The Man above the River

Introductory Summary: Daniel’s story is one of extraordinary faith in God lived out in captivity in Babylon with his fellow countrymen. More than seventy years after his deportation from Jerusalem, and three weeks after he has mourned and prayed for his people, Daniel is given another glorious vision from God—the fourth and final one.

Extract from Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism by John C. Lennox, published by Monarch Books, 2015. Text copyright © 2015 John C. Lennox. Used with permission of Lion Hudson plc. (Against the Flow is available in for purchase online at


The last section of the book of Daniel, chapters 10–12, contains the fourth vision that God gave to Daniel. He dates it to the third year of Cyrus, locates it as happening on the bank of the River Tigris, and describes it as the revelation of a great conflict. Once more he makes it clear that what he writes is not produced by his own brilliant intellect—it was given as a revelation. What is more, Daniel claims that what was revealed to him is true: And the word was true, and it was [or, it was about] a great conflict (Daniel 10:1).

Since this is the longest of the visions, we shall introduce it by giving a brief sketch of its contents. First of all Daniel sees the glorious figure of a man above the great River Tigris, and he is so overwhelmed that he falls asleep. He is awakened by a heavenly messenger, who tells him that he has come to make him understand what is to happen to his people in the future. The messenger says that his journey to Daniel has been resisted by certain powers in the unseen world, but now he has finally arrived to reveal to Daniel what is inscribed in the book of truth (Daniel 10:21).

There follows a lengthy historical survey, which we can now interpret as beginning in Daniel’s time in Medo-Persia, tracing the rise of the Greek empire under Alexander the Great, and detailing the subsequent division of that empire into four parts under his generals. There follows the constant conflict between the various parts, particularly between the Seleucids (the “kings of the north”) and the Ptolemies (the “kings of the south”), culminating in the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” in the second century BC.

Next, as elsewhere, the narrative uses the time of Antiochus as a prototype of the time of the end, when a fierce king will arise that shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god (Daniel 11:36). There will be a time of unparalleled trouble for Daniel’s people, Israel, followed by deliverance and the resurrection of both the just and the unjust.

At that point Daniel is told to seal the book until the time of the end (12:4).

He then observes two figures standing, one on each bank of the river, and he hears a voice asking the man above the river, How long shall it be till the end of these wonders? (12:6). The answer comes: a time, times, and half a time. Daniel does not understand it, so he asks what it means. He is again told that the words are sealed until the time of the end (12:7). The book concludes with a wonderful promise to Daniel: you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days (12:12).

A Message from Heaven

Let us now proceed to have a closer look at some of the detail of this vision. Daniel is told that its content is inscribed in the book of truth (10:21). In his previous vision Daniel was studying another book of truth—the prophecy of Jeremiah. That book was accessible to him. However, in this final vision, the book of truth is not the kind of book that is available in a library, so its content will be revealed to him directly. This makes explicit what we already know: Daniel was a prophet in his own right, in the sense that God revealed information directly to him.

Daniel is told that the book of truth contains detailed information about historical events after his time. The fact that it had already been written is very striking. Some people will then say that we cannot take it seriously. If it were true, they argue, it would lead to a deterministic—or, at least, a semi-deistic—view of God that would be totally unacceptable, whereby God has wound everything up and just let it run like clockwork, with no room for human responsibility or interaction with the divine. We note at once that this would also apply to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the captivity in Babylon, which Daniel was reading before he had the vision of the seventy weeks. Indeed, it would apply to all prophecy, including that of Daniel himself.

Some people think that if it is the case that certain events have been predicted in writing then whoever is behind the prediction causes those events to occur, and thus eliminates any freedom of decision or action on the part of those involved. However, that would only be arguably the case if we were naively to assume that God’s relationship to time is the same as ours. In fact, we do not even know what time is, let alone the complexities of God’s relationship to it.

Nor is this the place for detailed biblical teaching on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.[1] Suffice to say that even if certain events have been predicted by God’s revelation, that does not in any way remove moral agency—and therefore responsibility and accountability. This is as much an issue in the New Testament as it is in the Old. Think, for instance, of Peter’s statement at Pentecost to the crowds in Jerusalem: this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23).

Daniel dates his vision to the third year of Cyrus, so it was over seventy years after his deportation from Jerusalem. He was an old man, therefore, at least eighty-five years of age. It is interesting how he identifies himself here. He tells us the name that he was given all those years before in the Babylonian period. It’s as if he is saying: “Yes, I am the very same Daniel, whom Nebuchadnezzar named Belteshazzar.”

