What John Believed: Jubilee, Suffering, and Seventy Weeks (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 11)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done.

What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


Daniel’s vision introduced several new expectations to Israel’s future hopes—though to call them “hope” is a stretch. Through his vision of four successive empires, and especially of the last empire with its terrifying power and the little horn’s warmongering against the people of God, he seemed to stretch out the expectation of restoration that had been prophesied so powerfully by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah and others to a time yet far in the future.

Moreover, the last empire would make war against the saints and nearly defeat them. Literally, he would “wear out” the saints (Daniel 7:25), and only the convening of the heavenly courts and God’s direct intervention would save them. On the other hand, the vision of the Son of Man—in the angel’s interpretation, the corporate people of God—being given authority, glory, and everlasting dominion was a truly bracing one. Although it would come through a time of intense suffering, the Messianic Age would surely come.

But what about a Messiah? At first glance there certainly seems to be a Messianic king in Daniel’s vision—one who “comes with the clouds of heaven” and stands before the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom. But then both Daniel and the angel equate this figure with the corporate body of God’s holy people. So is there a Messiah here or isn’t there?

To this day, that question is a cause for fair debate. But historically, most Israelite readers decided that there was. After all, even a corporate kingdom needs a figurehead, someone to sit on the actual throne. Surely Daniel was seeing both—the victory of a people through the victory of a person who represented them.

First, though, the people would pass through a time of suffering. A natural question to follow might be, How long? And that is, in fact, the next question of Messianic importance to be addressed in Daniel. The final prophecy we’ll look at here addresses time frames—it is usually known as Daniel’s Seventy Weeks.

First, a little background: The book of Daniel began with the prophet’s early years in Babylon, shortly after he and his friends were taken away in the exile. The book intersperses apocalyptic visions with events from Daniel’s life, forming a rough timeline through his promotion in Babylon to the rise of the Medes and Persians and finally, to the near end of Daniel’s life.

When he writes chapter 9, he is an old man. He has lived a full and faithful life in the presence of his enemies, and God has faithfully shepherded him there. Even though Daniel has no hope of personally seeing the house of the Lord in Jerusalem rebuilt, he might say with the psalmist, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

The God of Israel has proven to be the God of heaven—mighty, present, and ultimately asserting his just rule even over pagan oppressors.

Yet, the goodness of God in Babylon does not take away Daniel’s longing for his people to be redeemed from the power of the curse—to be delivered from their enemies and restored to the land where God would dwell among them, just as Isaiah and others prophesied. And there was in fact a time limit on the exile. It had been given through Jeremiah, a prophet who lived and prophesied at the very end of Judah’s independence and who was present when Jerusalem fell and its people were carried away in successive waves to Babylon.

Jeremiah died in Egypt among Jewish refugees there, a painfully poignant circumstance indeed for a prophet whose nation marked its birth and its covenant with God to its miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt centuries before. But long before he died, Jeremiah relayed the time parameters on God’s judgment of Israel. Like Isaiah, he stressed the continued faithfulness of God through the time of judgment and his promise to eventually restore Israel.

For this is what the LORD says: “When 70 years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm My promise concerning you to restore you to this place. For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the LORD’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. You will call to Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you”—this is the LORD’s declaration—“and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and places where I banished you”—this is the LORD’s declaration. “I will restore you to the place I deported you from.” (Jeremiah 29:10–14)

With that promise in hand, Daniel and other faithful Hebrews counted the years as they passed. And as 70 years approached, Daniel devoted himself to fast and pray—pressing into the promise of God. “I, Daniel, understood from the books according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet that the number of years for the desolation of Jerusalem would be 70. So I turned my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and petitions, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:2–3).

In great detail, he confessed the sins of Israel and poured out his heart to God, begging for his forgiveness and mercy in accordance with his word to Jeremiah.

Now, Lord our God, who brought Your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made Your name renowned as it is this day, we have sinned, we have acted wickedly. Lord, in keeping with all Your righteous acts, may Your anger and wrath turn away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people have become an object of ridicule to all those around us.

Therefore, our God, hear the prayer and the petitions of Your servant. Show Your favor to Your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake. Listen, my God, and hear. Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city called by Your name. For we are not presenting our petitions before You based on our righteous acts, but based on Your abundant compassion. Lord, hear! Lord, forgive! Lord, listen and act! My God, for Your own sake, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name. (Daniel 9:15–19)

In answer to Daniel’s heartfelt prayer, God sent an angel—Gabriel, whom Daniel had encountered in a previous vision. Gabriel answered Daniel’s prayer with an enigmatic prophecy. In essence, he declared that the Lord’s plans for Israel would not be accomplished in seventy years but in seventy “weeks”—literally “seventy sevens,” usually understood to mean seventy sets of seven years.

And in this timeframe, far more than just restoration to the physical land of Israel would occur. In seventy weeks, Gabriel indicated, the Messiah would come —and when he did, he would change the cosmic order of the world as Daniel knew it.

