Daniel and the 70 Years of Jeremiah

Daniel 9:1-3 introduces us to the prayer of Daniel for his people. It occurred in the first year of Darius the Mede, which was late 539 BC or early 538 BC. Daniel read in the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah that the exile in Babylon would last for 70 years, after which God would return his people to the land of promise. Jeremiah was a prophet at the height of his ministry when Daniel was a boy, and Daniel had probably seen and heard him while he was still living in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah mentions the 70-year exile in two different prophecies. The first is in Jeremiah 25, a prophecy that was given in the same year that Daniel was taken from Judah to Babylon, 605 BC.  “And this whole land shall be a desolation and a horror, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.” (Jer 25:11-12, NAS). The second prophecy to mention 70 years was part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to Babylon about 8 years later, in 597 BC. “For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope‘” (Jer 29:10-11). It is worth noting that by the time this letter arrived in Babylon, Daniel had already been promoted to the position of ruler over the province of Babylon (Dan 2:48), so the letter may have even come to him personally.

So when did the 70 years begin, and when did it end?

The answer to this question is a bit trickier than it may sound. There is little doubt when the period ended. Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple in 538 BC (Ezra 1:1-4). A very similar decree is preserved on the well-known Cyrus Cylinder, in which Cyrus allows for the return of a great many of the people groups that had been deported by the Babylonians, and asks them to rebuild their temples and pray to their gods for him.

Cyrus Cylinder, decreeing the return of deported people, 538 BC.

So when did the 70 years begin? Adding 70 years to 538 would take us back to 607 BC (if we reckon inclusively), but that is earlier than Jeremiah’s first prophecy, and earlier than even the first deportation. The first deportation occurred in 605 BC, which would leave us two years short. There seem to be two options for how to understand this.

  • It is well-known that the years assigned to the various kings of Israel and Judah almost always included a partial year of reign on the front end. Sometimes this was calculated as “year 1” of the reign, and other times it was counted as an accession year and only the first full year was reckoned as “year 1” (for a fuller accounting of this, see Edwin Thiele’s Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings). There were two transitions of kingship in Judah during this period: Jehoiakim > Jehoiachin, and Jehoiachin > Zedekiah. If the partial years of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were counted in addition to the partial year of their predecessor, as Thiele has demonstrated happened regularly, then this could account for the lacking two years.
  • A second option is that God simply cut the time short out of graciousness. The prophet Joel commended on this. “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him (Joel 2:12-14, NAS). In fact, Daniel’s response after reading of the 70-year prophecy was to turn to God in prayer, fasting, sack-cloth, and ashes (Dan 9:3ff).

Either way, it seems that the 70-year prophecy began in 605 BC and ended in 538 BC. Here is a timeline showing that span.

Timeline of the 70 years of Jeremiah, Dan 9:2.

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