[This is the sixth in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]
Both the Old and New Testaments speak of a time of great distress immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. According to the prophecy of the seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24-27, this period of distress is to be seven years long. It is usually referred to as “the tribulation.” Part of this period includes the beginning of the day of the LORD—a time beginning with an extraordinary outpouring of divine wrath upon the world, which afterward transitions into a time of great blessing for the redeemed, first in the millennial aspect of the kingdom of God, then in eternity.
The tribulation should not be confused with “the day of the LORD.” The day of the LORD is the time during which God will judge the earth and ultimately establish his earthly kingdom; it almost certainly begins sometime in the second half of the tribulation (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3-4) and continues from that point forward into eternity. It is a common mistake among premillennialists to identify the entire seven-year period of tribulation as divine wrath. Such a view, though popular among dispensationalists, lacks biblical support and leads to incorrect conclusions regarding both the nature of the tribulation period and the rapture of the Church. The hardship of the tribulation ensues from two primary sources. Much of the difficulty of the period, at least initially, results from the activities of godless men, especially a world leader commonly referred to as “the Antichrist.” Once the day of the LORD begins, the element of divine wrath will be added to the difficulty already being experienced, and the hardship of the period will be greatly multiplied.
The Purpose of the Tribulation Period
The tribulation serves a dual purpose. It includes a time for preparing an elect people, both Jew and Gentile, and an elect nation, Israel, to enter the millennium at Christ’s return; it is also a time of judgment upon the world for its rebellion against God and its ill-treatment of God’s people, especially during the tribulation period. As such, the tribulation plays a vital role in preparing the world for the return of the Lord and the establishment of his kingdom on earth (cf. Matt. 24-25).
The Preparation of Israel to Receive Her Messiah
The figure of the refiner’s fire is one of the metaphors employed in the Old Testament to illustrate how God will use this time of great distress to prepare a people and nation for entrance into the millennium. As the prophet Daniel said,
[Dan. 12:10] Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.
This passage reveals three important truths concerning the tribulation period: 1) God will use this time to purify a people for himself. 2) The wicked (i.e., those in unbelief) will not understand what is happening, and in spite of the intense distress of this period, they will not repent—a theme echoed repeatedly in the book of Revelation (Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9,11,21). 3) Those who are wise, who know and believe the scriptures, will understand what is happening. God also revealed to the prophet Zechariah that he would use the intense heat of distress to purify Israel as a people for himself, and thus enable the fulfillment of his promises to their fathers.
[Zech. 13:8-9] “In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’”
It was also revealed to Zechariah that only about one third of the Jewish nation entering the period would survive; God will purify that third and they will come into right relationship with him through this great ordeal. Ezekiel also foresaw the conversion of Israel during this time.
[Ezek. 20:33-38] “As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “I will rule over you with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. I will bring you into the desert of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. As I judged your fathers in the desert of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will take note of you as you pass under my staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. I will purge you of those who revolt and rebel against me. Although I will bring them out of the land where they are living, yet they will not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, God’s rule over Israel will be brought about through a great outpouring of judgment. Having gathered Israel from the nations, he will execute judgment upon them as he did upon their fathers in the desert during the exodus from Egypt. He will purge Israel of unbelief, and those who remain will know the LORD. By the time the tribulation is concluded at the second coming, God will have purified a people to whom he can fulfill the promises he made to their fathers concerning a land, a kingdom, and a relationship with him forever.
Judgment Upon the World
The other purpose of the tribulation is to execute judgment upon the world for its great sin and rebellion. While the entire tribulation will be a time of distress, sometime in the second half of the period, the day of the LORD will begin. During this time God will pour out great wrath upon the world. The result will be great devastation and loss of life; only a fraction of the world’s population will survive to the end of the period.
Several factors must be considered in understanding the nature and severity of this coming global judgment. 1) The generation living at the end of the age will have had more knowledge, more time, and greater opportunity to respond to God’s mercy than any preceding generation; yet their response will be a worldwide rejection of God and severe persecution of his people. 2) During the tribulation period salvation will continue to be available to anyone who will respond to the gospel. 3) The spiritual delusion that characterizes the latter part of the period is the result of the world’s choice of darkness rather than light, so they will be given over to darkness (2 Thess. 2:9-12). 4) Once the day of the LORD begins, the intensity of divine judgment will be proportional to the intensity of the world’s rejection of God (cf. Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9,11,21). Isaiah commented on this judgment when he prophesied:
[Isa. 13:9-13] See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of the heavens and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.
