by André Reis, Ph.D. | 4 October 2019 |
This commentary is occasioned by the introduction of a new Sabbath School quarterly about Ezra and Nehemiah. The first lesson in the quarterly deals with the events surrounding the completion of the reconstruction of Jerusalem and its temple after the Babylon exile under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.
This presentation presents thorny issues for Adventist theology, because the validity of the traditional Adventist interpretation of the 70 weeks of Daniel 9—championed by the quarterly and its editor—depends on Artaxerxes’ decree in 457 BCE as the starting point of this time period, leaping forward to 31 CE and ending in 1844.
Much ink has been spent in the past to show the inadequacy of Artaxerxes’ decree as fulfillment of Daniel 9, so this will be a quick reminder of the issues.
The quarterly says: “Cyrus issued a decree about 538 b.c., freeing up God’s people to return to their country and to rebuild the temple. It was God (not Cyrus) who spoke regarding Jerusalem: “‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’” (Isa. 44:28, NIV).” (Sat, Sep 30, teacher’s edition). “By his decree, which commands the restoration of Jerusalem and not just of the temple, King Artaxerxes fulfills the 70-week prophecy in Daniel 9:25. Year 457 b.c. is the starting point of the 70 weeks that are ‘cut off’ from the 2,300 day/year prophecy, thus making both periods begin that same year” (p. 17, teacher’s edition).
There are several items to unpack in these statements.
Implicit in the lesson is the idea that Cyrus’ decree only allowed the Jews to return and rebuild the temple proper, but not Jerusalem. This disclaimer is important, because if Cyrus did indeed order the rebuilding of both the temple as well as Jerusalem, then it shows that his decree must have been the one that is in view in Daniel 9:25: “ Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word [dabar] went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time” (NRSV).
Several arguments point to Cyrus’s decree as the one fulfilling this prediction:
- Daniel has learned from “the books,” that is, “the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah” (Jer 25:8–14; 29:10) and Isaiah about the end of the Babylonian captivity by Cyrus.
- Under the rulership of Darius over the Chaldeans (most likely an underling of Cyrus in ca. 538 BCE), Daniel perceives that the end of the 70 years is fast approaching.
- Daniel prays for the fulfillment of this promise (Dan 9:3–19), especially because Cyrus, God’s “anointed one” (Heb. hamaschiach, “messiah”; Isa 45:1) is now ruling over Babylon.
- Gabriel comes and explains that God heard Daniel’s prayer and that a “dabar” (9:23), lit. “word” had gone out. He is then told to consider this “dabar,” which is again repeated in 9:25: “Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word [dabar] went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem…” which indicates this ‘dabar’ is probably one and the same. This leads us to the next point:
- This dabar (word, decree) is contemporaneous with Daniel: he was told to “know and understand” the “word” and the time period that it triggered. While Daniel was contemporaneous with Cyrus’s decree, he was long dead at the time of Artaxerxes, nearly one century later.
The quarterly curiously concludes that the decree is that of Artaxerxes in 457 BCE, when Jerusalem began to be rebuilt, not before (p. 14, teachers’ edition). Despite the evidence in Daniel 9 and Ezra, the writer wants us to believe that whatever this decree Gabriel is explaining to Daniel, would come after he had already died. In other words, somehow Jerusalem lay unsettled for over 80 years even after the temple was already in operation!
But the decree of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:14–26 says nothing about rebuilding the temple or Jerusalem. To the contrary, it assumes that the city had now been successfully settled and was now ready to be properly governed (Ezra 7:25).
Further, to dismiss the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Cyrus’s decree creates severe challenges:
- It annuls the contextual evidence from Daniel 9;
- It negates Isaiah’s prophecy that Cyrus would command both temple and city be rebuilt;
- The temple and Jerusalem are often spoken of as a unit, both by Isaiah 44:28 and Daniel (9:16–18, 26), the temple had been finished around 516 b.c.;
- It is illogical: the temple was not being built in the middle of nowhere, it was being built in Jerusalem! It seems obvious that the temple’s reconstruction presupposes that the city was being resettled and rebuilt alongside it, with houses for the builders and a new wall. In fact, this what we read in Ezra the Jews were already rebuilding Jerusalem shortly after they left Babylon: “The priests, the Levites, and some of the people lived in Jerusalem and its vicinity; and the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all Israel in their towns” (Ezra 2:70). Ultimately, the decree of Dan 9 to rebuild Jerusalem had to do with the restoration of the Jewish people, not with how many buildings would be erected.
We read Cyrus’s decree in 2 Chronicles 36:22–23: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up” (see Ezra 1:2–4).
