If you have been following this series of blog posts (#1, #2, #3, and #4), you will know that the “Seventy Weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27 makes for a very demanding study. So, as we are getting very near to Christmas, I need to wrap this blog series up, even with all of the loose ends still out there.
Thankfully, neither your salvation, nor mine, hangs in the balance with getting Daniel 9:24-27 exactly right. For example, no central doctrine of the faith is at stake, as you ponder the mysterious meaning of Scripture phrases like “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (verse 26). But the study is well worth the effort, as it will spur you on in learning more about Biblical prophecy, just as it has done for me.
At one point in my studies, over the past two years in this passage, I ran into the following statement by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s most brilliant and popular expositors of the 20th century. Lloyd-Jones lived in an era when many Christians tended to be very dogmatic in their particular interpretation of Daniel 9. His comments on the debate over Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks” are worth savoring:
“I am simply trying to put before you some of the various ideas and type of interpretation, while indicating, as anyone who is concerned to teach the Scriptures must do, the interpretation that most commends itself to my mind and to my understanding. I shall continue to repeat this because it seems to me to be the most important point I can make in connection with this whole subject. If I can somehow shake the glibness and the dogmatism that has characterised this matter I shall be most pleased, and I thank God that there are signs and indications that people are prepared to consider this matter anew. It may well betoken a period of blessing in the history of the Church.” (Great Doctrines of the Bible: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, The Church and the Last Things, page 119).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones has the right perspective. We are not talking about the deity of Christ, or salvation alone through Jesus, here. OKAY??? I may hold (and you may hold) to a different interpretation of a difficult passage like Daniel 9. Hopefully, believers can discuss this matter with clarity and charity towards one another, by studying the Scriptures anew.
A Tentative Conclusion to Understanding Daniel’s “Seventy Weeks”
So, what then is my conclusion regarding the “Seventy Weeks?” As a young Christian in college, I heard a lot about the 69 weeks, followed by a gap of an unknown period of time, ending in the future with the 70th week, the “Great Tribulation.” This standard “dispensationalist” view, if it can be described that way, is pretty complicated, and though relatively few really understand it, this view still has a lot going for it.
But like so many of the other views I researched, the “gap theory” has its own problems. In fact, no one view stands out to me as being crystal clear, with respect to the text. Though the study of Daniel 9:23-27 is really fascinating, there were moments in my studies where it got really frustrating, where advocates of each view tended to claim that their view and only their view was the right view (this was when I really needed to read this!).
In many ways, diving into this passage in Daniel 9 is like meandering through a “dismal swamp,” as was indicated in the first blog post in this series. But it has not been as bad as it sounds. Please allow me to return back to my original illustration, a lesson learned from Star Wars.
Back to the Dismal Swamp?
Luke Skywalker did not fully grasp everything about the “Force” by the time he left Yoda’s swamp planet in the Dogabah system, to run off to help his friends in “The Empire Strikes Back.” But spending time in the swamp surely helped guide Luke as he continued in his adventure. Later, in the “Return of the Jedi” movie, upon returning to Yoda’s swamp planet to complete the training in the “Force,” Luke had gained greater insight into the journey.
Studying Daniel 9 in a “deep-dive” fashion is a lot like that. This is something that I will probably have to come back to at a later date. I give “my take” below, on Daniel 9:23-27 (tentatively, I remind you), but I will just cut to the chase here:
Given all of the evidence known at this time, it is really difficult to know, for sure, how to resolve the mystery behind Daniel 9. The “Seventy Weeks” passage of Daniel 9 is ultimately ambiguous. It is probably ambiguous for a reason, so that we might not get too attached to any one particular view. But this should not dissuade us from being ernest in our study of the Scriptures. Instead, a modest reading of the text encourages us to keep an open mind.
No matter what view of prophecy you follow, the clearest message of Daniel 9 should be evident: God has heard the prayer of Daniel for his people, and the angel Gabriel is giving Daniel assurance of God’s faithfulness, encouraging Daniel to “hang in there,” despite the suffering of his people in exile. Even though the people have disobeyed God, God is still merciful and forgiving.
