Persian Date of the Heavenly Commandment
One of the great prophecies in the Bible is the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks in Daniel 9:25. Hundreds of years before the fulfillment, the prophecy specifies when the Messiah would come. The starting point is a commandment to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. As we showed in the previous lesson, the scholar Hengstenberg argued that the source of this commandment must be God. Someone might object: "If the commandment (dabar) of verse 25 is a divine commandment, how can we find the starting point of the sixty-nine weeks? We have no way of dating a commandment from the throne of God." But in this case we have a way. We need only take into account two principles of prayer. Daniel 9 elevates both to prominence so that we will not miss the key to unlocking the riddle.
- The dabar of verse 23 came in response to the prayer of Daniel. So, just two verses before the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks, Scripture illustrates the principle that although God may act according to no counsel but His own, He prefers to act under the urging of His children. This principle explains why so many of His great decrees and great works are answers to prayer. The first coming of Christ satisfied the fervent desire of countless believers in foregoing centuries that God would send a Redeemer. The church has long prayed for the Second Coming of Christ (Rev. 22:20).
The Book of Daniel illustrates the same principle again in its account of Daniel’s last vision. There we read that when Daniel prayed, God answered by granting him another wonderful prophetic revelation (Dan. 10:11–12).
- How soon did God answer the prayer recorded in chapter 9? Gabriel said, "At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth" (v. 23). The swiftness of this response illustrates the principle that if a prayer is acceptable to God, He answers immediately. There is no heavenly red tape. The prayer is not lost on somebody’s desk or filed away for later action. God does not need to think about it. His answer proceeds from the throne as soon as the believer prays, although some time may pass before any result is evident to mortal beings. The same truth is taught in Daniel 10.
Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.
The two principles of prayer highlighted in chapters 9 and 10 of Daniel allow us to date the commandment foreseen in Daniel 9:25, the commandment that in Daniel's day was still far off in the future.
- The first principle implies that just as the divine commandment of verse 23 was given in answer to prayer, so the divine commandment of verse 25—the one to rebuild Jerusalem—would be given in answer to prayer. The latter commandment of heavenly origin must have soon generated the earthly commandment that God used to achieve His objective. It is certainly no accident that the Book of Nehemiah treats Artaxerxes’ favorable ruling in chapter 2 as the answer to Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter 1. The book starts with his prayer to let us know that it was the original cause of work on the city. Thus, the prayer prompting the divine commandment to rebuild the city must have been Nehemiah’s.
- As Hengstenberg recognized also (1), the second principle implies that the commandment came forth as soon as Nehemiah began to pray.
Although few other prayers in Scripture bear dates, Scripture conveniently informs us that Nehemiah's prayer fell in the month of Kislev during the twentieth year of the king. It provides this detail so that we can mark the beginning of the sixty-nine weeks.
By adding sixty-nine weeks to the starting point, we come to the appointed time of Messiah's appearing. But notice that although we know the month of the starting point, we do not know the day. Thus, on the basis of Old Testament prophecy alone, we cannot compute the exact day when the Messiah should have come. The best we can attain is the exact month. Yet it is obvious that the ability of an ancient writing to predict the month of a real event hundreds of years in the future is no less proof of the miraculous than the ability to predict the day.
Although the Old Testament declines to pinpoint the terminal day of the sixty-nine weeks, we will derive its date from information supplied by the New Testament. Moreover, we will by two independent methods verify that this was the true date of Christ’s coming.
Transferring the Date to the Julian Calendar
Several hurdles stand in the way of finding when the sixty-nine weeks came to an end. The first is the task of transferring the Persian date of Nehemiah's prayer to the calendar historians use for other events of antiquity: that is, the Julian calendar, which is the same as our modern calendar, the Gregorian, except that the Gregorian is three days shorter in each span of four centuries.
Since the Persians used the Babylonian calendar, we can find the Julian date of Nehemiah's prayer by consulting the tables in Richard A. Parker and Waldo H. Dubberstein's Babylonian Chronology, published in 1956. These tables furnish the exact Julian equivalent of any Babylonian date, with a possible maximum error of only one day (2). All scholars accept these tables as valid and definitive.
In compiling these tables, Parker and Dubberstein relied on two kinds of data.