As further evidence of Cyrus’s decree, we can enlist the help of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who describes Cyrus’s decree as including both. In a letter to Sisinnes and Shethar-Bozenai (cf. Ezra 5:3), Cyrus writes:
I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem, on the same place where it was before. I have also sent my treasurer, Mithridates, and Zorobabel, the governor of the Jews, that they may lay the foundations of the temple, and may build it sixty cubits high, and of the same latitude, making three edifices of polished stones, and one of the wood of the country, and the same order extends to the altar whereon they offer sacrifices to God. I require also, that the expenses for these things may be given out of my revenues. Moreover, I have also sent the vessels which king Nebuchadnezzar pillaged out of the temple, and have given them to Mithridates the treasurer, and to Zorobabel the governor of the Jews, that they may have them carried to Jerusalem, and may restore them to the temple of God.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 11:1:3).
Further, in order to deny that Cyrus’s decree did fulfill Daniel 9’s prophecy, the quarterly proposes a problematic reading of Isaiah 44:28: “It was God (not Cyrus) who spoke regarding Jerusalem: “ ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’”. This reading is questionable because it capitalizes on ambiguous pronoun antecedents in a passage describing both what God says/does and what Cyrus says/does. While the Hebrew grammar alone does not decide the question, taking the command to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple as something that Cyrus will do and will say is a far more natural reading of the passage in its context, as translated by several Bible versions: “[God] who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he [Cyrus] will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid’ ” NIV; cf. NLT: “… He will command, ‘Rebuild Jerusalem’; he will say, ‘Restore the Temple’”; NJPS: “He shall say of Jerusalem: “She shall be rebuilt…”). Here again, the SS lesson opts for the least natural reading in order to support their interpretative agenda.
As to the statement that Artaxerxes’s decree in 457 BCE “fulfills the 70-week prophecy in Daniel 9:25” (p. 17, teachers edition), I will say that this, again, is not the most natural reading of Daniel 9 in its context, because, among other things, the prophet, who was told by Gabriel to know, consider and understand the vision of the 70 weeks and to compute its beginning from a current decree, had been long dead in 457 BCE. I see that lesson #3 will flesh out the traditional Adventist reading of Daniel, no doubt in preparation for next quarter’s lesson on Daniel, so an analysis of this interpretation could be reserved for a later commentary.
Lastly, the question that often emerges about Cyrus’s decree: What do we make of the prophecy of the 70 weeks/490 years if Cyrus’s decree in 538 BCE starts too early to fulfill the coming of Jesus?
As elucidated by modern Bible translations, Daniel 9:25, in fact, does not reveal that “the Messiah, the Prince”, i.e., “Jesus” comes after 69 weeks but rather after 7 weeks. The problem is that the King James Version––on which Miller and the SDA pioneers constructed their interpretative system––as does the newer NKJV, mistranslate, the verse in several ways: “from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks” implying that the 69 weeks are sequential. Compare this with the superior translation of the NRSV: “from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time”; and the NJPS: “from the issuance of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the [time of the] anointed leader is seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it will be rebuilt, square and moat, but in a time of distress.” Further, the Hebrew does not speak of but “an anointed one, a prince” (indefinite article) which would come after the initial 7 weeks, a mere 49 years.
Further, Daniel 9:26 does not use the definite article for this “anointed one”: “After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary…”(NRSV). This “anointed one” which appears after 62 weeks is clearly not the same “anointed one” that appears after the first 7 weeks. Then we read in v. 27: “He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator”“(Dan 9:27). The initial pronoun “he” refers to the coming prince who destroys the city and the sanctuary and makes an alliance with many for a week, not the “anointed” one who had already been removed (“shall have nothing”)! This evil prince who makes such an alliance for one week is the same “little horn” that removes the daily sacrifice and in its place puts “the transgression that makes desolate” in the sanctuary in Dan 8:13.
As Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary assistant editor Raymond Cottrell explained it: “The KJV rendering ‘seven weeks, and three score and two weeks’ in 9:25, implying a total of sixty-nine ‘weeks’ between ‘the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem’ and the coming of its ‘Messiah the Prince,’ grossly misrepresents the Hebrew syntax of verse 25.”[i] (Cottrell’s article linked below is a must read). These errors alone have misled generations of interpreters to see this verse as predicting “with amazing accuracy, the ministry of Jesus” (Sabbath School lesson, Oct 14), despite the fact that the Hebrew text simply cannot support this interpretation.
As I’ve argued in the past the problem for the Adventist interpretation of these apocalyptic prophecies and their time periods is that, in general, it is not based on the most natural reading of the text in its context. On the contrary, it often requires the most unnnatural and convoluted readings, often based on the flimsiest textual evidence and requiring massive external presuppositions, such as using the “year-day principle,” KJV-only translations and Ellen White interpretative infallibility. Thus, instead of making Scripture clearer, it complicates it in order to then highlight the Adventist solution to these “secret” oracles.
––André Reis, Ph.D., has degrees in theology, music and has recently completed a PhD in New Testament studies at Avondale College.