We begin our reading this evening with the paragraph with which we concluded our reading last Lord’s Day evening. It reminds us that what follows in vv. 24-27 is a revelation brought to Daniel by the angel Gabriel in response to Daniel’s prayer. It also raises an obvious question: how can a promise to give Daniel “insight and understanding” have been fulfilled by one of the most difficult prophesies to understand in the entire Bible?
v.21 Did you notice the time reference? The evening sacrifice was the second scheduled burnt offering every day in the temple. One in the morning, one in the afternoon. It was made at about 3:00 p.m. But that isn’t what is interesting. What is interesting is that there hadn’t been an evening sacrifice for nearly fifty years and Daniel hadn’t been in Jerusalem to witness such a sacrifice for nearly seventy years! As Ralph Davis puts it, “After decades of time and in a foreign land he still functioned on “Jerusalem time”. Daniel still ordered his life and he still counted the time of his life liturgically. We should do the same, brothers and sisters. For example, we have capitulated to the cultural assumption that the Lord’s Day is part of the weekend. It is not. It is the first day of the week and we, of all people, ought to remember that and speak and act accordingly. It makes a difference if you think of Sunday the way most Americans do, as your last free day before you go back to work. It is thus your day, not the Lord’s Day! Ralph Davis provides a splendid illustration of this principle of a brief statement that, in fact, hides within it a world of meaning. I want you to hear this in its entirety.
“I recall helping my mother with the dishes one evening when I was about fifteen. No dishwasher then; she was washing, I was drying. As she gazed out the kitchen window with her hands in the suds, she suddenly exclaimed, ‘I miss my father!’ I didn’t follow that up. I was fifteen. I had no psychological finesse for ‘probing’ that remark; if I had, it would have been wrong-headed to do so. Yet it was very revealing. I remembered that my mother had always spoken highly of her father. Her only disappointment in him was that he sometimes smoked a pipe! I knew Grandpa Wilson had lived with my mother and father in his last years – my older brothers used to speak of him. But grandpa had been dead by the time I was born. And now I am standing by the kitchen sink with a woman in her late fifties and out of the blue she says, ‘I miss my father!’ That was no throwaway line. Rather it was a concise compendium packed with respect and affection spilling out of a thoughtful and overflowing heart. At the time of the evening sacrifice is like that. It reveals far more than Daniel’s ability to tell time; that time-indicator is packed with years of yearning and longing and affection for Yahweh’s ordinances, a passion for the ‘means of grace’ of true Jerusalem worship. Sometimes what may seem incidental reveals a soul thirsting for God.” [124-125]
Well, would that it would be so of us and people would hear us say more often that some thing happened on the Lord’s Day or happened after divine worship. No wonder Daniel was a man greatly loved in heaven, as we will read in the next verse! He thought of the world and its passing days in reference to God and his faith in God. We should too!
v.23 Just ask yourself what it would mean to you at the moment and for the days and the months and the years that followed if some angel were to come to you and tell you that you are greatly loved!
Now take note; if understanding has been given to Daniel it will not be without his consideration, his careful thinking through of what he was told. God had revealed his will and purpose, but Daniel had to apply himself to that revelation in order to understand it and we must as well. The angel didn’t do all of Daniel’s work for him!
v.24 The text may be read as “seventy weeks,” but it literally reads, “seventy sevens.” Alright, the questions are already multiplying in the mind. We’ll wait until we have the whole before us to begin tackling the meaning of this.
v.25 Rebuilding Jerusalem with squares and moat, that is squares in the middle of the city and a moat around the city, seems to have been a figurative way of saying that the city would be completely or perfectly rebuilt though during a troubled time.
v.27 “Strong covenant” suggests a covenant imposed by the strong upon the weak.
