The full question:

What is the purpose of the book of Daniel? What impact do the different theories of the socio-political setting of the book have upon the answer?


There is such a relevance to the book of Daniel. This is not surprising when its purpose is to reveal a sovereign faithful King who will set up his eternal Kingdom, thereby, exhorting his people to faithfulness. The socio-political setting in which this applies is found in both the sixth century and the second century. However, the impact of the setting in which it was authored directly challenges its ability to accomplish its purpose both in the second century and today.

1. Introduction

God is revealed and humanity is compelled to faithfulness within the book of Daniel. This piece of literature, in the pages of the Bible, is ‘one of the best-loved books in the Old Testament’[1] and is ‘full of in-depth theological reflection’[2]. It is also ‘one of the most disputed and debated books of the Bible’[3] which, unfortunately, has ‘sometimes overshadowed the message of the book’.[4] This paper will outline the major purpose of the book of Daniel and then consider if the different theories of the socio-political setting impact this purpose. A brief consideration of the book’s impact on today’s life and thought of Christians will also be addressed.

2. Purpose

In order to ascertain the purpose of the book of Daniel, careful consideration of the text must be the first step. From the engaging historical accounts and startling visions of the future, it seems that the purpose of Daniel is to reveal a faithful, kingdom-building God who is sovereign and thereby exhort God’s people to faithfulness. Beginning with the emphasis upon the sovereignty of God as King who is faithful, this essay will then consider the exhortation to be faithful.

2.1 A Sovereign God

The predominant theme running throughout Daniel is ‘the sovereignty of the God of Israel’.[5] There is ‘a consistent portrait of God as powerful, sovereign, and almighty’.[6] This is seen in his ability to reveal history because he is in control of history (Dan. 2, 7-12).[7] The terms used to describe and address God are dominated ‘by appellations for God’[8] rather than his covenant name ‘Yahweh’ used only in chapter nine.[9] Right from the beginning, it is clear that the capture of Jerusalem and even the looting of the temple (1:1) is in God’s control as the next verse recounts, ‘and the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand’ (1:2). Daniel declares the sovereignty of God by stating, ‘he changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings’ (2:21). Even Nebuchadnezzar himself concurs, eventually, that he ‘does according to his will among the host of heaven…and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”…all his works are right and his ways are just’ (4:35, 37).[10] Each king that ‘flexes his royal muscles before the Most High God’ is shown the infinite power and wisdom of the one true Sovereign.[11] This sovereignty is supreme overall and thereby allows the Ancient of Days to judge ‘the earthly powers that have become subhuman, bestial, in their arrogant, self-centred exercise of sovereignty’ and deprive them of their control (7:9-14).[12] The theme of God’s control is not surprising in apocalyptic literature as Nelson describes its purpose as emphasizing ‘in the midst of oppression that God is in control’.[13] Stortz also sees this as the major revelation of God in Daniel and notes how ‘he is concerned about our holiness and our fears; so he shows us how he worked in Daniel, and he tells us about our future’, which is only possible by a God who ‘is in sovereign control over all the events of this world’.[14]

2.1.1 Kingdom Builder

The emphasis of God’s sovereignty and control naturally contains the truth that God is the one true ruler. Thereby, assuring his followers that he can and will establish ‘his own everlasting King and kingdom in the world’.[15] The central theme of ‘God’s sovereignty over history and empires’ allows him to set up and remove ‘kings as he pleases (Dan. 2:21; 4:34-37)’[16] including the everlasting kingdom of which he will be King. House sees ‘God’s kingdom rising’ as the main theme of the book,[17] yet it seems natural to fit under the larger concept of the sovereignty of God. This kingdom ‘shall never be destroyed…and it shall stand forever’ (2:44; 7:27). Harman summarises this concept by noting, ‘human kingdoms will rise and fall and, despite seeming setbacks from time to time, God’s kingdom will prevail and he will be acknowledged as the sovereign Ruler over all.’[18] God’s sovereignty over everything including kingdoms and empires is painted across the pages of this reassuring book.

