Because the events of Daniel 8 are matters of historical fact, it is worthwhile to provide some of that historical flavor to enrich our engagement with this chapter—and even this chapter’s interconnectedness with other passages of Scripture. Specifically, this reflection will provide some historical flavor for the events of the little horn, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and his war with the saints in Judah and Jerusalem.
To begin, remember that Antiochus is genetically related to the flying unicorn goat of Daniel 8 that is Greece and Alexander the Great. At the height of Alexander’s power, he died, and his kingdom was eventually divided among four of his generals. One of his generals, Seleucus, staked out Syria as his domain while Ptolemy took Egypt. Between them lay Palestine, and Daniel 11 actually describes some of the drama wrapped up in the conflict between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms that precedes the rise of the little horn of Daniel 8 and his war with the saints.
Initially, Palestine belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty until Antiochus III rose to power in the Seleucid dynasty. He “brought the period of peace to an end in 219 [B.C.]. After several attempts he finally wrested Palestine from Egypt about the turn of the century. The Jews readily changed allegiance and welcomed Antiochus. It proved to be a tragic mistake to expect better conditions.” With this change in rule over Judah and Jerusalem, the road was paved for the little horn to wage his war against God’s people.
But along with the geopolitical maneuvering around Judah and Jerusalem, there was conflict within Jerusalem that contributed to the events of the little horn. With more than 100 years of Greek influence, a significant number of Jews had begun to adopt Greek customs and culture. Judaism was not dropped, but it was in the process of being Hellenized. For many, this was completely unacceptable, and so there arose conflict between the Hellenizers and what we might today call the pietists.
When Antiochus IV rose to power, some Hellenizers invited him to Jerusalem, and so he “plundered the temple at Jerusalem in 169 B.C. to help finance his plans against Egypt. Plundering temples was standard policy, but in this act the Jews saw an early stage of Antiochus’ proceedings against their religion” which they would have gathered from the Daniel 8 vision.
And it was indeed just the beginning. “In 168 B.C. Antiochus was on the verge of securing his designs on Egypt and restoring Seleucid power when Rome intervened and forced his withdrawal. Rumor in Jerusalem had it that Antiochus had died in Egypt, so Jason [a contender for high priest] attempted to drive out Menelaus [the present high priest appointed by Antiochus after a hefty bribe], who fled to the king for support. … After his rebuff in Egypt Antiochus was in no mood to be conciliatory and took a harsh vengeance on the revolt. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down, a new citadel (the Acra) was erected to dominate the temple area, and a garrison was stationed there converting the city into a military settlement.”
Then, things got worse. Antiochus “issued decrees prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion: the Scriptures were to be destroyed, the Sabbath and festivals were no longer to be observed, the food laws were to be abolished, and circumcision was no longer to be practiced. Moreover, at the end of 168/167 a smaller altar was erected on the top of the great altar of burnt offering, and as the supreme insult to Judaism swine were sacrificed on it.”
This was too much for many Jews, and what is called the Maccabean revolt was started in response. After this successful revolt, the Jewish festival of Hannukah originated to celebrate the end of this little horn’s influence and the rededication of the temple. Nearly 200 years later, around the time of Hannukah, the Lord Jesus declared himself to be the surety that no matter how hostile the world might be towards God’s people, just like Antiochus was so many years prior, no harm can ultimately come to God’s people. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28 ESV). With that, Jesus presented himself as the restraining hand of God against our greatest enemies.