Now I grew up, as some of you did, in an era when preachers commonly treated these four verses as if they provided a perfectly obvious outline of history from Daniel’s time to the Second Coming. As a matter of fact, however, there are so many uncertainties and so many suggested interpretations that nobody with an ounce of wisdom can say that he knows precisely how to understand these words. A commentator a century ago described the interpretation of the prophecy of the seventy weeks as “a dismal swamp.” [Montgomery, ICC]
In fact, the problem goes way back. Jerome wrote an important commentary on Daniel in the early 5th century. Before tackling these verses he wrote:
“I realize that this question has been argued over in various ways by men of great learning, and that each of them has expressed his views according to the capacity of his own genius. And so, because it is unsafe to pass judgment upon the opinions of the great teachers of the church and to set one above another, I shall simply repeat the view of each and leave it to the reader’s judgment as to whose explanation ought to be followed.” [ET (Gleason Archer), 95]
That’s my plan tonight. I’m going to try to sort out for you some of the options and it will be up to you to make your choice. But I am going to be more confident in disposing of some approaches to the text that I think are excluded by any serious appreciation of the apocalyptic genre in which it was written.
Some of you may remember the Peanuts strip in which Linus purports to find in the famous nursery rhyme a deeper meaning. “The way I see it,” Linus tells Charlie Brown, “the cow jumped over the moon” means a rise in farm prices. When Linus asks Charlie Brown if he agrees, the latter replies, “I can’t say; I don’t pretend to be a student of prophetic literature.” [Davis, 128] Well, I don’t pretend to be able to solve all the problems that surface in these four verses. For example:
- When do the seventy sevens begin? With Jeremiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return – the word that went out sometime after 597 B.C –, with Cyrus’ decree to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judea in 538 B.C., with the decree of Artaxerxes in 458 B.C. of which we read in Ezra 7, or Artaxerxes’ later decree in 445 B.C. of which we read in Nehemiah 2? Arguments have been made for all of these.
- Are the seventy sevens actual weeks or are we to think of years instead, seventy weeks or sevens of years; that is, if taken literally, 490 years?
- To what degree are we facing here the typical prophetic foreshortening, such a common feature of biblical prophecy? For example, we can easily see the phrases “atone for iniquity” and “the coming of an anointed one” to be prophesies of the Lord Jesus. But “bring in everlasting righteousness” sounds to us more like the Second Coming than the first and vv. 26-27 sound a lot like Revelation 17.
- What is meant by “the end of sin”: Israel’s sin, all sin, or the world’s sin?
- What is meant by “to seal both vision and prophet” (to hide them away, to finish and complete them, or to confirm and seal them as realities still yet to be revealed) and what is meant by “to anoint a most holy place”?
- What is meant by the rebuilding of Jerusalem with squares and moat, but in a troubled time”? Is this the actual city in Judea or are we talking about the church of God?
- How is the anointed one “cut off” so that he has nothing?
- Who is the figure who seems to be ruling during the seventieth seven? The abomination that causes desolation in 11:31 is certainly a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes’ defilement of the temple in the mid-second century B.C (167 B.C.). Is that the reference here? It does not seem obviously so, though liberal scholarship generally regards the entire period of the seventy sevens to cover the time from Daniel’s life to the time of Antiochus and the cleansing of the temple under the Maccabees.
Believe me, these are only some of the questions that come thick and fast the more carefully one reads these verses. But clearly v. 22 indicates that there is something here for readers to understand. There is a message that we are expected to be encouraged by. In fact, we must not forget that this prophecy was given in answer to Daniel’s prayer for the restoration of the worship and the people of God. That prayer had been prompted by his reading of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would last seventy years. Presumably this prophecy explains what Daniel had wanted to know. What Gabriel seems to be saying is that the end of the seventy years of exile is the beginning of a process that will take God’s people on into the next period of time if not to the very end of time. [Longman, 226] One seventy, that of this prophecy of time to come, follows on another seventy, the years of Israel’s exile in Babylon that are now near or at their end.
In Gabriel’s telling during these seventy sevens will occur:
- The finishing of the transgression;
- The end of sin;
- The atonement for iniquity;
- The bringing in of everlasting righteousness;
- The sealing of the vision and the prophet;
- and the anointing of the most holy place.
