Oracle of Daniel
The remarkable prophecy concerning the time of Christ's coming is known as the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks. The Old Testament book containing it was written by Daniel, a Jewish captive of the Babylonians who became a high official of both Babylonia and Persia during the sixth century BC. In chapter 9, Daniel records that after he pleaded with God to turn His wrath away from the Jewish people, God sent him a prophetic message through the angel Gabriel.
22 And he informed me, and talked with me, and said, O Daniel, I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding.
23 At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee; for thou art greatly beloved: therefore understand the matter, and consider the vision.
24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
27 And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.
Gabriel revealed to Daniel that the future history of the Jews until the inauguration of God's everlasting kingdom would cover a period of seventy weeks (v. 24). The seventy weeks comprise two distinct periods: a period of sixty-nine weeks until the coming of Messiah the Prince (v. 25) and a period of one week after His coming (v. 27). The angel treats the sixty-nine weeks as the sum of seven and sixty-two.
This prophecy is perhaps the most astounding in a book full of astounding prophecies. Hundreds of years before the event, the Lord foretold through Daniel exactly when the Messiah would come. Many solutions for the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks have been proposed, but of those finding an exact fulfillment, the only one that relies upon a defensible scheme of dates is the new solution presented here (1).
This new solution is somewhat more complicated than any other, but the correct solution could not possibly be simple. If it were, it would compel belief in the Bible. But God is not interested in forcing anyone to abandon his unbelief. Thus, although in the sixty-nine weeks He has furnished powerful evidence that the Bible is true, He has buried the evidence under layers of complexity, so that you will never find it unless you are highly motivated to dig. The only motive that will sustain the work is a keen desire for greater knowledge of God's ways. In the quest for truth, perseverance despite difficulties expresses a faith that truth can be discovered. God demands faith as a condition for confirming the truth that He exists and then for knowing Him personally (Heb. 11:6).
A great apathy toward the hard texts of Scripture has settled on the church today. Many feel that it is a waste of time to look for a precise fulfillment of the sixty-nine weeks. Others, having learned some easy but flawed analysis of the prophecy, are too incurious to look further. But whether or not contemporary Christians see any value in studying the sixty-nine weeks, the Lord gives them no choice. He says through His angelic spokesman, "Know therefore and understand" (v. 25).
The only way to penetrate this prophecy, however, is to start from the right premise. We must recognize from the outset that it is a riddle, an ingenious and profound riddle that God Himself crafted. Throughout the Book of Daniel, which is a book of riddles from start to finish, we see God in His character as the great riddler. Before a reader comes to chapter 9, he finds in the story of Belshazzar's feast, for example, that God used a cryptic writing on the wall to confound the wise men of Babylon. The prophetic puzzles in Daniel's book reveal a side of God's character that we see also in Jesus. Jesus spoke in opaque parables so
that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
If the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks is a riddle, how then should we approach it? The way to solve a riddle is to follow the clues.
Starting Point of the Sixty-nine Weeks
The Messiah would come sixty-nine weeks after "the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem" (v. 25). "The" is better "a," since the Hebrew text contains no definite article (2). "Commandment" is dabar, usually translated "word" (3). Work would be done on both "the street" and "the wall, even in troublous times."
What rebuilding of the city does this prophecy foresee? Three clues point to the work done under the direction of Nehemiah, governor of Judah almost a hundred years after the Jews returned from exile. He had been an officer in the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes before the king gave him his post in Judah.
- The Hebrew word rendered "street" is rehob, which may refer to a courtyard just inside a city gate (4). In Nehemiah's day, the principal rehob of the city was adjacent to the Water Gate, on the east side near the Gihon Spring. This courtyard was probably the "east street" where, over a hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem, the Levites assembled to hear Hezekiah announce religious reform (2 Chron. 29:4). The damage that the Babylonians inflicted on the east wall of the city no doubt left the Water Gate and its courtyard in ruins. Nehemiah, soon after his arrival in the city, inspected its defenses and found that "the gates thereof were consumed with fire" (Neh. 2:13). Yet, a few months later, the people gathered in the courtyard before the Water Gate to listen as the book of the law was read aloud by Ezra the scribe (Neh. 8:1). Evidently, work had been devoted to restoration of the courtyard.
Mention of "the street" in Daniel 9:25 therefore excludes any work on the city before Nehemiah became governor. Although the exiles who returned in the days of Cyrus had in some measure restored the city and its wall (Ezra 4:12), Nehemiah's report on the condition of the city leaves little doubt that at the time of his coming, the Water Gate had not yet been reclaimed for use.
- To confirm that it is referring to the work done under Nehemiah, the prophecy adds that the rebuilding of the city would take place "even in troublous times." Indeed, fearing an attack by hostile neighbors, the workers wore or carried weapons (Neh. 4:17).
- Even the word rendered "wall" fits Nehemiah's project better than any earlier work of renovation. The Hebrew word is charuts. Before the 1950s, most argued, on the basis of the presumed meaning of cognate words in Phoenician and Akkadian, that charuts actually signifies a moat or a trench. This interpretation was generally abandoned when scholars discovered the word in the Dead Sea Copper Scroll, where it has the meaning "conduit" (5). It is possible that in Daniel 9:25 the word refers to Hezekiah's tunnel, the underground conduit built by Hezekiah to carry water from Gihon Spring outside the city walls to the Pool of Siloam inside, at the southern end of the city. When Nehemiah began fixing the city's defenses, the tunnel may have been clogged with rubble from the Babylonian devastation of the city in 586. Therefore, since the rebuilders of the wall feared an attack, they may have taken measures to secure their water supply. If water was no longer flowing through Hezekiah's tunnel, it would have been prudent and perhaps not difficult to remove the blockage.
Persian Edict to Rebuild Jerusalem
Although several Persian edicts promoted the restoration of Judah, the one specifically authorizing Nehemiah's work on the city is described in the Book of Nehemiah.
1 And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.
2 Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid,
3 And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?
4 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.
5 And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it.
6 And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.v7 Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah;
8 And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.
The edict that Nehemiah elicited from Artaxerxes was issued in Nisan during the king's twentieth year (v. 1).
The circumstances prompting Nehemiah's bold request of the king are described earlier in the same book.
1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,
2 That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.
3 And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.
4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,
5 And said, I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments:
6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.
7 We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.
8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:
9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.
10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.
11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.
In Kislev of the king's twentieth year, Nehemiah heard about the sad condition of Jerusalem and its people. Immediately he began to pray, asking specifically that when he brought the plight of the Jews to the king's attention, God would cause the king to respond sympathetically (v. 11).
Nehemiah was the king's cupbearer (v. 11). Finding an opportunity to address the king was no easy matter. It was unwise for Nehemiah to speak first as he waited upon the king. Finally he decided, no doubt after much inner struggle, that he would let his face show the sadness in his heart. The king might then ask for an explanation. This tactic was very dangerous, since Nehemiah's first duty was to make the king happy. By bringing a dark cloud into the king's presence, he risked kindling the king's anger. No wonder, then, that when the king remarked upon Nehemiah's gloomy appearance, Nehemiah was "very sore afraid" (Neh. 2:2). Yet the king, his heart being in the hands of God (Prov. 21:1), was in a magnanimous mood. With the queen's encouragement, he granted Nehemiah's request to undertake the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
The king's decision was in accord with established policy. The Persians had long supported efforts to rebuild the cities and temples of conquered nations (6). Ostensibly, this policy was aimed at securing the support and blessing of the gods that these nations worshiped (7). But the true motive was probably greed. The Persian kings realized that their own revenues would increase as a result of economic development in ravaged, underpopulated regions of their domain.
Author of the Commandment
The edict issued in Artaxerxes' twentieth year allowed work on Jerusalem to go forward. The majority view has always been that this edict is the commandment foreseen in Daniel's prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks, the commandment mentioned in Daniel 9:25. But this view founders on four objections.
- The account does not refer to any actual edict or commandment.
- To get an exact solution, some writers assume that the commandment fell on the first day of the month (8). Yet there is not a scrap of evidence supporting this assumption.
- Setting the starting point of the sixty-nine weeks in Nisan of the king's twentieth year fails to achieve an exact solution (9).
- Identifying the commandment as Artaxerxes' ignores the clues.
The last objection is the most serious. What do the clues indicate? The context shows that the future commandment "to restore and to build Jerusalem" would come not from a man, but from God.
- The word "commandment" (dabar) in verse 25 appears also in verse 23 (10). The phraseology in these two verses is quite similar. Verse 23 says, "The commandment came forth." Verse 25 says, "the going forth of the commandment." Although verse 23 declines to say who issued the dabar, the source must have been the throne of God. This dabar was God's answer to Daniel's prayer recorded in the preceding verses. So, in verse 25, the dabar from an unnamed source must also refer to a divine commandment.
- The passage offers many assurances that the predicted events are "determined." "Seventy weeks are determined" (v. 24). "Desolations are determined" (v. 26). "That determined shall be poured upon the desolate" (v. 27). Determined by whom? The author of the plan that will inevitably be fulfilled is not named, but He is obviously God. Hence, the unnamed author of the commandment in verse 25 must be God also.
- The chief message of the entire Book of Daniel is that God is sovereign over human events, that He is the One who controls history. Thus, the commandment to rebuild Jerusalem would not in essence be Artaxerxes', but God's. When Artaxerxes approved repair of the city and its defenses, he was merely bringing to pass what God had already ordained.
The interpretation presented here was first stated in the 1830s by the German scholar E. W. Hengstenberg, whose four-volume work on Messianic prophecy is the greatest ever written on that subject (11). Most scholars today reject his interpretation because, in their view, it makes the prophecy more complicated and subtle than the author could have intended it to be. But who was the author? It was not Daniel, or any other man, or even the angel Gabriel. It was God. Who would be so presumptuous as to set preconceived limits on the possible complexity or subtlety of a divine oracle?