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Day-for-a-year principle?

Does the "day-for-a-year" principle pass the Scriptural test?

The day-for-a-year principle is one of the foundation stones for much of traditional Christadelphian prophetic interpretation. The continuous-historic viewpoint of prophecy that our pioneer brethren endorsed is especially dependent upon this principle. It is therefore incumbent upon us to test this principle against Scripture.

The day-for-a-year principle presumes that the word 'day', when found in a prophetic passage, should be interpreted as representing a literal year. For example, the 1,260,1,290, and 1,335 days of Daniel and Revelation are read as 1,260, 1,290, and 1,335 years (Dan 7:25; 12:7,11,12; Rev 11:2,3; 11:6,14; 13:5). In short, prophetic 'days' represent literal years.

There are passages that are quoted in support of this day-for-a-year principle. Do they prove it? Let us look at them one at a time.

1. Numbers 14:34: "After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know My breach of promise."

This verse apparently supports the principle, especially the phrase "each day for a year". But, if we pay closer attention, we immediately notice two things about the passage. First, both phrases, "forty days" and "forty years" are in the text. Second, both time periods are literal.

There is a correspondence between the two time periods in the use of the Scripturally significant number forty (that is, "after the number of the days"). But there is absolutely no evidence that the phrase "forty days" is to be interpreted as "forty years". The facts, as plainly declared in the passage itself, are that the spies searched the land for forty literal days and the nation wandered in the wilderness forty literal years.

In short, though initially this passage might seem to support the principle, after a more careful analysis we find that it actually does not.

2. Ezekiel 4:4-6: "Lie thou also upon thy left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon it thou shalt bear their iniquity. For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year."

Again, at first this passage seems to teach a principle that prophetic days are to be interpreted as representing years. But we must read carefully.

The passage actually says that Ezekiel was to lie on his left side for 390 literal days and on his right side for forty literal days, each representing the corresponding number of literal years of the iniquity of Israel and Judah. Here, as before, we find that, in the text of Scripture itself, "days" means literal days and "years" means literal years. Let us suppose that, instead of what is written, Ezekiel had been told: "Lie on your left side 390 days, and on your right side forty days. For I have laid upon you the time of Israel's punishment." (Note that the word 'years' does not occur in this hypothetical text.) Now let us suppose that the corresponding punishment of Israel's iniquity was shown to be a Scripturally-attested 390 years and forty years. Such would be Biblical precedent for a day-for-a-year interpretation. However, this is not the case.

Both passages (1) and (2) use the same method: a certain number of literal days for individuals corresponding to the same number of literal years for the nation. In each case all the Scriptural time periods are literal periods.

3. Daniel 9:24: "Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city..."

This passage is used as support for the day-for-a-year principle as follows: 70 weeks = 70 x 7 days = 490 days; then, 490 days = 490 years, this last equality being supported by the principle in question. The problem with this analysis -- and it is a fatal problem -- is that the Hebrew word "shabua" (translated week" in the AV) means nothing more than a seven'. This explains why John Thomas used the anglicized Greek word 'heptade', meaning 'a group of seven things', in his translation of this passage given in his "Exposition of Daniel". Eze 45:21 emphasizes that it cannot be simply read as "seven days" because in that verse the same Hebrew word "shabua" is combined with the word for days. In short, the "seventy weeks" of Dan 9 stands for a group of 'seventy sevens' of something to be determined ["seventy 'sevens' " (NIV), "seventy weeks of years" (RSV, Roth)].

From the context, we discover that Daniel was asking (in v 2) about the seventy years prophesied by Jeremiah. Gabriel then gives him a prophecy concerning seventy times seven years. The result of 490 years is the same as that derived earlier, but now it is on a much firmer basis. The point can be set out graphically as follows:

Wrong formula:

70 weeks = 70 weeks x 7 days = 490 days = 490 years

Right formula:

70 x 7 (what?) = 490 (what?).

The variable (what?) becomes 'years' only after consideration of the context. There is no need for application of a day-for-a-year principle.

4. Luke 13:32,33: "And he [Jesus] said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk today, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem."

We would never have suspected that these verses would be quoted in support of the day-for-a-year theory until a well-respected speaking brother did just that at an American Bible School.

There are at least four problems in taking the passage to be a prophecy indicating that our Lord's ministry would last three years.

First, his ministry lasted longer than three years. Second, these verses were spoken in the fourth year of the ministry, making them too late for the purpose indicated. Third, there is nothing at all in the passage itself to suggest that the day-for-a-year principle should even be applied. Finally, his interpretation ignores the most likely basis for Christ's expression. The idiomatic phrase yesterday, the third day" is used about two dozen times in the Old Testament to indicate an indeterminate period of time.

Whatever the correct interpretation of this passage, by itself it does not support the hypothesis.

As far as we know, these are the only passages that have been quoted as direct support for the principle that prophetic days represent literal years. As we have seen, these passages do not actually support this hypothesis. On the other hand, we have seen that in the two strongest passages (Num 14 and Eze 4) the words 'day' and 'year', when used in the text of Scripture, mean precisely day and year, even by the admission of those who would find support for their theory here.

Are there any passages that support the hypothesis that prophetic time periods should be taken literally? The answer is definitely yes. The following are several examples in which prophetic time periods are necessarily literal:

1.         On many occasions Jesus predicted that he would be raised the third day. These are all quite literal.

2. Genesis 15:13: "And He said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years."

3.         Genesis 41:29,30: "Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt: and there shall arise after them seven years of famine."

4. Isaiah 38:5: "Behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years."

5. Jeremiah 25:11,12: "And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the LORD, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations."

