Who is the “one like a son of man” who comes with the clouds of heaven to be presented before the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13? Collins calls it “perhaps the most celebrated question in all the apocalyptic literature”.1
As far as modern scholarship goes, three interpretations are generally considered: 1) a symbolic figure standing for righteous Jews or for Israel; 2) an angel, probably Michael; and 3) an individual human such as the messiah, or even, if we keep the historical context in view, Judas Maccabeus. It has sometimes been claimed that the “one like a son of man” is a hypostatized manifestation of God like Wisdom in Proverbs 8 or equivalent to the “likeness with a human appearance” in Ezekiel 1:26. But the narrative does not easily allow an identification of the inferior son of man figure, who receives dominion, with the Ancient of Days, who judges empires.
Later traditions came to regard the “one like a son of man” as a distinct individual agent—a heavenly judge who would vindicate the righteous (Similitudes of Enoch), or as a warrior messiah (4 Ezra); and of course, Jesus closely associated himself with the vision. But here I am interested in how the text as we have it was originally meant to be understood, given what we know of the historical setting. These are my reasons for preferring the symbolic-corporate interpretation.
Thrones are set up on earth
The visionary events described in Daniel 7:2-14 take place on earth, not in heaven. The beasts emerge from the sea and wreak havoc on the land. Daniel is still looking at this scene when thrones are put in place (where they were not before), the Ancient of Days takes his seat, and the heavenly court sits in judgment. The thrones have wheels—this is a mobile court. The fourth beast is killed in front of the throne and its body destroyed by fire that issues from the throne of God.
The first three mythical beasts are “like” real animals (“like a lion”, “like a bear”, “like a leopard”), but modified for allegorical purposes. The fourth and most destructive beast is “different from all the beasts that were before it”; it is not “like” something. The visionary focus is on the ten horns and in particular the “little horn” that arises among them. Then Daniel sees “one like a son of man”, a figure in the form of a human rather than of a beast. The human-like figure lacks allegorical embellishment, which may be part of its meaning, but it appears to exist on the same symbolic plane.
In Psalm 80 a boar—a destructive beast—from the forest has ravaged the vineyard of Israel, so the Psalmist calls on God to “let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself” (Ps. 80:17). This “son” / “son of man” is either Israel or Israel’s king or both. It’s a limited but perhaps suggestive parallel for the interpretation of Daniel 7.
Coming with the clouds of heaven
The “one like a son of man” comes with the “clouds of heaven”, which could readily be taken to mean that he resides in heaven. However, the beasts came from the sea but are later interpreted as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Dan. 7:17). So there seems no difficulty in supposing that the “one like a son of man”, while coming from heaven rather than from the chaotic sea, symbolically represents an earthly people. The difference is that this is the people of God. It is too much to infer from this ground-based vision that Daniel is seeing two distinct divine beings.
The boast of the king of Babylon that he will “ascend above the heights of the clouds” and make himself like the Most High” (Is. 14:14) may provide an interesting perspective here. The arrogant little horn Antiochus boasts in similar terms (Dan. 7:8, 23; 11:36). The message of the “clouds of heaven” would then be that it is not the self-promoting and blasphemous pagan king who gets the God-given kingdom in the end but the the loyal Jews whom he has sought violently to suppress.
The “one like a son of man” comes to the Ancient of Days and “they caused him to approach” (haphel). The verbal form and the apparent ushering by divine attendants perhaps makes more sense if the “one like a son of man” is a human rather than angelic figure.
Some scholars have argued that the “one like a son of man” is the Davidic messiah, who takes a second throne alongside the Ancient of Days. But the conventional markers of a Davidic messiah are missing in Daniel, and no messiah appears in the later narratives. The “anointed” leader and the “anointed one” who is “cut off and shall have nothing” are perhaps Zerubbabel or Joshua and the high priest Onias III (Dan. 9:25-26); they do not possess a kingdom. The plural “thrones” probably implies more than two; they are occupied by the heavenly court.
Michael, is that you?
When Daniel asks the angel the meaning of the visions, he is directly told that the “four beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth”, but “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever” (7:15-18). The “one like a son of man” is not directly interpreted as the “saints of the Most High”, but since in the vision he is “given dominion and glory and a kingdom”, this would seem to be the obvious inference. If the “one like a son of man” is meant to be an angelic prince, it is remarkable that such an exalted figure is not mentioned here.
Admittedly, angels in Daniel are said to have human form: “the appearance of a mighty one” (Dan. 8:15); “the appearance of a man” (Dan. 10:18); “the likeness of the sons of man” (Dan. 10:16); or they are simply referred to as a “man” (Dan. 9:21; 10:5; 12:6, 7). But the terminology is different, and given the presence of angels in human form in the later chapters, we might wonder why no narrative or thematic correspondence is found with the vision of Daniel 7.
The “one like a son of man” is given dominion, etc., after the fourth beast has been destroyed. He is not a combatant. Michael is the “great prince” who has charge of Israel during the course of the conflict with Greece and who fights on behalf of Israel (Dan. 10:13, 20-21; 12:1). Murphy argues that the angelic interpretation is confirmed by the War Scroll: God “will raise up Michael in the midst of the gods, and the realm of Israel in the midst of all flesh”.2 But here too Michael has authority before the great conflict; he is not vindicated or rewarded after it: “He will send eternal support to the company of His redeemed by the power of the majestic angel of the authority of Michael” (1QM 17:6).
The people of the saints of the Most High
There is the further question of the identity of the “saints (qaddishei) of the Most High”. It is sometimes argued that the “saints” are not Israel but heavenly beings, which would lend weight to the view that the “one like a son of man” is likewise a heavenly figure, a leader of angels.
In Daniel “holy ones” (qaddishin) or “watchers” appear to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream or pass judgment on him, “to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:13, 17, 23). These are angelic figures, acting on behalf of and with the authority of God. It seems out of the question that they are meant to be regarded as the same “saints” who are warred against and worn down by Antiochus, who receive and possess the kingdom, and to whom will be given “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” (Dan. 7:27). On the contrary, the “holy ones” of chapter four affirm that God gives authority to men.
Later it is said that a Greek king will “destroy mighty men and the people (ʿam) who are the saints (qedoshim)” (Dan. 8:24). This is Antiochus again. In this telling of the story he will rise up against the “Prince of princes” (God? Michael? cf. 8:11; 10:21; 12:1), but he will be broken “by no human hand”. This looks like a good reason to think that the “saints” in Daniel 7 are the people of Israel.
The wider evidence of the Old Testament is divided: “he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut. 33:3); in the Psalms the “holy ones” may be Israel (Ps. 16:3; 34:9) or heavenly beings in the council of God (Ps. 89:5, 7).
Why does this matter?
Two dogmatic assumptions colour Christian understanding of the “coming on the clouds of heaven” texts in the New Testament. The first is the expectation that Jesus will come as the Son of Man to bring the curtain down on world history. The second is the view that the heavenly dimension to the Son of Man imagery points to a high christology according to which Jesus shares in the divine identity. It is then taken for granted that these two beliefs are present in Daniel 7. We read backwards from theology to Jesus to Daniel.
It is quite clear, however, that Daniel 7 presupposes a specific second century BC context—the persecution of conservative Jews by Antiochus IV. If we put our dogmatic assumptions aside for a moment and read the passage historically, what we have is a symbolic account of the victory of righteous Israel over Hellenistic imperialism (and entailed in that, over unrighteous Israel).
This sort of reading, however, opens up a significant gap between Daniel and the traditional understanding of the New Testament material. Theology pulls the New Testament in one direction. History pulls it in another.
My argument is that we should wrest the New Testament from the grip of dogmatic tradition and let history determine the meaning of the “Son of Man” language that is applied to Jesus. This may mean, of course, that we also need to reckon with the development of the motif in first century Jewish apocalyptic. But the basic outcome would be to allow the historical meaning of Daniel 7 to inform the interpretation of the New Testament passages. We should read forwards, from Daniel to Jesus, and then if necessary revise our theological constructs.