The day-year principle
Today’s world has no short-age of biblical commentators determined to expound on current events, usually in regard to the latest disturbance in the Middle East and the continuous wars there. Some have asked: “Why aren’t Seventh-day Adventists, who talk a lot about last-day events, preaching about the Middle East in the context of the impending apocalypse?” The answer is quite straightforward: We are historicists and, as such, view the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation differently from those who, putting the bulk of the prophecies as yet into the future, apply them to, among other things, the constant unrest unfolding in the ancient lands of the Bible.
Without question, historicism—seeing the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as an unfolding of the ancient past through the present and into the future—provides the prophetic framework upon which the Seventh-day Adventist Church has established much of its identity and message, including the sanctuary doctrine of Christ’s work as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary (see Daniel 8). Central to the historicist approach is the day-year principle, the concept that in certain apocalyptic passages depicting prophetic time, the word day or days is to be understood as year or years. That is, in apocalyptic prophecy a day equals a year.
But this position has not gone unchallenged. Some deny it as a valid biblical approach altogether. Decades ago, amid the theological turmoil in the Adventist Church of the 1970s and 1980s, a few rejected the principle, as do some other Christians even now. Though the day-year hermeneutic is generally accepted among Seventh-day Adventists (and among other Christians as well), we may benefit from a reexamination of foundational concepts like this one, precisely because they are foundational.
Numbers and Ezekiel
Anyone who has presented or attended a Seventh-day Adventist evangelistic series has encountered the day-year principle. The most oft-cited biblical references to it are the following: “‘“According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection” ’ ” (Num. 14:34)1 and “ ‘When you have completed them, lie again on your right side; then you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days. I have laid on you a day for each year’” (Ezek. 4:6).
In many cases, these two verses comprise the sum total of all that is taught about the day-year principle. They are it, period. Though they certainly establish a scriptural connection between a day and a year and reveal a prophetic link between the terms, the two verses still leave questions unanswered, especially when jumping from them to Daniel 7:25; 8:14; Revelation 12:14; and the like. After all, they are not only different books than Numbers and Ezekiel but even different literary genre. Certainly, then, we should have more than just two verses to build our hermeneutic, right?
Days and years
To begin, the Old Testament shows a clear link between the terms days and years. In various places, though, the texts may be translated year or years or yearly—because that is the obvious meaning—the Hebrew word is, literally, days.
The Passover was observed “from days to days” (the literal Hebrew), though it is translated as “ ‘from year to year’ ” (Exod. 13:10) because that is what the text means.
Hannah took to Samuel “year by year” (literally “from days to days”) the clothing that she had made for him (1 Sam. 2:19).
A “yearly” sacrifice in 1 Samuel 20:6 is, in the original Hebrew, the “sacrifice of the days.”
Scripture declares that David and his men dwelt in the land of the Philistines “days and four months” (1 Sam. 27:7, Young’s Literal Translation). The obvious meaning is a period of “a year and four months,” hence the KJV translation—“a full year and four months.”
As far back as Genesis 5, the day-year link appears: “X lived so many years and begat Y. And X lived so many years after he begat Y and begat sons and daughters. And all the days of X were so many years, and he died.”
In what we might consider Scripture’s oldest “time” prophecy, we read, “ ‘My spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh, yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years’ ” (Gen. 6:3; emphasis added). Thus, in Genesis 6 we find a “prophecy” that directly associates days and years.
Between the verses above and Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6, we can see that a link between days and years clearly exists. But what justification do we have for applying this principle to the specific texts that we do?
Adventists are historicists. Look at Daniel 2, which begins in ancient history and follows historical events through the rise and fall of four major kingdoms (Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome) until the end of all earthly kingdoms and the establishing of God’s eternal one (Dan. 2:44).
This historicist approach, then, forms the template for the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel. Daniel 2, in fact, all but hands us the historicist hermeneutic on a platter.
