Daniel’s seventy weeks have been frequently used to make calculations of the date of the second coming. William Miller, the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, made several predictions of the date of the second coming. His first date, 1843, was calculated from the 2300 days (Dan 8:14) and the seventy weeks (Dan 9:24). He claimed that the 2300 days represented 2300 years, which started with Ezra’s return in 457 BC, which he determined by counting 490 years before the crucifixion, which he dated in AD 33 .
Daniel’s seventy weeks form the foundation of the Dispensational view of end-times, in which the sixty-ninth week ended with the crucifixion of Christ. Because the Jews rejected their Messiah, the seventieth week is postponed, to be interpreted as a future seven-year tribulation, before which the church will be raptured. The tribulation will be marked by the rise of Antichrist who will make and then break a covenant with Israel. Most popular books on end-time prophecy are based on this view-point. However, in most of these books, little or no mention is ever made of any alternative interpretations of the seventy weeks.
The biblical and historical context of the vision of the seventy weeks
The biblical context of the prediction of seventy weeks was Daniel’s prayer for the restoration of his people and for the temple and city of Jerusalem (Dan 9). Daniel was led to pray a prayer of repentance after reading Jeremiah’s prediction of a seventy-year desolation of Jerusalem (Dan 9:2). There are two passages in which Jeremiah predicted a seventy year exile, which Daniel may have been reading: “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, ... for their iniquity ...” (Jer 25:11-12), and “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer 29:10)
Daniel was praying in the first year of King Darius, who ruled over the Chaldeans (Dan 9:1). Although there is a debate over the identity of this Darius, it is most likely that the date of Daniel’s prayer was 539 BC . Daniel evidently expected the seventy years to be nearing their end, so he began to pray for restoration. From the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the prayer of Daniel in 539 BC, there is a period of forty-seven years, which falls rather short of seventy years.
However, Jeremiah made his prediction of seventy years in the fourth year of Jehoiakim and first year of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 25:1), which was 605 BC. This was the year of the Battle of Carchemish, as a result of which Babylon became the major power in the ancient Near East. Judah became a Babylonian vassal state, and Daniel was taken to Babylon (Dan 1:1). According to the Babylonian dating system, this was the third year of Jehoiakim, as stated in Dan 1:1. From 605 to 539 are sixty-six years, which is a nearer approximation to seventy years. It should be noted that Jeremiah did state in his prophecy that they will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years (Jer 25:11), rather than that Jerusalem will be destroyed for seventy years. He also described the seventy years as Babylon’s seventy years (Jer 29:10). So an alternative would be to date the years of Babylon’s power as the seventy-three years from the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC.
It appears that it is impossible to identify an exact period of seventy years for the exile in Babylon, whichever starting and finishing dates are chosen, so we should question whether Daniel understood it as an exact length of time. Seventy years is often used in the Bible to describe a lifetime, the lifetime of a king of Tyre (Is 25:15), and in Ps 91:10, and the expected human life-span (Ps 91:10). Later Jeremiah predicted that the nations will serve Nebuchadnezzar, his son (Nabonidus) and grandson (Belshazzar) (Jer 27:7), which was an accurate prediction, but did not give such a specific chronology. Writing in the second year of Darius (519 BC), Zechariah noted that the Lord had been angry with Jerusalem and Judah for seventy years (Zech 1:7,12). He said this twenty years after the fall of Babylon and the decree of Cyrus allowing the Jews to return, which also suggests that the seventy years was not intended to be an exact period of time. The Hebrew writers of Scripture seem to be less concerned with exact chronologies than we are today, with our expectation to be able to interpret any numbers absolutely literally.
The Sabbath year law as the basis for the seventy-year exile
The writer of Chronicles stated that the exile will last until the land had made up for its Sabbaths, fulfilling the word through Jeremiah, lying desolate to fulfil seventy years (2 Chr 36:21). This fulfilled the warning given when the Sabbath year law was originally instituted, that the land will enjoy the Sabbath rest that it did not have while the Israelites were living on it (Lev 26:34-35). Every seventh year, the land was to be left fallow (Lev 25:1-7), but this law had not been obeyed, and seventy Sabbath years had been missed. During the exile, the land will be given consecutively all the Sabbath years that were missed. When God restored his people to the land, it showed that their punishment was complete. They had served their term and paid their penalty (Is 40:2) for neglecting the Sabbath rule. They were now forgiven and able to make a new beginning.
Should the seventy weeks be interpreted symbolically?
Because it is so difficult to identify an exact period of seventy years to fulfil Jeremiah’s prediction many commentators have suggested that this period should be understood to mean a long period of time, a lifetime, rather than exactly seventy years. Then, because the foundation of Daniel’s seventy weeks was Jeremiah’s prophecy, they also question whether the purpose of Daniel chapter 9 should be understood as giving a precise chronology.
