A Study of Daniel - Part I
This article is the first of a four part series on Daniel .
Regardless of one’s theological persuasion, Daniel is one of the most difficult passages to interpret. Challenges arise both in the area of linguistics and in theology, specifically eschatology. Some of the verbs are somewhat obscure, the chronological framework is not particularly easy to establish, and a dash of symbolism is thrown in the mix for good measure. The effort to unravel these four verses is worth it, however. Eschatological details are packed in them like sardines. A proper understanding of this highly scrutinized pericope will make end-time events less confusing. An overview of the passage reveals that v. summarizes all four verses, v. concerns the 69 “sevens,” and v. describes the 70th “seven.”
In addition to being an amazing revelation, it is one of the most wonderful answers to prayer in Scripture. Daniel read in Jeremiah that the Jews’ captivity would last only 70 years, so “…it would be only natural for Daniel to inquire of God as to which of the three deportations marked the beginning of the seventy years of exile” (605, 597, or 586 BC). Daniel asks the Lord about ending the exile, but His response looks to the future instead. That is not to say the answer had nothing to do with his petitions. For example, the first triad of phrases (v. ) addresses the wording of Dan. , and the last three his request of .
The verses will be discussed one by one, yet their teachings will be brought together in the conclusion in Part IV.
Enigmatic statements are discovered in the first two words of the passage. The phrase “seventy ‘sevens’” (uWbv* is a heptad, a group of seven of something) has generated numerous (and humorous) interpretations.
Many liberals advocate Daniel was penned in the second century BC, and it has nothing to do with Jesus. All of the prophecy therein, if any, was fulfilled by the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, and thus is actually just a history. The author (certainly not the real Daniel) confuses the seventy years of captivity with the 70 “sevens” announced by Gabriel.
Refutation of this liberal position has to do with Daniel’s prayer and its relation to other ancient literature. A number of apocryphal books were written between 200 BC and AD 100. The prayers contained in those writings “are wordy and self-serving…Daniel’s prayer is neither of these.” The plain reading of the book yields the idea that this great prophet lived in sixth century Mesopotamia, and thus was an eyewitness to the people and events enumerated in the story. There is absolutely no indication the composer lived 400 hundred years later, as some scholars assert.
Other critics comment that the text does say “sevens” and not “years” or “months,” and that “sevens” is a masculine plural instead of the expected feminine plural. Hence, they reason that no clear interpretation can be made because of these oddities. Archer concisely and correctly assesses the issue, “..the term ‘weeks’ (rendered in NIV as ‘sevens’) is <!Wb*v, from uWbv*, which always takes a feminine plural, tou%bv, when it means a seven of days, namely, a ‘week.’ The masculine plural here probably indicates that the word is meant as a heptad (so BDB, pp.988-89) of years.”
Before other interpretations are discussed, it is necessary to deal with the numbers themselves and what time units are involved. Almost everyone agrees the seventy “sevens” means 490, but Bible students disagree as to the units; 490 what? The four most likely candidates are days, weeks, months, and years. The evidence will show “years” is the best answer.
“Days” is almost universally discarded. That proposition would bring the total to less than a year and a half, which is simply not enough time for all the actions of vv. to take place. Further, if Daniel intended “days” here, he would have written that word down as he did at ,. There, he said he mourned and fasted for three weeks (so NIV; “three entire weeks”, NASB) but the Hebrew is literally, “three sevens of days.” Why did Daniel specify “days”? Wouldn’t people know he certainly didn’t fast for 21 years? He put “days” because he did not want to give the impression he was still thinking in terms of “years” as in chapter nine. Inserting “weeks” as the time unit creates the same difficulty. The span of time is not long enough, adding up to only nine and a half years.
