“Now I will show you the truth.” The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) translates this sentence as, “What I am going to tell you now is true,” which, while not a strict translation, catches the meaning very well. Daniel 11:2 should actually have been numbered Daniel 11:1, see commentary on Daniel 11:1.
The verses that follow include a thumbnail history of Persia, Greece, and the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. Obviously, not every historical detail of that time period can be covered; that would take a huge book, but enough detail is covered that we get a general overview of many major events. The record of the events in Daniel 11, however, does not cover the Church Age.
Due to the short and thumbnail-like overview of the events, there are some descriptions in the prophecies that are either unclear or that do not seem to exactly match history. That is to be expected for several reasons. One is that God is not trying to give us the exact history of every event, but a general overview, especially from His perspective, of events. It often occurs in prophecy that what we get is a “take-home message,” not a blow-by-blow narrative.
Another reason is that not everything we find in the ancient records is accurate. Historians know this, and ancient histories are constantly being rewritten as new research reveals that what used to be thought as true has been found to be false or “not exact.” For example, kings were notorious for doctoring records to make themselves look favorable, and also, while God can reveal people’s hearts and motives, human historians cannot.
Another reason is that we often do not know the accurate translation of a word, or especially an idiomatic phrase. One only has to read an older version of the Bible such as the King James Version (1611) and compare it to a much more modern version such as the English Standard Version (last revised 2016) to see that the modern translations often differ greatly from the older versions.
Daniel 11 is broken into two major sections. Daniel 11:2-35 starts out by very briefly covering events in the Persian Empire, then the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and four of his generals. After that, it launches into a much more detailed account of the empires of two of Alexander’s generals and the two dynasties they start: the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties. Then there is a time gap that includes the Church Age, and then Daniel 11:36-45 deals with the time of the End, a time that is still future when the last Gentile ruler, whom we know as the Antichrist, rules the earth and meets his end: “he will come to his end with no one to help him” (Dan. 11:45).
Although Daniel saw the vision and wrote it down in 536/535 BC (Dan. 10:1), the events described in Daniel 11:2-35 happened many years after that. For example, Alexander the Great reigned from 336-323 BC, two hundred years after Daniel wrote, and the wars between the Seleucids and Ptolemies described in Daniel 11:5-35 took place over many years and many rulers, and ended some 350 years after Daniel wrote. Yet Daniel’s prophecies are so incredibly detailed, and so well documented in history by ancient authors such as Josephus (c. 37-100 AD), that historians who do not believe in God and prophecy deny that Daniel wrote them, asserting instead that they are so accurate they had to be written after the fact.
For example, The Interpreter’s Bible says, “Once we have accepted the second century B.C. as the time of writing rather than the seventh century B.C., we have a book that is religiously significant. …The book [of Daniel] is not magical foretelling. It deals with a contemporary situation, which removes it from the realm of suspicious superstitious magic to the realm of faith (The Interpreter’s Bible; Abingdon Press, 1956, p. 355). To us, this kind of interpretation is doubletalk. Why would a history written after the fact be more “religiously significant” than one written by revelation before the events happened? Indeed, why would writing a history after the fact be in “the realm of faith” at all? Furthermore, if God is real then surely He can reveal future events without that being “magical” foretelling. There is no “magic” involved. The believer accepts Daniel at face value, as Jesus did (cp. Matt. 24:15), and realized that God told Daniel what would happen before it happened.
It is proper to ask the question, “What was God’s purpose for giving such a detailed history of events involving the Jews so many years before the fact?” The answer is “hope.” The Jews could have hope in the midst of their difficult situation because they knew God had His hand upon them and their future is bright—even though it was still in the distant future. Furthermore, the hope God gives us from these limited vignettes of history should give us hope for all of history. The fact that God shows us that He has His hand on a small section of history is meant to teach us that He has His hand on all of history. Not that God controls history, He doesn’t. The earth is still a war zone between Good and Evil, and people still have free-will, but God can still influence the way history will develop, and He will bring things to a righteous and godly solution in the End.
To the Jews living through the Seleucid-Ptolemaic wars, those wars likely seemed endless, but the Jews who believed knew there was an end in sight, so they knew to stay faithful to God. Similarly, today and during the Great Tribulation in the future, believers going through those times may think the End is never coming, but reading Matthew 24, the book of Revelation, and chapters about the Tribulation in the Old Testament should give them the stamina, courage, and hope to stand and speak what is right (cp. Matt. 10:16-23).
“three more kings.” The current king was Cyrus (Daniel 10:1). The three more Persian kings were Cambyses (530-522 BC); Pseudo-Smerdis (also known as Gaumata) (522 BC); and Darius I (522-486 BC). Historians debate the exact dates, but these are very close.
“the fourth.” The fourth king of Persia after Cyrus was Xerxes I (486-465 BC). It was Xerxes I who stirred up his people against Greece, and then led against the Greeks one of the largest armies ever to be amassed in the ancient world consisting of hundreds of thousands of men. But the attack was a disaster and a great loss from which Xerxes never recovered. Thus, Daniel’s vision now moves on to Greece.