Note the details of Isaiah’s prophecy: 1) The day of the LORD will be “cruel,” filled with “wrath” and “fierce anger.” 2) The land (i.e., the surface of the earth) will be made desolate, and its people will perish. 3) At least for a portion of the period, the light of the stars will not be visible from the earth, and the sun and moon will be dark. 4) Man in his pride will be humbled. 5) A large portion of the earth’s population will perish, so much so that men will become more scarce than fine (pure) gold. 6) The heavens and the earth will shake, indicating great geophysical and astrophysical disturbances. Concerning the day of the LORD as a time of judgment, Paul said:
[2 Thess. 2:8-11] The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refuse the love of the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Not only will the wicked refuse to repent, they will fall under a delusion; this delusion will be sent by God as a form of judgment. Since the world will reject the true God, he will allow men to fall under a delusion so they will believe the lie that the Antichrist is God (2 Thess. 2:11 cf. 3-4).
No individual prophet revealed all the features of the tribulation. It is only by comparing one prophecy with another that we are able to assemble the details of the period. Also, it is important to remember that most of the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to this period are focused on the judgment to be poured out at the day of the LORD. (Daniel 9:24-27 is a notable exception, in that it encompasses the entire seven-year period.) If we fail to recognize this fact, it presents the illusion that the entire seven-year period is divine wrath. It is easy to confuse the part (the wrath at the day of the LORD), with the whole (the seven-year period of tribulation). Having pointed that out, as we look at the scriptures that follow, we should keep in mind that virtually all of the Old Testament references to this period focus on the judgment at the day of the LORD, rather than the broader seven-year period that was revealed to Daniel.
One of the earliest mentions of the tribulation occurs in Psalm 110:1-7. There God spoke of judging the nations and crushing their rulers in preparation for the rule of Messiah. Other early references to the period occur in Joel (c.835 B.C.), Amos (755 B.C.), and Isaiah (740-680 B.C.). Joel pictured the tribulation as a devastating military campaign (2:11), and a judgment upon the nations for their rebellion against the LORD (3:1-16). Amos referred to the period as “a day of darkness.” The tribulation is a major theme in Isaiah, where it is the focus in several extended passages. Isaiah pictured the period as a terrible time of judgment in which the splendor of the LORD’s majesty will be revealed, and the eyes of arrogant men will be humbled (Isa. 2:10-11). Furthermore, he said that it is to be a time of wailing; all hands will go limp; every man’s heart will melt; they will be seized by terror, pain, and anguish (13:6-8). It is significant that in Isaiah the period is not viewed as local, but global, even cosmic. Speaking through Isaiah, God said:
[Isa. 13:13] Therefore I will make the heavens tremble and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD almighty, in the day of his burning anger.
Again, he is clear about the reason for this catastrophic judgment:
[Isa. 13:10] I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.
The language of Isaiah’s prophecies reaches a crescendo in chapter twenty-four where he said: “See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it, he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants” (v.1); “The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered” (v.3); “The earth’s inhabitants are burned up and very few are left” (v.6). According to Isaiah, this period will also include celestial judgments.
[Isa. 34:4] All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
The book of Daniel (c. 530 B.C.) provides the first and most precise chronological statements in the Bible concerning the tribulation period, and it lays the foundation for understanding the prominent role played by the individual referred to there as “the Prince to come” (Dan. 9:26, AV). It is only in Daniel we learn that Israel’s final great time of distress in this age is to be a seven-year period (9:24-27 cf. 12:11) divided into two equal segments of three and a half years. Even the book of Revelation, which devotes sixteen chapters to the discussion of the tribulation (chaps. 4-19), doesn’t give a clue to the period’s chronological superstructure other than a simple sequence of events. Daniel also yields considerable information regarding a key figure, “the Prince to come.” This individual plays a central role in world political events, religious apostasy, and the persecution and death of many believers during the tribulation period (7:25; 9:27; 11:36-39). Likewise, it is in Daniel we learn of the coming alliance that will be in operation just prior to and throughout the period, and through which the Prince to come, the Antichrist (cf. 1 Jn.2:18), will exercise his power (Dan. 2:40-45; 7:19-27). The term “Antichrist” occurs only in 1 John 2:18,22; 4:1-3, and 2 John 7; however, it has become the universal name employed by students of biblical prophecy to refer to the satanically controlled leader to come. This individual is referred to by several names and descriptions in scripture, including: “the Prince to come” cf. Dan. 9:24-27, “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3-11), and “the first beast” (Rev. 13:1-10). While numerous passages picture this period as immediately preceding the millennial kingdom (Joel 2‑3; Isa. 24-25; 34-35, Dan. 9:24-27), it is Zechariah (520-518 B.C.) who tells us that the tribulation will be brought to a conclusion at the personal appearing of the LORD to judge his enemies and to establish his kingdom. Speaking through Zechariah, God said:
[Zech. 14:2-4] I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city. Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.