Parallel to Daniel 2 is Daniel 7, in which the same four world kingdoms (Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome) rise and fall until, as in Daniel 2, God sets up His eternal kingdom (Dan. 7:27). Thus, this prophecy, from the time of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:1) until today (and beyond), covers at least 2,600 years.
Now in the midst of this vast span of history we come across the first prophetic time prophecy in Daniel, the “time and times and half a time” (or three and a half years) of Daniel 7:25, the period when the second phase of the fourth power, the little horn, or papal manifestation, persecuted God’s people (Dan. 7:21). Remember, the little horn emerges from the fourth beast, not as a separate entity but only as a latter version of the fourth beast. And what power other than Rome arises after Greece, changes form, and extends to the end of the world? Certainly not Antiochus Epiphanes, who died in the second century b.c.
Now, if we should take the time period literally, then papal Rome’s persecution of God’s people lasted only three and a half literal years. But if one applies the day-year principle, it becomes 1,260 years, a span that fits not only the historical facts but the vast time frame depicted in the prophecy itself. In other words, in a chapter that begins in late seventh century b.c. and extends to the present—even beyond— the first apocalyptic time prophecy in Daniel 7 depicts an event important enough not only to be included but to be clearly delineated by its time span. And yet that event only lasts three and a half years?
Not likely. The time frame does not suffice for its vast context. “Given the comprehensive scope of salvation history which this prophecy covers,” wrote William Shea, “such a figure [three and a half literal years] seems like an inordinately short period of time in which to conclude events of this importance.”2
Also, Daniel 7 is not really about an actual lion with eagle’s wings or about a beast with four heads, and the like. The vision is symbolic, using imagery to depict other truths. Thus, among images of a horn that speaks blasphemy and makes war against God’s people, we find a time prophecy. However, if the other images in the vision are symbolic, why take the time period literally, instead of as symbolically as the rest of the vision itself was?
Finally, the phrase time, times, and half a time is not a common way in the Bible to express literal time. All through Scripture, when the writers meant literal time, they just said it literally, such as: “Once every three years the merchant ships came bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys” (1 Kings 10:22). Or, “ ‘“Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years” ’ ” (Lev. 25:21). In short, the biblical author did not write the time prophecy of Daniel 7:25 in the manner one would use to depict literal time because he did not mean literal time.
Daniel 8, like Daniel 2 and 7, covers vast stretches of time, starting, now, with the Medo-Persian empire and extending to the end time itself (Dan. 8:25). Daniel 8:17, discussing the vision of the chapter, says that it “ ‘refers to the time of the end.’ ” Considering that in the two parallel visions, Daniel 2 and 7, the time of the end reaches to events still in our future (God’s eternal kingdom), Daniel 8 must cover vast expanses of time as well.
After depicting the activities of three world powers (Dan. 8:1–12), the prophet hears a question asked (Dan. 8:13), which literally reads like this: “Until when the vision, the daily, and the transgression of desolation giving the sanctuary and the host a trampling?” In other words, the question concerns all the events of the vision itself: the ram, the goat, and the little horn and its activities.
Who were these powers? The ram was Media-Persia (Dan. 8:20); the goat, Greece (Dan. 8:21); and the little horn, though not named, depicted a power greater than either Media-Persia or Greece, a persecuting agency that arose just after Greece and exists until supernaturally destroyed at the end (“ ‘he shall be broken without human means’ ” [Dan. 8:25]). Just as the last earthly power in both Daniel 2 and Daniel 7 was Rome, this little horn, the final earthly power in Daniel 8, is Rome (pagan and papal) as well.
Again, the question in Daniel 8:13 involved the timing of these historical powers: Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome. And the answer given was, “And he said to me, ‘For two thousand three hundred days; then the sanctuary shall be cleansed’ ” (Dan. 8:14).
Twenty-three hundred days equals six years, three months, and 20 days, which presents a problem if taken literally. How could this time prophecy be literal and encompass the entire time span of Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome? Media-Persia itself lasted from 539 to 331 b.c. That empire alone, much less Greece and Rome with it, covers far too much time to fit within just over six years and three months.
