In a previous article, we saw how the history of Israel and her designation by God as His chosen nation fills much of the Old Testament; it can be framed by the distinct covenants God made with her—unconditional, unilateral, irrevocable promises from God to Israel involving her establishment as a nation, with distinct land boundaries. Furthermore, Israel was promised both to receive and to impart divine blessing. Not only that, God has also promised Israel a future earthly kingdom, with her King reigning from Jerusalem. Finally, God has promised He will eventually renew the hearts of His chosen people, so that they might repent and turn to Jesus Christ, the Promised Messiah rejected by their forbearers, thereby triggering all the other promised blessings.
One passage in particular, Daniel 9:24-27, directly addresses Israel’s relationship to the world’s end. Sir Isaac Newton once claimed that one could stake the truth of Christianity on this prophecy alone.1 Jesus referenced this prophecy as being foundational in His most definitive explanation of the chronology of end time events (Matt 24). No one’s theology of future events is complete without it. It reads:
24Seventy weeks [lit. sevens] are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. 25Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an Anointed One, a Prince; there shall be seven weeks [lit. sevens] Then for sixty–two weeks [lit. sevens] it shall be built again with squares and a moat, but in a troubled time.
26And after the sixty-two weeks [lit. sevens] an Anointed One shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are determined.
27And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week [lit. sevens] and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.
Hebrew scholars agree that these four verses are very challenging for the Bible exegete and interpreter, for several reasons. The main one is probably due to the fact that this prophecy conflates the two comings of Christ that we know today in hindsight have been separated by at least 2,000 years. Daniel and the Old Testament saints did not think of two comings—they only perceived one. The discontinuity—termed prophetic foreshortening—that results from two Messianic comings separated by a huge gap of time put a huge monkey wrench in everyone’s eschatology. It is the greatest cause for the inimitable complexities and idiosyncrasies involved in trying to sort out Bible prophecy, especially chronology and timing (1 Pet 1:11). Nevertheless, from careful exegesis, attending to the immediate context and guided by the guardrails of the analogy of Scripture, there is much that comes across loud and clear from this passage to help inform our eschatology.
Daniel is writing around 539 B.C. He had been in exile more than sixty years. The angel Gabriel gave him a prophecy about a time coming for Israel which will be made up of “seventy weeks” (9:24). A better, more literal translation of the Hebrew construction is “seventy sevens.” The second word in the phrase is versatile and literally means “a unit of seven” or “a heptad.” This Hebrew word “has no primary reference to time periods at all, whether days or years. In other words, it is simply a numerical measure.”2 This seems strange to the modern-day English reader. We tend to think in terms of tens or decades. Daniel’s people thought in terms of sevens or heptads. Every seventh year was a sabbath (Lev 25). Every seven “sevens,” or forty-nine years, brought them the mandatory Year of Jubilee (25:8-12). Seventy “sevens” here for Daniel referred to 490 years, the time remaining until the culmination of God’s promises for Israel and for all believers.
The prophecy is a promise made “about your people and for your holy city,” that is, to Israel and Jerusalem (9:24). Next, six infinitives tell us what the Messiah will accomplish for His people. The six infinitives have an obvious syntactical structural symmetry in several respects in the Hebrew text. The infinitives are written in two sets of three; the first three are stated negatively and the second three are stated positively. The first three are two-word phrases in Hebrew; the second three are three-word phrases in Hebrew. The first set of three is related to sin and is fulfilled with Christ’s first coming when He came as the Suffering Servant and Sin-Bearer as He died on the cross. The last set of three is related to righteousness and is fulfilled in full when Christ returns at the end of the age as the Conquering King and Righteous Judge. The first three speak of Christ’s now past spiritual atoning work, which is the basis of all His promises that will be fulfilled by Israel. The last three infinitives address His still earthly Kingdom promises that Israel will inherit upon its national repentance (Deut 30:1-6; Rom 11:26). Let’s look at this in closer detail.
