This is obviously an important chapter because of the way that Jesus frequently identified himself as the Son of Man.
Though there are similarities to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in ch.2, with its description of four successive human kingdoms, it is a very different style of writing (known as apocalyptic). This style of writing is not so much concerned to give predictions of historical events (though that may play a part), than to give a theology of history. It’s an unmasking of reality, to make us wise observers of the present rather than predictors of the future. And our task is not to decode the possible historical references (don’t waste too much time on that), but to grasp the message.
Notice too Daniel’s reaction to the vision (vv. 15,28) – this is not intended to be a puzzle to intrigue us, it is truth that should disturb us, as well as profoundly encourage us.
It disturbs because of the frightening description of worldly power that falls far short of the kind of human authority intended for man in Gen.2. These kingdoms are sub-human, beastly, set against God and against his people. God’s people are warned of awful suffering and oppression.
But there is comfort too in the awesome portrayal of God’s sovereignty, and in the promise of the Son of Man, this truly human and seemingly divine figure, who will rule as God’s king over all nations forever. Evil will be overthrown and the saints will be vindicated, sharing in the glorious kingdom of the Son. The interpretation of the dream ties together the fate of the Son of Man and the saints (vv.14, 18, 27). In these last days when these things are only partially fulfilled, how sure our hope should be now that Christ has entered Heaven and been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
Identification of the beasts is a contentious issue. Some identify them as the Babylonian empire, the Medean empire, the Persian, and the Greek, with the little horn identified as the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes; others prefer the sequence to run Babylonian, Medes and Persians, Greek, and Roman – the Roman empire being the context for the coming of the Son of Man. But perhaps there is ambiguity of reference and timeless applicability. The beasts are with us still, long after the demise of the Roman empire.