The “king of the North” mentioned in Daniel 11 is actually a series of Greek kings in Syria of the Seleucid dynasty. Syria is to the north of Israel, so the king in Syria is the “king of the North.” Egypt is to the south of Israel, so the series of Egyptian kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty is the “king of the South” in this passage.
In the chapters leading up to Daniel 11, God reveals that Israel will be restored; however, He also tells Daniel of a time of great trouble for Israel. The time predicted in Daniel 11 took place during what is known as the Intertestamental Period—the roughly 400 years between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. There were no canonical books written during this period, but the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees record the history of the time period. The information in Daniel 11 is so accurate that secular scholars posit that it is prophecy ex eventu, that is, prophecy “after the fact,” which would not really be prophecy at all.
Daniel 11 starts with a mighty Greek king whose kingdom is divided after his death. All agree that this is Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC in the prime of life and whose empire was divided among his four generals. One of these generals, Ptolemy, took an area to the south of Israel that included Egypt. Another general, Seleucis, took control of an area to the north of Israel that included Syria. Daniel 11 covers hundreds of years, so the kings of the North and South are not single individuals; rather, they are the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty (headquartered in Egypt) and the Seleucid dynasty (headquartered in Syria). These two dynasties were antagonistic toward each other, and Israel was caught in the middle. The king of the North is the Greek king of Syria, of the Seleucid dynasty.
Here are some key terms to remember:
North = Syria = the Seleucid dynasty, which included several kings with the name Antiochus
South = Egypt = the Ptolemaic dynasty
Here is the prophecy of Daniel 11:5–6: “The king of the South will become strong, but one of his commanders will become even stronger than he and will rule his own kingdom with great power. After some years, they will become allies. The daughter of the king of the South will go to the king of the North to make an alliance, but she will not retain her power, and he and his power will not last. In those days she will be handed over, together with her royal escort and her father and the one who supported her.”
Fulfillment: At first, the Seleucid king in Syria (“the North”) had been a subject of Ptolemy in Egypt (“the South”), but in time he actually became more powerful. Therefore, the king of the South proposed a marriage alliance to unite kingdoms. Princess Berenice from the South married the Seleucid king, and a child was born from that union. But the king of the North died suddenly, and the wife and child were murdered in 246 BC. Instead of sealing an alliance, the two kingdoms went to war.
Daniel 11:7–10: “One from her family line will arise to take her place. He will attack the forces of the king of the North and enter his fortress; he will fight against them and be victorious. He will also seize their gods, their metal images and their valuable articles of silver and gold and carry them off to Egypt. For some years, he will leave the king of the North alone. Then the king of the North will invade the realm of the king of the South but will retreat to his own country. His sons will prepare for war and assemble a great army, which will sweep on like an irresistible flood and carry the battle as far as his fortress.”
Fulfillment: Princess Berenice’s brother, the king in Egypt, carried out a successful military campaign against the North in 245—241 BC. Later, the Syrian kingdom in the North tried to retaliate—and even attempted to invade Egypt.
Daniel 11:11–13: “Then the king of the South will march out in a rage and fight against the king of the North, who will raise a large army, but it will be defeated. When the army is carried off, the king of the South will be filled with pride and will slaughter many thousands, yet he will not remain triumphant. For the king of the North will muster another army, larger than the first; and after several years, he will advance with a huge army fully equipped.”
Fulfillment: Syria was defeated by Egypt in 217 BC; the Greek-Egyptian king of the South killed about one fifth of the Syrian forces, but the victory was short-lived as Syria invaded again with a bigger force and was successful.
Daniel 11:14–16: “In those times many will rise against the king of the South. The violent men among your own people will rebel in fulfillment of the vision, but without success. Then the king of the North will come and build up siege ramps and will capture a fortified city. The forces of the South will be powerless to resist; even their best troops will not have the strength to stand. The invader will do as he pleases; no one will be able to stand against him. He will establish himself in the Beautiful Land and will have the power to destroy it.”
