We’ve been taking a very brief look at the Old Testament’s use of a literary genre called Apocalyptics. This is a very poetic type of literature where cosmic language is often used to describe the destruction of a nation. In this post, we’re going to look at some of the “time statements” of prophecy, i.e., when those warnings should take place.
The timing of the event is as much a part of the event as the description of what’s going to happen. However, more times than not, the “time statements” are given in real time. That is, they give a concrete (or dare I state “literal”) timetable about when something would take place. However, as a way of dealing with these time statements, some people will try and use the saying, “With the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day” (2 Peter 3.8; cf. Psalm 90.4). But that’s not always possible. In fact, more often than not, the prophecies come to pass exactly when they were supposed to. Here are just a few examples.
Genesis 7:1-4: [Yahweh] said to Noah, “...In seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights. I will wipe off from the fertile land every living thing that I have made.”
Please note two things that the Yahweh said to Noah: 1) it would start to rain “seven days from now” and 2) it would continue to rain for “forty days and forty nights.” Now, to me, a very sensible question would be, “How would Noah understand these time statements—the ‘days and nights’?” I think he would have understood them exactly the way we would today. And he wouldn’t have been misled.
Genesis 7.10-12: After seven days, the floodwaters arrived on the earth...It rained on the earth forty days and forty nights.
Here, just a few short verses later, we have the fulfillment of that prophecy. This shows us that Yahweh meant exactly what was said to Noah. Seven days equaled seven days. Forty days and nights equaled forty days and nights.
Another example can be seen from the book of Exodus. Moses has been going back and forth between Yahweh and Pharaoh and Yahweh has been sending various plagues to Egypt so that Pharaoh would release the Israelites. Finally, Moses comes to Pharaoh and says:
Exodus 11.4-5: “This is what [Yahweh] says: At midnight I’ll go throughout Egypt. Every oldest child in the land of Egypt will die, from the oldest child of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the oldest child of the servant woman by the millstones, and all the first offspring of the animals.”
There are a couple of things here we should mention. The first is Pharaoh. The reason he’s important is because he’s not Hebrew. He’s a Gentile. If there was some sort of proverb about how Yahweh used time, it probably wouldn’t have been known to Pharaoh. Second, is the time statement itself—“at midnight.” Why would Yahweh, through Moses, give Pharaoh a very specific time if there was (or could possibly be) some sort of different meaning of that time?
In other words, if I told my daughter that she needed to have her room cleaned by four o’clock this afternoon or else she would be grounded, what type of motivation would it be if I really meant (or might really mean) some other time entirely? After a while of this type of double-standard, she’d completely lose all confidence in me. I would be seen as...well...a liar. It would seem that I don’t mean what I say. If I say that I want something done at a specific time, then that’s exactly what I mean. The same thing appears in this passage. Through Moses, Yahweh told Pharaoh that judgment would come “at midnight.” Yahweh didn’t mean four o’clock tomorrow or 7:27 a.m. in two weeks. No. Yahweh knew what Yahweh meant. Moses knew what Yahweh meant. And Pharaoh knew what Yahweh meant. Yahweh meant midnight. And that’s exactly what the fulfillment of this warning shows:
Exodus 12.29: At midnight [Yahweh] struck down all the first offspring in the land of Egypt, from the oldest child of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the oldest child of the prisoner in jail, and all the first offspring of the animals.
Our last examples are a couple of passages that deal with the Babylonian captivity:
Jeremiah 25.11 (NLT): This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. Israel and her neighboring lands will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
Jeremiah 29.10 (NLT): This is what [Yahweh] says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again.”
Here we see that a plain, normal, or human understanding of these two passages would lead us to believe that Israel would be exiled in Babylon for seventy years. And we wouldn’t be alone.
Daniel 9.1-3: In the first year of Darius’ rule—Darius, who was Ahasuerus’ son, a Median by birth and who ruled the Chaldean kingdom—I, Daniel, pondered the scrolls, specifically the number of years that it would take to complete Jerusalem’s desolation according to [Yahweh’s] word to the prophet Jeremiah. It was seventy years. I then turned my face to my Lord God, asking for an answer with prayer and pleading, and with fasting, mourning clothes, and ashes.
Here we see that the prophet Daniel understood Jeremiah’s “seventy years” to mean seventy years. With that understanding, Daniel started praying and fasting on behalf of Israel, supposedly because the time was almost over. However, the angel Gabriel came and told him that the true exile wouldn’t be over for another “seventy weeks” (v.24; that is, “seventy times seven years” or 490 years). This shows us something else that is crucial to understanding New Testament eschatology: if something other than the plain understanding of time is meant, Yahweh reveals that. People aren’t left to figure it out on their own. Over and over again, when Yahweh gives specific timetables, they mean exactly what they normally mean unless Yahweh states differently.
On last thing. We have looked at specific time statements and found that, unless otherwise stated, they should be understood exactly the way humans understand time. However, there are some statements in the Bible that don’t have specific time statements. Some prophecies have the elusive phrase, “in the last days.” This phrase could mean the final days of a nation, the final days of a certain era (or age), or, perhaps, the final days of time itself. This term is more general in nature and specific time statements aren’t given. The goal for such a general statement is two-fold: 1) certainty that things will change; that the current situation will not last forever but; 2) it’s also meant to keep the people prepared and looking for that coming change.
Next time will conclude our very brief Old Testament eschatology background. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC