Think beyond the annual cycle of Christmas preparations and associated hoopla. This event was foreshadowed in history, even at the dawn of human history – but in ways you will miss if you dial in only on the frequency emitted by society.
You can see this fore-telling by looking in the (seemingly) most unlikely of places – the dialogue between Jesus and the devil in his wilderness temptation. See how this starts us on a trail leading to the dawn of history, taking your Christmas to a whole new level.
We are now in the time of year where the stores are full of costumes of the dead, of spirits, of witches and the like. Yes, Halloween is coming and for many it’s the time to have cheeky fun at parties with role-plays or costumes of skeletons coming to life, or dead bodies walking around, all in good fun. Michael Jackson’s Thriller will be played, watched and danced to around the globe, because it’s perfect for Halloween.
But long before Thriller was conceived, and even long before Halloween itself was celebrated, an eccentric man penned some vivid images that fit perfectly for Halloween of today. One can’t help but wonder if Michael Jackson had not read these lines as he choreographed Thriller – yet they were written about 2500 years ago!
The Valley of Dry Bones (with skeletons and corpses too)
This eccentric man was given a tour in a valley ‘filled with bones’. Read how he described it:
… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.
A man whisked away to a valley full of bones which start to rattle and hum as they join together forming skeletons … and then dead flesh and skin starts to envelope the lifeless skeletons so that they become corpses. Then the wind blows wildly from all directions and the bodies all come to life and they stand up to become a great army.
This sounds like a script from a horror movie ready to open up at Halloween!
The Valley of Dry Bones – the Eternal Spirit’s prophetic message through Ezekiel
But the man who wrote this script was not interested in sending shivers down our spines. He was engaged in something much more serious. He claimed that this script was a message from God Himself. And remarkably, the events of history have played out such that this message was meant for us who are living today! How so?
The man in question is Ezekiel who lived ca. 550 BC and along with this vision (from Ezekiel 37 – read complete chapter here) he explicitly provided its meaning. He wrote:
Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken!’”
… I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered. I will unify them into one nation on the mountains of Israel. One king will rule them all; no longer will they be divided into two nations or into two kingdoms. They will never again pollute themselves with their idols and vile images and rebellion, for I will save them from their sinful backsliding. I will cleanse them. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 37:11-23)
In other words these bones that Ezekiel saw in a vision 2500 years ago represented the Jewish people. This is not my interpretation – Ezekiel explicitly said so himself. When Ezekiel wrote these words the Jews had previously been divided into two political nations but had now gone into exile to Babylon as a conquered and ruined people. Just as every bone, by definition, has previously been a living organ in a living body, but is now ‘dead’, the Jews of that day saw themselves as formerly alive but now ‘dead bones’. Then Ezekiel had this vision of their eventual return to life. The Jews in his day did return from the Babylonian exile a few decades after his vision, but he was not writing of that since it was a return only from Babylon, and they returned only as a province dominated within a vast Empire. They did not come alive as a nation.
The Return of the Jews
In his vision Ezekiel foresaw a return from the ‘nations’ and ‘places where they had been scattered’ back to that same land that they had been ejected from, where they would be ‘one nation’ with their own ‘king’ or ruler. That did not happen until thousands of years later when the modern state of Israel was forged from a United Nations resolution in 1948. Only then did the Jews finally get a self-governing nation with their own ruler. In the intervening decades Jews have literally been returning (which they call aliyah) from ‘nations’ all over the world where they have lived since being sent into their second exile beginning when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. Since 1948 more than 3 million Jews from over 90 countries (which is almost half of all the countries in the world) have arrived in Israel. For a nation of 7 million people, having 40% of the population immigrate from almost half the countries of our globe in the span of 65 years, after an exile of 1900 years, is nothing short of remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that Ezekiel ‘saw’ it in his vision 2500 years ago.
The Return – in context of Jewish History
The timeline below showing the last 3500 years of Jewish history illustrates this. Starting from the time of Moses the Jews have alternated between three different national dispensations indicated by the different color coding.
In the yellow periods, the Jews lived in the land promised to Abraham, but were not self-ruled from Jerusalem, their traditional capital. The first yellow period, that of the Judges, saw the Jewish people live independent from foreign powers, but without centralized rule, and with no Jerusalem.
This was followed by the green period, the golden age of Jewish history, where the dynasty of kings descending from David ruled from Jerusalem. But this ended in disaster when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jews into exile in Babylon – the first red period. This is the time that Ezekiel lived (as well as Jeremiah and Daniel), and the time when the Jewish people saw themselves as ‘dead bones’. Though they did return after a 70 year exile, they were not self-ruled from an independent Jerusalem. Rather they were provinces dominated within the successive Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. They were back to ‘yellow’.
