Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy ‘sevens’ is one of the most amazing prophecies in the Bible. Firstly, because of its clarity, for while some of its predictions (‘wars and destruction’) are admittedly general, yet others are so startling and specific (‘Messiah cut off’) that they ultimately allow only one meaning. Secondly, because of its scope: whereas other Bible prophecies foretell single events, this prophecy presents a panoramic outline of world history. Lastly, because of its chronology: the prophecy not only tells of seven great events to come, but it places them in sequential order and attaches time-markers.
In this article we look at the first four great events found in verses 25 and 26.
Daniel chapter 9 verse 25 speaks of ‘the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem’. The latter part of this verse gives more details, ‘the street (or ‘open square’) shall be built again, and the wall, even in troubled times’. The word ‘wall’ here literally means ‘cutting’ and carries a wide variety of connotations dependent upon the context in the Old Testament. Some translators render it ‘moat’ or ‘trench’, but the ancient translations into Greek and Latin translated it ‘walls’, and as the word stands as part of an explanation of what it meant to ‘rebuild Jerusalem’, it can hardly mean anything else.
Even more significant is the word ‘open square’. Some commentators take the two terms ‘street’ and ‘wall’ as a summary of the interior and exterior of the city, presenting a picture of complete restoration. However, the words ‘open square’ do not refer to ‘streets and houses’ or the interior of the city generally. Rather, they refer to the civic space, usually inside the gates, where markets were set up, justice was administered, announcements made, and assemblies held. It was the ‘essential part of the city’,1 comparable to the Roman forum. By rebuilt ‘open square’ and ‘walls’, therefore, is meant Jerusalem reconstituted as a civic entity.
When was this command to rebuild Jerusalem given? There are four main possibilities. Firstly, some commentators take it to refer to Jeremiah’s prophecies, chapter 25 or 29, written either in 605 BC or in 597 BC, of a return from exile. However, nothing in Jeremiah’s two prophecies mentions the rebuilding of the city, but rather simply a seventy-year exile and then a return.
Secondly, many commentators prefer the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC, quoting Isaiah, 44. 28 and 45. 13, in which, God speaking, says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, You shall be built and to the temple, Your foundation shall be laid’ and again, ‘He shall build My city and let my exiles go free’. While the actual decree of Cyrus, 2 Chr. 36. 23; Ezra 1. 2-4; 6. 3, makes no mention of the rebuilding of the city but only authorizes the rebuilding of the temple, nevertheless the verses in Isaiah cannot be dismissed lightly. Indeed, the returning Jews did start to rebuild their own houses in Jerusalem, Hag. 1. 3; Zech. 1. 16 and 2. 4, so the decree of Cyrus involved some rebuilding of the city, rather than just a lone temple on a hill. It is also true that the enemies of the Jews accused them of rebuilding the city and its walls, Ezra 4. 12, 16 and 21, (see also Ezra 5. 3 and 9, although some translations have ‘structure’ here and appear to refer to the temple itself). This accusation (which appears true, for if unfounded it would have been easily refuted), suggests that rebuilding of the city was ongoing. Cyrus’ decree thus neither authorized nor prohibited the rebuilding of the city, but implied the same.
Thirdly, others suggest the permission given to Ezra to return to Jerusalem, Ezra 7, in 458 BC. However, the decree in Ezra chapter 7 (authorizing Ezra to ‘beautify the house’ and to teach the law) made no mention of the rebuilding of the city.
Finally, there was the permission given by Artaxerxes to Nehemiah to return and rebuild Jerusalem in 444 BC. Just as in all the other cases, there is no actual edict (either verbal or written) explicitly authorizing the rebuilding of Jerusalem; nor can much be proven from the king’s letters, Neh. 2. 7-9, for we are not given their text. Further, if there were some imperial decree to this effect, presumably the enemies of the Jews would not have tried to attack the work with such impunity.
Nevertheless, if we look at the actual wording of Daniel chapter 9 verse 25, it becomes clear that only the work of Nehemiah fulfils the prophecy. The verse refers, not to an ongoing regeneration project, but to the reconstitution of the city as such by means of walls and the open square. The very fact that Nehemiah’s book is included in our Bible means, for those who believe that scripture interprets scripture, that only Nehemiah fulfils the prophecy, for it shows that, firstly, in Nehemiah’s day the city still lay largely in ruins and furthermore Jerusalem was reconstituted as a city with walls and ‘open square’, Neh. 8. 1.
What do the ‘seven sevens’ refer to? Some commentators argue that the rebuilding of the city interior continued for forty-nine years after Nehemiah, or that the Old Testament canon was completed then. However, Daniel’s prophecy neither suggests nor admits these meanings, nor is the timeframe justified by any biblical or historical evidence (Malachi’s prophecy is undated). There is no significant event mentioned, either in scripture or history, corresponding to a period of 49 years after Nehemiah’s work. Instead, perhaps, the ‘seven sevens’ refer to the resumption of the Jubilee year (and Sabbath year) cycle, which, for failure to keep the Jews were exiled from their land, 2 Chr. 36. 21; Lev. 26. 34.
