The study of Biblical prophecy has often been ruled more by myth than by Biblical hermeneutics or by a careful attention to text and context. When we are enamoured of a myth — or even a very strong tradition — we are easily led astray by such dubious principles of interpretation as "Sounds the same, is the same" and "What else could it be but…?"
The myth of the Antichrist has been centuries, perhaps millennia, in the making. The Little Horn, the Man of Sin, the Beast, and other Biblical characters have all been thrown into the blender to produce a character more intriguing and impressive than any other in Scripture, save Christ Himself.1 Some commentators have become so caught up in the myth that they find this Antichrist behind every prophetic tree.
Now, of course, the Bible does give us an antichrist — several, actually. But the title itself appears in only two books, 1st and 2nd John, and John tells us plainly whom he has in mind. "He is antichrist,2 that denieth the Father and the Son" (1 Jn. 2:22b). "For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 Jn. 7).3 John is talking about false teachers who were once members of the church, but who had left the fellowship of the saints and were preaching a false Christ (1 Jn. 2:18-26). These antichrists rejected the incarnation; they insisted that Jesus was not the Christ come in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-6). They were proto-Gnostics and proto-Nestorians, and their false Christ was an idol (1 Jn. 5:21). There is no obvious connection between these apostate teachers and, say, the Man of Sin who "sitteth in the temple of God" (2 Thes. 2:3-12) or the Beast of Revelation 13, who is a political tyrant.4
The Willful King
Our concern now is with an Antichrist-like character in Daniel 11, the Willful King. He appears after a lengthy prophecy concerning Antiochus Epiphanes (d. 165 BC) and the Maccabean Revolt (11:21-35). The majority of conservative commentators are divided into two camps on the identity of this formidable king.5 Some say that he is Antiochus. There are obvious similarities between the two, but the Willful King does not fit what we know about the historical Antiochus at a number of points.6 And limiting the dimensions of the prophecy to times and things Greek obscures the Messianic focus of the book as a whole.7
Other commentators, particularly those with dispensational leanings, are ready to jump two thousand years or more into the future and recognize the Willful King as the Antichrist. After all, "He sounds like the Antichrist," and "Who else could he be?" If these commentators do not blink at a two thousand year jump (read "gap"), maybe it's because 19th and 20th Century American theology became very comfortable with various sorts of gaps.8 But there is nothing in the text to suggest a two millennia parenthesis between vv. 35 and 36.
Liberal theologians and critics, of course, already consider the Book of Daniel a pious fraud, a piece of religious fiction. They take the author to be a devout forger who lived sometime in the Maccabean period. He was able to put so many accurate "prophecies" into the mouth of Daniel because, for him, these things were already a matter of history. The liberals, then, simply write off the prophecy of the Willful King; they assume that either the writer was ignorant of Antiochus's real history and so manufactured some, or that at this point in the text he passed out of real history into fraudulent prophecy.
But what if there were another interpretation, one that took the prophecy seriously, and yet sidestepped the myth of Antichrist and actually helped to dismantle it? Philip Mauro gave us one in the 1920s with the publication of his book, The Seventy Weeks and theGreat Tribulation.9 But let's approach his solution through a back door.
The Battle of Actium
On 2 September, 31 BC, a Roman fleet commanded by Octavian Caesar (later Caesar Augustus) met a combined Roman-Egyptian fleet commanded by Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII. The fleets joined battle near Actium on the western coast of Greece. In the middle of the conflict, Cleopatra withdrew. Antony tried to follow her and lost most of his fleet in the process. They fled to Egypt. Octavian followed by land, passing through Palestine. Along the way, he dispatched a task force to subdue the regions southeast of Judea, but it failed. Octavian himself pursued Antony and Cleopatra into Egypt, where, upon their suicides, he made Egypt his personal possession and secured for himself its enormous treasures.
Actium was a turning point in Earth's history. Had Antony and Cleopatra won at Actium, Egypt would have once more been the center of the world. Redemptive history would have moved on within the framework of an Egyptian empire, and all of Western history would have been radically different. But instead the course of the empire continued its Western march, and Rome became mistress of the Mediterranean world. Egypt began its slide into obscurity (cf. Ezek. 29:15).
Now if we look closely at Daniel's prophecy beginning with verse 40 we should be able to make sense out of the details. The king of a northern power comes against the king of a southern power in a sea battle, enters Palestine, fails to subdue the regions to the south and east, and goes on to Egypt, which falls into his hands, together with its treasures. What we have here is the Battle of Actium. This means that Octavian is "the king of the north" and Marc Antony is "the king of the south." But who then is the Willful King?