- Babylonian months were lunar. That is, the Babylonians started a new month as soon as they sighted a new moon. Modern astronomers can, by projecting the constant rhythms of the moon backward into the past, determine precisely when each lunar month in ancient times began (3).
- A year made up of twelve lunar months is somewhat shorter than a solar year. On the average, the difference is about 11 1/4 days. Therefore, to keep the seasons from drifting later in the calendar year, the Babylonians occasionally added a thirteenth month. Archaeologists have compiled a complete list of these insertions over a period of many centuries (4). Clay tablets bearing dated records of business transactions or astronomical observations have been the primary source of information. Literally thousands upon thousands of these tablets have been found (5).
The astronomical and archaeological data available to Parker and Dubberstein allowed them to correlate Julian and Babylonian dates for the years 626 BC to AD 75 (6). So, the Julian date of Nehemiah's prayer can be determined simply by looking in their tables for the Julian equivalent of Kislev in Artaxerxes' twentieth year.
But here a problem arises. According to the Book of Nehemiah, the king's authorization of work on the city also came in the king's twentieth year; specifically, in the month Nisan. But Kislev was the ninth month on the Babylonian calendar, and Nisan was the first. Thus, since the king’s decision followed Nehemiah’s prayer, it seems that the two events should be dated in successive years rather than in the same year (7). The explanation for the anomaly must be that Nehemiah used the Jewish calendar (8). (See Lesson 10.) The Jewish and Babylonian calendars were identical, except that the Jewish year started in Tishri, the seventh Babylonian month, rather than in Nisan.
When, by Jewish reckoning, was the twentieth year of Artaxerxes? The answer depends on when Artaxerxes became king. It is now believed that Artaxerxes immediately succeeded his father, Xerxes, after his father and older brother were assassinated in 465 (9). Until the early 1950s, the exact date of the transition was shrouded by uncertainty. Then the missing information was found in a single cuneiform text preserved in the collections of the British museum. This text, still unpublished in its entirety although the stone tablet bearing it was unearthed many years ago, fixes the date of Xerxes' death as sometime in the middle of the fifth Persian month, about a month and a half before Tishri (10).
In computing the date of his prayer, Nehemiah undoubtedly treated the partial year after Artaxerxes' accession as the king's accession year rather than as his first year. In so doing he would not only be following the Persian practice, but probably also the practice of Judah during the last two centuries of its existence (11). Thus, by Jewish reckoning his first year began on Tishri 1, 465, and his twentieth year began on Tishri 1, 446.
Parker and Dubberstein inform us that the following Kislev began on November 17/18 of the same year (12); that is, on the day extending from the evening of the seventeenth to the evening of the eighteenth. (Babylonian days started in the evening (13)). It was during this Kislev that Nehemiah began to entreat God's favor upon the city of his fathers. We come at last to the extremely important conclusion that the clock measuring the sixty-nine weeks of Daniel began to tick sometime in the month following November 17/18, 446 BC.
Term of Sixty-Nine Weeks
In our work on the puzzle of the sixty-nine weeks, we have now put the first two pieces into place. We have resolved which commandment to rebuild Jerusalem is intended by Daniel 9:25, and we have assigned to it a modern date. Now we must position the third piece of the puzzle. The prophecy says that from the going forth of the commandment until Messiah the Prince would be sixty-nine weeks. Exactly how long is the interval so described?
The Hebrew word translated "week" is shabua, but the two words are not equivalent. The English week always signifies seven days, but shabua is a more general term closely related to the Hebrew word for the number seven: shibah (14). Having the literal meaning "sevened," (15) it can be used to designate any heptad; that is, any series or group of seven things (16). In this light, we see that verse 25 projects seven heptads and sixty-two heptads.
Since the seventy weeks of Daniel 9 span the whole future history of the Jewish nation until God sets up His Kingdom on the earth, a prophetic week must be a long period of time. Virtually all scholars, both liberal and conservative, agree that it represents a cycle of seven years (17). If it were only a week of days, Daniel's prophecy offers a strange scenario, setting the destruction of the city (v. 26) only a few weeks after its rebuilding (v. 25).
In the context we find two conspicuous clues that the weeks are heptads of years.
