A Vision of Desolation and Restoration - A Reflection on Daniel 9
As part of the Bible study I'm leading, we have encountered two dream sequences on the part of Daniel, which suggest patterns of historical developments. In Daniel 7, we read Daniel’s vision of the four beasts, representing four empires. In Daniel 8, we encounter the Ram and Goat (Media-Persia and Greece/Seleucid kingdoms). In both we’re reminded that despite their apparent overwhelming power, they fall short. They may attack God’s sanctuary, even invading heaven, but in the end they fall short, suffer judgment, and watch as the realm of God stands firm eternally. As we come to Daniel 9, we encounter a much different account. For one thing there are no mysterious beasts or animals that are to be interpreted in terms of kings and kingdoms. Things are pretty straightforward in that context. That doesn’t mean, however, that this is not a complex and complicated passage. Much of the same territory is covered, only that it is explored in very different terms.
We can start by noting the “historical” context. Whereas the first two visions occur while Belshazzar as king of the Babylonians/Chaldeans. When we move into chapter nine, Belshazzar has been replaced by Darius the Mede, who, we learn here is the son of Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is the king in Esther, but this isn’t the same figure. In addition, since Ahasuerus is usually translated in Greek as Xerxes, the historical Xerxes was the son of Darius I and not his father. Besides both figures lived well after the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Babylonians. Let’s just suffice it to say that this Darius is an unknown personage. Whoever he is, we’ve moved on to the next imperial period.
In this chapter, during the first year of Darius’ reign over the Chaldeans (we’re still in Babylon), Daniel is busy reading the book/scroll of Jeremiah. He’s pondering the reference to the seventy years that Jeremiah spoke of as a time of Jerusalem’s devastation. Daniel wants to know the meaning of this. While we can’t know for sure what Daniel has in mind, the most likely passage is Jeremiah 29:10: “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” What this time frame involves has always been a matter of speculation. For one thing, when does it begin? Is it the moment that Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiakim to Babylon around 605, or the first deportation in 596 or the second a decade later? What about the end point? Cyrus ended the exile about fifty years after the second deportation (538 BCE). Speculation can be interesting, but it doesn’t get us very far.
Whatever is the interpretation of the seventy years, Daniel is puzzled and seeks divine help in prayer. He approaches God with fasting, wearing sackcloth and covered with ashes. This leads to a prayer that begins in the second half of verse 4 and extends down to verse 19. The prayer is interesting because, according to the scholars, its Hebrew is of a higher grade than the surrounding text. This leads to the conclusion, which seems convincing to me, a non-specialist, that this was a set piece either added later or borrowed by the author to give words to Daniel’s prayer, perhaps like Paul apparently borrows a hymn on love to give foundation to his spiritual gifts discussion in 1Corinthians 12-14. As we engage this prayer, we might want to remember that Daniel was known to be a man of prayer. It was due to his dutiful prayers (three times a day) that he got thrown into the Lion’s Den (Daniel 5). If we give room to our imagination, perhaps this is the prayer he was offering up when, during the reign of Darius, he was arrested for praying to someone other than Darius.
The prayer is divided into two parts. Part one is a confession (verses 4b-14). Daniel acknowledges God’s greatness and that God keeps covenant and shows steadfast love to those who love God and keep the commandments. Unfortunately, Daniel confesses, the people (including himself) have sinned. They’ve turned aside from God’s commands because they haven’t listened to the prophets who spoke in God’s name to the kings, princes, ancestors, and the people of the land (see Jeremiah 44:21 for a similar list). While God is righteous, there is “open shame” on the part of the peoples of Judah, Jerusalem, and all of Israel. He speaks of all who have been driven from the Land due to their treachery (thus the exile). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God! There is good news, at least Daniel has something to hold on to: “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets” (Dan. 9:9-10). Yes, the people may have rebelled, but God is merciful and forgiving. Carol Newsom puts it this way in her commentary on Daniel:
Though the people have no claim of being in the right, they can still make an appeal based on the nature of God as a deity more disposed to gracious forgiveness and mercy than to prolonged punishment. This affirmation is at the heart of the liturgically very influential characterization of God in Exod 34:6–7, which insists that while God will not remit all punishment, God’s inclination to forgive is exponentially greater. [Newsom, Carol A. Daniel: A Commentary (The Old Testament Library) (pp. 294-295). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.].