As respected Old Testament scholar and senior Bible translator for the New Living Translation, Tremper Longman says, in his NIV Application Commentary: Daniel, the “Seventy Weeks” prophecy supports “the overarching thesis of the book of Daniel: In spite of present appearances, God is in control and will win the victory” (Kindle location 51882).
Everything else being discussed in this passage, such as the precise dating of the “sevens” or “weeks,” the meanings of various phrases and symbols, and the identification of specific personalities, will surely become clearer in the future. Having confidence in the Bible does not always mean that we must understand everything that it is teaching us, on every single topic, particularly when it comes to prophecy! Instead, having an appreciation for mystery is really a good thing. It keeps us humble.
It is one thing to have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. It is something else completely to have confidence in our own interpretations of that Bible, that can be flawed. The real challenge for us is in gaining the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
Such is the main lesson I have learned by trudging through the “Dismal Swamp” of Daniel 9:23-27.
Below I offer more specific questions and answers, that have helped me to work through this incredibly fascinating passage. If it helps you to want to learn more about the Bible, even if you do not agree with me, then I feel like I have done my job. In the meantime, I am confident that in this Advent season, that it really is worth the effort to better understand the nature of Bible prophecy, in anticipation of the coming of the Christ.
And it is in this spirit, that I wish to you, dear Veracity reader, a “Merry Christmas!”
I could probably write ten more blog posts on Daniel 9’s “Seventy Weeks,” and still not exhaust the full range of questions and issues that this mysterious text brings to the student of Scripture. But as a way to wrap things up for now, I will lay out here some of the thoughts and ideas that came to my mind as I have studied Daniel 9:24-27. Since these are just notes of mine, this is not as organized as I would like. But these notes do hit nearly all of the major interpretive questions (you might want to have a Bible handy, open at Daniel 9:24-27, to follow these questions and answers):
- What are the two primary set of assumptions that interpreters make when trying to understand Daniel 9:24-27? At the risk of oversimplifying, different interpreters come to this passage with different, undergirding theological assumptions that guide their thinking. If you believe that there is a specific future for ethnic Israel, which includes a literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise, distinct from the future of the Christian church made up of Jews and Gentiles, as well as bringing along a belief in a future millennium, the interpreter will be drawn towards a more dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27. On the other hand, if the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, is viewed as fulfilling, in Himself, the promises given to Abraham, and that the millennium is synonymous with the age of the church, then the interpreter will gravitate towards a more traditional, non-dispensationalist reading of Daniel 9:24-27. If these differing theological assumptions do not make much sense to you, I would encourage you to read the Veracity series on Christian Zionism (in progress, not finished yet).
- What disturbs, or confuses, me the most in studying this passage? What bothers me the most, in comparing the different approaches to Daniel 9:24-27, is just how radically juxtaposed the solutions are between the dispensationalist view and other, typically more traditional views of the one who makes/confirms the covenant in v. 27. In the dispensationalist view, the figure is the “Antichrist,” whereas in some of the other views the figure is Jesus, the Messiah. Whew! Talk about an irreconcilable contradiction in interpretations!! The dispensationalist view sees that the New Testament teaching about the “Antichrist,” is woven into the interpretation of this prophecy. Here it is Antichrist who will “make a strong covenant with many,” the Jews of the future (see v. 27 ESV), and then break it mid-way through a future seven-year Great Tribulation. In contrast, more traditional, non-dispensational views typically do not have a need to import the “Antichrist” into this passage. For example, some non-dispensational views say that it is Jesus, as the Messiah, who will “confirm a covenant with many,” the Jews of the first century (see v.27 NIV, the Hebrew for make/confirm can go either way, apparently), and then bring an end to the Jewish sacrificial system, thus inaugurating the mission to the Gentiles.
