Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, Dan. 9. 24-27, has been variously described as ‘perhaps the most important not only in the book of Daniel, but in the whole Bible’,1 ‘the “backbone” of all prophecies’,2 and the ‘indispensable chronological key to all New Testament prophecy’.3 Jerome, the 4th/5th century Church Father, wrote that ‘None of the prophets has so clearly spoken concerning Christ as has this prophet Daniel. For not only did he assert that He would come, a prediction common to the other prophets as well, but also he set forth the very time at which He would come. Moreover he went through the various kings in order, stated the actual number of years involved, and announced beforehand the clearest signs of events to come’.4
Other commentators, however, are less effusive. Sir Robert Anderson writes, ‘Well may Professor Driver and Dean Farrar comment upon the hopeless divergence which marks “the bewildering mass of explanations" offered by the numberless expositors of this passage’5 (however, Anderson continues, ‘But there is no reason why the intelligent reader should follow these eminent critics who, in their “bewilderment”, have adopted the most preposterous interpretation of it ever proposed’). Barnes, in his commentary, writes, ‘Of this passage, Professor Stuart (“Hints on the Interpretation of Prophecy”, pg. 104) remarks, “It would require a volume of considerable magnitude even to give a history of the ever-varying and contradictory opinions of critics respecting this “locus vexatissimus”’6 Montgomery’s description is the most memorable: ‘the history of the exegesis of the seventy weeks is the dismal swamp of Old Testament criticism’.7
It is not hard to see what Montgomery is referring to. Consultation of a range of commentaries will leave a reader surprised at the diversity of viewpoints expressed. Virtually every line in the prophecy has three or sometimes more interpretations confidently asserted or tentatively suggested. Sadly, it is the case, then, that instead of pointing to Daniel’s prophecy as one of the most striking proofs of the Divine inspiration of scripture, many evangelicals today are less than certain about what the prophecy is saying (even to the point of embarrassed silence if the subject is raised). Many modern evangelical commentaries offer vague and evasive expositions, only occasionally being prepared to raise the head above the parapet, and even admitting to feeling ‘at sea’.8 Meanwhile, leading modern works of systematic theology make virtually no mention of the passage in their treatment of future events. Add to this the fact that much modern evangelical preaching tries to avoid subjects like biblical prophecy as somehow divisive or distasteful, and it is little wonder that many modern Christians have heard little or nothing about Daniel’s prophecy.
In this introduction, we are going to briefly survey the three main lines of interpretation: the liberal/critical view, the amillennial view and the premillennial view. Surprisingly enough, all of these three interpretive approaches offer some insights into the passage that help to illuminate its truth.
Liberal theologians deny the possibility of either divine action in history (particularly the miraculous) or the divine inspiration of the scriptures. Dismissing predictive prophecy as impossible, they are unable to read the book of Daniel (and this passage in particular) the way God intended it to be read. Instead, critical scholars resort to the conspiracy theory that the book of Daniel was written not before but after the events it foretold: an example of prophesying after the event (‘vaticinium ex eventu’). Jerome wrote his commentary on Daniel, in part, to refute this theory, which was first put forward by the early anti-Christian writer, Porphyry, ‘And because Porphyry saw that all these things had been fulfilled and could not deny that they had taken place, he overcame this evidence of historical accuracy by taking refuge in this evasion, contending that whatever is foretold concerning Antichrist at the end of the world was actually fulfilled in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, because of certain similarities to things which took place at his time. But this very attack testifies to Daniel’s accuracy. For so striking was the reliability of what the prophet foretold, that he could not appear to unbelievers as a predictor of the future, but rather a narrator of things already past’.9
Thus, rather than having been written by Daniel in the 6th Century BC, it is alleged that an anonymous author in the 2nd Century BC adopted Daniel’s name to give his message added prestige. Thus, the book of Daniel is comprised of two parts: (a) pious court tales about a legendary figure called Daniel; (b) and 2nd Century history masquerading as predictive prophecy. All is intended to encourage faithful believers in the God of Israel during the severe persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes around 167 BC. The book is viewed (oxymoronically) as little more than a pious forgery. Even some professing Christian commentators adopt this position, despite the Lord’s own witness to Daniel’s historicity, the barely-disguised Deism behind the belief, and the circular and illogical reasoning involved in the denial of the possibility of predictive prophecy.
However harshly we dismiss the unbelieving presuppositions of these critical scholars, we must nevertheless notice that their view contains some truth within it. It is true that Daniel’s book clearly focuses a lot of attention on the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes, the eighth king of the Seleucid dynasty which inherited the eastern provinces of Alexander the Great’s empire. In chapters 8 and 11, particularly, we have a clear outline of the events leading up to the time when Antiochus brutally suppressed the Jews and their system of worship in Jerusalem. The temple sacrifices were stopped, an altar was erected to the Greek god Zeus, swine were sacrificed and Jewish practices like circumcision, the reading of the scriptures and the eating of ritually clean foods were prohibited. Thousands of Jews were put to death for refusing to cease practising the worship of the God of their fathers.
