Part of human nature is a tendency to see what we want or expect to see. That is how magic tricks and other illusions work. It also explains some of the conflict in our society these days: Some people look at one incident and draw far-reaching conclusions from it, while others take a second similar incident and draw their own opposite conclusions. Much (but not all) of the time, both are picking the incident or aspects of it that match their own preset perceptions.
This could be true of our longer view of history, as well. Christians see history through the lens of the Bible, and see God at work. But are we imposing our own preconceived ideas onto the events and the Biblical prophecies? Let’s check a couple.
Daniel and the Four Empires
The Old Testament book of Daniel, written between 605 and 536 B.C., includes several chapters of future prophecy. Three of the passages, in chapters 2, 7, and 8, describe major empires succeeding one another. The prophecies are not identical, but do have some significant parallels. Those empires are listed in the table below, along with their characteristics from the prophecies.
Second year of king Nebuchadnezzar
About 606-607 B.C.
First year of king Belshazzar
About 553 B.C.
Third year of king Belshazzar
About 550 B.C.
|Gold Head 1||Lion, with eagle’s wings|
|Silver Chest/Arms||Bear, raised up on one side||Ram, with 2 horns, one longer than the other 2||Two unequal parts|
|Bronze Belly/Thighs||Leopard, with four wings & four heads||Goat 3, with one conspicuous horn 4, out of which four others arise 5 (followed by another which starts small but outgrows all the others)||One into Four; Speed 6|
Iron-and-Clay Feet and Toes
|Different, especially terrifying, |
with iron teeth and ten horns
|Hard, but brittle; two parts, then ten|
- Babylon: Babylon was a world power from 626 to 539 B.C., including at the time that Daniel was writing. 7 8 9 Daniel himself was an exile forcibly carried from Israel to Babylon. Babylon’s symbol was a lion.10
- Medo-Persia: The Medes helped Babylon conquer their previous rival, Assyria, in 612 B.C. The Persians were a vassal state of the Median empire, until Cyrus the Great became king of Persia in 559 B.C. and then ruled all of the Medo-Persian empire starting in 550 B.C. He conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. 11 12 (BTW, Cyrus is mentioned by name in Isaiah’s prophecy, even though Isaiah died in 680 B.C., over 100 years earlier.)
- Greece: Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia, a city/state within Greece, in 336 B.C. When he died just 13 years later in 323 B.C., he had conquered all of Greece, north to the Danube, south to Egypt, and east to the Indian Punjab, an area of two million square miles across three continents 13. The first non-Greek empire that he conquered was Persia 14. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was split under four of his subordinates: Antigonus in Asia Minor and Greece; Ptolemy in Egypt; Lysimachus in Thrace, Cassander in Macedonia and Seleucus in the east 15.
- Rome: Rome’s greatest period of empire started under Caesar Augustus in 31 B.C. and lasted until Diocletian in 305 A.D. 16 Greece was already fading under the constant infighting of Alexander’s successors. It was absorbed by Rome in 146 B.C. 17 The Roman empire split into two, with capitals of Rome in the East and Constantinople in the West, in 395 A.D. 18
- Opinions differ, but the ones I find most compelling are that the 10 mixed iron/clay toes and the 10 horns are predictions of kings or other leaders who have not yet come onto the scene.
You decide: Are the four empires accurately matched to the prophecies made while the first (Babylon) was at its height?
Daniel and the Seleucids
Another of Daniel’s prophecies is recorded in chapters 10-12; I’ll refer mostly to chapter 11. This chapter totally confused me when I read it. I count at least 16 references back-and-forth between a “king of the North” vs. a “king of the South”. There are very specific details; here are just a few of them:
Now in those times many will rise up against the king of the South; the violent ones among your people will also lift themselves up in order to fulfill the vision, but they will fall down. Then the king of the North will come, cast up a siege ramp and capture a well-fortified city; and the forces of the South will not stand their ground, not even their choicest troops, for there will be no strength to make a stand. But he who comes against him will do as he pleases, and no one will be able to withstand him; he will also stay for a time in the Beautiful Land, with destruction in his hand. He will set his face to come with the power of his whole kingdom, bringing with him a proposal of peace which he will put into effect; he will also give him the daughter of women to ruin it. But she will not take a stand for him or be on his side. Then he will turn his face to the coastlands and capture many. But a commander will put a stop to his scorn against him; moreover, he will repay him for his scorn. So he will turn his face toward the fortresses of his own land, but he will stumble and fall and be found no more.Daniel 11:14-19
What on earth does this mean? Luckily for me, others who know more about both the Bible and history have done the research. This back-and-forth can be matched very closely with the wars between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids in about 274 through 200 B.C. First, see here for the secular history. Then, check out here and here for verse-by-verse comparisons. See if you agree that the comparisons are accurate. Keep in mind that the prophecies were written in the third year of Cyrus of Persia, so in about 536 B.C.
(Note: Starting at verse 36, the context and timing seems to shift out of Ptolemy/Seleucid, and into things that have not yet occurred.)
Abraham and Canaan
Another set of historical prophecies is still playing out right in front of us: Israel. In Genesis 12:1-3, God told Abram to leave his home in Haran 19 to journey to an unknown land, which turned out to be Canaan. God promised to make Abram (then 75 years old and childless) the father of a great nation in that land. The entire Old Testament from that point forward is the history of Abraham (“father of a multitude”, renamed from Abram “exalted father” in Genesis 17:5) and his descendants. In a separate article, I’ve explored more of Israel’s history since the Old Testament days. You can decide for yourself whether God had a hand in their history.
While not exactly the history of nations, there are many prophecies of the coming Messiah that are based in specific places and times. Most specifically, the Messiah was expected to arrive in Bethlehem of Judea in about 30 A.D. You can see if the other details seem accurate in this article.
What is NOT Prophesied
You will see that all of these prophecies concern only events that affect Israel, and only some of those. As far as I know, the Bible makes no mention of the Americas, China, Japan, Australia, or southern Africa. 20 The history of those places, while important, is not on the trajectory that God chooses to emphasize. That is not to say that He hasn’t been involved in all of the other history. I’m sure that He has. He just didn’t need to include that information in His revelation of Himself to mankind.
The Bible tells us the history needed in order for us to know who God is, what His overall plan is for our world, and how to have a healthy relationship with Him. And it does so far enough in advance for us to recognize Him as it unfolds. Pretty neat, hmm?
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Said by the text to be Nebuchadnezzar himself (therefore, Babylon)
- Said by the text to be Media and Persia
- Said by the text to be Greece
- Said by the text to be the first king (Alexander)
- Said by the text to be four kingdoms that emerge from the first but without the same power
- Leopards are one of the fastest animals.
- Actually, this was the Neo-Babylonian empire. The first Babylonian empire was under a famous king, Hammurabi, but only lasted about 50 years (from 1792-1750 B.C.)
- Located in modern-day Turkey
- I don’t even see mention of the World Wars or the Holocaust, although some may see better than I do.