Daniel’s Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks
Jesus Christ emphatically declared that the Old Testament Scriptures contained prophecies He would fulfill (Luke 24:27,44). Biblical scholars have catalogued more than 300 amazing prophecies that find precise fulfillment in the life and labor of the Son of God. One of these predictive declarations is found in Daniel 9:24-27, commonly referred to as the prophecy of “Daniel’s Seventy Weeks.” In this article, I would like to consider this important Old Testament oracle.
A proper analysis of Daniel 9:24ff. involves several factors. First, one should reflect upon the historical background out of which the prophetic utterance arose. Second, consideration should be given to the theological aspects of the Messiah’s work that are set forth in this passage. Third, the chronology of the prophecy must be noted carefully; it represents a prime example of the precision of divine prediction. Finally, one should contemplate the sobering judgment that was to be visited upon the Jewish nation in the wake of its rejection of the Christ. Let us give some attention to each of these issues.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Because of Israel’s apostasy, the prophet Jeremiah had foretold that the Jews would be delivered as captives to Babylon. In that foreign land they would be confined for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:12; 29:10). Sure enough, the prophet’s warnings proved accurate. The general period of the Babylonian confinement was seventy years (Daniel 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:21; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5). But why was a seventy-year captivity decreed? Why not sixty, or eighty? There was a reason for this exact time frame.
The law of Moses had commanded the Israelites to acknowledge every seventh year as a sabbatical year. The ground was to lie at rest (Leviticus 25:1-7). Apparently, across the centuries Israel had ignored that divinely imposed regulation. In their pre-captivity history, there seems to be no example of their ever having honored the sabbath-year law. Thus, according to the testimony of one biblical writer, the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity was assigned “until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths” (2 Chronicles 36:21).
If each of the seventy captivity-years represented a violation of the sabbatical-year requirement (every seventh year), as 2 Chronicles 36:21 appears to suggest, this would indicate that Israel had neglected the divine injunction for approximately 490 years. The captivity era therefore looked backward upon five centuries of sinful neglect. At the same time, Daniel’s prophecy telescoped forward to a time—some 490 years into the future—when the “Anointed One” would “make an end of sins” (9:24). Daniel’s prophecy seems to mark a sort of “mid-way” point in the historical scheme of things.
In the first year of Darius, who had been appointed king over the realm of the Chaldeans (c. 538 B.C.), Daniel, reflecting upon the time span suggested by Jeremiah’s prophecies, calculated that the captivity period almost was over (9:1-2). He thus approached Jehovah in prayer. The prophet confessed his sins, and those of the nation as well. He petitioned Jehovah to turn away His wrath from Jerusalem, and permit the temple to be rebuilt (9:16-17). The Lord responded to Daniel’s prayer in a message delivered by the angel Gabriel (9:24-27). The house of God would be rebuilt. A more significant blessing would come, however, in the Person of the Anointed One (Christ), Who is greater than the temple (cf. Matthew 12:6). This prophecy was a delightful message of consolation to the despondent Hebrews in captivity.
THE MESSIAH’S MISSION
This exciting context sets forth the primary purpose of Christ’s mission to Earth. First, the Messiah would come to deal with the problem of human sin. He would “finish transgression,” make an “end of sins,” and effect “reconciliation for iniquity.” That theme is developed gloriously throughout the New Testament (see Matthew 1:21; 20:28; 26:28; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:20; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 1:5—passages that are but a fractional sampling of the New Testament references to this exalted topic).
The advent of Christ did not put an “end” to sin in the sense that wickedness was eradicated from the Earth. Rather, the work of the Savior was to introduce a system that could provide effectually and permanently a solution to the human sin predicament. This is one of the themes of the book of Hebrews. Jesus’ death was a “once-for-all” event (see Hebrews 9:26). The Lord never will have to return to the Earth to repeat the Calvary experience.
It is interesting to note that Daniel emphasized that the Anointed One would address the problems of “transgression,” “sin,” and “iniquity”—as if to suggest that the Lord is capable of dealing with evil in all of its hideous forms. Similarly, the prophet Isaiah, in the 53rd chapter of his narrative, revealed that the Messiah would sacrifice Himself for “transgression” (5,8,12), “sin” (10,12), and “iniquity” (5,6,11).