The dilemma, however, resolves itself once we apply the day-year principle, because the 6 years, 3 months and 20 days become 2,300 years—more than enough time to encompass the rise and fall of the great powers depicted in the prophecy referred to in Daniel 8:13.
Also, as with the time prophecies of Daniel 7:25 and 8:14, the “ ‘two thou-sand three hundred days’ ” is not the normal way to express time. Why did the text not say, “Unto six years, three months, and 20 days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”? Instead, Daniel 8:14 did not follow the usual manner of expressing literal time because it intended to depict prophetic time, not literal time.
And, as with Daniel 7, symbols filled Daniel 8: a ram, a goat that did not touch the earth, and a little horn that exalted itself to heaven. In the context of all this prophetic imagery, it makes sense that the time frame involved was expressed prophetically, not literally.
The evidence for the day-year principle behind the 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 is abundant—and hardly limited to Adventists. Exegetes have been applying it to this prophecy for millennia—and with good reason.
To begin with, the prophecy is nonsensical without it. Otherwise, “ ‘the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem, until Messiah the Prince’ ” (Dan. 9:25) would be a literal 69 weeks, or just one year and four months and one week. Unless “ ‘the Messiah the Prince,’ ” Jesus, arose sometime in the fifth century b.c. or the command to “ ‘restore and build Jerusalem’ ” occurred early in the first century a.d., the prophecy makes no sense with a literal 69 weeks. However, apply the day-year principle and, surprise of surprises, it fits within the time frame of the two events that the prophecy portrays.
Also, many scholars who do not accept the Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8:14 have still acknowledged the link between Daniel 8:14 and 9:24–27. One Orthodox Jewish commentary on Daniel, the ArtScroll Series, ties the 70 weeks directly to Daniel 8:14. The pas-sages are really one prophecy, which means that if you apply the day-year principle to Daniel 8:14, you should do the same to Daniel 9:24–27.
Some have argued that the word for weeks in Daniel 9:24 really means “weeks of years.” Even if one accepted this dubious suggestion, far from negating the day-year principle, it only affirms it. If each week really meant a “week of years,” then each week would stand for seven years—the exact conclusion that the day-year principle leads to. The day-year principle is so ingrained in Daniel 9:24–27 that a scholarly notion concocted to debunk it actually confirms it instead.
Then, too, the way that the text expresses the time—“ ‘seventy weeks’ ”—was (as with the time prophecies of Daniel 7 and 8) not a common way to express literal time. Why did Gabriel not say “one year and four months and one week are determined upon thy people,” the typical manner to depict literal time? He did not express it literally because he did not mean it literally.
No question, especially given the prophetic “key” found in Daniel 2, Seventh-day Adventists are on the right track in regard to adhering to the historicist hermeneutic. And central to the historicistic hermeneutic is the day-year principle. Without it, not only does historicism self-destruct, the prophetic foundation for the Seventh-day Adventist Church would as well. If the 2,300 days of Daniel 8:14 were a literal 2,300 days, not 2,300 years, then the prophecy never extended past the fifth century b.c., highly problematic for a movement that found its raison d’être in the teaching that Daniel 8:14 reached to a.d. 1844.
Fortunately, we have more than enough reasons for accepting both the day-year principle and the historicist hermeneutic that underpins it. Daniel 2 itself, beginning in the ancient past and then tracing the rise and fall of nations up through the present and, ultimately, the eternal future, establishes that rationale. This approach makes so much more sense than does futurism, which has the prophecies unfolding in the future and literal Middle East, a position that ultimately has Christians looking there, with all the incessant violence, as opposed to heaven, where Christ intercedes as High Priest in our behalf (see Hebrews 7:25).
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1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture in this article is quoted from the New King James Version.
2 William H. Shea, Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation, vol. 1 of Daniel and RevelationCommittee Series, ed. Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 72, https://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites /default/files/pdf/selected_studies_on_ prophetic%5B1%5D.pdf.