How reliable is Bible prophecy? The case of Daniel
Prophecy is critical to Adventist faith and belief. It is on the basis of biblical prophecy that the Adventist movement was founded, with the conviction that history will come to its climax in the second coming of Christ. Leading to that glorious culmination is the march of history which itself will wind up as God destroys sin and Satan forever and opens up the doors of eternity for the redeemed of all ages. Adventist interpretation of last-day events is largely based on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, in addition to other prophetic declarations in the Bible. However, non-Christians and many Christians have questioned the authenticity of biblical prophecy and tend to reject the Adventist interpretation as so much speculation.
Such a charge cannot be allowed to stand without a serious theological and historical look at biblical prophecy. Either biblical prophecy is reliable or it is not. A brief look at Daniel shows that its content as divine prophecy is historically reliable and theologically meaningful. This article will show how.
The Book of Daniel neatly divides in half. The first half treats some portions of Neo-Babylonian history, especially as they involve Daniel and his three friends (chaps. 1-6). The second half of the book presents some intensely symbolic and long-range prophecies that are called apocalyptic (chaps. 7-12). The first half of the book also has prophecies but, aside from Nebuchadnezzar's dream in chapter 2, they involve mostly local persons, places, and events. The prophecies relating to Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 and to Belshazzar in chapter 5 are more like “classical” prophecy that is found, for example, in Isaiah and Jeremiah.
This chronological range of prophecy in the book we are considering provides an opportunity to relate these predictions to historical fulfillment on the scale from a near point in Daniel's own time to an intermediate period after his lifetime to a long-range prophecy centuries after his time.
Prophecy in the near view: The fall of Belshazzar
Chapter 5 of Daniel narrates what happened in the palace of Babylon on the night the city fell to the Medes and Persians. The king, who is identified as Belshazzar, summoned his nobles and officials to a great banquet. He undoubtedly felt that the Persians besieging Babylon from the outside had no chance of conquering the city in view of its extraordinarily strong fortifications.
In the course of the feast, some writing supernaturally appeared on the wall of the palace chamber where the banquet was held. The four words written there were sufficiently mysterious that none of the wise men of Babylon could interpret them. Daniel, who was remembered from a previous episode of interpretation, was summoned. He was able to read the writing and tell the king that it meant that he had been weighed in the balances of divine judgment and had been found wanting. His kingdom was to be taken from him and given to the Medes and Persians.
This prophecy was fulfilled when invading forces entered the city that very night by the strategy of diverting the Euphrates River. Babylon was conquered without a battle. Belshazzar was slain, and his kingdom passed into the hands of the Medes and Persians.
At first, one might think that there is no way, through historical sources, to check on the fulfillment of this prophecy. While it is true that it would be very difficult to demonstrate it was given the very night it was fulfilled, there are indirect methods through which we can valuate the setting.
At one time, the existence of Belshazzar was unknown. His father Nabonidus was listed as the last king of the Neo-Babylonian period. Beginning in 1861, the name of Belshazzar as crown prince began to appear in cuneiform tablets that were then being translated. These references continued to accumulate until a tablet known as “The Verse Account of Nabonidus” was published in 1929. This important tablet indicated that Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship” to Belshazzar when he went off to Tema in Arabia for a prolonged period. So, evidence for Belshazzar as a kind of co-king, known as a co-regent, became available.
The episode described in Daniel 5 is specific. It indicates that when Daniel came into the throne room to read the writing on the wall, the king who was there was Belshazzar, not Nabonidus. It would have been more likely for Nabonidus to have been conducting this banquet, but he is not even mentioned in the narrative. The direct implication is that Nabonidus was not in the palace that night. If he was not in the palace, where was he?
A Babylonian text known as “The Nabonidus Chronicle” tells us that Babylon was taken without a battle on 16 Tishri of Nabonidus' 17th and last year of reign. This can be equated to October 12, 539 B.C. At this time, the text says, Nabonidus was out in the field with a division of the Babylonian army, fighting Cyrus and the Persians at the site of a city named Opis on the Tigris River. Thus, there was no possible way he could have been in Babylon the night it fell.
