The 70 Weeks and Symbolic Time

One of the more important matters for getting at the meaning of the revelation in Daniel 9 is the relationship between time and the fulfillment of the prophecy. Specifically, how do we make sense of the 70 weeks that are decreed? To start, we need to think about what the word “week” means elsewhere in Scripture.

Now, this word “week” literally means, “a unit of seven.” In counting time, the length of measurement outside of Daniel is days, rather than weeks, months, or years. In Deuteronomy 16, when Moses gives the reckoning for scheduling the yearly Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, he says, “You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain” (v9). Here “weeks” means “a unit of seven days,” so that Israel is to count seven units of seven days, or 49 days from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. No other unit of measurement would make sense in this context. If Israel were required to measure by a unit of seven weeks, months, or years, what value would there be for a yearly festival?

So, then, the ordinary unit of measurement in Scripture for a “week” is days. But this unit of measurement, when applied to Daniel 9, makes no sense. There is no plausible application of this prophecy to a 490-day period that satisfies the purpose clause in Dan 9:24 or that adequately fits the historical record. So, if we are not constrained by the Scriptures ordinary designation for a “week,” then we must consider the context of our passage to make sense of it. And, because we’re dealing with a bunch of “sevens” in the context of a prophetic vision, we must be open to a symbolic understanding of time in Daniel 9.

Commenting on the word “seven” in relation to the Sabbath (a word also related to “weeks”), one scholar has said, “Hence from here an original symbolic significance is given to the number seven (1) as having a special sacredness; (2) as marking a totality of a cycle or an accomplished task; and (3) as marking a time for rest” (TWOT, shebua). Absent any textual reason to apply a specific time measurement on these “weeks” in Daniel 9, I am content to understand them as a symbolic time with reference to the “totality of a cycle or an accomplished task.”

Moreover, the amount of time—seventy—points us in a symbolic direction. These 70 weeks are a response to Daniel’s prayer which was prompted by Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of exile. There seems to be a multiplying factor on the 70 years of Jeremiah’s prophecy in these 70 weeks. This multiplying idea is confirmed when we trace Jeremiah’s 70 years back to Leviticus 26. There, as God declares the covenant curses (which Jeremiah’s prophecy heralded), there is a repeated refrain that essentially goes, “but if you don’t repent, then I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.”

So, we have the 70 years of curse multiplied sevenfold. Thus, 70 weeks, or 70 units of seven, are decreed. While this might incline us towards a period of 490 years—and it does for a number of scholars—an additional connection to Leviticus pushes me from yearly time to symbolic time. As some scholars have pointed out, the 70 weeks equates to 490 units, which is ten Jubilee cycles. This is a concept from Leviticus that has end-times, or eschatological, connotations. By way of Isaiah 61 (and indirectly Ezekiel 46), our Lord Jesus inaugurates his public ministry with reference to the year of Jubilee. Thus, it is highly symbolic to associate the activity of the Messiah in Daniel 9 with the final “week” in which the ten Jubilee cycles are completed.

Finally, taking the 70 weeks in a symbolic way can help us to appreciate the feelings associated with the fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 9. Note that the 70 weeks break down into three parts. Understanding them symbolically, Ralph Davis describes the first 7 weeks as a “relatively restricted time,” the 62 weeks as a “relatively extended time," and the last week as a "clearly climactic time.”1 Even though, chronologically speaking, an enormous amount is packed into that final week, it matches the feel of the prophecy. We do, in fact, live in the end times. Paul and Peter reflect the attitude of our climactic time in their letters. We ought to live each day in light of the end and the possibility of Christ’s second coming, and that is reflected in the shortness of this final week in the prophecy of Daniel 9. For these reasons, I view these 70 weeks symbolically.

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