The 70 years were almost up, and the question was whether God would fulfil his promise. Babylon had just fallen to Darius and his ally Cyrus king of Persia, but the Jews remained in exile; 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 as well as the guilt of the nation. In answer the man Gabriel gave him no confirmation that God would bring his people back, but instead revealed what would take place much later.
The writer of II Chronicles indicates that this marked the imminent fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (36:21). However, neither he nor anyone else in the Old Testament actually demonstrates that 70 years had elapsed, so it is left for us to verify.
The chronology is further discussed in relation to Nebuchadrezzar’s first dream. 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, and having no male heir, Darius gave Cyrus his daughter in marriage and made him his heir and partner. In those circumstances Cyrus’s accession is likely to have coincided with his formal coronation, in March/April 537 BC. His decree concerning the Jews was one of his first acts as emperor. Assuming that the return took place in the same year as the decree was issued, they were back in their towns by the seventh month, September/October, of 537 BC (Ezra 3:1). Less probably, it took place in the following year, 536 BC.
As a young man Daniel must have known Jeremiah, for he was among the few Jews, if not the only one, to have lived through the entire period of exile. The first exiles were hostages, Daniel included, whom Nebuchadrezzar took back with him following his capture of Jerusalem in the third year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah (Dan 1:1). Since Jehoiakim ascended the throne in September 609, the period of servitude began at some point between September 607 and September 606 BC, 69 or 70 years before its end in 537 or 536 BC. The writer of II Chronicles counted 70 years.
The king captured was Jehoiachin. Remarkably, another tablet recovered from Babylon’s ruins and now in Berlin’s Vorderasiatische Museum details Jehoiachin’s rations. He was replaced on the throne by Zedekiah (II Ki 24:15-17).
Daniel was painfully 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 written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us.”
So in 586 BC the land was vacated and in 537 BC, 49 years later, some of the exiles returned to their land. In the seventh month they built an altar and offered burnt offerings on it, including the offering of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. In so doing, they inaugurated the year of jubilee. We know of two other occasions when the jubilee was celebrated. The first was in 687-686 BC (date inferred), when Isaiah assured Hezekiah that God would rescue besieged Jerusalem from the Assyrians and the people would eat what grew of itself for two years (the 49th and 50th years) and only sow and reap in the third year (II Ki 19:29f). The second was in 587 BC, when Zedekiah ordered Jerusalem, again under siege, to grant slaves their liberty. Subsequently, however, they changed their minds and took the slaves back (Jer 34:6-11).
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, is to be followed by another ordained period, apparently lasting 490 years.
The years are to fulfil several purposes (each one separated by ‘and’ in the Hebrew). The first three announce an intention to deal with the enduring and seemingly insoluble 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. These concepts are interrelated and mentioned together in God’s proclamation to Moses of what his name stood for: “Yahweh, a God compassionate 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 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 in Paul’s letters to the Romans and Hebrews. Presumably the reference to ‘the’ transgression is to ‘the transgression of my people’ (Isa 53:8) in respect of the covenant.
Many of the prophecies refer to the end when God judges the nations and restores all Israel to the land. 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’.
The passage is punctuated as in the KJV and NIV. The ESV ends the first sentence after ‘seven sevens’, so that the anointed one comes after 49 years and the period of building lasts 434 years. This interpretation is dubious, since the word to restore and rebuild goes forth from the outset, making it unsatisfactory to go on to say that the building of squares and drains will occupy only the second period. Four centuries is also a long time to be building a city. ‘Drains’ translates the word charuwts, something incised or dug, such as a ditch.
The word to restore Jerusalem could be (i) the decree of Cyrus in 537 BC to rebuild the temple, (ii) the decree of Artaxerxes shortly before March/April 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 had been pulled down and its gates burnt. The damage was an illustration of the ‘troubled time’ foreseen in the vision.
Cyrus commanded the rebuilding of the temple. As God reminded the people, this had to be the priority. “Is it a time for you to dwell in your panelled houses, while my house lies in ruins?” (Hag 1:4) In the Daniel passage the emphasis is on the city rather than the temple. Isaiah’s message in chapter 58 likewise was: focus on moral restoration, and restoration of the city will follow. The phrase ‘restore and build Jerusalem’ is therefore perhaps best understood in the same spirit, in keeping with Ezra’s mission. Reckoned by the factual method, Artaxerxes’ 7th year began c. September 459 BC. Ezra went forth from Babylonia with a letter containing his decree the following March and arrived in Jerusalem the following July/August (Ez 7:9). 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 physical restoration was destined to go on for 49 years, from 458 to 409 BC, led by Ezra as theologian and Nehemiah as governor. Malachi, Israel’s last prophet, presumably wrote his book some time after 434-433 BC, the last dated year in the Hebrew Bible (Neh 5:14). No specific event is associated with 409 BC.
The cutting off – premature death – of the anointed one takes place after the 434 years, i.e. after AD 26. Whether this will be immediately after is unclear. The date suggests an association with either the start of John the Baptist’s ministry or the start of Jesus’s ministry.
Luke dates John’s ministry as starting in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Unfortunately, Tiberius’s reign could have been counted 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, otherwise from his sole reign (Robinson 1991). Luke probably would have followed this tradition if he knew of it (the Romans counted from Tiberius’s sole reign). Tiberius assumed control from October AD 11 (per Velleius Paterculus) or AD 12 (per Suetonius), when the senate made him joint governor of the provinces; by then, Augustus was seriously ill. If we take this event as the starting point, John began preaching some time between October 25 and October 27 – Daniel’s prophecy suggests March or July/August 26. 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. How long this was after John began preaching we are not told. The last-mentioned Passover is the third, in AD 30. A reconciliation of the chronology of Passion Week and the days of the week corresponding to them in the calendar also suggests AD 30.
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 guiltlessly ‘cut off’ evokes Isaiah’s picture of a man who was stricken for the transgression of his people, and bore their iniquity and sin even though he had done no wrong (Isa 53) and of course applies to the premature death of Jesus, the anointed future king of the Jews. The people of the ruler to come are therefore the Jews. Although it was the Romans who destroyed Jerusalem, the Jews brought the destruction upon themselves by rejecting the good news and supposing that national liberty would come by armed revolt. The revolt began in AD 66 and ended with the fall of Jerusalem in September AD 70. It is known as the First Roman-Jewish War. Initially the Roman general ordered that the Temple be spared. According to Josephus, it was the Jews who set on fire the northwest approach to the Temple, in order to stop the Romans from coming nearer. The Romans then set fire to an apartment adjacent to the Temple, a conflagration the Jews made worse, until the whole Temple was destroyed. Subsequently the Romans flattened the entire city. ‘Flood’ was a standard metaphor for war (Ps 124, Isa 8:8, Dan 11:10).
‘He’ refers to the anointed one. On 5 April AD 30 he put an end to sacrifice and offering by offering himself, 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 seven. During those three and a half years he confirmed with his many followers a new covenant. “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many [key word] 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). A textual variant has ‘at the temple [he will set up] an abomination of desolation’ (NIV). Similar to Nebuchadrezzar’s golden image and and to the image erected by Antiochus IV, the abomination 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 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 be tested. The new covenant extends over the full seven years, including the long gap of uncounted years in the middle, thus from AD 26 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, if we count from July/August 458 BC, the exact fulfilment of the foretold 486½ years (7×7 + 62×7 + 3½) between the coming of Ezra to instruct Judah in the old covenant and Messiah’s inauguration of a new covenant all assure us that what remains to be fulfilled will be fulfilled.