The Interpretation of Daniel 2:39
Of the difficult passages in the Bible, skeptics often bring out one that may seem more difficult than the rest. They cite it as positive proof that the Old Testament contains historical inaccuracies. Because of its difficult nature, Daniel 2:31-45 bears special consideration, and requires one to “think outside the proverbial box.” The section tells of Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s prophetic dream:
Thou, O king, sawest, and, behold, a great image. This image, which was mighty, and whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the aspect thereof was terrible. As for this image, its head was of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of brass, its legs of iron, its feet part of iron, and part of clay. Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon its feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them in pieces….
Thou, O king, art king of kings, unto whom the God of heaven hath given the kingdom, the power, and the strength, and the glory; and wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens hath he given into thy hand, and hath made thee to rule over them all: thou art the head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee; and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron, forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things; and as iron that crusheth all these, shall it break in pieces and crush….
And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall the sovereignty thereof be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. Forasmuch as thou sawest that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure (Daniel 2:31-34,37-40,44-45, emp. added).
There are two proposed fallacies in this section of Scripture. The first is the kingdoms supposedly associated with the different sections of the statue, and the second concerns verse 39 where Daniel stated that, “after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee….”
The most widely accepted view of the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is that the silver, brass, and iron and/or clay sections of the statue refer respectively to the Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. But some question this view, saying that the sections of the statue refer to the Median, Persian, and Greek empires, respectively. This, however, is an easily refutable view: the Medians were never a great empire, but rather existed only as a small kingdom where present-day northern Iran is located. As Leupold stated: “If the statue represents the truth of history, the silver could not refer to a Median empire, for there never was such an empire” (1989, p. 117).
The kingdom of Persia conquered the kingdom of Media, among with other peoples and nations, and became the great Persian Empire upon the capture of Babylon and the subjugation of the Babylonian Empire. (The Persian Empire also is known as the Medo-Persian Empire, cf. Esther 1:19; Daniel 5:28). Some speak vehemently against this interpretation, using only exegesis to derive their view. In doing so, they ignore every piece of contrary historical, archeological, and even prophetic evidence. Barnes correctly stated that “[t]he kingdom here referred to was undoubtedly the Medo-Persian, established by Cyrus in the conquest of Babylon, which continued through the reigns of his successors until it was conquered by Alexander the Great” (1973, 1:158).
Since the second empire must represent the Medo-Persian Empire and not the non-existent Median Empire, critics claim that Daniel is historically inaccurate since the Medo-Persian Empire was larger and richer than the Babylonian Empire, and Daniel 2:39 refers to the second empire as being “inferior.” Keep in mind that the reference to it being inferior does not mean that it necessarily was inferior in all respects. Leupold mentioned the fact that the Persian Empire was inferior in the sense of influence on the rest of the world. Babylonian culture was dominant in that part of the world for around 2,000 years, and is well known for many of its accomplishments in architecture and science (p. 116).
But does Daniel have to be referring solely to materialism when he says that the kingdom was to be inferior? After all, Daniel’ s prophecy dealt mainly with the establishment of the kingdom of Christ (represented by the rock), which is not defined by size, shape, or wealth, but by its people. Perhaps “inferior” could be referring to the moral situation of the empire during the reign of the Persians, as opposed to the Babylonians. Both Barnes and Leupold mention this as a possibility, stating that from the close of the Babylonian Empire, all throughout the time of the Roman Empire, ethics and morals declined greatly (Barnes, 1:160; Leupold, p. 116).
Whether it was in influence or morals, the Medo-Persian Empire was clearly inferior in some respects, yet superior in others (such as size and wealth). Daniel 2:39 never mentioned what was inferior about the second kingdom; rather, he merely stated that something would be inferior, not necessarily everything. When viewed in this light, the supposed historical inaccuracy of Daniel disappears.
Barnes, Albert (1973), Notes on the New Testament: Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Leupold, H.C. (1989), Exposition of Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).