The Willful King belongs neither to the north or the south: he is "the king" (v. 36): that is, he is a king of Israel. He does as he pleases. He does not regard the God of his fathers or any deity. Instead, he worships military force (v. 38-39). He has no regard for "the desire of women" (v. 37). He plants his palace in the holy mount, in Jerusalem (v. 45).10 At the end, he is troubled by tidings from the East and North, and responds with great violence (v. 44).
At this point, anyone with a good reading knowledge of the New Testament can recognize the Willful King. He is Herod the Great. "Herod the king" the New Testament calls him. Herod was an Idumean, a descendant of Esau, but a Jew by culture and religious profession. Antony pushed with (not at him) at Actium (v. 40); that is, Herod lent Antony and Cleopatra considerable support. But after their defeat, Herod threw that support to Octavian, who confirmed him as ruler of Judea and enlarged his kingdom. Towards the end of his life, Herod was troubled by tidings from the East (the wise men) and from the North — his son stirring up trouble in Rome. In both cases he reacted violently. His slaughter of the innocents illustrates all too clearly his blasphemous war against the Almighty and his contempt for the promised Messiah — the desire of every Jewish woman.
Michael the Archangel and the Time of Trouble
What follows in Daniel 12 confirms what we have seen so far. For the prophecy reaches its climax in the saving appearance of Michael the archangel. Now Michael appears by name only here, in Jude 9,11 and in Revelation 12. He alone in Scripture is expressly called "the archangel." He wages war against the Serpent. He commands the armies of heaven. The Old Testament, of course, recognizes a unique Angel who is the Captain of the LORD's host (cf. Josh. 5:13-15). Calvin writes, "As we stated yesterday, Michael may mean an angel; but I embrace the opinion of those who refer this to the person of Christ, because it suits the subject best to represent him as standing forward for the defense of his elect people."12 Messiah is Israel's Prince (Dan. 9:25). That she should have another prince, another protector, seems odd at least. But if we recognize Michael as a name taken by the Angel of the LORD, the pre-incarnate Christ, then this lengthy prophecy brings us at last to the Messiah and to His salvation.
We are told that in connection with Michael's appearance there "shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation to that same time"; but the elect will be delivered (12:1). This is the Great Tribulation that came upon Israel in AD 70 (cf. Mt. 24, esp. v. 21-22).13 The prophecy reaches no farther.14 It ends with the scattering of "the power of the holy people" (Dan. 12:7), with the destruction of Jerusalem. And so the phrases "latter days" (10:14) and "the time of the end" (11:40) that appear earlier in the text make perfect sense. They do not point beyond Messiah, but to Messiah. Jesus Christ was manifest in "these last times" (1 Pet. 1:20), "in the end of the world" (Heb. 9:26), and "in these last days" (Heb. 1:2). Daniel gives us the end of national Israel and the end of Gentile dominion; then he brings us to Christ. Isn't that what we should expect?
What if the commentators of the past had not been so entranced with the Antichrist myth? Maybe the liberals would have had a harder time writing off Daniel as a pious forgery. Maybe evangelicals today would be a little less obsessed with headlines from Egypt and Iraq. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a few less books on Armageddon, and a few more on the sovereign hand of God in the details of history.
1. For the last fifty years, who has been the centerpiece of more novels and films, secular and evangelical? Christ or the Antichrist?
2. Literally, "the antichrist."
3. Literally, "The deceiver and the antichrist."
4. Whether or not the Man of Sin and the Beast are identical is another question. Aside from their delusions of godhood, they do not have that much in common. And the desire to play god is not that uncommon; it is, after all, the sin of Adam.
5. Calvin takes a different tack. He argues that the Willful King represents the Roman Empire. He even mentions the Battle of Actium.6. See Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel, A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 250f and C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament:Daniel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983 reprint), 468f.
7. See, for example, T. Boersma's anti-dispensational work, Is the Bible a Jigsaw Puzzle? (St. Catherines, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1978). He makes the prophecies of Daniel to spiral in and around Antiochus Epiphanes as if he were the focus of the book!
8. See James Jordan, "Groping Through the Gaps," Biblical Chronology, II, 2.
9. A reprint appeared from Reiner Publications (Swengel, PA) in 1944. But as Mauro went to press in 1922, he found that he was not the first to identify Herod the Great as the Willful King. James Farquharson of Aberdeen, Scotland had reached the same conclusion in 1838.
10. See Mauro's arguments for a shift of subject back to the Willful King at v. 44.
11. Compare his words here with those of the Angel of the LORD in Zechariah 3:1-2.
12. Calvin's Commentaries, Daniel, Lecture Sixty-Fifth.
13. I have no space to argue this here, but see J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974); David Chilton, The Great Tribulation (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987); Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
14. On 12:2, see Mauro, 169f. See also James Jordan's Preliminarie Commentarie on Daniel (Niceville, FL: Biblical Horizons, 1994), 83-84. Cf. Ezekiel 37:11-14.