The date is important, since it enables us to deduce something that Daniel does not explicitly mention: this vision occurred two years after some of the Jews were allowed by an edict of Cyrus to return to Jerusalem and begin the task of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 1:1). Daniel had not gone back with the pilgrims—possibly due to age or infirmity, or because he was still an important figure in the administration of Babylon. As Edward Young points out, if the Daniel of the sixth century BC were a fictitious person, created by the imagination of a writer in the second century BC, it would have been a plausible fiction to have Daniel returning to Jerusalem as soon as possible: “The fact that Daniel does not return to Palestine is a strong argument against the view that the book is a product of the Maccabean age.”[2]

Judging from the tone of the book of Ezra, we can imagine that reports had reached Daniel that things were not going very well in Jerusalem. Daniel was still deeply troubled about his people and their future. It must have been very depressing, then, to learn from the vision of the seventy weeks that the ultimate restoration of Jerusalem and of his people would take a very much longer period than Daniel might have hoped.

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. (Daniel 10:2–3)

His use here of the Hebrew expression, literally “three weeks of days,” may be a subtle but deliberate hint at the contrast between that short time and the seventy interminable weeks of years in Daniel 9.

It was the first month of the Jewish year, the month Nisan, just past the time of Passover, when he and his nation ought to have been joyfully celebrating their marvelous deliverance by God from slavery. Passover celebrations started on the fourteenth day of the month, and normally took one week. Presumably Daniel had celebrated the Passover, yet such was the depth of his sorrow that he extended the period of his mourning for three times that length. It was as if his people were dead. Daniel could not know that centuries later Paul, who shared the same heartbreak, would express the hope that “dead” Israel would rise again:

For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15)

The matter of his people’s predicament weighed so heavily on Daniel’s mind that he ate very little, no fine food, meat, or wine. This mention of food is like an echo from the introduction to the book, where Daniel refused the king’s food in order not to defile himself with the surrounding pagan culture.

Incidentally, from what Daniel now says, his initial stance did not mean that he felt it necessary in other circumstances to refrain from good food and wine. He voluntarily gave up such things for this period of three weeks, not now to avoid compromise with paganism; he was fasting out of concern for his nation.

We cannot read Daniel’s mind, of course, but there is something very human about what is written here. Daniel has had a lifetime’s experience of God’s providential care and supernatural intervention. He has seen God working at the highest levels of state—even in the heart of an emperor. He has received three direct revelations from God about the future: each of them involving predictions of terrible things that will happen to his people. And yet here he is, one of those people: resolute still in the faith he developed as a student in Babylon, but deeply puzzled at the twists and turns in the fate of his nation. It was almost too much for a sensitive, brilliant, and caring man like Daniel to bear. So he fasted and mourned, not even bothering to soothe and refresh his skin and protect it from the heat by the usual means of rubbing in oil.

Perhaps he hoped that God had something more to say to him—truth not sentiment that could comfort him in his old age, so that he could die in peace knowing that the future was safe. He longed for his mourning to end in joy.

He was standing one day by the River Tigris, contemplating its flow. Where he stood the river was about a mile wide—it was one of the mightiest rivers on earth. The massive expanse of water was constantly on the move, surging past him on its irresistible journey. The flow of great rivers had already been used by Jewish writers as a poetic metaphor to express the flow of history in the nations of the world, as they surged against each other in conflict, calmed down for a time, surged again, broke their banks, and flooded across each other in what seemed to be a ceaseless maelstrom of war, conflict, and suffering. For instance, Isaiah wrote of the Assyrian war machine:

The Lord spoke to me again: “Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks, and it will sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.” (Isaiah 8:5–8)

Vivid imagery—picturing Jerusalem, perched as a head on the neck of a mountain, about to be engulfed by the rising flood of the mighty armies of Assyria pouring into the land around.

The Flow of History

Daniel had already heard such imagery used of Jerusalem in the previous vision: Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war (Daniel 9:26). Now, as he watches the restless flow of the Tigris, his mind is drawn once more to the inexorable flow of history. Where is it all going? What does it all mean? He will speak of forces that come, overflow and pass through, as they wreak their destructive path (11:10, 40). He started his book by drawing attention to God’s sovereignty over history, even as he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to defeat the king of Judah (1:2). Now, at the end of the book, he is returning to the same theme. How is he to navigate the complexities of what he has already been told? After all, Judah’s defeat was relatively easy to understand. The moral and spiritual reasons for it lie at the heart of Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. He has been deeply shaken by this knowledge that only he possessed, of all his people: their future is going to be long and dark, and they have yet to experience waves of fierce persecution by the nations of the world. The vision of chapter 9 had left too much unclear. Daniel longed to know more.