There is hope of forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean Judah won’t suffer the consequences of its transgression of the Law (verses 11-14). The reference to curses written into the Law might take us back to Deuteronomy 28:15-69, which stipulates many curses to be visited upon those who transgress. In other words, Jerusalem’s misery is of its own making. That’s the bad news, but it’s not the end of the story.
The second portion of the prayer found in verses 15-19 is Daniel’s supplication. Daniel begins this section addressing God as the one who brought the people out of Egypt with a mighty hand, which made God’s name renowned to that very day. The Exodus was Judah’s primal story. Israel became a people as a result of the exodus. It was in the Wilderness that they received the Law. Therefore, if for no other reason than that, Daniel asks that God would turn aside from God’s anger and wrath at Jerusalem, God’s holy mountain. We might be a disgrace, he suggests, but if you let us get wiped out by our enemies that will look bad for you. There is just a bit of manipulation going on here, but Daniel (rather the one writing the prayer) knows how to use liturgy to his own benefit. If for no other reason, for God’s own sake, God should let God’s face shine on God’s desolated sanctuary, which could refer to the Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar or the Temple desecrated by Antiochus, or both. In either case, don’t let your enemies have the last laugh. Indeed, the prayer continues, by suggesting that God incline an ear toward the people and open God’s eyes to what is going on in the city. Look, if you can, and see the desolation experienced by the city that bears the name of God.
Daniel ends the prayer not by claiming that the people are deserving of God’s grace and mercy. Far from it. Daniel knows they are sinners and transgressors. However, Daniel has confidence God is merciful and will forgive. Daniel address God, declaring: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, listen and act and do not delay! For your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people bear your name!” (vs. 19). With that request, the prayer closes. Again, it is good to be reminded that the prayer is of a different quality than the surrounding text, suggesting a separate origin. In fact, it is possible to read chapter nine without the prayer, moving from verse three to verse 20 without missing a beat. Nonetheless, the prayer does give us words to hang hope upon.
In verse 20, we’re reminded that Daniel has gone to God in prayer, confessing his sins and praying for the holy mountain. Yes, Daniel is concerned about Jerusalem and the Temple, making this a different kind of text. As he prays, the “man Gabriel” appears to him. Daniel notes that he had met Gabriel before in a vision. This time Gabriel came to him during the time of the evening sacrifice (suggesting we’re now in Jerusalem after the Second Temple is built. We should note that Gabriel came to him in “swift flight,” wording that suggests the possibility that this is a winged angel (as Gabriel would later come to be pictured). We can only speculate here, but the wording is intriguing.
In response to Daniel’s prayers, Gabriel told him: “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So, consider the word and understand the vision” (Dan. 9:22-23). The message to Daniel, God loves you and wants you to understand the meaning of the passage you’re reading, even though we’ll see no evidence he shares the message with anyone.
