How Can We Make Sense of Daniel’s Prophecy of the 70 Weeks?
The prophecy of the Seventy Weeks in Daniel 9:24–27 is one of the most remarkable long-range predictions in the entire Bible. It is by all odds one of the most widely discussed by students and scholars of every persuasion within the spectrum of the Christian church. And yet when it is carefully examined in the light of all the relevant data of history and the information available from other parts of Scripture, it is quite clearly an accurate prediction of the time of Christ’s coming advent and a preview of the thrilling final act of the drama of human history before that advent.
Daniel 9:24 reads: “Seventy weeks have been determined for your people and your holy city [i.e., for the nation Israel and for Jerusalem].” The word for “week” is šāûCac, which is derived from šea’, the word for “seven.” Its normal plural is feminine in form: še ûC’ŏ. Only in this chapter of Daniel does it appear in the masculine plural šāûC‘îCm. (The only other occurrence is in the combination [“heptads of weeks”] in Ezek. 21:28 [21:23 English text]). Therefore, it is strongly suggestive of the idea “heptad” (a series or combination of seven), rather than a “week” in the sense of a series of seven days. There is no doubt that in this case we are presented with seventy sevens of years rather than of days. This leads to a total of 490 years.
At the completion of these 490 years, according to v.24b, there will be six results: (1) “to finish or bring transgression [or ‘the sin of rebellion’] to an end”; (2) “to finish [or ‘seal up’] sins”; (3) “to make atonement for iniquity”; (4) “to bring in everlasting righteousness”; (5) “to seal up vision and prophecy”; and (6) “to anoint the holy of holies.” By the end of the full 490 years, then, the present sin-cursed world order will come to an end (1 and 2), the price of redemption for sinners will have been paid (3); the kingdom of God will be established on earth, and all the earth will be permanently filled with righteousness, as the waters cover the sea (4); and the Most Holy One (Christ?), or the Most Holy Sanctuary (which seems more probable, since Christ was already anointed by the Holy Spirit at His first advent), will be solemnly anointed and inaugurated for worship in Jerusalem, the religious and political capital of the world during the Millennium (5 and 6). Daniel 9:25 reads: “And you are to know and understand, from the going forth of the command [or ‘decree’; lit., ‘word’—āār] to restore and [re] build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince [nāgîCd] will be [or ‘there are; the Hebrew omits the verb ‘to be’ in this case] seven heptads and sixty-two heptads.” This gives us two installments, 49 years and 434 years, for a total of 483 years. Significantly, the seventieth heptad is held in abeyance until v.27. Therefore we are left with a total of 483 between the issuance of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah.
As we examine each of the three decrees issued in regard to Jerusalem by kings subsequent to the time Daniel had this vision (538 B.C., judging from Dan. 9:1), we find that the first was that of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:23: “The LORD, the God of heaven,… has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (NASB). This decree, issued in 538 or 537, pertained only to the rebuilding of the temple, not of the city of Jerusalem. The third decree is to be inferred from the granting of Nehemiah’s request by Artaxerxes I in 446 B.C., as recorded in Nehemiah 2:5–8. His request was “Send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” Then we read, “So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time [for my return to his palace]” (NASB). The king also granted him a requisition of timber for the gates and walls of the city.
It should be noted that when Nehemiah first heard from his brother Hanani that the walls of Jerusalem had not already been rebuilt, he was bitterly disappointed and depressed—as if he had previously supposed that they had been rebuilt (Neh. 1:1–4). This strongly suggests that there had already been a previous decree authorizing the rebuilding of those city walls. Such an earlier decree is found in connection with Ezra’s group that returned to Jerusalem in 457, the seventh year of Artaxerxes I. Ezra 7:6 tells us: “This Ezra went up from Babylon,… and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LLORD his God was upon him” (NASB; notice the resemblance to Neh. 2:8, the last sentence). According to the following verse, Ezra was accompanied by a good-sized group of followers, including temple singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, and a company of laymen (“some of the sons of Israel”). After arriving at Jerusalem, he busied himself first with the moral and spiritual rebuilding of his people (Ezra 7:10). But he had permission from the king to employ any unused balance of the offering funds for whatever purpose he saw fit (v. 18); and he was given authority to appoint magistrates and judges and to enforce the established laws of Israel with confiscation, banishment, or death (v.26). Thus he would appear to have had the authority to set about rebuilding the city walls, for the protection of the temple mount and the religious rights of the Jewish community.
In 9:9 Ezra makes reference to this authority in his public, penitential prayer: “For we are slaves; yet in our bondage, our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem” (NASB; italics mine). While this “wall” may have been partly a metaphor for “protection,” it seems to have included the possibility of restoring the mural defenses of Jerusalem itself. Unfortunately, we are given no details as to the years that intervened before 446; but it may be that an abortive attempt was made under Ezra’s leadership to replace the outer wall of the city, only to meet with frustration—perhaps from a lack of self-sacrificing zeal on the part of the Jewish returnees themselves or because of violent opposition from Judah’s heathen neighbors. This would account for Nehemiah’s keen disappointment (as mentioned above) when he heard that “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3, NASB).
