“son of man.” The phrase “son of man” is a Semitic idiom for a human being, and the phrase occurs in both the Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the Old Testament (some parts of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic). In Hebrew the basic phrase translated “son of man” is ben adam (cp. Num. 23:19), while in Aramaic (cp. Dan. 7:13), it is bar enash. The phrase occurs in different ways, “son of man,” “sons of man,” “sons of men,” etc., but the meaning is basically the same: it means a human or humans. When it occurs in the Greek text of the New Testament, the Semitic idiom is simply imported literally into the Greek. When the phrase occurs in more literal translations of the Bible such as the King James, it usually appears like “son of man,” but when it is translated in gender-neutral Bibles such as the NRSV it is usually translated as “human,” “human being,” “mortal,” “one/anyone,” etc.
The phrase “son of man” occurs throughout the Old Testament, and interestingly, the first time it occurs is when Balaam the prophet said that God was not a “son of man,” that is, a human (Num. 23:19). In Deuteronomy 32:8, we see that God divided “the sons of man,” the humans, into their respective nations. In 2 Samuel 7:14, God speaks about Solomon via the prophet Nathan and says that if Solomon sins then God will punish him with blows “of the sons of men,” that is blows by humans (cp. NET; NIV), which is indeed what happened to Solomon. In Jeremiah 32:19, the ways of the sons of man, i.e., humans, are all open to God. In Joel 1:12, due to the foretold destruction of the land, joy among the sons of man, the people, withers away. Also, in Daniel 10:16 an angel is referred to as being in the “form” of a son of man, that is, in the form of a human being. There are many other clear references to “son of man” referring to humans (cp. Job 25:6; Ps. 144:3; 146:3; Isa. 51:12; 56:2; Jer. 49:18; Dan. 8:17). God addresses Ezekiel as “son of man” over 90 times. Although it seems clear that God is referring to Ezekiel as a human being, there are other reasons for that as well.
The meaning of “son of man” became more complicated when the book of Daniel was written because the phrase took on a second meaning. In Daniel 7:13, “one like a son of man” was used to describe the Messiah, and so “son of man” became a Messianic title. Thus, as we enter the New Testament era, “son of man” had both meanings: “human being” and “Messiah,” and that was confusing to many people. We see that confusion in verses such as John 12:34, when the crowd said to Jesus, “…how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up?’ Who is this Son of Man?”
The “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13 is not specifically called the Messiah, and that has led to many theories about what it refers to, including the nation of Israel itself. John Collins wrote about how Daniel 7:13 has been interpreted, starting in the early centuries after Christ:
“The Messianic interpretation prevails in rabbinic literature and remains the majority opinion among the medieval Jewish commentators…Early Christian interpreters assume the identity of the ‘son of man’ with Christ and usually read Dan. 7:13 as a prophecy of the second coming. …In summary, the traditional interpretations of the ‘one like a human being’ in the first millennium overwhelmingly favor the understanding of this figure as an individual, not as collective symbol. The most usual identification was the messiah…. [But] Since the rise of critical scholarship, diverse explanations of the one like a son of man have been set forward. They may be classified in three categories: (1) an exalted human being, (2) a collective symbol, (3) a heavenly being.” (John J. Collins. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. A Hermeneia commentary, Fortress Press, 1993).
As Collins points out, in the centuries after Christ, both Jewish and Christian scholars thought Daniel 7:13 was speaking of the Messiah, but in the last century or so that has shifted, and many modern scholars do not think that “one like the son of man” refers to Jesus Christ, a fact that is reflected in many of the modern commentaries. Conservative Christian scholars, however, still conclude that the “son of man” in Daniel 7:13 is the Messiah.
The context and scope of Scripture, and Jesus’ own use of the phrase “son of man,” strongly supports the conclusion that the son of man in Daniel 7:13 is the Messiah. One of the strongest examples from Scripture is Mark 14:61-62, when Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin. It says, “Again the high priest asked him [Jesus], and says to him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Here, Jesus equates “the Christ” with “the Son of Man” and refers those two titles to himself. Also, Daniel 7:13 is the only Old Testament reference of anyone besides God coming in the clouds of heaven, which Jesus said he was going to do.
Daniel 7:14 then shows God giving the “son of man” dominion, glory, and an everlasting kingdom in which all people serve him. In all of Scripture there is only one being who fulfills that prophecy, and that is the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Many Old Testament Scriptures indicate that the Messiah will rule the earth (cp. Ps. 2:8-12; 72:1-17; 110:1-5; Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-5, 10; 42:1-7; 49:5-7; 55:1-5; Ezek. 37:24-28; Dan. 2:35, 44; and see also Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the son of man in Daniel 7:13 refers to the Messiah is that in the New Testament, the phrase “son of man” is used only of Jesus Christ and not of any other person or entity. So the biblical evidence leads to the conclusion that in Daniel, “one like a son of man” is the Messiah.