Even today, the prophecy of Seventy Weeks feels heavy with importance. Yet it remains enigmatic, and few interpreters then or now have agreed on exactly what it means. Here it is, as given in the Holman translation:

So consider the message and understand the vision:
Seventy weeks are decreed
about your people and your holy city—
to bring the rebellion to an end,
to put a stop to sin,
to wipe away iniquity,
to bring in everlasting righteousness,
to seal up vision and prophecy,
and to anoint the most holy place.
Know and understand this:
From the issuing of the decree
to restore and rebuild Jerusalem
until Messiah the Prince
will be seven weeks and 62 weeks.
It will be rebuilt with a plaza and a moat,
but in difficult times.
After those 62 weeks
the Messiah will be cut off
and will have nothing.
The people of the coming prince
will destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end will come with a flood,
and until the end there will be war;
desolations are decreed.
He will make a firm covenant
with many for one week,
but in the middle of the week
he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering.
And the abomination of desolation
will be on a wing of the temple
until the decreed destruction
is poured out on the desolator.

Seventy Weeks and the Grand Jubilee

One frequently overlooked characteristic of the “Seventy Weeks” passage is the structure of Jubilee built into it. In the Mosaic covenant, God had given the people of Israel a calendar based around religious feasts and festivals, of which the most regular was the sabbath—a day “made holy,” set apart, for rest. The sabbath was observed every seventh day. Not only the people but also their animals were to rest on the sabbath day, in honor of God’s “rest” after creating the world in Genesis 2:1–3.

The sabbath, however, also extended into seven-year patterns—“sevens.” Every seven years, the sabbath was to extend to the holy land itself: the Jewish were to allow the land to lie fallow for an entire year. Rest was an integral part of their stewardship of the land and a key way they acknowledged God’s ultimate ownership of it. Finally, an even greater event was to take place after every seven sevens, or “seven weeks” as it is translated in Leviticus 25 and elsewhere. This event was called the Jubilee, and it began on the Day of Atonement at the end of every forty-nine years—that is, the end of every “seven sevens.”

Jubilee encompassed the entire fiftieth year. It was not only a sabbath year, but it was also a year of tremendous and nationwide restoration. Across the land, debts were forgiven and canceled out. Land—which was originally parceled out by lot to the tribes of Israel and belonged to each of Israel’s families as a birthright under God—was restored to the families who had originally owned it, after having been sold or bartered away or lost through indebtedness or incompetence. And all across the land, slaves were set free.

It’s significant that in Jewish culture under the Old Covenant, slavery was often specifically tied to debt: Jewish slaves served limited terms, and they did so for the sake of repaying debt or atoning for a crime (for example, someone who had stolen from someone else and was not able to repay it would become a slave to the offended party until the debt was paid back, plus some extra). The connection to crime was a tacit acknowledgment that sin against one’s neighbor is a form of debt, and that debt leads naturally to captivity.

But in the Jubilee, grace reigned: no matter how much time might remain to be served, on that forty-ninth Day of Atonement every Jewish slave was released from his sins, his debts, and his captivity and restored to freedom and full inheritance among the people of God. (Some slaves chose to remain with their masters, “out of love,” according to Deuteronomy 15:16. There is probably an important picture for us in this too, but a different one than is seen in the Jubilee.)

As several scholars have pointed out, Gabriel’s use of the term “seven weeks” at the beginning of the prophecy is clearly meant to give the whole passage of time a Jubilee structure. And indeed, seventy sevens leads to 490 years, “a Grand Jubilee” in biblical numbering, where the number 7 (for perfection and rest) is multiplied and magnified by the number 10 (signifying completion, authority, and divine order). And just as might be expected in a Grand Jubilee, the seventy sevens will cancel all debts and bring about a tremendous work of forgiveness, freedom, and restoration.

The seventy weeks would, according to the angel, “bring the rebellion to an end, put a stop to sin, wipe away iniquity, bring in everlasting righteousness, seal up vision and prophecy, and anoint the most holy place” (literally, “to anoint the most holy”; the word place is added in most English translations).

The book of Daniel ends with further prophecies and apocalyptic visions of the future, especially dealing with the empires of Persia and Greece. Finally, chapter 12 closes the book—and Daniel’s story—with an angelic benediction. “Go your way, Daniel,” an angel says:

For the words are secret and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; none of the wicked will understand, but the wise will understand. From the time the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. The one who waits for and reaches 1,335 days is blessed. But as for you, go on your way to the end; you will rest, then rise to your destiny at the end of the days.”

As I said at the beginning of this section, the visions of Daniel added a new element to Israel’s understanding of the Messiah. This element is Daniel’s almost spooky supernaturalism. Yes, Gabriel explained much of the symbolism; yes, it’s possible to read all three chapters without even seeing a Messiah at all. Possible—but not easy. And in fact, it is hard to read Daniel’s visions without asking the question—in some mysterious way, could the Messiah himself be divine?

Interestingly, this question was asked by Jewish readers and thinkers in the days before Jesus. What precisely they meant by that is not clear; they speculated as to whether “Bar Nash”—the “Son of Man”—might be a preexistent being, perhaps an incredibly powerful angel. They didn’t have answers, only questions. But the question was not outside the realm of possibility.

To be continued …


This is Part 169 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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