In both the Greek version of the Septuagint and the Vulgate, the book of Daniel is mentioned as the fourth of the major prophets, after Ezekiel. The Hebrew includes it among the Ketubim (Writings), between Ezra and Esther, but only its protocanonical part (chap. 1-12). Probably prior to the first century B.C. it was located among the Nebiim (Prophets), which is the source the Septuagint would have used.
Everything we know about Daniel (= God is my judge) comes from the book that bears his name. He belonged to the royal family of Zedekiah and was taken, by order of Nebuchadnezzar, in captivity along with other Jewish children, to Babylon in 605 B.C. Like certain other young men he was later chosen by the king to be brought up and educated at court, where he was given the name of Belteshazzar.
God endowed him with special wisdom which soon led him to enjoy the king’s favor; he was so successful in interpreting the king’s dreams that he was appointed ruler of the province of Babylon. King Darius wanted to make him prime minister (6:4), but the envy of his other ministers frustrated this plan; they plotted his death, but God saved him in a miraculous way (6:23).
As regards the language of the book, chapters 1-2:4a and 8-12 were written in Hebrew and 2:4b to 7:28 in Aramaic. Some scholars think that the original text was written in Hebrew and that the Aramaic parts were the result of later changes made to fill in for damaged or lost portions. Others think that the original text must have been written in Aramaic but that it was later translated into Hebrew in order to get it into the canon. In any event, there is no doubt about the canonicity of the “interpreted” passages or about that of the deuterocanonical parts. All this is guaranteed by Jewish Alexandrine tradition and by Christian tradition and was solemnly sanctioned by the Council of Trent.
The aim of the book is to show that the God of Israel, the one true God, is greater than the pagan gods. This is proved by Daniel’s personal experiences and by the prophecy, which runs through the book, of the establishment of the kingdom of God, a universal, eternal kingdom, a kingdom of peace and justice for all who prove faithful to him.
Daniel recognizes that human wisdom can never penetrate the mystery communicated to the king in his dreams. It can be explained only by the God of Israel, the lord of heaven and earth. The mystery has to do with the future messianic kingdom, the kingdom of heaven which the Messiah, Jesus Christ, will inaugurate through his incarnation.
There are two quite distinguishable parts in the book: In the first (1-6) Daniel tells of his personal experiences at the royal court, to show that the God of Israel is almighty and is the only God that lives. To do this he interprets the king’s dreams, with the help of a special revelation from God. In his vision of the image or statue (chap. 2) he predicts the four successive kingdoms which will precede the coming of the Messiah.
These four are: the Babylonian kingdom (gold), that of the Medes and the Persians (silver), the Greek (bronze), and that of iron (the Ptolemy kingdom). The main meaning of all this is that the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 4:17) will oppose the various pagan kingdoms, which are the personification of the kingdom of Satan. This kingdom of God, which is the Church, is, Augustine thinks, symbolized by the stone “which was cut out by no human hand… and smote the image” (2:34-35). Beginning in a small, insignificant way, the Church will spread all over the world, thanks to the power of God who sustains it. This, in summary, is the content of Daniel’s interpretation.
The king is so amazed by Daniel’s great wisdom, which far exceeds that of all his wise men, that he recognizes the power and justice of Daniel’s God. The cryptic words (Mine, Tekel, Parsin: Dan. 5:25) which a mysterious hand writes on the wall are also interpreted by the prophet, and immediately his prediction comes true: Babylon falls to the Persians.
This first part of the book ends with an amazing episode which can only be explained as a special intervention by God: Daniel is saved from a lions’ den, without a scratch, just as his three companions were saved from the fiery furnace where they had been put for refusing to worship the golden image.
The second part (chap. 7-12) relates four prophetic, apocalyptic visions which Daniel received.
