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Scripture Has Layers
September 15, 2019

Scripture Has Layers

Passage: Daniel 9:1-3, 20-27
Service Type:

The 2007 financial crash—dubbed “The Great Recession” by many—ended around 2009, depending on which agency or business you ask. But today—a decade later—that recession still continues for many. News articles, documentaries, and more... from journalists left, right, and center... suggest, while the economy as a whole may have bounced back, many individuals never bounced back. One study suggested up to a third of all Americans even now a decade after the Great Recession was declared over... still haven't fully recovered. Just as many reports suggest my generation—those born in the mid 80s and 90s—may never rebound, as we emerged from school to find no jobs and then found post-recession that all returning jobs went to more recent grads instead or were snatched up by Baby Boomers working into their 70s to rebuild the retirement savings they lost in the crash. Here in Michigan especially, I know we lost factories that were the lifeblood of so many towns and cities. Even when the stock market picked back up, many factory jobs never came back. Since the crash, Detroit has lost a third of its population, Saginaw and Flint about a fifth, and Pontiac about a tenth. According to many overall stats, our economy has been soaring since 2009. Yet for so many individuals, that celebration feels hollow as they continue yearning for jobs that may not come back to pay bills that never stopped.

The original readers of the Book of Daniel knew that feeling of disconnect between the official end to troubles and their own ongoing suffering. Daniel himself points out the problem in our opening verses. The prophet Jeremiah decreed that, because God's people failed to keep their covenant promise with the Lord, God would stop keeping his end, would stop defending the kingdom. Thus Babylon conquered the final vestiges of what was once Israel and scattered its people. In that day, a young Jewish man named Daniel was taken in chains to Babylon to serve its kings. Now an old man, Daniel rereads Jeremiah's prophecy of the exile he's endured all his life. Jeremiah 25: “Thus says the Lord: 'My people shall go into exile and serve the king of Babylon seventy years. But then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation for their sins.'” Daniel was a child when Jeremiah's words were spoken. Now he's over 70. And Daniel wonders whether that promise of exile ending after seventy years... will at last come true. “Will I finally get to go home? Can I see the ruins of the Temple where once the Lord was honored, the place I turn to every day in prayer?” With such thoughts in mind, Daniel prays... the middle part of today's text we skip over today.

As I say each week, Daniel the sage lived in the 500s BC. But Daniel the book was compiled around the 170s BC. Was Daniel's prayer answered? Did Jeremiah's prophecy come true? Yes. After seventy years in captivity, the Jewish people indeed went home. Over the decades, Jerusalem was rebuilt, its Temple eventually restored, its walls redone. But just as America's recession may officially be over—even as many still feel like it never ended—for God's people in the centuries after their exile, it felt like their chains remained. They expected the return home would be glorious! “We'll be free again. We can worship in the Temple again. We'll be safe again.” But that... didn't happen. Empire after empire warred over their land, and tyrants like Antiochus IV tried to replace Judaism with the Greek culture. Believers started losing hope. “Okay, I get why our ancestors were exiled long ago. They broke our covenant with God, ignored the prophets' warnings, and paid the price. But we haven't done anything wrong! Yet we're still beaten down by all these monstrous empires! I thought God would protect us from now on! Does God not care? Did the scriptures lie about the seventy years?” Such fears were on believers' minds when the Book of Daniel was first compiled.

Jesus Christ can change your life. He certainly changed mine. Christ makes all things new and offers us new life forever. But there's a—for lack of a better term—a heresy that arose in recent decades that twists such Biblical promises into hurtful lies, and it's called prosperity gospel.[1] Before you think, “Alex finally lost it! Tossing out the 'heresy' word?” hear me out. In a case of utterly bizarre bedfellows, I find myself agreeing with the Catholic Church; pretty much every flavor of Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, or Mennonite you can imagine; non-denom evangelicals like Billy Graham and Rick Warren; and even fundamentalist icons like the late Jerry Falwell Sr. Pretty much every official Christian group... thinks the prosperity gospel offers riches... but not Christ's gospel. As a pastor, let me clarify: that list I just gave you? We barely agree on anything, yet we agree on opposing prosperity gospel. The heresy essentially claims: “If you trust God, he will give you health, wealth, and whatever else. And if God doesn't give you such rewards, you just need to pray harder.” And wouldn't you know it, one way you can trust God is to donate to a prosperity gospel church. And wouldn't you know it, most of their preachers are absurdly rich. In contrast, Jesus says, “Whoever will keep their life must first lose it for me. Blessed are the poor. Pick up your cross and follow me.” Or as my childhood youth pastor said it: “Jesus is not a vending machine. You don't insert in prayer and receive whatever you want.” God doesn't promise an easy life, and not every prayer gets the answer we want.

