The Tribulation Period

Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #4)

The tribulation period is a seven-year period that Bible prophecy teaches will come upon this earth. These seven years will be unlike anything human history has ever experienced. They will be so devastating, catastrophic, and horrific that Jesus said if God didn’t bring them to a close, no one would be left alive upon the earth (Matthew 24:21-22).

As is so often the case with Bible prophecy, we must go to the book of Daniel to find the beginnings of this subject. In Daniel 9:20-27, we have the record of how the angel Gabriel came to the prophet Daniel and gave him what is known as “the prophecy of the 70 weeks.” This prophecy is without doubt one of the most important prophecies in all of scripture. The term “70 weeks” comes from the King James translation’s rendering of the passage. In the K.J.V., Gabriel says to Daniel, “Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city” (Daniel 9:24).

What we must understand, though, is that the Hebrew word that is translated in the K.J.V. as “weeks” is shabua. In Hebrew, a shabua is a unit of measure that is used to designate a collection of seven things. Just as the English language uses the word “dozen” to refer to a collection of twelve, the Hebrew language uses shabua to refer to a collection of seven. Therefore, what Gabriel literally said to Daniel was, “70 sevens are determined upon your people and upon your holy city.” As a matter of fact, this is exactly how the N.I.V. translation translates the phrase. In the same vein, the New Living Translation translates it as “seventy sets of seven.” Furthermore, since the context for the entire chapter involves years of Jewish history (Daniel 9:2), these “sets of seven” obviously refer to years of Jewish history. Putting it simply, Gabriel told Daniel about a 490-year period involving the Jewish people.

Now, Gabriel got very specific as to when this period would begin. It would begin with “the issuing of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:25, N.I.V.). Keep in mind that as Gabriel was speaking to Daniel, Daniel and his fellow Jews were living in Babylon as exiles from their homeland. The Babylonians had been responsible for that exile and the destruction of Jerusalem, but now a new world power had arisen and defeated the Babylonians. That new world power was Medo-Persia (an alliance between the Medes and the Persians). Even though Daniel didn’t know it as Gabriel was speaking to him, the Medo-Persians would deal kindly with the Jewish exiles in Babylon by allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.

As for identifying the specific decree that Gabriel had in mind, there were three separate Medo-Persian decrees that involved the Jews returning to Jerusalem. First, in 538 B.C. Persia’s Cyrus the Great issued a decree that authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple. The Bible mentions this decree in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-4, and Isaiah 44:28. Second, in 517 B.C. Darius the Mede issued a decree that basically just reaffirmed the previous decree that Cyrus had made concerning the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple. The Bible records this decree in Ezra 6:1-12. Third, in 445 B.C. the Persian ruler Artaxerxes Longimanus issued a decree that allowed for the rebuilding of the wall that surrounded Jerusalem. The Bible’s account of this decree is found in Nehemiah 2:1-10.

So, which of these three future decrees did Gabriel have in mind as the starting point for the 490-year period? Most prophecy experts identify the third decree, the one from Artaxerxes Longimanus in 445 B.C., as the beginning of Gabriel’s prophetic word. This makes sense because this decree is the only one of the three that deals with the restoration and rebuilding of the actual city of Jerusalem. The first two merely involved the rebuilding of the temple. If you need more specificity on the date for that third decree, scholars tell us it was given on March 14, 445 B.C.

Continuing on now with specifics of the prophecy, Gabriel told Daniel that the 490-year period would be divided into three parts. Part #1 would consist of 7 “weeks” (49 years), and by the end of those years Jerusalem’s wall and street would be rebuilt (Daniel 9:25). Part #2 would consist of 62 “weeks” (434 years), and at the end of those years the Messiah would be “cut off” (Daniel 9:26). Part #3 of the prophecy would consist of the last “week” (7 years) of the 490 years, and as a part of it an unnamed person referred to as “he” would “confirm a covenant with many for one week (7 years)” (Daniel 9:27).

By the way, as we are interpreting the years of this prophecy, we should understand that a year on the Jewish calendar was 360 days, not the 365 that we Gentiles know so well. For example, the Bible says that the flood of Noah began on the 17th day of the second month (Genesis 7:11) and ended on the 17th day of the seventh month (Genesis 8:4). That’s five months, right? However, it also says that the waters decreased at the end of the 150 days (Genesis 8:3). And what’s 150 days divided by five months? 30 days per month. In terms of prophecy, we see this same thing in Revelation 11:2-3, where 42 months equates to 1,260 days, which again equals 30 days per month.