Demonstrating the close connection of this event with the beginning of the millennial kingdom, Zechariah continued:
[Zech. 14:9] The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.
The connection between the second coming and the conclusion of the tribulation period was reinforced by Christ in Matthew 24:1-31 (cf. 25:31-45) and repeated in Revelation 19:11-16. Jesus’ discourse recorded in Matthew 24-25 provides additional details concerning the character of the period. He mentioned the profusion of false Christs and false prophets (24:5,11,24), as well as persecution (vv.15-22), apostasy (v.10), and lawlessness (v.12). He also made the only reference to the sign that will precede his second coming (v.30). Another important feature of Jesus’ teaching on this subject in Matthew 24-25 is that he provided important chronological clues that help in linking the timelines of Daniel and Revelation. (For a more complete discussion of the Olivet Discourse see: The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text From Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with Commentary, by the author, Biblical Reader Communications, 2010.)
With the exception of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24-25 and the book of Revelation, the New Testament does not add significantly to the body of truth already revealed about the events of the tribulation. The Lord gave a condensed view of the entire tribulation in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25), with an overview of the entire period (24:4-14), and a section focusing on certain features of the second half of the period (vv.15-31), including details of his second coming (vv.29-31). The Lord’s discourse in Matthew 24:4-31 is of great importance in understanding the internal chronology of the tribulation. Paul mentions the nature of the abomination spoken of by Daniel and referred to by Christ in Matthew 24:15 as an act in which the Antichrist, referred to by Paul as “the Man of Lawlessness,” will enter the temple and proclaim himself to be God, and demand worship (2 Thess. 2:4). Paul also linked the power of the Antichrist with the activity of Satan (2 Thess. 2:9) and mentioned a strong delusion that will be sent upon the followers of the Antichrist, so that they will be deceived into worshiping him (2 Thess. 2:9-12). Perhaps Paul’s greatest contribution to the discussion of the tribulation is his revelation in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 that the day of the LORD will not come until after the Antichrist is revealed in the temple, thus placing the beginning of the day of the LORD sometime in the second half of the tribulation.
The book of Revelation greatly advances our knowledge of the tribulation period. It is there, for the first time, that we are given a glimpse of the period from the heavenly perspective. Through John’s narration of his vision we see Christ in Heaven before the throne of the Father, breaking the seals of a book, the contents of which are a series of greatly distressing events, all of which are “tribulation,” but only some of which are identified as divine wrath. There are three prominent series in the book of Revelation: the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls. The seven seals represent the major movements of the period, with the seventh seal being different than the others. Seven trumpets unfold during the time of the seventh seal, and seven bowls unfold from the seventh trumpet. Due to the unique nature of the seventh seal, it is possible that this seal represents the period within which the judgments of the day of the LORD will occur.
The seventh seal has a unique and momentous introduction: heaven is silent for the span of half an hour. The seventh seal is also the only multifaceted seal; it contains two sequences of judgment, thirteen in all. (Only the trumpets and bowls of the seventh seal are specifically designated as divine wrath.) The seventh seal embodies all of the elements attributed to the day of the LORD by the Old Testament prophets, and it is pictured as the answer to the prayer for vengeance (wrath) upon those on the earth who killed the saints during the time of the fifth seal (Rev. 8:3-5 cf. 6:9-11). These reasons, in combination with Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 that the day of the LORD will not come until after the Antichrist has been revealed in the temple (an event that occurs at the midpoint of the period) and the subsequent apostasy has taken place, make a strong case that the day of the LORD begins with the opening of the seventh seal, or close thereto. While many contemporary interpreters view the entire tribulation as the day of the LORD, that view is of fairly recent origin. Dispensational interpreters prior to the mid-1900s generally regarded the day of the LORD as beginning sometime in the latter portion of the tribulation, in close connection with the second coming of Christ (for example, see: The Scofield Reference Bible, 1917 ed., p. 1349, footnote 1).
