First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

The Son of Man

9 I saw until thrones were placed, and one who was ancient of days sat: his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels burning fire. 10 A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

World English Bible

How do you understand the phrase “Son of Man?” What images do you connect with the phrase?

One of the most puzzling titles Jesus gave himself was “Son of Man.” The title was a common one when he walked the earth and had its roots in Scripture. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, God called the prophet “son of man.” But the most famous use of the phrase came from Daniel 7.

The style and content of Daniel 7 made this chapter one of the most influential in the Bible. Daniel 7-13 was apocalyptic in style; written in the first person, these chapters chronicled visions fulled with symbolism. Daniel 7 focused on God’s judgement over the nations, represented by four beasts: a lion with eagle’s wings (Babylonian Empire), a bear with ribs in its mouth (“Median” Empire), a four headed leopard with the wings of a bird (Persia), and a horrible beast with ten horns and iron teeth (the empire of Alexander the Great). In the last beast an eleventh horn emerged; it had an eye and spoke like a man. Most scholars identify this image with Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 BC), the Greek-Syrian ruler who persecuted the inhabitants of Judea just before the revolt of the Maccabees in 165 BC.

After the appearance of the four beasts, th author portrayed the heavenly court. In 7:9-10, God sat upon the throne to pass judgement over the beasts. Unlike any image of the heavenly throne in Scripture, these verses described God in anthropological terms. He was an elderly man (ancient of days) with white robes and a mane of wool. His fiery throne had wheels (a chariot?) and his judgement poured forth as a stream of fire. Notice the traditional symbol of divine power as fire (lighting and fire in the midst of smoke were common images for God’s omnipotence) was mixed with the image of a warrior-king whose judgement emitted from a chariot-throne. A myriad of servants attended him, an uncountable number stood as witnesses to the judgement.

After the judgement of the beasts, the author introduced a new image, the “Son of Man” (7:13-14); this phrase was an ambiguous title that meant “Everyman”. This figure arrived either “on” the clouds or “together with” the clouds (depending on which Greek text was used) and was presented to the “Ancient One of days” as a loyal and righteous ruler over the realm vacated by the beasts (the known world). His reign would be universal and everlasting. Notice the “Son of Man” figure represented the “Ancient One” on earth. Clearly, this was an allusion to the Messiah.

The arrival “on” or “with” the clouds requires some comment. If the Son of Man arrived “on” the clouds, his origin would be celestial; in other words, he would be a heavenly being appointed to rule over the cosmos. If the Son of Man arrived “with” the clouds, his origin could be earthly; in other words, he could be like Elijah who, according to Scripture, was brought into heaven. The subtle difference between the two meanings was not insubstantial. Interpreting that small turn of phrase meant the difference between a passive view of the Messiah (where people waited for the coming of the Christ) and an active view (where revolutionaries took it upon themselves to act for the Messiah or even claimed to be the Messiah).

Like many other Jewish sects, early Christians appealed to the image of the “Son of Man” from Daniel 7; Jesus even referred to himself by that title. The Christian view of this Messiah figure was unique because the followers of the Nazarene coupled it with the Suffering Servant image from Second Isaiah. Clearly, early Christians held Jesus was the Messiah because he suffered and died, then was the Son of Man who would come “on” the clouds in his risen state at the end of time. These believers had no room for an understanding of the Son of Man coming “together with” the clouds.

We inherited this understanding of the phrase. When the Church proclaims Jesus as the “Son of Man,” Daniel 7 looms large in the background. The image dovetails with the Church’s teaching about the Second Coming. The “Son of Man” will come to take dominion over the earth and all its peoples. He will be the instrument of God’s judgement at the end of time.

Consider the image of the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7. How does it help you understand the Church’s teaching on the end of time? How could you use Daniel 7 in you prayer?