Iran in Prophecy…or Not?

By Neil Earle

A 1994 call for Christians to move beyond past perspectives.

Teachers of Bible Prophecy have been claiming the book of Daniel predicts a war with nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran lies north of Jerusalem so Iran must be “the King of the North” of Daniel 11, say many respected preachers. But is that necessarily so? Why have even ardent and sincere students of Bible prophecy been getting the Book of Daniel wrong for so long? Clearly, it is time for a fresh approach.

Digging Deeper

To explain why popularizers of prophecy get it wrong (including this writer in days past) it is necessary to broaden the canvas. We need carefully reasoned insights from respected students in the field – people who can read Daniel in its original Hebrew and Aramaic. Their explanations are not always easy to follow but they are more worth than trouble. We’ll be drawing upon three in particular: Old Testament expert Brevard Childs, author J.J. Collins and John Goldingay formerly of Fuller Seminary. All three hold a healthy respect for the text of Scripture.

But first, some backtracking.

A still-extant reprint titled “The Middle East in Prophecy” drew upon Daniel 11’s systematic, orderly and bloe-by-blow account of conflicts between the King of the North (Syria) and the King of the South (Egypt) in the period just before Roman domination of Jerusalem. The dramatic “time of the end” reference in the King James Version of Daniel 11:40 was and still is applied by KJV devotees as “dating” this prophecy for the near future. Hence the King of the North has been identified even in my lifetime as (erroneously we now know) the USSR, or Assad of Syria or the late Saddam Hussein. Now the leaders of Iran come into the picture.

IRANIAN TREASURE: Neil with picture of tomb of Cyrus the Great "The Lord's Anointed" (Isaiah 45:1).

But past failures should give us caution. Iran does lie north of Jerusalem (called “the glorious holy mountain” in Daniel 11:45) but that is a flimsy basis on which to tell church audiences that all-out war between Iran and Israel may well lead to the end of the world (see Pastor Hagee’s claims in 2005 in his Jerusalem Countdown).

Contemplating Daniel 11 and its seeming blow-by-blow account of historic events in the centuries just before Jesus and the early church is a big attention-getter however. Especially in light of Daniel 11:40 – “the time of the end” in many translations.

But why do do many people get it wrong?

Creative Miscalculations

My church was previously named Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and was fairly famous among prophecy watchers for quotes such as this in a 1960 reprint titled “The 2300 Days:”

The Roman system of government became the “Kingdom of the North.” It has existed to our time in Europe. In the Middle Ages it was called the Holy Roman Empire. Its amazing history is described in Daniel 11:36-41…In Daniel 11 the last King of the North is pictured as occupying “the glorious land Palestine (verse 41)…A great crisis is yet to occur in Palestine. After nearly 19 centuries a part of the tribe of Judah – the Jews – has come back to Palestine…Not only Jerusalem but the whole land of Palestine is divided. It is an armed camp likely to ignite at any moment!1

Some of this, of course, is timeless and some is not. The old city was still in Arab hands till 1967, when the above article appeared in 1965. The quote continues giving the flavor of WCG prophecy teaching in the 1960s:

We must watch world news to discover how and when it will happen. Then will come World War III and the occupation of Palestine and half of Jerusalem. A great European Church-State union will be in control of Palestine and the whole Western World. It will prohibit the truth…It will persecute and martyr God’s Holy People…It is the time of the two witnesses who will prophesy in the streets of Jerusalem for 1260 days, then be killed, and – just immediately before the return of Christ – be raised from the dead in the sight of the people…God will suddenly intervene in human affairs. He will put an end to this wicked idolatrous system.

The above speculation is typical of much prophecy teaching. It takes everything in Daniel at face value – transposing past events into our day, or at least the 1960s. The “half of Jerusalem” reference became void when Israel captured the Old City in 1967. And so it goes. The more careful Childe-Collins-Goldingay approach, however, sets Daniel’s writings in a broader perspective. Let’s take a look.

John Goldingay

“Early Daniel/Late Daniel?”

For starters, these commentators follow most scholars in advocating a “late dating” for Daniel 11 and 12. This is the argument that Daniel – especially his last six chapters – was written in the Maccabean period of Israel’s history (c. 167-63 B.C.) rather than back in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605-562 B.C.). See Daniel 1:1. Many accept the claim that the “Later Daniel’s” purpose in writing was to give hope and encouragement to the Jewish people then being savagely persecuted by the Syrian king to the north, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.).2

Daniel is thus viewed as a message for an earlier period. In his respected Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture the respected Brevard Childs proposed that the theory of Daniel 11 and 12 being later additions does not invalidate either the prophecy or the book. Childs, Collins and Goldingay reject the hyper-critical argument that Daniel is but a “pious forgery.” They quite reasonably ask: How could a work of sheer fiction – a forgery – offer help to people facing possible extinction?

Also, Israel’s prophets were more than futurists. They were as much “forthtellers” as foretellers. They linked their message to God’s purposes with the Jewish people (Isaiah 11:11-16). Mostly their keynote theme was hope!

John Goldingay argues that there was enough “partial fulfillment” in Daniel’s later visions – Judah was saved by the Maccabees, after all, as commemorated every Hannukah – to give rabbis the confidence to canonize this book. It found a place among those Scriptures that spoke and speak forcefully to Jews and later to Christians. It “gave them the perspective with which to view analogous crises.”3 In Childs’ reconstruction, the author of Daniel 11 saw the fateful “crisis at the close of history” (his version of verse 40), as quite possibly occurring right then and there before his very eyes, an event signaled by the grisly desolation and pollution of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 40:30-36).

