Symbols in Bible prophecy
PART TWO – ANIMALS
The Bible uses animals, birds, fish, and even insects to symbolise nations and empires in prophecy. Is this a strange concept?
Bible prophecy often uses animals to represent kingdoms or kings. Usually those animals have a local significance which makes the connection with the nation more obvious. Applying the characteristics of different animals to nations and empires also helps illustrate some aspects of their nature.
The use of real or even fantastic animals to represent a nation is not unusual. Consider the British Lion, the American Eagle, the Russian Bear, the Chinese Dragon, and the somewhat less fearsome New Zealand Kiwi. Our national sports teams are often named after local animals and birds, even fish. And historians themselves commonly use the imagery of animals to allude to the character of a nation’s people and its armies.
The biblical key of interpretation
In Daniel 8 the Lord reveals a vision of a great fight between a strong ram and a stronger goat. Later the angel interprets the vision to Daniel:
The ram which thou sawest having two horns are the kings of Media and Persia. And the rough goat is the king of Grecia: and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king. Daniel 8:20–21
This prophecy referred to the conquering of Persia by Greece under Alexander the Great. Both the ram and the goat have local significance.
Babylon and Egypt
A parable or riddle in Ezekiel represents both Babylon and Egypt as great eagles, and Israel as a cedar and a vine:
Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel; And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; A great eagle with great wings, longwinged, full of feathers, which had divers colours, came unto Lebanon, and took the highest branch of the cedar: . . . There was also another great eagle with great wings and many feathers: and, behold, this vine did bend her roots toward him, and shot forth her branches toward him, that he might water it by the furrows of her plantation. Ezekiel 17:2–7
The Lord also interprets the symbols:
Say now to the rebellious house, Know ye not what these things mean? tell them, Behold, the king of Babylon is come to Jerusalem, and hath taken the king thereof, and the princes thereof, and led them with him to Babylon;
. . . Neither shall Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company make for him in the war, by casting up mounts, and building forts, to cut off many persons Ezekiel 17:12–17
Egypt in another prophecy is described as a great serpent or crocodile of the Nile:
Son of man, set thy face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him, and against all Egypt: Speak, and say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself. But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the fish of thy rivers to stick unto thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick unto thy scales Ezekiel 29:2–4
And the Babylonians, or Chaldeans, and in particular their horsemen, are elsewhere attributed the characteristics not only of the eagle but of a mixture of animals. The character of the people—their swiftness, their fierceness, their haste and their reach from afar—is illustrated by the imagery:
For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwellingplaces that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. Habakkuk 1:6–8
Comparisons like this suggest a reason why some empires in prophecy are represented as a mixture of animals, such as a horse with a lion’s head (suggesting ferocity), or a lion with eagle’s wings (suggesting speed and far reach).
Israel too is characterised by the lion and the unicorn in the prophecy of Balaam:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! . . . God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. Numbers 24:5–9
It should come as no surprise then that empires and kingdoms are represented by the symbols of animals, and even fantastic mixtures of animals, in the symbolic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Not only do the animals often relate to the geographical position of the nation, and so help the identification, but they help to describe the character of its empire.
The four beasts of Daniel’s vision
In Daniel we read of a vision of four great beasts which would arise upon the earth before the triumph of the kingdom of God. This vision, given to Daniel near the end of his life, paralleled the vision of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, which also described the same four kingdoms.
Daniel first saw a lion with the wings of an eagle representing Babylon, then a bear representing Persia, after which came a leopard with four heads and also the four wings of a bird representing Greece, and finally a strange and fantastic beast, different from all the rest, which represented Rome in two phases (pagan and papal). The first three specific animals all have a local significance in the regions they represent. The angel directly identifies these animals or beasts as kings or kingdoms:
These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever. . . . Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. Daniel 7:17–23
The term “king” is often used interchangeably with kingdom, as the ruler is representative of a dynasty and the whole empire. Thus Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar when interpreting his dream, “Thou art this head of gold”:
Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. . . . Thou art this head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron . . .. Daniel 2:37–40
In the next article in the series, we will see further examples in the book of Revelation, and some examples of historians using the same imagery to describe the same nations.
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