a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary
Select a resource above

Visions of the Four Beasts


In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

Judgment before the Ancient One


As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne,

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.


A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousands served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgment,

and the books were opened.

11 I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. 13As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.


To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel’s Visions Interpreted

15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. 16I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: 17“As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. 18But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

19 Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; 20and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn, which came up and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others. 21As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, 22until the Ancient One came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.

23 This is what he said: “As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth

that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;

it shall devour the whole earth,

and trample it down, and break it to pieces.


As for the ten horns,

out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,

and another shall arise after them.

This one shall be different from the former ones,

and shall put down three kings.


He shall speak words against the Most High,

shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,

and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;

and they shall be given into his power

for a time, two times, and half a time.


Then the court shall sit in judgment,

and his dominion shall be taken away,

to be consumed and totally destroyed.


The kingship and dominion

and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven

shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;

their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,

and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

28 Here the account ends. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly terrified me, and my face turned pale; but I kept the matter in my mind.

This verse assures us how these predictions concerning the destruction of the beast regard the Church’s safety. Thus the faithful might know themselves noticed by God, and how the changes which successively happened tended to the same end, the acknowledgment on the part of the pious of their continuance under the care and guardianship of God. For any discussion of the four monarchies would have been cold and useless: unless there had been added God’s peculiar care of his own Church., and his conducting the affairs of the world for the safety of his people. As we have said in other places, God’s elect people are of more consequence than all the kingdoms which are conspicuous in the world. (Isaiah 43:3.) This, then, is the sense of the words. If we separate this verse from its context, the prophecy will still have its use. We may elicit from it how all things which seem stable in the world are yet perishable, and nothing is so firm as not to be subject every moment to constant variation. But the chief intention of this prediction is, as I have said, to show the relation of all events to the safety of the pious. When, therefore, all things seem carried away by the blind impulse of chance, we ought always to contemplate God as watching for his Church, and tempering all storms and all commotion to the service and safety of the pious, who rest upon his Providence. These two things, then, are mutually in accordance, namely, the slaying of the fourth beast, and the giving of the kingdom and authority to the people of the saints This does not seem to have been accomplished yet; and hence many, nay, almost all, except the Jews, have treated this prophecy as relating to the final day of Christ’s advent. All Christian interpreters agree in this; but, as I have shewn before, they pervert the Prophet’s intention. As to the Jews, theirs is no explanation at all, for they are not only foolish and stupid, but even crazy 3535     Calvin’s expression is here proverbial; the French translates ils nen approachent ne pres ne loin; the Latin being, neque coelum neque terram attingunt. — Ed. And since their object is the adulteration of sound doctrine, God also blinds them till they become utterly in the dark, and both trifling and childish; and if I were to stop to refute their crudities, I should never come to an end.

This prophecy does not seem to be accomplished at the destruction of the beast; but this is easily explained. We know how magnificently the prophets speak of Christ’s kingdom, and adore his dignity and glory with splendid eulogies; and although these are not exaggerated, yet if judged of by human perceptions, you would surely think them exceedingly extravagant, and find neither solidity nor firmness in their words. And no wonder: for Christ’s kingdom and his dignity cannot be perceived by carnal eyes, nor even comprehended by the human intellect. Let those who appear the most sagacious of men combine together all their clear-sightedness, yet they can never ascend to the height of Christ’s kingdom, which surpasses the very heavens. Nothing is more contrary to our natural judgment than to seek life in death, riches in poverty and want, glory in shame and disgrace — to be wanderers in this world, and at the same time its heirs! Our minds cannot naturally comprehend these things. No wonder, then, if mortals judge erroneously of Christ’s kingdom, and are blind in the midst of light. Still there is no defect in the Prophet’s expressions, for they depict for us the visible image of Christ’s kingdom, and accommodate themselves to our dullness. They enable us to perceive the analogy between things earthly and visible, and that spiritual blessedness which Christ has afforded to us, and which we now possess through hope in him. For while we only hope, our happiness is concealed from us; it is not perceptible by our eyes or by any of our senses.