Daniel was told that the seventy weeks will be divided into three periods, seven weeks, then sixty-two weeks, then one week (9:25-27). This would indicate that he should expect three periods of God’s working with the Jews and Jerusalem, ending with the coming of the Messiah:
1. The restoration to the land under an anointed leader following the Babylonian exile (the first week)
2. Living in the land during a troubled time (the inter-testamental period) (sixty-two weeks)
3. The coming of the Messiah as the fulfilment of the Jewish hopes for redemption and dealing the with the deeper problem of sin (the seventieth week).
Summary of three basic approaches
Among those who attempt the seventy weeks literally, there are three different approaches. Each understands each week to represent seven years, making a total of 490 years, and seeks to fit this length of time into history starting from the time of Daniel and the Babylonian exile.
1. The traditional view
This view makes the seventy weeks end with the ministry of Christ in the first century. The 490 years began with either the edict of Artaxerxes to send Ezra back to Jerusalem (458 BC), or with the decree of Cyrus (538 BC). Beginning in 458 BC, the seventy weeks would be last approximately to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The seventieth week would begin with Christ’s baptism, and would end with him being “cut off” 3½ years later. Some see the end of the seventy weeks being the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, marking the end of God’s dealing with Israel, so the troops of the prince destroying the city (v26) are the Roman armies under Titus who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The advantage with this view is that it is focused on Jesus, who certainly did atone for iniquity and bring in everlasting righteousness, thereby achieving the purpose of the seventy weeks.
2. Critical or Maccabean view
Interpreters who support a late (2nd century BC) date for the writing of Daniel tend to support this view. Instead of predicting the future, they say that Daniel is looking back over the 300 years of history before his time, so the passage is pseudo-predictive. The seventy weeks began with the decree of Cyrus (538 BC), and ended with the removal of Onias III, the last Aaronic high priest, from office in 175 BC by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and his death 3 ½ years later in 172 BC. The problem with this view is that the period is far too short, being only around 360 years, instead of 490. Supporters of this view say that the short-fall in the number of years is because of the vague historical knowledge of the writer . Such a statement says much about their low view of the inspiration and accuracy of Scripture.
Another version lengthens the period to 423 years, so that the first seven weeks represented the years between the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC to the edict to restore Jerusalem in 538 BC. Then the final seven weeks were the years between the death of Onias III in 171 BC, through the desolating sacrilege committed by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC, and ending with the cleansing of the temple in 164 BC.
This view has the advantage that many of the historical events of the time of the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes do fit this description, including the mention of the abomination that desolates (9:27b). This event is predicted even more clearly in Daniel’s following vision (11:31). However, the weakness of this view is that the events of 167 - 164 BC did not put an end to sin and atoning for iniquity, nor did they conclude God’s plan for his people and city (9:24).
3. Dispensational view
The difference in this view compared with the other views, is that instead of there being 490 continuous years, there has been a “gap” between the end of the sixty-ninth and the start of the seventieth week. Because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God suspended the "prophetic clock”. The seventieth week will be postponed for an indefinite period of time during which God focuses on dealing with the Gentiles rather than the Jews. Thus, the Age of the Church becomes a “great parenthesis” in God’s prophetic plan. A fundamental premiss of Dispensationalism is a rigid separation of God’s plan for Israel and for the church . The consequence of this view is that the church becomes a secondary part of God’s plan, almost like an after-thought, being less important than God’s plan for national Israel. This runs in contradiction to clear teaching in the New Testament of the importance of the church in God’s plan, where Christ is made head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22-23).
The seventy weeks began with the decree of Artaxerxes (458 BC), and the sixth-ninth week ended with the crucifixion. The long gap after the sixth-ninth week represents the age of the Gentiles, which will end with the rapture, when Christ will come for his church. The seventieth week represents the seven-year tribulation, when the Antichrist rules on earth, which will end with the second coming of Christ and the establishment of his millennial rule. Supporters of this view say that sin will only be totally put to an end, and righteousness only completely brought in with the establishment of Christ’s millennial reign.
The problem with this view is that there is not the slightest hint of a gap in the description of the seventy weeks in Daniel chapter 9. So far, the gap has lasted for nearly 2000 years, over four times the total time period represented by the seventy weeks! It would be equally logical to have a gap between the seven and the sixty-two weeks.
The end of the seventy weeks
The greatest difference between the three views described above is when the seventy weeks is considered to end. The traditional view ends the seventy weeks with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The critical view ends them with the re-dedication of the temple in 164 BC, and the dispensational view ends them with the establishment of Christ’s millennial rule following his second coming.
In response to Jeremiah’s prediction of a seventy year exile, Daniel had been praying for God’s people and for God’s holy city Jerusalem (9:20), confessing their sins (v6,15), recognising that the calamity of the exile was as a result of their continued rebellion against God, and for disobeying his law (v9). He prayed that God would turn his anger away from them and their city (v16), and asked for God’s mercy and forgiveness (v9,19). The reply from the angel was that seventy weeks are decreed for God’s people and his holy city (v24).
