I want to propose a different reading of Daniel 7. It has been customary to read the Gospels, see Jesus call himself the "son of man," and then go back to Daniel's vision and say "See, that's Jesus!," but I have come to believe that this view begs too many questions and spuriously imports ideas from outside the context of Daniel 7 to support itself. If we simply read the text for what it says in its own literary context, a very different picture emerges. And when we go to the Gospels with that picture in mind, instead of working the other way around, I think we will find that some otherwise puzzling "son of man" sayings suddenly make perfect sense.
So what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that the "son of man" who is exalted and vindicated over the "beasts" in the vision is actually an image for Israel. There are several things that favor this reading:
1) The vision itself is packed with symbolism. It is, of course, a classic example of the apocalyptic genre, with its high value for fantastic imagery. There is a raging sea that represents chaos, wild beasts that represent kingdoms, and horns that represent kings. It just makes sense, within this literary context, for the "son of man" to represent something other than itself, an individual human figure. Especially in view of the repetition of similes throughout the vision, "like a lion... like a bear... like a leopard... like a son of man," it would be a strange break from the context if it was not symbolic.
2) As we all know, the "beasts" in the vision represent whole kingdoms that would arise in the earth and oppress God's people. But if the "beasts" represent whole kingdoms that would oppress Israel, then it makes sense for the "son of man" who is vindicated over those "beasts" to represent the nation of Israel corporately, the people who were suffering under the tyranny of those monstrous kingdoms.
3) This is the clincher. In the angel's interpretation of the vision in verses 15-27, he never mentions an individual human figure, a Messiah, receiving the kingdom after the wicked kingdoms are judged. However, very significantly, in verses 18, 24, and 27 the angel uses the same language that was used in relation to the "son of man" in the vision and applies it to the "people of the saints of the most high". They are the ones to whom the ancient of days gives "the kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole of heaven," just like he gives it to the "son of man" in the vision. In other words, the passage itself tells us that the "son of man" refers to the saints of Israel.
4) It is likely, granted the last 3 points, that the imagery of the vision is looking back to Genesis 2, where Adam, the archetypal "man," is charged with the vocation of ruling over the "beasts" of the garden. God's covenantal purpose for Israel was, of course, that she would help reverse the curse, that as Abraham's "seed" she would be a blessing to the whole earth. It would only be appropriate, and would accord with other instances of the same imagery functioning in the same way in the OT (e.g. Ps. 8), for Israel to be spoken of in Adam-language, drawing out and pointing to the meaning of her covenantal calling, which was to be the true humanity in a fallen and monstrous world.
Now what would this mean for Jesus' use of the "son of man" in the Gospels? It has often been observed that Daniel's "son of man" was the primary biblical template from which he gathered his own sense of vocation. Jesus pointed back to Daniel 7 more than any other OT passage when explaining who he was and what he was called to do. In fact, Jesus' own allusions to Daniel 7 constitute the majority of the data that we have with which to understand how this passage would have been read in the Second Temple period. Now that we've looked at Daniel 7 on its own terms, I will argue that Jesus' usage fits best with the historical reading I've suggested.
Generally speaking, the "son of man" sayings which appear in the Synoptic Gospels can be divided into two categories: (1) Those sayings in which Jesus speaks of the "son of man" coming on the clouds, entering into his glory, sitting on his throne etc (e.g. Matt 16:27; 24:30; 25:31). We shall label these the glorification sayings. (2) Those sayings in which Jesus predicts his own tribulation, being handed over to the Gentiles, eventually dying and after three days rising again (e.g. Mark 9:12, 31; 10:33, 45). We shall label these the suffering sayings.