Not only does John record the major movements of the period (i.e., the seals), he includes a considerable amount of information regarding other events. For instance, he records the tribulation scene as viewed from Heaven (4:1-5:14; 15:1-8), the sealing of the 144,000 Jewish servants of God (7:1-8), the great congregation of martyrs appearing in Heaven (7:9-17), the ministry of the two witnesses on earth (11:1-14), war on earth and in heaven (12:1-17), the great persecution of the saints (13:1-10), the ministry of the false prophet (13:11-18), world evangelism during the tribulation (14:6-7), the final end of those who worship the Antichrist (14:9-13), the destruction of Babylon (representing worldwide Gentile political, religious, and economic dominance over Israel, 17:1-19:10), the second coming of Christ (19:11-16), and Armageddon (19:17-21). As we will see further along, John is also a major source of information for events following the tribulation, and an especially important source for events following the millennium.
Description of the Tribulation
In surveying the tribulation period we will depend primarily on the books of Daniel and Revelation, along with information from Matthew 24. The reason is that almost every detail of the period is contained in one of these three sources. Although the tribulation events will be set into a chronological framework, the rationale for that chronology will be presented in the next article in this series.
Preconditions for the Period
The book of Daniel lays the framework for the study of the tribulation, and Daniel alone gives the two critical preconditions for the beginning of the period: 1) the existence of national Israel; and, 2) the existence of an extension of a form of the Roman Empire under the leadership of a group of ten leaders, from which the Antichrist, who is not one of the ten, will derive his authority to rule (Dan. 9:26-27, cf. Rev. 17:12-13). Since the period formally begins with the signing of a treaty between Israel and this alliance of nations (Dan. 9:27), it is evident that the absence of either or both parties would preclude the start of the period. Therefore, in order for the tribulation to begin, both national Israel and a modern alliance of nations having some historic correlation to the ancient Roman Empire must be in place. (We should bear in mind that the ancient Roman Empire was centered in the Mediterranean region, and included Asia Minor and North Africa.)
At the time Daniel wrote, Israel was in captivity, first to Babylon, then to the Medes and the Persians. It would have been apparent to Daniel that in order for the prophecies to be fulfilled, the nation would have to be regathered from captivity. Additionally, it would have been possible for Daniel to discern a second dispersion and regathering, based on information supplied in the prophecy of the seventy weeks (Dan 9:24-27). The book of Daniel is clear on this point: Israel is at the center of tribulation prophecy. Failure to recognize this fact has led to many incorrect interpretations of both scripture and history. One error that must be avoided is confusing Israel and the Church; these two are distinct in the prophetic program. The Church is not an extension of, or replacement for Israel (cf. Rom. 11); both are distinct elements in God’s unified program for history.
We learn from Daniel not only that the nation of Israel must be in existence prior to the beginning of the tribulation, but we also learn of an alliance of nations that will be in existence during the period, and through whose rulers the Antichrist will derive his authority. In order to understand the place this alliance of nations occupies in God’s plan for the future, we must understand Daniel 2:1-45, the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and Daniel 7:1-28, the account of Daniel’s prophetic vision.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream (Daniel 2:1-45)
The first information regarding the empire over which the Antichrist will rule was revealed in Daniel 2:1-45 (603/602 B.C.). This revelation is in two parts: a dream given to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (vv.29-35), and the interpretation of that dream given to Daniel (vv.36-45). Since Daniel’s interpretation includes the content of the dream itself, we need only quote the interpretation.
[Dan. 2:27-45] “As you were lying there, O king, your mind turned to things to come, and the revealer of mysteries showed you what is going to happen. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than other living men, but so that you, O king, may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind. You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth. This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king. You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold. After you, another kingdom will rise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”
In his dream Nebuchadnezzar saw a great statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As Nebuchadnezzar continued to watch, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands; that rock struck the statue on its feet and toes and crushed them. At the same time the entire statue crumbled and was swept away by the wind, but the rock that struck the statue became a great mountain, filling the whole earth. God revealed the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to Daniel, and Daniel explained it to the King (2:27-45). According to the interpretation, each of the parts of the statue (the head, the chest and arms, the belly and thighs, the legs and feet) represent a world empire, four in all (vv.37-40). Nebuchadnezzar, representing Babylon, was the head of gold. Afterward there were to be three more world empires (prophetically corresponding to Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome). Interestingly, the fourth empire was different from the rest in that it was described as having two forms: the first form being the legs of iron, and the second being the feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As we proceed from the head to the feet we move forward in time; thus it is that the form represented by the feet and toes is to be the final form of the fourth empire. God also revealed to Daniel the meaning of the rock that was cut out, not by human hands that crushed the feet and toes and caused the entire statue to crumble and be blown away. The rock represents the kingdom of God that will replace all of the previous world empires, and which will never be destroyed but will endure forever (v.44).