If, then, the decree of 457 granted to Ezra himself is taken as the terminus a quo for the commencement of the 69 heptads, or 483 years, we come out to the precise year of the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah (or Christ): 483 minus 457 comes out to A.D. 26. But since a year is gained in passing from 1 B.C. to A.D.1 (there being no such year as zero), it actually comes out to A.D. 27. It is generally agreed that Christ was crucified in A.D. 30, after a ministry of a little more than three years. This means His baptism and initial ministry must have taken place in A.D. 27—a most remarkable exactitude in the fulfillment of such an ancient prophecy. Only God could have predicted the coming of His Son with such amazing precision; it defies all rationalistic explanation.
Daniel 9:25 goes on to say, “It will again be built with street and moat, even when times are difficult.” It is fair to deduce from this that the actual completion of the reconstruction of the city, both walls and interior appointments of the city, would take up about seven heptads, or forty-nine years. Soon after 400 B.C., then, the walls, the defensive moat, and all the streets and buildings behind those walls had been completely restored.
Daniel 9:26 goes on to foretell the tragic death of the Messiah: “And subsequent to the sixty-two heptads [ensuing upon the earlier installment of forty-nine], the Messiah will be cut off and shall have no one [or ‘nothing’].” This suggests that the Messiah would be violently put to death, without any faithful followers to protect Him. He would die alone! This refers to the great event that took place on Golgotha in A.D. 30. There are some able scholars who prefer the date 33 but the calendrical data seem to favor the earlier date. At all events, the earlier statement “until Messiah the Prince” in v.25 refers to His first appearance to Israel as the baptized and anointed Redeemer of Israel; it does not refer to the year of His death, since His “cutting off” is not mentioned until v.26.
Daniel 9:26b then foretells what will happen by way of retribution to the “holy city” that has rejected Jesus and voted to have Him “cut off”: “And the people of the prince who shall come [i.e., Titus, the victorious commander of the Roman troops in A.D. 70] will destroy the holy city, and its end will come with a flood [of disaster], and war is determined down to the [very] end, with devastation.” These vivid terms point to the total destruction that overtook Jerusalem in that fateful year.
Daniel 9:27 reads: “And he will confirm a covenant with the many for one heptad [i.e., seven years], but in the middle of the heptad he will terminate sacrifice and offering.” The subject of “confirm” is indefinite in the Hebrew, for no subject is expressed; but it is easily inferred from the last personal subject mentioned in the previous verse: “the prince who shall come,” that ruler who will establish a covenant or concordat with the Jewish community (“the many”—a term originating in Isa. 53:11–12) is an antitype of the Roman general who destroyed Jerusalem after the termination of the sixty-ninth heptad (i.e., Titus in A.D. 70). That antitype has already appeared back in Daniel 7:25 as the Little Horn of the last days who will persecute “the saints of the Most High” for “a time [Aramaic ‘iddān], times, and half a time,” i.e., for three and a half years. This same period recurs in Daniel 12:7, where the mighty angel swears to Daniel that “it will be for a time [Heb. môC’ēd), times, and a half; and as soon as they finish shattering the power [lit., ‘hand’] of the holy people, all these things will come to an end”—i.e., that final heptad of years will be over. The data of v.26 indicate that a long but indeterminable interval is intended between A.D. 27 (the end of the sixty-ninth heptad)—after Messiah appears; then the Crucifixion occurs; Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans; and finally there is a period of overwhelming disaster, war, and desolation—and the inception of the final seven years of the last days (v.27), in the midst of which the antitypical prince or supreme dictator covenants with the Jewish people for seven years of religious tolerance, only to revoke his promise after three and a half years.
By the use of proper grammatical exegesis, then, it is possible to make perfect sense of the Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 and see a remarkable correspondence with subsequent history up through the sixty-ninth heptad and the events that have ensued between then and now. But the reference to “sacrifice and offering” in 9:26 does seem to presuppose the prior erection of a valid temple and altar on the Temple Mount as a feature at the inception of the final seven years before the Battle of Armageddon and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth in the millennial rule of Christ on the throne of David.
Article above adapted from Gleason L. Archer, Jr. New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
About the Author
Gleason L. Archer Jr. (1916-2004 – B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He served as an assistant pastor of Park Street Church in Boston from 1945 to 1948. He was a Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for 16 years, teaching New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. From 1965 to 1986 he served as a Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He became an emeritus faculty member in 1989. He also served for many years as a minister of the Evangelical Free Church of America. The remainder of his life was spent researching, writing, and lecturing. Archer served as one of the 50 original translators of the NASB published in 1971. He also worked on the team which translated the NIV Bible published in 1978. I give this introduction, because many people are not familiar with Archer (unfortunately), but he was a brilliant Christian scholar who could have excelled as a lawyer (his father was the founder and president of Suffolk Law School), and chose to use his exceptional gifts to defend the inerrancy and integrity of the Scriptures over the span of his entire adult life. I would say that along with Bruce Waltke and Walter Kaiser Jr., he was one of the most influential Old Testament Evangelical Scholars at the end of the Twentieth Century. Legend has it, (I have not been able to verify whether this is 100% true or not) that he was so gifted in languages that for fun (and as a challenge) he would study the Bible in a different language every year to continue to grow and develop mentally.