2.1.2 A Faithful God

The wonder of Daniel is that God is not only completely sovereign and setting up his everlasting kingdom, but he is also faithful to his people. He is a faithful King of kings. There is no remoteness to this powerful being, rather he is ‘the God of the covenant…one who is compassionate and forgiving’[19] ‘who keeps covenant’ (Dan. 9:4). This is vital that even though it is clear God’s people ‘will experience suffering and be threatened with extinction’, it ‘will not be the end of the story because their God…will save them’.[20] Time and time again God is right where ‘you least expect him – in a stone, in a crematorium oven, on a whitewashed wall, in a pit of ferocious beasts’.[21] God is faithful to his people, he listens to their cries (2:18-19; 6:10, 13; 9:3-19) and ‘he delivers and rescues’ (6:27). It is because God is sovereign and faithful which guarantees God will fulfill his purposes.[22] This means that whatever happens in history God is ultimately reliable. There is meaning in history and it is all an ‘outworking of God’s grace, mercy, purposefulness, justice, and zeal, even if it is not always clear how events reflect these’.[23] Furthermore, because God is sovereign and faithful there is a future hope that is certain no matter what his people experience.[24] Davis considers Mark summing up the message of Daniel in two phrases: ‘the end is not yet’; ‘but the one who endures to the end – he shall be saved’ (Mk 13:7, 13).[25] It is this future hope that allows ‘God’s covenant people to live in both exile and expectation, awaiting the unobstructed rule of God on earth’.[26] So because of a sovereign faithful ruler God’s people ‘are living in this world but in the light of a destiny that lies beyond it’.[27] This ‘expectant waiting for the end is encouraged’ (Dan. 12:13).[28]

God is sovereign and faithful. He will set up his Kingdom. God will fulfill his promises and this revelation provides hope for his people. The revealing of God in Daniel then exhorts God’s people towards faithfulness, the next major purpose of the book.

2.2 Be Faithful

The truth revealed of God in Daniel, that he is the sovereign faithful King, means his people are to have ‘total loyalty to him’.[29] It is through the accomplishment of the first purpose that the purpose of exhorting towards faithfulness is made all the clearer. This is seen in chapter one where immediately Daniel and his friends ‘adopt a lifestyle of faithfulness’.[30] Chapters two to seven hold out the faithfulness of God’s people under pagan rulers and the next section (Dan. 8:1-12:8) ‘contains the complementary theme of faithfulness under persecution’.[31] It is about resting fully in the hands of the sovereign God which gives his people ‘assurance to get on with the challenging task of living in God’s world’.[32] This purpose of Daniel ‘shows us how to live for Him when everything is against us’.[33] It is clear in the book of Daniel ‘that God’s people can and should live holy, righteous lives while suffering the injustices of this life’.[34] The examples in Daniel of men who ‘model the life of faith’ are ‘a source of great encouragement and inspiration’ for God’s people who struggle in this life.[35] This purpose of faithfulness is also seen in the negative, where ‘the pride and arrogance of humankind’ are condemned by God. Arnold summarises the two sections by observing how ‘in the stories of chapters 1-6, rebellious pride is the issue behind the problem that introduces each chapter’ and ‘in the visions of chapters 7-12, the obstinate arrogance of future world leaders is the enemy of God and his people’.[36] This is unfaithfulness demonstrated in those who are not God’s people. The book of Daniel presents a powerful God who is in control and exhorts his people to faithfulness.

3. Socio-Political Settings

Once the purpose of the book has been established by looking at the text and what the author desires, the question must be addressed, do the different theories of the socio-political setting impact this purpose? The dating of the book is ‘complicated’.[37] Some are dismissive of this question and simply consider it to be a ‘lengthy, mind-numbing scholarly discussion that often offers less than satisfying answers and little help actually understanding the message of the book’.[38] While some of these sentiments may feel true whilst trolling through many repetitive pages, one’s conclusion upon the dating of the book does impact the ability of the author to accomplish his purpose in Daniel. The impact upon the purpose of the book will be discussed after briefly considering some of the arguments for a second-century date compared to a sixth-century writing and the different socio-political settings.