A variation of this interpretation takes the verse in a straight-forward way; that is, the phrase means 70 weeks (as opposed to the 490 weeks as above). Barnes believes that explanation is not consistent with the character of the nature of the answer to the prayer. “The angel comes to bring him [Daniel] consolation…But what consolation would it be to be told that the city would indeed be rebuilt, and that it would continue seventy ordinary weeks - that is, a little more than a year, before a new destruction would come upon it?”
In all probability “months” can be thrown out as well. In Daniel’s mind there is no association between the number “seven” and the word “months.” Seventy weeks of months was no significant duration of time in the Jewish culture. Gabriel would have to have been more exact in his wording if “months” was the intended time unit.
The final (and logical) selection is “years.” Both BDB and Gesenius affirm this selection. Only Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti libros adheres to “period of seven days,” and probably they come to this conclusion because they take the numbers figuratively and not literally.
Daniel would have had “years” in his thoughts because he had just read the passage that invoked his prayer, Jeremiah , (cf. Dan. ,). In painful detail, those verses declare Judah will be exiled for seventy years to make up for the sabbatical years they ignored (cf. 2 Chron. ). God commanded the Jews to let their land lie fallow every seven years (Lev. ), not only to honor the Lord, but also to allow the soil to replenish itself. They were in exile one year for every sabbatical year they had ignored. Calculating backwards, that would mean they had disobeyed that law for a total of about 490 years. Now God is telling them what will happen in the next 490 years.
Other factors support this selection (of “years”). After the seventh consecutive sabbatical year (that is, 50 years), the Jews celebrated the Year of Jubilee (Lev. ). Lastly, the children of Abraham were to work six days but rest on the seventh. The point is, “seven” often came up in conversations in their daily lives as well as in their religious and civic duties. It would be natural for Daniel to think of these “sevens” as years.
Further affirmation of this concept may be gleaned from a study of other passages. (1) Dan. speaks to Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment, predicting it will last “seven periods,” most likely meaning seven years. (2) Three verses in Dan. are significant. Verse mentions “time, times, and half a time.” The definition of “times” (plural) must be “two,” otherwise it would be impossible to discern the meaning of the expression. But does that really prove a “time” is a year? No, but the other two verses in chapter point in that direction. Verse speaks of 1,290 days. Verse talks about 1,335 days. Both of those designations are just over three and a half years. Because all three verses have to do with the second half of the Tribulation, it would be foolish to not take them to all be approximately the same length of time.
(3) Consider Dan. also. It announces that the antichrist’s evil events will endure “for time, times, and half a time.” Holding that verse up to the corresponding passages in Revelation (as well as to the verses from Daniel just mentioned) confirms that three and a half years is the intended meaning. Rev. laments Jerusalem will be trampled for 42 months (three and a half years). A parallel verse, Rev. , describes the same aspect of the end-time atrocities. There, the beast’s (the antichrist’s) power will last 42 months. A comparison of Rev. with yields the same result. Even though the term uWbv (“seven”) does not refer to years elsewhere in the Bible, it does carry that meaning in the Mishnah. The conclusion is inescapable: in his message, Gabriel had “years” in mind.
To some degree or another, all opinions as to how the “seventy sevens” played out in history (or will play out) can be placed into four major categories. (1) The “seventy sevens” are consecutive years and they end at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (about 163 BC). In order for this theory to be true, a few unusual assumptions have to be made. The 490 years would have to start as far back as 586 BC, the date of Jerusalem’s fall, and the decree of v. would have to be Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of exile. J. A. Montgomery, a liberal, admits the position is precarious.
In the text, the 490 years are divided into three stages of 49, 434, and 7 years respectively. This viewpoint, then, plays out as follows. The first stage begins in 586 BC and ends in 538 BC, the year Babylon fell. The Anointed One (v. ) now appears and he is one of the following men: Cyrus, Zerubbabel, Joshua (the postexilic high priest), Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, or Seleucus Philopater. The Bible says the Anointed One comes on the scene after the second stage, not preceding it, however. Montgomery (p.379) appeals to the punctuation of the MT, but those marks are the Masoretes’ interpretation. An athnach is not inspired. Keil (p.356) recognizes an athnach may indicate a rest in a clause, and not always the end of a sentence. Acceptance of the MT pointing makes the message almost unintelligible, for it would be saying it will take 434 years to build the plaza and moat. Too, there is no indication the stages are contemporaneous. That the seven years and 62 years are to be consecutive is confirmed by the Septuagint, Theodotion, the Syriac, and the Vulgate.
