Daniel 9:25 provides the starting point for the chronological unfolding of the seventy weeks prophecy. But, at what point does the text tell us it was to begin? Since there are different views concerning the beginning point (sometimes know by the Latin phrase "terminus a quo"), I will provide an in-depth examination of this issue.
The Terminus a Quo of the Seventy Weeks
Examination of Daniel 9:25 should start with a reading of the text to make sure that this passage is foremost in our mind.
So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
Gabriel tells Daniel that he is "to know and discern" the message that follows. The Hebrew word for "know" is a common word for knowledge or information. However, "discern" has the notion of "to gain insight," "comprehension," or "to reach understanding." Thus, Daniel was to learn "from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem," that the seventy weeks of years would begin their countdown. Why Gabriel’s exhortation to Daniel? "The history of the interpretation of these verses is confirmation of the fact that this prophecy is difficult and requires spiritual discernment."
A Decree to Restore and Rebuild Jerusalem
The next element of Daniel 9:25 is clear. The countdown of time will begin with "a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." The Hebrew word for decree is the common word "dâbâr" which means "thing," "speak," "word," or "instruction." In this context, it has the force of an urgent and assertive statement or decree.
The text is specific that the countdown will start with "a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." The decree involves the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, not the Temple. This is important since earlier edicts were issued in relation to the Temple (see 2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; 5:3-17; 6:3-5). There are at least three different decrees that are considered in an attempt to "know and discern" the beginning of the seventy weeks of Daniel.
First, there was the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5), issued in 537 b.c., which I will call decree one. Second, the decree of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11-26) given in 458 b.c., (decree two). Third, a second decree from Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:5-8, 17, 18) given in 444 b.c., at the time of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, (decree three). I want to note at the outset of the examination of these possibilities that the third decree is the only one that literally fits the exact words of Daniel 9:25, as we shall see. Leon Wood notes that the "first stressed rebuilding the Temple; the second, the establishment and practice of the proper services at the Temple; and the third, the rebuilding of the walls, when, long before, most of the city had been rebuilt."
Non-literal interpreters of the 490 years of the seventy weeks of Daniel are vague and non-precise in their overall handling of the numbers. If they try to establish a terminus a quo, it is rarely, if ever, the one given to Artaxerxes in Nehemiah 2:1-8. For example, preterist, Gary DeMar, is fuzzy, at best, in explaining his beginning point for the prophecy. In a lengthy quote of J. Barton Payne, DeMar appears, at first, to favor our view when he says: "The beginning point would be indicated by the commandment to restore Jerusalem (v. 25), an event that was accomplished, a century after Daniel, in the reign of the Persian, Artaxerxes I (465-424 b.c.), under Nehemiah (444 b.c.)." He then proceeds to say that he favors the second view noted above, of Artaxerxes’ first decree (Ezra 7:11-26) which was issued in 458 b.c. DeMar declares that "from 458 b.c. this brings one to a.d. 26, the very time which many would accept for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus Christ and the commencement of His incarnate ministry."
Like DeMar, fellow preterist, Kenneth Gentry, is likewise vague, perhaps on purpose, as to the start of the 490 years. Like DeMar, Gentry also references J. Barton Payne, but without specifically stating his terminus a quo. Also, like DeMar, Gentry holds that the 483-year period comes to its end at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, "sometime around a.d. 26." Gentry’s support for his view does not come from providing biblical data to persuade. Instead, he says, "This interpretation is quite widely agreed upon by conservative scholars, being virtually ‘universal among Christian exegetes’—excluding dispensationalists." In contrast to Gentry and DeMar, I will present reasons from the biblical text for holding that the correct starting point is the decree from Artaxerxes given in 444 b.c. as recorded in Nehemiah 2:1-8.
It is clear to me that of all the options available, the only decree that specifically fits the statements of Daniel 9:25 is the one by Artaxerxes given in 444 b.c. as recorded in Nehemiah 2:1-8. Why? Because decree one and two relate to rebuilding the Temple. Only decree three speaks specifically of Jerusalem. It is clear that Nehemiah received a decree to "rebuild and restore Jerusalem" from King Artaxerxes. The passage says, "let letters be given me . . ." and "a letter to Asaph . . ." (Neh. 2:7-8). These letters were permission being given by King Artaxerxes to Nehemiah for permission and authority to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild it. Said another way, the letters are decrees and they granted Nehemiah the right to rebuild Jerusalem (Neh. 2:5). "The entire book of Nehemiah is proof that this godly governor built Jerusalem and its streets and walls," declares Harry Bultema, "and that, as this prophecy says, in troublous times. According to qualified chronologists this also agrees with the needed chronology set forth in Daniel."
Problems with Decrees One and Two
Further examination of the first two decrees provide us with even more objections to their being the one that Gabriel had in mind in Daniel 9:25. Dr. Harold Hoehner, Chairman of the New Testament Department at Dallas Theological Seminary, has produced one of the best works on the chronological aspects of the seventy weeks of Daniel in his book Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Dr. Hoehner provides the following objections against the first decree as the one that fulfills Daniel 9:25:
First, Cyrus’ edict refers to the rebuilding of the temple and not to the city. . . .
Second, a distinction should be made between the rebuilding of a city and the restoration of a city to its former state. . . . The commencement of the rebuilding began with Cyrus’ decree but the city’s complete restoration was not at that time.
Third, if one accepts the seventy weeks as beginning with Cyrus’ decree, how does one reckon the 490 years? . . . the final week would be divided into two parts, the first half covering the life of Christ and going even until the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70, a period of thirty-five to seventy years (about ten to twenty years for each week), and the second half of the seventieth week would have not terminus ad quem. . . . it seems that this system makes havoc of Gabriel’s sayings, which were rather specific.
Dr. Hoehner demonstrates that the second decree option does not fare any better than the first. He notes the following objections:
First, and foremost, is that this decree has not a word about the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem but rather the temple in Jerusalem. . . .
Second, to have the sixty-nine weeks terminate at the commencement of Christ’s ministry in a.d. 26 or 27 is untenable for two reasons: (1) The cutting off of the Messiah (Dan. 9:26 is a very inappropriate way to refer to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at the commencement of His ministry. (2) The date for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is not a.d. 26 or 27 but a.d. 29, as discussed previously.
Third, to what does Daniel refer in 9:27 when he states he is confirming a covenant? If it refers to Christ, then what covenant was it and how did He break it?
Fourth, to say that the middle of the seventieth week refers to Christ’s crucifixion in a.d. 30 is untenable on two grounds: (1) the sacrifices did not cease at Christ’s crucifixion, and (2) though the date of a.d. 30 is possible the a.d. 33 date is far more plausible.
Fifth, to say that the end of the seventieth week refers to Stephen’s death and Paul’s conversion in a.d. 33 is pure speculation. There is no hint of this in the texts of Daniel 9:27 and Acts 8—9 to denote the fulfillment of the seventieth week. Also, the dates of Paul’s conversion as well as Stephen’s martyrdom were more likely in a.d. 35.
In conclusion, the decree of Artaxerxes to Ezra in 457 b.c. serving as the starting point of the seventy weeks is highly unlikely.
The third decree is clearly the beginning point for the countdown of the seventy weeks of Daniel. Dr. Hoehner provides the following arguments in support of the final decree as the terminus a quo as recorded in Nehemiah 2:1-8:
First, there is a direct reference to the restoration of the city (2:3, 5) and of the city gates and walls (2:3, 8). Second, Artaxerxes wrote a letter to Asaph to give materials to be used specifically for the walls (2:8). Third, the book of Nehemiah and Ezra 4:7-23 indicate that certainly the restoration of the walls was done in the most distressing circumstances, as predicted by Daniel (Dan. 9:25). Fourth, no later decrees were given by the Persian kings pertaining to the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
In this article I was able to demonstrate that the third decree is surely the starting point for the countdown of Daniel’s seventy weeks. In my next installment, I hope to build upon this fact that the exact date of this decree can be determined as March 5, 444 b.c. This provides a solid plank in developing a literal interpretation of Gabriel’s great prophecy to Daniel. Maranatha!