3.1 6th Century Purpose

The socio-political setting of the sixth century was one of the Jewish people under foreign rule. It is ‘a situation where the Jews are out of their own land and where their faith, although under threat, is able to survive and even succeed’.[39] Although the contents and linguistic considerations are often used to support a later date, from recent scholarship they ‘do not preclude a sixth-century BC date of composition’.[40] In fact, the linguistic data of ‘both the Aramaic and Hebrew of Daniel come from a time substantially earlier than the second century BC’.[41] Josephus believed Daniel was at least written before 332 BC, as he records Alexander the Great reading some of Daniel’s prophecy and considering himself to be the fulfillment of it.[42] Even if this story was a fable, though there is good evidence to suggest otherwise, it still ‘is historical testimony that can be taken to reflect general opinion among Jews in the first century AD’.[43] Along with this is the acceptance by the Essenes and the rest of the Jews of the book of Daniel to be in the canon. This places the writing of Daniel at a much earlier date than other apocalyptic writing of the second century.[44]

Does the purpose of Daniel apply to this socio-political setting? The revelation of a God who is in control of everything and will set up his eternal kingdom most certainly applies to this socio-political setting. The purpose of the book of Daniel also addresses those who are away from Jerusalem to live holy and faithful lives. Therefore, the purpose of Daniel is applied to the sixth-century context of a ‘Babylonian-type situation’ and gives hope and meaning to its recipients.[45]

3.2 2nd Century Purpose

The socio-political setting of the second century is a people under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean revolt.[46] It is a people of God under severe persecution desiring hope and a purpose to suffering. Some suggest that it was written by a member of the Hasidim party ‘to remind his persecuted contemporaries that Yahweh their God understood their plight’.[47] Others consider it to be in support of the Maccabean revolt and to support Mattathias ‘who sparked a rebellion of the faithful against the king (1 Macc. 2:19-28)’.[48] Driver believes this later date is most obvious as:

‘the Persian words presuppose a period after the Persian empire had been well established: the Greek words demand, the Hebrew supports, and the Aramaic permits, a date after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great’.[49]

Since Driver’s conclusion other linguistic evidence has proven ‘that a sixth-century BC date for the book of Daniel is not excluded from consideration on linguistic grounds’.[50] Nelson predominantly argues for later authorship partly based on historical inaccuracies.[51] There are various suggestions to answer these supposed inaccuracies. Lucas concludes that overall, such an argument provides a ‘not proven’ verdict.[52]

Does the purpose of the book of Daniel apply to a second-century context? There are many aspects of the purpose of the book that directly apply to this socio-political setting. A persecuted people find it difficult to remember that God is the sovereign ruler which is exactly the note that the author of Daniel sounds ‘so strongly: God is still on his throne’.[53] There is a reflection of Antiochus IV in Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar who have such arrogance, yet God is King overall.[54] In such an extreme context the purpose of Daniel to exhort God’s people to faithfulness applies to a second-century socio-political setting and ‘they could hear Daniel’s message with keen appreciation’.[55] Although there are differences in the type of authority over the Israelites, the two purposes of the book, the sovereignty of God and the call to faithfulness, rings loud and clear. Even Mattathias himself applies Daniel to their context when he is near death, he refers to Daniel and his three friends to encourage his sons to go on in the fight (1 Macc. 2:49-50, 59-60).

