Sovereignty, Persecution, and Perseverance

Pastor Kyle McIver

Sovereignty, Persecution, and Perseverance
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As we work our way into Daniel 11 tonight, I want to call your attention back to last week when we covered Daniel 10. Daniel 10 opens with Daniel praying and fasting for three weeks - he is seeking the Lord, and the Lord responds in a marvelous way by unfolding for Daniel what we now have in our Bibles as Daniel 10-12. This simple context of Daniel’s prayer and fasting is, I think, very important for how we approach Daniel 11. Daniel is visited by an angel, who makes clear that his purpose is to strengthen, encourage, and unfold the truth. Yes, he intended to do these things for Daniel, but also for God’s people as a whole. And the reason it’s so important to understand the context of Daniel 10 as we approach Daniel 11 is that, if you’re like me, when you read Daniel 11, it’s confusing! Some of these details feel vague and repetitious! But as veiled as this chapter might seem at the outset, there is an astounding level of clarity and relevance to it’s message, both for the Jews thousands of years ago and for God’s people today in the church.

Now, a couple quick introductory comments before we get into this chapter. When I last preached about a month ago, my text was Daniel chapter 7, and whether you caught that sermon or not, one of our biggest needs in understanding that chapter was to understand the genre - the nature of the literature and how it is intended to convey truth to the reader. The same can be said for Daniel 11, although the genre is different. What we have tonight in Daniel 11 is predictive prophecy - these verses are meant to be incredibly specific about actual historical events in the near future at the time the prophecy was given.

Now if you’re looking at this chapter in your Bible, you’ll notice that it’s long - it’s a lot of ground to cover with the time we have tonight. So we’re going to take a sample from the early part of the chapter, get into the details, and see just how specific this prophecy is for the history that followed. This also means that we’re going to leave some parts of this text largely untouched. Now we could go through every single detail and see the remarkable nature of this prophecy when held up against recorded history - the events described here are actually quite fascinating and I think it would make for a fine three hour lecture, but a very poor attempt at a 30 minute sermon. So we’re going to sample one of these parts to get a feel for the chapter, and I’ll commend to you that if you want to study the history further, you will find it to be a fruitful exercise. After we take a sampling of history from the early part of the chapter and consider the nature of predictive prophecy, we’re going to spend the rest of our time in the portion that Mike read, 11:21-35, focusing on one particular king and his significance in the history of God’s people.

Let’s start by taking a look at verse 2: And now I will show you the truth. Behold, three more kings shall arise in Persia, and a fourth shall be far richer than all of them. And when he has become strong through is riches, he shall stir up all against the kingdom of Greece. This fourth king is universally understood to be Xerxes, the husband of Queen Esther, who was a Jew. Under Xerxes, Persia reached the pinnacle of its power, and, just like our text says, invaded Greece. Now verse 3: Then a mighty king shall arise, who shall rule with great dominion and do as he wills. This great king is also well known, Alexander the Great, who was a great conqueror, a “mighty king” with “great dominion” just as our text says. Now verse 4, where we see one of many tremendously specific details in this prophecy: And as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken and divided toward the four winds of heaven, but not his posterity, nor according to the authority with which he ruled, for his kingdom shall be plucked up and go to others besides these. Alexander the Great’s kingdom was not given to his sons, “his posterity”, but was divided up between four of his generals, or as the text says, “divided toward the four winds of heaven”. So in these first three verses of the prophecy here in Daniel 11, we see with astounding detail the foretelling of Xerxes, his invasion of Greece, the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire not between his sons as we might expect, but among four of his generals. Amazing, isn’t it?

Let’s keep going, starting in verse 6: After some years they shall make an alliance, and the daughter of the king of the south shall come to the king of the north to make an agreement. But she shall not retain the strength of her arm, and he and his arm shall not endure, but she shall be given up, and her attendants, he who fathered her, and he who supported her in those times. And from a branch from her roots one shall arise in his place.

