According to Daniel 9:25, the beginning of Israel’s mandate, or the point at which the clock was to start ticking for the Seventy Weeks, would be at the issuing of a command to rebuild the ruins of the city of Jerusalem. The end of the Babylonian captivity and the subsequent return of the Jews’ to Jerusalem were both events predicted by Jeremiah to occur 70 years after they were taken captive. The book of Ezra tells us part of the history of this period and says that the very first expedition to return to Israel after the 70 years of captivity occurred after a decree by King Cyrus II (The Great) in approximately 538 BC. This event was actually in direct fulfillment of a previous prophecy written down by Isaiah, where the prophet amazingly predicted the very name of the King of Persia long before he was even born (Cyrus). This king would eventually let over 42,000 Jews go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple (see Isaiah 44:24-28).
Since the southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed and its people taken captive in stages from about 609 BC when Josiah, the King of Israel, was killed during the battle at Megiddo to the time of the final fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, it is difficult to place an exact start date on the Babylonian captivity. However, the prophecy in Jeremiah predicting the Babylonian captivity and its length also says this about the destruction of Judah and the 70 year period:
“And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
“And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the Lord, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations.”
When the 70 years of captivity were fulfilled, the Lord caused the Persians to rise up and destroy the Babylonian Empire, just as Jeremiah had predicted. Cyrus the Great and his Persian army penetrated the city of Babylon, commonly considered impenetrable at the time, and took the empire in approximately 540 BC. Cyrus’ permission to rebuild the Temple took place within the first years of his reign, and it occurred about 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s first attack upon Judah. Notice that Jeremiah’s prophecy doesn’t predict that all the Jews would immediately return to their land after 70 years, only that the Lord would end the captivity by punishing the Babylonians.
In the first chapter of Ezra’s book in the Old Testament, he wrote about the history of the post-captivity period and stated that the King of Persia was actually influenced by God to issue the command to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. This was all said to be done in order to directly fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah:
“Now 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, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
“Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
“Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.”
King Cyrus issued his command specific to the rebuilding of the Temple but not with regard to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. However, the rebuilding of the Temple did not immediately occur with this initial return to the land. Due to the difficulties the Jewish people encountered with foreigners who had settled in their land while they were still captive in Babylon, and also due to their own lack of initiative, the temple itself was a long time in building and left far too long in disrepair (Ezra 4). Not only did it remain unfinished for many years, but the whole city of Jerusalem also stayed in ruins and without a wall surrounding it for well into the next century. It was actually not until the time of Nehemiah (c. 445 BC) that the desire and the means arose to return to Palestine with the express purpose of rebuilding the entire city of Jerusalem.
Note: Some commentators have mistakenly applied Cyrus’ command to rebuild the Temple (as described historically by Ezra) as the starting point for the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks. However, Gabriel’s words to Daniel specifically state that the period would begin with the “commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem”. While Cyrus’ decree was important in fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy of ending the captivity and letting the Jews go back to their land, it was not the event which would fulfill Daniel’s prophecy. That event would not occur until much later during Nehemiah’s time.
In the early chapters of Nehemiah’s book, he is described as saddened by a report from one of his countrymen who had just come from Judah describing God’s people as afflicted and the city of Jerusalem still in shambles. In Nehemiah 2, it is recorded how this man of God bravely stood before Artaxerxes I (the King of Persia almost a century after the reign of Cyrus) and requested that he be allowed to lead another group of his people back to restore Jerusalem to its former glory. The date that Nehemiah made this request is given explicitly in Nehemiah 2:1 as having occurred in the month of Nisan, and in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign. On that very same day it is said that the king allowed Nehemiah to perform the desire of his heart in leading a group back to Jerusalem.
“And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.
Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid,
And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?
Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.
And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it.”
Further on in the second chapter, after Nehemiah and a small group with him had come to Jerusalem, they scoped it out and described it as in ruins:
“Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.
Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.
But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?
Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.”
At that time, Nehemiah and his group came to Jerusalem with the express purpose of rebuilding the city which was destroyed during the attacks of the Babylonian Empire over a century before. King Artaxerxes provided permission to allow this to happen and also provided Nehemiah with the materials to do it. This one account happens to be the only record in the entire Bible where permission is given for the Jews to return to Israel after the Babylonian captivity with the express purpose of restoring and rebuilding all of Jerusalem—a commandment from the king of Persia that perfectly fulfills the conditions within the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks. Thus, the encounter between Nehemiah and the king of Persia (which occurred over a 100 years after Daniel’s prophecy was written down) gives us the precise date for the beginning of the Seventy Weeks (or Seventy Sevens) period.
Note: Some people have mistakenly used the expedition by Ezra to Jerusalem as described in Ezra 7 as the start date for the Seventy Weeks. That chapter describes how King Artaxerxes allowed Ezra and a small group with him to return to Jerusalem with gold and silver for use in building the worship articles for the Temple and for the purchase of animals for sacrifice. Artaxerxes had been influenced by God to support the completion of the Temple and re-institute the sacrificial worship that was stopped at the point of Jerusalem’s destruction. Even though Ezra records the date for this trip as occurring on the first day of the first month of Artaxerxes’ seventh year (458 BC), it does not fulfill the prophecy in Daniel 9:25, because it does not involve the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church has advocated the use of this event as the start of Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, and their writings about this position can easily be found on the Internet. However, not only is this start date incorrect, which throws off the entire time sequence of the prophecy, their insistence that the Seventy Weeks occur without interruption also is incorrect, as we shall see in the coming sections on this prophecy.
Now, if we take the description in Nehemiah 2 as the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy and simply look in an encyclopedia for historical data on the Persian Empire, particularly king Artaxerxes I, we can find reference to the fact that he arose to power in the year 465 BC (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 9, s.v. “Iran, history of”, by T. Cuyler Young, Jr.). Therefore, Artaxerxes’ twentieth year must place the time of Nehemiah’s request as having occurred in the year 445 BC. We are also told that the meeting between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes took place in the month of Nisan, which roughly correlates to the period of time extending from mid-March through mid-April in our current calendar. In addition, it is said that according to Jewish tradition if the particular day of the month is not actually stated in a written document, then it is assumed to mean the first day of the month. For the sake of argument let us treat this assumption as correct. Therefore, we can pinpoint the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem that was given by the King of Persia as having occurred on Nisan 1, 445 BC. We will now use this date as the starting point of Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks and interpret the remainder of it according to this date.