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The Day of the Lord

Introduction

"The Day of the Lord" is a phrase introduced by the prophet Amos to convey God’s coming wrath and judgment. He and the prophets who followed spoke in contemporary, near-historical time frames and in terms of future eschatological events. New Testament writers utilized this cultural framework, particularly its eschatological implications, and expanded its use to include the coming judgment leading to the tribulation period and conclude with the new heaven and earth. These New Testament writings presented the Day of the Lord within an imminent time construct. The purpose of this review is to examine the proposed concept of the Day of the Lord as a present experiential reality.

Early Prophets

The first prophetic book written in the Old Testament is also the first to use the phrase “the Day of the Lord.” This prophet was Amos. However, this concept and phrase likely predate Amos since his use implies some previous understanding of the term.[1] It has been suggested by some that the Day of the Lord originated as a New Year Festival.[2] This origin does not have significant scholarly support, however. The most compelling cultural origin for the phrase is proposed by Von Rad, who suggested that in the early wars fought by Israel, God was present in the battle and revealed Himself there.[3] Thus, any battle was called the Day of the Lord. Ezekiel 13:5 lends credence to this idea since a battle is visualized in the past and referred to as the Day of the Lord within this passage.[4] For the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord was an imminent, if not concurrent, experience.

While the phrase itself does not occur prior to Amos’ writings, the concept can be found in the earliest books of the Old Testament. In Exodus, this principle is expressed in relationship to the defeat of the Egyptians. Moses wrote, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:30). This interpretation seems appropriate in light of the historical context for the phrase (God’s deliverance from the enemy).[5] Other New and Old Testament writings also refer to the Day of the Lord as “that day” (Zechariah 14, Malachi 3, Matthew 7:22, Luke 6:23, John 16:23, etc.).[6]

For Amos and the early prophets who utilized this phrase, the imagery was punishment for Israel alone, for Gentiles largely, and through most of the prophetic writings, for Israel and gentile alike.[7] These prophets form the foundational understanding that was built upon by subsequent New Testament writers.

Amos

            Amos warned those who would look forward to yôm YHWH, the Day of the Lord, in vanity. During Amos’ time, Israel was not threatened by foreign enemies. They were prosperous and had become complacent and prideful. While this is the first Biblical occurrence of the phrase, the Day of the Lord, it is clear that the people already expected that it would bring judgment on their enemies (with the Lord appearing to fight Israel’s battles). They anticipated and welcomed a present Day of the Lord. God had defended an obedient Israel, so the people expected that protection would extend to them, ignoring their disobedience. Amos addressed those who saw the Day of the Lord as judgment for everyone else, not them. He said, “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord! That day will be darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18). This is the first use of the complete expression in the Bible. By using it here, Amos powerfully warned of the destruction that would come to all who would stand against God, Israelite or gentile.[8] Amos warned Israel that they did not understand the true nature of God’s relationship with Israel. If they are not obedient to Him, God will bring judgment on them and their land. Tasker explained that Amos stated that “‘the day of the Lord’ would be a day on which God would vindicate ‘His own righteousness’ not only against the enemies of Israel but also against Israel itself.”[9]

But Amos did not leave Israel, or those who would come after, without hope. He prophesied, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord …‘I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them … I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,’ says the Lord your God” (Amos 9:13-15).

Joel

The prophet Joel described a great invasion of locusts overwhelming Judea and presented this event as a precursor to a greater event to come. In Joel 1:15, he warned, “The Day of the Lord is at hand, and a destruction from the Almighty shall it come.” Joel described the Day of the Lord as “a day of blood and fire.”[10] Joel prophesies judgment against the nations who had oppressed Israel. He drew on a powerful memory of King Jehoshaphat’s victory over Moab and Ammon when he described the gathering of “all the nations into the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (4:2) and the Lord’s “visit to judge all the nations roundabout” (4:12). Utilizing the familiar location and event helped Israel understand the nearness of the Day of the Lord. While Joel described destruction to Israel’s enemies, he promised salvation for those “who call upon the name of the Lord” (3:5). As Bakon described it, “a glorious future for purified Judea is assured by the Lord.”[11] Imminent judgment is a dominant theme, but ultimate redemption finds a place in Joel’s theology.

Isaiah

            When Isaiah first introduced the phrase, the Day of the Lord, in Chapters Two and Three of his work, he spoke in familiar terms, focusing on the judgment and destruction to come. In Isaiah 2:12, he warned them that their pride and loftiness would cause God to bring them low. This instance of the phrase contains a variation, with the inclusion of the preposition l before YHWH. The phrase would then likely be rendered “the day belonging to Yahweh.”[12] This modification lends additional import to the phrase and is also present in Isaiah 12:4 and Zechariah 14:1. Through this enhancement, the Lord declares His increasing claim on these events. As Isaiah moved into Chapter 4, he changed his tone, declaring that “In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel” (4:2). This reveals the two natures of the Day of the Lord once more; that of judgment and that of redemption.

