On “Days” Signifying “Years” In Prophetic Language

Editor's Note3


To the Editor of the Christian Herald.

Sir,—The following remarks on the statements of Mr. Maitland, in the Morning Watch, and of R.D., in the Christian Examiner, were written in short intervals of constant occupation. If correct, they will at least prove the hastiness of the statements alluded to; and the latter part (though I feel it to be even more imperfectly pursued than the rest) may direct inquiry to what, to me at least, is a very interesting topic: the nature of the last assault and taking of Jerusalem; or, in other words, the head to which the enemy arrives previous to his destruction. I should be glad to pursue this at another time; but must, at present, only subscribe myself,

Yours, in Christian truth,

J. N. Darby.

In order to understand any prophecy, it is of the utmost importance that we should study it with a disposition to believe, joined with a strict trial of the evidence in favour of any given meaning. That is to say, we should be ready, on sufficient testimony, to accommodate our understandings and perceptions to ideas not analogous to those of our ordinary experience. With such a temper of mind, we are, under God, likely to profit both ourselves and the church, in the prophetic inquiry; whilst, on the contrary, we can make little or no progress in studying any prophetic record, if consistency with our previous apprehensions and prejudices be our test and trial of the new ideas with which we meet. To make agreement with previous ideas (as is the common practice) the necessary evidence of the justness of any view is indeed to prohibit the impression of any new truth upon the mind; and, on the other hand, assumption without evidence is the opening an admission to falsehood. A disposition to believe may, by some, be called credulity; but the credulity (if you will so have it) which consists in a disposition to receive on new testimony that which is inconsistent with human experience, is right before God, and is but another name for faith; howsoever foolish it may be among men, with whom guilt and deceit have made wisdom to consist in the knowledge and suspicion of evil. Evil cannot justify us in unbelief, though it may have habituated our minds to indisposition to receive even God at His word. This judging by what we have, instead of receiving what we have not (after simply trying it by the word and the testimony), is, indeed, the great moral hindrance to our perception, as well as to our receiving the strength of the power of God. Such was the spirit of the Sadducees—such was the mind of Thomas and is of unbelief, at all times. “How is it that ye do not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.” Not to lengthen out the statement of these general principles, nor to enter upon a disquisition on the slowness of man’s heart to believe, I proceed to the consideration of the question raised, as to days meaning years. And first, I would remark, that the question seems to me to have been very imperfectly discussed. To adduce the evidence of Lexicons was not well either in the Morning Watch or by R.D., as they contain no evidence of weight, but a mere statement of the thing inquired into, given as a meaning, because so supposed in the passage in question. This, therefore, I dismiss, after observing (with a view to mark the extent to which this confusion, between use and meaning, may be carried) the quotation of R.D. from the Critici Sacri, which is made to prove that it means years, as well as weeks of days. “Hae hebdomades intelligentur de annis.” (The force of the word Hebdomades is as well known to be seven days as the word week in English.) Such a quotation as “These weeks are understood of years” would be strange evidence in proof of the English term “week “meaning seven years, as much as it does seven days! But let this pass. Again, R.D. says he does not understand certain assertions made in the Morning Watch. Now though I mistrust, as R.D. does, my knowledge of Hebrew, these seem to me perfectly intelligible, though, at the same time, to have been advanced so entirely without inquiry as to throw considerable discredit upon the assertor of them.

The assertion is this, that “Seven (the numeral) and its derivatives are always feminine”: therefore he would conclude against Mr. M. that seven days (shabeth yomim) may, indeed, stand for a week, but that his reasoning can have no application to seventy (shibim), which, as the numeral is always feminine, cannot mean seven years as well as days. Now, the passage in Daniel ought to have kept him from such a mistake; for he is proving that shibim cannot be a numeral, because it is masculine, in a passage in which the very word confessedly means seventy! Strange, indeed, must be the structure of the mind, when it can produce reason in the Hebrew for seventy weeks, to shew, as to the second, that it cannot be a numeral, because it is masculine, when the first was admitted to be seventy!—the points, if referred to, not affecting the question of the masculine termination. On the other hand, Mr. M. is without ground of inquiry; for if the Hebrew word have no technical or conventional meaning, it would not be sevens at all, according to the Hebrew idiom, but seventy; so that we must admit the conventional meaning, and inquire what it is. But to shew the carelessness of the assertion of the Morning Watch in this, we may remark, besides the contradiction in the very passage in question itself, that the masculine form is constantly used for seven. At a distance from books, and exceedingly engaged, I would yet, from cursory reference to Scripture, mention the following:

Whenever (how frequent this is, need not be stated to the reader of the Old Testament) the word for times (pa’amim) is used (or sheba used with that force), it is always masculine: it would be endless to quote passages.