Let us now return to the passage. Daniel first of all says, A kingdom, and power, and extensive dominion, shall be given to the people of the holy ones. This was partially fulfilled when the Gospel emerged from persecution: then the name of Christ was everywhere celebrated and held in honor and esteem, while previously it had been the subject of the greatest envy and hatred. For nothing had been more hated and detested for many years than the name of Christ. God, therefore, then gave the kingdom to his people, when he was acknowledged as the Redeemer of the world throughout its many changes, after having been formerly despised and utterly rejected. I may here remark again, and impress upon the memory what I have frequently touched upon, namely, the custom of the Prophets, in treating of Christ’s kingdom, to extend their meaning further than its first beginnings; and they do this while they dwell upon its commencement. Thus Daniel or the angel does not predict here occurrences connected with the advent of Christ as Judge of the world, but with the first preaching and promulgation of the Gospel, and the celebration of the name of Christ. But this does not prevent him from drawing a magnificent picture of Christ’s reign, and embracing its final completion. It is sufficient for us to perceive how God begins to give the kingdom to his elect people, when, by the power of his Spirit, the doctrine of the holy Gospel was everywhere received in the world. The sudden change which it occasioned was incredible, but this is a customary result; for, when anything is predicted, we think it a fable and a dream, and when God performs what we never would have thought of, the evil, appears to us trifling, and we treat it as of no moment. For example, when the preaching of the Gospel commenced, no one would have thought its success could have been so great and so prosperous; nay, two hundred years before Christ was manifest, when religion was almost blotted out, and the Jews were execrated by the whole world, who would have thought the Law would spring from Zion? Yet God erected his scepter there. The dignity of the kingdom had vanished: the offspring of David was extinct. For the family of Jesse was but a trunk, after the simile used by the prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 11:1.) If any one had asked all the Jews one after another, no one would have believed the possibility of those events which accompanied the preaching of the Gospel; but, at length the, dignity and virtue of the kingdom of David shone forth in Christ. Yet it vanishes before our eyes, and we seek new miracles, as if God had not sufficiently proved himself to have spoken by his prophets! Thus we observe how the Prophet keeps within bounds when he says, A kingdom, and a power, and a magnitude of empire was given to the people of the saints.

He adds, one empire under the whole heavens Here the Rabbi Abarbinel, who thinks himself superior to all others, rejects our idea of the spiritual reign of Christ as a foolish imagination. For the kingdom of God, he says, is established under the whole heavens, and is given to the people of the saints. If it is established under heaven, says he, it is earthly, and if earthly, therefore not spiritual. This seems in truth a very subtle argument, as if God could not reign in the world except as extraordinary mortal. As often as Scripture says “God reigns,” according to this argument God must be transfigured into human nature, otherwise there will be no kingdom of God except it is earthly, and if earthly it is temporal, and therefore perishable. Hence we must infer that God changes his nature. His kingdom, then, will consist in opulence, and military power and parade, and the common luxuries of life, so that God will become unlike himself. We perceive the puerile trifling of those Rabbis who pretend to glory in their ingenuity, to the total destruction of the whole teaching of piety. They intend nothing else than to adulterate the purity of Scripture by their foul and senseless comments. But we know the reign of God and of Christ, although existing in the world, not to be of it, (John 18:36;) the meaning of the two expressions is exactly the opposite. God, therefore, still exercises his heavenly reign in the world, because he dwells in the hearts of his people by his Spirit. While God held his seat at Jerusalem, was his kingdom merely an earthly and corruptible one? By no means, for by the possession of an earthly habitation he did not cease to be in heaven also. Thus the angel instructed the Prophet concerning the saints who are pilgrims in the world, and yet shall enjoy the kingdom and possess the greatest power under heaven. Hence also we correctly conclude, that this vision ought not to be explained of the final advent of Christ, but of the intermediate state of the Church. The saints began to reign under heaven, when Christ ushered in his kingdom by the promulgation of his Gospel.

Another point must be noticed, — what belongs to the head is transferred to the body. There is nothing new in this, as the supreme power is constantly promised by the Prophets to the Church, especially by Isaiah, who often predicts its complete supremacy. The Papists seize upon such testimonies to clothe themselves in the spoils of God, as if God had resigned his right to them! But they are immersed in the same error with the Jews, who swell with pride whenever such dignity is promised to the elect people, as if they could remain separate from God and yet obtain the right of treading the whole world under foot. The Papists also do exactly the same. We, however, must be guided by a very different rule, namely, in consequence of the intimate union between Christ and his Church, the peculiar a tribute of Christ himself is often transferred to his body. Not that the Church reigns by itself; but Christ, as its only supreme head, obtains dominion therein, and not for his own private advantage — for what need has he of this dominion? but for the common safety of all its members. Wherefore Christ is our King, and he designs to erect his throne in the midst; of us; he uses nothing for his own advantage, but communicates all things to us, and renders them useful to us; hence, we are deservedly called kings, because he reigns, and as I have already said, language which is exclusively appropriate to him, is transferred to us in consequence of the intimate communion existing between the head and the members.

