Friday, October 2, 2015

The Holy Spirit's 70-Year Lesson in Bible Reading

“Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. I will bring upon that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book which Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nation...for thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place’” (Jeremiah 25:8-13; 29:10).

This is the first place chronologically in Scripture where the “seventy years” are promised by the Lord for the Babylonian exile of the Jews.

As our Baptist forefathers taught, “the infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 1.9). Jeremiah’s prophecy seems very straight-forward, without any need for nuance or cleverness. However, three other inspired authors of Scripture give us three different inspired interpretations of Jeremiah’s “seventy years.” In this we learn an important lesson about biblical interpretation.

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm; He gave them all into his hand. All the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon. Then they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles. Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete. Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia - in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah - the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!”’” (2 Chronicles 36:15-23).

The Chronicler is inspired to interpret “seventy years” as the time between the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) and Cyrus’ decree (539 B.C.) – somewhere between 47-48 years. Given that the Chronicler mentions this time as that in which “the land had enjoyed its sabbaths” (36:21; in accord with the covenant curses in Leviticus 26:34,35,43), we are probably meant to understand this seventy years to be seven sabbaths (49 years). The Chronicler, as inspired of God the Holy Spirit as Jeremiah, understands the 70 years to be “literally” about 49 years, or seven sabbaths. If we truly let Scripture interpret Scripture, Jeremiah’s prophetically-uttered time period must be understood symbolically.

“Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which You have been indignant these seventy years?’ The LORD answered the angel who was speaking with me with gracious words, comforting words. So the angel who was speaking with me said to me, ‘Proclaim, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. But I am very angry with the nations who are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they furthered the disaster.’” Therefore thus says the LORD, “I will return to Jerusalem with compassion; My house will be built in it,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem”’” (Zechariah 1:12-16).

Interestingly, one of the most challenging prophets to interpret (Zechariah) seems to be inspired of God the Holy Spirit to interpret Jeremiah’s “seventy years” in what we would consider the most “literal” manner! Between the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) and the dedication of the second temple (515 B.C.), the building of which is the predominant theme of the first chapters of Zechariah, is roughly 70 years. Is Zechariah more accurate or inspired than the Chronicler? No! They are both inerrantly inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Jeremiah’s “seventy years” are meant to be understood symbolically, and the Holy Spirit’s interpretation of His own words reveal this to us clearly.

“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans - in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed...” (Daniel 9:2-4).

The prophet Daniel, after reading Jeremiah’s “seventy years” prophecy, prays a confession worthy of our reading, meditation, and memorization (9:4-19). He doesn’t seek interpretation of the prophecy, but confesses the sins of his forefathers and his own generation. He confesses that they are worthy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile – all “the curse...along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God” (9:11). After this prayer, the prophet is visited by a supernatural messenger who gives us a third inspired interpretation of the “seventy years.”

“...while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. He gave me instruction and talked with me and said, ‘O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding. At the beginning of your supplications the command was issued, and I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed; so give heed to the message and gain understanding of the vision. Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place...’” (9:21-24).

This revelation is related to Jeremiah’s “seventy years” since Gabriel says he was sent “at the beginning of [Daniel’s] supplications” (9:23), which were prompted by the reading of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s “seventy weeks,” while referring to the Babylonian exile, are now expanded to “seventy weeks” (9:24). Is there conflict between Jeremiah and Gabriel? No. Both are perfectly inspired by God the Holy Spirit. We now learn in this period of redemptive history that the promises made by the prophets concerning the return from Babylonian exile would not be immediately fulfilled after the “seventy years” (including Jeremiah’s promises concerning the “new covenant” in 31:31-34). Instead, they would be delayed until after the intertestamental period (the time between the Old and New Testaments, a major theme of the book of Daniel), until the time of “Messiah the Prince” and the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70.

One inspired prophecy (Jeremiah) and three inspired different interpretations (the Chronicler, Zechariah, and Daniel) – all given by the same Holy Spirit. Each uses the “seventy years” in a theological sense to teach the original audience (and us) something important about God’s plan for His people. The Chronicler connects the “seventy years” to the completion of the land’s sabbaths promised in the Law’s curse and Cyrus’ decree that the exiles return to that land. Zechariah connects the “seventy years” to his (and Haggai’s) great prophetic concern – the rebuilding of the temple so that the returning exiles could resume the worship mandated by the old covenant. Daniel is moved to intercession and confession by Jeremiah’s “seventy years,” and Gabriel is sent to extend the fulfillment of the return/restoration promises to the time of the beginning of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

Biblical numbers are not given to us for the primary purpose of making charts or timelines or setting dates. Biblical numbers, as the Holy Spirit teaches us in this example of the “seventy years,” themselves are symbolic and teach theological truths. This is not one redeemed sinner disagreeing with the interpretation of another (as you and I might over Gabriel's statements in Daniel 9), but four biblical writers all inspired by one God the Holy Spirit, the infinitely wise Author of all Scripture.

May we learn from this example as we come across other theologically-significant numbers in Scripture, and let the Author teach us how to read His Book, in the name of the Son ("All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, Who is Himself the focus of divine revelation," Baptist Faith & Message 2000, 1) to the glory of the Father now and forever.

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