Here’s what happened historically in fulfillment of this section of the prophecy, as described by Iain Duguid:

Around 250 B.C., Ptolemy II (the king of the South) attempted to make peace with Antiochus II (the king of the North) by sending his daughter Berenice to marry him. The plan was that Antiochus would divorce his first wife, Laodice, and disinherit her sons. Laodice discovered the plot, however, and she had Antiochus and Berenice poisoned, along with their young son. In the same year, Berenice’s father died in Egypt. He was succeeded by Berenice’s brother [a branch from her own roots], who then invaded the Seleucid kingdom and conquered its capital, Antioch, exactly as Daniel 11 had predicted.

And on and on this goes, continuing with remarkable accuracy to lay out the events of history which have not yet come to pass at the time this prophecy is delivered to Daniel. Let’s pause right here and ask, what should we see in this detailed, predictive prophecy? The main point I want to draw out here is the sovereignty of God. Now, if you’ve been at Redeemer for a while, that’s a term you’ve heard us use somewhat regularly. God’s sovereignty does not simply refer to the fact that he is strong, powerful, or in control - it does mean that, but there’s more. And depending on your church background or previous theological education, this may sound controversial. But more than sovereignty meaning power and control, it means that God has ordained from eternity past everything that will come to pass - and I mean everything.

Let me fill that in from other parts of the Bible. Isaiah 44:7 says, “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses!” A regular theme in the book of Isaiah is God declaring that part of his very “God-ness” is that he alone declares and determines the future - that this is one of the distinguishing marks between YAHWEH and false gods. Consider Isaiah 45:7, one chapter later: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Did you catch that? God not only makes well being, but also creates calamity.

Now, let’s be honest here and admit that at this point many of us start to feel uncomfortable. God creates calamity? Isn’t God good?! Why would he do that?! Or to put these questions another way, you’ve probably heard people ask, why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good and God is in control, why do so many bad things happen? The best way to walk right into this tension is to look at the worst thing that ever happened to a human being. Listen to Acts 2:23, ...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. R.C. Sproul, based on this verse in Acts, spoke to this tension by flipping the question on it’s head. When faced with the question of why bad things happen to good people, he would respond by saying (and this isn’t a direct quote, but accurate to his point) - “a bad thing happened to a good person only one time in all of human history - and he volunteered.” You see, Jesus is the only innocent man who ever lived. And this innocent man suffered worse than all of the guilty men and women who came before him and who would come after him. And all of this happened, as Acts 2 tells us, according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. Jesus is who we look to when calamity comes - if He, the sinless Son of God suffered, then we will too. Yet, out of the greatest injustice in human history - the condemnation and murder of the only innocent man to ever live! - God brings about the salvation of his people. That is how the sovereignty of God works.

I want you to hold on to that - the sovereignty of God not only expressed in power and control, but as the one who declares the end from the beginning because he’s the one who wrote all of human history before it happened. We’re going to jump ahead now to the part of our chapter that Mike read earlier, 11:21-35, then tie everything together in what we see in those verses and how they fit with God’s sovereignty.

The historical context here when we arrive at this section is 170 B.C. and the reign of a man named Antiochus Epiphanes, who is universally understood to be the “contemptible person” mentioned in verse 21. Now, here’s a guy who had a high opinion of himself. His name, Epiphanes, means “the manifest god”. It seems that others recognized he was perhaps a bit over inflated though, as history tells us that many called him Antiochus Epimanes, which means “a madman”.

Verse 21 also tells us that he obtained the kingdom by flatteries, and that he had not been given royal majesty. His kingdom had originally been given to his brother, but through bribery, assissination, and some clever political maneuvering, he came to power. Now remember that he considers himself a god - and we see this play out in verse 24: the plundering of spoil and goods describes the way he would regularly loot and rob different religious temples for the valuable objects they held. He cared nothing for these different religions, and saw himself as entitled to whatever precious objects he desired. Verses 25-28 describe wars and attempts to deceive allies along the way for his own gain, all of which brings us to verse 29 where this king’s story collides with that of God’s people.