Now as far as the glorification sayings are concerned, it works quite nicely to see Jesus reading Daniel's "son of man" as a deux et machina, a messianic savior coming down out of heaven to deliver the suffering saints of Israel. Although we note that in Daniel's own context, the "son of man" does not appear to be coming down out of heaven to deliver some other, curiously unmentioned party, but rather he appears to coming up into heaven, into the courtroom of the Ancient of Days to be delivered and vindicated himself. In other words, it appears that the "son of man" is actually the one who is suffering under the tyranny of the "beast," being "given into his hand for a time and times and half a time," and who thereafter has a judgment made in his favor, the "kingdom and dominion" being transferred to him from his persecutors. And this way of reading Daniel's original meaning fits just as nicely with Jesus' glorification sayings, seeing in them the implication of exaltation after suffering.
Which leads us to the second category of Jesus' usage. We often see Jesus saying things like "How is it written concerning the son of man, that he must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?," and "the son of man will be betrayed... and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles." Sayings like this are completely puzzling if we understand Daniel's "son of man" as a deux et machina, especially since it really does appear that Jesus is basing his expectation of suffering on what is written "concerning the son of man". But if we read Daniel 7 as I have suggested, seeing the "son of man" as a symbol for Israel, the "saints of the Most High" in the vision's interpretation, then all these "suffering sayings" fall perfectly into place. When Jesus says that he is going to be handed over to the Gentiles in texts like Mark 10:33, he is actually quoting from Daniel 7:25, which says that the saints will be handed over to a monstrous nation to be persecuted before they are vindicated in the heavenly court and their oppressors judged.
If Jesus read Daniel 7 regularly, which he undoubtedly did, then it would only make sense for him to develop a sense of vocation in terms of suffering on behalf of his people, as their representative head. And if he read Daniel 7 hand-in-hand with Isaiah 40-55, which (as Mark 10:45 suggests) he undoubtedly did, then it would only make sense for him to see that representative suffering in redemptive terms, as a calling to bear in his own person the iniquity of the whole nation, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Now I must be clear: I'm not saying that Jesus wasn't calling himself the "son of man". My point is that he was, but that the meaning he intended in identifying himself as the "son of man" was an Israel-meaning. That is, he was saying "I am the Messiah, the representative of God's people, the true Israel, the true humanity."
This makes perfect sense within the story the Gospel writers tell, which is Jesus' story as the climax of Israel's history. They consistently parrallel his life and ministry with the history and vocation of Israel (e.g. Matt 2:14-15). And they didn't make this up; Jesus himself believed that, as the Messiah, what he was doing was bringing Israel's history to its God-intended climax, and so he regularly and intentionally patterned his actions after Israel's history (e.g. his baptizm echos the exodus, and he immediately goes into the wilderness for 40 days to identify with Israel's 40 years of wandering).
He intentionally picked 12 disciples, and he gave them promises about their leadership over God's people in the coming age (e.g. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30), because he believed that through his messianic work God was renewing and reconstituting God's chosen people Israel. And as the Messiah, the one through whom God was inaugurating his soveriegn rule, the boundary lines of the covenant were being redrawn around himself (e.g. Matt 7:24-27; 8:11-12; 12:50).
With all this in mind, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would look to a passage like Daniel 7 as a primary template for his vocation as Israel's representative. The point of passages like Matthew 24:30 (and 10:23, 16:27 and 26:64) is that Jesus and his followers will be vindicated over all who stand against them and persecute them unjustly, i.e. the ancient of days will make a verdict in favor of the "son of man" over against the "beasts". And the ironic thing is that the ones who stood in the position of the "beasts" in Jesus' day were, not least, the leadership of Israel.
And that is the rhetorical force that the Olivet Discourse carried within the eschatological framework of the first century: Jesus was turning the popular expectation (that God would deliver Israel, the "son of man," from the Romans, the "beast," and exalt them over all the kingdoms of the earth) completely on its head, because of Israel's persistent unfaithfulness to their calling to be the true humanity. He was taking their vocation upon himself in order to save as many as would come to him.
So then, in conclusion, we have found that Daniel's original context as well as Jesus' frequent allusions throughout the Gospels support our proposal, that the "son of man" refers first to Israel, the "saints of the most high" in the vision's interpretation, and then from that foundational meaning it applies to Jesus, Israel's Messiah.