This is also the sense of the phrase here added by the Prophet, All powers shall serve and obey it I have no doubt the angel here confirmed Isaiah’s prophecy, as the Holy Spirit, the better to confirm and strengthen the faith of the pious, often reconciles one Prophet with another, and thus their mutual agreement becomes the seal of their truth. It is said in Isaiah, The kingdom and the land which will not serve thee, shall be destroyed: kings shall come and adore thee, the people shall offer thee gifts. (Isaiah 60:12.) In the Psalms, it is said,

“Kings shall assemble together, to serve God.”
(Psalm 102:22.)

And Isaiah treats very fully on the empire of the Church. The angel now repeats the same thing, to add, as I have said, greater confidence and authority to the prophecy of Isaiah. Meanwhile, we observe how completely all the Prophets agree, and at the same time we interpret these words of the kingdom of Christ, from the period at which the teaching of the gospel was rendered remarkably conspicuous; for then God’s royal scepter went forth from Jerusalem, and shone far and wide, while the Lord was extending his hand and his authority over all the regions of the world. As all these important events tended to the common salvation of the Church, it is said, The kingdom shall belong to the holy people. As to the phrase, The saints of the high ones, I have already explained why the Prophet applies this phrase to the faithful, and why the angel also does the same; namely, because God separated them from the world, and they were always looking upwards and drawing all their hopes from above. Then, as to the Rabbi whom I cited, he twists this passage, and tries to show that the Prophet did not speak of Christ, when he says he saw the figure of the Son of man. But this is complete trifling, for he asserts the Son of man to mean “the people of the saints,” and thus the phrase would have no reference to Christ, but to the whole offspring of Abraham. We must not be surprised at the shameful ignorance of these Rabbis, and at their blundering at the very rudiments, since they do not acknowledge the necessity for a Mediator, through whom alone the Church can obtain any favor before God. They boast in what we also allow — in the sons of Abraham being the elect, and in this title as availing to render them a holy people, and heirs of God, and a kingdom of priests. This is true, but on what was their covenant of adoption founded but on Christ? Hence their separating the Church from the Mediator, is like leaving a mutilated body apart from its disjoined head. Besides, from what the Prophet stated before about the Son of man, his subject is evidently changed in this verse. He stated there, power was given to the Son of man after he had arrived at the Ancient of days, and the Son of man, or at least his likeness, appeared in the clouds. First of all, we must notice this likeness, as it were the Son of man, as we have already explained the vision. Surely Abraham’s posterity were really men, but the vision offered to the Prophet was but a similitude; as Christ had not yet put on our flesh, this was only a prelude to his future manifestation in the flesh. Here he speaks openly and without a figure of the people of the saints, and this prophecy depends upon the former one. For unless Christ were seated at His Father’s right hand, and had obtained supreme dominion, causing every knee to bend before him, the Church could never exercise its power. Thus we observe how all things mutually agree among each other.

As, however, it is certain that many have perseveringly rebelled against; God and the teaching of his gospel, it may seem absurd for the angel to pronounce all the powers of the world obedient and submissive. But it is worth while to study the customary methods of scriptural expression. For instance, by the phrase “all people,” the Spirit does not mean every single person, but simply some out of every nation who should submit to Christ’s yoke, acknowledge him to be king, and obediently obey his Church. How often do these sentiments occur in the prophets? All nations shall come — all kings; shall serve. At that time no king existed who was not professedly an enemy of true piety, and who did not desire the abolition of the very name of his law. The prophets enlarge thus magnificently on the future restoration of this kingdom, as we have stated before, in consequence of the event being so utterly incredible. So, also, in this place all powers, says he, shall serve and obey him; that is:, no power shall so boast in its loftiness, as not willingly to become subject to the Church, although at present all so fully despise it: nay, while they rage with all their might, against the most wretched Church, and while they tread it most ignominiously under foot, even then they shall be subject to it. This we know to have been amply fulfilled. Some persons foolishly press beyond their meaning words of universal import, as when Paul says, God wishes all to be saved. Hence, they say, no one is predetermined for destruction, but all are elect, that is, God is not God. (1 Timothy 2:4.) But we are not surprised at such madness as this, corrupting the impious and profane, who desire by their cavils to promote disbelief in all the oracles of the Spirit. Let us clearly comprehend the frequency of this figure of speech; when the Holy Spirit names “all,” he means some out of all nations, and not every one universally.

VIEWNAME is study