The Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea-beast

Exactly who, or what, was this infamous “little horn”?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign over the Babylonian Empire (ca. 603 B.C.), Daniel, a Hebrew in captivity, was called upon to reveal and interpret a dream for the monarch.

He told of a great image in the form of a man consisting of four sections. The head was of gold, its breast and arms were silver, the belly and thighs were fashioned of brass, and the legs were iron, the feet being iron mingled with clay. The image was struck on its feet by a stone that had been cut (without human hands) from a mountain. The metallic image was destroyed and the stone itself became a mountain filling the entire earth (Daniel 2:31-35).

The meaning of the dream was clear: The golden head represented the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 B.C.). That government would be followed by the kingdom of the Medes and Persians (539-332 B.C.). The Medo-Persian Empire would be succeeded by the Greek regime (332-63 B.C.), which, in turn, would finally give way to Roman rule (63 B.C. – A.D. 476). During the era of the Roman Empire, God himself would set up his kingdom, which would be a universal, spiritual monarchy (2:44).

The divinely initiated dream occurred almost seventy years before the Babylonian Empire fell and is a remarkable example of prophecy. The dramatic revelations of future international events in this book provide the basis for the liberal motive which seeks to discredit Daniel as the author of the narrative, ascribing it to some unknown person of the second century B.C.

About a half century later, in the first year of Belshazzar (a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar), Daniel himself had a dream (visions) that, to a significant degree, had a thrust similar to the prophetic dream entertained by Nebuchadnezzar. From the turbulent “great sea” he saw four differing beasts successively rise. Without question, these four beasts correspond to the four metallic components of the image portrayed in chapter two.

The Lion

The first beast was like a lion, but it also had eagle’s wings. As Daniel watched, the wings were torn off. Presently, the lion stood up like a man and a human heart was given to it. This initial beast represented the Babylonian Empire.

Of Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah wrote: “A lion is gone up from his thicket, and a destroyer of nations; he is on his way, he is gone forth from his place, to make your land desolate, that your cities be laid waste, without inhabitant” (Jeremiah 4:7). He further declared, “Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles of the heavens” (Lamentations 4:19).

The rapid campaigns against Assyria, Egypt, and Palestine are graphically depicted in the symbolism. But the advancement of the Babylonian conquest was stayed (the wings plucked). Moreover, it is a matter of historical record that during the latter era of the Babylonian regime there was a “gradual diminution of the ferocity of conquest under a succession of comparatively weak princes” (Barnes 1853, 290).

The Bear

The second beast was like a bear, an animal noted for its fierceness (cf. Hosea 13:8). This bear was higher on one side than on the other. Since the beast represents the Medo-Persian kingdom (as indicated by the silver portion of the earlier image), this would suggest that one of these national powers would overshadow the other (cf. 8:3, 20). This conforms to the actual facts. In their early history, the Persians were subject to the Medes, but Cyrus conquered the king of Media in 558 B.C., and supremacy passed to the Persians.

The bear had three ribs in its mouth, likely reflecting the fact that this empire had conquered the nations of Lydia (546 B.C.), Babylon (539 B.C.), and Egypt (525 B.C.). This vision occurs when Babylon is at the zenith of her power and in no apparent danger of falling.

The Leopard

The third creature was like a leopard with wings upon its back. It also had four heads. The winged leopard, of course, hints of blazing speed. This signifies the conquests of the Greek regime under Alexander the Great. See chapter 8:5, 21, where the “king of Greece” moves so rapidly that his feet “touched not the ground.”

Alexander came to the Macedonian throne when he was but twenty years of age; by the time he was twenty-five he was virtual master of the Eastern world. At the battle of Arbela, with a force of less than fifty thousand men, he defeated Darius whose army was six hundred thousand strong.

It is also significant that the leopard of Daniel’s vision had four heads. Remarkably, this signifies the fate of his empire following his death. Alexander had no heir; consequently his territories were divided among four of his generals. Lysimachus took nearly the whole of Asia Minor; Cassander had Greece; Seleucus possessed Syria and the East; while Ptolemy claimed Egypt and Palestine (Sanderson, Lamberton, and McGovern 1900,132). This is further confirmed by the testimony of chapter eight, verses eight and twenty-two. Remember, Daniel is seeing a vision of events that were not to transpire for more than two hundred years!

The Ten-horned Beast

Finally, the prophet sees a fourth beast emerge from the sea. It is different from the preceding animals. It is terrible, with great iron teeth and nails of brass. This beast crushed its enemies and stamped the residue with its feet. Moreover, this animal had ten horns. This fourth beast (or kingdom [v. 23]), corresponds to the fourth segment of the earlier image (iron and iron-clay [chapter two]); it is the Roman Empire.

It is interesting to note that as these empires come and go, there is a degeneration in quality, i.e., from gold to iron. It is clear that Daniel “was not encouraged to see in history evolutionary progress, but rather the reverse. Modern technological progress in no way invalidates this judgment, for it is international justice, peace and human contentment and fulfillment that are in mind, and in these realms it would be hard to argue that there has been progress” (Baldwin 1978, 140).