In the first vision (chap. 7), in the first year of King Belshazzar’s reign, Daniel sees four great beasts coming out of the sea. They represent four successive kingdoms, from the last of which a king will emerge who will try to exterminate the people of God, but he will be destroyed, and “the people of the saints of the Most High” will be given “an everlasting kingdom” (7:27).
The second vision (chap. 8), in the third year of Belshazzar’s reign, symbolizes the downfall of the empire of the Medes and the Persians, the arrival of the empire of Alexander the Great, and the sacrilegious arrogance of its successor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who will attack the people of God and profane and destroy the Temple.
In the third vision (chap. 9), in the first year of Darius the Mede, while Daniel is meditating on the prophecy of Jeremiah about the seventy years which Israel will spend in exile in Babylonia, the Angel Gabriel reveals to him that the full restoration will come about after seventy weeks of years (490 years), with the coming of the kingdom of God. The opening date of this prophecy is the prophecy of Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 25:12; 29:12) about the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. The end date is the persecution by and death of Antiochus IV Epiphanius. At the end of the seventy weeks, sacrifice and offering will cease until the decreed destruction of the destroyer. Then there will be an end to sin and the kingdom of the Messiah will come.
The fourth vision (chap. 10-12), in the third year of Cyrus, is a revelation of the course of events involving the rulers of the people of God up to Antiochus IV, whose conquests and last persecution are described very vividly. In spite of this, the people must keep hoping, because the hour of their deliverance is at hand, the predicted messianic era. Is Daniel in chapter 12 referring to the resurrection of all men prior to the Last Judgment? Some commentators think that this text does refer to the resurrection, which Isaiah had already spoken of (cf. Is 26:19). However, it is more likely that the passage refers to the time the departed will spend in Hades (sheol), after which the blessed will go to heaven and the unjust will be condemned, which will take place much later, when Jesus Christ after his Resurrection visits those in “hell,” in the bosom of Abraham.
The book closes with an appendix (chap. 13-14) containing the stories of Susanna and of Bel and the Dragon, both of which have a happy outcome thanks to Daniel’s prudence and sagacity.
The entire book derives from one main teaching: The God of Israel, the one true, all-knowing, and almighty God, the sovereign Master of human affairs, is the King of kings and the Lord of heaven and earth, who in his infinite wisdom and power governs the course of human history, saving those who are faithful to him and overthrowing kings who try to frustrate his plans. Any resistance offered him ends in war and destruction, whereas obedience and faithfulness to his laws will always, despite any obstacles that may arise, lead to victory and eventual peace.
Without it in any way taking from his transcendence, Daniel teaches, God governs the world and lovingly cares for his creatures. To do this he makes use of angels, whose mission is to protect men. Should God on occasion allow the just man to be persecuted, it is only to test his faithfulness and reward him for his good works. Daniel is distressed to see Israelites suffering in exile, but his sadness is mitigated not so much by the memory of past glory but by the hope of a much more secure future.
“This messianic teaching differs noticeably from that of the other prophets in that it is almost totally wrapped up in the eschatological side of the kingdom of God. Before the coming of the Messiah all hostile powers and particularly the great persecutor of the people of God (Antiochus IV) will be destroyed. The messianic kingdom, imperceptible at first, will in time spread all over the world. It will be a spiritual kingdom based on peace and justice and acknowledgment of the one true God. The messianic king will not conquer the world by the sword; he will be the `Son of man’ and will receive royal authority from the hands of God himself, who is the only who has the right to give it to whomever he chooses” (P. P. Saydon, Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture [London, 1953], sec. 503f.).
The prophecy of Daniel marks the culmination of God’s intervention in history prior to that time. Now new horizons are opened up, a future history is predicted in which the kingdom of God (the Church) will spread, during its earthly phase, to all peoples and become in effect the stage prior to the final, definitive, heavenly stage, which will last forever. That is the scenario for the book’s teaching on the resurrection of the dead, when the just receive their reward and the reprobate their punishment–a doctrinal advance compared with what had been revealed in the earlier prophets.