Therefore, it would seem best to understand: (a) both the seven sevens and the sixty-two sevens as simply literal chronological time periods in which the reconstituted city would stand until the coming of Messiah; (b) the sense of the last phrase of verse 26 as, ‘the open square shall have been rebuilt and the wall’; and (c) apply the ‘troubled times’ to the entire period. Some argue that the ‘troubled times’ apply best to Nehemiah chapters 4 to 6. However, there were equally troubled times before, and far more troubled times after Nehemiah (particularly under Antiochus Epiphanes and the Romans). One thing we may say of the seven and sixty-two sevens is that the division renders it difficult to read symbolic meanings into the words, for while this is possible with seven, for sixty-two suggestions are scarce.
‘Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks’.
In ‘an anointed one, a Prince’ we have a clear reference to the Messiah, the One for whose coming Israel waited, and with whose arrival their ‘troubled times’ would end. The further reference to ‘cut off’ immediately suggests our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Christ is the last thing the natural man will do and various commentators have suggested alternatives.
Some critical scholars have suggested Cyrus as the subject, who is referred to as God’s ‘anointed’, Isa. 45. 1. However, Cyrus was not ‘cut off’; he suffered no untimely death. The view of modern critical scholarship is that Onias III is ‘Messiah the Prince’. Onias was the Jewish high priest at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes; he was deposed by his brother Jason in 175 BC, who was in turn deposed by Menelaus in 172 BC, who then had Onias killed in 171 BC. These commentators also take ‘the prince of the covenant’, Dan. 11. 22, to be an identification of Onias as a ‘prince’. However, although Onias was ‘anointed’, as the High Priest, it is hard to consider him a ‘Prince’, since the Jews were ruled by Egyptian and then Seleucid kings until Maccabean times. Further, the attempt to claim Daniel chapter 11 verse 22 as proof that Onias was a ‘prince’ is untenable, for the subsequent verses suggest that it is rather Ptolemy VI Philometer, the King of Egypt and nephew of Antiochus, who is being referred to as the ‘prince of the covenant’, with whom Antiochus feigned friendship and alliance.
Other commentators have suggested Zerubbabel, or Joshua the High Priest as the Messiah because the temple rebuilding began in 536 BC, roughly 49 years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Yet neither of these candidates fulfilled both of the required roles: one was a ‘Prince’ but not ‘anointed’, while the other was a priest, and therefore presumably anointed, but not a Prince.
However, it is a ‘preposterous interpretation’ to suggest ‘that any Jew … could anticipate “the complete redemption of Israel" apart from the advent of Messiah. It is absolutely certain that the vision points to the coming of Christ, and any other view of it is indeed “a resort of desperation”’2
Following the coming of the Messiah, we read that He is ‘cut off’, which in the Old Testament signifies excommunication by violent death; words similarly applied to our Lord Jesus Christ, Isa. 53. 8. The words that follow, ‘but not for himself’, KJV, might appear to signify that Christ died, not for Himself, but as our substitute. While this is true, the Hebrew literally reads, ‘Messiah will be cut off, and have nothing’. Some commentators see this as explaining ‘cut off’, that is, ‘he will be no more’ or that he will ‘have no heir or posterity’. Most, however, argue that it means that when the Messiah died, He had no kingdom, city or people, ‘nothing of that which in right belonged to him’, JND.3 Of course, Christ has His bride the church, but this passage is concerned with Messiah’s relationship to the Jewish nation.
‘And the people of the Prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary, the end of it will be with a flood’, Dan. 9. 26.
The critical view of this prophecy is that the soldiers of Antiochus attacked the city of Jerusalem. Driver writes, ‘The allusion is to the soldiery of Antiochus Epiphanes, who set Jerusalem on fire, and pulled down many of its houses and fortifications, so that the inhabitants took flight’. However, ‘commentators who argue that Antiochus Epiphanes fulfilled this prophecy are at a loss to account for the fact that he destroyed neither the temple nor the city of Jerusalem’.4
The words can only refer to the destruction of the Jewish temple and city by the Romans, for this was the only time the post-exilic temple was destroyed. The Jewish people rejected their Messiah and gave Him nothing, and after nearly forty years of opportunity for repentance, God judged them; they lost their city and temple.
Edward Dennett writes, ‘The most careful attention must be given to the exact words used in this scripture … Remark then, first, that it does not say that a prince shall come and destroy the city and the sanctuary, but that the people of the prince that shall come shall do so’.5
Critical commentators tend to take the Prince here to refer to Antiochus, while amillennial commentators refer to Titus the Roman general. The one person it cannot refer to is Messiah the Prince of verses 25 and 26a, for: (a) he has been ‘cut off’; and (b) neither His Jewish people nor His Christian people destroyed the city and the sanctuary. Matthew Henry argued that Christ destroyed the city and sanctuary through His agents, the Romans, however these were not ‘His people’.