It is masculine with years, in Genesis 5:7; so again chapter 29:18, 20; with kine, Genesis 41, eight times over; with sabbaths, years, times, Leviticus 25:8; with abominations, Proverbs 26:25.

There is the same diversity in gender, in the sense of “sufficiency,” as may be seen. (Isaiah 23:18, “sufficiently” (f.); Ezekiel 16:49, “fullness” (f.); Genesis 41:29, “plenty” (m.).) Whether there be any rule in the Hebrew, I am not prepared to say, nor could I at this moment inquire; others perhaps may do so profitably and throw light on the inquiry by it. Nor is there any more reason, that I can see, produced for saying sheba’oth means sevens and not weeks, save that he has settled it beforehand. He is equally unfortunate in the remark as to Ezekiel 45:21, 25, for in verse 23, as to the former, we have seven days (sheba’ath yami), and as to the same feast of passover, or unleavened bread sheba’ath ha-yami, the very words on which he rests his distinction as to verse 25. That shebu-a and shebu-im are used for week and weeks, I think may be asserted from the case of Genesis 29:27, 28, week, and Leviticus 12:5, weeks, the latter of which is as conclusive against Mr. M.’s assertion, as the passages above quoted and the one in question in Daniel are against the Reviewer. On the other hand I would remark, that seven weeks of years is never used in the form given in Daniel, but seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years. I would just remark also, that the uncertain habit of expression as to week’ seems traceable, perhaps, in the Greek of the New Testament.

Having disposed of the question raised on this passage, as far as the consideration of the evidence and argument already adduced, and having, perhaps, suggested occasion of inquiry, I would leave it, thinking with Mr. M. that it does not very materially affect the question.

There are two or three principles which I would lay down in proceeding to the more general consideration of the question before us.

First, in prophecy, when the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis in their history) is concerned, i.e., when the address is directly to the Jews, there we may look for a plain and direct testimony, because earthly things were the Jews’ proper portion. And, on the dontrary, where the address is to the Gentiles, i.e., when the Gentiles are concerned in it, there we may look for symbol, because earthly things were not their portion, and the system of revelation must to them be symbolical. When therefore facts are addressed to the Jewish church as a subsisting body, as to what concerns themselves, I look for a plain, common-sense, literal statement, as to a people with whom God had direct dealings upon earth, and to whom He meant His purposes concerning them to be known. On the other hand, as the church was a system of grace and heavenly hopes (though God indeed overruled by providence in respect of His ultimate purposes concerning it, it was neither the visible object of His dealings upon earth, nor had an admitted interest in, though acted on by them), it is addressed by an exhibition of their moral character, and is symbolised by analogous agencies.

Secondly, intimately connected with this (because the history of the Bible is the history of the Jews—for history is the relation of facts on earth, of which the Jews are the portion of God’s agency and as to whom we know it was ordered), is another principle, viz., that wherever Scripture affords the history of a fact, there we may expect it to be distinctly and literally declared or predicted in prophecy. When the Scriptures do not extend to the giving the history (which is evidently the case after the fact of the restoration of the Jews from Babylon, save the fact of the Lord’s coming to offer Himself, and perhaps we may add the outpouring of the Spirit), then we must expect it to be declared only symbolically, i.e., appropriately in its moral character; and hence, partly, the partial obscurity of the seventy weeks of Daniel, because they were no regular recognised portion of the Jewish history, but a sort of anomalous period for the coming of the Lord.

Thirdly, the Spirit loves to contemplate the desolation of the Jewish people—the prevalence of necessary wrath—and, by consequence, mercy on the believing remnant of the seed of the Lord—as but for a moment; and hence the reason why it is shortened into days. To one familiar with Scripture and the expression of God’s mind and feelings, then, no proof, save appeal to themselves, need be made of this: it is an interesting, and, may I add, affecting circumstance of considerate kindness. He avenges speedily, though He bear long with them, as it might seem, and we are not to learn why He so bears. We know what to count it.