These all seem to be a specific answer to Daniel’s prayer, but they won’t happen immediately. They will come to pass only in a more distant future. Indeed, Gabriel then explains the seventy sevens in more detail. He divides them into three periods: the first seven sevens, the next 62 sevens, and a last seven, which is then divided in two. If you know your dispensational eschatology (not as popular now as it once was but still a great factor in American evangelical Christianity, the back story of the Left Behind books and so on), you know that the last week is taken to be the great tribulation that marks the end of history (many non-dispensationalists agree with that, I do in fact by the way) and you know that dispensationalists argued about whether the rapture came “mid-week” or “at the end of the week,” because that seventh seven is divided in two. Typically dispensationalists regard the 69th week as having ended with the coming of Christ. That means that the death of Christ on the cross, his resurrection, Pentecost, the gentile mission, the destruction of the temple and the city in A.D. 70, and all of the church’s history from that time to this, is actually a parenthesis unmentioned in this prophecy. Then will come the final week, the seven years of the great tribulation that immediately precedes the Second Coming. [Walvoord, 236-237] So in this scenario, there is an undetermined and unmentioned stretch of years – so far some 2,000 years – between the end of the 69th week and the beginning of the 70th. I won’t now enumerate the far too many reasons to reject that interpretation!
Now, knowing what we know about the genre of apocalyptic prophecy there are certain things we ought to be able to say with some confidence.
- First, the numbers are symbolic. They have many times been taken to be an exact prophecy of the date of the birth or the death of Jesus Christ. Clever people can make any numbers add up, though it always requires both a number of assumptions about when a certain period begins, when it ends, and, even then some fudging. Such proposals have been unpersuasive to anyone but the devoted followers of some prophetic savant. Seventy sevens is very obviously a symbol. Seven is a symbol of completeness; so is ten, so seven times ten equals absolute completeness. It is time in its completeness, time from a beginning to an end. Think of the Lord’s remark that we are to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven. Did he mean that we are to forgive 490 times? That is, if someone sins against us 491 times we needn’t forgive him again? No, of course not. He means by those symbolic numbers, seventy times seven, that we are to forgive forever and completely. More than this, if the numbers here are taken symbolically, it would seem that the first and last sevens are considered distinct, but shorter periods of time compared to the 62 sevens, obviously a longer period of time.
More important for our purpose, as symbols the numbers are not intended to be counted up so as to indicate when such an event will come to pass, but rather to indicate that there are definite beginnings and endings to the particular periods or eras of salvation history.
- Second, apocalyptic is particularly concerned with the powerful forces of evil that oppress the people of God. There is a good bit of that here obviously. The reference to “a troubled time,” to the destruction of “the city and the sanctuary,” and the reference to war and desolations recalls the Lord’s prediction of the nature of history between his first coming and his second as a time of wars and rumors of wars, of earthquakes, famines, and so on. The prediction of the end of sacrifice and offering in that final seven sounds like such predictions of woe for the people of God we find in Revelation 17. Apocalyptic themes are few and they tend to be repeated, often in very similar language in the various biblical apocalypses, whether they are short, like the Olivette Discourse in Matthew 24, or long like the book of Revelation. The prince of the seventieth week certainly sounds like the figure we know as Paul’s “man of lawlessness” or John’s Antichrist or the beast of Revelation 17. There is, however one reads this prophecy, a forecast of suffering for God’s people, a lot of suffering and suffering that carries them right to the end of history.
- Third, judgment may have fallen upon the people of God, but they will be restored and their ultimate triumph and vindication is assured. The wicked, on the other hand, will not escape God’s wrath. This is the central theme of biblical apocalyptic and it is front and center here. There is, as we read at the end, “the decreed end [to be] poured out on the desolator.” History culminates in salvation for the people of God and judgment for the wicked, as everywhere and always in biblical prophecy. And representative of evil mankind and leading and directing its rebellion against God is one particular personality at the end of his history.
- Fourth, remember Daniel’s prayer was all about Israel’s sins. He wanted to see the people restored to righteousness. This too is a theme here and in apocalyptic prophecy generally. The finishing of transgression, the end of sin, and the bringing in of everlasting righteousness is the hope of all biblical prophecy regarding the people of God.
