Coming on the Clouds
Daniel’s vision in chapter 7 includes an abrupt shift from the scene of the fourth beast to a complex scene involving the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man who comes on the clouds of heaven. This scene is complex for many reasons, but one reason in particular is that the judgment of the four beasts is depicted between the appearance of the Ancient of Days and the coming of the Son of Man. This is what we read: “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Dan 7:11-12 ESV).
In v11, the end of the fourth beast comes swiftly and decisively, even as it arrogantly speaks against the Ancient of Days. Given the terribly powerful description of the fourth beast, its inglorious end is a display of true power by God. And then, to round out the dominion of God over all earthly kings, a brief description of the other beasts is added in v12.
But some have read these verses and wondered about the timeline. The main question is this: “Were the lives of the other three beasts prolonged for a season and a time before or after the destruction of the fourth beast?” As I see it, v12 completes this display of true power by filling in the gap of the complete domination of the kingdom of God over earthly kings. That is to say, this verse is not chronologically after v11 but logically completes the description of God’s judgment. The other beasts did not survive beyond the time of the fourth beast; their lives were prolonged but not beyond the end of the fourth beast and the little horn. The NIV captures this interpretation when it puts v12 in parentheses and uses the past perfect: “(The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)”
Beyond giving clarity to Daniel’s vision, this timeline question has broader implications. Commentators have identified the little horn of Daniel 7 with the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2. The appearance of the man of lawlessness precedes the second coming of Christ. “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ … Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess 2:1, 3 ESV). So, to read Dan 7:12 as the other three beasts having lives after the second coming of Christ presents problems with the finality of Christ’s work of judgment at the end of this age.
To reinforce the idea that Daniel is catching a glimpse of the end of this age, consider how Scripture uses the imagery of Christ coming on the clouds of heaven. Our Lord himself, while talking to his disciples about the end of the age, used the imagery of Daniel 7 to explain his second coming: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30 ESV).
And again, before the Sanhedrin, Jesus answered in response to the high priest’s question if he was the Christ, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64 ESV).
Finally, at Christ’s ascension, Luke tells us that our Lord “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight” (Acts 1:9 ESV). While the disciples were staring into heaven, two angels came and said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11 ESV).
The point, then, is that when the Son of Man, the Christ, comes on the clouds of heaven, that is the end. He will be given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom. Every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (cf. Phil 2:10-11) at that time. The saints of the Most High will possess the kingdom and dwell with God in peace. There will be no beastly kingdom after Christ the king comes again. Praise God for that finality when the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven.