I am firmly of the view that in the symbology of Daniel 7 the “one like a son of man” who is brought to the throne of the Ancient of Days stands for the persecuted people of the saints of the Most High, in much the same way that the four beasts in the first part of the vision stand for malevolent and destructive empires. I also think that Jesus identified himself with this narrative as a way of speaking about his own suffering and vindication in connection with the judgment and renewal of Israel.
However, Daniel says that all peoples and nations would “serve” (yiflchun) this “son of man” figure (Dan. 7:14, cf. 27), and it is sometimes argued from the use of this verb that the “one like a son of man” is a divine figure who will be worshipped by the nations. If that’s the case, then Jesus’ self-reference as the Son of Man must be an implicit assertion of his divinity. It’s a fairly obscure point of interpretation, but since the claim has again been made here, I want to try and show once and for all why I think it is wrong.
As I’ve said many times before, this is not an argument against Trinitarianism, which I think was an inevitable and appropriate rationalisation of the problematic New Testament data under the circumstances. It is an argument for a political-historical reading of the apocalyptic story about Jesus, who was given authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations of the pagan world.
The Aramaic verb pelach occurs nine times in Daniel and, with the exception of Daniel 7:14, 27, has the clear meaning “pay reverence to” or “serve” with reference to a deity. Daniel and his friends do not “serve” the gods of the Babylonians; they “serve” only the God of Israel (Dan. 3:12, 14, 17, 28; 6:17, 21). So, for example, following the release of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar blesses the God who delivered his servants who “yielded up their bodies rather than serve (yiflchun) and worship (yisgedun) any god except their own God” (Dan. 3:28). In all these references the object is clearly stated: it is either God or the gods or an image of the gods.
Some sort of distinction needs to be drawn in Daniel between serving God or the gods and (falling down and) worshipping God or the gods. To “worship” (segid) appears to entail prostration and would typically have in view prostration before the image of a deity (cf. Dan. 3:5-6, 10-11, 15). To “serve” the deity presumably refers to a more general pattern of religious allegiance and devotion.
Outside of Daniel pelach is found only in Ezra 7:24 where the participle is used for the “other servants (palche) of this house of God”. We also find the noun polchan (“service, worship”) in Ezra 7:19.
The context in Daniel 7:14, however, is rather different. There is no reference to prostration or “worship”; nor do we have the narrative of conflicting religious loyalties that accounted for the use of pelach in the earlier chapters. The one who will be “served” by the nations is characterised not as a god or idol or as God, before whom they will prostrate themselves and worship; rather, he is said to be the recipient of dominion, glory and a kingdom—a dominion that will not pass away and a kingdom “that shall not be destroyed”. The point of the vision is that the “one like a son of man”, whether he is an individual or a group of people, will be given the authority to rule.
This distinction between the service of gods or God and the subservience of one political entity to another is reflected both in the Greek terminology and in the use of pelach in the Aramaic Targums. The six Aramaic chapters of Daniel are a very limited basis on which to determine the meaning of the verb.
The Greek versions have latreuō (LXX) or douleuō (Theod.). Both words can be used either for religious observance, the rendering of service to God, or for political servitude—for example:
…because you did not serve (elatreusas) the Lord your God with rejoicing and with a good heart for the abundance of everything. And you shall serve (latreuseis) your enemies whom the Lord will send against you… (Deut 28:47–48)
For the nations and kings that will not be subject (doulousousin) to you shall perish, and the nations shall be made desolate with desolation. (Is 60:12)
Daniel says of Nebuchadnezzar: “The strength of the earth and the nations and all the languages unto the ends of the earth and all countries are slaves (douleuousi) to you” (Dan. 4:18). According to the Psalms of Solomon the future Davidic king will “have the peoples of the nations to be subject (douleuein) to him under his yoke” (Pss. Sol. 17:30).
In the Targums pelach is widely used for the service or worship of God or gods, but also for the subordination of one people to another: Canaan will be “a serving (palach) slave to his brothers” (Tg. Gen. 9:25); Egypt will “no longer subjugate (yiflechun) the nations” (Tg. Ezek. 29:15). Isaac blesses Jacob: “May nations serve (yiflechun) you and may kingdoms be subject to you” (Tg. Gen. 27:29). When Israel makes war against a city and the city submits, “all the people who are inside it shall become givers of tribute to you and shall serve (yiflechun) you” (Tg. Deut. 20:11).
As with the Greek text, the distinction between the two contexts of usage is neatly illustrated from Deuteronomy 28:47-48:
Because you did not worship (pelachtaʾ) before the Lord your God in joy and beauty of heart, out of the abundance of everything, so you will serve (tiflach) your enemies whom the Lord will provoke against you. (Tg. Deut. 28:47–48).
It seems to me pretty clear, therefore, that pelach means “to serve” (not “to worship”) and that the precise connotations are determined by the context. At issue in the early chapters of Daniel is the question of which God/gods Daniel and his friends would “serve”, before which deity they would fall down and worship. In Daniel 7, however, the controlling question is who would rule over the nations—Greece, specifically in the person of Antiochus Epiphanes, or the people of the saints of the Most High.
The prophetic vision, consistent with the earlier texts cited (eg. Gen. 27:29; Deut. 28:47-48; cf. Pss. Sol. 17:30), is that the nations which formerly had served Nebuchadnezzar or Alexander or Antiochus Epiphanes would serve that part of Israel which remained true to the covenant during the crisis.
The angel interpreter says finally that “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve (yiflchun) and obey him” (Dan. 7:27). The service of the nations is represented not as worship but as obedience. The LXX has “will be subjected (hypotagēsontai) to him”; Theodotion has douleusousin. The singular reference (“his kingdom… shall serve and obey him”) is either to the singular son of man figure or to the “people”.
So there is no basis for the claim that the “one like a son of man” would be worshipped as God by the nations. Rather, we have found further solid support for the political-historical reading of the apocalyptic story about Jesus, who was opposed by apostate Israel, killed by the pagan occupier, but was given authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations of the pagan world.