seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now” (v. 26). It was a long way off and so it was understandable that there would be some mystery to it and that Daniel should not obsess over trying to figure out all the mystery.

But I wonder if Daniel’s inability to “understand” was about more than the mere historical fulfilment of the vision. I wonder if part of his confusion was about how God could repeatedly give his people into the hand of wicked little horns. I wonder if his confusion was as much about Gd’s providence as it was about the future. I wonder if, like many of us, he struggled to understand why God would allow such a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day to befall his people.

Sometimes, we struggle to understand God’s providence in our lives. Why has God allowed me to lose a spouse, or to receive that dread diagnosis, or to face unemployment, or to walk with the burden of an unbelieving spouse or children, or to long for a spouse with none in sight, or to wrestle with infertility, or to battle unwanted same sex attraction, or to feel so confused about my gender identity, or to live with the least understanding parents ever? Why do I have to face this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day? Sometimes, with Daniel, we have to say, “I don’t understand. But I know I can trust God.”

There are times when humility calls for us to confess our ignorance. While we are on the subject of prophecy, let’s admit that is especially true when it comes to future events. The Bible does not give us a great deal of information about the future and, rather than involving ourselves in distracted speculation, we are far better off focusing on the things we doknow. We know beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus Christ is coming back visibly and bodily (Acts 1:9–11). We know beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be a general, bodily resurrection of the dead (John 5:28–29). We know beyond any reasonable doubt that this general resurrection will be followed by a final, irrevocable judgement (2 Thessalonians 1:5–10). Outside of those certainties, we must speak with humility when it comes to predictions about the future.

But we must also be humble about God’s everyday providences in our lives. When Peter’s readers were struggling to understand why God was allowing them to suffer so badly—why he allowed their terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day—he replied, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7). Humbly admit that you don’t understand, and that you don’t need to understand, even as you cast your burdens on him.

But let me also say that there is a note of humility that must be maintained even in certainties. I am thinking specifically of the certainty of death. I’ve just said that we know we will be resurrected at Christ’s return to face judgement. Death is coming for all of us, and judgement will certainly follow death. We will all stand before Jesus Christ on the day of judgement to give an answer for how we responded to him in the gospel.

We know for certain that Jesus was born of a virgin. We know for certain that he lived a sinless life. We know for certain that he died in the place of sinners who would believe in him. We know for certain that he was buried. We know for certain that he rose from the dead. We know for certain that he ascended to heaven where he rules from the right hand of his Father. We know for certain that he calls all people everywhere to repent of their sins and believe in him for eternal life. And we know for certain that, after our death, and after Christ’s return, we will stand before him as our final judge. What will be our defence at that point?

Those who trust in their own righteousness will find themselves on that day cast into the eternal lake of fire, which is the second death. Those who trust in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins will find themselves inheriting eternal life. We must humbly believe these certainties and embrace Christ as Lord and Saviour if we will avoid the penalty of eternal destruction. What will you do with Christ?

Concern

Second, Daniel responded with concern: “I was appalled by the vision.” Why was he appalled? Because he was overwhelmed both at the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day that the saints would experience at the hand of the little horn and at the severity of the judgement that would befall the little horn. He is, in this regard, a good example to us.

On the one hand, it should appal us when we see God’s people, whom he so dearly loves, facing terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days at the hands of persecutors. The appearance of the little horn was 350 years in Daniel’s future, but he felt the pain of those saints as if he was experiencing it himself.

Because we live in a country in which we experience relative ease as Christians, it can be easy to think and pray for those who are opposed for their faith with academic interest. We lament that there are Christians who are opposed for their faith—but do we really feel it? Do we feel the pain of eighteen-year-old Mariam and 16-year-old Sarah who were physically beaten and imprisoned, and fired from their jobs because they dared to share the gospel with a Muslim colleague? Do we feel the pain of Sri and her fellow Laotian Christians who have been threatened with physical violence if they do not renounce Christ or if they keep gathering for worship? Do we feel the pain of brothers and sisters we know in India who face arrest and even physical violence for the mere act of gathering on the Lord’s Day for worship? Do we think about them? Do we pray for them? Will we sacrifice our own comforts for their gospel benefit?