- Why is the insertion of the “Antichrist” in Daniel 9 a difficulty? We read in verse 27, “on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate.” From a dispensationalist view, this “desolater” is thought to refer to a yet, still future coming “Antichrist,” who is adversarial to the coming fulfillment of Israel’s national destiny. This explanation sounds plausible, except that dispensationalists have to deal with the embarrassment of inserting the “Antichrist” into the text, when the specific term “Antichrist” is mentioned nowhere in the writings of the prophet Daniel (though some see allusions to an “Antichrist” elsewhere in Daniel). Furthermore, we also read of “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (verse 26). A dispensationalist view interprets this as the “people” of Rome in the first century destroying Jerusalem and its Temple, and then their “prince who is to come,” arriving at least 20 centuries later as the Antichrist. Sure, this interpretation is possible and it “works,” but it is far from being obvious. It just seems like the whole “Antichrist” theme stands on a rather precarious footing.
- Is there a reasonable alternative to this view, that resolves this difficulty? In at least one non-dispensationalist interpretation, the “abominations” of the “desolater,” in verse 27, refers to the continued sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, in the first century following the death of Jesus (NOTE: If you compare the more literal ESV translation with the less ambiguous NIV 2011, this non-dispensationalist view does not work as well. The NIV 2011 puts the more literal reading in a footnote. See below observation on translation differences). According to this more traditional view, these Temple sacrifices are an abomination because of the Jewish failure to realize that Christ Himself was THE final sacrifice. Therefore, the “desolater” is none other than the unrepentant Jews, who fail to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., when “the decreed end is poured out on the desolator,” as a sign of God’s judgment. Such a non-dispensationalist view may not be convincing to some readers, as my suggestion here uses a singular noun, “desolater,” to refer to the unrepentant Jews, plural, as a collective. Furthermore, a dispensationalist reading may sound a bit cleaner, fitting better with a view of the future, with respect to our 21st century, that emphasizes the status of ethnic Israel. However, the immediate context in Daniel 9 is focused mainly on the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Second Temple, following the destruction of the First Temple, associated with the Babylonian Exile. There does not appear to be any obvious reference to a coming future restoration of national Israel, following the desolation described in this passage. In summary, Daniel 9 does not necessarily rule out such a far-off future restoration of Israel, nor a role for a future Antichrist. It is just that such implications are not obvious to the text. In general, the dispensationalist approach, while making a lot of sense when you finally put everything together, suffers from making a complex set of assumptions that can be more difficult to verify, as compared with other approaches.
- Is there another serious difficulty associated with the dispensationalist view? One of the objectives during the “Seventy Weeks,” in verse 24, is “to put an end to sin.” Okay, but what does that mean? What type of assumption do you make to understand what it means “to put an end to sin?” Remember, the assumptions we bring to this text often determine where we end up in our interpretation. Dispensationalists assume that this does not refer to Jesus’ finished work on the Cross, to conquer sin. It must mean something else (but why?). Dispensationalists argue that putting “an end to sin” was not accomplished within the first 69 weeks, or so, corresponding to the First Coming of Christ, because sin still exists in the world, after Jesus’ work on the Cross is completed. So, this particular objective must be met in the future, at the end of the 70th week, when Jesus comes back again and initiates the 1000-year millennial kingdom reign. Only, then does Jesus put “an end to sin.” However, my understanding of Revelation 20, is that there is still death in the millennium. Since death results from sin, it only follows that there still must still be sin in the future millennium. If this is the case, then putting “an end to sin,” is not accomplished in the “Seventy Weeks,” which is a real problem for the dispensationalist view. On the other hand, if the assumptions associated with a more traditional, non-dispensationalist view are followed, then putting “an end to sin” is fulfilled with Jesus’ death on the Cross, which falls within the “Seventy Weeks.” One dispensationalist interpreter, Thomas Ice, answers this objection by arguing that “to put an end to sin” really refers specifically to the sin of ethnic Israel (Daniel 9:20), and not to humankind’s sin in general, which is assumed by more traditional interpretations. So, which explanation is correct? How do we know? It all comes down to what type of assumptions you bring to the text.