There are several important observations to be made from this passage, all of which will be confirmed subsequently in Daniel’s vision (7:1-28). First, the dream relates to that period of time elsewhere referred to as “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24), the time during which Israel is to be under the domination of the Gentile powers, beginning with Babylon and extending through the tribulation period up to the point at which Christ will appear at his second coming. Second, the dream relates to the future, since it pictures the inauguration of the eternal kingdom to be set up on earth by God (cf. 7:13-14, 26-27; 12:9). Third, some form of the fourth world empire must be in existence immediately prior to the time God establishes his earthly kingdom. The latter form of this empire will be different from its original form, in that as the feet and toes of the statue were composed of iron and clay, which do not adhere, so the final form will be an amalgam of nations, some weak and some strong, each with its own characteristics (vv.42-44); it will begin as an alliance of ten rulers, but three of these will be removed by one who is not one of the ten, who will eventually come to power over this group of nations. In destroying this alliance God will end the long period of Gentile political, religious, and economic dominance that began with Israel’s Babylonian captivity.
Daniel’s Vision (Daniel 7:1-28)
Fifty-one years after Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, God communicated a similar revelation directly to Daniel in the form of a vision. The main points of Daniel’s vision correspond to the main points of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (see Figure 6.2, p. 109). Daniel related his vision as follows:
[Dan. 7:1-28] In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it. And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh!” After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. While I was thinking about the horns, there before me was another horn, a little one, which came up among them; and three of the first horns were uprooted before it. This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully. As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.) In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: ‘The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’ Then I wanted to know the true meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. As I watched, this horn was waging war against the saints and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom. He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time. But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’ This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
In his vision Daniel saw four beasts; the first was like a lion and had the wings of an eagle. As Daniel watched, its wings were torn off and the beast was lifted from the ground so that it stood on its two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it. As Daniel continued to look, he saw another beast that looked like a bear. This second beast was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth (v.5). Afterwards, Daniel saw a third beast that looked like a leopard with four wings on its back. This beast had four heads, and was given authority to rule. Finally, Daniel saw a fourth beast with iron teeth, terrifying and very powerful. It crushed and devoured its victims and trampled whatever was left of the former beasts. The fourth beast had ten horns, and another horn came up among them; this horn uprooted three of the original horns. Daniel described it as having eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth speaking boastfully (vv.7-8). Next Daniel saw thrones set in place, and the Ancient of Days taking his seat of judgment. As Daniel continued to look, the little horn was slain and his body was thrown into the fire. At this point Daniel saw one “like a son of man” approach the Ancient of Days. This one was given authority, glory, and sovereign power to rule, and all the people of the earth worshiped him; his kingdom is to be an everlasting kingdom, one that will never be destroyed. Daniel did not understand the meaning of these things, so he approached one standing nearby and asked the meaning of the vision. He was told that the four beasts represent four kingdoms that will arise on the earth, and that the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and possess it forever (vv.15-16). He was still concerned over the meaning of the fourth beast. As he continued to watch, this beast was waging war with the saints and overcoming them (vv.19-21 cf. Matt. 24:9). The explanation that Daniel received concerning the fourth beast is this: The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will arise on the earth; it is to be different from all the previous kingdoms which it will crush. The ten horns on the beast represent ten kings (leaders) who will arise, and the little horn represents another king who will arise and remove three of the ten. The king represented by the little horn will speak against God and oppress the saints who will be given into his hand for three and a half (years). However, God will judge this king and turn the kingdom over to the saints who will possess it forever (vv.23-27).
Correlating Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream and Daniel’s Vision
Both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s vision pertain to a period in history known as “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24); it is the period during which Israel is to be under the domination of the Gentile nations. Each beast in Daniel’s vision corresponds to part of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s vision deal with the successive world empires of Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, Rome, and the future alliance that emerges out of the ancient Roman world. Both prophetic revelations foresaw the final form of the fourth kingdom as being displaced by God’s eternal kingdom.
