Surprisingly perhaps, there are different explanations given by Bible commentaries for this phrase, and all seem to have some validity.
Let us read Daniel 12:3-4, realizing that the context refers to the time of or close to the great tribulation (verse 1) and the resurrection (verse 2):
“But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”
Also, verses 9-10: “And he [the angel] said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.”
One explanation of the phrase, “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase,” refers to the unique worldwide travel in the end time with cars, buses, trains and airplanes, as well as the increase of physical knowledge (e.g., how to build an airplane and rockets, sending people into space and to the moon and back). Note, for instance, that the New Living Translation renders this phrase as follows: “But you, Daniel, keep this prophecy a secret; seal up the book until the time of the end, when many will rush here and there, and knowledge will increase.” The GOD’S WORD Translation says: “But you, Daniel, keep these words secret, and seal the book until the end times. Many will travel everywhere, and knowledge will grow.”
The Living Bible translates or interprets verse 4 as follows: “But Daniel, keep this prophecy a secret; seal it up so that it will not be understood until the end times, when travel and education shall be vastly increased.”
There are several explanations for this understanding. First, while it says in Daniel 12:4 that knowledge will increase, we read another end time prophecy in the book of Hosea that the knowledge of God is lacking, and so, the argument goes, the knowledge in Daniel 12 cannot refer to godly spiritual knowledge, but must address physical knowledge. Hosea 4:1, 6 reads: “Hear the word of the LORD, You children of Israel, For the LORD brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: There is no truth or mercy Or knowledge of God in the land… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you from being priest for Me…”
The Hebrew word for “knowledge” is “daath” and can indeed refer to physical knowledge as well as spiritual knowledge. Even though it is mostly describing godly knowledge, it can also refer to the knowledge of man being cut off from God, as they are eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Note Jeremiah 10:14 in the Authorized Version: “Every man is brutish in his knowledge.”)
In addition, the phrase “run to and fro” (Hebrew: “shut“) can refer to travel or movement from one physical place to another. For instance, we read in Jeremiah 5:1: “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem… If you can find a man… who executes judgment, Who seeks the truth, And I will pardon her…”
Also, note this end time prophecy in Amos 8:12: “They shall wander from sea to sea, And from north to east; they shall run to and fro seeking the word of the LORD, but shall not find it.”
Another reference can be found to the “eyes of the LORD” (angelic beings) who “run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (2 Chronicles 16:9). A parallel passage can be found in Zechariah 5:10 in the Authorized Version.
The Hebrew phrase “shut” is also used in 2 Samuel 24:2, 8 (“go throughout” and “go through” the land of Israel); Numbers 11:8 (they “went about” and gathered the manna); and Job 1:7; 2:2 (Satan “goes to and fro” on the earth and walks back and forth on it); as well as in Ezekiel 27:8 (“mariner”) and in Ezekiel 27:26 (“rower”).
We can see that in all these places where the Hebrew word “shut” is used, some kind of physical movement is being referred to. The German Pattloch Bible states: “Many will roam searching, and the thirst for knowledge will be great.”
However, most commentaries and Bible renditions convey the thought that the reference in Daniel 12:4 is not to travel and physical knowledge, but to the searching of the Scriptures and the gaining of spiritual knowledge. The thought is that people—the wise—will go to and fro in the Scriptures, searching them daily to see whether the things are so (compare Acts 17:11), and thereby increasing in godly knowledge (2 Peter 3:18).
For instance, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers states: “The verb ‘to run’ [in “run to and fro”] is used in Jeremiah 5:1 of searching after knowledge. In this sense it is used of ‘the eyes of the Lord’ (Zechariah 4:10; comp. Amos 8:12). In the same sense it is used in this verse. Many will anxiously search in this book for knowledge of the manner of God’s dealings with His people, and will derive comfort and understanding therefrom.”
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary agrees, pointing out:
“run to and fro—not referring to the modern rapidity of locomotion, as some think, nor to Christian missionaries going about to preach the Gospel to the world at large…, which the context scarcely admits; but, whereas now but few care for this prophecy of God, ‘at the time of the end,’ that is, near its fulfilment, ‘many shall run to and fro,’ that is, scrutinize it, running through every page. Compare Hab[akuk] 2:2…: it is thereby that ‘the knowledge (namely, of God’s purposes as revealed in prophecy) shall be increased’. This is probably being now fulfilled.”