6. Jeremiah 29:10: "For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform My good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place."

7. Daniel 9:2: "In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalern."

These examples are sufficient. They provide conclusive evidence against the theory of a day-for-a-year. However, there may still be those that argue against this result on the basis that the passages to which the principle is applied are symbolic, whereas the passages cited against it are all literal. But, when we go through the passages, we see that making such a distinction does not save the theory.

Before we examine the passages, we ask the question: Did John, for example, apply the day-for-a-year principle when interpreting his own visions? If he did, then certainly he would have passed this much along to Polycarp, Irenaeus and others of the first and second centuries. But "it is admitted that, for the first four centuries, the days mentioned in the prophecies of Daniel and in the Apocalypse were interpreted literally by the Fathers of the Church" ("Literary History of the New Testament". as cited in "Tregelles on Daniel": The Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony, Chiswick, 7th ed, 1965, p 112.)

On the other hand, Tregelles wrote: "As far as I know, the first who spoke of a period of twelve hundred and sixty years was the celebrated Abbot Joachim of Calabria at the close of the twelfth century. But he did not excogitate this as a prophetic period by using any year-day theory, but he formed it from the designation of 'a time, times, and the dividing of time', thus: he assumed a time to be the largest measure of time in use amongst men, a thousand years; times to be two of the next smaller measures of time, two hundred years; the dividing of time he assumed to be part of the last-named measure. He probably adopted sixty precisely (instead of fifty which he should have done as it is properly 'half a time') from the analogy of the 1,260 days. I ought to inform the reader that Abbot Joachim considered himself to be inspired. The year-day theory of two centuries later seems to be only a carrying out of the supposed revelation to Abbot Joachirn" ("Tregelles on Daniel", footnotes on pp 123,124).

Now to the passages.

1. In Dan 4:16,23,25,32 Nebuchadnezzar was told that he should be driven from men "till seven times pass over him". The "seven times in these verses is generally taken to be seven years, a conclusion that is most likely correct. (The Hebrew word for "time", moed, is the same as that used for the yearly feasts of Israel, especially the Feast of Passover.) This period of seven years must be taken literally. In fact, vv 28-37 detail the fulfilment of the dream, recounted by Nebuchadnezzar in vv 10-18, precisely as interpreted by Daniel in vv 19-27. Verse 28 is emphatic: "All this came upon the king Nebuchadnezzar."

Application of a day-for-a-year principle in this passage results in nonsense. But that does not stop some expositors who tell us that the seven times represents 2,520 (7 x 360) years.' However, their interpretations of the prophecy are completely unrelated to the details given in Daniel 4. The prophecy deals specifically with Nebuchadnezzar, with no implication otherwise.

This example is particularly important with regard to our discussion. The primary application of the day-for-a-year principle is to the various time periods in Daniel and the Apocalypse. One of these periods is the "time and times and half a time" (RV) of Dan 7:25; 12:7 and Rev 12:14. This corresponds to exactly half the period given in Dan 4. Because the seven times in Dan 4 must be seven literal years, the three-and-a-half times in the other passages should reasonably and consistently be interpreted as three-and-a-half literal years, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary.

2.         "Time and times and half a time" (RV) in Dan 7 is not found in the symbolic part of the prophecy, but in the interpretation given to Daniel. The rest of the interpretation is literal, so the time period should be also. In Dan 12 "the man clothed in linen... sware by Him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half." The fact that the time period was part of an oath would seem to emphasize that it is literal. There are three methods used to describe this same period of time: the "time, times, and an half" we have been discussing; "a thousand two hundred and threescore" in Rev 11:3; 12:6; and "forty and two months" in Rev 11:2; 13:5. It is as though God intended there to be no room for confusion. He was saying it would be three-and-a-half years; that is, forty-two months; in short -- 1,260 days. Simply put, if an inspired apostle, in this case John, tells us exactly the same thing in three different ways, it ill becomes us to insist that he did not really mean what he said!

3. The "thousand two hundred and ninety days" and the "thousand three hundred and five and thirty days" in Dan 12:11,12 are both associated with the 1,260 days, in that the 1,290 days would end one (thirty-day) month after the 1,260 days, and the 1,335 would end 45 days later. These particular numbers are most likely to be connected with the Jewish calendar. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the passage in Daniel to suggest anything but a literal interpretation of these time periods.

4. The "hour, and a day, and a month, and a year" of Rev 9:15 surely refers to a specific and precise point in time and not a period (that is, the very hour, day, month, and year).

5. There is no reason why the "three days and an half" in Rev 11:9 should not be taken literally. The 31/2 days that the two witnesses are dead corresponds to the 31/2 years that the holy city is trodden under foot. This parallels the method used in the Num 14 and Eze 4 passages discussed earlier: a certain number of literal days for specific individuals corresponding to the same number of literal years for the nation.

It is interesting that the usual continuous historic interpretation of this time period does not use the day-for-a-year principle; otherwise it would signify three-and-a-half years, not 105 years as is often given. This inconsistency in the application of the principle is itself evidence against the principle.

6. The "thousand years" of Rev 20 provides another example of this inconsistency. This time period is always assumed to be literal by the continuous-historicists.

We could discuss other prophetic time periods but this collection should be convincing. We have concluded that the day-for-a-year principle not only lacks evidence to support it, but that it is actually contrary to many plain examples in which time periods must be literal. Given this result, it is urgent that we, as seekers of Bible truth and not men's traditions, review many commonly accepted interpretations of prophecy. Specifically, all the standard continuous-historic results that depend so heavily on the day-for-a-year principle must be seriously questioned.

(Joe Hill and George Booker)

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