The student of prophecy finds himself in a similar position to someone who is completing a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces of prophetic revelation are not scattered randomly or haphazardly; they are found throughout Scripture. Each is vital in its own right, but each needs to be fitted in relation to all the others so that we will be able to obtain a clear picture of God’s great prophetic program. Even the most casual of jigsaw builders will know how useful it is to have the picture on the box in front of you, and how much more difficult the puzzle becomes without that orientating overview. The Bible student, too, will find his task made immeasurably easier if he has in mind a framework that explains how all the different pieces fit together into one divine masterpiece. We find just such an overview in Daniel 9.
Daniel 9 has been described as the backbone of prophecy. Understanding this chapter is a vital part of getting prophecy right. If we misinterpret these verses, we will quickly find ourselves attempting to complete one jigsaw with the pieces from another and, in our frustration, resorting to cutting bits off the pieces, and forcing them to fit in. But this chapter is not just valuable for the great prophetic outline it contains. In it, Daniel demonstrates how we ought to approach the study of prophetic Scripture, and it is worthwhile, briefly, to consider the context, as well as the content of the revelation he received.
Firstly, we should notice Daniel’s attitude. This is outlined in the words of the angel in the following chapter. Michael speaks of how Daniel “set [his] heart to understand” (10:12). Daniel was not prepared to tolerate gaps in his knowledge of God’s purpose. Rather, he had a committed heart and an engaged mind. And his attitude did not go unrewarded. The archangel came to make him understand (v14). God rewards those who set their heart to understand His Word.
Daniel’s attitude was expressed in the attention he gave to Scripture. The opening verses of chapter 9 demonstrate that Daniel had grasped the vital truth that an understanding of God’s will must be based upon the study of God’s Word. This is an essential lesson for us all to learn. Faced with a difficult subject like prophecy, it is all too easy for us to resort to and rely on other books. They have their place – it is a foolish Christian who disdains the help provided by the writings of godly men. But the focus of our study must always be Scripture, and it is to God’s Word that we must pay close and careful attention.
To this attention to Scripture, Daniel added an approach to God in prayer. Daniel’s supplication is one of the great pattern prayers of Scripture and deserves careful study in its own right. But we should notice his confession of sin, his confidence in God’s character and in His Word, and his call for God to deliver His people. Our study of Scripture should move us to a similar response.
Daniel’s prayer received a most remarkable answer in the appearance of the angel and the announcement of a concise but crucial outline of prophecy. Gabriel unfolded a program of “seventy weeks.”
Designation of the Weeks
Most English translations have Gabriel speaking of 70 weeks. However, the underlying Hebrew word simply means a series of seven, and for this reason, some commentators speak of seventy heptads, or hebdomads. When the word is used we must look to the context to discover what makes up the series.
Duration of the Weeks
To determine the duration of the 70 sevens foretold to Daniel, we rely on two important passages of Scripture. In Daniel 7:24 and Revelation 12:14 the events that follow the breaking of the covenant in the middle of the 70th week, are said to last for “a time, and times, and the dividing of a time,” or a year + two years + half a year. In Revelation 12:14, the same period is described as lasting for 1260 days (a Biblical year has 360 days, and 360 x 3.5=1260). Comparing Daniel 9 with other passages of Scripture demonstrates clearly that Gabriel is speaking of 70 sevens of years, or 490 years.
Division of the Weeks
Gabriel’s announcement divides the 70 weeks, or 490 years, into 3 portions, of 7, 62, and 1. The first two cover the period “from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem” until the cutting off of Messiah. Historically, this covers the period from March 5, 444 B.C. (Neh 2:1), to March 30, A.D. 33, the date of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. With meticulous precision and miraculous accuracy, the Savior moved to keep the appointment of prophecy, fulfilling to the day the program outlined to Daniel. Following the death of Christ, “the people of the prince that shall come” did indeed destroy the city. The forces of the Roman general Titus stormed the walls of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, devastating the city and razing the sanctuary, just as prophecy foretold.
This detail alerts the careful reader to one of the most important features of these weeks, namely the fact that the 70th week does not follow directly from the end of the 69th. Notice that the temple – the sanctuary – is destroyed after the end of the 69th week. This happened in A.D. 70, and brought the offering of Jewish sacrifice to an abrupt, and so far, total, end. Yet, we read that, in the middle of the 70th week, “the prince that shall come” will “cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease” (Dan 9:27). Evidently, then, there must be a gap in the 70 weeks in which, amongst other things, the temple is rebuilt and sacrifice resumed.
Commentators sometimes speak of this gap as the prophetic parenthesis. This reflects the fact that the period from the death of Christ to the beginning of the Tribulation – the Church age or the dispensation of grace – is not revealed anywhere in prophetic Scripture.
The final week is also divided into two three and a half year halves. The first half is the Tribulation, when divine judgment is poured out upon an apostate and Christ-rejecting earth. This period is marked by the emergence of Antichrist, “the prince that shall come,” and by the resumption of Jewish worship under his protection. The second period, the Great Tribulation, or “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer 30:7) will begin when Antichrist breaks his protective treaty and Israel becomes once more the object of intense persecution by the nations of the earth. This persecution will culminate in the siege of Jerusalem, and the triumphant return to earth of the glorified Lord Jesus, Who will destroy the rebels and establish His righteous kingdom for a thousand years.
Domain of the Weeks
Both Daniel’s prayer and its answer focus on Israel and Jerusalem. Daniel prays to God “for the city which is called by Thy name” (Dan 9:18), and Gabriel informs him that “seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city” (v24). This prophetic framework does not refer to the Church or to individual believers of this age. We have our own unique – and uniquely important – place in God’s plan, but we do not have a part in the prophetic program seen in these verses.
Determination of the Weeks
The prophetic program summarized in this chapter has been carefully designed by God, with definite aims in view: “Seventy weeks are determined … 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” (v24). God is never caught by circumstances. His perfect plan was determined far in advance. The first 69 weeks have come to pass with perfect precision, just as He determined. The remaining week will also unfold, just as He said. And, just as the events will take place punctually, His great purpose for His people will be inexorably worked out. An end will be brought to sin and idolatry, prophecy will be fulfilled, and the King Who was “cut off and had nothing” (v26, margin) will be anointed and enthroned as the “Most Holy.”
Detail of the Weeks
In this article, only a sketchy overview of this subject has been possible. Readers who wish to look in greater depth at the calculations involved will find much valuable material in Robert Anderson’s classic, The Coming Prince. Anderson’s calculations have been clarified and refined in Harold W. Hoehner’s useful Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ.