Warning: Limited Visibility Ahead
Have you ever tried to jam in a puzzle piece that just doesn’t quite fit? That is what interpreting this Scripture is like. When you turn it one way, most of the edges line up, but it won’t go in. And when you twist it another way, the part that wouldn’t fit before lines up perfectly, but now two other edges won’t fit. For some of us who like to have control (we know who we are!), this can make some Scriptures, like today’s, frustrating to study.
Allow me to remind you again that Scripture can be absolutely true, and absolutely accurate, but not at all precise. In theology, we call this type of reality a “mystery.” It defies our logic. Remember this very important fact about mystery: mystery is not the absence of rational meaning, but the presence of more meaning than our rational minds are capable of understanding. God’s word and His truth isn’t broken; our minds are simply limited. Anyone who thinks their mind is not limited is someone you should probably “unfriend” as soon as possible!
From here on out, the prophecies of Daniel become fuzzy at best. Today’s passage (esp. v27) is one of the most disagreed upon in the Bible. Two words to the wise as we press forward (and this is helpful with any passage of Scripture where we have an element of mystery):
1. Don’t get bogged down in the details - look at the big picture. Today, the important thing is not the specific timing, but that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that God is at work every step of the way. Any interpretation more than that is subjective.
2. Greet anyone who claims to understand the details with skepticism. Remember what Jesus himself, the Anointed Messiah said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13.32)
Now with those two warnings, let’s dive into the mud!
First, let’s start with the big mysteries in this text -- what’s “unknowable” given our understanding at this time.
1. When: Gabriel offers deliberately mysterious timing. The angel says there will be three sets of “sevens” before the end of Israel as we know it. Seven sevens, sixty-two sevens and one seven. Well, the obvious question is “seven what?” It could be interpreted “weeks,” as in “seven days in one week.” Or these “sevens” also be interpreted as sets of seven years, seven months, seven days, seven minutes or even seven seconds! But most theologians throughout history and today see it as a symbolic term for “years.” There are also those who see the “sevens” as fluid, stretchy, nonspecific spans of time that are totally symbolic with no measurable consistency between them. According to that school of though, the “sevens” might be thirty years long or three thousand years long. (See handout: Four Approaches to the Seventy Sevens)
The bottom line: the timing of these events is deliberately unknowable.
2. Who & How: The Anointed One is the Messiah, at least that seems clear. And to Christians, that means Jesus Christ. But who is “the prince” (or “leader” in some translations)? The destructive “he” in verse 27 seems to be referring to this “prince,” but it could also be referring to the Messiah, or they could be one and the same, depending on how you read it. We just don’t know. Which one it is, and depending on who you think the “he” in verse 27 is. That “he” could be Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the temple. “He” could also be the Messiah who ends the sacrificial system as Jesus did. Or “he” could be the roman general Titus who destroyed the temple once and for all in 70 ad. Or “he” could be the antichrist yet to come. Any of those could fit -- but it is hard to decide which fits best. Most Christians today, but certainly not all, believe this “he” is the antichrist who is to come.
As for the “how” things work out, that is even more cloudy. We can say there is a beginning where the city of Jerusalem and temple are rebuilt, there is a middle with “troublous” times as the King James Version puts it. And there is an end when Israel is no more and the world is made new. But the rest is shrouded in mystery -- what is this covenant? And between whom is it made? And how is it broken? The city is rebuilt and destroyed, a covenant is made then broken, but the rest is hazy at best.
If we dedicated our time to mapping these unknowables (as many charlatans and hypocrites do), we would be playing a wasteful and dangerous game. It is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube when your older sister moved a few of the stickers around behind your back. It is a mystery -- it cannot be understood with our earthly minds, and attempts to definitively interpret the when, the who and the how are rabbit trails. Many good Christian souls have squandered their opportunities to spread the gospel and do God’s work because they have been distracted by these puzzle pieces.
What IS Knowable:
Now, let’s turn to what we can understand about this puzzle. There is indeed some meaning here -- even when you are missing a few pieces, you can still see what the puzzle is about. And so it is with today’s text. Let’s look at what IS knowable here.
1. Where: We can know very clearly what the setting for this prophecy is. It is, as Gabriel says so plainly, about Jerusalem and the Temple. Not Washington D.C. or Brussels or Moscow. This prophecy has to do with the people of Israel. Of course, the implications of that change based on your interpretation of the timing, which, as we just said is unknowable. If it all ended with Antiochus Epiphanes, or when the Messiah’s death rent the temple veil in two, or when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, we would look at it one way. But those who view this as a prophecy about future events would have to be very interested in the resurgence to the world stage of the modern-day nation of Israel. Again, the timing is unknowable, but this prophecy is definitely set in the real city of Jerusalem and the real place of the temple.
2. What & Why: Now, this is probably the safest ground to stand on when we interpret this passage. The big picture is laid out for us in verse 24. The purpose of God in all of these events -- no matter when they take place or who they refer to -- is clear: God’s desire is to 1) Finish transgressions, and 2) bring in everlasting righteousness (v24). There are six bullet points in verse 24, and they can be grouped into those two basic categories: the first three are an end to sin, and the last three are the beginning of righteousness. God desires for His people to put away the old ways of sin and rebellion, and to commit themselves to doing what’s right and honors Him. Now that’s something we can sink our teeth into. We can all take that lesson home with us.
What’s the Point?
I am a “go through the book” kind of a pastor. I don’t like to skip over hard scriptures, because I believe God’s word is both meaningful and powerful for life today -- every bit of it; even passages like this. So as I prepared this week, I was asking God, “Please show me how this will make a lick of difference in anyone’s life today. Lord, I want to know where the rubber meets the road for me and my friends.” And this is what I believe he showed me:
1. First, scripture like this about Israel are meant to remind us “gentiles” of our roots. Even though we now approach God through a new covenant wrought by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, that covenant is rooted in the old covenant God made with Israel as exemplified in the ten commandments. We are part of the new branch of God’s tree, but that branch has been grafted on the root stock of Israel. Even though we participate in a new covenant, God has not forgotten Israel completely. No matter how you interpret the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, one thing is undeniable: we are indebted to the Jewish people. (See Rom. 9-11)
“But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things. (Romans 15.25-27)
2. Second, and most importantly, these prophecies provide a basis for security and hope in a world that seems to be ever spiraling out of control. It is not out of control. God is in control. We have free will, and we can exercise that for evil or for good. But our free will is utterly incapable of interfering with God’s bigger plans. Though the world spins and breaks apart as nations rise and fall; as terrorists exercise their free will in abominable ways; as leaders, candidates, and voters fail every test of decency and dignity; though we see chaos up close, God sees the bigger picture. He will not allow the world to go on forever this way. He has a plan, and it is bigger than you and me, bigger than Israel, bigger than Babylon, bigger than Caesar, bigger than the EU and the United Nations. If these is one certainty that you take away from this obscure and mysterious scripture, let it be this: both history and the future -- even YOUR history, and YOUR future -- belong to God.
"All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, 'What have You done?'” (Daniel 4.35, NASB)
Thanks be to God. Amen!