It is worthy of mention at this point that Isaiah 53 frequently is quoted in the New Testament in conjunction with the Lord’s atoning work at the time of His first coming. Since Daniel 9:24ff. quite obviously has an identical thrust, it, too, must focus upon the Savior’s work at the cross, and not upon Jesus’ second coming—as is alleged by premillennialists.
Second, in addition to His redemptive work in connection with sin, Daniel showed that the Messiah would usher in an era of “everlasting righteousness.” This obviously is a reference to the Gospel dispensation. In the pages of the New Testament, Paul forcefully argued that Heaven’s plan for accounting man as “righteous” was made known “at this present season” (Roman 3:21-26) through the Gospel (Romans 1:16-17).
Third, the angel’s message suggested that as a result of the Messiah’s work, “vision and prophecy” would be sealed up. The Hebrew term denotes that which is brought to a “conclusion” or is finished (Gesenius, 1979, p. 315). It should be emphasized that the major burden of the Old Testament was to proclaim the coming of God’s Son. Peter declared that the prophets of ancient times heralded the “sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them.” He affirmed that this message now is announced in the Gospel (1 Peter 1:10-12). Here is a crucial point. With the coming of the Savior to effect human redemption, and with the completion of the New Testament record which sets forth that message, the need for “vision and prophecy” became obsolete. As a result, “prophecy” (and other revelatory gifts) have “ceased” (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; Ephesians 4:11-16). There are no supernatural “visions” and “prophecies” being given by God in this age. [For further study, see Judisch (1978, Chapter 5), and Jackson (1990, pp. 114-124).]
Fourth, Daniel stated that the “most holy” would be anointed. What is the meaning of this expression? Dispensational premillennialists interpret this as a reference to the rebuilding of the Jewish temple during the so-called “millennium.” But the premillennial concept is not supported by the facts.
Any view that one adopts regarding this phraseology must be consistent with other biblical data. The expression “most holy” probably is an allusion to Christ Himself, and the “anointing” a reference to the Lord’s endowment with the Holy Spirit at the commencement of His ministry (Matthew 3:16; Acts 10:38). Consider the following factors. (1) While it is possible that the grammar can reflect a “most holy” thing or place (i.e., in a neuter form), it also can yield a masculine sense—“Most Holy One.” The immediate context tips the scales toward the masculine since the “anointed one, the prince” is mentioned in verse 25. (2) The “anointing” obviously belongs to the same time frame as the events previously mentioned, hence is associated with the Lord’s first coming, not the second one. (3) Thompson has observed that the act of anointing never was associated with the temple’s “most holy” place in the Old Testament (1950, p. 268). (4) Anointing was practiced in the Old Testament period as a rite of inauguration and consecration to the offices of prophet (1 Kings 19:16), priest (Exodus 28:41), and king (1 Samuel 10:1). Significantly, Christ functions in each of these roles (see Acts 3:20-23; Hebrews 3:1; Matthew 21:5). (5) The anointing of Jesus was foretold elsewhere in the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1), and, in fact, the very title, “Christ,” means anointed.
Fifth, the Anointed One was to “make a firm covenant with many” (Daniel 9:27a, ASV). A better rendition would be: “Make a covenant firm....” The meaning seems to be: the Messiah’s covenant surely will remain firm, i.e., prevail, even though He is killed. The “covenant,” as E.J. Young observed, “is the covenant of grace wherein the Messiah, by His life and death, obtains salvation for His people” (1954, p. 679).
Sixth, as a result of Christ’s death, “the sacrifice and the oblation” would cease (9:27a). This is an allusion to the cessation of the Jewish sacrifices as a consequence of Jesus’ ultimate sacrificial offering at Golgotha. When the Lord died, the Mosaic law was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). That “middle wall of partition” was abolished (Ephesians 2:13-17), and the “first covenant” was replaced by the “second” one (Hebrews 10:9-10). This was the “new covenant” of Jeremiah’s famous prophecy (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. Hebrews 8:7ff.), and was ratified by the blood of Jesus Himself (Matthew 26:28). This context is a rich depository of truth concerning the accomplishments of Christ by means of His redemptive work.
THE PROPHETIC CHRONOLOGY
The time element of this famous prophecy enabled the studious Hebrew to know when the promised Messiah would die for the sins of humanity. The chronology of this prophetic context involves three things: (a) a commencement point; (b) a duration period; and (c) a concluding event.
The beginning point was to coincide with a command to “restore and rebuild Jerusalem.” The time span between the starting point and the concluding event was specified as “seventy weeks.” This would be seventy weeks of seven days each—a total of 490 days. Each day was to represent a year in prophetic history. Most conservative scholars hold that the symbolism denotes a period of approximately 490 years (Payne, 1973, p. 383; Archer, 1964, p. 387; cf. RSV). Finally, the terminal event would be the “cutting off,” (i.e., the death) of the Anointed One (9:26). [NOTE: Actually, the chronology is divided into three segments, the total of which represents 486½ years. This would be the span between the command to restore Jerusalem, and the Messiah’s death.]
If one is able to determine the date of the commencement point of this prophecy, it then becomes a relatively simple matter to add to that the time-duration specified in the text, thus concluding the precise time when the Lord was to be slain. Let us therefore narrow our focus regarding this matter.
There are but three possible dates for the commencement of the seventy-week calendar. First, Zerubbabel led a group of Hebrews out of captivity in 536 B.C. This seems to be an unlikely beginning point, however, because 486 years from 536 B.C. would end at 50 B.C., which was eighty years prior to Jesus’ death. Second, Nehemiah led a band back to Canaan in 444 B.C. Is this the commencement point for computing the prophecy? Probably not, for 486 years after 444 B.C. ends at A.D. 42—a dozen years after the death of Christ. However, in 457 B.C., Ezra took a company from Babylon back to Jerusalem. Does this date work mathematically? Indeed. If one starts at 457 B.C., and goes forward for 486½ years, the resulting date is A.D. 30—the very year of Christ’s crucifixion! This is the common view (Scott, 1975, 5:364).
The strongest objection to this argument is the claim that Ezra issued no charge to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, and so the starting point of the prophecy could not date from the time of his return. Noted scholar Gleason Archer has responded to this allegation by affirming that Ezra’s commission:
...apparently included authority to restore and build the city of Jerusalem (as we may deduce from Ezra 7:6,7, and also 9:9, which states, “God...hath extended lovingkindness unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of God, and to repair the ruins thereof, and to give us a wall in Judea and in Jerusalem,” ASV). Even though Ezra did not actually succeed in accomplishing the rebuilding of the walls till Nehemiah arrived thirteen years later, it is logical to understand 457 B.C. as the terminus a quo for the decree predicted in Daniel 9:25 (1964, p. 387, emp. in orig.).
In “the midst” of the seventieth week, i.e., after the fulfillment of the 486½ years, the Anointed One was to be “cut off.” This is a reference to the death of Jesus. Isaiah similarly foretold that Christ would be “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8).
But why are the “seventy weeks” of Daniel’s prophecy divided into three segments—seven weeks, 62 weeks, and the “midst” of one week? There was purpose in this breakdown. (1) The first division of “seven weeks” (literally, forty-nine years) covers that period of time during which the actual rebuilding of Jerusalem would be underway, following the Hebrews’ return to Palestine (9:25b). This was the answer to Daniel’s prayer (9:16). That reconstruction era was to be one of “troublous times.” The Jews’ enemies had harassed them in earlier days (see Ezra 4:1-6), and they continued to do so in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. [For further discussion of this circumstance, see Whitcomb (1962, p. 435).] (2) The second segment of sixty-two weeks (434 years), when added to the previous forty-nine, yields a total of 483 years. When this figure is computed from 457 B.C., it terminates at A.D. 26. This was the year of Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of His public ministry. (3) Finally, the “midst of the week” (3½ years) reflects the time of the Lord’s preaching ministry. This segment of the prophecy concludes in A.D. 30—the year of the Savior’s death.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF REJECTING CHRIST
No historical revisionism can alter the fact that the Lord Jesus was put to death by His own people, the Jews (John 1:11). This does not sanction any modern-day mistreatment of the Jewish people; it does, however, acknowledge that Israel, as a nation, suffered a serious consequence as a result of its role in the death of the Messiah.
Daniel’s prophecy depicted the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple. The prophet spoke of a certain “prince that shall come,” who would “destroy the city and the sanctuary” like an overwhelming flood (9:26b). All of this was “determined” (see 9:26b, 9:27b) by God because of the Jews’ rejection of His Son [Matthew 21:37-41; 22:1-7; see Young (1954, p. 679)].
The interpretation of this portion of the prophecy is beyond dispute. Jesus, in His Olivet discourse concerning the destruction of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-34), talked about “the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet” (24:15). The Lord was alluding to Daniel 9:27. The “abomination that makes desolate” was the Roman army, under its commander, Titus (“the prince”—9:26b), who vanquished Jerusalem in A.D. 70. [NOTE: The “prince” of verse 26a is not the same as the anointed “prince” of verse 25a. The “prince” of verse 26 comes after the anointed Prince has been cut off.]
The historical facts are these. In A.D. 66, the Jews, who were subject to Rome, revolted against the empire. This plunged the Hebrews into several years of bloody conflict with the Romans. Titus, son and successor of the famous Vespasian, overthrew the city of Jerusalem (after a five-month siege) in the summer of A.D. 70. The holy city was burned (cf. Matthew 22:7), and the “sanctuary” (temple) was demolished. Christ had informed His disciples that the day was coming when the Jews’ “house” would be left desolate (Matthew 23:38); indeed, not one stone would be left upon another (Matthew 24:2). Significantly, only one stone from that temple, and parts of another, have been identified positively by archaeologists (Frank, 1972, p. 249). J.N. Geldenhuys summarized this situation by noting that Titus
...overran the city with his army, destroyed and plundered the temple, and slew the Jews—men, women and children—by tens of thousands. When their lust for blood had been sated, the Romans carried off into captivity all the able-bodied remnant of the Jews (for they had done away with all the weaklings and the aged), so that not a single Jew was left alive in the city or its vicinity. Only on one day in the year—the day of remembrance of the destruction of the temple—were they allowed to mourn over the city from the neighboring hill-tops (1960, 3:141).
This event was referred to by Daniel as the “abomination of desolation” because the city of David was desolated by the Roman army—an abominable force because of its idolatrous fabric. It is not without considerable interest that apparently even the Jews recognized that the destruction of the Hebrew nation was a fulfillment of Daniel’s remarkable prophecy. Josephus, the Jewish historian, stated that “Daniel also wrote concerning the Roman government, and that our country should be made desolate by them” (Antiquities, X.XI.7).
Daniel’s inspired record regarding the “seventy weeks” is a profound demonstration of the validity of scriptural prophecy. It foretells the coming of the Messiah, and details His benevolent work. The prophecy pinpoints the very time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Finally, it reveals the disastrous consequences of rejecting the Son of God. How thankful we should be to Jehovah for providing this rich testimony.
[NOTE: For a more thorough analysis and refutation of the premillennial-dispensational view of Daniel 9:24ff., see my extended essay on this subject, available in the Apologetics Press Research Article Series.]
Archer, Gleason L. (1964), A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody).
Frank, Harry Thomas (1972), An Archaeological Companion to the Bible (London: SCM Press).
Geldenhuys, J. Norval (1960), “Luke,” The Biblical Expositor, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Philadelphia, PA: Holman).
Gesenius, William (1979 reprint), Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Jackson, Wayne (1990), “Miracles,” Giving a Reason for Our Hope, ed. Winford Claiborne (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University).
Judisch, Douglas (1978), An Evaluation of Claims to the Charismatic Gifts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Payne, J. Barton (1973), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper & Row).
Scott, J.B. (1975), “Seventy Weeks,” Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Thompson, J.E.H. (1950 reprint), “Daniel,” The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H.D.M. Spence and Joseph Exell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Whitcomb, John C., Jr. (1962), “Nehemiah,” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody).
Young, Edward J. (1954), “Daniel,” The New Bible Commentary, ed. F. Davidson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).