Son of Man in Daniel

What does ‘son of man’ mean in Daniel 7? Does this help us understand why Jesus used ‘son of man’ to describe himself?

Open Daniel 7.

Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV)
13 “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.
14 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.

Was Jesus alluding to this text when he called himself Son of Man more than 80 times? Was Jesus claiming to be the promised Messiah who would restore God’s reign?

There is a connection, but it isn’t quite that simple. If you make a messianic leap without first understanding the richness of the Old Testament texts, the story falls apart. Ask:

  • What does “like a son of man” mean in Daniel’s vision?
  • In the vision, one like a son of man receives the kingdom, but in the explanation of the vision the saints receive the kingdom (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27)? Are we meant to understand the saints as the people who are like a son of man?
  • If son of man is a title for the messiah, how can Daniel himself be called son of man in Daniel 8:17? Surely Daniel isn’t the messiah?

In the vision of Daniel 7, Israel has been attacked by a beast (Babylon). It’s their worst nightmare: the nation that represented God’s kingship on earth has been subsumed into the Babylonian Empire. The promises of a son of David representing God’s rule on earth have ceased. God no longer has his house in Jerusalem. Babylon shows no respect for God’s plans or authority. How long will this last?

But in Daniel’s vision, things get worse instead of better. Another beast arises — the Medo-Persia Empire. Like a wild animal, it eats people (“devouring much flesh”). The first beast had human-like feet, but this one is such a human/animal cross that it can’t stand up properly (7:5). The people of God have gone from the frying pan to the fire.

It gets even worse. The third beast has the speed of a winged leopard, and four heads (Alexander the Great, and his four sons who followed him). Dominion isn’t restored to Israel, but given to this beast (7:6). Why would God give dominion to a beast instead of restoring his people?

It gets even worse as a fourth beast rises. The first one had some human features, but this one is barely even animal: it has iron teeth, like a war machine. Even with its mechanistic teeth to chew you up, it can see as well as a human and make god-like claims for itself (7:8).

In other words, the Babylonian invasion that destroyed Israel is not the end of their troubles. Empire after empire would trample them and have them for dinner. The earth is not functioning as God intended: animals (beasts) are running the world, tearing people apart with war and bloodshed. The people who represent God’s reign have little chance against them.

Suddenly, Daniel’s horror nightmare changes. Above the wild animals that seem to run the world, he sees the heavenly ruler, the one who never did lose control of the world. The “Ancient of Days” rules forever; his dominion never ends (6:26). This ancient ruler gives the kingdom to someone who is different from other earthly rulers, someone who is not like a beast but like a human — “one like a son of man” (7:13).

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The rulers of the nations are animals that tear people apart (war and bloodshed) to gain and maintain their power. Empire after empire behaves like this. It’s not what God intended humans to be. The only thing that will change the world and overcome the injustice would be for God to give authority to someone who is like a human, i.e. not like an animal (beast).

This is precisely what Israel was called to be: humans who image God’s reign among the nations. The human commission originally given to Adam has been entrusted to Israel: they are called to be the holy people (saints) of the Most High God, i.e. to be truly human-like (like a son of man), even in the face of the beasts. That’s exactly what Daniel himself was called to do in the previous chapter: to stand as a human in a den of beasts (Daniel 6).

And since the holy people of God (saints) are called to be the true humans (sons of man) in the face of the beasts, Daniel himself is addressed as “Son of man” in the following chapter (8:17). That’s the human calling. It was Israel’s calling. Living in Babylon, in the den of the beasts, Daniel is called to be a true human, a son of man. What a challenge!  Can the humans survive in the face of the beasts?

If Jesus has Daniel 7 in mind when he refers to himself as son of man, he’s not reading it as a simple messianic prediction. Rather, he understands his own vocation as the vocation of humanity — to represent God in his world, rule on his behalf, and bring the earth into submission. It’s Daniel’s difficult vocation, Israel’s fallen vocation, the human vocation.

Jesus understood how dangerous it was for him to stand as the true human (son of man) in a world run by beasts.


What others are saying

John E. Goldingay, Daniel, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 190:

Ruling God’s world on God’s behalf, the humanlike figure fulfills the role once given to humanity as a whole at creation (Gen 1–2) and later bestowed on the king of Israel in particular (e.g., Ps 2).

John Joseph Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 308:

Traditional interpretations of the “one like a human being” in the first millennium overwhelmingly favor the understanding of this figure as an individual, not as a collective symbol. The most usual identification was the messiah, but in the earliest adaptations of the vision (the Similitudes, 4 Ezra, the Gospels) the figure in question had a distinctly supernatural character.

Modern interpretations. Since the rise of critical scholarship, diverse explanations of the one like a son of man have been put forward. They may be classified in three categories: (1) an exalted human being, (2) a collective symbol, and (3) a heavenly being.

[previous: Introducing the Son of Man]

[next: Son of Man in Enoch]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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