Daniel was told that by the end of the seventy weeks, God will do six things, three concerning sin, and three concerning salvation (v24). The first three concerning sin (to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity), were exactly what Daniel was praying about when he confessed the sins of the nation (9:5), and asked God to forgive their sin and iniquity (v16). The implication is that by the end of the seventy weeks God will deal finally with the problem of human sin, which according to the New Testament was achieved with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Some issues with interpretation
When a thorough study is made of this difficult passage, several questions of interpretation arise, some of which appear to be impossible to answer with any certainty. These questions demonstrate why there are so many different views on this passage. Because there are so many uncertainties, great caution should be exercised in coming to conclusions about this passage. This would imply that it is very dangerous to use such a difficult passage as the foundation for an eschatological framework, when there are many biblical passages which give a far clearer teaching on eschatology. The irony is that the angel Gabriel came with instructions to ensure that Daniel understood the vision, and this call to understand is mentioned three times (v22,23,25).
The following are just a few of the uncertainties:
1. Does the “anointed prince” come after seven weeks or after sixty-nine weeks? (v25)
There are differences between the various English translations. The NRSV expects the anointed prince after seven weeks, whereas the KJV and NIV expect him after sixty-nine weeks. This will obviously make a big difference to the way this verse is interpreted. If the anointed prince came after seven weeks, this would be some person during the exilic period, like Zerubbabel or Joshua the high priest . If he came after sixty-nine weeks, then it probably refers to the Messiah. We should note that the Hebrew used for the “anointed one” is a general term applied elsewhere to Cyrus the Persian, to the Davidic king, and to the Levitical priests, and did not necessarily signify the Messiah , even though the KJV translates it “Messiah”.
2. What is the antecedent of the pronoun “he” in 9:27?
It is not at all easy to determine from the text whether the “he” who makes a strong covenant refers to “the anointed one” (v26a), or “the coming prince” (26b). The immediate antecedent is the prince who is to come, but many interpreters claim that the “he” is the anointed one who is cut off. This results in two completely opposite interpretations. If the “he” is the prince who is to come, then this verse refers to the antichrist, which is the dispensational interpretation. From this, they claim that the antichrist will make a covenant with Israel during the great tribulation, which he will later break. However, if the “he” is the anointed one, then this verse refers to the new covenant made by Jesus through his death on the cross, when he was “cut off”, but which will never be broken.
3. What exactly happens during the seventieth week?
The description of the seventieth week appears to be rather vague. It is not even certain whether it is meant to be a distinct period of time. It is not clear in the text whether the troops of the prince destroy the city (v26b) at the beginning of the sixty-ninth week, or during the seventieth week, or whether the sacrifice and offering cease for the first or second half week of the seventieth week.
4. Does a “week” mean seven years?
The normal Hebrew word for week is not used here, but one that means “heptad” or “units or periods of seven” . However the same idea is expressed in the institution of the Sabbath law where seven weeks of years is the same as forty-nine years (Lev 25:8), so it is probably safe to assume that 490 years is meant here.
Another possibility is that because the seventy-year exile was based on the missed Sabbath years (2 Chr 36:21), each of the “weeks” should be understood as Sabbath year cycle, consisting of six years, followed by a Sabbath year. If this the case, then the seventy weeks should begin with the edict of Artaxerxes allowing Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem in 445 BC. This fell in the Sabbath cycle 449-442 BC, so the sixty-ninth cycle was AD 28-35, the seven year period which included the public ministry of Jesus, when the Messiah was “cut off”.
5. When is the starting date?
The period of the seventy weeks begins with the word going out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (9:25). However, there are three historical events which could be described this way:
a. The decree of Cyrus (538 BC) allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (1 Chr 36:22f, Ezra 1:2-4).
b. The return of Ezra with a larger group of exiles in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (457 BC) to teach the law to Israel (Ezra 7:7). It was Ezra who restored the people spiritually and led the people in a renewal of the covenant (Neh 9).
c. The decree of Artaxerxes (444 BC) allowing Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem as governor to rebuild the walls of the city (Neh 2:1-8).
It seems that different commentators tend choose the date to give them the best fit for their chronology, depending on the way they interpret the seventy years. However, there is no definite way of deciding which start date to choose. However, it should be noted that Daniel was given this vision in the first year of Darius, 539 BC (9:1), immediately preceding the decree of Cyrus, allowing the Jews to return, so the first date of 539 BC would probably be intended. However, there was no significant event happening in 48 BC, 490 years after 538 BC, that would mark the end of the seventy years. Dispensational interpreters tend use the middle date of the return of Ezra as it makes the end come in the early first century around the time of Christ.
There are some major interpretative problems in this passage, which explains why there is so little consensus, even amongst evangelical scholars, on how this passage should be interpreted, leading to a wide variety of opinions on its meaning. Because of this, I believe that it has only limited value in determining the events and timing of end-times, and it is dangerous to base whole eschatological systems on the seventy weeks of Daniel. We should be very careful not to be at all dogmatic on its interpretation.
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