Stage two starts at the death of Joshua (the most popular choice from the above list) and terminates with the passing of another “Messiah.” An array of names has been put forth as to who this “Messiah” is, yet the favorite selection is the high priest Onias III (170 BC). Some believe Onias is also the “prince of the covenant” in Dan. . According to intertestamental history, he was murdered in 170 BC, and the explanation given for “and have nothing” (v. ) is Jerusalem and its oversight were no longer his. Antiochus’ persecution encompasses the final seven years (170-163).
There are not a few reasons why Antiochus does not meet the qualifications demanded by this passage. This menace did stop the sacrifices, but only for about three years, not the three and a half required by v. , nor did he destroy the Temple, as v. announces, nor did he make a “firm covenant” with the Jews (v. ). A variation of this interpretation sees the 69 “sevens” as literal years but the 70th “seven” is seen as indefinite, an inconsistent hermeneutic.
At least five other defects can be found in this first proposal, rendering it untenable. Jeremiah did not issue a “decree;” those edicts are sent out by kings. Additionally, the prophet’s message said nothing about rebuilding Jerusalem (v. ). (This “rebuilding” aspect of the passage is a stumbling block for the first three interpretations. It will be examined in some detail below.) Second, the text says the 490 years begin with the decree, not with Jerusalem’s devastation. The third defect is obvious; the kingdom did not come in 163 BC. Fourth, very few of these terms are taken literally, opening them up to a multitude of interpretations. Finally, from 586 to 163 BC is not 490 years. The critics excuse this as a miscalculation on the part of Daniel’s author. As noted before, most who hold to this theory are liberal and claim Daniel was penned in the second century BC, hence, after the fact. If true, why would so many mathematical mistakes be in the text? Regardless, this suggestion does not harmonize with the natural reading of Dan. .
(2) The “seventy sevens” are symbolic, and end in the first century AD. E. J. Young favors this idea and explains it as follows. The first stage (49 yrs) commences with Cyrus’ decree (538 BC) and is completed by the time of Ezra-Nehemiah (440-400). The 62 “sevens” stretch from 400 BC to the time of Christ. The last “seven” is from the first advent to an undesignated date after the resurrection but before AD 70. Rushdoony (Thy Kingdom Come) and Boutflower (In and Around the Book of Daniel) are in Young’s camp but with some variation. Orthodox Jews, holding to a non-Christological view, believe these 70 “sevens” concluded in AD 70 with the destruction of the Temple.
This second hypothesis has several serious errors. Each “seven” is not taken in its plain sense, but as an indefinite period of time. It is illogical to take numbers that are stated more than once, and are definite in their nature, as symbols. Many scholars do the same thing with the “one thousand” in Rev. . Second, each “seven” is not calculated consistently in each stage. In the first portion each is about 20 years in length. For the second, six years, and in the final one the span is unknown. Even if the “sevens” were symbolic, the literal truth behind it should not change within the same context. Third, this theory places the downfall of Jerusalem after the 70 “sevens,” yet it actually happens right at the end of the 69th “seven.”
Archer notes, “As for the purely symbolic use of ‘seventy sevens,’ there is not the slightest analogy for such usage in all Scripture.” Daniel certainly understood Jeremiah’s seventy years to be literal. Finally, to claim v. was fulfilled in Christ’s first coming is a flagrant distortion of that verse.