This would have been an easy place to catch the writer of Daniel in a mistake, if he had put Nabonidus in the banquet hall on that night, but the writer knew which king was there–Belshazzar, the junior co-regent–and he knew which king was not–Nabonidus, the senior co-regent, who was out in the field with the Babylonian army.
How could the writer of this chapter have had such accurate knowledge about who was in the city and who was not on that very night? The answer is, Because he was an eyewitness in the palace that night. If his knowledge about this central fact was so accurate, then I believe we can trust his record as to the prophecy of what was to happen on that very night.
An intermediate length prophecy: The rise of Alexander
The prophecy in Daniel chapter 8 begins with a depiction of what the Medo-Persian kingdom would accomplish, using the symbol of a rampaging ram. This ram is identified as Medo-Persia (Daniel 8:20). It is followed symbolically by a goat, representing Greece (Daniel 8:2-8, 21). This goat starts out with one prominent horn, like a unicorn. That great horn represents its first king as it started out on its war with the Persian ram.
Historically, we know this “horn” to be Alexander the Great, who mustered his army and invaded the Near East, defeating the Persians and conquering all the territory in a lightning-like campaign that lasted only three years.
Critics of the book have argued that this was not prophecy, but history later written as if it were prophecy. However, there is an interesting story in the writings of Josephus that indicates this prophecy was already known by the fourth century B.C.–well before the time when critics claim it was written (second century B.C.).
The story is about Alexander as he campaigned down the coast of Syria and Palestine. On his way to Egypt, he decided to turn off the main road south and go up to Jerusalem. When he came to the city, one of the priests took the scroll of Daniel to him and showed him where he was located in this prophecy, as the Greek who would overthrow the empire of the Persians. Impressed by this prophetic reference to himself, Alexander asked the Jewish leaders what he could do for them. They asked him for relief from taxes during their sabbatical years when they let their fields lie fallow and did not harvest their crops. Alexander is said to have granted their request. The passage in Josephus runs as follows:
“And when the book of Daniel was showed him, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended; and as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present, but the next day he called them to him, and bade them ask what favors they pleased of him: whereupon the high priest desired that they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year. He granted all they desired: and when they entreated him that he would permit the Jews in Babylon and Media to enjoy their own laws also, he willingly promised to do hereafter what they desired.”1
If this story in Josephus is accurate, then the prophecy of Daniel 8, including the element of the great horn of Greece which was Alexander, was already in existence by the fourth century B.C. Not only does this give evidence of the early date for the composition of Daniel, but it also shows how one element of this prophecy met its fulfillment and was recognized at the time when it did so.
Needless to say, once again critics of the predictive nature of Daniel dismiss this story as unhistorical. There is some evidence in the story itself, however, that testifies to the historical nature of the meeting of Alexander and the priests at Jerusalem. That evidence comes from the reference to a sabbatical year in this context.
About a dozen references to sabbatical years have been found in extra-biblical sources. These texts and inscriptions give the equivalents to those sabbatical years in terms of other calendars. Thus, a table of sabbatical years can be filled out. The year in which this interview with Alexander occurred was 331 B.C. According to the table of sabbatical years, 331 was indeed a sabbatical year. Now that Judea had been taken over by the Macedonian king, the Jewish leaders could see the problem that would confront them when they had to pay taxes to him. They would have no harvest with which to pay the tax. Thus, the urgency of their request.