The events described here are his going south, ships coming against him, and his fearful withdrawal leading to a fit of rage. History contains a fascinating little story here - Antiochus was taking his navy to invade Egypt, however he was confronted by the Roman navy, which was led by a former friend of his. Antiochus expects a warm greeting, but instead is told to go home and disband his navy. Obviously he doesn’t want to do this, so he asks for time to think about it. Now this friend, the Roman naval commander, understands who Antiochus is - a schemer and a deceiver. So this friend, grabs a stick, draws a circle around him on the ground and says, basically: Take as much time as you want! But you can’t leave this circle, and there’s only one acceptable answer. So Antiochus gets humiliated, knows he’s out-gunned, and has to head back home with his tail between his legs.

But Antiochus, who thinks himself to be some sort of god-king, doesn’t respond well to being treated like the petulant child that he is. Look at verse 30: For ships of Kittim shall come against him, and he shall be afraid and withdraw, and shall turn back and be enraged and take action against the holy covenant. He shall turn back and pay attention to those who forsake the holy covenant. The first part of that verse holds the events we just described where Antiochus is humiliated and sent home. Now Antiochus is embarrassed, he’s angry - he’s looking for somewhere to vent his rage, and he sets his sights on Jerusalem.

The rest of the events that unfold in verses 31-35 describe the persecution Antiochus will inflict on God’s people: he robs temples, imposes forced worship of false gods, manages to lead some astray, and orders the murder of those who resist him. Yet, there are those who resist. We see over the last few verses in this section that the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action… that the wise among the people shall make many understand… and that though they stumble, it is so that they might be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end, for it still awaits the appointed time.

Now, let’s remember what’s happening here. The original audience didn’t have the benefit of history like we do - they didn’t know exactly what was coming or how it would unfold. But what they could understand was that these words meant persecution. They would have identified themselves as the people who know their God, and the ones against whom action would be taken when this king opposed the holy covenant. And thinking of this prophecy from their perspective causes a few elements to stand out.

Look at the second half of verse 32 again: ...but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. So what do they understand from this prophecy? Persecution is coming. And what will they need to stand amidst that persecution? To know their God. And what will happen to those who know God and take action? They will stumble, but they will stumble so that they may be refined, purified, and made white.

This is where we’re going to get into application for this text. The remainder of Daniel 11, verses 36-45, connects with Daniel 12, which Dan is going to cover next week. For our purposes though, one of the central themes of this chapter is that Antiochus serves as a prototype for rulers who impose religious persecution against God’s people. And God’s message to his people was clear - he gave them three things:

A warning that persecution is coming. The means by which they can prepare for the coming persecution. And a promise so that they would be sustained and endure to the end. And while this prophecy does have a specific historical context and is aimed at a unique moment in history, this is God’s message to his people throughout the ages. Consider what we’ve been given as the church in the New Testament as it relates to the first point, warnings about coming persecution:

  • In Acts 14:22 Paul told the disciples: that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
  • Peter tells the churches in 1 Peter 1:6 that they will be grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith...may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
  • Paul tells his disciple Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12 that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…
  • And Jesus himself said to his disciples in John 15:20 that a servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

So we know what to expect!

Now, how are we to prepare? Look again at Daniel 11:32, where we read: ...but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. How do you get ready for persecution and suffering? Know your God. And I want to press this point on you. As a Christian, whether you are male or female, single or married, young or old, your primary relationship is God himself - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And I ask you: do you know him? I’m not speaking about knowing him savingly right now - I’m talking to Christians who understand the gospel, have repented and believed and been saved. I’m pressing underneath that, deeper down: do you know him? Because knowing God deeply has everything to do with how you respond to persecution.

  • When suffering strikes and you lose someone or something that you love, can you say with Job, the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord?
  • When you’re called to give up something precious to you, can you say with Abraham, God himself will provide?
  • When you encounter persecution and unjust treatment, can you, like Paul, when he was in prison, pray and sing hymns to God?
  • When the deepest desires of your heart remain unfulfilled, can you, like Hannah, pour out your heart before the Lord in faith, ready to dedicate to Him every good and perfect gift that he gives?
  • Can you, with Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego proclaim - in the very face of death! - proclaim that God is able to deliver - but that even if He doesn’t, you will not bow the knee to any God but Yahweh?
  • Can we with Daniel, under threat of harm, practice our faith in something as basic as private prayer, knowing that it might cost us our lives?
  • Can we with Jesus himself, when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before he went to the cross, submit ourselves to him and say, “Not my will, but yours be done”?