3.3 The Impact

The revealing of a sovereign faithful king who will bring in his everlasting kingdom is a central purpose of Daniel. Can this apply to different socio-political settings? It seems as though the book of Daniel applies to those ‘living under a relatively benign pagan ruler’ and ‘those suffering under a malevolently hostile one’ for both are assured that he will deliver them, whether ‘from death (ch. 3) or through death (ch. 12)’.[56] Both socio-political settings are impacted by the purpose of Daniel to exhort God’s people to faithfulness. The reason for this is simply that God’s Word applies to every generation and context. It applies just as much today as it did in the sixth century or the second century. For all of Scripture is for all of God’s people (Rom. 15:4). Wallace and others suggest that there is no relevance to a people ‘under severe tribulation’[57] as opposed to peaceful foreign occupation, but such a conclusion to some extent rejects the ongoing relevance of Scripture. It is also true that Daniel refers both to the Babylonian period, the Persian period and the Hellenistic era and thereby it is useful to understand the context of each of these historical moments.[58]

On the other hand, there is good reason to support a sixth-century date of the writing of the book of Daniel not because of the different applications but in its impact upon the ability of Daniel to accomplish the very purpose it presents. In this instance, Longman is wrong to say that ‘the standpoint of the writer…does not greatly affect the interpretation’[59] and Lucas fails to see that this discussion most certainly impacts the book’s ‘theological meaning’.[60] When Collins writes that Daniel and his friends are merely legendary and ‘probably never existed’[61], it most certainly impacts the purpose of the book. If it is merely the name taken over from Ezekiel (14:14, 20), as scholars suggest[62], the whole purpose lies in ruin and it cannot accomplish an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty nor exhort with any authority God’s people to faithfulness. Furthermore, questions about the interpretation of Daniel are subject to error. Nelson suggests the author kept changing the number of days for the end to come (Dan. 8:14; 12:11, 12, 13) based upon the shaping of a second-century author who did not see the end.[63] If the later date is supported often it ‘implies that Daniel’s editor was at least singularly inept and perhaps abysmally stupid’.[64] As Hamilton points out, ‘there is a massive difference between the theological meaning of a wish-fantasy and that of a historically reliable account of God miraculously preserving someone alive in a fiery furnace’.[65] Daniel clearly dates the prophecies in the book and if they did not occur at that time, ‘then how can we believe anything else written in the book?’.[66] The book of Daniel cannot reveal a sovereign God who can know the future if it is merely either writing a fantasy or recording legends whilst embellishing fact. If a later date is indeed true perhaps, ‘what some call the ‘quasi-prophecy’ of Daniel would give such sufferers nothing more than quasi-encouragement’.[67] Indeed the socio-political setting does not impact the purpose of the book for Daniel applies to all of God’s people, yet its dating in each setting impacts the ability of the book to accomplish its very purpose.

4. Conclusion

The major purpose of Daniel is clear through every page that is turned. There is a sovereign faithful King who will set up his eternal Kingdom and thereby it exhorts all of his people to faithfulness. This purpose applies to every generation and every socio-political setting. At the same time, the dating of Daniel is no trivial matter, for the setting in which it was written determines the effectiveness of its very purpose.


  1. Wendy Widder, Daniel (Story of God Commentary 20; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 1.

  2. Andrew Reid, Kingdoms in Conflict: Reading Daniel Today (Sydney, Australia: Aquila Press, 2004), 3.

  3. Bill T. Arnold and Bryan Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey (2nd ed.; Encountering Biblical Studies; Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008), 428.

  4. E. C. Lucas, ‘Book of Daniel’, in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012), 110.

  5. Ernest Lucas, Daniel (Apollos Old Testament Commentary; Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002), 315.

  6. John Goldingay, Daniel (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 329.

  7. Goldingay, Daniel, 330.

  8. E.g. God in/of heaven, King/Lord of heaven, God of gods, Lord of Lords, great God, living God, Most High etc.

  9. Widder, Daniel, 14.

  10. Lucas, “Book of Daniel,” 121.

  11. Widder, Daniel, 15.

  12. Lucas, “Book of Daniel,” 121.

  13. William B. Nelson, Daniel (eds. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston; Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 1.

  14. Rodney Stortz, Daniel: The Triumph of God’s Kingdom (ed. R. Kent Hughes; Preaching the Word; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 11–12.

  15. Helm expands this thought well by likening Daniel to ‘a piece of sheet music’ where ‘the themes of kings and kingdoms’ is ‘prominently placed along the melodic line’ in every chapter. Together, ‘they form a tune that is pulled through the book from beginning to end’ emphasising this thrust of an everlasting kingdom. David Helm, Daniel for You (n.p.: The Good Book Company, 2015), 12. E. J. Young considers the coming of the Son of Man (7:13) as the foundation of the kingdom of God. Edward J. Young, A Commentary on Daniel (U.S.A.: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), 154.

  16. Gleason L. Archer Jr., Daniel (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Expositor’s Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 7:8.

  17. Paul R. House, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 23:1. Goldingay also emphasises that the kingdom of God is ‘central to Daniel as it is to no other book in the OT’. Goldingay, Daniel, 330.

  18. Allan M. Harman, Daniel (EP Study Commentary; Faverdale North, Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2007), 20.

  19. Goldingay, Daniel, 330.

  20. Joyce G. Baldwin, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1978), 25:12.

  21. Goldingay, Daniel, 330.

  22. Harman, Daniel, 15.

  23. Goldingay, Daniel, 331. As the book is set in exile, it must ‘speak to a people devastated by the destruction of their identity as God’s people…the book of Daniel affirms that God was not done with his people’. Widder, Daniel, 16.

  24. Ronald S. Wallace, The Message of Daniel: The Lord Is King (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 16.

  25. Dale Ralph Davis, Message of Daniel: His Kingdom Cannot Fail (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2013), 26.

  26. Widder, Daniel, 16.

  27. Christopher J. H. Wright, Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 16.

  28. Harman, Daniel, 31.

  29. Pat Alexander and David Alexander (eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible (4th ed.; Oxford, England: Lion, 2009), 473.

  30. Lucas, “Book of Daniel,” 122.

  31. Lucas, “Book of Daniel,” 110.

  32. Wright, Hearing the Message of Daniel, 18.

  33. Stuart Olyott, Dare to Stand Alone: Daniel Simply Explained (England: Evangelical Press, 1982),, (accessed July 22, 2019), 13.

  34. Arnold and Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament, 434.

  35. Reid, Kingdoms in Conflict, 3.

  36. Arnold and Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament, 432.

  37. Reid, Kingdoms in Conflict, 7.

  38. Widder, Daniel, 1.

  39. Reid, Kingdoms in Conflict, 8.

  40. Harman, Daniel, 26.

  41. Davis notes this with the proviso that ‘linguistic data can prove slippery; most of us are not professional linguists and so are at the mercy of those who are’. Davis, Message of Daniel, 17.

  42. Flavius Josephus, ‘Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, Chapter 8, Section 5’, in Perseus Digital Library, 1895,, (accessed July 25, 2019).

  43. James M. Hamilton, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology (New Studies in Biblical Theology 32; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 33.

  44. Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 357–358.

  45. Wallace, The Message of Daniel, 21.

  46. Davis, Message of Daniel, 18.

  47. Wallace, The Message of Daniel, 18.

  48. Davis, Message of Daniel, 18.

  49. S. R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (5th ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1894), 476.

  50. Harman, Daniel, 22.

  51. Nelson, Daniel.

  52. Lucas, Daniel, 307.

  53. Nelson, Daniel, 36.

  54. Nelson, Daniel, 40.

  55. W. Sibley Towner, Daniel (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 2.

  56. Lucas, Daniel, 316.

  57. Wallace, The Message of Daniel, 21–22.

  58. Nelson, Daniel, 1.

  59. Tremper Longman III, Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary from Biblical Text…to Contemporary Life (The NIV Application Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1999), 24.

  60. Lucas, Daniel, 18.

  61. John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 1.

  62. Towner, Daniel, 5.

  63. Nelson, Daniel, 17.

  64. Davis, Message of Daniel, 19.

  65. Hamilton, With the Clouds of Heaven, 31.

  66. Stortz, Daniel, 12. Keil agrees and points to Jesus who is ‘the eternal personal Truth, never could have regarded as the prophecy of Daniel the prophet, and commended to the observation of His disciples, as he has done (Matt. 24:15, cf. Mark 13:14)’. C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1955), 57.

  67. Davis, Message of Daniel, 20.

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