The earlier part of Daniel 11 has spoken of kings and alliances and battles. We have been able to give specific names and dates to these predictions. The same thing should be true for this section, even though we have not yet witnessed the rise or observed the careers of those prophesied. We have no reason suddenly to substitute a symbolic understanding of the words for a literal one.
There are three chief approaches to this section. The first is that it is continuing to speak of the career of Antiochus Epiphanes. The difficulty is that what is said in this section does not fit Antiochus’s known career. It is possible that Antiochus Epiphanes may be a type of a greater evil character prophesied for the last days – this is probably the case.
The second view is that these verses prophesy part of the history of the early Roman Empire. This was Calvin’s view and he went at it with great thoroughness. Calvin has difficulty fixing the details of each prophecy, which is a good reason for saying that the prophesied events must be future.
The third view is that these verses refer to the Antichrist who is said elsewhere to appear at the end of all things – just before the return of Jesus Christ. There are a number of additional reasons for seeing the verses this way. In v.40 the angel speaks of “the time of the end,” which is neither the time of Antiochus Epiphanes or the time of the early Roman Empire. It refers to the end of the world immediately before the final judgment. Since the events of v.40 are picking up from the verses that have gone before, the phrase “the time of the end” fixes the time frame of this section.
Again, the first verse of ch.12 begins, “At that time,” which means “at the time just described.” But what is introduced in ch.12 is (1) a great persecution, (2) a general resurrection, (3) a final judgment, and (4) the final, eternal blessedness of the saints. The Lord himself took these verses as applying to the last days in his discourse recorded in Matthew 24 and 25. He said, “There will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21). That is not a reference to the Maccabees but to the time of persecution immediately preceding His return.
I want to be cautious – if what I have said thus far is correct, then it would seem best to regard these verses as a prophecy of the career of the Antichrist and of the final great battle of Armageddon that is described elsewhere in Scripture. I think in particular of Ezekiel 38 and of Revelation 16 and 19. How we handle Daniel 11:36 – 12:4 will depend in some measure, then, on what we think of the chapters in Ezekiel and Revelation. But taking them together, I find that they refer to a great world war immediately prior to the Lord’s return. Daniel refers to a great battle between the kings of the North and the South. He mentions Egypt particularly as well as Libya and Nubia. Ezekiel also mentions a group of southern nations, and he speaks of a great northern power in terms that makes us think of Russia. These engage in a war, which in Revelation is called Armageddon.
At the end of this period of great international turmoil, the Lord Jesus Christ returns, subdues His and our enemies, and ushers in a kingdom that shall never be overturned or destroyed. If this is the way these verses are to be taken, then they deal with the same events prophesied at the conclusion of the dream given to Daniel as recorded in chapter 7. There the Antichrist is overthrown, and all “authority, glory and sovereign power” are given to the Son of Man. The text says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14).
I realize that some will disagree with the interpretation of Daniel 11:36 – 12:4 that I have given and it may be incorrect. But in a sense, it does not matter a great deal who these factions are or how this great final battle will turn out – if there is a final battle. I say that because in one sense all we have here is a description of an intensifying of that distress and persecution that Christians have known in all ages and that they have been called upon to endure for the sake of their love for and commitment to Jesus Christ. Calvin approaches the passage like this at one point, saying that the Church is to be “subject to most numerous and grievous calamities until the advent of Christ, but yet it should feel God’s propitious disposition, enduring its own safety under His aid and protection.”
The bearing of these things on our lives is that we are to live for the Lord Jesus Christ and honor Him regardless of the circumstances.
Psalm 11:3 asks the probing question: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Why, go on being righteous – is what Daniel is saying in the middle of this chapter. “The people who know their God will stand firm and take action” (11.32). Daniel is saying that there is always going to be wickedness in this world. There will always be wars and rumors of wars, famine, trouble, persecutions, and distress. He had them in his day. We have them in ours, and they will be present even at the end of this age. Nevertheless, those who know God are to stand firm, live righteous lives, resist evil, and take action [do exploits KJV], as God prospers them.