Oracle of Daniel
The remarkable prophecy revealing 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 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). Here in Daniel’s book of breathtaking prophecies is the chief specimen. Hundreds of years before the event, the Lord foretold through Daniel precisely when the Messiah would come.
Many solutions for the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks have been proposed (for a critique, see Lesson 8), but of those finding an exact fulfillment, the only one that relies upon a defensible scheme of dates is the new solution presented here. It is somewhat more complicated than the others available, 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 prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks He has furnished cogent evidence that the Bible is true, He has buried it under layers of complex matter, so that a seeker will never find it unless he is highly motivated to dig.
The only motive that will sustain the work is a keen desire to know more about God. This desire nourishes a confidence that the quest for greater knowledge of God and His ways will not be pointless, but profitable. In the language of Christians, such confidence is called faith. Faith is crucial because God requires it of anyone who wishes to know Him personally (Heb. 11:6). Indeed, without faith it is impossible to know anything beyond man’s experience in a fallen world. Thus, for anyone who is unwilling to dig for spiritual truth because contentment with a godless manner of life has left him devoid of faith, all the irrefutable proofs of a Christian world view, such as the prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks, will remain undiscovered.
It is sad that even among professing Christians, few today have an interest in exploring this prophecy. Some have learned an easy but flawed solution, leaving them incurious to look further. Others have been led to believe that it is a waste of time to look for a precise fulfillment. Many others simply confirm that an apathy toward the hard texts of Scripture has settled on the contemporary church. But whether or not we see any value in studying the sixty-nine weeks, the Lord gives us 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, we see God in His posture 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 God’s Son. Jesus said that when the unbelieving masses gathered to hear Him, He 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.
The Rebuilding under Nehemiah’s Direction
The Messiah would come sixty-nine weeks after "the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem" (v. 25). "Commandment" is dabar, usually translated "word" (1). 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 work done under Nehemiah was truly “in troublous times. Fearing an attack by hostile neighbors, the workers wore or carried weapons (Neh. 4:17). The guard detail remained dressed at night so they could respond quickly to any threat (Neh. 4:23).
- The Hebrew word rendered "street" is rehob, which refers to a broad open space, such as a court just inside a city gate (2). In Nehemiah's day, the inner court of the Water Gate, on the east side near the Gihon Spring, was probably the principal rehob of the city. The damage that the Babylonians inflicted on the eastern wall no doubt left the Water Gate and its court in ruins. Nehemiah, soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, inspected its defenses and found that "the gates thereof were consumed with fire" (Neh. 2:13). As he tried to circuit the city, he could not make passage through the wreckage clogging the Kidron Valley below the eastern wall (Neh. 2:12–15). According to the archaeologist W. Harold Mare, "This fits well the picture given by archaeology that the eastern ridge was in shambles and filled with rubble" (3). Nehemiah therefore led the people to undertake repair of the city’s perimeter. As work proceeded in the next few weeks, one crew took upon themselves the task of renovating the Water Gate and likely also its adjoining court (Neh. 3:26), so that a few months later, everyone was able to gather in this court and listen as the book of the law was read aloud by Ezra the scribe (Neh. 8:1).
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 and probably also its inner court had not yet been reclaimed for use.
- Even the word rendered "wall" fits Nehemiah's project better than any earlier work of renovation. The Hebrew word is charuts. Before the 1950s, many scholars supposed, on the basis of the presumed meaning of cognate words in Phoenician and Akkadian, that charuts actually signifies a moat or a trench. This reading was generally abandoned after the word itself was found in the Dead Sea Copper Scroll, where it has the meaning "conduit" (4). 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 the Gihon Spring outside the city walls to the Pool of Siloam inside, at the southern end of the city. When Nehemiah began mending the city's defenses, this conduit may have been filled with debris left by Babylonian devastation of the city. Now that cisterns were in general use, the city no longer depended on water from the Gihon Spring (5). Yet the rebuilders of the wall feared an attack, so they may have deemed it prudent to secure their former water supply. If water was no longer flowing through Hezekiah’s tunnel, removal of the blockage perhaps required no more than a few days or weeks.
What commandment to rebuild Jerusalem is the starting point of the sixty-nine weeks? Although the Persian kings had previously taken steps to promote the revival of Judah, Artaxerxes’ ruling remembered in the Book of Nehemiah was the first specifically to support the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
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.
Artaxerxes’ consent to sponsor work on Jerusalem was given in his twentieth year (v. 1). Earlier in his book, Nehemiah describes the circumstances prompting his bold request of the king.
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 seek 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). Courageously disregarding his trepidation, he told the king that he could not feel glad while the city of his fathers remained in a state of appalling disrepair. The king, his heart being in the hands of God (Prov. 21:1), was in an agreeable 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 ruling of Artaxerxes that enabled Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem was issued in the king’s twentieth year. The majority view has always been that this ruling is the commandment foreseen in Daniel’s prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks. But the majority view founders on three objections.
- In an attempt to draw from the prophecy an exact prediction, some writers assume that Nehemiah’s petition won approval on the first day of the month (8). Not one scrap of evidence supports this assumption, however.
- Setting the starting point of the sixty-nine weeks in Nisan of the king's twentieth year fails to achieve an accurate solution (9).
- Identifying the commandment as Artaxerxes' fails to follow the clues woven into the immediate and larger context.
The last objection is the most serious. Where do the clues lead? One tradition in conservative scholarship, going back at least as far as E. W. Hengstenberg’s monumental Christology of the Old Testament, written in the middle of the nineteenth century, regards the commandment of verse 25 as an utterance from the throne of God (10). Later exponents of the same tradition include E. B. Pusey, Charles Boutflower, and G. W. West (11). The immediate and larger contexts of the verse furnish five compelling reasons that the commandment must be divine rather than human.
- The idea of an earthly event proceeding from a divine commandment is harmonious with the mind-set of Scripture (12). A striking expression of the same idea occurs in the Psalms.
He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word [dabar] runneth very swiftly.
- Dabar appears also in Daniel 9:23 (13). The phraseology in verses 23 and 25 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 God Himself. This dabar was God's answer to Daniel's prayer recorded in the preceding verses. So, in verse 25, just a few words later in the angel’s message, the dabar from an unnamed source must again refer to a divine commandment.
- The angel’s whole message is a poem employing the device known as step parallelism (see lesson 9). The two occurrences of dabar, in verses 23 and 25, lie in parallel branches. Often in Hebrew poetry, one branch of two related units is intended to elucidate the other.
- 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 (14).
- 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.
Most scholars today reject the interpretation presented here 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 riddle? The same author crafted all the intricate marvels of nature. Why then would He be simplistic in His book of self-revelation?