Tuesday, April 02, 2024

From the Great Tribulation

We now come to the distinctive feature of John Darby's dispensationalism: the Great Tribulation. The idea of meeting in the air was not new. The idea of antichrist was not new. But no one before around 1830 had ever suggested that there would be a seven-year period of tribulation after a rapture of the righteous to heaven. This was the distinctive invention of John Nelson Darby.

And it is an ingenious invention! The starting point is Revelation 7:14, the key text for this chapter.

These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

We saw in chapter 3 that these individuals were not likely individuals raptured from the earth while alive. Rather, these are likely those who have been martyred for their faith. In chapter 3, we also argued that John probably was especially thinking about those who were martyred under the Roman Empire. 

In this chapter, however, we want to explore where the idea of a seven-year Tribulation came from. There are two places in particular. The one is Daniel 9, and the second is Revelation 12-13.

Daniel 9

2. Just as Ezekiel 38-39 is a passage that doesn't get a lot of attention, John Nelson Darby also noticed another little read passage in Daniel 9:24-27: 

Seventy weeks are decreed upon your people and your holy city for the fullness of the transgression... from the going out of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem to the anointed one, the prince, [will be] seven weeks. And for sixty-two weeks it will return... And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one will be cut off and lose everything. And the people of the coming prince will destroy the city and the sanctuary... And he will make a covenant firm with many for one week. And in the middle of the week, he will stop the sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations, the desolator [will come] until complete and what is decreed is poured out upon the desolator.  

It is commonly assumed that a "week" here stands for a seven year period. It is hard to make sense of the prophecy historically if it were referring to seven day periods. Given that figurative assumption, Darby then interpreted the years from that point on literally. Since 70 times 7 is 490, he assumed that Daniel was referring to a literal span of 490 years. 

He then took the one who "will be cut off and lose everything" as a reference to Christ. Since that point was 69 weeks into the prophecy, that would put AD 33 or thereabouts 483 years into the prophecy. Counting backwards, that would put the time of the word going out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem at about 450 BC. While not exact, this is about the time that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (ca. 444 BC). 

But the most distinctive point of Darby's interpretation is his sense that the counting of weeks went on pause at the point of Jesus' death. At that point God switched "dispensations." God had been working with Israel. Now God switches to the church for a new period of history -- the "Church Age." We are still in this age today. [1]

However, Darby believed that God was still planning to make his math work. At the end of time, after the church was raptured to heaven, God would switch dispensations again. In The Great Tribulation, God would get that last seven-year week. He would finish up his dealings with Israel. In the end, Israel would turn to Christ, as we talked about in chapter 2. 

During that final seven-year period of history, a "desolator" would arise. He will stop the sacrifice and offering of the temple. (By the way, that implies that the Jerusalem temple will need to be rebuilt.) Darby correlated this prophecy with what 2 Thessalonians 2:4 has to say about a man of lawlessness setting himself up in the temple as God. He correlated it with the abomination that causes desolation in Daniel 11:31 and Mark 13:14. He correlated this figure with the Beast from the Sea in Revelation 13:1. He called this figure, "The Antichrist," following 1 John 2:18.

This is all ingenious, the sign of a beautiful mind. Perhaps he was inspired by the Holy Spirit! Nevertheless, we will take the next few chapters to unpack each of these texts to see what each seems to refer to in its own context. Far be it from me to say that God cannot stitch these passages together and fulfill them however he wishes. At the same time, in context, it is not at all clear that these passages naturally go together in this way. 

In this chapter, we especially want to examine his interpretation of the weeks in Daniel.

3. You'll notice that there is a mixture of literal and figurative here, and the weeks don't exactly line up. For example, there is nothing in the text to suggest that we would skip 2000 years between the 69th and 70th week. Darby just made that up with no basis whatsoever in the text of Daniel.

