This doctrine presents itself in the Hebrew and Christian tradition through their respective scriptures, specifically the book of Daniel where finds two separate and distinct expressions. First it is elaborated through Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, in which a statue appears with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of clay mingled with iron. Within this passage, the image is explained to King Nebuchadnezzar as a sequence of “kingdoms.” Exegetes have, of course, gone to great lengths in their attempts to pin down precisely which historical kingdoms are in question, but this is not our concern at the moment. Traditional representations were understood to contain multiple levels of meaning, and thus traditional interpretation took this into account. So, while the attempt to link the “kingdoms” to specific historical peoples may be a valid pursuit, it is ultimately an inferior one, limited as it is to the historical layer of meaning, which is the lowest category of traditional interpretation. We are concerned here rather with the deepest and most profound category, which was called anagogical. In an anagogical context, therefore, the four metals do not correspond to four historical and geographically positioned peoples, but rather to the four Ages: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. The last substance (clay mingled with iron) represents the period of indistinction and chaos which we know as the Apocalypse.
The fact that modern exegetes do not mention this interpretation is a great demonstration of why ‘private interpretation’ of scripture always horrified the Church: it shows how much what we already think we know determines what we will get in our ‘Bible studies.’ Christians who do not attach themselves to a traditional framework are doomed to be limited by their methodology, not to mention their mentality, to discovering only the most literal and superficial meanings in their Scriptures.
There is some irony here: today’s Bible apologists lament about how methodologically narrow their atheistic, scientific, and materialist opponents have become, using this to explain their blasphemous conclusions. In all this they are correct, except that they have adopted the same narrowness in their own field, and it has had the same blasphemous results. A long history of exegetical technique was discarded, resulting in all interpretive possibilities reduced to only the literal, only the most perspicuous. Luckily this was not always the case, and therefore we find in St. Jerome’s writings the doctrine of the Ages clearly stated as well as man’s current position on the timeline properly identified. Another early Christian exegete of the Four Ages, Hippolytus, even went to far as to identify the “clay mingled with iron” with democracies!
Further, we are affirmed in our interpretation by Daniel’s second statement of the doctrine. The prophet receives a vision of four great beasts, each distinct from one another, each appearing more terrible than the one previous. The final beast is nothing if not an example of formlessness, multiplicity, and chaos, armed specifically with “iron teeth.” As the angel proceeds to explain, these beasts represent four periods of increasing disorder, the fourth of which will “devour the earth.” This should also be connected with the great “conglomerate beast” which appears in the book of Revelation.