Although this ‘Prince to come’ is not Christ, the way Daniel titles him ‘Prince’ suggests an obvious contrast with Messiah the Prince. Daniel’s prophecies from chapter 7 onward focus on two main figures: firstly, a coming Messiah, referred to as the Son of Man, 7. 13, the ‘Prince of the host’, 8. 11, or ‘the Prince of Princes’, 8. 25, and, secondly, a figure described as ‘a Little Horn’ arising out of the ten-part Roman Empire, 7. 8, 11, 20-25, who opposes the Prince of Princes. This ‘Little Horn’ of chapter 7 cannot be Antiochus, as the critical/rationalist suggests, for although in chapter 8 verses 9-12 and 23-25, the future Antichrist is indeed foreshadowed, in type, by Antiochus Epiphanes, in chapter 7 he is a Roman, and Antiochus arose from the third, Greek, empire, not the fourth, Roman, empire. This second ‘prince’ of chapter 9 verse 26 must therefore be a Roman.
The title ‘the Prince to come’ is explained well by Montgomery, who argues that the expression distinguishes this Prince ‘from the local anointed-Prince of verse 25 by the epithet ‘to come’, either as some new one or in the sense of an invader, as the verb often implies, e.g. 1:1, 11:13, etc.’.6 Dennett writes, ‘In other words “the prince that shall come” applies to the future, and is indeed, as will be seen in the next verse, the imperial head of the revived Roman Empire in the last days. The “people" are identified with him because they are Romans of the same kingdom that is yet to reappear, and of which this prince will be the leader and the chief’.7 Some will scoff at the idea of a revived Roman Empire; the possibility of Israel returning to its ancient homeland was mocked, too.
‘Flood’ here is a metaphor describing sudden destruction, particularly in an overwhelming military defeat. We see this figure of speech in various Bible verses, for example Daniel 11 verse 10, ‘overflow’, and verse 22, ‘flood’.
A literal translation of this phrase reads, ‘his (not ‘its’) end will be with a flood’ (see RV, Tregelles and Keil and Delitzsch; the word ‘end’ has the masculine suffix). Thus, the end referred to is not that of the city of Jerusalem, nor the war of AD 70 (both ‘city’ and ‘war’ are feminine in Hebrew). Further, although ‘sanctuary’ is masculine, the nearest antecedent in the Hebrew is ‘the Prince to come’. The Prince’s end is in view, standing in contrast with his coming. His end also presents another contrast with Messiah the Prince who was ‘cut off’ earlier in the verse.
The critical interpretation takes ‘the Prince to come’ to be Antiochus, but his end was obscure. Although he died while on a military campaign in 164 BC, it was not in a battle – Josephus says he died of a ‘distemper’; others say of ‘worms and ulcers’. Neither (as the amillennialist asserts) does the description apply to Titus, who died of a fever after dedicating the Colosseum in Rome to victory in the Jewish war.
The last phrase in verse 26 traces the fourth stage of God’s programme, ‘Till the end there shall be wars, desolations are determined’, see RV, JND, NASB, NIV, ESV. Keil and Delitzsch agree with this translation, writing, ‘we agree with the majority of interpreters in regarding [milchamah, war] as the predicate of the passage: “and to the end is war;" but we cannot refer [qetz, end] … to the end of the prince, or … to the end of the city, because [qetz, end] has neither a suffix nor an article … [qetz] without any limitation is the end generally, the end of the period in progress, the seventy [sevens] and corresponds to (‘unto the end’) in Daniel 7:26, to the end of all things, Daniel 12:13. To the end war shall be = war shall continue during the whole of the last (seven)’.
‘Until the end’ therefore describes the course of history till the Time of the End. From the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (or from Christ’s death) onwards there were to be continual wars fought over the city of Jerusalem. Gaebelein writes, ‘These words give us the history of the Jewish people, of their land and their city, up to the present time. It is identical with what our Lord said, “and they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24)’.8
The many sieges of Jerusalem through history bear this out. The city was taken by the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in AD 135 (killing half a million Jews), Muslims in AD 638, Crusaders in AD 1099, Saladin in AD 1187, Tartars in AD 1244, Egyptians in AD 1247, Ottomans in AD 1517, the British in AD 1917, Jordan in AD 1948 and the modern state of Israel in AD 1967. Today, Palestine remains a war-zone.
There could hardly be a more striking proof of fulfilled biblical prophecy. Why Jerusalem should be so war-torn might remain a puzzle to the world’s politicians; from a Christian point of view, the answer is surely obvious: the Jews have rejected the Prince of Peace; they will have no peace until they finally say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, Matt. 23. 39.
Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew Lexicon
Sir R. Anderson, Daniel in the Critic’s Den, Nisbet, 1909, pgs. 114-5
J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, n.d.
J. G. Baldwin, Daniel, TOTC, IVP, 1978, pg. 190
E. Dennett, Daniel the Prophet and the Times of the Gentiles, Central Bible Truth Depot, 1967, pg. 150
J. A. Montgomery, Daniel, ICC, T&T Clark, 1927, pg. 383
Dennett, pgs. 150-1
A. C. Gaebelein, Daniel the Prophet, Pickering and Inglis, n.d., pg. 143