Christ’s first coming culminated with His conquest of “the transgression” putting an end to sin’s power and its consequence—death. Through His crucifixion and resurrection, the capstone of His first appearance, Christ atoned for sin and so triumphed over its damning effect. When He appears again to rule over His kingdom on earth, Jesus will “anoint the most holy place” with His presence in Jerusalem, which will be the epicenter of all worship (Dan 9:24). From that time on, righteousness will be the rule, in both the Millennium Kingdom and in the Eternal Kingdom to follow. No longer will there be any need for prophecy or visions, because God will commune directly with His people forevermore.
As for the timing of all this, Daniel writes that from the time of the decree to go and rebuild Jerusalem to the time when the first “Prince” will come (a name for Jesus), there will be a total of seven weeks of sevens (49 years), followed by sixty-two weeks of sevens (434 years), for a total of sixty-nine weeks of sevens (483 years). After this, Daniel prophesies that the first Prince will be “cut off and shall have nothing,” and a second “prince” shall appear (a reference to the antichrist). It is important to note that the “Prince” in 9:25 is a different person than the “prince” in 9:26. This second prince, or Antichrist, will persecute the nation of Israel and all who follow the one true God, until the time of his decreed end (Rev 13:1-10).
To understand how this passage links Israel and the world’s future, recall that the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem in 605 B.C. Beginning that year and continuing in two subsequent deportations, the people of Judah were taken into captivity. As already presented, this captivity had been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (25:11; 29:10). It was to last seventy years, after which the Jews would be allowed to return home. Aware of this prophecy, Daniel perceived the time for Israel’s release was drawing near, if the starting date was the first deportation in 605 B.C. As the seventy years were ending, the Medes and Persians conquered Babylon and became overseers of the Jewish captives. Under the Medo-Persian reign of Cyrus, the people of Israel were finally allowed to return to their native land, precisely as God’s Word to Jeremiah had predicted (Ezra 1:1-3; 2 Chron 36:22-23).
This return was permitted over a series of four decrees. The first three of these decrees (discussed in Ezra 1, 6, and 7) allowed Israel to return and rebuild her fallen temple, but—interestingly—her people were not permitted to rebuild the city of Jerusalem itself. That had to wait until the fourth decree, under the Emperor Artaxerxes—the same Artaxerxes who ruled at the time of Esther. His decree permitting God’s people to begin rebuilding Jerusalem—and in particular, to restore its perimeter walls—came around March (Nisan) 444/445 B.C. (Neh 2:1-6).
Now notice the following about Daniel’s prophecy. He writes that there will be sixty-nine weeks of years, or 483 years, before an “Anointed One” (9:25), a reference to the Messiah, who comes and [then] He is “cut off,” meaning “killed.”Daniel breaks this period into a time of seven weeks, followed by sixty-two weeks, for a total of sixty-nine weeks of years (or 483 years). The first seven-week period, or 49 years, is the period of time for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem (v 25a).
By this date, four special features regarding the nation of Israel deserve mention:
First, the people of Israel are back in their land of Palestine. A remnant has returned. The nation is restored.
Second, the temple is rebuilt. It would later be destroyed and again rebuilt, but for now the temple is reconstructed and functioning, with sacrifices to God resuming on its altar.
Third, the city of Jerusalem is reconstructed. It had been decimated by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 B.C., but now it is reestablished and inhabited. So the people of Israel had their nation, their temple, and their city all restored to them.
Lastly, the people of Israel had their canon. With the writings of the prophet Ezra concluded, the Old Testament was complete. God’s people had His Word, the Old Testament Scripture, in its finished form. With that, God’s special revelation to His people ceases, at least for a time.
That ends the first of seven “weeks” of years (i.e. 49 years from 445 B.C. to 396 B.C.). What follows is a time of silence, when the voice of God, as spoken through the prophets to His people, is abruptly halted. This time of “silence” represents the sixty-two weeks of years mentioned by Daniel. Historically, during this period, the Greeks overtake the Medes and Persians as the third great world empire (also prophesied by Daniel; cf. chaps. 2 and 7). One of the Greek emperors to reign during this interlude is Antiochus IV “Epiphanes,” whose vile torment of the people of Israel and desecration of her temple is part of the “troubled time” prophesied by Daniel as destined to come upon Israel (cf. 9:25).3
Following the seven plus sixty-two weeks, or sixty-nine weeks, Daniel then prophesies that an “Anointed One” will come like a “Prince.” This is nothing less than a prediction of Christ’s first coming (the Hebrew word “Messiah” means “anointed one”). In other words, God asserts through Daniel that the Messiah will arrive after 69 weeks of years, or 483 years, from the time of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem. Astoundingly, during Passover week around AD 33 Jesus mounted a colt and rode it from nearby Bethany right into Jerusalem as the acclaimed Prince, the Messiah, in precise fulfillment of this and other Old Testament prophecies (cf. Zech 9:9)—exactly 483 years from the date of Artaxerxes’ decree!4 This remarkable fulfillment of prophecy is an extraordinary verification that God is providentially overseeing His entire world with meticulous precision and perfect mastery.