This minor feature, the request based on the sabbatical year, gives evidence that the episode really did happen, and that the historical transition that then took place actually was prophesied by Daniel before it happened.2
A long-range prophecy: The rise and fate of Rome
Daniel chapters 2 and 7 provide parallel prophecies about four Mediterranean and Near Eastern empires. Daniel 2 gives the account of events that occurred around a dream given to King Nebuchadnezzar that the wise men of Babylon could not describe or interpret. However, Daniel was able to successfully describe the dream and interpret it. Using the symbols of four metals that constituted the impressive statue of Daniel 2, Daniel described the succession of these four great empires: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
There are those who do not like this much direct evidence for divine foreknowledge in prophecy, and they have argued against this view. They say that the author of Daniel did not live in the sixth century B.C. when this prophecy was given. In their view, he lived in the second century B.C. and used the pen name of Daniel to write about events that had already taken place. Thus, these critics claim, Daniel is actually history written as if it were prophecy.
The argument can be evaluated, however, to see how well it fits the data. If the author of Daniel was writing in the second century B.C. and he was only a historian, not a true prophet, what kinds of predictions might he have made? There are two main possibilities. First, he could have said that the fourth kingdom, Rome, which was stronger than all the previous kingdoms, would stand forever. That was probably the most common view of the future in the second century B.C., by which time Rome had come to pre-eminence. (It actually was the view of Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, when he treated this portion of the Book of Daniel. He did not mention the divisions or the stone kingdom to follow.) Alternatively, the writer could have reasoned that if there had been four great world kingdoms, there should be a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, and so on. In other words, the sequence should just keep going. After Rome, another great world power should come, and then another, and another.
These then would have been the two main alternatives for a historian writing in the second century B.C. without information from divine foreknowledge: either that Rome would stand forever or that other great world powers would follow it.
The writer of Daniel did not embrace either of these two logical possibilities. Rejecting the idea that there would be further world powers, he said the fourth power would be broken into pieces and those pieces would continue and contend with one another other until God set up His kingdom. He also rejected the idea that Rome would stand forever–this fourth kingdom would be broken up. Indeed, that is just what happened with the barbarian invasions of Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.
How was it that the author of Daniel knew several centuries in advance that Rome would break up into pieces, that it would not stand forever or be replaced by another great world kingdom? How was it that he chose the least likely possibility for the future from the standpoint of ordinary human logic? The point is that he did not rely on ordinary human logic; he relied on the foreknowledge that God gave to him.
There are many prophecies in the Bible that its writers say were fulfilled, but the records of these fulfillments are found only in the Bible. In these instances, there is no external evidence confirming the fulfillment. However, for many biblical prophecies, external evidence indicates they were fulfilled. The cases just reviewed demonstrate that point.
Biblical prophecies operate on various levels. Some were addressed to individuals, others to towns or cities, and some to kingdoms or nations. The same is true in terms of time range. Some prophecies concerned immediate circumstances, others dealt with events in the relatively near future, while still others can be classified as long-range predictions that extend over centuries. The cases described in this article cover this range of possibilities.
The one common factor in all these cases is that there is external evidence to demonstrate the accuracy of the predictions. This provides evidence that the prophecies were written on the basis of more than just educated human guesses. They testify to the God who gave inside information to His servants, the prophets. This is one more good reason to believe that the biblical God exists.3
William H. Shea (M.D., Loma Linda University; Ph.D., University of Michigan) served as medical missionary, seminary professor, and associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This essay is based on a longer study published in The Big Argument: Does God Exist? edited by John Ashton and Michael Westacott (Master Books, 2005). His email address: Shea56080@aol.com.
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, chapter 8, paragraphs 337, 338.
- Tables for the sabbatical years of the Jews can be found in B. Z. Wacholder, “The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and the Early Rabbinic Period,” Hebrew Union College Annual (1973), pp. 153-196.
- For further reading refer to the following:
For the texts relating to Belshazzar and a synthesis of them, see R. P. Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshazzar (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1929).
For a very useful collection of cuneiform texts in translation, especially Babylon sources related to topics in the article, see J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955).
For a useful review of Babylonian history, see H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962).
For the history of the interpretation of the four world kingdoms in the prophecies of Daniel through the ages and the presence of Alexander the Great in Daniel 8, see L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vols. I-IV (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1950-1954).