- What about the “gap” in the dispensationalist view? The problem with inserting a “gap” into Daniel 9, or “gaps” anywhere else in the Bible, is that the text of the passage under consideration, does not directly imply the existence of such a “gap,” or “gaps,” in the first place. Factors external to the immediate text appear to be driving the need to insert “gaps.” Our English Bibles insert punctuation, such as periods or commas, where such “gaps” might exist in the text being studied. But the Hebrew punctuation made its way into the text centuries after the text was written, so the certitude of where punctuation should be placed is not always clear in some places. On the other hand, the insertion of “gaps” can solve vexing chronological problems, which the dispensationalist view seeks to address. Oddly, a good, “non-Daniel-9” example of where “gaps” might apply is with various genealogies in the Bible. If “gaps” can be inserted in genealogical chronology, they might sufficiently resolve some persistent difficulties, such as syncing up the Bible timeline with the prevailing scientific theories that affirm an ancient age of the earth. Old-Earth creationists find such “gaps” to be helpful in building their case from the Bible, whereas Young-Earth creationists would resist the insertion of such “gaps.”
- What is one of the greater difficulties with more non-dispensationalist, traditional views? In general, the date calculations are not always exact. In fact, upon examining various non-dispensational views of this passage, the options available tend to be all over the place in establishing a clear chronology, which takes away from the appeal of these non-dispensational, traditional viewpoints. For example, many scholars would place the crucifixion in the year 33 A.D., which does not completely line up with some of the traditional views that place the mid-point of the 70th week in 30 or 31 A.D. However, this is still pretty close, assuming a margin of a few years. On the other hand, the dispensationalist view is more exact, with a more narrow margin, in terms of days, assuming the 33 A.D. date holds. In other words, the dispensationalist reading makes more exact sense of the text, with respect to timing, given what we currently know, but it requires a more complex set of assumptions.
- Is there any good evidence for the symbolic interpretation of the “weeks” of Daniel 9, taught by amillennialist Bible teachers? It took be awhile to find a good YouTube recording of an amillennialist Bible teacher going verse-by-verse through Daniel 9:23-27, but I finally found one. Here is a pastor, Tim Conway, out of Texas, who follows this particular view, what some call a “covenantal futurist” view, which lasts about 75 minutes:
- What about the so-called “Maccabean” view, championed by many theological liberals, and some orthodox Jews, assuming that the endpoint of the “Seventy Weeks” prophecy is with the death of Antiochus IV, after Judas Maccabeus cleanses the Temple, in 164 B.C.? CAUTION: THIS IS DEEP…While there might be some overlapping themes present, it seems hard to believe that the events in the 2nd century before Christ correspond to all of the objectives of the “Seventy Weeks” prophecy as laid out in verse 24, including “to put an end to sin” and “to atone for iniquity.” What largely drives this non-messianic interpretation is an aversion to the supernatural, at least among critical scholars. That being said, correlating all of these objectives, in verse 24, to the Maccabean revolt, is possible in some limited sense, but the connections are weak (The same can be said for the view that sees Daniel 9:24-27 simply addressing Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile). The messianic overtones are much stronger and more difficult to deny, thus favoring a series of events later in the future, which line up much, much better with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the 1st century A.D. One might conclude that a “Maccabean view” represents a two-stage fulfillment, whereby the prophecy is fulfilled in the Maccabean period, to some degree. But the principle of Biblical typology should be applied, suggesting that the rest of the prophecy be completely fulfilled in the messianic age of Christ’s first coming. In making this argument, I must say that I am not familiar with any Biblical scholar who consistently holds such a view.
- What view then do I lean towards? (if someone put a gun to my head). Based on my studies so far, the evidence as I understand it, that meets the conditions actually described in the text, indicates that the Decree of Artaxerxes in 457 B.C, Ezra 7:11-26, is probably the best starting point for counting the “Seventy Weeks” (See diagram at the top of this blog post). This brings you to about the year 26/27 A.D., when Jesus is baptized at the close of the 69th week. After this period, or “after the sixty-two weeks” in verse 26, the “anointed one,” Jesus, is “cut-off” (still verse 26), which is a reference to the coming crucifixion happening within the 70-week timeframe. I am not terribly sure what to make of the “prince who is to come” (verse 26), though the “Antichrist” here seems a bit forced. This prince could be Titus, the Roman general, whose army destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But if we understand that Jesus, as the Messiah, is the main subject of this prophecy, it seems simpler and more straight-forward to conclude that Jesus is this “prince who is to come.” The crucifixion, which is still “after the sixty-two weeks” in verse 26, seems best to match the mid-point of the 70th week (verse 27), which lines up with “in the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering” (v. 27 NIV). Therefore, the fulfillment of the entire 490-year timeframe culminates near the time of the death of Stephen, which signified when the Gospel began to go out to the Gentiles, as detailed in the Book of Acts. Some associate this event with Paul’s calling to be a missionary to the Gentiles, which is in close proximity to the date of Stephen’s stoning, which is also a strong possibility.
- But does not the year 33 A.D. work better, as the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, thus messing up this timeline? This is a valid criticism, as the case for the 33 A.D. for Jesus’ death is probably the best of the most probable candidates. However, if you follow the phrasing in the ESV of verse 27, “and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering,” it could be read differently, thus accommodating the 33 A.D. date. Jesus’ life and ministry might correspond to this “half of the week,” as the occurrence of the “half” does not require a strict placement within that week. This assumes the standard view that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three-and-a-half years. The crucifixion still happens “after the sixty-two weeks” (v. 26), so no problem there. There are some scholars who put the death of Stephen closer to the date of the crucifixion, within a year or so, therefore, the 34 A.D. date for the terminus of the 490-year period still lines up fairly close, if not on the money. However, this view does not account very well for the other three-and-a-half years in the 70th week of the prophecy, on the leading end of the one “week” timeframe. The difficulty is with respect to the “strong covenant” timing, that covers the entire span of that 70th week. Is it possible that some remarkable event in Jesus’ life happened prior to his baptism, that can be associated with the confirmation of the “strong covenant?” A reasonably possible candidate that comes to mind is if the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry began, a few years prior to Jesus’ baptism. The public appearance of John, after the prophetic silence of 400 years since the prophet Malachi, could be understood as the beginning point “confirming” the “strong covenant,” that the Messiah inaugurates. This assumes that John the Baptist’s ministry began about 27 A.D., seven years before the death of Stephen, with Jesus’ baptism in late 29 A.D. But, hey, this assumption is a long-shot. So, I admit that the argument for the 33 A.D. crucifixion date in use with this dating method proposed, though still possible, is still weaker, than for the 31 or 30 A.D. dates, which have tighter arguments. The 31 or 30 A.D. dates should not be dismissed as reasonable possibilities.
- But assuming the timing issues are resolved, as described above, does this view I propose really work, since the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple are also mentioned in Daniel 9:24-27? True, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple are referenced in Daniel 9:24-27, and in the view I lean towards, this destruction is accomplished outside of the “Seventy Weeks.” But the destruction of neither is listed as being goals to be accomplished within the “Seventy Weeks,” as described in verse 24. The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple should be seen as a consequence of Christ’s finished work on the cross, which summarizes all of the goal objectives listed in verse 24. In other words, the destruction of the Jerusalem and its Temple need not fall within the 70-week timeframe.
- Are there any other observations to make regarding the view I propose? A further difficulty with the dispensationalist approach is that some calculations place the end of 69th week, along with the beginning of the gap, during “Holy Week,” just prior to the crucifixion. But this means that Christ’s work on the cross happens within this gap period, which technically stands outside of the 70-week timeframe, which is a problem, if you think about it (I owe this insight to this Unbelievable podcast from Oct 2009). Alternatively, no “gap” of an unspecified time period is required anywhere in the view I tentatively propose, and the “seventy weeks” are to be understood as exactly 490 years. I do not see any inherent problem with a more “spiritual” interpretation of the “seventy weeks,” but in this view, no “spiritual” interpretation is required. The prophecy finds its fulfillment in the first century A.D. Attaching any other futurist elements to Daniel 9 is just like gravy: It enhances the flavor, but it is not the meat of the prophecy.
