In Daniel 7 the prophet records a night vision that God gave him concerning four world empires, symbolized as four beasts (Daniel 7:1–14). The four empires are the same as Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream in Daniel 2, although in that dream they are pictured as various metals in a statue. Daniel’s vision assures us that the world’s empires have a certain amount of authority for a certain length of time, but they will all pass away, and “the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever” (Daniel 7:18).
The vision of the four beasts troubles Daniel, and he wonders what it means until an angel explains it to him (Daniel 7:15–27). Even then, the vision and its interpretation continue to cause Daniel distress: “I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself” (verse 28).
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts begins with a windy night and a troubled sea: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea” (Daniel 7:2). As Daniel watches, “four great beasts,” each different from the others, emerge from the dark waters (verse 3).
The first of Daniel’s four beasts is “like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle” (Daniel 7:4). As Daniel watches, the wings are torn off the beast, and the creature stands erect like a man and a human mind is given to it. Later, the angel who interprets the dream tells Daniel, “The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth” (verse 17). This first beast is representative of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Its rise to human-like status reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s deliverance from a beastly existence and his insight into the true nature of God (Daniel 4:34–35).
The second beast in Daniel’s vision is “like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth” (Daniel 7:5). A voice tells the second beast to devour flesh until it is satisfied. This beast represents the Medo-Persian Empire; the raising up of one side of the creature indicates that one of the kingdom’s parts (Persia) would be dominant. The three ribs in the creature’s mouth symbolize nations that were “devoured” by the Medes and the Persians. These three conquered nations are known to be Babylon, Lydia, and Egypt.
The third of the four beasts is “like a leopard,” except it has four bird-like wings on its back and four heads (Daniel 7:6). This beast is given authority to rule. The third beast represents Greece, an empire known for the swiftness of its conquests. The four heads are predictive of the four-way division of the empire following Alexander the Great’s death. Daniel’s vision of the ram and the goat gives further details of the second and third kingdoms (see Daniel 8).
The final beast that Daniel sees rising from the sea is the most dreadful—“terrifying and frightening and very powerful” (Daniel 7:7). This fourth beast has “bronze claws” (verse 19) and “large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left” totally annihilating its prey (verse 7). The fourth beast has ten horns. This creature represents the Roman Empire, a mighty kingdom that indeed crushed all its foes.
So, Daniel’s vision of the four beasts provided a prophetic look at future world events. Looking back from our perspective, we see these events as world history and can easily see the correlation between each beast and a world empire. However, there was more to Daniel’s vision, and some of it is yet future, even for us.
Daniel’s attention is drawn to the destructive fourth beast, and he ponders the meaning of its ten horns. Then, a smaller horn begins to grow from the midst of the ten. As the little horn emerges from the beast, three of the original horns are plucked out by the roots. Daniel sees that the little horn has “eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully” (Daniel 7:8). The proud, boastful words of the little horn continue until the Ancient of Days sets up a day of judgment (verses 9–10). At that time, “the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire” (verse 11). This is in contrast to the fate of the other three beasts, who lost their authority but were not immediately destroyed (verse 12).
After the fourth beast is killed and its body burned, a “son of man” comes from heaven in the clouds. “He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence” (Daniel 7:13). This man is given “authority, glory and sovereign power” (verse 14), and all the nations of earth worship him. The kingdom he rules is everlasting and indestructible.
As the interpretation of the vision is given to Daniel, the prophet asks specifically about the fourth beast and its horns (Daniel 7:19). The angel explains: the beast’s ten horns are ten kings who will arise from that kingdom (verse 24). The little, imposing horn with the eyes and mouth of a human represents a later king; before him three of the original kings will be subdued. This evil king “will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people” (verse 25). He will seek to change times and laws, and he will exert oppressive power over God’s people for three and a half years. This world leader that Daniel saw is the Antichrist, the “ruler who will come” who sets up the abomination in Daniel 9:27.
Given the fact that the Antichrist emerges from the fourth beast leads us to surmise that, in the end times, there will be a “revival” of the Roman Empire, featuring a coalition of ten world leaders. The Antichrist will take his position of leadership at the expense of three of those leaders, and he will eventually wield global authority. A true tyrant, the Antichrist will demand worship and seek to control all aspects of life (see Revelation 13:16–17).
The little horn of Daniel 7 is the first beast of Revelation 13. Notice that the beast in Revelation also has ten horns, and John describes it as resembling “a leopard, but [it] had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion” (Revelation 13:2). In other words, the beast of Revelation contains elements of all of Daniel’s beasts. Like Daniel’s fourth beast, John’s beast speaks proudly and oppresses God’s people for three and a half years (Revelation 13:5–7).
The good news is that the reign of the Antichrist is limited: forty-two months, and no more. Then, God promises to judge the little horn. “The court will sit, and [the little horn’s] power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever” (Daniel 7:26). Or, as John saw it, “The beast was captured, and [was] thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 19:20). The Son of Man will rule forever.
It is interesting to compare Daniel’s vision of the four beasts with King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a large statue. Both visions symbolize the same kingdoms of the world. In Daniel 2, the king dreams of the earthly kingdoms as “an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance” (Daniel 2:31). However, Daniel sees the same kingdoms as hideous beasts (Daniel 7). So, we have two very different perspectives on the kingdoms mankind builds. The rulers of the world see their kingdoms as imposing, artistic monuments fashioned of valuable metals. However, God’s prophets view the same kingdoms as unnatural monsters.
Daniel’s vision of the four beasts warned Israel that there would be a procession of enemies and world rulers holding authority over them; however, they should not lose heart. In the end, God is in control, and the Messiah to come will defeat the kingdoms of this world and establish His throne forever (Daniel 2:44; 7:13–14; Revelation 11:15).