- Fifth, the first seven sevens has always seemed to Christian readers to culminate in the life and work of the Lord Jesus. Certainly “to atone for iniquity” and “the coming of an anointed one, a prince” suggests to us naturally, if not inevitably, the Lord’s incarnation and his death on the cross for our sins. However, it is not so obvious that everything prophesied here took place or was fulfilled during the Lord’s life and in his ministry. A much longer period – 62 of the seventy sevens – seems rather clearly to follow the first seven sevens – and to precede the final seven.
Amillennialism and some post-millennialists typically take the entire prophecy of the seventy sevens as referring to the time of the Lord’s ministry. However given that v. 24 says that all seventy weeks are necessary to accomplish these things, it requires some inventive explanation of the series of accomplishments listed in v. 24. For example, “seal both the vision and the prophet” is taken to mean that Christ was the final revelation and “anoint a most holy place” is taken to mean that Jesus fulfilled all that the most holy place of the temple was intended to represent. The strong covenant is taken to be the new covenant introduced by Christ and the cessation of sacrifice is taken to refer to the end of sacrificial worship in the one sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifice that made further animal sacrifices in the temple unnecessary. [E.g. Wallace, 168-169] All of that is certainly possible. That has seem a persuasive interpretation to a number of good men. But it is hardly obvious. The Lord didn’t end sacrifice in the temple by his sacrifice. Christians, including the apostles James and Paul, continued to offer sacrifice in the temple for another generation. But, more important, it reads here as if the end of sacrifice was before the anointed one was cut off and was left with nothing. They take, that is amillennialists typically take the first seven to refer to the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem after the exile, the 62 weeks as the time between that time and the coming of Christ, and the last week, the seventieth, as a reference to the final act in the drama of Christ’s redemption, when he was crucified, the time when the anointed one was cut off. That interpretation was helped by the fact that the KJV translated the next phrase, which reads in the ESV “and shall have nothing,” as “but not for himself.” That made it sound even more like a prophecy of the Lord’s death on the cross. He was cut off but not for himself; he was cut off for us. That translation, however, has been abandoned by all modern English translations of the text.
But in this interpretation all seventy weeks are finished by the end of Christ’s life and work. But that is not obviously what is meant when we are told that the first seven sevens takes us all the way to the anointed one and the next 62 sevens, the much longer period of time, follow that first period. Nor does the statement about the people of the prince destroying the city and its sanctuary easily fit into this picture. Amillennialists must take Jesus to be the one who destroyed both the city and its sanctuary and, to be sure, there is an argument for that. They appeal to the Lord’s prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment upon her sin. Fair enough. It is certainly a possibility, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that the sixty-two sevens end with the ministry of the anointed one that atones for sin. They begin after that ministry is over. Nor does it seem likely to me that the destruction of the city and its sanctuary in v. 26 is to be regarded by the reader as a good thing! Given the teaching of the New Testament it is easier for me to believe that the rebuilding of the city with squares and a moat is a symbolic picture of the gentile mission – described in Amos and again in Acts 15 as rebuilding the fallen tent of David – and the one who destroys the city and the sanctuary is the Antichrist or the beast of Rev. 17. As I said, there is a similarity among the biblical apocalypses and that similarity suggests to me that the sixty-two weeks begin at the end of the anointed one’s ministry and end with the great tribulation.
A great many commentators, among them a number of evangelical and Reformed scholars, see the seventy weeks as more naturally extending until the Second Coming. I am more persuaded of that approach. It doesn’t do as much violence to the actual wording here and I’m impressed by the correspondence between what we read in this prophecy and what we read in the NT apocalypses that definitely deal with the end of history at the Second Coming. Think, for example, of the Lord’s descriptions of the troubles that will mark the time between his first and second coming or the similarity between vv. 26 and 27 and the NT’s description of the Man of Lawlessness or the Antichrist. However, let me finish by saying that the fact that such differences in interpretation are possible between wise and good men is a caution to us all to avoid over-confidence.
So, to sum up, it makes more sense to me to take the first seven sevens – a more limited period of time – to extend from Daniel’s time to the coming of the Lord; the next 62 sevens – a much longer time (again a symbolic number) – to extend to nearly the end of history, what Paul calls the “age of the Gentiles”; and the final seven – a still much shorter period of time – as the Great Tribulation that immediately precedes the Second Coming. We have, then, a very general forecast of history from Daniel’s time to the end.