Finally, Daniel prophesies that shortly thereafter, the Messiah will be suddenly “cut off” (Dan 9:26) from His people (an allusion to Christ’s death), followed by the arrival of a “prince who is to come” (Dan 9:26). This second prince is the Antichrist. His ascent and his destruction all transpire during the “one week” of prophecy yet unfulfilled, Israel’s “seventieth week,” a week of seven years to bring about the end of this world as we know it.5
In summary, it is helpful to clarify Daniel’s use and meaning of the various references to “sevens” in this complex prophetic passage just surveyed:
- “seventy years” (9:2) refers to the number of years Jeremiah predicted Israel would be exiled in Babylon as a consequence for violating 70 sabbath year observances required by the Law (cf. Lev 25:2-5; 2 Chron 36:21);
- “seventy weeks” (9:24) means “seventy sevens” and equals 490 years. The 490 years refers to the total time it will take before the Messiah comes to deal a final blow to sin and fulfill all promises made to Israel. This 490-year period corresponds exactly to the penalty required in the Law (cf. Lev 25:2-5; 26:34-43) for violating the sabbath year 70 different times during the 800 years in which Israel was in the land beginning with Joshua until the Babylonian captivity. Daniel goes on to divide these “seventy weeks” into three sections, with a prophetic event being fulfilled with each section along the way until the ultimate climax that transpires at the close of the 490 years. Incremental, telescopic or staged fulfillments are typical of biblical prophecy;
- “seven weeks” (9:25) means seven sevens, or 49 years. This period most likely pertains to the time it actually took from the issuing of the decree until the restoration of Jerusalem which began with the decree issued in the days of Nehemiah;6
- “sixty-two weeks” (9:25, 26) means sixty-two sevens or 434 years and comprises the time from the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the first coming of the Messiah (v. 25 b);
- “seven weeks and sixty-two weeks” (9:25) means sixty-nine sevens, or 483 years. This is the time-period from the decree of Cyrus to the death of Christ. There is purposely a gap between the 69th week and the 70th week in light of Christ’s two comings.
- “one week” (9:27) means one seven or seven years, and refers to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of the world before Christ’s Second coming. Daniel says this week is typified by the presence of the Antichrist whom he calls “the prince” (9:26), “a little horn” (7:8), “a man” (7:8), with a “mouth which spoke pompous words” (7:20), who “will make war against the saints” (7:21), who will be a “king” (7:24), who will “speak blasphemies” (11:36). He will make a covenant with Israel at the beginning of the 70th week (9:27a).
- “the middle of the week” (9:27) means the middle of the seven, or half of seven years. Three-and-a-half years into the covenant he made with Israel, the Antichrist will break that covenant and turn against the Jews and then dominate for another three-and-a-half years. Jesus called this time of domination the “Great Tribulation” (Matt 24:21). Revelation said it would last 42 months (13:5), or “a time and times and half a time,” (12:14) or 1,260 days (12:6)—all the same as 3 ½ years.
1. Isaac Newton, Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John (J. Darby and T. Browne, 1733).
2. John C. Whitcomb, “Daniel’s Great Seventy-Week Prophecy,” GTJ (Fall 1981): 259.
3. Daniel prophesies in remarkable detail about the reign of Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (over three-hundred years prior to its fulfillment!) in Daniel 11:21-35.
4. See Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 1977.
5. We explore this time of the Tribulation in Chapter 6.
6. Michael Rydelnik, Daniel, The Moody Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 1306.
You can read more on this topic in Colin’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future.