- The occasion for Gabriel's announcement of the seventy weeks was the completion of another historical period of preordained length: the seventy years of captivity, which Israel suffered as divine judgment upon its chronic rebellion. One of the nation’s sins was to neglect Sabbatical years. We observed earlier that when God set the term of exile from the land, He equated it to the nation’s debt of Sabbatical years from the time David was anointed king until the end of captivity. Thus, the years of exile were the last seventy in an epoch of 490 years—in other words, when reckoned in heptads of years, an epoch of seventy heptads or seventy weeks. Since these seventy were nearing completion when Gabriel revealed God’s program of seventy future weeks, it is reasonable to suppose that the second seventy refer to another epoch of the same duration, amounting to 490 years also. It follows that the weeks in Gabriel’s prophecy are heptads of years.
- A few verses later, in chapter 10, the term "weeks" reappears (Dan. 10:2), yet in this instance the author says explicitly "weeks of days," as if to signal that the term has now reassumed its more usual meaning (18). We infer that in its previous usage it had another meaning: namely, heptads of years.
Sixty-nine weeks of years come to a total of 483 years. Having settled that the starting point fell in the month following November 17/18, 446 BC, we can easily compute the date of the terminal month. Since there was no year 0, adding 483 years to 446 BC brings history to AD 38, close to the time of Christ. Later we will show that Jesus died in AD 33.
It would appear that prophecy slightly overshoots the mark. But it would be foolish to decide that prophecy is wrong. To come so close to a perfect prediction cannot be a mere accident. A better explanation for the discrepancy is that we have made some slight mistake in our handling of the prophecy. Indeed, when we dig deeper, the discrepancy disappears.
Throughout church history, many students of the sixty-nine weeks have suspected that the discrepancy arises from an erroneous assumption that they consist of solar years, when actually they consist of abbreviated years. Julius Africanus, a third-century Christian scholar and chronologist, believed that a prophetic year is equal to twelve lunar months (19). In an average year, twelve lunar months come to 354 days. Reckoning the sixty-nine weeks as 483 years with this measure does not, however, carry history far enough. It stops nearly ten years short of the Crucifixion.
The actual length of the prophetic year was not discovered until the nineteenth century, when many Bible students came to a dispensational view of God’s program for history. According to dispensationalism, each prophecy of Daniel recognizes only two periods in the future: one before the Jewish people were dispersed in AD 70, the other after the resurgence of Israel in modern times. Moreover, it treats the periods as consecutive, ignoring the long intervening gap that contains nearly all of the Church Age. In the vision of Daniel 9, the gap falls between the sixty-nine weeks, described in verses 25 and 26, and the seventieth week, described in verse 27. Therefore, the sixty-ninth week happened long ago, during antiquity, but the seventieth is reserved for the time of the end. Dispensationalists locate it within the Tribulation, when many events foretold in the Book of Revelation will take place.
In the late nineteenth century, Sir Robert Anderson published The Coming Prince, a book on the sixty-nine weeks that soon became famous in the Christian world. Anderson was able to write many other well-received books of Bible study as well, despite the demands of his career in law enforcement. For some years he served as Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard (20). His book on Daniel's prophecy stirred up great excitement because it brought the prophecy into close agreement with the actual time of Christ's coming. Although his analysis of the sixty-nine weeks depended on guesses that have been overturned by more exact knowledge, he was the first to follow the clues and discover the true length of a prophetic year.
His great contribution to solving the riddle followed two insights:
- He noticed that when the Book of Revelation summarizes the horrible events of the Tribulation, it reveals the precise length of the seventieth week (21). The first half is 1260 days (Rev. 11:3). The second half has the same length. It is called both 1260 days (Rev. 12:6) and forty-two months (Rev. 13:5). If 1260 days make up forty-two months, then each month contains thirty days, and a year of twelve months amounts to only 360 days. Thus, 1260 days is truly 3½ years on such a calendar. In other words, it is half a week, if a week refers to a heptad of years. He concluded that the seventieth week is not a week of solar years such as we employ, but a week of abbreviated years, each only 360 days in length.
- He realized that all of the first sixty-nine weeks must have the same measure as the seventieth (22). Otherwise, Scripture would be misleading us rather than furnishing us with clues to the right solution.