The proof then that prophecies of literal days have been fulfilled in literal days, and that years have been prophesied of as years, would prove nothing as to the prophecy in question; for first, if the principles above laid down be correct, the difference is accounted for; and, in the next place, a prophecy confessedly literal (for its literal accomplishment is given, or the days may mean years, and the proof fails) can be no evidence of the meaning of the word when used typically and confessedly in a symbolical prophecy. Their meaning days in such a case would be a positive anomaly, just as much as their not meaning days in the other; for they are used here manifestly in a symbolical way, and all their accomplishments are symbolical. The question is not, therefore, whether a day ever means a day, when used in Scripture or in prophecy, confessedly literally expressed (as evidenced by a literal fulfilment, evincing that meaning), but what is its force, when used as a symbol in a confessedly symbolical prophecy? The consideration of the mind of God, as adverted to in the third principle afore stated, will give us a full apprehension of the reason of the statement, when we consider the value too it was to the Church—the principle of the “yet a little while,” and the moral gap unfilled up by any events which made the time included in the 1260 years of this prophecy. As to the event not satisfying us in fulfilment, neither did the Lord’s coming; and I would remark that there is no remarkable event of such external magnitude in the world’s eye as to fix the mind on its evident fulfilment; and as to the former, to this day the terms of the seventy weeks are as much discussed and in the dark as the 1260 years, save that we, by habitual belief, have recognised Jesus the Lord, as the Messiah.

R.D. therefore is not right as to two believers in revelation not disagreeing in the broad features of the seventy weeks. We could not disagree as to Jesus being Messiah, or we should not be believers at all, and Daniel names the Messiah as the terminating epoch; though in this all interpreters are not agreed, but carry it on to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; but as to the rest, no two independent thinkers, hardly, agree in their computation—some of learning at this day, going back to Cyrus’s decree, and cutting off a century in mass from the ordinary dates of the Persian history. R.D. would find also that in Hebrew (though I say not that the idiom is precise), yarmin, days, is also used for a year, and from year to year, as evidently in other passages, so evidenced to be in 1 Samuel 1:3, 7.

I would further remark, that the passage from Ezekiel is not so without force, as is supposed, when the real question (too much overlooked by R.D.) is considered, viz., the typical or symbolical force of a day; for then we have a symbolical action indicative of years, defined in time, marked by the term days, so that as to the principle of symbolical diction, it is an expressive instance; and the other case, though not so strong, is analogous and confirmatory.

Let us now, having considered the ground on which such a symbol stands, consider the instances in which it is used. If R.D. affirms that the use of the term month is entirely distinct from that of day, and that there is no argumentative identity with the statements in Revelation before him, I shall not argue the point. I do not say that there is no reason for difference—for I am inclined to think that there is, and perhaps see the reason of such difference, in some degree. But as to the limit of time, to me it is obvious they are identical. If so, contrary to the assertion of R.D., we have a prophecy in which such an enumeration of days for years is agreed on by all commentators (amongst the Protestants at least), namely, the continuance of the conquests of the Saracenic comet. I suppose there is no prophecy in Scripture which, as far as commentators go, has been more uniformly interpreted, or universally acquiesced in by inquirers at large. Nor am I disposed to think, that the Euphratean horsemen are less susceptible of determinate calculation of time, though I admit the date has not been received with equal uniformity.

Let us now consider the same symbols in Daniel. I certainly am disposed to think that the term times in Daniel 4:16, 23, 25, 32, used as to Nebuchadnezzar, has reference to the bestial dominion in the world; and the language of Scripture as to the dominion of Nebuchadnezzar so tallies with the rightful dominion of Christ as to confirm this idea, but it is impracticable to pursue this here, nor does it affect the present inquiry sufficiently directly to claim definitive investigation. As to “time, times, and dividing of a time,” we have this distinctly referred to the power before which the three horns fell; that is, we have three times and a half, or 1260 days, ascribed to the little horn which rose up behind, or amongst, the three horns (of which I believe there never has been any doubt in applying it to the Papal power); and there is a particular characteristic to be observed in him—that he is to make war with the saints and to prevail against them, wearing them out— a statement which I do not find applicable to the final apostasy.