Some suggest that the beast’s ten horns are but a figurative representation of the political descendants of the old Roman Empire and thus the numeral is not to be pressed (Young 1980, 149). Others assert that when Rome fell in A.D. 476, the result was the formation of ten literal states or governments. Newton, citing Whitson, says that “the number of the kingdoms into which the Roman empire in Europe . . . was originally divided . . . was exactly ten” (1831, 234).

As the prophet was meditating upon the significance of the ten horns, he saw a little horn uproot three of the other horns. This little horn had eyes like a man and a mouth that spoke great things, obviously hinting of a personal force rather than mere political abstraction.

Several other characteristics of the little horn are subsequently mentioned:

  1. The little horn represented a force that was “more stout” than the other governments.
  2. It “made war with the saints” and attempted to “wear out” the people of God.
  3. It prevailed against the saints until the Lord gave a judgment on behalf of his people.
  4. The little horn would “speak words against the Most High”.
  5. It (he) would “think to change the times and the law” of God.
  6. The saints were given into his hand for “a time, times, and half a time.”

Exactly who, or what, was this infamous little horn?

The Little Horn

Let us carefully consider some suggestions that have been made regarding the identity of the little horn in Daniel’s vision:

(1) Religious modernism contends that the little horn was Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), the Syrian rogue who so viciously persecuted the Jews during the interbiblical era (cf. Daniel 8:9-14, 23-27).

Because the prophetical sections of Daniel are so very precise, modernists, rejecting the concept of predictive prophecy, allege that the book of Daniel is the composition of some unknown writer of the second century B.C. Thus, according to this theory, the document addresses the past, not the future. The persecuting little horn is therefore conveniently identified with Antiochus. This position was apparently first set forth by Porphyry, a third-century A.D. philosopher, who sought to discredit the Bible as an inspired revelation.

This theory simply will not work. The fact is, Antiochus lived in the period of Greek supremacy. He was dead a hundred years before the fourth beast (the Roman Empire) came into power—out of which Daniel’s little horn arose.

That aside, there is clear and convincing evidence that the book of Daniel was written in the sixth century B.C., not in the second century (see Jackson 1990, 30, 31). (Note: the little horn of Daniel 8:9ff is a reference to Antiochus; but this must not be confused with the little horn of chapter seven.)

Attempts have been made, to identify the beasts of Daniel’s dream in the following fashion: Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks—so as to allow the little horn to appear in the fourth (or Greek) period. It is not, however, a legitimate procedure to separate the Medo-Persian Empire into two segments. There simply was no Median empire, separate from the Persian regime, which could be called a world power (Rose and Fuller 1981, 336).

(2) Modem millennialists assert that the little horn of Daniel’s dream is the “Antichrist,” who soon will make his presence known to initiate a persecution against the church. Allegedly, this will introduce the tribulation period which is supposed to precede the return of Christ and his one-thousand-year reign from Jerusalem (see Pentecost 1985, 1355).

There are insurmountable obstacles to this view. In the first place, the entire premillennial scheme is without biblical proof, including the Antichrist-tribulation components. No interpretation of Daniel 7 is legitimate which depends upon a theological theory that is so at variance with fundamental Bible truth—which the premillennial theory clearly is (see Examining Premillennialism.)

Second, the little horn of Daniel’s vision arose from the remnants of the Roman Empire, which have lain in the dust of antiquity for more than one thousand years. The commencement of the little horn’s power is thus ancient, not modern. Sensing the difficulty in this fact, millennialists allege that the old Roman Empire will be revived in these modem times to accommodate Bible prophecy! There is absolutely no support for this incredible speculation.

(Note: Some who are not of the premillennial persuasion believe that the little horn is a sinister Antichrist personality who will appear shortly before the Lord’s return. For reasons which will be apparent subsequently, we reject this view as well.)

(3) Some would argue that the little horn represents one of the pagan Roman rulers (e.g., Julius Caesar or Vespasian). A great variety of biblical scholars, however, have forcefully contended that Daniel’s little horn and Paul’s “man of sin” (2 Thessalonians 2:3ff) appear to represent the same hostile force. This was the general view of the “church fathers” (see Newton, 462, 463), and such has been maintained in modern times. Since the “man of sin” is obviously a part of “the falling away” from the primitive faith, the opposing force would seem to be a religious one (see Workman 1988, 414-436).

(4) An interpretation which has fallen on hard times in this modern ecumenical age, but which was strongly defended by scholars of the Reformation heritage (e.g., Adam Clarke and Albert Barnes), is the concept that Daniel’s little horn symbolized the papal dynasty. A few conservative scholars defend this position even yet (Leupold 1969, 323).

This was also the leading view of the Restoration leaders. When Alexander Campbell met John Purcell in debate (1837), he affirmed that the Roman Catholic Church “is the Babylon of John, the Man of Sin of Paul, and the Empire of the Youngest Horn of Daniel’s Sea Monster” (1914, 281ff).

Consider the following arguments which lend support to this proposition:

(a) Prior to the eighth century A.D., the authority of the Catholic popes was limited to church affairs. However, near the middle of that century, the Roman pontiff began to acquire political territories, thus transforming the Church into a politico-ecclesiastical organism.

