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The Year-Day Principle (Part 1)

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Archives / 1964 / June



The Year-Day Principle (Part 1)

Desmond Ford

Desmond Ford, Bible Lecturer, Australasian Misisonary College, Avondale



The Seventh-day Adventist claim to divine sponsorship largely rests upon the significance of the date 1844. This date, in turn, for its lo­cation as the terminus of the 2300 days, depends upon the reliability of the year-day principle. While most Adventists accept this prin­ciple of prophetic exegesis with­out question, our critics are nei­ther so naive nor as accommodat­ing. They ask of us, "What have the historical records—that is, Numbers 34 and Ezekiel 4—to do with the apocalyptic symbolism of Daniel and Rev­elation?" Furthermore, they point out that neither Daniel nor Revelation make any statement regarding a day being the chosen symbol in prophecy for a year. Typical of our critics is Norman F. Douty who says:

Based upon the fallacious year-day theory and interpreting literal periods of time symbolically, it involves, among many others, two major errors: the ascription of prophetic significance to the year 1844 and the claim that the Adventist movement fulfills the symbolism of the flying angels of Rev. 14. . . . Its exponents speak with a tone of finality that few will think justified?

In answer to such accusations, let us glance afresh at the evidence that supports the historical mode of interpreting the time periods of Daniel and Revelation.

The time-honored formula for the year-day principle is that set out by T. R. Birks in his book First Elements of Sacred Proph­ecy and quoted by our own Source Book for Bible Students, pp. 585, 586 (1919 edition). It reads as follows:

Year-Day Principle, General Nature of.—It may be summed up in these maxims:

  1. That the church, after the ascen­sion of Christ, was intended of God to be kept in the lively expectation of His speedy return in glory.
  2. That, in the divine counsels, a long period of nearly two thousand years was to intervene between the first and the second advent, and to be marked by a dispensation of grace to the Gentiles.
  3. That, in order to strengthen the faith and hope of the church under the long delay, a large part of the whole interval was prophetically an­nounced, but in such a manner that its true length might not be understood, till its own close seemed to be drawing near.
  4. That, in the symbolical prophecies of Daniel and St. John, other times were revealed along with this, and included under one common maxim of interpretation.
  5. That the periods thus figuratively revealed are exclusively those in Daniel and St. John, which relate to the general history of the church between the time of the prophet and the second advent.
  6. That, in these predictions, each day represents a natural year, as in the vision of Ezekiel; that a month denotes thirty, and a time three hundred and sixty years.—Rev. T. R. Birks, First Elements of Sacred Prophecy (London; William Edward Painter, 1843), p. 311.

This statement recommends itself to a candid mind, but some may be led to in­quire, "Is this all that can be said?" The purpose of this article is to make some addi­tional observations on the matter, and these will now be set forth in point fashion.'

1. The time prophecies are essential parts of two Bible books that God Himself has urged us to understand. Daniel, for ex­ample, is the only Old Testament book concerning which we have record of Christ Himself urging its specific study (Matt. 24: 15), and the Apocalypse opens with a di­vine blessing upon both "he that readeth" and "they that hear." We are assured by the Sacred Record that all the "sealed" portions of Daniel's prophecy would be un­derstood by the wise "in the time of the end," and the situation would need to be similar regarding those prophecies in the Revelation that are so closely allied to Dan­iel's. Understanding of both, including the time periods, would of necessity eventuate together, and it is the time periods particu­larly that are referred to in Scripture as be­ing sealed until the latter days. Compare Dan. 8:26; 12:4; Acts 1:7.) That God should require His church to gain an un­derstanding of the eschatological portions of His Word with the exception of the time periods is not likely. They too were writ­ten "for our learning" (Rom. 15:4).

2.   The time periods in more than one place are announced amid settings of par­ticular solemnity. In three instances we find Christ Himself as the Revelator of the time messages. (Compare Dan. 8:11-14, Dan. 10:5, 6, and Dan. 12:6, 7 with Rev. 1:13-16.) The theme in each instance is likewise im­pressive. The context of the 2300 days, the 1290, and the 1335 days stresses the cata­clysmic events associated with the close of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. (See Dan. 8:17, 25, 26; 12:3, 4, 9-13.) Therefore Bible students have ample en­couragement for regarding these prophetic periods as significant and important aspects of revelation rather than as mere imagery or "drapery."

3.   The preceding point regarding the divinely indicated importance of the pro­phetic times finds support in the abundant evidence for the fact that ordinary "days" cannot be here intended by these proph­ecies. As the visions themselves embrace comprehensive rather than trifling themes, so the time periods emphasized are sym­bolic of extensive rather than limited eras. Points a, b, c, which follow, support this conclusion.
a. The visions, including the time peri­ods, are obviously symbolic, but the basic symbolism employed in each instance has definite ascertainable significance. In Dan­iel 2, for example, the four metals of the image are identified as signifying four king­doms. Likewise the four beasts of Daniel 7 are interpreted as representing four king­doms. Thus the time periods incorporated in such prophecies must, as with the other features, be of necessity symbolic rather than literal, and capable of elucidation.

b.   The peculiar way in which the time periods in Daniel and Revelation are ex­pressed also indicates that they must apply symbolically. Consider, for example, the "time and times and the dividing of time" of Daniel 7:25. Why is it phrased this pe­culiar way if it refers but to three and one-half years? In two other places this inter­val occurs in Scripture, and in both these cases it is expressed by its natural phrase "three years and six months." (See Luke 4:25 and James 5:17.) This is true in every similar case. Paul remained at Corinth "a year and six months" (Acts 18:11). David reigned in Hebron "seven years and six months" (2 Sam. 2:11). He is described as being in the Philistine camp "a full year and four months" (1 Sam. 27:7). How dif­ferent from these cases is the expression "a time and times and the dividing of time"! The year-day theory would require that the symbol be expressed in such a way as to in­dicate) that it is not to be taken literally. Does not Daniel 7:25 do this admirably?

