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Daniel 11: The Fourth Syrian War

Aug 21, 2015

Daniel 11:7 (NASB) reads,

7 But one of the descendants of her line will arise in his place, and he will come against their army and enter the fortress of the king of the North, and he will deal with them and display great strength.

The NASB version above implies that one of Bernice’s descendants would lead an army against the king of the north. But there is no evidence that this happened. The problem is in the translation. The first part of this verse is rendered by the Concordant Version, “Yet one stands from the scion of her roots, in his post, and he will come to lead the army.”

In other words, the one leading the Egyptian army against Syria was someone from her family, that is, someone who was from her own “roots.” This was her brother, Ptolemy III, who was ruling Egypt since their father had died in 246 B.C. Ptolemy led an army against Syria to avenge his sister’s murder. Historians call it the Laodicean War, because the murder was ordered by Laodice.

Laodice, the ambitious queen, enthroned her oldest son, Seleucus II in 246, while Ptolemy III declared war against him. Ptolemy won major victories in Syria and Anatolia and even briefly occupied Antioch itself, “the fortress of the king of the north.” His army then went as far as Babylon and was able to regain the statues of the gods of Egypt that had been taken to Babylon by the Persian king, Cambyses some centuries earlier. For this reason, upon his return to Egypt, he was given the title Euergetes, or “Benefactor” and was then known as Ptolemy Euergetes.

So Daniel 11:8 (NASB) says,

8 And also their gods with their metal images and their precious vessels of silver and gold he will take into captivity to Egypt

In all, he took 2,400 images to Egypt, along with 40,000 talents of silver.

Ptolemy Outlives His Syrian Rival

The last part of Daniel 11:8 reads in the NASB,

8 … and he on his part will refrain from attacking the king of the North for some years.

This translation again misses the point. The KJV reads, “he shall continue more years than the king of the north.” This agrees with the Septuagint, which reads, “he shall last longer than the king of the north.” A third witness is Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible, which reads, “and he will stand more [years] than the king of the north.”

In other words, this refers to Ptolemy’s reign of 24 years from 246-222 B.C. He outlived Seleucus II of Syria by three years. Seleucus died in 225.

Ptolemy Returns to Egypt

Daniel 11:9 (NASB) continues,

9 Then the latter will enter the realm of the king of the South, but will return to his own land.

I am at a loss to explain how the NASB could translate this verse in such a manner. The translators tell us that “the latter” (that is, the king of the north, or Syria) will “enter” Egypt. The Septuagint reads,

9 And he shall enter into the kingdom of the king of the south, and shall return to his own land.

This simply refers to the triumphal return of Ptolemy to Egypt at the end of the Laodicean War. The Jewish scholars who translated the Scriptures into Greek in the centuries before Christ, understood it in this way. The Concordant Version confirms this, saying,

9 when he comes into the kingdom of the king of the southland, he returns to his ground.

Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible reads,

9 so will the king of the south enter into the kingdom and then return unto his own soil.

The Fourth Syrian War (219-217 B.C.)

There was a prophetic gap between verse 9 and verse 10. After Ptolemy Euergetes died in 222, his son Ptolemy IV (“Philopater”) ruled from 222-205 B.C. Philopater means “love for father.” This name was not given to him because he loved his father. The people themselves gave him this name as a dark joke, because it was commonly believed that he had killed his parents in order to obtain the throne for himself. More than that, he was particularly licentious in his personal life, and most of the people despised him.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Seleucus II had died in 225 and was succeeded by his son, Seleucus Ceraunus, who reigned just two years. He died in 223 after falling off a horse and was replaced in 222 by his younger brother, Antiochus III, who was just eighteen. He reigned 36 years.

Four years into his reign, in 219, Antiochus III declared war on Egypt. Daniel 11:10 prophesies of this, saying,

10 And his sons [or son] will mobilize and assemble a multitude of great forces; and one of them will keep on coming and overflow and pass through, that he may again wage war up to his very fortress.

How many sons mobilized to attack Egypt? Dr. Bullinger’s notes in The Companion Bible, tell us,

Sons. Heb. text is “son” (sing.) But the Hebrew marg., with some codices and one early printed edition, read “sons” (pl.), as here: i.e., Seleucus (Callinicus) and his brother Antiochus III.

The old Hebrew texts appear to differ. If it is to be read as “son” (singular), then it refers to Antiochus III who actually declared war on Egypt. If plural, then it includes the preparations for war that were started during the short reign of his older brother, Seleucus II. Either way, it is not a crucial point. The prophecy is about the Syrian war campaign against Egypt.

Antiochus III was called “The Great” for restoring much of the original territory that his father had lost. He inherited a disorganized kingdom, much of which had become independent. Scripture does not concern itself with Antiochus’ campaigns in the east. The focus is upon his attempt to conquer Egypt, because the road to Egypt ran through Judea.

Historians refer to this war as the Fourth Syrian War. He attacked Egypt in 219 B.C. and was at first successful. But as we read in Daniel 11:11,

11 And the king of the South will be enraged and go forth and fight with the king of the North. Then the latter will raise a great multitude, but that multitude will be given into the hand of the former. 12 When the multitude [the Syrian army] is carried away [“subdued”], his heart will be lifted up, and he will cause tens of thousands to fall; yet he will not prevail.

History shows that the Egyptian king, Ptolemy IV was finally able to defeat the Syrian king, Antiochus III. In the battle of Raphia (in Gaza), the Egyptian army prevailed in one of the largest battles of the ancient world. Syria had 62,000 infantry, 6000 cavalry, and 102 Indian elephants along with his large army. Ptolemy had 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 African elephants. It is the only known battle where Indian elephants were pitted against African elephants.

The larger Indian elephants, according to Polybius, panicked the smaller African elephants. Nonetheless, Ptolemy’s well-trained cavalry won the battle for Egypt and captured most of the Indian elephants. The “multitude” of the Syrian army was “given into the hand of the former,” that is, Egypt.

The Egyptian victory at Raphia secured for them Syrian territory, including Judea. After his victory, Ptolemy gave himself up to licentiousness and even profaned the temple in Jerusalem by entering the holy place. Ptolemy died in 204 and was succeeded by his young son, Ptolemy V “Epiphanes.”

In 198, Antiochus retook all the territory that he had lost after the battle of Raphia. So the latter part of Daniel 11:12 says of the victory at Raphia, “he shall not be strengthened by it.” In other words, whatever strength Ptolemy received insofar as territory was concerned, it was only temporary. Judea again passed back into the hands of Syria. Daniel 11:13 concludes,

13 For the king of the North will again raise a greater multitude than the former, and after an interval of some years [217-198 B.C.] he will press on with a great army and much equipment.


This is part 62 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Daniel." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Daniel


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