These remarkable prophecies, then, began to be fulfilled many centuries ago. They did not have to wait for the rise of the European Union for their fulfilment!
Roman Catholic in Religion, but Politically and Culturally Separate – Always
In v. 41 it says that “there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.” Once the western empire was divided into these barbarian kingdoms, it still retained some of the iron strength which had once characterised the empire when it was united. But the iron was mixed with miry clay! Meaning, it was partly strong, and partly weak. Historically, some of the ten kingdoms were strong, whereas others were weak.
Then in v. 42 it says that “as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.” This is similar to v.41. But the toes of the feet being part of iron and part of clay actually represent three things, two of which are found in verses 41 and 42, and the third in v.43.
The first interpretation that can be given to vv. 41 and 42 is that the iron and clay symbolise the strength of some of the ten kingdoms and the weakness of others. But the second interpretation that can be given to these two verses is that the iron and clay also symbolise the strength and weakness of the empire itself. Specifically, the iron symbolises the spiritual strength of the Roman Empire after its division into the ten kingdoms, and the clay symbolises the political weakness of the empire after this division.
There was a unifying force that held the barbarian kingdoms together; and this was the so-called “Catholic Church,” centred in Rome, which was the spiritual power of the Roman Empire, and which developed political power in the process of time! Thus, although the political empire was divided into ten kingdoms, the spiritual empire did not collapse, and was not divided, but continued on through the centuries.
In the early fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine professed conversion to “Christianity”. He was never truly converted at all; he merely pretended to be. But he declared that the empire would now be “Christian.” The so-called “Catholic” bishops and people were given protected status, and the so-called “Catholic Church” became the “State Church”, the State religion of the Roman Empire. And so it came to be that the empire was now unified by its new State religion, which was nothing less than a counterfeit “Christianity”! As one historian, writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, accurately put it: “The empire was now the church; it was now indeed indestructible, for if it perished as an empire, it would live as a church. But the church made it certain that it would not perish, even as an empire, for many centuries to come.” State and “Church” were now one. They became two sides of the same coin: the one side political, the other spiritual.
So then, when the barbarian invasions occurred, the Roman Empire was divided into ten. But the Roman “Church” did not collapse. The Britannica states that the impact of the barbarian invasions “seemed to split the empire into fragmentary kingdoms; yet it left the Universal Church intact, and with it the conception of empire.” Although the political empire was divided, the spiritual empire was not. The “iron” in the toes held the toes together even when mixed with clay. The bishop of Rome became, increasingly, the spiritual Roman Emperor of the West.
The political Roman Empire was fragmented into ten smaller, less powerful kingdoms. And this state of affairs would continue throughout the centuries to come. For as powerful as some of those kingdoms became, the political unity of the old Roman Empire was gone. The nations of Europe were not united.
At times, the only thing the various European nations had in common was the Roman Catholic religion! Until the Protestant Reformation, Europe was almost completely Papist in religion. The Papist religion was the cement (the iron) that held Europe together. As diverse as the nations of Europe were in other ways, their one unifying force was Roman Catholicism. And although the Reformation resulted in the formation of such ecclesiastical institutions as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, etc., essentially the same religious system persisted in them! For as Scripture says, they were simply “daughters” of the Papal Mother of Harlots (Rev.17:5). They were still “State Churches”; still persecuted those who differed with them; still taught the heresy of baptismal regeneration, among other errors; and still retained a great many Popish trappings.
But there is also a third meaning to the iron and clay. It is found in v.43, which states that “whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.”
This verse does not contradict v.41, which says, “thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay”. Iron does not mix with clay in the sense of being mixed in with it, cemented together, so that the two merge and lose their separate identities. But they can be said to mix in the sense of iron being between the clay, and clay between the iron.