Later in his writings, Isaiah once again returned to judgment, speaking of “wailing” (13:6), God’s “wrath and fierce anger” (13:9), and ultimately “the day of the Lord’s vengeance” (34:8). Within these later chapters, the imminence of the Day of the Lord is clearly depicted.[13] Isaiah described the  Day of the Lord and the immediacy and pain associated with it using the metaphor of a woman in labor, “They will be dismayed; pangs and agony will seize them. They will be in anguish like a woman in labor” (Isaiah 13:8).

It seems relevant that the prophet who prophesied so extensively of the Messiah would recognize the Day of the Lord as an imminent event filled with hope. Isaiah provided this hope when he confirmed that, ultimately, the whole world would acknowledge the Lord. This will usher in peace and harmony in the world (Isaiah 19).

Zephaniah

Zephaniah wrote during a time of political unrest. Assyria was in decline, Babylon was rising, and Judah was constantly threatened by its neighbors. Zephaniah spoke of God’s anger and the wrath that was to come to political leaders, idolators, and false priests (1:4-6).[14] He wasted no time in expressing God’s displeasure, recording in his opening verses, “‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:2). Like Isaiah, he spoke of the imminence of the Day of the Lord, writing “for the Day of the Lord is near.” (1:7). In Zephaniah’s writing, God has special punishment awaiting Judah’s enemies. God declares that “he will famish all the gods of the earth” (2:11). This term, “famish,” in this context, refers to the practice of sacrificing to false gods by those who worship them.[15]  Because the people will not have sufficient goods to offer these sacrifices, the idols will be deprived and ignored, and the nation will be purified. This “will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (3:9). Hoffman observed that “Zephaniah was the first to utilize יום יוזוה [the Day of the Lord] as a definite eschatological term, and from then on it was never used in non-eschatological context.”[16]

Ezekiel

Isaiah and Ezekiel each provide unique portrayals of the Day of the Lord and its relationship to the eschatological aharit ha-yamim, the “End of Days.”[17] While Isaiah sees these as two separate events, Ezekiel presents the ultimate Day of the Lord as contemporary with the end times. As demonstrated by Isaiah’s focus on both the Day of the Lord and the coming Messiah, the Day of the Lord (and its related End of Days) will usher in the end of the current kingdom and all it contains, and the introduction of the eschatological. Ezekiel is clear that the Day of the Lord is imminent, declaring, “The day is near, the day of the Lord is near” (30:3).

The events recorded in Ezekiel set the stage for the ultimate battle (14:1-2) and the healing of the land as the waters go out from Jerusalem (14:8). Using decidedly eschatological terminology, Ezekiel taught that God’s wrath would demonstrate to the whole earth that He is God, with power over His creation. In analyzing the destruction resulting from God’s judgment described by Ezekiel, Alexander Brown observed that Ezekiel “learns that if the old order changes, it is to give place to a new and better; that the judgments which befall his people will … prepare the way for more glorious manifestations of his power, and a still more gracious fullness of his presence among men.”[18]

 

Malachi

Malachi’s work follows the pattern established by Joel, first presenting the Day of the Lord as a day of judgment on Israel (2:11), and then against the Gentiles (3:2). Like Joel, he also looks beyond these judgments to God’s protection of those who are obedient and fear his name (2:32 and 4:18-21). Malachi bridges the temporal gap as well, speaking of both historical and concurrent events as well as future events. As described by Wielenga, Malachi refers to both “the imminent and to the ultimate intervention of God into this world on behalf of his people who have returned to him.”[19] As such, Malachi develops the bridge that is completed in the New Testament.

New Testament Application

Though Old Testament writers saw an application for the idea of the Day of the Lord within their own historical setting, as Kaiser said, these prophets also saw, “That final time would be climactic and the sum of all the rest. Though the events of their own times fitted the pattern of God’s future judgment, that final day was nevertheless immeasurably larger and more permanent in its salvific and judgmental effects.”[20] This message impacted the application of the Day of the Lord by New Testament writers, who sought to synchronize their cultural understanding of the concept with the new theological implications brought about by Christ’s presence. They found within the message communicated by the Old Testament writers an understanding of how God has dealt with his covenant people and his enemies in their extremity and extended that to their own expectations for the future. The phrase, the Day of the Lord, carried a multigenerational cultural impact and was a part of the identity of Israel. Jesus came at a time when Israel was once again being oppressed.[21] The people once more looked to the Day of the Lord to come and defeat their oppressor, Rome.