Further, some of the stories related in the book of Daniel would have presented obvious moral lessons for Jews suffering under the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is easy to see how the book of Daniel would have been an encouragement to Jews who refused to submit to Antiochus’ newly-imposed religion. Daniel’s refusal to eat the King’s food in chapter 1 or to cease praying in chapter 6 would have emboldened Jews to refuse to submit to Antiochus’ decrees, as would have Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s refusal to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s god in chapter 3.
Turning particularly to Daniel chapter 9, the critical view holds that its ‘prophecies’ pointed to Antiochus’ persecution; in particular, the statements in Daniel chapter 9 verses 26-27 about a ‘ruler to come’ (Antiochus) who brings ‘an end to sacrifice and offering’. ‘Messiah the Prince’ therefore refers, not to our Lord Jesus Christ, but to the Jewish High Priest Onias III who was murdered at the time of Antiochus’ persecution. The reference to ‘abominations’, too, fits the way the Jews of Antiochus’ day referred to the altars erected to Zeus throughout the land.
However, in addition to these points of correspondence between Antiochus’ day and Daniel chapter 9, the critical view also quietly ignores other notable features of Daniel’s prophecy which found no fulfilment in the life and times of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is thus guilty of selectively ‘cherry-picking’ certain parts of the prophecy to suit its scheme.
In summary, the critical view of this passage, despite its unbelieving basis and some glaring faults, helpfully alerts us to the fact that Daniel’s prophecy concerns events that remarkably resemble what Antiochus Epiphanes perpetrated when he stopped the Jewish temple worship and set up the ‘abomination of desolation’, Dan. 11. 31, in it.
The amillennial (or covenant theology) view of Daniel’s prophecy, in contrast to the critical/liberal view, is marked by devotion to the scriptures and to the person and work of Christ. More generally, the amillennial approach to scripture sees Christ’s sacrificial death as inaugurating a spiritual kingdom which is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies of a glorious future golden age for Israel. The 1000-year reign of Christ, Rev. 20. 1-7, is not a literal future reign, but a present spiritual one – hence the term ‘amillennial’. Therefore, it regards Daniel chapter 9 as relating, not to the people of Israel or to any events still in the future, but solely to the spiritual blessings for the present-day Church won through the work of Christ.
Thus, the amillennial position takes ‘Messiah the Prince’, spoken of in Daniel chapter 9 verse 26, to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death is foretold in the words, ‘and after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off’. The covenant established in verse 27 is taken to refer, not to any covenant made by Antiochus Epiphanes (as in the critical view), but to the New Covenant established by Christ. The cessation of sacrifices in the same verse points not to any attempt to halt the proceedings in an earthly temple by Antiochus Epiphanes but to the fact that Christ’s one sacrifice for sin for ever puts an end to animal sacrifices.
For all its Christ-centeredness, however, the amillennial approach to this passage is guilty of fanciful spiritualizing. As later articles will attempt to show, instead of starting with Daniel’s prophecy on its own terms, it imposes upon the passage familiar concepts borrowed from the New Testament. Further, it ignores contextual evidence and parallels within the book of Daniel that help to explain the prophecy. For example, the references in Daniel chapter 11 to Antiochus’ ‘covenant’, vv. 28 and 30, his abrogation of this covenant, his halting of the ‘daily sacrifices’, v. 31, and his establishment of an ‘abomination of desolation’, v. 31, would seem to provide far more obvious clues to what the same terms mean when used in chapter 9 verse 27 than ‘fast-forwards’ to the book of Hebrews. The amillennial approach also imitates the critical by selectively appropriating only those elements from the prophecy that conveniently suit the scheme (with the difference that they are given personally edifying Christian life-applications), and ignoring others that do not.
In the amillennial view, Christ is the entire focus of the prophecy: His death, His new covenant and, through it, the fulfilment and abolition of the old covenant’s animal sacrifices. Where the amillennial interpretation disappoints is in the way it avoids the obvious sense of the actual text of, and contextual clues within, Daniel’s prophecy. However devotionally-appealing the construction might be (brought in on the back of well-known New Testament concepts), insufficient attention is given to laying down an exegetical foundation to sustain the edifice.
Thus, surprisingly, the liberal/critical view, for all its faults, actually performs a useful service. It shows how much more appropriate it is to understand Daniel’s prophecy by the analogy of Antiochus’ actions than the amillennial attempt to jump straight to New Testament themes.
