V = Visions of Victory That Disturb and Terrify

Years ago I made the mistake of reading a few of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. My recollection might be blurred, but I remember a similar thread in each. The protagonist investigates macabre events, ominous signs, cultic symbols, and unexplained happenings. But there is never a good resolution. Some things are better left covered. In the face of an ancient mythos of monstrous evil at work, the world they thought they knew no longer existed. Apparently it never did. Each story ends with the main character himself insane or close to that point, shaking-and-quivering. Even worse is the fate of those who return to normal life. Knowing what they have seen, now faking sanity, they pretend that life is good. They keep the matter to themselves.

The Biblical book of Daniel is full of night visions and strange dreams—monstrous, majestic and overwhelming. The world as they know it is not as it seems; and it never was. Both pagan kings and God’s prophet see visions of rocks, mountains, statues, symbols on the wall, and beastly abominations. Each proclaims, when properly understood, that God has not abandoned his people. His kingdom will endure even despite their strange Babylonian captivity. Heaven rules.

However, it’s not just the pagan rulers like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar who are terrified. They see visions of their personal or national downfall. Daniel is also terrified.

When he sees a vision of God’s victory, returning to normal life must have been strange.

Daniel 7 is, perhaps, his most famous vision. In the midst of captivity and hostile empires, God is still in control. The language of “one like a son of man” coming “to the Ancient of Days”  becomes the vocabulary of Jesus Christ and the song of his scattered church to this day.

Having seen four increasingly hideous beasts rising from the sea and witnessing their blasphemous rage, finally there was something restoratively natural—rather than a grotesque abomination—a glorious figure of a man. Judgment will happen and God’s kingdom will endure.

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

The interpretation is magnificently layered and should be unpacked at another time, but Daniel’s reaction to this vision lingers and haunts me now.

He has a two stage reaction.

1. He viscerally reacts after seeing the vision and

2. He reacts even more after hearing the angelic interpretation.

I would have expected the night vision to terrify, but the angel to soothe his nerves. But after hearing the interpretation, Daniel was even more rocked to the core. The reality of God’s victory is more terrifying than than the illustration.

After seeing the vision, Daniel, with great self awareness said:

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

But after the angelic interpretation, he is much more troubled.

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

Read each phrase out loud. This is what happened when Daniel heard about the victory of God. Would he ever be the same?

Let me explore four applications.

1. Properly understood, God is more terrifying than evil and chaos (Daniel’s reaction to the vision itself)

God’s most frequent command to people in the Bible is “do not be afraid”, mostly accompanying a revelation of God himself, or his purposes, to those whom God favours.

Here Daniel sees a throne and the Ancient of Days who literally silences the raging of the nations about. If the nations are a drop in the bucket, then the one who holds that bucket is much more to be feared.

This aspect of the Christian life is continually downplayed in our modern therapeutic gospel. If God meets our needs, then meditating on him and his purposes is only ever simplistically comforting. The reality is that thinking about him should actually make us uncomfortable too. Deeply uncomfortable.

When the storm was raging, Jesus’ disciples were afraid in the boat, but when Jesus “rebuked the wind” and brought about a “great calm”, their fear went off the scale. “They were filled with a great fear”. (Mark 4:39-41)

Likewise, Daniel might have been afraid of the weight of Babylonian authority and the powers that blaspheme God, but the God who can silence these nations is even more intimidating.

Immediately after he saw the Son of Man and the judgment seat of God that his inner being was disturbed. Read the words again.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

2. The wise will find the interpretation more impacting than the symbolism (Daniel’s reaction to the interpretation)

If you are more dazzled by the image than the reality then you are titillated by divine theatrics rather than living in awe of God himself. Do we see God’s word as an older more sophisticated form of amusement than TV or TikTok? Religious immersive drama, perhaps?

Daniel is more terrified by the angelic interpretation than the vision. That interpretation included mention of future evil that would be befall God’s people, but also the end to the story. The saints of the Most High God would be handed all authority, power and dominion from God’s throne.