This continued for over 500 years and ended when the Jews revolted against Roman rule but lost the revolt. Jerusalem was once again burned and destroyed, and the Romans this time exiled the survivors across the many nations in the larger Roman world. They were back to ‘red’ and they lived this way for almost 1900 years.
‘Dead Bones’ Coming Alive in Front of our Eyes
Until our day! With the re-birth in 1948 the dead bones started to rattle together into skeletons. With the subsequent gain of Jerusalem in 1967 as their capital, flesh and skin started to envelope the skeletons. And now every year thousands of Jews are returning from all the nations around the world. They are returning and making deserts bloom into lush farmland; they are returning and rebuilding ruined cities; they are learning Hebrew their ancient tongue; and more and more are considering again their ancient God revealed in the Hebrew Old Testament as Elohim and as YHWH. We can see the dead zombie coming back to life in front of our eyes, in the stages envisioned by Ezekiel those thousands of years ago. And just like Ezekiel described, it is happening with all the confusion, splitting and dividing between peoples, like the violence caused by the rushing of the ‘four winds’ of the compass. If you doubt me, just listen to the world news.
Isaiah predicts the Jewish renaissance too
It was not just Ezekiel who predicted this. Another Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, about two hundred years before Ezekiel saw that same day when (as he put it):
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to bring back the remnant of his people— those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt; in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam; in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands.
He will raise a flag among the nations and assemble the exiles of Israel. He will gather the scattered people of Judah from the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 11:12-13)
Notice how Isaiah (see where he sits on the timeline) saw past the first time the remnant of exiles came back (the end of the first short red period) and predicted specifically of a second time when the remnants would be regathered “from the end of the earth”. He saw the end of the second ‘red’ period – the very period in which you and I are now living and can see unfolding with our own eyes.
So how did Ezekiel and Isaiah foresee this so spot on? How did Isaiah even know there was going to be a ‘second’ regathering? How could they foreknow that the Jewish people would survive as a distinct people group while living as exiles in these nations around the world? After all, I see here in Canada how the many immigrants lose their ethnic and language identity after only about three generations. The Jews kept theirs for millennia. Against those odds, the promise of an enduring people which was given to Abraham should long ago have been snuffed out.
Perhaps it really is true that this Elohim or YHWH, who, according to Ezekiel, gave this vision of dry bones, really is there, watching, working, and willing that things will unfold as He promised, even as it seems so impossible. The thought that that Spirit may really be working in our midst in just this way is almost spooky.
Sam Harris objects
But some of those who have reflected on this are unconvinced. Prominent among them is Sam Harris. Here is how he phrases his objection:
“But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as ‘In the latter half of the 20th century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the internet” The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.” Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. p.60
Harris derides the prophetic foretelling in the Bible as being merely coincidental. In his view, if you ‘predict’ something vague enough (regathering of Jews to Abraham’s Promised Land), eventually it will happen. He would be impressed if Ezekiel had predicted by timing it in the 20th century and linked that prediction back to Leviticus. That would be a Sign of Real Omniscience!
Unfortunately for Harris, he has not done his homework. Because Ezekiel, in another really bizarre setting, does make a timing prediction – to the 20th century – and, almost as if there is some Divine humor in addressing Harris’s taunt, links it back to … you guessed it – Leviticus. How? What kind of timing? We pick it up in a later post, and when you see it, it’ll send a shiver down your spine better than any scary Halloween spectacle can.
We have been exploring the Branch theme that extends through the writings of several of the Old Testament prophets. We saw that Jeremiah in 600 BC had picked up the theme begun by Isaiah 150 years earlier in declaring that this Branch would be a King. In our previous post we saw that Zechariah, following from Jeremiah predicted that this Branch would be named Jesus and that he would combine the roles of King and Priest into one – something that had never occurred previously in Israelite history.
Daniel’s riddle of the scheduled arrival of the Anointed One
But it did not end there. Daniel, sandwiched in time between Jeremiah and Zechariah, directly picked up the title of ‘Anointed One’ (which we saw here = ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah), at the same time alluding to the Branch theme in a fascinating riddle that predicted when the Messiah would be revealed. Around 538 BC he wrote the following:
“From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. … After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:25-26)
Since Anointed One = Christ = Messiah, as we saw here, we know that Daniel was writing about the coming Christ. Daniel specifies a start time (“issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”) and a specific time interval (“seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’”) which will culminate in the revealing of the Christ (= Anointed One) who will then mysteriously be ‘cut off’. The overall structure of this prediction seems clear enough. But can we understand the specifics so that we can actually track this revealing of the Christ? Let’s begin by looking at what triggered the ticking of this prophetic clock.
The Issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem
About 100 years after Daniel, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes. As such he was a man who had access to the very highest power in the Persian Empire. In that context he asks for and receives a royal decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Here is how he states it.
In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes… I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’…
7 I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors …”. [And] the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors … and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. (Nehemiah 2:1-9)
So here we see a royal decree, backed with letters and the military of the Persian Empire to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. Since the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes is known in secular history, and since this decree specifies the start of this period in terms of Artaxerxes’ reign (20th year of reign in the month of Nisan), we can determine when this was. Artaxerxes ascended to the Persian throne immediately after the death of his father Xerxes in December 465 BC. (1) and since this decree was issued in Nisan 1 (March/April) of his 20th year this would put the issuing of the decree at March 5, 444 BC (1).
Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’
But what are these ‘sevens’ that Daniel was using to track the passing of time? In the Law of Moses there was a cycle of seven years whereby the land was to be rested from agricultural cultivation every seventh year. It was stated in the following way
When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. (Leviticus 25:2-3)
The context of Daniel’s statement is ‘years’, and using this line of reasoning, by ‘sevens’ he is writing along these cycles of seven years. In that case the Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’ can be stated arithmetically as (7+62) * 7 = 483 years.
A 360-Day year
Complicating things somewhat is the length of year used. Today we use the solar year (=365.24219879 days per year) because we can precisely measure the revolution of the earth around the sun. In those days it was common to base the year from revolutions of the moon (as the Islamic calendar does still today) giving 354 days/year or by using 12 30-day months giving 360 days per year. In all cases there is some adjusting done to ‘fix up’ the differences in revolutions. (In our Western calendar we use the leap year – 366 days – to adjust for the fractional day, with some leap years being skipped.) In ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek civilizations a 360 day calendar was common. This seems to be the basis for these years in Daniel. Further reasons for using a 360 day year are given here.
The Scheduled Arrival of the Christ
With this background information it is now fairly simple to calculate when the Christ was to arrive as per Daniel’s riddle. 483 years with 360 days/year will give us:
483 years * 360 days/year = 173 880 days
In terms of our Western calendar this would give us 476 solar years with 25 days left over. (173 880/365.24219879 = 476 with 25 as remainder)
The start point for this calculation was Artaxerxes’ decree which was issued on March 5, 444 BC. Adding 476 solar years to this date brings us to March 5, 33 AD. (There is no year 0, the calendar going from 1BC to 1 AD in one year so arithmetically it is -444 + 476 +1= 33).
If we now take the 25 remaining days and add them to March 5, 33 AD we come to March 30, 33 AD, illustrated in the timeline below. Or as Hoehner (whose calculations I have been following) states
“By adding 25 days to March 5 (444 BC) one comes to March 30 (33 AD), which was Nisan 10. This was the day of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem…
Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ Part VI, pg. 16 1977
Triumphant Entry of Jesus – That Day
Today as I write this post, it is Palm Sunday, the very day we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Making the assumptions that we have done above and using some basic arithmetic we find that this is the day that Daniel’s riddle of the ‘sevens’ lands us on. This is the day that Jesus was presented as the King or Christ to the Jewish nation. We know this because Zechariah (who had predicted the name of the Christ) had also written that:
Rejoice greatly! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
The long awaited King would be revealed riding into Jerusalem on a colt with an attending crowed of shouting and rejoicing people. On the day of the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – that very same day predicted by Daniel in his riddle of the ‘sevens’ – Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a colt. Luke records the account.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’…
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:37-42)
In this account Jesus weeps because the people did not recognize the very day predicted in tandem by Zechariah and Daniel. But because they did not recognize this day that the Christ was revealed something totally unexpected would happen. Daniel, in the very same passage where he laid out the riddle of the ‘sevens’, predicted that:
… After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:26)
Instead of taking the throne to rule, the Christ would be ‘cut off’ and would have ‘nothing’. In using this phrase ‘cut off’ (some Bibles just translate it ‘will die’) Daniel alludes to that theme of the Branch, that shoot from the stump of Jesse, begun long before by Isaiah, elaborated by Jeremiah, the name predicted by Zechariah and now the time and signature foreseen by Daniel and Zechariah in tandem. This Branch would be ‘cut off’. But how would this Branch be ‘cut off’? We return to Isaiah in our next post to see a vivid description.
1) Reference used throughout is Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ
Part VI: Harold W. Hoehner