The final four verses give Daniel and us an interpretation of Jeremiah’s reference to the seventy years of Judah’s desolation. What’s interesting here is that Gabriel doesn’t speak of seventy years, but rather seventy weeks or seventy sevens. Whenever there are numbers like this, you can imagine great interest in speculation. What does Gabriel mean here? Whatever the time frame refers to, by the end the transgression will have ended, the people will stop sinning, and eternal righteousness will have arrived. When the prophetic vision is sealed up, the holy place will be anointed—assumedly this refers to the cleansing/restoration of the Temple. If this is a second century BCE text, as we assume, then the time of cleansing will refer to the restoration of the Temple after Antiochus IV’s desecration. But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
So, how should we read these seventy weeks? The scholars are not of one mind, so I’ll give my best guess. As Carol Newsom points out in her commentary, the seventy weeks are divided into three unequal parts. First there is the seven weeks, followed by sixty-two weeks, and finally, one week. The first set of seven weeks begins when the word goes out ordering the restoration/rebuilding of Jerusalem to the time when the anointed prince arrives. We know that Cyrus gave word in around 538 BCE to the exiles, allowing them to return and start rebuilding the city and its temple. Speculation suggests that the anointed one could be Cyrus, but it could also be Zerubbabel, the Davidic descendant who was sent by Cyrus to serve as governor, or more likely it is a reference to Joshua, the High Priest, who accompanied Zerubbabel (Ezra 2-3). It was under their leadership that worship was restored in Jerusalem and the cornerstone of the Temple laid. These seven years are followed by sixty-two weeks (434 years?), during which time the streets and defensive situation was restored in the city—perhaps referring to the walls erected by Nehemiah. The time will be difficult, but the people dwell in some form of security. That is, until the time when an anointed one is cut off and no one comes to his rescue. The Hebrew is, according to the scholars, a bit difficult to translate, but the most likely candidate here is the High Priest Onias III, who is assassinated in 171 at the instigation of Menelaus, the conniving usurper, who had outbid Onius’ brother Jason for the office.
With the death of Onias III, and the rise of Menelaus in partnership with his overlord, Antiochus IV, we see the beginning of the final week. It’s during this period that the prince (Antiochus or one of his generals) or perhaps Menelaus will destroy the city and desecrate the sanctuary (Temple). Reference is made here to the end coming with a flood, and whatever is meant here, what we know is this is a time of war. In fact, while Antiochus was down in Egypt fighting, Jason started a little civil war against Menelaus, that led Antiochus to put his personal stamp on things. An interesting reference is made here to the “strong covenant” made with many that lasts a week, suggesting the partnership of Antiochus and his collaborators in undermining the religious and cultural foundations of the Jewish community in the pursuit of Hellenization. The result of this was the ending of the sacrifices and offerings in the Temple, even as the abomination of desolation is imposed on the Temple. What was placed there is not known, but whatever was done desecrated the Temple.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment and considering the message of Daniel at this point. The people of Judah resisted the forced importation of a foreign religious/cultural system that was intended to displace and destroy their own religions and cultural elements. Could we not apply this to the impact of Manifest Destiny or the Doctrine of Discovery? Could Daniel have an important word for us in a post-colonial age, when the old colonialist ideologies are being questioned?
The ending of the chapter is terse, but it does remind us that Antiochus will not succeed. Yes, for a moment he does, in part due to his collaborators, but an end will be poured out on the desolator (whether Antiochus, Menelaus, or their god – Baal Shamem). In the end, despite the challenges, God wins. God hears and sees, and acts as desired, so that the abomination doesn’t continue.
I can’t bring this to a conclusion without taking note of the attempts made down through the ages to solve the seventy weeks. I will leave things with Augustine, who had seen his share of attempts to figure out the times and seasons.
That, therefore, which the whole church of the true god holds and professes as its creed, that Christ shall come from heaven to judge quick and dead, this we call the last day, or last time, of the divine judgment. For we do not know how many days this judgment may occupy; but on one who reads the Scriptures, however, negligently, need to be told that in them “day” is customarily used for “time.” And when we speak of the day of God’s judgment, we add the word last or final for this reason, because even now God judges, and has judged from the beginning of human history, banishing from paradise, and excluding from the tree of life, those first men who perpetrated so great a sin.”
Augustine notes that in what follows in the twentieth book of the City of God, references the last judgment. [City of God, Book 20, chapter 1]. The point I want to make here is that Augustine insists that one doesn’t know how many days this will take. Apparently, at least for awhile that tamped down speculation in the west. We might not agree with all his assessments here, but there is wisdom in not trying to figure out all the numbers. At the same time, we can take from this a reminder that God is still present, with ears and eyes open. Evil may have its day, but (I realize there are no guarantees), we can take comfort and confidence in God’s persistence in pursuit of righteousness.