Daniel contrasts loudly to his contemporary, Belshazzar, the king in chapter 5. That last king was terrified when he saw the writing on the wall, and when none of his astrologers could interpret that writing.

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his colour changed, and his lords were perplexed. (Daniel 5:8-9)

But Belshazzar is foolish. When he finally receives the interpretation that his days are numbered, that he is judged, found wanting and that the Persians will destroy him, he responds by pompously praising Daniel.

He is more terrified by the uncertainty of the scan than by the diagnosis of terminal cancer. Or perhaps it is worse than that. He is foolish in loving the theatrics of God’s sermon to him but not actually listening to the content.

I’m sure he’s not the only one who has been greatly moved by a sermon about God’s judgement and then responded by praising the preacher rather than dealing with God. He ‘bishop-ed’ Daniel, with purple clothes and a gold chain, but did not humble himself before the hand that held his breath at all times (Daniel 5:24,29).

Daniel was so different. The interpretation meant even more to him, because he actually believed the word of God.

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

Daniel kept this vision and its interpretation in his heart. Could this explain his resilience in defying the edict of the next king who said that anyone who prayed would be thrown into the lion’s den?

Christians, even though we love the story of the Bible and the beauty of its message, must not just be moved to fear God by the imagery but also because of the reality, the interpretation of what God is doing and will do with us all. This is a rebuke to the teacher who gets caught up in his own rhetoric, but not in the truth of what he is saying. Likewise the listener.

What happens next is the best measure of the effect of the word of God in a hearer’s heart. God’s truth should continually comfort and disturb the souls of his children.

3. Does Daniel’s reaction to the vision and interpretation help us understand the women at the empty tomb? The ending of Mark’s Gospel and Daniel 7.

The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark’s gospel finish the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with what seems like an abrupt ending. The women who come to see Jesus, find an empty tomb, hear the angelic proclamation, and then leave in fear. And with those words the gospel finishes, seemingly unresolved. Those witnesses also have a two step reaction.

When they see the empty tomb they react like Daniel did, in fear.

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  (Mark 16:5)

When they hear the angelic’s glorious interpretation that Christ is risen, their reaction like Daniel’s goes off the scale.

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)

I’m not saying that Mark deliberately ended his gospel to match the ending of Daniel 7, but the similarities are profoundly appropriate. The Son of Man has triumphed; and things are not the same as they were. For these women, the rest of their lives has been changed.

Their response was not like Belshazzar, shallow and unbelieving, but a deep response of faith like Daniel. No-one should say that these women were weak in their response unless they also say that Daniel’s response was also weak.

Make your own comparison:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. (Mark 16:5)

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. (Daniel 7:15)

Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my colour changed, but I kept the matter in my heart. (Daniel 7:28)

And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)

4. Singing the song and seeing him coming

One last point. Many of our songs are based on the vision of Daniel chapter 7. Most of these songs are incredible, comforting and joyous. The Ancient of Days will bring judgement. The Son of Man will come in clouds descending. Glory and power will be given to him. His people are waiting.

Don’t forget the comforting truths of God’s word that you sing, but also, don’t forget that when Daniel first saw them, and when the women saw the first-fruits of the resurrection, they were comforted, but also disturbed, viscerally so.

A true vision of God will disturb, but not as a predictable writer of horror. We will not be reduced to quivering shells, with faked superficiality—re-released into a seemingly ordinary world. We will be more sane. More sober-minded.

When we encounter God in his word, we face deep-heart-transformation that makes us want to live more, in every way more, especially for the God holds our salvation in his hands. The deeply troubled Daniel was also the deeply resolute man who endured exile, out-lived empires and kings, worshiped God in a pagan land and prayed every day even if meant being thrown in into a pit of lions.

For those who’ve seen a vision of God’s victory, the world we might have thought existed, doesn’t. It never did. But a better one does.

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Andrew Barry serves Christ with his people at Jannali Anglican Church. He is married to Ruth. They live with five of their children and eagerly wait to see their other son when Jesus returns.