The upshot is that a prophetic year equals 360 days. Therefore, a prophetic week equals seven times 360 days, making a total of 2520 days. Scripture bolsters this conclusion in two ways:
- The second half of the seventieth week is also called a time, times (presumably, two times), and half a time (Rev. 12:14), producing a sum of 3½ times. In light of Anderson's discovery, it is now evident why prophecy uses this strange formula. Each component of the 3½ is not a solar year, but a year of 360 days. Scripture replaces "year" with "time" (1) to avoid misleading us and (2) to give us a clue that a solar year is not intended. The indefinite term "time" serves the further purpose of adding a bit more mystery to the riddle.
- It is also now evident why, when measuring the coming period until Messiah the Prince, Daniel 9:25 uses a peculiar form of reckoning, finding the duration to be seventy weeks. Again, for the same reasons that prophecy speaks of times, it is steering clear of any reference to years. The seventy weeks equal 490 times, each time being slightly shorter than a solar year.
Why does prophecy resort to such an unusual calendar? We must remember that Daniel 9 looks at earthly events from a heavenly perspective. Countless interpreters of the sixty-nine weeks have gone wrong because instead of following the clues to a heavenly perspective, they have followed intuition and assumptions based on a human perspective. So, they have concluded that the initial commandment was Artaxerxes' when it was really God's, and they have concluded similarly that the prophetic years are years as man reckons them rather than as God reckons them.
From a divine perspective, 360 days must be the true measure of a year. The intriguingly useful and divisible number 360 must have been the yearly sum of days at the beginning of earth history, when everything was still in a state of God-ordained perfection. Expansion of the year to its present length was likely the result of catastrophic processes at the time of the global Flood. Heaven remembers, however, what the year was designed to be, and the councils of heaven still reckon time on a perfect scale. God has no need or obligation to use a strictly human calendar.
The hypothesis that the original year was 360 days draws support from abundant evidence that such reckoning was widespread among ancient peoples, at least before the seventh century BC (23). We find references to it in the Bible. In the story of the Flood, the writer, who was probably Noah himself, says that the waters did not abate until 150 days (Gen. 7:24; 8:3), or exactly five months (compare Gen. 7:11 with Gen. 8:4), after the cataclysm began. The months on his calendar must therefore have contained thirty days each, making a total of 360 days in a year.
To explain the use of a 360-day calendar in the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks, we have two options. If we do not accept that it mirrors the original year, our only alternative is to view it as simply a concession to human ignorance—as God stooping to use the same defective calendar widely used in ancient human societies. But it is incredible that He would use a calendar which was not only defective, but already outmoded at the time Daniel was written.
Date of the Terminal Month
By recognizing that the prophecy of the seventy weeks assumes years of 360 days, we have now set the third piece of the puzzle into place, and we are now ready to compute the exact terminus of the sixty-nine weeks.
The task requires that we know the exact starting point. But we know only that the starting point fell in the month after November 17/18, 446 BC. The best we can do is to start at this date and move forward sixty-nine weeks. We then arrive at a date no more than a month earlier than the coming of the Messiah. Many have supposed this calculation to be much harder than it is. Anyone with a mathematical turn of mind can obtain the right answer in less than five minutes. The following hints will make the calculation easier.
- There was no year 0.
- Just as AD 4, AD 8, AD 12, etc. are leap years on the Julian calendar, so also are 1 BC, 5 BC, 9 BC, etc.
- The full length of sixty-nine weeks is 69 weeks x 7 times per week x 360 days per time. The product is 173,880 days.
When we perform the calculation, we find that sixty-nine weeks measured from any time of day during November 17/18, 446 BC, came to an end at the same time of day during December 8/9, AD 31. Anyone timid of arithmetic can obtain the same result if he uses a date calculator on the internet (24).
Here is an amazing result! This end date falls within the years of Jesus' active ministry as teacher and healer. As we noted earlier, Jesus died in AD 33. So, without going any further, we have already shown that the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks was fulfilled, for a progression of sixty-nine weeks from the commandment to build Jerusalem indeed brought history to the era of Messiah the Prince.
But the prophecy is far more precise. "Unto the Messiah the Prince" refers not just to Christ's ministry in general, but also to a particular event that occurred at the end of the sixty-nine weeks. So, as we peruse the Gospel record, we should find an event in the month following December 8/9, AD 31, that we can identify as the official coming of Christ.