The Day of the Lord. Part 1: The past
The Bible teaches that God rules over everything—He’s the Boss. He is also holy, good, loving and just. Yet we live in a world where there is much suffering and evil and God’s justice and His other attributes are not evident to all. People ask, if there is a God, “Why doesn’t He do something about it?”. Well, He will.
In this article we will look at a major topic of Scripture that few Christians understand—“the day of the Lord”. This phrase occurs at least 20 times in the Bible between Isaiah and Revelation; it’s always in a prophetic passage that addresses the future.
Old Testament Prophecies
God made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants. These were physical and spiritual blessings which God will always keep. They included things such as prominence, prosperity and the promised land. However, whether the Jews experienced these promises at a particular time depended on their obedience to God’s laws. When they obeyed, they would prosper “in the land He has given you” (Deut. 28:1-14). When they disobeyed they would be punished and driven out of the promised land (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:1-29). If they turned back to the Lord, then the blessings would resume and they would return to the promised land (Deut. 30:1-20).
According to Scripture, after Abraham’s time there were two categories of people: Jews (God’s chosen people) and Gentiles (those who were not Jews). The 17 books on prophecy in the Old Testament are addressed to the Jews. The phrase the “day of the Lord” occurs in the prophetic books between Amos (which was written earlier than Isaiah) and Malachi (see timeline). In this period the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in about 586 BC and the Jews were captured and scattered to other nations.
The themes addressed by the Jewish prophets (Isaiah to Malachi) that are relevant to our topic include:
- The sin and failure of God’s chosen people
- A call to repentance
- God’s judgement on them if they didn’t repent, which included captivity and being dispersed among other nations
- God’s judgement on the surrounding nations
- The coming Messiah and His rejection and power and glory. They didn’t realize that there would be two comings of Christ with the church period between these comings.
- The restoration of God’s chosen people, which included returning to the promised land
- The Messiah’s universal reign
Let’s look at what some of the passages that mention the “day of the Lord” say:
“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa. 13:6).
“See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9).
“For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near—a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations (Ezek. 30:3).
“The LORD thunders at the head of His army; His forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys His command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11).
“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Joel 2:30-31).
“The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter, the Mighty Warrior shouts His battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on all people and they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (Zeph. 1:14-18).
The “day of the Lord” refers to any time when God puts down evil and rebellion. In these cases it was referring to immediate judgements (such as their captivity in Babylon) and those that had not yet been fulfilled (which we will look at in Part 2 of this series). In particular it refers to a time of persecution and trials for the Jews—Jeremiah called it a time of trouble for Jacob (or Jacob’s trouble; Jer. 30:7).
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. It happened like they said. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. But Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophesied about the “day of the Lord” after the captivity (see the Old Testament timeline).
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Now we move ahead by over 400 years in time (see timeline). In the week before His death, the Lord prophesied about great tribulation (“pressure” or suffering or distress) (Mt 24:21-22) and the return of the Lord to the earth in great power (v.29-31) that is associated with the day of the Lord.
“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mk. 13:1). Apparently, Herod’s Temple was ten stories high and adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. But Jesus predicted that is would be reduced to rubble, with not one stone left on another: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:2).
Furthermore, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:20-24).
In AD 70, it happened like He said—the ungodly Jews were scattered. The sign of this was armies of the Roman Empire around Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Jerusalem will remain under Gentile control until the Lord returns to the earth.
Some of the Jewish and Christ’s prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in AD 70. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. However, it is clear from the Lord’s Olivet discourse (Mt 24, 25; Mk 13; Lk 21), that at this time there were still unfulfilled prophecies about the “day of the Lord”. Similar prophecies are also given in 1&2 Thessalonians and Revelation, which was written after AD70 (see timeline).
The day of Pentecost
The day of Pentecost is an example of the law of double reference.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Act 2:17-21).
Here Paul applies a prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28-32) to the day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy was given to Jews and “Your sons and daughters”, which meant that the prophecy applied to descendants of the Jews. We will see in Part 2 of this series that the complete fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy is when the Lord returns to the earth in great power and glory (v.30-31; 19-20) and the faithful of that time will be rescued to go into the Millennium (v.32; v.21). The gift of the Holy Spirit will be given to all the faithful, not just the chosen few as was the case in Joel’s time—they will receive prophetic messages; which will be revealed by dreams and visions (v.28-29; v.17-18).
How does this apply to the day of Pentecost? Well, those who were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), were all Jews (Acts 2:22). The Holy Spirit indwelt all believers on that day, not just the chosen few as had been the case beforehand. Also, they were given prophetic messages (God had used dreams and visions to bring messages to the Old Testament prophets). So, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was active, as He will be in the Millennium.
After the day of Pentecost, there were three categories of people: Jews, Gentiles and the Church: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The promises given to the Jews are primarily earthly, and those given to the church are primarily heavenly. When interpreting Scripture, we need to be careful to note who is being addressed: the Jews or the Church.
The “day of the Lord” is a theme that is particularly applied to the Jews and their enemies in the prophetic Scriptures from Amos and Isaiah to Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is a period of time when God intervenes in the world, primarily for judgement. Some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” concerned the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. As these prophecies all came true, there is no reason to doubt that the remaining prophecies about the “day of the Lord” will also come true. This gives us confidence in the prophetic Scriptures yet to be fulfilled.
Written, May 2007
See the other article in this series:
– The Day of the Lord. Part 2: The future