70 years and 70 times 7 years

It was the first year of Darius’s reign as king of Babylon, 539/538 BC, and Daniel was reading the scroll containing the words of the prophet Jeremiah, a man whom Daniel had known. The words were these:

Tablet from 7th-century Babylon recording the rations given to the captive king of Judah, Jehoiachin

Behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. … This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord.

The 70 years were now almost up. Would God really fulfil his promise? Babylon had just fallen to Darius the Mede and Cyrus king of Persia, and its king had been killed in the fighting. But otherwise there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that their captivity was about to end. Daniel turned his face to Jerusalem and prayed, confessing his own sin and the guilt of the nation. He pleaded for mercy. In answer the man Gabriel gave him a revelation of what was to take place afterwards. He received no confirmation that God would bring back his people to Jerusalem.

Then Cyrus issued a decree, saying,
“Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given to me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, in Judah. Let those among you who are his people go up and rebuild the house.”

None of the Old Testament writers explicitly demonstrate that this marked the imminent fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Nonetheless, the writer of II Chronicles, traditionally thought to have been Ezra, believed that it did (36:21), so that is the question we will examine. The decree was issued in Cyrus’s first year as king of Babylon. Since no other date is given, we can assume that the return – a momentous event in the history of Israel – took place the same year. By the seventh month they were back in their towns (Ezra 3:1). Since Cyrus’s reign began in the month Nisan, i.e. March/April, the seventh month was September/ October.

The chronology is further discussed in relation to Nebuchadrezzar’s first dream, but in summary Cyrus ascended the throne in 537 BC and reigned 7 years, until 530 BC. Darius, his predecessor, was still alive at the start of his reign. In view of their already existing kinship (Cyrus was his nephew), and having no male heir, he gave Cyrus his daughter in marriage and made him his heir and senior partner. In those circumstances his accession is likely to have been timed to coincide with his formal coronation, in March/April 537 BC. His decree concerning the Jews was one of his first acts as emperor.

Daniel was among the few Jews, perhaps the only one, to have lived through the entire period of exile. The first were taken to Babylon as hostages – mainly young members of the royal family and nobility, Daniel included – following Nebuchadrezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah (Dan 1:1). Since Jehoiakim ascended the throne in September 609, the period of servitude therefore began at some point between September 607 and September 606 BC, 69 or 70 years before its end in 537 BC. The writer of II Chronicles counted 70 years, i.e. from the beginning of the third year.

The Babylonian Chronicle

Another deportation took place in 597 BC (II Ki 24:10-17). An independent record of this is preserved in British Museum tablet 21946, known as the Babylonian Chronicle:
In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar, 598 BC; eighth year by Judah’s ‘factual-year’ method of reckoning] in the month Kislev [Nov/Dec] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti [Syria-Palestine] he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the 2nd day of the month Adar [16 March 597 BC] he conquered the city and took the king prisoner. He installed in his place a king of his own choice and received rich tribute, which he sent back to Babylon.

The king captured was Jehoiachin, who was replaced by Zedekiah (II Ki 24:15-17).

The final, most sweeping deportation took place in 586 BC (II Ki 25:8-12). According to II Chronicles 36, on burning Jerusalem’s temple and palaces and pulling down its walls Nebuchadrezzar
took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.
The Sabbaths were a reference to the 50-year cycle of the Law of Moses, the last year being a year of jubilee (Lev 25:8f):
“For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. … And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”
A little later God warned the people that if they broke their covenant with him:
“I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths.”

Daniel was only too well aware that this had come to pass. “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. The curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us.”

So in 586 BC the land was vacated and in 537 BC, exactly 49 years later, the exiles returned to their land. In the seventh month they built an altar and offered burnt offerings on it, implicitly including that of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. In so doing, ‘as it was written in the Law of Moses the man of God’ (Ezra 3:2), they inaugurated the year of jubilee. It had never been observed before. The one time that they did try to observe the jubilee, in 587 BC, by granting liberty to their slaves, they shortly afterwards changed their minds (Jer 34:6-11).

The decree of seventy sevens
Gabriel’s message to Daniel in 9:24-27 strikes a deliberate balance between the cryptic and the perspicuous. The following interpretation of this much discussed passage does not offer anything radically new but may help to clarify. It starts as follows:
“Seventy sevens [weeks] 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 one most holy [a person, thing or place].”

The numbers refer to years. The previously ordained period of 70 years, including 49 years of sabbath rest and ending with a year of jubilee, was to be followed by another ordained period, apparently lasting 490 years.

