What was Jeremiah’s prophecy, and what were these Sabbaths that were equivalent to seventy years?
Jeremiah 25:11–12 states, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.” Jeremiah 29:10 repeated, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”
Zechariah spoke in retrospect of these seventy years (520–518 BC; cf. Zechariah 1:7; 7:1). Their duration was a time of God’s anger, and their end was due to His mercy (Zechariah 1:12). The people fasted during these years, perhaps mourning the siege, breach, and destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the murder of Judah’s governor Gedaliah (Zechariah 7:5; cf. 8:18–23; 2 Kings 25:1–4, 24–25).
Each of these “Sabbaths” (2 Chronicles 36:21) was “a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land” that was to have taken place every “seventh year” after “six years” of farming (Leviticus 25:3–4; cf. 25:1–7). Israelites were also to cancel debts (Deuteronomy 15:1–11) and free slaves in this year (Deuteronomy 15:12–18; Exodus 21:2–6). If seventy years were necessary to recover these Sabbaths, Israel apparently failed to observe the Sabbath year seventy times, indicating disobedience for 490 years.
Daniel confirms this understanding with a prophecy four years before the end of these seventy years (cf. Daniel 9:1). Daniel referred to Jeremiah’s “seventy years” as the “the number of years that…must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:2). Interestingly, in response to Daniel’s prayer of repentance for the nation’s 490 years of disobedience (cf. Daniel 9:3–19), God told Daniel of seventy “sevens” of years to come, another 490 years. Sixty-nine of the seventy “sevens” (483 years) took place (cf. Daniel 9:20–27) and ended when the Messiah was “cut off” on the cross (Daniel 9:25–26a). The final “seven” of years will come when the Antichrist makes a covenant with Israel, breaks it, and persecutes the nation. Thankfully, Christ wins the day in the end (Daniel 9:26b–27; 2 Thessalonians 2:8). The gap of time between Daniel 9:25–26a (483 years) and Daniel 9:26b–27 (seven years) is similar to the gap of time between Isaiah 61:1–2a and Isaiah 61:2b (cf. Luke 4:18–19).
So when exactly were these seventy years?
King Nebuchadnezzar sieged Jerusalem and took many people captive in 605 BC (2 Kings 24:10–17; cf. Daniel 1:1). Nebuchadnezzar then destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and took more people again in 586 BC (2 Chronicles 36:11–23). Using 605 BC as the first of Jeremiah’s seventy years, when the Persian king Cyrus commanded Judah to return to her land in 539 BC (2 Chronicles 36:22–23; cf. Ezra 1:1–4), and they did so in 538 BC, we could identify two years later in 536 BC as the end of these seventy years when Israel “made a beginning” of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 3:8–9). If reentry into the land is the end of exile and thus cuts the seventy years short by two, then perhaps God in His sovereignty cut those days short for the sake of His nation, similar to how He will cut short future judgment for the sake of His elect in Matthew 24:22.1
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- For a helpful discussion of the above texts, see F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982); Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979); and John A. Martin, “Ezra,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985).