The Day of the Lord was theological shorthand for the prophets of the Old Testament and would take on new depth as it was incorporated in the message of Jesus Christ and his disciples. The historical context reflected in this phrase, regarding God’s wrath in the battle, would be applied to the final battle and the judgment of God.

The Gospels

Rather than addressing the oppression of Rome, Jesus recognized that the real enemy was evil. The Day of the Lord and the eschatological kingdom it will usher in will bring victory over this enemy. Matthew recorded Jesus’ description when he wrote, “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, Christ said that the wheat and the chaff will be separated, and the chaff will be burned “with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12, compare Malachi 4:1).

Jesus referred to the Day of Judgment when God would judge everyone (Matthew 12:36). He connected this day with his second coming (Matthew 24:36) and with the resurrection (John 6:39–40).  And while Christ would punish the wicked, he would welcome the righteous (Mark 14:25). Regarding the Day of the Lord, Jesus declares of that day, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). Craig A Blaising correlated these events when he wrote, “The day of the Lord is the day of His coming, and in biblical parlance, the coming of the Lord and the day of His coming are often interchangeable.”[22]

Within the Olivet Discourse, recorded in each of the synoptic gospels, Christ included features that related to the Day of the Lord (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21). In the beginning of this discourse Christ spoke of war, famine, earthquakes, pestilences, terrors, and signs from heaven. He then progressed to darkness (which becomes a key feature of the Day of the Lord) as the days become shortened (Matthew 24:22 and Mark 13:20). Ultimately the attack on Jerusalem will come. The final events demonstrate God’s power and wrath as stars fall from the heavens, the sun and moon are darkened, and fear spreads over the earth. Reminiscent of Isaiah’s metaphor of the woman in labor, Jesus uses this same imagery when he speaks of “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mathew 24:8 and Mark 13:8). Seeking to impress on His audience the immediacy of these events, Jesus says, “When you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:33), and concludes “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:34). 

The Apostle Paul

Matthew Arnie proposed that Paul “understood the day of the Lord as more than just an eschatological event and, like the Old Testament prophets, recognized that the day of the Lord also affects the lives of Christians in the present.”[23] In Paul’s view, the future event was so certain that it influenced and affected the present.[24] Paul’s experience with the Lord on the road to Damascus had provided him with his own Day of the Lord. He had been judged and redeemed in a very personal and experiential way.

Paul taught that “now is the day of salvation” when he wrote to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 6:2). He saw that God had begun his redemptive work in the world through Jesus Christ, just as he had with him personally.[25] Thus, the Day of the Lord was a present thing.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul described the Day of the Lord as “the Day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5), “the Day” when “God will judge the secrets of men’s hearts” (2:16), and a day that is prophetically “near” (13:12). Paul’s writings in the Book of Romans demonstrate the effect of a lifetime of reflection on his own Day of the Lord on the road to Damascus, including the wrath it portends, as well as the redemption it offers. Above all, Paul was aware of the imminent nature of the Day of the Lord and its impact on present faith.

Paul’s experience with the church at Thessalonica provided an additional opportunity for insight into his concept of the Day of the Lord. The Thessalonians were concerned about the timing of the Day of the Lord. He used the metaphor of a “thief in the night” to describe the imminence of the event (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3). This parallels the imagery used by Matthew and Luke in their gospels (Matthew 24:42-44 and Luke 12:39). Paul’s intention here is to demonstrate that while the specific time of the event is not known, its reality is not in question. Paul encourages the church to live their lives anticipating the Day of the Lord (5:4-11). Garland Young summarized Paul’s teaching in this arena, “For Paul, eschatology, and ethics were partners which required and implied each other…The imminence of Christ’s return required upright, moral living.”[26] And it required it now.

John’s Revelation

In the Book of Revelation, the Day of the Lord is described as a final battle that involves the whole world.  John sees a great sacrifice resulting from this final conflict when he writes,  “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great” (Revelation 19:17–18). All of these have been offered as a sacrifice to God. In Revelation, rather than being portrayed as the great lion, Jesus is depicted as a slaughtered lamb (Revelation 5:5-6). While Jesus rides the white horse, his sword is “in his mouth” (19:11-21). With two edges, this sword slays the wicked and saves the righteous. And in Revelation 19:13, there is blood on the robe of Jesus, which is His own, the result of His suffering. In this process, Christ has reframed the Day of the Lord. Victory comes not through might but through sacrifice. The transition from wrath to redemption is now complete, and a new heaven and a new earth have come. With Christ’s return will come a change in our present world “into a new and fused earth-and-heaven that will display both continuities and discontinuities with the old.”[27] This new heaven and earth will be the culmination of the Day of the Lord, and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

When John was given his vision, “he was already experiencing the nearness of the end.”[28] John wrote of the Day of the Lord being near, giving his message urgency. He “experienced the eschatological day of the Lord as a present reality.”[29] For John, the fulfillment of all the promises born in the principle of the Day of the Lord, including the imminent return of Jesus Christ, were a part of his present experience. He had experienced the nearness of the new heaven and earth.

