What Are the Seventy Weeks of Daniel? (Daniel 9)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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24“Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.25Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.26And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.27And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.”
Daniel 9:24–27

Why Seventy?

Gabriel announced, “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city.” The objects of God’s decree are the Jews and Jerusalem. The number “seventy” is essential for the remaining verses, which divide it threefold, so understanding the source of this number is vital to a proper interpretation.

The number “seventy” appeared earlier in chapter 9 when the prophet was reading in the book of Jeremiah about the desolations of Jerusalem ending after “seventy years” of captivity (v. 2). Gabriel’s message played upon the “seventy” and promised “seventy sevens” or “seventy weeks.” And if the “seventy” in Gabriel’s message played on the “seventy” from Jeremiah 25:11–12 (cf. Dan. 9:2), it is reasonable to assume the “sevens/weeks” played on the years of Daniel 9:2 as well. A decree of “seventy sevens/weeks” probably meant 490 years (70 × 7).

Another issue is whether we should take the 490 years literally or symbolically. Observe first that even though Jeremiah wrote about seventy years of captivity, the Jews were actually in exile less than seventy years. If Gabriel’s message then used that number, perhaps we should expect a figurative or symbolic meaning rather than applying 490 with strict literalism, for not even the number seventy was applied with the sort of precision often expected today. Further pointing us in the direction of nonliteral interpretation of the “seventy sevens” is the probable source of the “sevens.” Seven is a number of completion and perfection, and Leviticus 25:8–12 most likely informed Daniel’s understanding of Gabriel’s message:

You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.

In Leviticus 25 a multiplication of “seven weeks of years” (v. 8) resulted in forty-nine years. The fiftieth year was jubilee, a time of freedom and climactic observance. That Gabriel’s message should be understood in light of the jubilee passage in Leviticus 25 is evident by the first division he gives to Daniel in Daniel 9:25: seven sevens/weeks. Next, sixty-two more sevens are given (v. 25b), and then the climactic seven/week receives the most attention (vv. 26–27). The seventy sevens in verse 24 denote jubilee; if seven sevens in Leviticus 25:8 led to jubilee, then seventy sevens in Daniel 9:24 is a tenfold and ultimate jubilee!

Looking Ahead

The reason for a tenfold jubilee is evident in the six results Gabriel listed: God decreed the seventy sevens “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place” (v. 24). The mention of transgression, sin, and iniquity is significant in light of Daniel’s prayer, which confessed Israel’s sin (vv. 4–15) and pleaded for mercy and forgiveness (vv. 16–19). God was saying to Daniel, “I will take care of the sin. Atonement will be accomplished.” This future work would bring in everlasting righteousness, a permanence that worshipers of Yahweh longed for. “Vision and prophet” probably refers to God’s revelation until this atonement was accomplished. Once sin had been dealt with in this future redemptive work, prior revelation would be fulfilled, and eclipsed, by the jubilee event God would accomplish. If understood as a hendiadys (two words conveying a single concept), “vision and prophet” may be understood as a “prophetic vision” and may have Jeremiah’s prophecy of return from exile in view. Gabriel was giving Daniel insight into how Jeremiah’s words would ultimately be “sealed” or “confirmed.” Part of God’s atoning plan included anointing a “most holy place” or, probably more accurately, “most holy one.” No anointing was ever reported for Solomon’s temple or the rebuilt temple under Ezra. An individual, not a structure, is meant. The work of this anointed individual would appear shortly in the breakdown of the seventy sevens (vv. 25–27).

Given the stupendous effects of the seventy sevens, it is worth noting that the first sixty-nine sevens do not mention the kind of effects listed in verse 24. The seventieth seven, though, includes an anointed one being cut off, destruction of city and sanctuary, and desolations that have been decreed (v. 26). Furthermore, a covenant will be made and sacrifices will end (v. 27). The six remarkable outcomes in verse 24, therefore, would not be accomplished gradually throughout the first sixty-nine weeks. They would come to pass because of what takes place in the seventieth seven.

Gabriel began telling Daniel what he should understand: “From the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks.” The next “sixty-two weeks” (which will be dealt with in the following subsection) specify that Jerusalem “shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.” The first “seven” and next “sixty-two” weeks seem to deal with the whole span of time envisioned in verse 25, which encompasses the “going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince.”