Because the truth is that—while being a Christian makes life more hopeful or bearable than otherwise, while believing in Jesus Christ assures us of forgiveness and life everlasting, while I really do think Christianity can make your life better—the truth is God does not promise mortal life will be easy, rich, or glorious. The Book of Daniel ended up in the Bible because God's people found this life brutally hard: they were at risk of genocide when Daniel was written down. But in the pages of Daniel, they found words of truth, prophesies of redemption, messages from God that gave life and hope for enduring such terrors. When I was young—okay, younger—and first made an adult decision for Christ, I was on fire, emotionally and academically. My newfound faith made perfect sense of the world, and if a problem came up I didn't have an answer for, give me a few hours with my Bible, internet, and theology books... and I'd get you a five-page explanation. And yes there's value in studying and seeking answers like that. But as I grew older, as I lost loved ones, as I saw friends suffer, as I endured things that made me want to curl up and give up... I saw this life God gives us is often a thing only God can understand or explain. God humbled me and my technical answers. And in that I found “Jesus is the answer” was not only a classroom solution for the problems of sin, death, and evil... but the answer to all those times in life when my words fail.

The people who compiled Daniel's words into a book, they too found their easy answers undone. Jeremiah's prophesied seventy years of exile were over. Yet with tyrants and genocide beating on their door... their hearts still felt as if they never left Babylon. Their faith was about to collapse. But they found hope in Daniel's vision of the angel Gabriel, even as the angel brought bad news. To sum up a rather complex text, the angel takes Jeremiah's seventy years prophesy... and updates, expands, and applies it to a new era. Where Jeremiah foresaw seventy years of exile, here Gabriel decrees seven weeks of years or, in other words, seven times seven years, aka forty-nine years... between this message and the full restoration of Jerusalem after exile. This is followed by sixty-two weeks of years of times that are okay but still somewhat tough, under the empires of the Persians, Alexander the Great, and then Alexander's his generals. This is followed by seven years of desecration and suffering, when the empire ruling over the Jews outlawed their religion, defiled their Temple, and attacked their people. But at the end of that final set of seven years, the Lord will destroy the emperor who persecutes God's people.

So we have weeks, years, decades? What's going on? The final tally of years the angel gives totals to seventy years times seven. Seven is a sacred number in Judaism: on the seventh day of creation God rested. The Jewish Sabbath is the seventh day of each week, and so Gabriel's message uses “weeks” instead of “seven” to really drive home that holy Sabbath connection. Seven signals completion and holiness, whereas six often signals anxiety and unholiness. Jeremiah says: “Seventy years exile, then we come home.” That's pretty complete. But as Daniel's people will soon go home from exile, Gabriel expands that message: “Seven times seven years from now—aka a very complete time—Jerusalem will be completely restored. But things still won't be perfect. You have to survive seven times sixty-two years—so sixty-two cycles of completion—under pagan tyrants, wars, and worse even though you'll be home again. And just before you reach seventy times seven—that super-duper complete and holy time—things are going to be at their most incomplete and worst. You'll want to give up. But after that final wave of evil, God will at last completely restore your kingdom. So hold on! Help's on the way!” All of Daniel 9 is a reminder that God is in control, that even when times are bad the Lord doesn't abandon his people, that just as God was faithful to his promise to rescue from exile so too will God rescue the faithful from all the evils and dangers tyrants yet to come.

Weirdly enough, Jesus Christ later reinterprets Daniel's reinterpretation of Jeremiah. Near the end of the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus—foreseeing how a few decades after his death the disciples would be persecuted, how Roman legions would soon utterly destroy God's Temple for good—Jesus draws on Daniel's vision of suffering for now but God rescuing his people in the end... to reassure his disciples, to prepare them for the worst, to give them a faith that endures good times and bad. Daniel used Jeremiah's words meant to comfort exiles that suffering will end one day... to reassure himself as that exile came to a close... which was in turn used to comfort a nation of returned exiles suffering under a new evil empire... which was in turn used by Christ to comfort the disciples as they neared the crucifixion of Jesus and the wars that would plague Jerusalem in the following decades... which is now being used by me in an attempt to comfort you somehow. Like Shrek said of onions and ogres... this scripture has lots of layers.[2]

So what do we do with this bizarrely mathematical scripture? We're modern American Christians reading a text for ancient Jews facing genocide, that features an even ancient-er Jewish man who's re-reading the prophet Jeremiah, who in an even ancient-er era was re-reading Moses to deliver God's call to a people gone astray. And as Christians, we also have Jesus, who after all those other Biblical figures reinterprets this vision again to apply it to his first disciples. There's a reason one famous Old Testament scholar called today's scripture “the dismal swamp of Biblical interpretation.” Today's scripture is so layered it defies easy comprehension.[1]

And I think that's my lesson today. It seems every generation has left their fingerprints on this promise that one day God will restore his people. It gave hope to Jeremiah, to exiles like Daniel, to the first readers of the Book of Daniel, to Christ's first disciples, and to Christians for centuries since. Every generation of believers has felt like the world was caving down around them. Every generation has wondered when will all this suffering end. God never said this life would be easy. But to every generation, God uses moments like this one in Daniel... to remind us that God never abandons us, to show us even when our world is crumbling that God will still one day restore all things, that just as God was faithful to our ancestors so too will the Lord be faithful to us. It's not that life is easy. It's rather a promise that life has a purpose and direction. That evil, pain, injustice, and the like don't get the final word. The tyrants of this world eventually get their due. It's a vision of hope that spoke through Jeremiah into Daniel's life, through Daniel into the lives of Jews enduring a brutal persecution, through them into the lives of Jesus' disciples fearing what would happen after Christ was crucified, and through them into our lives today as we struggle to hold on in our own ways. The problems we believers face may change. But the lesson of Daniel 9 is that the Lord who loves us never changes and never fails. Amen.

[1] Of course, not everything prosperity gospel preachers say is all bad, and folks who listen to them are still good with Jesus in my book. Insofar as it aligns with traditional Christianity, I have no problems with the prosperity gospel. But the elements unique to it are things I often find both unbiblical and dangerous to the mental, spiritual, and financial wellbeing of Christians. For more information on this movement, check out these introductory articles from Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition.

[2] When it comes to the apocalypses that appear in the second half of the Book of Daniel, there are three main ways Christians tend to interpret them: historical, Christological, and dispensationalist. Until now I have avoided delving into the weeds of this debate because I think Daniel’s intended meaning in our readings so far has been easy to discern from the language, history, genre, symbolism, and other contextual elements. With Daniel 9, however, interpretation breaks down to where the intent is less clear. Below you will find a description of each broad lens of interpretation along with my own personal thoughts.

Historical: This reading sees Daniel’s apocalyptic chapters pointing to the historic event of Antiochus IV persecuting Judaism and desecrating the Temple, which ultimately led to the Maccabean Revolt and the rise of a new Jewish monarchy. This interpretation is the most widely accepted one among academic Bible scholars, and it’s the most persuasive to me personally. First, it harmonizes the heroic stories of Daniel’s first half and the apocalyptic visions of Daniel’s second half: both parts work in unison to inspire hopeful faith and resistance against the coming persecutions of Antiochus IV. A historical reading also meshes with timeline we have for when the Book of Daniel was compiled (see my first sermon in this series for that discussion). These stories and visions were popular in post-exilic Judaism but only formally written down around the 170s BC, as people saw them speaking powerfully to their current crisis. If the original readers thought these visions spoke to their present sufferings, as a historical reading suggests, it makes sense why they would at last write these things down at that time. Finally, for a text of its nature, a historical reading of these visions lines up incredibly well with actual recorded history, both in terms of the progression of rulers and in cases like today’s “weeks of years” text where specific sets of years are laid out that map fairly well onto recorded history, depending on the start date you pick.