We also get some insight from the New Testament as to why the text of Daniel says, “one like a son of man.” The word “like” can refer to what Daniel saw, i.e., someone that looked human, and that would certainly be true. But more than that, when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, comes in his new glorified body, he will be fully human just as he always was, but his new, spiritually powered everlasting body will only be “like” the flesh body we humans have now, and thus the statement “one like a son of man” perfectly fits the glorified Christ.
It is worth noting that Daniel says that the Messiah comes “with the clouds of heaven.” The bright glory that surrounds God is often described as a cloud (Ezek. 10:3-4), and we see it in Moses’ Tent of Meeting and Solomon’s Temple (Exod. 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3), and at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34). Sometimes the cloud could be dark and threatening, as it was on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:16-18; 24:16-18). It is appropriate that when the glorified Messiah comes as God’s Son and regent, he also is described as coming in the clouds because it points to his glory and power due to his being “Lord and Christ” (Matt. 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; Rev. 1:7).
Another implication of Jesus’ “coming in the clouds” is that he is coming in judgment. In the Old Testament, God came in the clouds to fight and judge His enemies (Ps. 18:6-14; 97:1-3; Isa. 19:1; Nah. 1:3-6). Similarly, when Jesus comes in the clouds it will be to fight the Battle of Armageddon and judge the earth (Matt. 24:29-31; 25:31-46; cp. Rev. 19:11-21). Then, after Jesus conquers the earth, he will set up his kingdom on it as Scripture says.
[For more on the cloud that often surrounds God see commentary on Ezekiel 1:28. For more on Jesus’s kingdom on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on Jesus Christ being fully human, see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son.” For more on why God addresses Ezekiel as “son of man,” see commentary on Ezekiel 2:1].
“coming with the clouds of heaven.” We today know from the New Testament that this refers to Jesus Christ coming down from heaven, but in the Old Testament and Gospels the people did not know that. They did not know about the ascension, and it caught even Jesus’ apostles by surprise (Acts 1:9-11). They had just asked him if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel and all he told them was it was not for them to know the timing of that (Acts 1:6-8). At the Last Supper, Jesus told the Apostles he was going away, but he never told them that meant into heaven and they were very clear that they did not know where he was going. Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going” (John 14:5), and Jesus never told them anything except, “I go to the Father” (John 14:28), but they still did not know what that meant. We must keep in mind that even at the Last Supper the Apostles did not really understand that Jesus was going to die, so they certainly did not understand the ascension.
Not only does the Old Testament not speak of an ascension, the text here in Daniel does not explicitly tell us whether this son of man is moving up, down, or sideways. Competent scholars have argued for both upwards from earth to heaven and downwards from heaven to earth. The clouds of heaven are generally above the earth, but sometimes the cloud of glory associated with God was on earth and moved along with Him (cp. Ezek. 1:4, 28. See commentary on Ezek. 1:28).
The major reason for confusion about this verse, and the reason that the apostles were so caught off guard by the ascension, was the fact that in the entire Old Testament there is no verse about the Messiah ascending to heaven to be with God. The Messiah is born on earth (Isa. 9:6) and conquers evil and rules the earth (cp. Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-9; 61:1-3; Micah 5:2-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mal. 3:1-3; 4:1-3).
There are Old Testament scriptures about the Day of Yahweh and the great tribulation associated with it but the Messiah is not there in that tribulation, which we today know is because he ascended into heaven and is not on earth during that time (see commentary on Dan. 12:1). Isaiah 63 portrays the Messiah conquering the nations, and even the ancient rabbis knew that Isaiah 63 referred to the Messiah (cp. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix IX, “List of Old Testament Passages Messianically Applied in Ancient Rabbinic Writings”). However, when Jesus comes and conquers the nations as portrayed in Isaiah 63, he does not come down from heaven, he comes from the southeast of Israel, from Edom, and how he got there is never explained. Also, Zechariah 14:3-5 speaks of Yahweh fighting His enemies, which He would do through His Messiah, and standing on the Mount of Olives. It is assumed by some teachers that the Messiah will land on the Mount of Olives, but the text never says that. Putting Isaiah 63 together with Zechariah 14:4, it is more likely that the Messiah comes into Israel from the south and reaches the Mount of Olives.
In conclusion, we today with 20-20 hindsight can see that Daniel 7:13 is about Jesus coming down from heaven, conquering the earth and taking dominion of it, but that was unclear until New Testament times.