Here then we have evidence of this expression being used as a symbol, contrasted, as in distinct perspective of some long continuance of time, during which there is a prevailing power wearing out the saints of the Most High; not in its character of infidel apostasy, leading all forward, but in its specific one of casting down three horns. Again, I apprehend, the end of the vision must be accounted from the commencement of its subject matter, and its computation must be (when the time is referable to a particular fact within the prophecy) from the date of that fact; or otherwise (when the vision is said to continue), from the commencement of its subject matter generally. If this be so, we have a date of 2,300 or 2,400 days (the readings differ) as the continuance of Daniel’s vision of the ram and the he-goat, with its territorial reference to the covenant of Israel. And accordingly he says, “Shut up the vision, for it shall be for many days.” If this be not a just reasoning, the passage must apply to the possession of Jerusalem by its last enemy for upwards of six years—an interpretation which does not seem to me to coincide with the tenor of scriptural declaration; nor do I think it consistent with the genealogy of the little horn, which would then mean the power or person vulgarly called Antichrist. We have therefore again the term of days used for a long continuous period, ending in the cleansing of the sanctuary, and brought into perspective before the mind of the Spirit to the prophet, and thus shortened in its symbolical expression.

Daniel 11 and 12 I shall not attempt to interpret. But the interpretation must be either given to Antiochus Epiphanes, and the taking away of the daily sacrifice be a thing yet future; or the 1290 days be a long period of time, whenever it commences or concludes, and the 1335 end with Daniel standing in his lot. Besides, can R.D. shew any instance of so unusual a practice as the use of the term “days” for a period extending beyond the limits of a year? Does not this itself point to some meaning or intention concealed under this form?

We may now proceed to the passages in the Revelation. Does R.D. believe that the Lord Jesus meant the church of Smyrna to have tribulation just “ten days “literally, or ten years? We have already adverted to the Saracenic and Euphratean invasions, which he would find difficult to interpret on his literal system. The next is, that the holy city should be given to the Gentiles 42 months (the well-known period of 1260 days, a symbolical prophecy, and containing in the term evidence of some unliteral meaning). In the meanwhile the witnesses are to prophesy 1260 days, more appropriately thus marked, because it shewed not merely its continuance but its constancy also. This, be it observed, is something previous to the seventh trumpet; and, however the date may be disagreed on, I undertake to say that, as to the subject-matter, no prophecy in Scripture has received more uniformity of interpretation. And, observe, it ends by their being slain by the beast out of the bottomless pit. Now in chapter 13 we have a beast who continues precisely the same period, recognized to be in power (under the form of the ten horns being crowned, i.e., the Roman Empire in its divided state) by the northern nations under the papacy, as may be plainly seen in chapter 17. Take these things together and we see—not to advert to the three days and a half—a connection with Babylon and the papacy during these periods, which brings them, in addition to the difficulty of making days symbols of days, to be a continuous period when the woman rides the beast (not, is devoured by the horns), and therefore is a continuous period of some such length as is generally supposed. In a word, we may, I think, state it thus: The mystery of Babylon and the papacy have no place in the prophets, or the 1260 days mean years. A difficulty in date does not affect the moral evidence of the subject-matter of the prophecy; for difficulties may he at the door of ignorance as well as inconsistency.

It would be inconvenient here to enter into further detail. The true question to be discussed is, whether the papacy, as such, has any place in the prophetic writings or not, or merely infidelity. If it has, it appears to me that no doubt remains on the question; but I refuse no light on its special application to the last infidel state, though I deprecate a morbid disposition to apply all things to our own times. I rejoice, however, in the discussion, not merely in that it will throw light on Scripture by consequent research and inquiry, but that I am persuaded that this will lead more (for such I believe to be the truth) to the deep conviction that we are within the verge of the end of all, so as to be daily looking for the Lord, i.e., to be caught up to meet Him in the air in order to His judging of the nations. Amen. Amen.

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3 [The early part of this tract being of some interest in a critical point of view, it is republished, though the latter fails just in the point which the first part condemns, namely, assuming traditional views as true. I have no doubt that the latter part is wrong, but it was not worth while either suppressing or changing it. Subsequent and far more elaborate papers have brought the truth as to Matthew 14 and the 1260 days into a sufficiently clear light. It may serve to shew historically the progress made in the apprehension of truth.]