Most Christian interpreters throughout the centuries had taken the prophecy to refer to Jesus' death and perhaps the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This includes not only early church figures like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian but Protestant Reformers like John Calvin. That is to say, they believed the prophecy was already fulfilled.

Even then, there are questions about how literally we should take the numbers. The whole prophecy is very symbolic. For example, weeks are taken as years. We are on figurative ground from the very beginning. But then we become very literal and precise with how the years are played out. It's like we are mixing genres -- extremely figurative meets extremely literal.

By most reckonings, for example, the span of time from Nehemiah to Christ is remarkably close but a few years off. From 444 BC to 33 AD is 477 years. So it would seem that, by any reckoning, the weeks of seven years are approximate. This is no problem at all given the genre. The symbolism of the sevens was more important than the precision of the years.

But there are other questions too. For example, why start with Nehemiah? I would have thought the more natural referent is 538 BC when Cyrus gave the word to the Jews to "restore and rebuild Jerusalem." Daniel is set in the 500s, not the 400s. Daniel is set during the Babylonian captivity. The most natural way to take the "word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem" is thus in terms of the return of the Jews from captivity, which took place in 538 BC.

But then 490 years puts us in the year 48 BC, a year of no particular note. Are there any other clues in Daniel that might suggest the prophecy is referring to some other event? 

Yes, why yes there are. Daniel 11 reads as a virtual blow-by-blow of the events leading up to the desecration of the Jerusalem temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, in 167 BC. We have already mentioned that this event was the first fulfillment of Daniel 11:31 and the "abomination that causes desolation." We will return to this passage in chapter 7.

In other words, we know that the book of Daniel has material that is focused on the events surrounding the Maccabean crisis from 167-164 BC. In that material, a desolator puts a halt to the sacrifice and offering of the temple. And he does this approximately halfway through the crisis.

Who then would be the two anointed ones in the passage? The first anointed one is difficult in any rendering. Following Darby's approach, this person would need to live in the early 300s BC, and we know of no such figure.

Starting from the call to return to Jerusalem -- and taking the numbers to be approximate -- there are candidates for the interpretation that starts with 538 BC. For example, Joshua the anointed high priest of Zechariah 3:8 was high priest in the late 500s. Again, taking the numbers to be approximate, one might point to Nehemiah as the anointed one in the mid-400s BC. There are at least options, where there are none for Darby.

The Maccabean crisis is earlier than we might expect if the numbers are taken exactly, but the genre itself suggests that the numbers should not be taken exactly. What then is the final week? The final week would refer to the Maccabean crisis itself, which only came to a head with the desecration of Jerusalem in 167 BC. Antiochus had already been implementing actions to Hellenize Israel since about 175 BC, including a prohibition on circumcision, on the observance of Sabbath, and on keeping food laws. He ordered the construction of Greek institutions like a gymnasium.

The last three years of the crisis were the most intense. You might argue that they came "in the middle of the week."

Who then would be the second anointed one who was "cut off" and lost everything. This is often related to the high priest Onias III, who was deposed and replaced by Antiochus, the Syrian king. This deposing took place at the beginning of the troubles Antiochus brought on Jerusalem in 175 BC, arguably the beginning of the "week" to which Daniel refers.

Is it possible that God planted a double meaning here, one in relation to Jesus as well? Certainly. We find the phenomenon of double interpretation often in the New Testament. However, from a contextual standpoint, the book of Daniel itself more likely points to the Maccabean crisis in Daniel 9.

In either of these cases, there is no week left over for the end times. In this interpretation, Darby went completely beyond anything the text indicates. And indeed, he saw an interpretation that apparently no Christian (or Jew) had ever seen in the passage before him for some 1800 years.

4. What about Revelation then? Does it not mention several 3.5-year periods too? ...

[1] This switching to the church is in part why Darby did not anticipate that Israel would be gathered and be reconstituted as a nation before the Tribulation. The re-establishment of Israel in 1948 thus caused some adjustment to what was by then the standard dispensational understanding.

No comments: