Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 25: Conditional Prophecy in Daniel

The Olivet prophecy quotes and alludes to various parts of Daniel's prophecy, and yet the Olivet prophecy's intended fulfilment in AD70 didn't happen as was potentially possible, and was rescheduled. This therefore implies that Daniel's prophecies, which are alluded to, are thereby capable of a similar more elastic fulfilment. And looking in more detail at Daniel, this does indeed seem to be the case. Daniel prophesied whilst Judah were in captivity, and the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are full of potential prophecies of how the Messianic Kingdom could have been established at Judah's return after 70 years in Babylon. Ezekiel's conditional prophecy of the temple system is a parade example, although this was more commandment than prediction. I have discussed this in great detail in The Exiles. I suggest that like the Olivet prophecy, the prophecies of Daniel were an outline of a potential schema of events that could have taken place, leading up to the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom. But due to Judah's overall preference to remain in Babylon, and the lethargy of those who did return, that schema was rescheduled and was given a longer term application over history, culminating in the events of [our?] last days and the final, inexorable establishment of the Messianic Kingdom on earth.
As is well established, Daniel's prophecies are interrelated. The metals of the opening vision in Daniel 2 develop into the beasts of Daniel 7, and the other prophecies give more details of potential fulfilments and developments of the beast systems, culminating in the war between the Kings of the North and South and the final revelation of Israel's triumphant Messiah and the resurrection in Daniel 12. The sequence of metals in the image of Daniel 2 speak primarily of four kings, each having a king-dom, a dominion over which they reigned. And they all form part of the image of an individual man. Nebuchadnezzar personally, rather than the Babylonian empire, was represented by the head of gold (Dan. 2:38). The ten toes of the image represent “kings” (Dan. 2:44 “in the days of these kings”). The prophecy started to be fulfilled- for in Daniel’s lifetime, the head of gold, Nebuchadnezzar’s dynasty, gave way to Darius the Mede (Dan. 5:31), and still in Daniel’s lifetime, to Cyrus the Persian (Dan. 6:31). But even that sequence need not have happened the way it did if Nebuchadnezzar had repented more quickly; if he had, there would have been a “lengthening of your tranquillity” (Dan. 4:27). If he had, perhaps the next metal of the image would have followed him directly, rather than following his son. The time period intended for him could have been changed. The same word translated “lengthening” occurs only again in Dan. 7:12, where we read that the beasts had their “lives prolonged for a season and time”. Their intended time periods were added to. The setting up of God’s Kingdom on the earth / land of Israel was exactly what had been prophesied in Jeremiah and Ezekiel as happening once the captivity in Babylon had ended; at that time, the stone could have hit the earth and destroyed the situation envisaged in the image of Daniel 2. But this intended sequence of four kings followed by ten kings didn’t come about as intended. That captivity was intended to last for 70 years, but in reality it lasted longer- hence Daniel’s confusion and pleading with God in Daniel 10 to do what He had promised. And yet his prayer of Daniel 9 suggests that he realized Judah’s sins were such, and their lack of real repentance in Babylon was such, that the restoration program had been delayed. His response to understanding the 70 year period is to pray to God admitting Israel have sinned and are still impenitent- as if he realized this was why the period had been extended (Dan. 9:2,3). In Dan. 9:19 he asks for God to forgive, to accept his repentance on Judah’s behalf, and therefore not to “defer” or delay any longer. Clearly he saw that the intended 70 year period had been extended, because Israel had not repented as required. It seems to me that this was the same reason for the ‘delay’ in Christ’s second coming; the bridegroom does indeed “delay”, the same word translated “tarried” (Mt. 24:48; 25:5). It didn’t happen in the first century as planned but was delayed, just as the coming of the Messianic Kingdom was delayed in Old Testament times.
The beasts of Daniel 7 are based upon the four metals of the image in Daniel 2, with the feet and ten toes of iron and clay matched by the horns upon the fourth beast. The first beast was given a man’s heart and stood up looking like a man, showing it represented a personal king (Dan. 7:4). Dan. 7:9 speaks of how “the thrones were cast down” and then the last judgment sat. The beasts are therefore kings or “thrones”; their casting down is the same as the smashing of the metals of the image. My point is that the beasts were initially intended to be seen as kings, individuals rather than empires. Dan. 7:17 is clear: “These great beasts, which are four, are four kings which shall arise out of the earth / land”. Likewise “the ten horns… are ten kings” (Dan. 7:24). We are so familiar with the rescheduled, long term application of the prophecies, rolling through the empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, that we can overlook the simple fact that the intended fulfilment was in a swift succession of kings after Nebuchadnezzar which would conclude with the return from exile and the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom upon the ruins of the Babylonian kings. When it became clear that there would be some delay, Daniel was given the vision of Daniel 8, in which another version of the horns on the fourth beast was given. In this vision, a ram with a great horn spawned four leaders, out of whom came another horn, which persecuted Israel and defiled the sanctuary for 2,300 days, placing the desolating abomination (Dan. 8:13). This time period has now obvious fulfilment. But this very verse is quoted by the Lord Jesus in the Olivet prophecy; and clearly it has the capacity for various potential fulfilments which can be rescheduled if human repentance and response is inadequate. Dan. 8:20-22 says that the two horns on the goat represented the kings of Media and Persia- both of whom Daniel served under (Dan. 5:31; 6:31). After them, four kings could have arisen, followed by a charismatic leader who would conflict with “the prince of princes” [Messiah] and be “broken without hand” (Dan. 8:25) just as the little stone cut out without hands would destroy the image of Daniel 2. Such a situation could have happened in Daniel’s time, or at least in the time of Alexander the Great. But it didn’t. Firstly, in Daniel 2, he saw a succession of four kings. But then, after the second king, he has a vision of another four kings needing to arise; in other words, another element has been added to the sequence, delaying the fulfilment somewhat. Daniel’s response was feeling depressed (Dan. 8:27)- because obviously he wanted the fulfilment as soon as possible.
In Daniel 9, Daniel pleads for the prophecy of restoration to be fulfilled, recognizing that the 70 year period had been extended; he is recorded as repenting on behalf of Judah, and asking that God will not further delay the fulfilment (Dan. 9:19). The answer is the prophecy of the 70 weeks. This could mean that 70 weeks were going to be added to the 70 years. This could have meant a literal 70 weeks from the time of Daniel’s prayer, or the seventy sevens could be a total of 490 day / years. Despite many ingenious attempts, there is no persuasive interpretation of the 70 weeks prophecy. It could be that it is a series of potential possibilities; seven literal weeks from the commandment to restore Jerusalem unto Messiah, and then 62 weeks from Messiah’s coming to His ‘cutting off’. But then the prophecy speaks of how the city and sanctuary would again be destroyed and the destroyer then himself destroyed. This would’ve been most discouraging for Daniel, who was expecting and hoping for the immediate restitution of the temple.
Then in Daniel 10, Daniel was told that the appointed time had been made longer (Dan. 10:1 Heb.). This was in the third year of Cyrus, when according to the earlier prophecies, Daniel was looking for a new king to arise (Daniel 2), or four kings (according to the sequence of Dan. 8). Seeing Daniel had lived through the reigns of at least three kings, he likely expected the reign of these kings to be very brief, so that he might see the coming of the restored Kingdom. But now he is told that the time period has been extended. No wonder Daniel mourned this vision for three weeks (Dan. 10:2). Daniel then symbolically dies and resurrects; the comfort being that he would ultimately be resurrected to the life eternal, but the sadness being that he must die because “the vision [i.e. its fulfilment] is still for many days” (Dan. 10:14). His praying and weeping for those three weeks had not brought about a reverting of the time period back to that originally planned- it was yet or still for many days. In the spirit of Moses, Daniel had tried to change God’s will. All we learn at least from this is that prophetic time periods are open to change. The Olivet prophecy speaks of how “the days”, and the context suggests the ‘days’ of Daniel’s prophecies were in view, will have to be shortened otherwise even the elect will fall away (Mt. 24:22). Dan. 11:2 went on to explain to Daniel that now another series of four kings was envisaged, this time all Persian kings, in contrast to the idea of four Greek kings arising in Daniel 8; and this would culminate in two leading kings, of the North and South, who would have a series of conflicts climaxing in the temple being captured again, and conflict with Messiah leading to the resurrection (Dan. 11:40-12:2). This scenario also didn’t happen- and it would explain why no very credible interpretation has been found for Daniel 11. When we read allusions to these prophecies in the Olivet prophecy, and perceive that the Lord had in mind fulfilling them in the first century but later rescheduled that, we must remember that those prophecies had already had various potential fulfilments which had not worked out because of the lack of repentance within Israel. This is the all important sign of fruit on the fig tree, and an encouragement to give highest priority to preaching to Israel.
Daniel’s response is to ask “How long to the end of these things?” (Dan. 12:8 Heb.). He’s given various time periods of days, but told that these do not concern him, for he is to fall asleep in death, and then stand again “at the end of the days” (Dan. 12:13), however many they were, whether shortened or extended, “the end” would come all the same, and he would be resurrected then. And this is the great comfort to all of us as we reflect whether we will live to see the Lord’s coming or not.