Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why is the Seventy Years So Central to the Old Testament?

The Seventy Years of captivity prophesied in the Old Testament acts as a major turning point. God, being gracious, has postponed judgment for years, but now the penance comes due. Just as today, scoffers are everywhere in our society, saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3). They are going to see the ugly truth—justice postponed is not going to be justice denied, and the longsuffering and patience of God is eventually going to run out. Israel thought the same as our current scoffers, saying that God would never hold them accountable. When God at last sent Jeremiah to proclaim that judgment was nigh, the nation scoffed, and they even tried to extinguish the voice of Jeremiah, throwing him into the well, and later trying to charge him with being a spy. God protected Jeremiah through all that conflict, and twice proclaims that the time of Israel’s captivity will amount to seventy years.

Actually, the story of the infamous seventy years starts all the way back in Deuteronomy. Moses, through the LORD, foresaw that Israel would compound its unfaithfulness to the point of bringing judgment upon themselves. I will quote from Deuteronomy in a bit, but first I want to show that everything has come about that the LORD has planned, in exactly the way that has been foretold.

Deuteronomy gives us foresight into what was going to happen to Israel, and is thus the beginning of a “hinge” of Israel’s history. When Josiah became king, many hundreds of years after Moses, this forgotten book of Deuteronomy was found again (many Bible scholars suggest it was exactly this book, though we are not certain), and read to King Josiah, who promptly repented, and even had the book read to the nation as a whole. The nation’s repentance is famous, for they celebrated the Passover Feast to such a great extent that had never been equaled.

When the nation was finally judged for its rebellion against God, the book became even more important, especially as the scattered nation looked to the LORD for redemption. Listen now to the final words of Moses, just as he gave them to the Israelites:

However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
Deuteronomy 28:15 (NIV)

So far the LORD has promised but a curse. Read now as we see some of the details of the curse, for it was quite involved:

The Lord will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the Lord will drive you.
Deuteronomy 28:36-37 (NIV)

Here, as we say, in black and white, is the whole crux of the message to Israel. The scattering of Israel is foretold, and would certainly come to pass. Interestingly, in the book of Leviticus, Moses tells us again more specifics about this curse that would befall Israel:

I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.
Leviticus 26:33-35 (NIV)

Not only does the LORD foretell his intentions here, but he gives them the beginning of an actual time frame to fit their punishment. He says that the land will enjoy its Sabbath years, making up the time that the years were not observed.

In the writings of Moses, we are given many reasons to observe different Sabbath days and years. Chafer somewhere identifies 15 Sabbaths, and even a cursory study of the subject reveals at least ten different Sabbaths. Our culture today is remarkably akin to our history, and we pay little attention to the Sabbaths, except for the common one, the seventh day of the week. Read now what Moses wrote about the Sabbath year:

But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you.
Leviticus 25:4-6 (NIV)

Please note that this year was to occur every seventh year, and there is no record in the Bible that Israel ever attempted to keep this Sabbath. The LORD has already declared what is to happen to them because of their failure to observe the Sabbath year. He will scatter them to another nation, and give the land the very Sabbaths the Israelites had skipped.
The alert reader might really question these verses, perhaps wondering if they were really that important. Yet the unknown writer of 2 Chronicles lets us know of its supreme importance:

The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
2 Chronicles 36:21 (NIV)

We are given very specific information here. For 490 years Israel had failed to observe this Sabbath year, though they are commanded to observe it in both Exodus and Leviticus. By dividing by seven, we come to the all-important seventy years. Seventy years the land was to be given the rest the LORD had commanded, to make up for those 490 years that the Sabbath was not observed.

Second Chronicles mentions the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is told by the Lord that the captivity is to last exactly seventy years and he is told this twice that it might be more definite.

“But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever.
Jeremiah 25:12 (NIV)

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.
Jeremiah 29:10 (NIV)

These seventy years becomes very important. Remember when I listed the prophecy of the curses found in Deuteronomy? I call that the beginning of a great hinge on which the back part of the Old Testament hangs. But these seventy years that Jeremiah prophesies finishes the great hinge. Daniel refers to the seventy years, and bases his seventy weeks prophecy on it (Dan. 9:2). Ezra also relies on Jeremiah’s prophecy to write his own book (Ezra 1:1). I have already noted that it is mentioned in 2 Chronicles. And finally, Zechariah refers to it when he writes:

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?”
Zechariah 1:12 (NIV)

It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of the back half of the Old Testament hinges on this great prophecy of Jeremiah. But what is the lesson that we can learn from it? First, we learn that God cannot tolerate sin, and that there are always consequences for sin. Second, we learn that God is fully sovereign, knowing all along that Israel was to prove herself as unfaithful, and yet his plan comes to fruition notwithstanding. Eventually the Son of Promise was to come from this regathered nation, just as God had foreordained. What a comfort it is to know that God is completely in charge! Finally, we learn the reliability of prophecy, and it should give us comfort when we study yet-to-be-fulfilled-prophecy. God has a plan for us, and nothing shall ever change that plan; rather it is our job to look at the prophecies and unfold their meaning as God intended.

Daniel uses the prophecy of Jeremiah in chapter nine, presenting what he knows already from reading the prophet. God takes the prophecy of seventy years, and turns it into a new prophecy—that of the seventy weeks. In my next piece, I will look at the seventy weeks, and we will ponder its meaning together, trying to figure out what God has told us.

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