Where was the Tigris going? Where was history going? Where was Daniel’s nation going? Where was Daniel going? Could anything impede the flow? Could one swim against it? What was the meaning of it all anyway? His mind is crammed with questions as he stands gazing across the vast expanse of the river. Then he becomes aware of the glowing figure of a majestic man above the river. The man is dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold, his body incandescent with light like a jewel, his face like lightning, his eyes fiercely flaming like a torch, and his legs gleaming like bronze. The man is speaking, and his voice is like the roaring sound of a vast multitude. This is no mere human, or even an angel; here is overwhelmingly transcendent glory.

Six centuries later the apostle John saw him: the same glorious man, his face like the sun, eyes like flame, feet like glowing bronze, and a voice like the ocean’s roar. He was Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Son of God. How could Daniel have seen him? We are now on the edge of something unfathomably profound. It was the same apostle John who wrote: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18). He is the Word, who was with God, was God, and uniquely reveals God. This is the one Daniel saw.

Daniel was not alone that day. Perhaps he had brought some close friends who shared his burdens. We do not know, but whoever these companions were, they, like Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:7), did not see the vision. Sensing that something awesome was happening, they began to tremble and ran to seek a place to hide. Daniel was left alone to gaze at this overpowering sight of the dazzling glory of the man who was above the river.

The vision had such an effect on his emotions that his strength ebbed away, and he was aware that his normally radiant facial expression had fearfully changed. The volume of the cataract of words coming from above the river caused his senses to go into overload. He collapsed on the ground and fell into a deep sleep. The apostle John reacted the same way. He fell as dead at the feet of the glorious man, until he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the voice of Jesus telling him not to fear.

The next thing Daniel knew was that a hand was touching him, which set him on his hands and knees trembling with weakness and fear. And then a voice spoke to him. It is not said to be the voice of Gabriel, but the language of address is very similar:

O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you. (Daniel 10:11)

Once more, a supernatural messenger tells Daniel personally that he is greatly loved. Far from being rejected because he has been asking questions, he is much loved in that world that is the source of all love. By far the most wonderful thing any human can hear is that he or she is loved by God. It brings stability and hope into the worst of situations.

Daniel was told this twenty-six centuries ago, and any one of us can know it today. A heavenly Messenger, greater than the one sent to Daniel, has come to our world—God himself, incarnate in his Son, Jesus Christ the Lord. He came to tell us the good news:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16.)

Those people who respond and trust him shall enjoy the friendship and love of God eternally. They can hear the voice of God himself saying to them, “O man, O woman, greatly loved.”

There are times when those of us who are believers may find the way difficult; we are faced with apparently unanswerable questions and insoluble difficulties—many of them to do with the flow of life. It is at those times that we most need reassurance that there is a world beyond this one; there is a God who is real, and he loves me.

Daniel stood up, still shaking, as the voice continued:

Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come. (Daniel 10:12–14)

These words give us insight into Daniel’s state of mind as he began his three-week fast. He wanted to understand, and so he humbled himself before God. That is the way the heavenly world evaluated his attitude. Daniel’s life had been spent with proud men whom God had humbled. God did not need to bring Daniel down to humble reality; he had humbled himself.

We all detest false humility—a cloak of assumed lack of pride that is not genuine. It is possible for us, however, to humble ourselves in a genuine way that does not involve hypocrisy. Indeed, it is expected of Christians. The apostle Peter writes:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5–7)

It all has to do with our mindset and our attitude towards others. Instead of regarding ourselves as more important than others, we are to consider others better than ourselves.

Daniel had walked his whole life with kings and emperors. It had not gone to his head. In God’s eyes—and that is what counts—he was still a humble man. And the heavenly world was watching him. The moment Daniel started his three-week fast to wait on God, the other world responded, and a messenger was detailed to take a message to him.

A Messenger from Heaven

But the messenger was hindered. This is an extraordinary statement. It opens a window into an unseen realm about which we know very little. The messenger tells Daniel of a strange conflict in that realm: The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me (Daniel 10:13). Prince Michael is mentioned later in the vision as the great prince who has charge of your people (12:1).