Both the critical and the amillennial views are hampered by the pre-commitments they bring to the interpretation of the prophecy. The critical view, because of its functional atheism, is neither open to the possibility of predictive prophecy nor a straightforward reading of the book of Daniel; the amillennial view, by predetermining (on the basis of a particular ‘Christ-centred’ theological framework) what the prophecy must be saying, takes a short-cut straight to the New Testament. Either way, the passage has been prevented from speaking for itself on its own terms.
Premillennialists believe that Christ will return at the end of a period of ‘great tribulation’ to reign over the earth for a thousand years, see Revelation chapter 19 verse 11 through to chapter 20 verse 7; hence, Christ’s coming is ‘premillennial’. Therefore, they see the fulfilment of God’s purposes involving not simply spiritual restoration, but the earth itself being restored to the Paradise it was originally created to be; to borrow language from Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘Earth be chang’d to Heav'n, and Heav'n to Earth, One Kingdom, Joy and Union without end’. Premillennialists believe that Israel the nation, in particular, is eventually to be restored to the position that it was intended to occupy and that the Old Testament promises made to Israel of a glorious future are to be literally fulfilled in this millennial reign, which itself gives way eventually to the New Heavens and Earth.
Premillennialists, like amillennialists, view Christ and His death as the focus of Daniel’s prophecy, as of the entire Bible. However, premillennialists, while viewing Christ’s death as the central event of world history, observe that a considerable portion of scripture is concerned with history’s final climax: the tumultuous events that will happen at the ‘Time of the End’, 11. 35, 40; 12. 4, 9. Thus, the premillennial view does not see the prophecy as solely fulfilled in Christ’s death (as the amillennialist does), but sees it as also going on to speak about another ‘Prince to come’, Antichrist,10 of whom Antiochus Epiphanes was only a foreshadowing, and who makes a covenant with Israel for seven years, only to break it at its midpoint, set up an idol in a future Jewish temple, and bring upon the Jews the period called the Great Tribulation.
Therefore, the premillennial view takes Daniel’s prophecy as a sequential overview of the entire divine programme from Daniel’s time until the ‘Time of the End’. The prophecy outlines a sequence of seven main events in the divine programme for Israel:
In this interpretation, we are presented with arguably the most amazing prophecy in the Bible and one of the most remarkable proofs of the trustworthiness of Bible prophecy. It gives us an overview and outline of God’s plans for the history of the world unparalleled in scripture. The prophecy unfolds God’s purposes from the exile to Christ, through the New Testament period, and on to the very end of time. It might be easy enough to foretell successfully one event in the future (for example, ‘wars and desolation’), but the difficulty of correctly predicting a sequence of events increases exponentially, putting this prophecy beyond the reach of merely human prognostication.
The table above presents the main interpretations of the three views.
Those who grasp at such signs will have discerned that I find that both the liberal/rationalist and the amillennial interpretations of this prophecy present difficulties of a far greater nature than those associated with the premillennial view. Even so, as we shall see, Daniel chapter 9 is a difficult passage to interpret whatever eschatological view one takes, and there are many questions that need to be resolved:
While in future articles it will be argued that the premillennial interpretation best fits the actual data from Daniel’s prophecy and its context, we will nevertheless continue to evaluate the validity of all three main interpretational approaches as we survey the setting of the prophecy, then proceed to an exposition of the prophecy itself, and, finally, address some of the interesting questions that arise from the interpretation of the passage.
A. C. Gaebelein, A Key to the Visions and Prophecies of the Book of Daniel, Pickering & Inglis, n.d., pp. 129-30.
J. M. Boice (following Sir Edward Denny), Daniel, An Expositional Commentary, Baker Books, 1989, pg. 96.
Alva J. McClain, Daniel’s Prophecy of the 70 Weeks, BMH Books, 2007, pg. 10.
Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, Prologue.
Sir R. Anderson, Daniel in the Critics Den, James Nisbet and Co, 1909, pg. 114.
Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, commenting upon Daniel chapter 9 verse 24.
J. A. Montgomery, The Book of Daniel, ICC, T. & T. Clark, 1927, pg. 400.
Joyce Baldwin, Daniel, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1978, pg. 9.
Jerome, Daniel, Prologue.
In these articles, we are going to use the term ‘Antichrist’ interchangeably with the ‘Prince to come’. The author is aware that some expositors argue that the Antichrist is the second ‘beast’ of Revelation chapter 13, the ‘false prophet’ of Revelation chapter 16 verses 13 and chapter 19 verse 20. However, if chapter 16 verse 13 presents us with a ‘trinity’ of evil, the ‘false-prophet’ is the third member (not the second); it is the first beast of Revelation chapter 13 that seems to correspondingly oppose our Lord Jesus Christ as world-ruler and thus merit the description Antichrist.