First Three Beasts

Daniel saw four creatures with animalistic features ascending from a wind-tossed sea, representing four successive kingdoms

In a dream, Daniel sees “four beasts ascending” from a chaotic sea. Each corresponds to one of the four parts of the “great image” that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream with the head of gold, a torso of silver, brass thighs, and its legs of iron and clay. Daniel’s vision of four creatures utilizes that same fourfold structure.

The “head of fine gold” in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream represented his reign over the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Each of the image’s four sections represented a different kingdom, beginning with Babylon. Likewise, in Daniel’s dream, Babylon is the first of the four “beasts” that “ascends from the sea.”

When Daniel interpreted the king’s dream, he identified the “head of gold” by name but not the three subsequent kingdoms, and the clues from his interpretation are too few and ambiguous to link them to any known empires with certainty.


Likewise, in chapter 7, the identities of the second, third, and fourth “beasts” remain elusive, though more details are provided than in Nebuchadnezzar's dream. But there is little doubt that the first “beast” is Babylon - (Daniel 2:37, 7:1-8).

Daniel received this vision in the “first year of Belshazzar” when Babylon was still the dominant power in the region. Belshazzar was the regent who governed the city for his father, King Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.). He was killed when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians” in October 539 B.C.

In his dream, Daniel sees “visions of his head upon his bed.” This description is a verbal link to the earlier dream received by Nebuchadnezzar:

  • (Daniel 2:28-29) – “There is a God in heaven that reveals secrets, and he has made known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Your dream, and THE VISIONS OF YOUR HEAD UPON YOUR BED are these; as for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed, what should come to pass hereafter.”

In the dream, the “four winds of heaven” are agitating the surface of the sea, symbolizing restive nations and peoples. The Aramaic text describes the winds as “bursting forth upon the great sea,” and that suggests the turbulence is caused by the emergence of the “beasts” from the sea.

The Aramaic verb rendered “ascending” is an active participle, denoting action in progress. It describes the process of the four creatures “ascending” out of the sea in quick succession - (Daniel 7:17, 8:8, 11:14, Revelation 7:1-3, 17:15).

The first three are unnatural and composite creatures, each with characteristics from disparate animal species. For example, the lion has “eagle wings.” And each is driven by animalistic voracity to seize and devour prey.


The “winged lion” corresponds to the “head of gold” in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. It represents his domain. Daniel is familiar with the writings of the prophet Jeremiah who also used lions and eagles to symbolize Babylon, a swift and voracious conqueror - (Jeremiah 4:13, 25:9-14, 49:19-22, Daniel 9:1-2).

In its art and architecture, lions represent the glory and might of Babylon. One of its most important deities is Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. She closely resembles the Canaanite deity Ashtoreth (Astarte), and later she became identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Her symbols include the lion, and she is linked to the planet Venus. Old Testament references to the “Queen of Heaven” have this goddess in view - (Jeremiah 7:18, 44:18).

The lion is a powerful predator. Its wings point to its rapidity of movement and their removal to the curtailment of movement. Nebuchadnezzar conquered vast territories in only a few short years, but the rapid expansion of his empire ceased after his death.

The second beast appears like a bear with one side raised higher than the other. It corresponds to the silver portion of the earlier image, the torso and arms that were “inferior” to the head of “fine gold.”

The bear is as strong as the lion but lacks agility. It is a more ponderous creature. Its two sides parallel the two arms of the silver torso, and this suggests a divided kingdom. In Daniel’s dream, he does not see a bear rearing up on its hind legs, but one that elevates its feet on either side as it steps forward - (Daniel 2:32, 2:39).

The bear is gripping “three ribs in its teeth.” This points to prey that has been seized by a ravenous animal. Whether the number “three” is literal or symbolic is not clear. The bear is commanded to “rise and consume much flesh,” presumably, a summons to the kingdom represented by the bear to launch further conquests.

The third “beast” resembles a leopard with four wings and four heads. The “dominion given to it” is a link to the third section of Nebuchadnezzar’s “great image” that was destined to “rule over all the earth” - (Daniel 2:39).

The leopard is also an agile predator, and, once again, its wings suggest speed. Wings normally occur in pairs, and therefore, the number “four” indicates two pairs of wings, possibly pointing to motion in the four directions of the compass.

Its four “heads” were not connected to its wings. Elsewhere in the book, “heads” represent kings and their realms. The four heads are grouped together, suggesting they are contemporaneous and not consecutive, as well as a fourfold division of the kingdom - (Daniel 2:32-38, 7:20).

The information provided on the first three beasts is minimal and allusive. As will become apparent, the focus of Daniel’s dream is on the fourth “beast,” especially its “little horn with a mouth speaking great things.”


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