The Messiah Would Come According to a Timetable
Daniel had been taken captive to Babylon as a young man, where he quickly proved himself both competent and godly. By the time we get to chapter nine, Daniel has spent the better part of his life in exile and is now a much older man. He was also a Bible student and had been studying the book of Jeremiah, where he had read that the Babylonian exile was to last 70 years. As that time was drawing near, Daniel began to pray and fast both for himself and for his nation, that God would forgive them and bring them back to Israel (see Daniel 9:1-3). The bulk of chapter nine then gives us Daniel’s heartfelt prayer.
As he prayed, the angel Gabriel appeared to him to bring an announcement: Gabriel tells Daniel not about the 70 years of captivity (which Daniel knew were coming to an end) but about “seventy sevens,” or a period of 490 years, climaxing not merely in the return from Babylon but in the messianic age. What an encouragement that must have been to Daniel!
Here is the part of Gabriel’s message concerning the 490 years:
“Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” (Daniel 9:24-27)
There has been a huge amount of discussion and debate over the chronological details of this passage. In the end, though, no matter what the details come down to, there are only a few main points to be noticed. As pastor Francis Schaeffer noted in another connection, when all is said and done, “There are not many men left in the room.” In other words, the main options are few.
First of all, the “seventy weeks” (literally, “seventy sevens,” understood by almost everyone to mean seventy seven-year periods or 490 years) begin with “the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem.” Commentators have drilled down to the details and dated “the word” at various times in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. In any event, the walls of Jerusalem began to be rebuilt about 457 B.C.
Second, after sixty-nine weeks, Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed: “The people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” After the seventieth week too, we are still talking about desolation and destruction of the Temple: “On the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.”
Therefore, the 490 years begin with the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C. and take us to the era of the Temple’s destruction which occurred in A.D. 70.
Third, “an anointed one” is mentioned twice. Translations vary: if the punctuation is translated one way, we have two anointed ones, one coming after seven weeks (49 years) and another one – who is killed – after an additional 62 weeks (434 years). If the punctuation is translated a different way, we have only one anointed person, who comes after seven and sixty-two weeks (483 years). A great deal of ink has been spilled over figuring out the best way to translate this, but in the end, the key point is: given the total of 490 years, an anointed one will be killed not long before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
As to the term, “anointed one,” though the term “the Messiah” was not really in use during the Old Testament period, the meaning of “Messiah” is exactly “anointed one.” Kings and priests were anointed with oil for their service; the ultimate anointed one was known as “the Anointed,” or “the Messiah.”
And fourth, this is no ordinary anointed person. This one accomplishes six things that Daniel enumerates. Since the anointed one had to come before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, if we understand Jesus to be this Messiah who was killed—and there is no other candidate in that time period—then the six things turn out as follows (in the ESV translation):
- Finish the transgression – meaning, to bring it to a climax, rather than to eliminate sin from the earth. Scripture sometimes speaks of God’s waiting for sin to reach a certain point before He takes action. In Genesis 15:16, God tells Abraham that after enduring slavery in Egypt, his descendants will return to the promised land, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” As to the sin of Jesus’ generation, he himself said that “on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:35-36). Rabbinic teaching also was that the destruction of the Temple came about because of the sins of the previous generation. God takes action at such a point. But not only was the Temple destroyed, God also graciously provided a means of atonement without the Temple – the atoning death of Jesus.
- Put an end to sin – in the context of Jesus being the Messiah, this would suggest his death that atones for sin. As Paul writes to the Romans: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:8, 10).
- Atone for iniquity – At the final Passover meal, the Last Supper, “[Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:27-28)
- Bring in everlasting righteousness – As Paul says in Romans 5:17, “For if, because of one man’s trespass [Paul is talking about Adam, the first man], death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Messiah Jesus.”
- Seal both vision and prophet – the meaning can mean either to authenticate something, or to hide it away. Jesus certainly authenticated the words of the prophets in his life, death and resurrection; while he also spoke of the meaning of Scripture being hidden away for those who rejected him. Either meaning fits.
- Anoint a most holy place – literally, “a most holy” which could also refer to “a most holy person.” Interestingly, the medieval sage Nachmanides said that “the Holy of holies is naught else than the Messiah, the sanctified one of the sons of David.”1
Another medieval sage, Rashi – the commentator par excellence in Jewish history – also interpreted this passage at least in part about the Messiah, and also saw its fulfillment before the destruction of the Temple. However, Rashi thought that the anointed one who was killed was King Agrippa, but then applied the very end of the passage to the future Messiah.2 Agrippa, however, did not fulfill the six items that Daniel mentions. If we are going to pick someone in the first century A.D. to be the anointed one, Jesus certainly fits the bill the best!
The New Testament does not refer much to this prophecy. However, we can note these passages:
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out…”
The “abomination of desolation” is mentioned not only in Daniel 9:27, but in other passages in Daniel where it refers to the desolations of the pagan king Antiochus Epiphanies in 167 BC. But Daniel 9, and Jesus in Matthew and Mark, look beyond that to a greater desolation. Jesus here is likely referring to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and may also be looking to the future horizons of history when the ultimate desolation will occur.
The other New Testament reference simply speaks in general terms of the time of the Messiah’s coming:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.
The “fullness of time” reminds us of the verses we looked at, in which God takes action only when the sins of people have reached a climax. Here, it is not the sins of the people but simply the readiness of the time – Jesus came at the appropriate time as designated by God. Daniel 9:24-27 points us to that very designated time, in the first century AD, when Jesus came among humanity as our atoning sacrifice.
Note: For those who want to go into more depth about the details of Daniel 9:24-27, see these resources:
Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections (Grand Rapids; Baker Books, 2003), sections 4.18-4.21.
Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977).
Hoehner interprets a bit differently, and sees a gap between week 69 and a still-future week 70. While he sees Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy, he believes a substantial portion will yet be fulfilled by Jesus in the future. This view, an alternative to the perspective outlined in this article, is shared by many commentators.
1. Cited by Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, Messianic Prophecy Objections (Grand Rapids; Baker Books, 2003), see section 4.19, note 192.
2. Ibid., section 4.18.