The commentary of Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges seems to agree as well, stating:
“A famous passage… interpreted… as signifying that the complete exploration of the world… would coincide with great discoveries in science… This explanation of the words is, however, unhappily, too foreign to their context to be probable. But it must be admitted that the words are enigmatic… the sense generally given to the passage is that many will then run to and fro in the book, i.e. diligently explore and study it, and so the knowledge of God’s providential purposes, to be obtained from it… will be increased.”
This understanding is adopted by most German translations. The revised Luther Bible of 1984 states that “many will search in it (the book), and that they will find great knowledge.” The Zuercher Bible, the Menge Bible and the Schlachter Bible state that “many will search in it, and so knowledge will grow” or “increase.”
This understanding makes a lot of sense, when reviewing the context. We are informed that the book is sealed until the end, but then the wise will be purified and understand. In this context, the phrase “many will run to and fro” and “knowledge shall increase,” might very well refer to the searching of the Scriptures (running to and fro through the books of the Bible, and finding passages, here a little and there a little, which open up the understanding of the reader, compare Isaiah 28:9-10). This conclusion is not in conflict with the passages, previously cited, that the nation is destroyed for lack of knowledge, or that people will try, unsuccessfully, to hear or comprehend the Word of God. While unconverted people, being cut off from God, will not understand, those whom God has called and whom He is opening their minds, WILL understand.
This conclusion is not in conflict with the fact either that in the end time, there will be a falling away from the Truth. First of all, in order to fall away from the Truth, one has had to know the Truth first. (Also compare Daniel 11:33-35). Then, we read that after the time of the falling away has occurred, 144,000 Israelites and a great multitude of Gentiles will be sealed by God on their foreheads, having the name of their Father written on their foreheads (Revelation 7:3-4; 14:1). They will become worthy of protection from the plagues of the Day of the Lord, which will begin approximately one year prior to the return of Christ.
There is still a third way in which the phrase in Daniel 12:4 has been rendered and understood. The revised Luther Bible of 2017 translates: “Many will wander around (in the sense of, walking around in error, “herumirren” in German), and wickedness will increase.” The Elberfelder Bible states that the rendition “wickedness will increase” is due to a “change” of the text.
The commentary of Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges explains:
“The text, it must be owned, is open to suspicion. Prof. Bevan making a slight change… in a sense suggested by the LXX., obtains the rendering ‘many shall run to and fro (viz. in distraction), and evils (calamities) shall be increased.”
However, the Septuagint or LXX, the earliest extant Greek translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, does not state, “evils,” in the sense of “calamities,” but “wickedness [or evil] shall increase.”
This general understanding is not unbiblical, as Jesus Christ warned that in the end time, just prior to His return, “lawlessness will abound,” and “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). In the end-time prophecy of Joel 3:13, we read that “their wickedness is great.” In 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul gives a striking description of this present evil world (Galatians 1:4) and the end-time conditions of evil people and their wicked doings. Compare also Revelation 9:20-21; 11:18; 16:4-11. As it was in the time of Noah, when wickedness was great on the earth, so it will be again in the days of Christ’s coming (cp. Matthew 24:37-39 with Genesis 6:5, 11-13).
Daniel 12:4 shows, in context, that the Bible is a LIVING book. ALL of these different attempts to comprehend the meaning of this passage make sense to those who search in and believe the Bible and who KNOW their God and God’s Word. These different interpretations do not contradict each other (cp. John 10:35), but they complement each other in the spirit of biblical understanding.
It is undoubtedly true that in these end times, people travel a lot from one end of the earth to the other and that their physical knowledge has tremendously increased in comparison to earlier generations. It has been rightly said that this world is a world of awesome progress and appalling evils.
It is also true that while the gospel of the Kingdom of God is being preached as a witness to all nations (Matthew 24:14), those who are called by God respond and search the Scriptures to see whether these things are so, and, in the process, their spiritual knowledge increases.
Finally, it is true that while those drawn by God respond and become wise, others will reject the Truth, and wickedness and evil will increase on the earth. In fact, if Jesus Christ would not intervene and stop man’s madness and desire for destruction through nuclear and biological/chemical weapons, no flesh would be saved alive; everyone on this earth would die in a coming horrible World War, but for the elect’s sake—the chosen ones and the wise—Christ WILL intervene to shorten those days (Matthew 24:22).
As God is alive, so is His Word—the Bible. It is truly worthwhile and greatly rewarding to study it deeply.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link