(3) Another symbolic interpretation declares the “sevens” are unspecified eras beginning in 538 BC and ending at Jesus’ return at the end of the age. Keil and Leupold, two proponents of this interpretation, teach this passage is a prophecy of church history. Obviously they are assuming the church is in the OT. According to them, just the seven “sevens” alone extend from 538 BC until the first century AD, roughly 550 years. The 62 “sevens” span the period from Christ until the persecution by the antichrist. During this time (at least two thousand years), the city (spiritual Jerusalem, the church) will be built even in “times of trouble.” The events of vv. occupy the last “seven.” To be “cut off” does not mean death, but predicts (1) the persecution of the church, and (2) Christ will have lost His place and function. The “ruler” (vv. ) is the antichrist. Organized religion will be destroyed until Jesus comes to judge the antichrist.
To the literalist, an array of red flags has popped up. First, this speculation fails to distinguish between Israel and the church. Second, it is beyond credulity; too much subjectivity is involved. Third, in v. , the building of the city is taken literally, yet at the end of the verse it is understood figuratively. Fourth, to state Christ and His church will fail is heresy. Jesus said even the gates of hell cannot conquer His church (Matt. ).There will always be witnesses (Matt. , Rev. ). Fifth, as with the other symbolic interpretation, the time frame for each “seven” varies wildly. In fact, the duration of the last “seven” is completely obscure. Lastly, the Anointed One comes after the 69 “sevens,” not after the first stage.
(4) This fourth and final proposal makes the most sense. It has the fewest difficulties and fits with the natural reading of Dan. . The basic assumptions are: (1) the years are actual, and (2) the end of the 70th “seven” is at Christ’s return. The activities in each of the three stages are detailed like this.
The 49 years begin with the order to rebuild Jerusalem (possibly the edict to Ezra in 458 BC, but more likely the one to Nehemiah in 444 BC; more will be said on this issue later) and terminate with the completion of their work (either 409 or 395). The next term (434 years) starts from Ezra and Nehemiah’s ministry and goes to Christ’s first advent (either His baptism in AD 26, or His presentation of Himself to the people on Palm Sunday in AD 32).
When Israel rejected her Messiah, the times of the Gentiles commenced, which are not part of the “seventy sevens.” Because these two items (rejection of Messiah and times of the Gentiles) are not specifically mentioned in this passage, it is not too far fetched to believe there is a time gap between the 69th and 70th “weeks.” No delay is detected in Isaiah , either, yet one is there, as the ages have shown.
The last “seven” is the 7-year Tribulation when the Lord will again turn His attention to the children of Abraham. In those days, many will come to faith. It will be finished when Jesus returns to set up His 1000-year kingdom on earth.
Young claims (p.206), “The burden of proof rests with those who insist that sevens of years are intended. Of this I am not convinced. If the sevens be regarded merely as a symbolic number, the difficulty disappears.” On the contrary, it is magnified. By not taking the numbers at face value, one can assign any value to them. The burden of proof rests on those who want to impute a special or unusual meaning to a phrase.
History has confirmed that the traditional dispensational teachings are correct. This generation has the privilege of looking back and noticing the “sevens” are years and God did not intend for the 70th “week” to come about right on the heels of the 69th. “In this time [the 490 years] all prophecy concerning Israel is to be fulfilled, even to the finishing of Israel’s transgression (cf. Rom. ) and the anointing of the most Holy.” All other approaches are either “built on the premise that Daniel is a forgery and prophecy is impossible” or they spiritualize the passage.
Now that “seventy ‘sevens’” is understood, it is time to examine the balance of v. . It states that Jerusalem was in ruins, yet obviously the Lord still had a love for it (Dan. ,). Gabriel announced that these actions are determined (“decreed”, NASB, NIV), implying He wants the city rebuilt. /T^j=n (Niphal perfect; “decreed”) is found only here in the OT. After comparing it with the corresponding Aramaic verb, scholars concluded the best translation is “to cut off, decide.” The Lord has purposely and precisely cut these seventy “weeks” from history as special to Israel. (The “decreed” of v. [hu*r*j$n, Niphal participle] has a similar meaning but a different root.)