- What then is the most modest reading of this passage?” Some might be discouraged and confused by all of the debated issues surrounding Daniel 9:24-27. Furthermore, some might be bothered that I am suggesting that there might not be a need for any “gap” in this prophecy, that points towards the Second Coming of Christ. Therefore, is there anything that the follower of Jesus can have confidence for sure regarding this prophecy? While there are various theories regarding starting/ending dates, counting methods, the existence of “stops” or “gaps” within Daniel’s timetable, the question about the identity of the mysterious subject in verse 27, and if this person makes a covenant (following the NIV) or confirms an already existing one (following the ESV), etc., at this point in my studies I concur with what most conservative scholars would say that Daniel’s prophecy had at the minimum the first coming of the Messiah in mind (see verses 24-25), along with in some sense, the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (see verses 26-27). To suggest that the “Seventy Weeks” goes beyond this is possible, but such a conclusion is not inherently obvious.
- Do we learn anything from Jewish thinking on the matter? I can recommend to you the teaching of Michael L. Brown, a messianic Jew engaged in apologetics within the Jewish community. I can quibble on the details with Dr. Brown, but it seems to me that he has the right focus:
- How much difference does a Bible translation make in reading this passage? Simple answer: A lot! One small but important observation related to what Michael L. Brown discusses in the video: It is bothersome that a number of Christian translations of this passage insert words into the text, among other things, that within a wider context are arguably appropriate, they are nonetheless not “literally” in the original Hebrew. The example I have in mind is in Daniel 9:25 where the King James Version (KJV), along with the NIV quoted above, insert a definite article, “the,” to modify the word “Messiah,” which the KJV capitalizes. As Michael Brown demonstrates, Jewish critics are correct to point out that the definite article does not exist in the Hebrew original, nor is there any capitalization in the original text. The term “messiah” can best be translated as “anointed one,” even though the NIV decides to still capitalize that in following the KJV tradition. It remains one of strangest peculiarities of the KJV that despite there being 39 occurrences of the Hebrew term “mashiach” in the Old Testament, this is the only place where the term is translated as “Messiah.” If you go to BibleGateway.com and compare some of the most popular translations, you will see that it is the ESV in this particular case that gets this right by rendering this as “an anointed one.” There is a sizable contrast between the ESV’s “an anointed one, a prince” and the KJV’s “the Messiah, the Prince,” (see how the NRSV agrees with the ESV, for the most part). One could fault the ESV for being less definite as to the identity of this anointed one, but you can only do so recognizing that the ESV is the most “literal” of these translations when it comes to this passage compared to the NIV and KJV (at least on certain points). Nevertheless, I am persuaded that the identity of at least one of the anointed ones in this passage is, in fact, “the Messiah — Jesus of Nazareth,” since it is the wider context that demonstrates this truth, not because the KJV or NIV feels compelled to add words, introduce capitalization, and put unique translation choices into the text that were not originally there. It is verse 24 that tells us the things that this anointed one will do (following the ESV… other versions may differ), “to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” among other things, which fits perfectly within what Jesus of Nazareth actually did, or least partially fulfilled in His first coming, to be fully completed in His second coming. The context of the whole passage is powerful enough to reveal the identity of “an anointed one” as “the Messiah” in at least some part of this passage. We do not need unnecessary alterations of the original text to prove this point. A lot more can be stated regarding the difficulties of interpreting this passage, but to my present point, the KJV and NIV for the most part still manage to get folks in the right ballpark as they seek to help the reader out. But perhaps they try to help the reader out too much. These translations do so at the expense of more “literal” translations of the text that leave more room for ambiguity as found in the original text. This just goes to show the type of perils that are introduced when some Christians, with otherwise good intentions, try to “take the Bible literally,” without considering why various Bible translations sometimes differ.