Okay, so now we are ready to start putting all this together. Actually, we don’t have to because it’s already been done for us. More than a century ago Sir Robert Anderson wrote a book entitled The Coming Prince, and in that book he painstakingly worked out the specifics of “the prophecy of the 70 weeks” as follows:

  1. March 14, 445 B.C.: The 490-year prophetic period begins with the issuing of the decree from Artaxerxes Longimanus concerning the restoring and building of Jerusalem.
  2. The prophecy’s first 49-year period (7 “weeks”) + the second 434-year period (62 “weeks”) = 483 years (69 “weeks”).
  3.  483 years at 360 days per year = 173,800 days
  4. Beginning at March 14, 445 B.C. and counting 173,800 days forward brings you to April 6, A.D. 32.
  5. According to Anderson, April 6, A.D. 32 was the day that Jesus rode that donkey into Jerusalem in what is known as His triumphal entry. That entry was Jesus publicly and dramatically fulfilling the Messianic prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:1-11, Luke 19:28-40). This was the “Palm Sunday” before Christ’s resurrection the following Sunday. However, the Jewish religious leaders hated Jesus, ignored His claim to be Messiah, and began plotting all the more to have Him killed. This they accomplished a few days later by persuading the Romans to crucify Him. All this fulfilled Gabriel’s prophetic word that the Messiah would be “cut off” at that time.

Is Anderson’s well known and often used interpretation and computation correct? It certainly could be. Even if it’s off a few days, a few years, or in some other way, it at least offers us a good example of how “the 70 weeks prophecy” might hash itself out in time and history. One thing is for sure: God knows all the relevant dates, actions, and outworkings of the prophecy, and He’s the one keeping score. That’s why we don’t have to obsess over every last detail and date. All we have to do is trust Him and know that the future is in His capable hands.

But there is one thing that we really need to understand today about “the prophecy of the 70 weeks.” Once Jesus was “cut off,” the clock on the prophecy stopped ticking, and it hasn’t started ticking again yet even though some 2,000 years have now passed. You see, Gabriel didn’t tell Daniel about the church age, which began after Christ’s resurrection on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-39) and runs until the moment of the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 1 Corinthians 15:51-53). Gabriel didn’t explain the church age to Daniel because “the prophecy of the 70 weeks” is all about the Jewish people, Jerusalem, and the Jewish temple. For that matter, the church age isn’t mentioned anywhere in the entire Old Testament. The church age exists between the end of the 69th “week” of Gabriel’s prophecy and the beginning of the 70th “week.”

And just when will that 70th “week” begin? That’s an answer that Gabriel did give Daniel, even though Daniel couldn’t have possibly understood it all in his time. Gabriel said, “And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city (the rebuilt Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (the rebuilt temple) (Daniel 9:26). The “prince who is to come” is a reference to the Antichrist (and I’ll talk about him more in a later post), and the people who destroyed the rebuilt Jerusalem and the rebuilt temple were the Romans in 70 A.D. approximately 40 years after Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. This means that the Antichrist will rise to world power from a revived Roman empire. Once he is in power, he will “confirm a covenant (treaty) with many for one “week” (seven years) only to break that covenant midweek (three and a half years into it) (Daniel 9:27). And what other name do those seven years of that last “week” go by? The tribulation period. The seven-year tribulation period is the 70th “week” of “the prophecy of the 70 weeks.”

As I begin to close, let me describe what’s going to happen at some point in the future. The Antichrist, who will have risen to power from an end-times Roman empire, will sign a seven-year treaty with the nation of Israel. Many believe that, as a part of this treaty, provisions will be made that will allow the Jews to build a new temple in Jerusalem. This belief might hold true, but I’m not ready to teach it as absolute, undeniable fact. What I will say with total certainty is that the moment the Antichrist puts pen to paper and signs the treaty with Israel, the old clock on “the prophecy of the 70 weeks” will start ticking again.

First and foremost, those last seven years will have to do with God’s dealings with Israel. That won’t mean, though, that the Gentiles on earth at that time won’t also come under the sway of what God unleashes. You can read about it all in Revelation chapters 6 through 19, Mark 13:3-37, Matthew 24:3-51, Luke 21:7-36, Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39, and various other passages. Trust me, it won’t be a time for the faint of heart.

But will Christians be on the earth to experience it? Ah, that’s an excellent question, one that I’ll answer in my next post. So, until then, keep sorting all this information out for yourself and take the time to study all these passages. Even though it’s unlikely that the angel Gabriel will ever pay you a personal visit, if you own a Bible you have even more prophetic light to work with than Daniel did.

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