At this point another mystery interrupts the chain of thought. The subject is plural (“seventy sevens”) yet the verb is singular (smoothed out as “have been” in the NASB; NIV has “are”). One solution is to see it as a signal to Daniel to take these 490 years as one continuous period, or, in other words, as a unit. Even though the final seven years have not happened yet, all 490 are a time when the Lord is concentrating His attention on the Jews. The preposition “for” (lu) can be rendered “against” (so Montgomery; 569 times in the OT), but since the message is one of hope for Israel, it is best to translate it as “for” (so NASB, NIV) or “concerning.” Yahweh is in complete command of all happenings, even the future. Fate is not in control because He has a plan.
Much debate has focused on other expressions in . Men such as Keil, Leupold, and Young believe “your people” refers to “spiritual Israel,” and “your holy city” is the heavenly Jerusalem. Both are modified by “your” because Daniel was praying for both and because he belonged to both. Again, some logic-defying mistakes are made. The text does not lend itself to such a speculation. This passage () is the answer to Daniel’s prayer, a prayer in which he was petitioning Yahweh about the Jews and Jerusalem, not some entities unknown to him. In Dan. , “your people” clearly means Abraham’s descendants; nothing else would make sense in that verse. The same reasoning applies to . Indeed, how could a people destroy the heavenly Jerusalem (v. )? The term “holy city” denotes literal Jerusalem in Neh. ,; Is. , ; Matt. , , and possibly Rev. .
The remainder of v. lists six items that will not be in full bloom until the end of the “seventy sevens.” Even amillennarians like Keil and Baldwin confess this time-table is correct. Pentecost summarizes the verse well: “The basis for the first three was provided in the work of Christ on the cross, but all six will be realized by Israel at the Second Advent of Christ.” However, the items are not as easy to comprehend as a brief reading would suggest, and thus some explanation is necessary. They are primarily directed at Israel yet the whole world will be affected by them.
The first phrase is, “to finish the transgression” (NASB). Scholars disagree with each other as to which verb “finish” is rooted. If the verb is aL@k (Piel infinitive construct, “to restrain”), which is the Kethiv reading, then this would be the only place it is found in the Piel in the OT, and it would be rendered “to restrain firmly.” The idea could be that transgression is only lessened, or that it is totally stopped but for only a season. Indeed, some Bible students propose Christ’s work on the cross merely buffeted transgressions’ influence on society.
That aL@k is not seen in the Piel (except here possibly) is one reason most scholars look to another root to determine the definition of this infinitive. That other root is the Qere reading, hl*K* (“to finish, to bring a process to completion”). Goldingay and BDB prefer this choice. hl*K* (like nethitan) has a parallel in v. , where it is rendered “complete destruction” (NASB) or “the end” (NIV). hl*K* is present in Dan. , ; , too. Miller believes the two verbs have merged, and refers the reader to Koehler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti libros, p.437. The better selection is hl*K* because Christ’s work on the cross didn’t just restrain sin, it paved the way for it to be completely removed.
The word “transgression” (uv^P, a singular masculine noun) is articulated, perhaps specifying Israel’s rebellion. This conclusion is supported by the fact that this passage is an answer to prayer, and Daniel prays about Israel’s rebellion in particular (). “Since the emphasis in this phrase is upon the finishing of Israel’s transgression, then this leads to the conclusion that it will occur at the second coming of Jesus.” Wood holds the opposite opinion, believing it is just a general term, more so than “sin” below.