The introductory words are perhaps the least difficult. The years are to fulfil several purposes, presented in two sets of three. The first set announces an intention to end once for all the enduring problem of the transgression of God’s laws, the sin in the human heart, and the guilt that arises when sin causes man to transgress. The concepts are interrelated and mentioned together in God’s proclaimation to Moses of what his name stood for: “Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious… forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:7). They also feature in his explanation of the meaning of the scapegoat let go into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement: “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, and put them on the head of the goat” (Lev 16:21). The concepts are discussed at length by Paul in his letter to the Romans and the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. If there is significance in the ‘the’, the reference is to the transgression of Adam (Rom 5:14) or ‘the transgression of my people’ (Isa 53:8) as a permanent condition.

The purposes listed in the second set are more distinct. ‘Everlasting righteousness’ is the consequence of making final atonement. As the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.’ The sealing of vision and prophet refers to the fact that there would be no more prophecies, and those given would not be understood – including Daniel’s own book (Dan 12:4, 9). To this day, the prophets are barely understood by most Christians (they continually seek to apply them to themselves) and even less understood by the Jews. It was as if God had poured out on Israel ‘a spirit of deep sleep’, so that she could not understand the prophets (Isa 6:9f, 28:13, 29:10-12). God foresaw and intended this. Quoting the Septuagint version of Isaiah, Paul says (Rom 11:25-27),
A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob;
and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

Many of the prophecies refer to the end, when God judges the nations and restores all Israel to the land. Hence their being sealed refers both to a time when prophecy in the Old Testament sense will cease and to a later time when they will be fulfilled. The ‘anointing of one most holy’ refers to the anointing of a person. Although the noun is not specified, verse 25 refers to the coming of an anointed leader. In the context of OT prophecy generally, this can hardly be other than the Deliverer from Zion, the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’, titles which mean the ‘Anointed One’ in Hebrew and Greek respectively.

The next part:
“Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a ruler, there will be seven sevens and sixty-two sevens. It will be built again with squares and drainage, but in a troubled time.”

The punctuation here is as per the AV. It is also possible to end the first sentence after ‘seven sevens’, so that the anointed one comes after 49 years and the period of building lasts 434 years. However, since the seventy sevens start with the word to restore and rebuild, it seems illogical to go on to say that the building work will occupy only the second period. Four centuries is also a long time to be building a city. The Hebrew word ‘restore’, shuwb, means to return to a previous state (Isa 58:12). ‘Ruler’ is nagiyd, a term often used of the king of Israel (e.g. II Sam 7:8) and others in positions of leadership. ‘Drainage’ translates the word charuwts, something incised, or dug, such as a ditch.

The word to restore and build Jerusalem could be (i) the decree of Cyrus in 537 BC to rebuild the temple, (ii) the decree of Artaxerxes in July/August 458 BC authorising Ezra, ‘the scribe of the Law,’ to strengthen the finances of the now rebuilt temple, to appoint magistrates and judges, and to promote observance of the Law of Moses, or (iii) the letters of authorisation that Nehemiah received in 446 BC to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall. We can rule out the last option, since the wall had already been rebuilt. Nehemiah was responding to the news that it was broken down and its gates burnt. The damage – apparently not an accident though it may have been made to look like one – was an illustration of the ‘troubled time’ foreseen in the vision.

Cyrus commanded the rebuilding of the temple. As God reminded the people through the prophet Haggai, this had to be the priority. “Is it time for you to dwell in your panelled house, while my house lies in ruins?” In the Daniel passage the emphasis is on the city rather than the temple. Likewise, Isaiah’s message in chapter 58 was: focus on moral restoration, and restoration of the city will follow. Given that this was Ezra’s mission, perhaps the phrase ‘restore and build Jerusalem’ is best understood in the same spirit. The ‘square’ was specifically where the people gathered to hear Ezra read out the Law (Neh 8:1) and where, among other places, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (8:16). This dual effort of moral and structural restoration was destined to go on for 49 years, from 458 to 409 BC, led by Ezra as theologian and Nehemiah as governor. Malachi, not mentioned by Nehemiah, presumably wrote his book after the last dated year, 434-433 BC (Neh 5:14). He was Israel’s last prophet of the Old Testament period. No specific event is associated with 409 BC.

The next part:
And after the sixty-two sevens, an anointed one will be cut off and have nothing [or: and will have no one; or: but not for himself]. And the people of the ruler who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end will come with a flood, and to the end there will be war. Desolations are decreed.