If you remember, what confused the disciples so much about the Lord’s teaching them about his leaving them and coming again, was that no one in first century Judaism had any expectation that the Messiah would come twice; first to make sacrifice for sin and then, a second time, to bring history to its predestined end. And we can forgive them for their confusion as it is hardly made clear here that the “the decreed end” of which we read in v. 27 is brought to pass by a second appearance of the Messiah.
Now back to Daniel and his prayer. What Daniel wanted was for the people of God to be restored to the Promised Land, for the temple to be rebuilt, for right worship to be reinstituted in the temple, and for the people of God to live before their Lord in righteousness. What did he learn from this prophecy?
- He learned that all of this was going to happen, but over time and with great difficulty.
- He learned that Jerusalem would be rebuilt; but that it would also once again be destroyed.
- He learned that the people of God would still have to wait for the appearance of one who was to bring about the ultimate deliverance of God’s people. God had a plan to deal once and for all with the sin of his people.
- He learned that for a long time to come God’s people would suffer the opposition of the world and would be on their mettle to remain faithful to God and his Word in the teeth of that opposition. The world would not be a friendly place for the church of God.
- And he learned that at the end a great conflict between the wicked and the righteous would result in the intervention of God, the judgment of the wicked, and the full salvation and vindication of the people of God.
In other words, in this short prophecy of the seventy sevens, Daniel was provided a philosophy of history. It wasn’t precisely the answer he was hoping for: an immediate and final restoration of the people of God immediately following the seventy years of Israel’s exile in Babylon, but it was a promise of their eventual triumph. It wouldn’t take just seventy years to accomplish the world’s deliverance from sin but seventy times seven to accomplish that complete victory. [Duguid, 167] It is interesting that the same disappointment greeted the disciples during and immediately after Jesus’ ministry and troubled the early church. They wanted the kingdom of God to come now, not in thousands of years. They struggled to accept that the master, as he said he would, was going on a long journey and his servants would have to wait a long time, not knowing the time of his return. And God’s people have been struggling with the same necessity to wait and had been hoping for the same return ever since. It is this longing which, of course, is one of the primary motivations behind so much of the misreading of biblical prophecy. People hope that the Lord’s return and their final victory is right around the corner.
We live in a culture that reinforces every day our desire for instantaneous gratification. We have machines that make our coffee on a timer so that it’s ready as soon as we walk into the kitchen. We have credit cards that enable us to buy what we want even if we don’t have the money in the bank. But the kingdom of God is not like that! What God is doing in the world takes time, a lot of time, thousands of years of time! And as the divine revelation unfolded in the New Testament, we got a still better idea why it must be so. It wasn’t just the Jews who needed to be restored to righteousness, but the Gentiles as well; indeed, the whole world! That takes time. In Hebrews and in 2 Peter we are taught that Christ’s return is delayed because there are still multitudes yet to be saved. And for them the church must wait in patience, enduring the suffering that must be borne by a follower of Christ in the Devil’s world. Our unfulfilled longings are the price we pay for the salvation of multitudes of people including people yet to be born.
But we are never to forget; we are always to remember that God has already determined the course of history, events will unfold according to his plan and purpose, and will do so to the end. The fact that some of what is prophesied here has already come to pass is our great advantage as people who live on the other side of New Testament history. We’ve actually seen the anointed one appear. We have seen him atone for sin. And remember, there was nothing so unlikely, there was nothing so unexpected in human history, humanly speaking, even among the Jews, than the life, the ministry, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then the spread of his gospel to the four corners of the earth. It is the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened in the world and nobody was expecting it. I suspect Daniel was both discouraged and encouraged by what he was told. Much yet to suffer but victory awaits. Surely that is the life of every Christian as it is the life of the Christian church. Knowing that the final victory is certain helps us to endure the present struggle. You can endure the darkest night if you can see the light beginning to dawn over the distant horizon!
What did Rutherford say? With a future like ours, it were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between!