God promised a spiritual savior, a suffering servant who would take Israel’s iniquities and bear their punishment.

As history unfolded, “the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem” turned out to be the decree of Cyrus permitting the return of the Jews in 538 BC. Having conquered Babylon in 539, Cyrus released the Jewish exiles the following year. Isaiah reported the Lord’s plan to use Cyrus in this manner: “I am the Lord, . . . who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isa. 44:24, 28). Later, Ezra recorded, “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1), and the proclamation specified a return to Jerusalem to “rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem” (v. 3).

Arguments for dates earlier or later than 538 BC fail to account for the specific texts in Isaiah and Ezra linking the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s words to Cyrus’s decree for a return from exile. When Daniel received this message from Gabriel, Daniel was in “the first year of Darius” (Dan. 9:1), whom we have equated with Cyrus the Persian (cf. comment on 5:31), and thus Daniel received the revelation from Gabriel shortly before the royal decree was given. Daniel would not only see the Babylonian captivity come to an end; he would also live through the inauguration of the “seventy sevens” that led ultimately to a tenfold jubilee when the anointed one would come and put an end to sin. The anointed one is mentioned before the “seven weeks” (v. 25a) and again after the “sixty-two weeks” (v. 26). This suggests that the arrival, and atoning work, of the anointed one was the grand goal of the “seventy sevens,” but he would not come until the sixty-two weeks were complete (cf. v. 26).

If the “seven weeks” (v. 25a) began at the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC, a literal calculation would put their completion around 489. Because no significant biblical or prophetic event occurred in that year, the “seven weeks” were probably not meant as a literal forty-nine years. Rather, we should see the “seven weeks” (or “seven sevens”) as alluding to Leviticus 25:8, where Yahweh told Moses, “You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.” The first “seven weeks” in Daniel 9:25a, therefore, prepared Daniel and the reader for an expectation of jubilee. The “seven sevens,” begun in 538 BC, probably extended through the rebuilding of the temple and the city walls during the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. The temple was completed and rededicated in 515, while the city wall was finished in 444.

Referring to Jerusalem, Gabriel told Daniel that “for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.” There is no indication that a gap of time should be inserted between the first seven sevens and the next sixty-two. Since verse 26a says the “anointed one” would come after the sixty-two sevens, clearly the first seven did not culminate with the anointed one’s work.

Relating the sixty-two sevens (v. 25b) to the seven (v. 25a) is not as difficult as may be initially thought. The sevens are consecutive and uninterrupted. The period of sixty-two sevens probably extended from the time of Nehemiah to the time of Jesus (the anointed one). As with the first seven sevens, we should not press the sixty-two sevens with strict literalism with the intent to specify exactly 434 years. It is a round number, symbolic of the time period from Nehemiah to Jesus.

There may be further significance to the “sixty-two sevens” of verse 25b. The only other time the number “sixty-two” appeared in the book of Daniel was in 5:31, where it says Darius conquered Babylon, “being about sixty-two years old.” Strengthening the connection between 9:25b and 5:31 is the fact that the episode of chapter 9 occurred during “the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede” (9:1a), and the only prior occurrence of “Darius the Mede” was in 5:31.

Freedom for Captives

Darius/Cyrus would decree freedom for the captives in Babylon. Cyrus was a type of the Messiah, for the latter would also give freedom to captives—to captives of sin and death, out of the deepest exile by way of a new and greater exodus. The book of Isaiah gave prior biblical precedent for viewing Cyrus typologically: he is God’s anointed shepherd in Isaiah 44:28–45:1. Cyrus would deliver the captive Israelites as their political savior. In the same section of Isaiah foretelling the work of Cyrus (Isaiah 40–55), God promised a spiritual savior, a suffering servant who would take Israel’s iniquities and bear their punishment (Isa. 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 52:13–53:12). The liberation through Cyrus would one day be surpassed by a far greater liberation through the suffering servant, Jesus Christ, whose work of atonement would be an ultimate jubilee. Perhaps, then, the age of Cyrus when he conquered Babylon (“sixty-two”; cf. Dan. 5:31) served as the basis for the symbolic period leading to the antitype of Cyrus, the anointed one who would suffer in the place of sinners and, in doing so, would conquer sin and death through his resurrection.

For “sixty-two weeks” the city of Jerusalem (including its temple) would remain rebuilt “with squares and moat, but in a troubled time” (9:25b). Gabriel’s words probably denote that from Nehemiah to the Messiah, the city would remain standing. The “squares and moat” were mentioned probably to indicate complete restoration. Gabriel did not elaborate on the “troubled time,” but it may refer to the atrocities committed by the Greek Empire under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. ch. 8).

These verses are best understood in an A-B-A'-B' pattern. They tell about the seventieth week, which received the most attention in Gabriel’s message to Daniel:

A. “And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing.” (v. 26a)
B. “And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” (v. 26b)
A'. “And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering.” (v. 27a)
B'. “And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” (v. 27b)

In this structure, A and A' refer to the same event: the sacrificial work of the anointed one. Sections B and B' each have a single event in mind as well: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Below we will contend that the seventy sevens of chapter 9 reach fulfillment in the vicarious death of Jesus Christ and in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

Who Is to Come

Gabriel’s next words, “after the sixty-two weeks,” indicate the seventieth week is now in view. He declared that “an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing.” This “anointed one” is the prophesied Messiah, a figure fulfilled by Jesus, the “Christ” (i.e., the anointed one; cf. Luke 2:11). Some interpreters have suggested that the “prince who is to come” (Dan. 9:26b) is the future Antichrist.1 There could be no greater contrast between potential referents! We should opt for understanding both figures as “Christ,” however, making the “anointed one” and “prince” identical. First, when Gabriel mentioned “anointing” two verses earlier, it was in relation to a most holy person who would end sin and make atonement (v. 24), and the apposition “a prince” after “an anointed one” in verse 25 suggests we should equate the titles. Second, it is unlikely that the “prince” of verse 25 and the “prince” of verse 26 refer to different people. More naturally, the reader should understand “prince” to have the same referent in verses 25 and 26: he is the Messiah, not the Antichrist. Third, no time gap is specified before the seventieth week, yet many Antichrist views require a gap of thousands of years. Such a passing of time has no textual warrant in Daniel 9. Just as we should not project a time gap between the seven sevens and the sixty-nine sevens, so we should not project a gap between the sixty-ninth and seventieth sevens.

The prediction that this anointed one would be “cut off and shall have nothing” was fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross. He was taken outside the city gate and crucified, abandoned by his disciples and forsaken by the Father (Matt. 26:31; 27:60; Heb. 13:12–13). The seventieth week of Daniel, then, included the redemptive work of Jesus. Given the six remarkable goals of Daniel 9:24, this “cutting off” of the anointed one would be the means of finishing transgression, ending sin, atoning for iniquity, ushering in everlasting righteousness, confirming the prophetic vision, and anointing a most holy person.

A prophecy concerning Jerusalem’s city and temple came next: “The people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed.” As we have seen, the “prince who is to come” is the same “prince” (or “anointed one”) as in verse 25: the Messiah, Jesus. This means “the people of the prince” were the Jews. The prophecy may seem outrageous, then, when it says the Jews will destroy Jerusalem and the temple! After the redemptive work of Jesus, the temple was destroyed in AD 70, and the Jews had a role in it. The Romans, led by Titus, were involved in the destruction, but the transgression of the Jews—particularly their rejection of the Messiah—led to the Messiah’s judgment on their temple and city, just as they were complicit when the first temple was destroyed in Daniel’s own day. The account of this event given by Josephus, in The Wars of the Jews, “is adequate historical proof that the destruction of Jerusalem was entirely the fault of the Jewish people, just as Dan 9:26b predicts.”2

Jesus prophesied the temple’s destruction (Matt. 24:1–2), and said that his contemporary generation would not pass away before it happened (v. 34). Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies, which meant “its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20). Gabriel’s words were fulfilled in AD 70: the sanctuary’s end came like a flood, with war to the end, for God had decreed its desolation. The imagery “with a flood” pictures the total destruction of the Romans’ victory over Jerusalem.

