One Like a Son of Man

In Daniel 7, the prophet Daniel recounts a vision in which he sees “One like a Son of Man” ascending into heaven and being given rule and authority over all nations (Daniel 7:13-14). Who does the figure in question represent? The explanation given later in the passage appears to equate the figure with the nation of Israel, the “people of the Most High” (v27) who are exalted. Within this piece, I intend to examine the identity of the mysterious figure by placing him within the context of the book of Daniel as a whole.

Four Animals

The vision described in the chapter begins with four great “beasts”, or animals rising up out of the sea, each one succeeding the previous one. The explanation of these four figures given at the end of the chapter equates them with four kingdoms which would arise in history. Given the parallels with the “great statue” vision in Daniel 2, these four kingdoms are to be identified as Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. This would imply that the “One like a Son of Man” is also a kingdom, a corporate entity like the four beasts depicted at the start of the chapter.

However, a further examination is warranted. As James Jordan has pointed out in his excellent Daniel commentary “The Handwriting on the Wall”, the description of the four beasts resembles that of the four angelic creatures depicted in Ezekiel 1:4-14[1]. Like the four angels in Ezekiel, the beasts are said to resemble various animals. The first is “like a lion” with eagle wings and is then said to become “like a man”. The second is “like a bear” raised up. The third is “like a leopard” with four wings and four heads. The fourth beast is “different from” the other beasts, though it produces a “great horn” with eyes “like the eyes of a man”.

Jordan takes this simply to mean that the four kingdoms are commissioned to be angelic guardian-protectors of the people of Israel. However, a more likely explanation is that the four beasts are actually four angelic creatures, like those depicted in Ezekiel. The book of Daniel has a fairly well-developed concept of angels as rulers and representatives of nations. For instance, in Daniel 10 two angelic figures are referred to as “the prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece”. Based on the Ezekiel parallels in Daniel 7, it seems reasonable to identify these two figures with the second and third beasts described in that earlier vision.

Taking all of this together, we should take the explanation given in Daniel 7:15-28 to be providing us with the visible counterpart to the invisible reality portrayed in verses 1-14. Behind the visible workings of nations and kingdoms lie the invisible actions of angelic rulers beyond the veil of history. Only the prophet, the visionary, can see behind the veil into the heavenly reality[2]. Understanding the passage this way sheds light on the identity of the “One like a Son of Man” who is, as we shall see, a fifth angelic creature.

The Fifth Angel

Like the four angels previously described, the fifth figure is said to be “like” something. However, this particular angelic figure does not resemble an animal, nor even an ordinary human being. This figure resembles a “Son of Man”. As Jordan notes in his commentary, this language is also borrowed directly from Ezekiel, who is himself referred to as “Son of Man” throughout the book of Ezekiel[3]. In other words, “One like a Son of Man” is code for “One like Ezekiel”. So this angelic figure is also a prophetic figure.

He is also described in exalted kingly terms, being given “everlasting” dominion over “all peoples, nations and languages”. This cosmic ruler can be none other than the Messiah who was to come and redeem Israel, establishing her over the nations. As per the explanation of the vision in verses 15-28, this ruler would represent the “saints of the Most High”, the people of Israel. Just as the previous four angels would represent their respective peoples, so too would this angel represent his, yet he would also usurp the rule of the other angels and establish a kingdom without end (v14).

The Great Prince

A final possibility presents itself. Does the book of Daniel ever mention this fifth angelic figure anywhere else? In the same way that there is a “prince of Persia” and a “prince of Greece” mentioned in Daniel 10, is there also a “prince of Israel” mentioned anywhere? There is a figure in the book who is referred to in this manner: the archangel Michael.

Michael is referred to three times in the book of Daniel, once as simply “one of the chief princes” (10:13), but also as Daniel’s prince (10:21). Most significantly, he is referred to in the final chapter as “the great prince who has charge of your people” who would arise to protect and save Israel during a turbulent time of crisis (12:1-3). A parallel could be drawn here with other Biblical references to a great, divine angel who preserved God’s people during times of crisis.[4]

In summary then, the book of Daniel describes an angelic figure who is both human messiah and divine king. One who ascends with heavenly clouds to receive an eternal kingdom. And this angelic figure has always identified with the people of God in their distress.

“In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
(Isaiah 63:9)

[1] A key difference lies in the fact that the four Ezekiel angels are identical, with each having four faces resembling a different creature (a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle).

[2] See for instance 2 Kings 6:15-18, where the prophet Elisha’s servant has his eyes opened and sees armies of heavenly angels.

[3] The title “son of man” is used of Ezekiel over 90 times throughout the book.

[4] See for instance Exodus 23:20-22, Joshua 5:13-15.

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