The second expression is, “to make an end of sin.” Again there is uncertainty as to the original meaning of the verb stem. The Qere has <t@j*l, the Hiphil infinitive of <m^T (“to finish, complete”). The Kethiv is <Tj=l, the Qal infinitive of <Tj (“to seal up”). Both choices will be discussed, beginning with the Qere. All but one ancient version (Theodotion) has the Qere rendering, as do the Syriac and Vulgate. The Kethiv can be explained as an accidental coping of <Tj=l from the next line, where “to seal up” is the proper rendering. Wood adds (p.249), “’to seal up’ is out of place here because whenever it is used with ‘sin’ in other passages it indicates a sealing up for judgment.” One example often given for this usage is Deut. . (Those who prefer the Kethiv could argue Jesus “judged” sin at the crucifixion.) Miller, in agreement with Archer, Goldingay, and Walvoord, declares “to finish” fits the context better, for then this phrase would parallel the previous one.
Those in favor of the Kethiv cannot be readily dismissed nevertheless. Barnes is persuaded “to seal up” is the better choice, claiming the Masoretes inserted “to finish” because it made better sense to them than “to seal up” did. Keil and Pentecost also take their stand for the Kethiv reading. The strongest argument in favor of the Kethiv is that BDB lists the root as <Tj (p.367). The decision is difficult but “to finish” gets the victory by a slim margin.
There are text-critical problems with the noun, too. The Kethiv has “sins,” whereas the Qere has “sin.” The singular (taf*j, meaning “to miss the mark” or “a revolt against authority”) is the preferred reading because it connotes the concept of sin as well as the sins themselves. Thus, some scholars like it because it is a more encompassing term than “transgression” is (previous clause). Other scholars consider “sins” to be the better fit, believing toaf*^j refers only to our daily sins. “Since this Hebrew word does not have the definite article as did ‘transgression’ in the previous phrase, and since ‘sin’ is plural, it seems to refer to the sins in general of the nation” (cf. Dan. ).
Miller (p.260) comments, “Sin will be controlled during the millennium and cease completely during the eternal state. The future kingdom of God includes both periods.” Other scholars promote this same concept: that there will be traces of iniquity during the Millennium because Satan is “merely” bound; he is not yet in the lake of fire.
In light of all the considerations, “sin” appears to be the better suggestion for the following reasons. The expressions on either side of this one have singular nouns. Too, Jesus’ sacrifice did away with the concept of sin (for the eternal state if not for the Millennial Kingdom also), which in turn eliminates the possibility of a sin being committed.
The third item on the list is, “to make atonement for iniquity.” A person who is guilty of wickedness (“perverse action”) has committed iniquity. The verb is rP@k, “to cover, wipe out,” and being in the Piel gives it the connotation of expiation. Goldingay affirms this implication by stating the verb may be more closely related to Akkadian (“to cleanse”) than it is to Arabic (“to cover”). In addition, those passages where God is a Judge, rP@k is usually rendered “to pardon.”
The words would bring back memories of the blood being sprinkled on the mercy seat, depicting the people’s sins being covered (Lev. ,), but that ritual on the Day of Atonement was only a temporary appeasement (Rom. ). The Redeemer’s death is a permanent removal, and the Lord is justified in expiating the iniquities of the faithful because the Son’s blood was shed. Therefore, “to atone” adequately captures the sense of the clause.
Based on his alternatives for the various verb roots and meanings, Wood sees a progression of the first three accomplishments thus: Sin is first restrained; to what degree? It is put to an end; how is this done? By Christ’s atonement. Perhaps Wood was thinking of 2 Thess. , which speaks of a restrainer holding back sin for the time being. Barnes’ progression is: “Sin would be restrained, sealed up, covered up.” He continues,
These expressions, though not of the nature of a climax, are intensive, and show that the great work referred to pertained to sin, and would be designed to remove it. Its bearing would be on human transgression; on the way by which it might be pardoned; on the methods by which it would be removed from the view, and be kept from rising up to condemn and destroy.
Goldingay weighs in by proposing there is deliberate variety in the way the phrases are written. He translates them “the rebellion,” “failures,” and “waywardness,” which is an articulated singular noun, then an anarthrous plural, followed by an anarthrous singular.
|Continue to Part 2.|