Fulfillment: Israel was initially under the more tolerant rule of the Ptolemaic kings of the South. But with the Syrian victory, control of Israel passed to the Seleucid king of the North in 200 BC. Some Israelites supported the Seleucids against the Ptolemies, considering the Ptolemies to have been oppressors. There were divisions and factions within Israel as people took different sides. Jerusalem, the “fortified city,” had Egyptian (southern) troops stationed there, and they were defeated by the king of the North.
Daniel 11:17–29: “He will determine to come with the might of his entire kingdom and will make an alliance with the king of the South. And he will give him a daughter in marriage in order to overthrow the kingdom, but his plans will not succeed or help him. Then he will turn his attention to the coastlands and will take many of them, but a commander will put an end to his insolence and will turn his insolence back upon him. After this, he will turn back toward the fortresses of his own country but will stumble and fall, to be seen no more.”
Fulfillment: The rival kingdoms attempted another marriage alliance. The daughter of the Seleucid king (of the North) married the Ptolemaic king (of the South) in 193 BC. The plan was not truly to build an alliance but to undermine the king of the South, for the daughter was to be an agent of her father. However, after the marriage, the queen’s loyalty shifted to her husband. Since the subterfuge did not work, the Seleucid king of the North attacked a number of Greek islands and part of Asia Minor, despite being warned by the Romans to stay out of Greece. The Romans attacked and defeated him at Thermopylae in 191 BC. The king of the North was humiliated and was forced to pay tribute to Rome.
Daniel 11:20: “His successor will send out a tax collector to maintain the royal splendor. In a few years, however, he will be destroyed, yet not in anger or in battle.”
Fulfillment: The Seleucid successor was preoccupied with getting money to satisfy Rome. His attempt to loot the temple in Jerusalem to get tribute money was unsuccessful. This king had a short, inconsequential reign.
This brings us to Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, one of the most notorious and brutal kings of the North.
Daniel 11:21–24 seems to be a summary of the reign of Antiochus IV, and verse 25 begins to give specifics, but not necessarily in chronological order.
Daniel 11:21–24: “He will be succeeded by a contemptible person who has not been given the honor of royalty. He will invade the kingdom when its people feel secure, and he will seize it through intrigue. Then an overwhelming army will be swept away before him; both it and a prince of the covenant will be destroyed. After coming to an agreement with him, he will act deceitfully, and with only a few people he will rise to power. When the richest provinces feel secure, he will invade them and will achieve what neither his fathers nor his forefathers did. He will distribute plunder, loot and wealth among his followers. He will plot the overthrow of fortresses—but only for a time.”
Fulfillment: Antiochus Epiphanes was not a legitimate heir to the throne but was able to acquire an army and take the throne by force in 187 BC. He was a thug and a madman with a special vendetta against Jerusalem. He was behind the murder of the high priest. Although he took the name Epiphanes (“God manifest”), some called him “Epimanes” (“madman”).
Daniel 11:25–28: “With a large army he will stir up his strength and courage against the king of the South. The king of the South will wage war with a large and very powerful army, but he will not be able to stand because of the plots devised against him. Those who eat from the king’s provisions will try to destroy him; his army will be swept away, and many will fall in battle. The two kings, with their hearts bent on evil, will sit at the same table and lie to each other, but to no avail, because an end will still come at the appointed time. The king of the North will return to his own country with great wealth, but his heart will be set against the holy covenant. He will take action against it and then return to his own country.”
Fulfillment: Antiochus invaded Egypt in 169 BC. The young and inexperienced king of Egypt, relying on unsuitable advisors, was defeated. In negotiations, neither king was honorable. Antiochus left Egypt the victor. On his way home, he looted the temple in Jerusalem, stationed a garrison there, and defiled the temple by sacrificing unclean animals. In the New Testament, the descriptions of “the Beast” are reminiscent of the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Daniel 11:29–30): “At the appointed time he will invade the South again, but this time the outcome will be different from what it was before. Ships of the western coastlands will oppose him, and he will lose heart. Then he will turn back and vent his fury against the holy covenant. He will return and show favor to those who forsake the holy covenant.”