On the other hand, it should grieve us when we consider the reality of the coming judgement on an unbelieving world. Do we really believe that Christ is coming back to judge the living and the dead? Do we really believe that those who persist in their sin and reject the gospel will face eternal, irreversible punishment? If so, what are we doing about it?

Sometimes, in Reformed circles, we can be too easily critical of those who are involved in evangelistic programmes that don’t quite align with our theology while we are doing absolutely nothing to share the gospel with others. I am often asked what I think about evangelistic programs like Way of the Master, Christianity Explored, and Evangelism Explosion. Programs like these frequently face criticism for a one-size-fits-all approach to evangelism. But at least they’re trying! If we are not sharing the gospel at all, we should be careful of criticising those who are doing so in ways we don’t like.

Are we genuinely burdened to see the lost come to faith in Christ? Or only certain lost people whose lifestyles we generally approve? The Pharisees quickly condemned tax collectors and sinners. Jesus was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He was willing to build relationships—even if it meant attracting the disapproval of the religiously orthodox—so that he could reach the lost with the gospel. Are we committed to the same?

Activity

Finally, Daniel responded with activity: “I rose and went about the king’s business.” He had work to do and would did not allow the prophecy and the confusion he felt about God’s providence to prevent him from doing what he was called to do.

Tremper Longman recalls a time in May 1994 when he engaged in debate with Harold Camping about the return of Christ. Camping had predicted the Jesus would return in September that year. As Longman prepared for the debate, he learned of one member of his own church who had maxed out his credit card. When he challenged this brother about faithful stewardship, the man responded that he did not need to concern himself with that because Jesus was coming back in a few months and he would not need to settle the debt. Another church member’s wife and children had left him. When Longman visited the man and asked if he had made any efforts to reconcile, the man replied, “No, I don’t need to. In a matter of months, Christ is coming again and my problems will disappear.” These church members had chosen to evade their responsibilities because they were wrongly focused on prophetic speculation.

Daniel knew that the Babylonian empire was nearing its end. Within six years, the Medes and the Persians would overrun Babylon and King Belshazzar would be killed. Power was shifting westwards. He could easily have reasoned that, since it was all about to come crashing down, there was no need to continue fulfilling his royal responsibilities. Instead, “I rose and went about the king’s business.”

Why did he do that? Because he knew that it was what God had called him to in that moment—whether the end was around the corner or not, and whether he understood God’s providence or not. We don’t know when Christ is coming back, and we don’t always understand what God is doing in our lives and in our world, but we also know that we have work to do. And God expects us to faithfully be about the work to which he has called us while we wait and while we pray.

God has placed each you in your specific setting in this world to be salt and light. Your work and your relationships and your witness are meaningful for the sake of the kingdom. You may never be a missionary, but you have gospel work to do. As an accountant, or a mechanic, or a doctor, you rub shoulders with people that missionaries will never have access to. You have work to do. That work is meaningful even if your colleagues never believe the gospel. Belshazzar never believed, but Daniel kept about the king’s business. As a Christian, you should be concerned about sharing the gospel, but even if your colleagues never believe, you should be concerned to be the best worker you can be for the glory of God.

As a Christian, you should strive to be the best accountant in the firm. As a Christian, you should strive to be the best lawyer in the practice. As a Christian, you should strive to be the best doctor on the team. Whether you are changing nappies or cleaning the kitchen or designing high rise buildings, you should “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).

And why? Because Jesus Christ reigns. The king’s business is the King’s business. We need to be salt and light wherever God has placed us because we want to show that we believe and submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Believer, perhaps your immediate future looks like a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. As you face it, will you do so with humility? Will you do so with concern? Will you do so while keeping about the activity to which God has called you? I trust that you will allow this text to speak into your life today.

AMEN