From a comparison of these two prophetic revelations it is possible to construct the following picture of the confederation that will be in place at the beginning of the tribulation, over which the Antichrist will exercise control. Both revelations indicate that this final kingdom will consist of a confederation of ten nations, or groups of nations. This is represented in Nebuchadnezzar’s statue by the ten toes, and in Daniel’s vision by the ten horns. [Some of the people groups involved are listed in Ezekiel 38:2-6; they include: Rosh, Meshech, Tubal (all three of these may be connected to regions of the former Soviet Union), Persia (Iran), Ethiopia (likely including the present region of Sudan), Put (Libya), Gomer, and Beth-togarmah (Turkey and its environs).] Daniel 2:40-43 indicates that this final empire is to be an amalgam, as indicated by the fact that while iron and clay can be molded together, they do not combine. By comparing these two revelations with Daniel 9:24-27, it is possible to identify the little horn of Daniel 7:24-25 as the individual who will make the covenant with Israel, beginning the seven-year period of tribulation (i.e., the Prince to come, the Antichrist, also referred to as “Gog” in Ezekiel 38-39).
The First Half of the Seven-Year Period
We learn from Daniel 9:27 that the tribulation divides into two equal parts. It was revealed to Daniel that at the midpoint of the period the Prince to come will break his covenant with Israel and desecrate the temple. Paul expanded on the nature of this desecration (referred to by Christ in Matthew 24:15 as “the abomination”) as the time when the Antichrist will enter the temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Paul said:
[2 Thess. 2:4] He opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
Jesus described this event as the onset of a persecution so severe that he referred to it as a time of great distress (AV, “tribulation”), unequaled from the beginning of the world.
[Matt. 24:15-22] “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”
The Covenant That Begins the Tribulation Period
The tribulation formally begins with the signing of a treaty between “the Prince to come” and Israel, who at that point will not yet perceive the true character of this international leader. While the precise nature and provisions of this treaty are not stated (it is only mentioned briefly in Daniel 9:27), it is likely that it will be some sort of peace treaty with Israel. It is possible that this treaty allows for the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, since the temple must be in operation by the midpoint of the period, and since the breaking of this treaty at the midpoint involves a desecration of the temple (Dan. 9:27). Perhaps this treaty will be the occasion of great celebration and hopefulness on the part of the people of the world that the Middle-East conflict, which has been the greatest threat to peace in modern time, is finally at an end. This may account for why Paul, in 1Thessalonians 5:3, said: “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” Paul was clearly referring to the onset of the events leading up to the day of the LORD (cf. v.2), and it is interesting to note that “labor pains” is the metaphor used by Christ in Matthew 24:8 to describe the opening phase of the tribulation (cf. Isa. 26:17-27:1). Just as labor pains are not the main event, but merely lead up to the birth, so there will be waves of distress in the tribulation leading up to the main event, which is the day of the LORD.
The Rebuilding of the Jewish Temple (Israel’s Third Temple)
The Jewish temple must be rebuilt in order for some of the tribulation prophecies to be fulfilled. The construction of this temple could begin either before or after the seven-year period begins; however, it must be sufficiently complete prior to the midpoint of the period for the sacrificial system to be operational (Dan. 9:27). Since the reintroduction of the sacrificial system supposes not only the temple structure, but also a qualified and trained priesthood with all of its intricate procedures and implements for worship, one could conclude the necessity for advance preparation extending back well before the beginning of the tribulation. Not only must the Jews relearn the intricacies of temple worship, much research and preparation will be required both for the qualification of priests, including the determination of their genealogical qualifications, and the purification of the temple and its implements, all of which must be re-created. In any case, the temple and sacrificial system must be in place prior to the middle of the period; there are several reasons for this: 1) Daniel 9:27 states that in the middle of the tribulation the Prince to come will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering, even desecrating the holy place (i.e., the inner sanctuary of the temple). 2) In Matthew 24:15 Jesus referred to Daniel 9:27, and warned that when his followers see the abomination spoken of by Daniel standing in the holy place, they are to realize that the time of great tribulation (beginning at the midpoint of the period) is upon them. 3) The Apostles Paul and John both referred to the tribulation temple. Paul, alluding to the abomination in the temple, said that the Man of Lawlessness (the Antichrist) will set himself up in God’s temple proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3-4). John in his vision of the tribulation was asked to measure the temple and the altar (Rev. 11:1).
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(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)