Christological: This reading sees Daniel’s apocalypses pointing to the life of Jesus Christ. This approach has similar arguments for it as the historical reading, but it stretches the timeline of predicted events by about 200 years. Where a historical reading sees Daniel’s visions pointing to the persecutions of Antiochus IV and the Maccabean Revolt, a Christological one sees them pointing to the first coming of Christ and to Rome’s destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple in 70 AD. This reading has some support from Christ’s comments in Mark 13:9-27 and in Matthew 24:1-30. Some also see phrases like “anointed prince” (Dan. 9:25) and “decreed end” (Dan. 9:27) and think it must be about Christ. But the difficulty is that the timelines Daniel gives do not match as neatly onto this reading, nor does Daniel's symbolism. In the case of Daniel 9’s “weeks of years,” it’s hard to get from the end of exile to Christ’s death and the destruction of the 2nd Temple while taking Daniel’s timeline literally. And “anointed” is not reserved exclusively for Jesus in the Bible but gets used across the Old Testament for high priests, Godly rulers, and other holy people, while “decreed end” reads as the end of the troubles facing Daniel’s original audience just as easily as it could be the end of sin via the cross. While it’s tempting for Christians to see every Old Testament prophecy pointing to Jesus, we need not always do so. Just as we gladly connect Jeremiah’s prophecies of exile and Moses’ predictions of desert wanderings to specific moments of Jewish history without diminishing Christ, we can do so here as well. Regarding the gospel passages where Jesus uses Daniel, they can be read—as I do in my sermon—as Christ drawing upon Daniel’s visions but reinterpreting them to give courage to the disciples in the face of a new coming crisis. Daniel himself does something similar here in chapter 9 by updating Jeremiah’s prophecy, and outside the Bible we find similar patterns in cases like the 1st century AD Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, who says Daniel's apocalypses point to Antiochus IV’s persecutions but who then also applies those apocalypses to his own day’s conflict between Romans and Jews. So we can maintain that Daniel’s original purpose for these apocalypses was dealing with Antiochus, while also allowing it to be Christological in saying Jesus updates and riffs on Daniel’s promises to fit a present need, which was a common way to use scripture in Christ’s era.

Dispensationalist: In brief, dispensationalism sees Biblical and world history divided into stages or 'dispensations'. But huge variations exist among dispensationalists over how to divvy up the stages of history, and I cannot get into them all here. Many dispensationalist readings of Daniel’s apocalypses see it pointing—not to the persecutions of Daniel’s original audience or not even to the first coming of Christ—but to the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end times. Such readings argue those "weeks of years" are entirely metaphorical, set our present day somewhere amid those metaphorical weeks, and argue the "decreed end" is not about Antiochus IV's death or Christ's cross but the end of the world entirely. Dispensationalism affects how you read the entire Bible, not only apocalypses but also Mosaic laws, Proverbs, prophets, and more, as a decree given by God in a different dispensation may not apply today. This framework is common in America, especially in many Baptist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic circles. But it is actually a relatively new idea from the 1830s that goes against the official teachings of most Christian traditions, including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, who instead espouse a view known as covenant theology (the other two interpretations of Daniel both fall under label of covenant theology). Despite its official minority status, dispensationalism looms large in US culture because the first widespread study Bible with reference notes in US history happened to be dispensationalist, which caused many to unknowingly assume that was the norm. As a Presbyterian preacher, I am not a dispensationalist for many reasons, most of all because it does not mesh well with my Reformed theology and clashes with my approach to studying and applying scripture. Yet I am still sympathetic to the hope dispensationalism gives many fellow Christians. It’s comforting to think these ancient scriptures precisely predict present-day current events and thus show us God is in control today. But you can get that exact same assurance from Daniel’s pages without dispensationalism. If you read Daniel historically or Christologically, the Bible still declares that God is in control: if God was in control and had a plan then, the same certainly remains true now. With the first two approaches, however, you can claim this while respecting Daniel's ancient context and without needing to stretch its symbols or timelines to cover our era. There are certainly arguments to be made for the various dispensationalist models, but I think it is much simpler theologically, cleaner in terms of Biblical interpretation, and more elegant overall to take a historical or Christological approach to Daniel instead.

That was a really long digression. And I didn't even get into all the arguments between those three groups over the specific meanings and symbols of Daniel 9, which was the very reason I had such difficulty unpacking this text this week. I've rambled too long already, but hopefully you have enough now to at least start exploring on your own. If you want a great place to start or even just a second opinion, The Bible Project's video on Daniel gives a great brief summary of Daniel and the various interpretations of it. Just remember the general thrust of Daniel—no matter who you side with—is that God is in control, so if things are bad for now, hold onto hope and know that God is with you no matter what. And that's really the point of my sermon: across all these debates, uncertainties, fears, and more... God has always been in control, guiding us all home.

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