The skeptic will hoot with derision if we add to our confession of faith in God the belief that another realm exists where there are supernatural beings—angels and demons. Such laughter strikes me as decidedly out of place, especially nowadays. If any scientist announces with confidence that there is life elsewhere in the universe—or, as is very likely these days, that there is a multiverse: a plurality of universes, many of which are teeming with life—there is no derision, but rather fascinated and respectful attention. Yet when the Bible suggests that this may not be the only world (or universe), and there are other beings “out there,” it gets laughed to scorn. This is intellectually inconsistent, and simply shows the depth of prejudice that the naturalistic worldview has generated.

So far Daniel has given us very good reason to take him seriously. He is an exceptionally brilliant and wise man who has governed two empires, and has been used by God to demonstrate to his emperors that God and the supernatural are real. He has not taken leave of his senses here. As we have already seen as we considered Gabriel’s role, both the Old and New Testament testify to the reality of angels. Christ himself said to those who came to arrest him:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so? (Matthew 26:53–54)

Our Lord was not speaking metaphorically; he was explaining to Peter why he should not try to protect him by force. Jesus could have summoned all the protection he needed from supernatural angelic forces, but he chose not to.

Who or what are angels? The Bible tells us that they are ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14). By contrast we are told that humans are, from one point of view, a little lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:7) since they are spirit plus flesh. The term “spirit” does not mean that angels have no substantive being. Unfortunately, the influence of materialism is so deep that many people unconsciously assume that matter is the only reality. The truth is, matter is not even the primary reality. Jesus taught that God is spirit (John 4:24), so spirit is the primary reality. Matter is derivative: All things were made through him (John 1:3).

There should therefore be no problem in principle in accepting that God has made other beings that are spirit. Certainly, that is the claim of the Bible, and the book of Daniel in particular.

The angelic messenger reveals to Daniel that a battle is raging in another world that in some sense reflects, and may also be reflected by, the conflicts in this one. This idea recurs in the book of Revelation:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:7–9)

It needs to be emphasized that the idea of a cosmic conflict is not some peripheral notion, generated by the overheated imagination of Christian extremists. Paul tells all Christians that there are spiritual forces arrayed against them and that in order to stand firm they need to put on the armor of God:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10–12)

Atheistic rejection of the supernatural dimension can lead even Christians to underestimate the forces of evil. This part of the book of Daniel would have served us well if it alerted us to take the level of the conflict seriously.

When Daniel heard that the angel had come to tell him what would happen to the Jewish nation in the latter days, he turned his face towards the ground and found himself unable to speak. Someone who looked like a man (but presumably wasn’t) touched his lips, which enabled Daniel to speak and describe the debilitating effects of the vision. He wondered how he would have the strength to speak to such a superior being. Daniel sensed that he was in the presence of a greatness that far exceeded his own.

Again the supernatural being touched and strengthened him, and told him once more that he was greatly loved. Then he asked Daniel if he knew why he had come to him. Without waiting for a response, the angel said that he must soon return to fight in the ongoing spiritual war against the prince of Persia and a new foe, the prince of Greece, who was yet to come. But first he would reveal to Daniel what was in the book of truth.

Before he did, however, there was another important piece of background information that Daniel needed to know:

… there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince. And as for me, in the first year of Darius the Mede, I stood up to confirm and strengthen him [that is, Michael]. (Daniel 10:21—11:1)

In the supernatural battle with the mighty princes of Medo-Persia and Greece, Daniel’s angelic messenger (whom we may presume to be Gabriel) was aided by another prince. His name was Michael, and Daniel is told that he is your prince the great prince who has charge of your people (10:21; 12:1). It was Gabriel who had strengthened Michael at the beginning of Darius’s reign, though Daniel had not realized it. Indeed he had probably not known of his existence.

This takes Daniel’s mind back to the very beginning of the Medo-Persian kingdom (and so to the first section of the second half of the book). Was the messenger informing Daniel that Gabriel, or Michael, or both of them, were involved in rescuing Daniel from the lions’ den? Daniel was being assured that there was a mighty prince in a higher realm, guarding his people. That knowledge would enable Daniel to face the contents of the book of truth that would now be opened to him.

John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics (emeritus) at the University of Oxford and an adjunct speaker with RZIM.

[1] For a detailed examination of this issue see John Lennox’s newest book, Determined To Believe: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility (Oxford, England: Monarch Books, 2017).

[2] J. Edward Young, The Prophecy of Daniel (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1949), 223.

This article appears in the 26.1 edition of our award-winning magazine, Just Thinking. Click the button below to download a PDF of this edition.

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