Having looked at the A and B sections of Daniel 9:26, we will now see how Gabriel’s words take us through the same events again, first the redemptive work of the Messiah and then the judgment on Jerusalem and the temple (A' and B', respectively).3

Speaking of the anointed one, the prince who would come, Gabriel declared, “He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering.” The “one week” in view is the seventieth seven. Gabriel was referring to the Messiah’s redemptive work as taking place in the climactic period of the “seventy sevens.” Gabriel’s words did not predict a temporary covenant. In conjunction with prophecies in Isaiah and Jeremiah, this “strong covenant” was probably the new covenant (cf. Isa. 53:10–12; Jer. 31:31–34). The book of Hebrews explains that the anointed one’s vicarious offering has put an end to the sacrificial system (Heb. 9:11–10:25).

The Messiah would make this covenant with “many” (Dan. 9:27; cf. Isa. 53:11– 12), which seems to denote not universality but diversity:4the new covenant would include Jewish and Gentile believers. Jesus alluded to Daniel 9:27 and Isaiah 53 when he said of the cup at the last supper, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27–28). The Son of Man “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

Gabriel prophesied that “for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering.” This specification meant the seventieth week would involve more than just the Messiah’s work of redemption. As Daniel 9:27b prophesies, the seventieth week would also involve the Messiah’s work of judgment on Jerusalem. The seventieth seven, then, is divided in half, with the first three and a half years referring to the work of redemption. Just as the seventieth week in verse 26 consisted of the anointed one being cut off (v. 26a) and the city and sanctuary being destroyed (v. 26b), so verse 27 recapitulates these two ideas and divides the seventieth week in half.

ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

Thirteen contributors explain the shorter Prophetic Books of the Old Testament—Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—with biblical insight and pastoral wisdom, showing readers the hope that is offered even amidst judgment.

Likely the second three and a half years is reflected implicitly in the language of verse 27b: “On the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.”5 A desolator would cause abominations until his own destruction occurred. “Wing” may mean “extremity,” and thus extreme abominations would be in view (cf. 11:31; 12:11), brought about by a swiftly attacking army. Jesus referred to “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt. 24:15), and surely Jesus had in mind Daniel 9:26–27. Significant for interpreting 9:26–27 is Matthew’s observation that Jesus was addressing the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Matt. 24:15). In Luke 21:20 Jesus referred to Jerusalem’s approaching “desolation” by the (Roman) armies. The “desolator” was probably a corporate way of depicting the Roman legions, or perhaps Titus (the Roman general) himself fulfilled this role. Jesus prophesied that such days would be “days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. . . . For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:22–24). Jesus also specified the time frame: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32). In AD 70 the temple was destroyed. The seventieth seven—a period encompassing the work of redemption for the many, as well as the work of judgment against Jerusalem and the temple—had reached completion.

Peter Gentry provides a perfect summary:

The vision of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks, then, can be explained simply. It refers to a period of seventy sabbaticals or periods of seven years required to bring in the ultimate jubilee: release from sin, the establishment of everlasting righteousness and consecration of the temple. During the first seven sabbaticals the city of Jerusalem is restored. Then for sixty-two sabbaticals there is nothing to report. In the climactic seventieth week, Israel’s King arrives and dies vicariously for his people. Strangely, desecration of the temple similar to that by Antiochus Epiphanes in the Greek Empire is perpetrated by the Jewish people themselves, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem. These events are fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the coming king. His crucifixion is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices and the basis of the New Covenant with the many.6

Notes:

  1. Cf. Miller, Daniel, 268.
  2. Peter J. Gentry, “Daniel’s 70 Weeks and the New Exodus,” SBJT 14/1 (2010): 39.
  3. Quoting Gentry, again: “This approach is kaleidoscopic and recursive. It is like hearing music from stereo system speakers sequentially instead of simultaneously. First comes the music of the right speaker; then comes the music of the left speaker. Then the person hearing (i.e., reading) puts the two together into a three-dimensional stereo whole” (ibid., 36).
  4. According to Gentry, this is “almost certainly ‘the many’ referred to in Isa 53:10–12. Without doubt, Isaiah 53, describing a future Davidic Servant of the Lord, who is also both priest and sacrifice, laying down his life for the many, is the background to the brief comment in Daniel’s vision” (ibid., 37).
  5. In keeping with the A-B-A'-B' structure of verses 26–27, this prophecy would be fulfilled in the destruction of the 63 Cf. the use of three and a half in the book of Revelation (11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5). It is equivalent to 1,260 days, or 42 months.
  6. Gentry, “Daniel’s 70 Weeks and the New Exodus,” 41.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel–Malachi: Volume 7 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr, and Jay Sklar.



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