In A.D. 755, Pepin, a French ruler, conferred upon pope Stephen III the principality of Ravenna. Later, in 774, Charles the Great, monarch of France, conquered the kingdom of the Lombards and gave their dominion to Pope Adrian I. Finally, in 817, Lewis the Pious, son of Charles the Great, confirmed the state of Rome to Pope Paschal I.

The Roman church was the most powerful force in Europe—a little horn that became more stout than its fellows. By the time Cardinal Hildebrand became pope (1073), he was affirming that the Roman pontiff should not only be the universal head of the church, but also the ruler of the world (cf. Newton, 241-245; Sanderson, Lamberton, and McGovern, 334-336; Alzog 1890, 184ff).

(b) The little horn was said to speak “great things” which were “against the Most High.” The blasphemous arrogance of the popes is well-known to students of church history.

Newton cites the following papal claim:

Our Lord God the pope; another God upon earth, king of kings, and lord of lords. The same is the dominion of God and the pope. To believe that our Lord God the pope might not decree, as he decreed, it were a matter of heresy. The power of the pope is greater than all created power, and extends itself to things celestial, terrestrial, and infernal. The pope doeth whatsoever he listeth, even things unlawful, and is more than God (456).

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), in his inaugural speech, declared, “The successor of St. Peter stands midway between God and man; below God, above man; Judge of all, judged of none” (Hurlbut 1954, 112).

(c) The Roman church, under the authority of its popes, has been a vicious persecutor of those who oppose its apostate doctrines. A Catholic scholar asserts that his own church “can tolerate no strange Churches beside herself” (Pohle 1913, 766). During the Spanish Inquisition (a tribunal established by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages for the purpose of suppressing error) thousands were burned alive for their alleged heresies against the Church.

During the infamous massacre of St. Bartholomew’s day (August 24, 1572) somewhere between twenty thousand and one hundred thousand Protestants were killed near Paris. A Catholic historian admits: “On 8 September a procession of thanksgiving took place in Rome, and the pope, in a prayer after mass, thanked God for having ‘granted the Catholic people a glorious triumph over a perfidious race’” (Goyau 1913, 337).

(d) The little horn would alter the “times and the law” of God. According to Catholic dogma, ecclesiastical authority and tradition carry as much weight, if not more, than the word of God itself (see Attwater 1961, 41). Thus, the Church feels free to change or make religious law as it sees fit. History is replete with examples of the papacy instituting holy seasons or days, and changing various elements of the law of Christ (e.g., celibacy, adoration of images, saint worship, transubstantiation).

(e) The saints were to be under the oppressive power of the little horn for “a time, times, and half a time.” Clearly, this is the most difficult aspect of the prophecy. A number of novel views have been suggested as to the significance of this expression. The most reasonable conclusion is that it likely represents three and a half year’s worth of prophetic days, i.e., a total of 1,260 days, symbolizing 1,260 years (as in the case of the seventy weeks of chapter nine [cf. Revelation 12:6, 14; 13:5]).

The knotty part is knowing what period of history it actually covers. It would seem to point to that era when Roman Catholicism almost completely dominated and suppressed the religious world, until its power was broken by the influence of the Reformation movement. It is not necessary to look for precise dates for the beginning and ending of this period.

In conclusion, we believe that, taking all factors into consideration, there is no entity in history that so fits the description of the little horn of Daniel 7 as that of the papal dynasty of the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Attwater, Donald. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: The Macmillan Co.
  • Alzog, John. 1890. Manual of Universal Church History. Vol. 2. Dublin, Ireland: M. H. Gill & Son.
  • Baldwin, Joyce. 1978. Daniel. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
  • Barnes, Albert. 1853. Notes on the Book of Daniel. New York, NY: Leavitt & Allen.
  • Campbell, Alexander and John B. Purcell. 1914 Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion. Nashville, TN: McQuiddy Printing Co.
  • Goyau, Georges. 1913. Saint Bartholomew’s Day. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York, N.Y.: Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
  • Hurlbut Jesse L. 1954. The Story of the Christian Church. Philadelphia, PA: John Winston Co.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1990. Daniel: A Test Case In Bible Prophecy. Reason & Revelation, July.
  • Leupold, H. C. 1969. Exposition of Daniel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Newton, Thomas. 1831. Dissertations on the Prophecies. London, England: Blake.
  • Pentecost, Dwight. 1985. Daniel. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Vol. L. Roy Zuck, ed. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  • Pohle, J. 1913. Toleration. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York, NY: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
  • Rose H. J. and J. M. Fuller. 1981. Daniel. The Bible Commentary. Vol. 6. F. C. Cook, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Sanderson, Edgar, J. P. Lamberton, and John McGovern. 1900. The World’s History and Its Makers. Vol. 1. Chicago, IL: Universal History Publishing Co.
  • Workman, Gary. 1988. Who is the man of sin? Studies in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Dub McClish, ed. Denton, TX: Valid Publications.
  • Young, Edward. 1980. The Prophecy of Daniel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.