The Biblical view of history

The Biblical view of history

One of the most important aspects of the Book of Daniel is the way in which it counters how other cultures and religions view world history and events. Four main ways of looking at history may be summarised under the following headings:

History can be viewed as …

  • Chaotic, chance-driven. Ultimately it is a meaningless and random series of events – this was the view held by the Greek Epicurean philosophers who believed that pleasure is the greatest good;
  • Cyclical, circular and repetitive; or
  • Constrained causally and predetermined … more commonly known as “Historical Determinism” – this was the view held by the Greek Stoic philosophers who taught that there was a direct relationship between a person’s freedom and the laws of cosmic determinism; or
  • Created, controlled and planned by the God who reveals Himself to us in Scripture as a loving Father, and in our Saviour Jesus Christ, His Son.

Under the first of these headings, the universe runs itself, or if there is a Creator, s/he has wound it like a clockwork mechanism and is now letting it run down of its own accord. The sun will eventually run out of fuel and signal the end of life on earth. Nothing accomplished by mankind will have any eternal significance or consequence. Life is meaningless and all that remains is to live for the moment and do what seems best to the individual. As a result, it’s a “dog eat dog” world where the “law of the jungle” dictates that power is more important than authority, and that morals, ethics and social etiquette are relative to the needs of the situation.

“The Babylonians believed that past history was abolished at the end of the winter when cosmos reverted to chaos. The whole fate of the country then depended on the judgement of the gods, and the spring festival was held in order to placate them and avert the crisis.”
{Lennox, John C. (2015) Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, Monarch Books, ISBN-13: 978-0857216212, pp29-30}

The second view of history was common throughout the Greco-Roman world of Jesus time, and in various guises, continues to raise its head in modern times. According to this view, history constantly repeats the patterns of the past. How often has the phrase “what comes around goes around” been used to explain the way in which things happen today in much the same way that they have in the past? Dictators, warlords and political systems come and go, but nothing essential changes from one generation to the other.

The third view has become particularly influential in Western thought over the past three centuries and has spawned any number of theories, from “cultural evolutionism” and Marxism, to Nazism. The central concept behind this view of history is that all events are caused by a chain reaction of past events. In other words, what happens today is the result of decisions and actions taken in the past; as a result of A and B taking place, C is an impossibility and only D can be expected. In particular, the study of history reduces down to an examination of the inner workings of this “closed system”, in order to determine the laws that govern the various possible interactions between events and human actors. In this way, future history can be predicted and prepared for, and inevitably manipulated to produce the desired evolutionary trajectory towards Utopia. Naturally, this is often accompanied by the tendency to attribute blame for negative and/or undesirable events and outcomes, to certain classes and creeds, and that ultimately leads to genocide.

In contrast to all of these views, the apocalyptical passages of Scripture such as Daniel reveal the truth – world history is His Story – and ultimately, the story of His Son’s intervention to bring about His Father’s good intentions and plans for creation and for His people! Unpalatable though it may be to the modern mind, God shows us that He is Sovereign over all things, all nations and in all ages. Whilst this may raise uncomfortable questions such as “why would a loving God allow war/famine/cancer?” books such as Daniel tell us that behind the scenes, God battles victoriously with the enemy’s forces, and that the final outcome is already determined and has never been in doubt.

“This perspective views history to be like an arrow that moves toward a target called ‘the day of the Lord’ (Amos 5:18) or ‘the kingdom of God’ (Mk. 1:15). In this view, history has direction and meaning. Caught up in the struggles of the present age, the faithful may not always be able to ‘see the big picture’, but there is one. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for the individual to try too hard to discover that purpose in any particular event. No foot soldier can understand the wider scope of a great battle in which he or she is involved. With this third view of history, people can live out their lives with the quiet confidence that the One who holds the rudder of history has not fallen asleep.”
Bailey, Kenneth E. (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural Studies in the Gospels, SPCK Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-0281059751, p114

This view must not be confused with the deterministic conception of history. Events do not control events; God controls events and will at times change the course of history in response to the way in which His people revere Him and fulfil His covenant conditions. As we shall see, this is one of the central messages of the book of Daniel.

With the victory won for us on the cross by Jesus’ willing sacrifice, we can be sure that the turmoil we see in world events is on the level of the death throes of a dying animal. As my father might have phrased it – “he’s already dead if only he had the wit to stiffen”. Evil takes many forms, and causes great damage to those whose lives it affects, but ultimately the Kingdom of our God and King will prevail, and is even now close at hand (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; Mk. 1:15 et. al.).

Gordon Smyrell