These examples - and countless other saints - knew God. Responding in faith when life’s circumstances seem bent on sinking us is the fruit of knowing God.

It’s not hard to look around the corner and anticipate a season of persecution for the church - this is already reality for many Christians around the world, and the tide seems to be turning against us in America. Jesus Christ has not changed. The gospel has not changed. Christian morality and ethics have not changed. But each year as the world and culture around us changes, we are perceived to be more bigoted and hateful than ever before. And in the face of whatever assaults culture or lawmakers or even others who profess faith in Jesus throw at us, it is those who know their God who will stand firm and take action. We need to examine the lives of these saints in the Bible - as well as church history - and see the way they prayed, wrestled with God, and worked out their own salvation with fear and trembling. We need to imitate their example - looking to Jesus himself most of all! - and recognize that our greatest need every day is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. More than a clean house, more than an orderly to-do list, much more than endless hours of entertainment, we must know him. We need to take prayer, His Word, and a life of encouragement, exhortation, and rebuke within this local church, seriously. Apart from these means of grace, you will not know him well enough to stand up when the fire gets hot. Building your life on the rock doesn’t happen by accident - it takes discipline, daily progress, and small steps of faithfulness over time. A casual Christian is one who is ready to fall, one who is unprepared for what is coming. We must take care over what we read and what we watch and what we talk about - the world around us and the culture we live in is not neutral. We are being formed by the way we spend our time. We love what we invest ourselves into the most. We become what we behold.

Are we captivated by Jesus? Do we know our Bibles? Have we studied the nature and character of God? Are our expectations for this life based on the reality of God’s Word? Can we filter the world around us through his Word, gratefully and gladly receiving the good while rejecting what is evil? Are we daily delighting ourselves in the Lord? If not, persecution will come upon us unprepared, and we’ll find ourselves unable to stand up and take action.

Now all of that is a call for obedience: know your God. Put in the effort, discipline yourself, break a “holy sweat” getting after it. And we must do it. We must be ready. And. And, we need to know that it doesn’t depend upon us. And that’s not a contradiction. The third part of God’s message to his people was a promise. That though some would stumble, they would not fall completely. That though persecution and suffering would come, God will uphold his people. Remember that we saw God is sovereign - he’s powerful, he’s in control, and he wrote all of history - every detail! The good and the glad, the calamity and the persecution. And he knows how to keep His people. He has planned and purposed that he will do it. And one of the means by which keeps us is through warnings and promises like we get in Daniel 11. We need to hear these and respond in faith and obedience, all the while knowing that our hope ultimately rests not on ourselves, but on our union with Jesus and his sovereign invincibility.

You see, this pattern was the same for Jesus himself: Jesus was persecuted. Jesus suffered. And he was the only person who didn’t deserve it. Jesus knew what was coming, he’d heard the warning - he knew that he was born to die. And he made himself ready: he knew his Father - he regularly sought out time to be alone in prayer. Jesus knew what his mission was - he came to preach, to fulfill all righteousness, to make disciples, and then to give up his life willingly on the cross in our place that we might be forgiven. And Jesus knew the promise - he knew the promise of Psalm 2 that God would not let his Holy One see corruption. He knew that he would be raised from the dead, defeating our great enemies of sin and death and winning for himself a bride. Jesus walked this path for us: he heard the warning, made himself ready, and endured to the end by faith in God’s promises. He has done it!

Which brings us to the table. Here at Jesus’s table we partake together of his promise - his promise of provision, protection, and grace for his people. We’re going to take a few minutes to reflect on Jesus and his sacrifice on our behalf, then we’ll take the elements together.