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. 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. … and I will bring you back to this place.

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 the guilt of the nation as well as his own sin. He pleaded for mercy. In answer the man Gabriel gave him no confirmation that God would bring his people back, but instead a revelation of what would take place much later.

In his first year as king of Babylon 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.

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 precisely 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 the reign 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 Babylonian Chronicle

Another deportation took place in 597 BC (II Ki 24:10-17), an independent record of which is preserved in British Museum tablet 21946, known as the Babylonian Chronicle:
In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar, 598 BC; his 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. In his place he installed a king of his own choice, and received valuable tribute, which he sent back to Babylon.

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).

The final, most sweeping deportation took place in 586 BC (II Ki 25:8-12). After destroying Jerusalem by fire and pulling down its walls, Nebuchadrezzar
removed those who had escaped from the sword to Babylon, and they became servants to him and to his sons [his successors] 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. (II Chron 36:20f)
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):
“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 a sabbath 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. And on the tenth day of the seventh month 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 when they settle in it shall be appalled. And I will scatter you among the nations, and unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation and your cities a waste. Then the land shall enjoy all its sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land.”

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 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. 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 changed their minds and took the slaves back (Jer 34:6-11).

The decree of seventy sevens
Gabriel’s message to Daniel in 9:24-27 is a mixture of cryptic and perspicuous. The passage starts as follows:
“Seventy sevens [weeks] are decreed about your people and your holy city, to restrain the transgression, to seal up sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophet, and to anoint one most holy.”

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.

The second three purposes are more forward-looking. ‘Everlasting righteousness’ or justice is the consequence of making atonement, because iniquity is covered (the root meaning of ‘atone for’) and justice satisfied. As 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 cessation of prophecy until its fulfilment and the inability to understand what the prophets wrote, not least Daniel himself (Dan 12:4, 9). It was as if God had poured out on Israel ‘a spirit of deep sleep’, so that she could not understand (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 hardness has affected Israel in part, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. And thus 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. 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 next part of the passage reads:
“Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed ruler, there will be seven sevens and sixty-two sevens. And again squares and drains will be built, in a troubled time.”

The punctuation here is as per 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. The word ‘restore’, shuwb, means to return to a previous state (Isa 58:12). ‘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 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 passage continues:
And after the sixty-two sevens, an anointed one will be cut off not for himself. And the people of the ruler to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end will be with a flood, and until the end of the war desolations are decreed.

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 here 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 there is an issue as to whether Tiberius 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, 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.

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 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). This was Jesus, the anointed future king of the Jews. The people of the ruler to come are therefore the Jews. Stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount thrown onto the street by the RomansAlthough 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. It was the Jews, according to Josephus, who set the northwest approach to the Temple on fire, in order to put a barrier between themselves and the Romans. 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).

The prophecy concludes:
And he shall confirm a covenant with many for 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. 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 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 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 also be tested. The new covenant extends over the full seven years, including the long gap of uncounted years in middle: 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.