Fulfillment: Antiochus returned home but soon decided to invade the South again. He was intercepted by the Romans, who told him to “cease and desist.” He had no choice but to comply, but the incident humiliated him and seemed to make him more intent on violence elsewhere.
Daniel 11:31–32: “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.”
Fulfillment: Attempting to loot the temple a second time, Antiochus tried to buy off Jewish officials, and he stopped the daily sacrifices. This time, however, he was met by Jewish resistance. The Maccabean Revolt ensued in 167 BC.
Daniel 11:33–35: “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.”
Fulfillment: The revolt against Antiochus met with mixed success and mixed support among the Jewish populace with some help from Rome—which later became an occupying power.
Daniel 11:36–39 seems to recapitulate Antiochus’ reign: “The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place. He will show no regard for the gods of his fathers or for the one desired by women, nor will he regard any god, but will exalt himself above them all. Instead of them, he will honor a god of fortresses; a god unknown to his fathers he will honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and costly gifts. He will attack the mightiest fortresses with the help of a foreign god and will greatly honor those who acknowledge him. He will make them rulers over many people and will distribute the land at a price.”
Fulfillment: Antiochus did whatever he wanted. He even proclaimed himself to be a god by taking the title Epiphanes. He chose the Sabbath as a day to worship him. He went far beyond his predecessors in arrogance. He did not rely on the pagan gods but on his own financial and military might.
Daniel 11:40–45 has been a bit of a problem. These verses do not follow what we know of Antiochus. The skeptical solution is that the author of Daniel was alive during the reign of Antiochus (writing pseudo-prophecy after the events took place) so he was able to get everything right up to a point, and the final verses are his only actual prediction of things to come, and he got them wrong. However, for those who take the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God, this view is unacceptable.
Daniel 11:40–45: “At the time of the end the king of the South will engage him in battle, and the king of the North will storm out against him with chariots and cavalry and a great fleet of ships. He will invade many countries and sweep through them like a flood. He will also invade the Beautiful Land. Many countries will fall, but Edom, Moab and the leaders of Ammon will be delivered from his hand. He will extend his power over many countries; Egypt will not escape. He will gain control of the treasures of gold and silver and all the riches of Egypt, with the Libyans and Nubians in submission. But reports from the east and the north will alarm him, and he will set out in a great rage to destroy and annihilate many. He will pitch his royal tents between the seas at the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he will come to his end, and no one will help him.”
Fulfillment: There is no doubt that the focus of chapter 11 is Antiochus Epiphanes, but he is only one king of the North among many. After his time, there was still a king of the South and a king of the North, and it is common with prophecy to telescope events, hitting only the high points. Many believe this final paragraph refers a final king of the North who will outdo even Antiochus in his pride and blasphemy. This person will be the final Antichrist at the end of history (“at the time of the end”). In this scenario, the specific identity of the two kings is yet to be revealed.
Others see the events recorded in Daniel 11:40–45 as referring to Antiochus’s successor (Antiochus V) and the end of the Greek Empire. The Romans who conquered Syria became the new “king of the North” and then went on to defeat the Greek king in Egypt (the king of the South) and the rest of the Mediterranean world, ultimately destroying the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Yet even the mighty Roman Empire fell and could not be helped. Still others see a dual fulfillment: the prophecy refers both the events in the years before Christ and to events at the end of time before His second coming.
Daniel 12 continues to telescope events to the very end of history and the resurrection and final judgment.
Once again, the king of the North is the ruling king in Syria, whoever he was at any given time, not a specific individual. If the final verses of Daniel 11 refer to the yet future “end times,” then the specific identity of this future king of the North (the Beast or the Antichrist) is yet to be revealed, and his headquarters may or may not include Syria.