The cutting off – the premature death – of the anointed one takes place after the 434 years, i.e. after AD 26. At this point it is unclear whether or not this will be immediately after. The date suggests an association with either the start of John the Baptist’s ministry or the start of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke dates John’s ministry as starting in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Unfortunately there is an issue as to whether he counted his reign from the inception of his co-regency with Augustus or from his accession as sole ruler. The practice of Hebrew historiography was to count ordinal years from the co-regency if the new king was the principal ruler, from his sole reign if not (Robinson 1991). Luke probably would have followed this tradition if he knew of it (the Romans counted from Tiberius’s sole reign), and according to Suetonius, Tiberius assumed control from AD 12 onwards, when the senate made him joint governor of the provinces; by then, Augustus was seriously ill. On this basis John began preaching in the year October 26 to October 27 – Daniel’s prophecy suggesting at the beginning of the year. Another clue is that the first Passover mentioned in the gospels came 46 years after Herod began renovating the Temple (John 2:13-20). Herod began the work in 20/19 BC, probably in the autumn, so this takes us to the year 27/28, with the first Passover in AD 28. The last-mentioned Passover is the third, in AD 30. A detailed reconciliation of the chronology of Passion Week and the days of the week corresponding to them in the calendar also confirms that year.

John’s annunciation “Behold the Lamb of God!” may have been soon after the Passover in AD 27. At any rate, it was in that year, at the river Jordan, that Jesus appeared to Israel and was anointed by the Spirit (Acts 10:38). As Isaiah had prophesied, as if speaking through him:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and opening of sight to those who are blind;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour …

The ‘captives’ were people captive to sin, the blindness spiritual blindness (John 8:36, 9:39), the year of jubilee (Lev 25:10) the time when those who received the good news would be freed from the power of Satan and enter a sabbath rest (Heb 4). Ultimately these good things would be fully realised at the end of the age.

Being ‘cut off’ and having nothing, or being cut off guiltlessly, evokes Isaiah’s picture of the man who was ‘cut off’ (different word) from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of his people, the man who bore their iniquity and sin although he had done no wrong (Isa 53). His people – the ruler to come has already Stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount thrown onto the street by the Romansbeen identified as the anointed one – subsequently destroy the city and its temple. Although it was the Romans who destroyed them, the Jews brought the destruction upon themselves by rejecting the good news and supposing that liberty under the kingdom of God would come by armed revolt. The revolt began in AD 66 and ended with the fall of Jerusalem in September AD 70. Initially, the Roman general had ordered that its temple be spared. According to Josephus, it was the Jews who first used fire in the northwest approach to the Temple to try to stop Roman advances. Only then did Roman soldiers set fire to an apartment adjacent to the Temple, a conflagration the Jews subsequently made worse. The Romans flattened the city. ‘Flood’ is a standard metaphor for war (Ps 124, Isa 8:8, Dan 11:10).

The final part:
And he shall confirm a covenant with many over one seven, and in the midst of the seven 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.”

‘He’ refers to the anointed one. In April AD 30 he put an end to sacrifice and offering by offering himself as a sacrifice, three and a half years after John the Baptist. Thus the final seven began immediately after the sixty-ninth, and he was cut off in the middle of the final seven. During those three and a half years he confirmed with his many followers a new covenant. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28, Isa 53:12).

The coming of one who makes desolate on the wing of abominations refers to a future person who erects an ‘abomination of desolation’ (Matt 24:13). Similar to Nebuchadrezzar’s golden image and the abomination erected by Antiochus IV, it will be a statue before which men must bow down and worship (Rev 13:15). The ‘holy place’ that Christ referred to is the Temple Mount, not specifically the building (Acts 21:28). The three and half years associated with the desolator are separate from the first three and half years of the final seven, as indicated more clearly by Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (7:25), by his concluding vision (12:7) and by the Book of Revelation (13:5). During those final years the faith of those who hold to the testimony of Jesus will also be tested. The new covenant extends over the full seven years, including the long gap of uncounted years in the middle, thus from AD 27 to the time of the end.

The exact fulfilment of the foretold 70 years of captivity, the exact fulfilment of the foretold 49 years during which the land would enjoy its Sabbaths, and the exact fulfilment of the foretold 434 years between the coming of Ezra to instruct Judah in the old covenant and the coming of the Messiah to instruct the people in the new covenant all assure us that what remains to be fulfilled will be fulfilled.