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 (v. 24).- Daniel 9:20-27
For more than one hundred years, Daniel 9 has been one of the most intensely studied passages in the Bible. It has been incorporated into charts that depict the series of events that are supposed to happen before the end of time. It has been used to separate churches according to whether the rapture is said to be pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation. Still, despite this diligent study, consensus on the chapter’s meaning seems far off.
However we understand the passage, we cannot divorce it from its context, namely, the Babylonian exile. As God promised, He expelled the Israelites from the Promised Land for seventy years on account of their impenitent sin (Deuteronomy 28:15–68; 2 Chronicles 36:15–21). Yet the Lord also pledged to restore and bless His people far beyond their imaginations if they were to show corporate repentance in exile (Deuteronomy 30:1–10). In 539 BC, however, when the end of the seventy-year period of exile was just around the corner, the prophet Daniel saw clearly that the repentance necessary for restoration was not on the horizon. So, he asked God to show extravagant mercy and restore the Jews anyway (Daniel 9:1–19).
The Lord answered Daniel’s prayer in the affirmative, though likely not as Daniel expected. A “word to restore and build Jerusalem” (v. 25) would come, but rebuilding the city would not bring all of God’s restoration promises to pass right away. Notably, the perfect righteousness other prophets envisioned would not occur immediately upon the Jews’ return to Canaan (Ezekiel. 36:22–38). “Seventy weeks” or seventy “sevens” would intervene between the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and the end of sin (Daniel 9:24). Here, weeks or sevens represent years. God was announcing 490 more years of exile for His people. The Jews would live in their land again, but they would not enjoy sovereignty over their own affairs.
But did God mean that precisely 490 years would occur between the return to Jerusalem and full restoration? Not necessarily. In the original prediction of the covenant curses that culminate in exile, the Lord said there would be a sevenfold increase on the nation’s punishment each time the people refused to repent when warned. Since 490 is seven times seventy, the extension of the exile could be viewed as just another sevenfold increase in punishment (Leviticus 26:14–46). In any case, the point is clear—God’s people would have to wait for the full restoration, which could not come before the cutting off of an anointed prince and a second destruction of Jerusalem and its sanctuary (Daniel 9:24–27).
If we focus on the trees and not the forest, it is very easy for us to miss the main point of a difficult text like this one. The original audience of the text was to understand that God had delayed the restoration because of impenitence. (This delay is from a human perspective, for the Lord always knew this was going to occur.) What we should learn is that the Lord’s blessings in our lives may likewise be delayed if we continue in sin without turning unto Him.