Brevard Childs

The Supreme Crisis?

The crisis that sparked the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus and traitors in Jerusalem seemed like the supreme crisis of Judaism in that era. The existence of the nation was at stake. Many devout Jews could have wondered: Might this be the time foretold even earlier in Daniel 2:44 when the God of heaven would intervene for his people and set up his eternal kingdom? This is an understandable reaction. It parallels what devout people often think today when catastrophes occur: Is this the end of the world? Might the Messiah soon return?

If the question hangs in the air today it very much hung in the air in the 160’s B.C. God’s people were very much in need of a “word from the Lord” at the crisis provoked by the near-extermination of the Temple system. For Collins, Daniel’s visions from chapters 8-12 are primarily concerned about how God would deliver his people in the land of Judea, whose survival hung in doubt. As Childs explains it:

The vision was a mystery, hidden from the human mind, which only God could reveal…Regardless of how sure the interpretation of these [events] may have seemed to the Wise, nevertheless, they always required a translation. The vision itself remained veiled…Therefore, if Antiochus did not prove to be the Old Testament Antichrist and the Kingdom of God was not ushered in with his death, then for the canonical editors it was not the prophecy which was at fault, but the earlier identification with those specific historical events.4

In other words, the devout searchers of Scripture in ancient Judaea, “the Wise who understand” (Daniel 12:10), believed that the God they served who “rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:17) was still very much alive! He was eminently capable of speaking a new word to his people. Perhaps he had spoken already in their sacred texts – texts such as Daniel 4:25, which encapsulates that the Most High rules the kingdoms of men.

What was needed in Antiochus’ day was a reworking of Daniel 2:44 and Daniel 5:34-35, a reinterpretation that would make sense of the present crisis. This, claims Childs, is the background to Later Daniel and his detailed exploits of the Kings of the North (Syria) and the South (Egypt) in Daniel 11. Daniel 11 is history but history described as prophecy. The later writers had no intent to mislead. Rather they reinforced the sure conclusion that the God of Daniel rules in the kingdoms of men and that this same God would deliver them. “Your people shall be delivered,” the vision concludes (Daniel 12:1).

And through the Maccabees they were and Hannukah is the evidence!

The failure of hasty prophecy predictions is now well-documented.

Living Words!

Unquestionably, Childs’ interpretation elevates Daniel 11 and 12 to a higher level than merely being a “a prophecy after the event.” Later Daniel fits the Forthteller mode of prophets giving hope to God’s people in a particularly desperate time by updating what had gone before. Childs explains:

Although the modern [scholar] can characterize the description…as a prophecy-after-the-event, the biblical writer came to his material from a totally different perspective…He was firmly convinced that what he now saw was intended by the original vision. By studying the sacred writings he was able to clarify the divine message. The writer did not view his own role as independent of the visions of Daniel…Rather, it arose from a profoundly theological sense of the function of prophecy which was continually illuminated through the continuing reinterpretation of Scripture.5

In Childs’ view, the author of Daniel 11 is writing in the spirit of Daniel 1-6. He is true to the spirit of Daniel and Daniel’s core theme – “the Most High rules in the kingdoms of men.” Just as there were “men of Hezekiah” who added selected chapters to the book of Proverbs while remaining true to the spirit of the Proverbs (Proverbs 25:1), the one we call “Later Daniel” builds on Earlier Daniel’s central claim. Not only does the Most High rule in the kingdoms of men but he sometimes sets up over it “the basest of men” (Daniel 4:17, AV). To Jewish martyrs in the 160’s B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes would have fit that template perfectly.

Thus Daniel’s chapters were a word of force and power to God’s people facing near extinction in the 160s. It recalled God’s earlier deliverance of the Jews from Babylon in the days of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5). Thus Daniel was a prophet for the times. The prophecy of base men threatening mayhem not only hit home to the people in 167-165 B.C., it also spoke forcefully to people in the time of Jesus when Roman soldiers were everywhere (Matthew 24:15-22).

Bible prophecy is often an “open text” which allow people searching for a word from the Lord in their day to reconsider. What we need to remember in this current crisis over Iran is that prophecy teachers have always had ready candidates for such villains as the King of the North and the Beast of Revelation – from Napoleon down to Hitler and Mussolini, Saddam Hussein to the Ayatollahs today. We can perhaps forgive such excesses by sincere preachers in light of the ingenious way God caused his word to be written, as a scorching fire (Jeremiah 23). But we are plainly told to beware of private interpretations l (2 Peter 1:20). The track record shows no one has got it right. Humility is called for as we watch and pray and work for peace in our day and never lose sight of Daniel’s core message: the Most High who rules in the kingdoms of men.

1. Herman L. Hoeh, “The 2300 Days,” Ambassador College Press Reprint Series #192 (1960).

2. J.J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977), page 8. Collins bases his argument on the internal pointers and overall coherence of the book though he concedes Daniel 1-6 could be based on earlier material. See Desmond Ford’s Daniel (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1978) for a conservative rebuttal.

3. John Goldingay, Word Biblical Commentary: Daniel (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1987), pages 312-313.

4. Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pages 617-618.

5. Childs, page 618.