The different expressions used to denote the same period are an added proof that the time, times, and a half of Dan. 7:25 cannot represent three natural years and a half. Twice it is mentioned as a time, times, and a dividing of time; once as a time, times, and a half; twice as forty-two months; and twice as 1260 days. By comparing the context in each case, the evidence is that all these apply to the same period, but the natural expression of "three years and six months" is not once used. Obviously, God is indicating the symbolic nature of the expressions.

The Holy Spirit seems, in a manner, to exhaust all the phrases by which the interval could be ex­pressed, excluding always that one form, which would be used of course in ordinary writing, and is used invariably in Scripture on other occasions, to denote the literal period. This variation is most significant, if we accept the )ear-day system, but quite inexplicable on the other view.'

The case is similar with the next great time period—the 2300 days. Is this ex­pressed in the normal way for an ordinary literal period of time? Quite the reverse. To use a marginal reading of Daniel 8:14, "Unto two thousand and three hundred evening morning; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." This is certainly not the usual and literal expression for a period of be­tween six and seven years. There are only three instances in all Bible history where a period beyond forty days is expressed in days only, and it is absolutely without precedent in Scripture that periods of more than one year should be thus described (Gen. 7:4; Neh. 6:15; Esther 1:4).

c. The context of both Daniel 7 and 8 forbid the idea that the periods men­tioned could be literal. In the first case the little horn emerges from the fourth world empire and endures till the time of the judgment and the Advent; and Dan. 7:25 declares that the period of "a time and times and the dividing of time" extends over most of this period. How impossible this would be if three and one half years only were intended! Similarly in Daniel 8:17, the prophet is told that the 2300 days would extend from the restoration of the sanctuary until "the time of the end." This means that a period of approximately 2300 years is involved. The treading down of the sanctuary brought to view in Daniel 8:11-13 could not begin before the restora­tion spoken of in Daniel 9:25, in the fifth century B.C. And besides this, its terminus is expressly stated as belonging to the lat­ter days, just prior to the final proclama­tion of the gospel by the "wise." (See Dan­iel 12:3, 4.) It has been largely overlooked by our critics that Daniel 8:17, when linked with Daniel 12:3, 9, 10, 13, makes it con­clusive that the 2300 days covers many centuries. Likewise, in Revelation 12 the 42 months cover the greater part of the time between the first and second advents when the church would be in the wilder­ness of persecution during the Dark Ages. This is granted by almost all expositors.

4.   Inasmuch as short-lived beasts are employed as symbols of long-existent em­pires, it is most likely that the times men­tioned are also presented to scale, with a small time unit representing a larger one.

5.   The one measure of time commonly used by man which is not employed in the time symbotisms of Daniel and Revelation is that of a year. Days, weeks, and months are referred to (1260 days, 70 weeks, 42 months), but the ordinary word for year is not found.' Instead, the Hebrew word nuked is the basic term employed (Dan. 12:7). This term, translated "a time," does not have for its usual meaning "a year." The word occurs often in the Old Testa­ment and is used to designate periods of different lengths. The first occasion it is used is in Genesis 1:14: "Let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years." The word is often used to state the appointed time of all the feasts of the law. (See Lev. 23:2, 4, 37, 44; Num. 9:2, 3, 7, 13; et cetera.) The Greek kaipous of Rev­elation 12:14 is likewise indefinite. The most obvious explanation of this omission of the usual word for year in the symbolism of time duration in Daniel and in Revela­tion, while the other calendar terms are found, is that the year is the measure typi­fied throughout these prophecies and that the day, the smallest of the symbolic calen­dar times, is employed to represent it. There is a natural appropriateness in the year-day principle being chosen by the Cre­ator when we remember that there are two great revolutions of the earth, one on its axis occupying twenty-four hours, which gives rise to the "day," and the other the earth in its orbit occupying 365 days, which gives rise to the "year." It is appropriate indeed that the lesser should be used as symbolic of the greater.

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1 Norman F. Douty, Another Look at Seventh-day Advent­ism (Michigan: Baker Book House, 1962), pp. 102, 103.

2 The writer acknowledges his indebtedness to T. R. Birks and to H. G. Guinness for several of these points. Because such works as First Elements of Sacred Prophecy and The Approaching End of the Age are now difficult to procure, this emphasis on some matters set forth therein may not be amiss.

3 T. R. Birks, First Elements of Sacred Prophecy (London: William Edward Painter, 1843), p. 352.

4 The Hebrew preposition lamed, translated "at" in this verse, would be better translated as it is elsewhere in this chapter, namely "unto." The sense "at" or "it" fits lamed nowhere in this vision: e.g. "toward, or unto, the four winds of heaven" (v. 8); "unto that certain saint which spake" (v. 13; vs. 6, 26 also). It would be impossible to translate the lamed associated with "the vision" in v. 26 as "at," for it would be senseless. Its meaning is "unto," and the same can be said of v. 17. Compare also Dan. 4:11 and Deut. 16:4. In harmony with this is the promise that Daniel shall stand in his lot for judgment and reward at "the end of the days" under discussion. This fact alone makes it cer­tain that the prophetic times of Daniel extend until the latter times.

5 The Greek of Rev. 9 45 suggests that a point of time rather than a period is here referred to. See modern transla­tions and The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, pp. 793, 796, 856, 857.

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