Early Church Understanding

Much of church scholarship's early focus on the Day of the Lord was on its timing and relationship to other eschatological theology. Perhaps Augustine is the best representative for gaining insight into the early church’s theology of the Day of the Lord. Augustine wrote in the early 5th century, “The whole church of the true God holds and professes the belief that Christ will come down from Heaven to judge the living and the dead. This is what we call the last day, the day of the divine judgment. We also call it the last time, for it is not certain how many days this judgment will take since anyone who reads the sacred scriptures, even negligently, knows that the word day is often used in them to meantime. Also when we speak of the day of God’s judgment we add the word last or final for God is judging even now.”[30] Blaising summarizes Augustine’s view thus, “For Augustine, the future day of the Lord is a complex of events that will mark the close of the present age and the beginning of the age to come.”[31]

Charles Hodge attempted to distill what he termed “church doctrine” on the subject. He concluded that there will be a final judgment, what he called a "definite future event . . . when the eternal destiny of man and angels shall be finally determined and publically manifested."[32] He considered it a specific and finite event. In contrast, J.T. Cooper held that the Day of the Lord is “the whole of the millennial dispensation.”[33] Cooper’s focus was on the judgment aspect of the Day of the Lord, and he concluded that the millennium opens with judgment, has judgment running through it, and closes with the final judgment.

It was Clarence Mason who resolved the perceived dispute. In his article, “The Day of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he concluded that the period covering the Day of the Lord "extends from the translation of the church to the creation of the new heavens and new earth, after the close of the millennial age, and includes the period of the tribulation, the whole millennium, and the judgments following the millennium."[34]

Conclusion

As with many theological principles introduced in the Old Testament (such as blood sacrifice), whose basis was anticipation of the Messiah who would come, the Day of the Lord experienced a similar change in perspective after His advent. To Old Testament Israel, the focus of the phrase was God’s expected deliverance in battle and promised judgment on the wicked, while in Christ’s ministry, this perspective shifted to a primarily eschatological emphasis. Once God had been in their midst, all attention would forever be on His return. Christ’s encouragement, echoed by the Apostles, to consider His return and the establishment of His eternal kingdom as imminent and ever-present echoes through the New Testament and in the hearts of the believers as they consider the Day of the Lord.

Placing the Day of the Lord within a present and future context brings the faithful to a place where the “eschatological promises of the OT are now fulfilled in Christ.… God’s promises have been realized in Jesus Christ and yet have not reached their consummation. God’s saving promises have been inaugurated but not yet consummated.”[35] Just as ancient Israel considered the Day of the Lord a time when God would fight their present battle and bring judgment on their enemies, modern Christians can embrace the concept of the Day of the Lord as a present experiential reality.

 

[1] John M.P. Smith, “The Day of Yahweh,” The American Journal of Theology 5 (July 1901): 505, 31.

[2] Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, Trans. G.W. Anderson, (The Biblical Resource, 1956), 534.

[3] G. Von Rad, “The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. 4, Issue 2, (April 1959), 97-108.

[4] Meir Weiss, “The Origin of the ’Day of the Lord’—Reconsidered,” Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 37, (1966), 38.

 

[5] J.Bergman Kline, “The Day of the Lord in the Death and Resurrection of Christ,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 48, no. 4, (Dec. 2005), 758.

[6] J. D. Barker, “Day of the Lord,” Dictionary of the Old Testament:Prophets. Edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 133.

[7] H. Williamson, “The Day of the Lord,” A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 199..

[8] Robert Saucy, “The Eschatology of the Bible,” Expositors Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 107.

[9] R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God, (London: Tyndale, 1951), 45.

[10] Shimon Bakon, “The Day of the Lord,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2010), 150.

[11] Bakon, 150.

[12] Matthew D. Aernie, The Righteous and Merciful Judge: The Day of the Lord in the Life and Theology of Paul, (Lexham Press, 2018), 49.

[13] Richard L Mayhue, “The Bible’s Watchword: Day of the Lord,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, (Spring 2011). 67.

[14] J. Alec Motyer, “Zephaniah.” The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Edited by Thomas Edward McComiskey. Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 899.

[15] Greg A. King “The Day of the Lord in Zephaniah.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 152, no. 605, (Jan. 1995), 26.

[16] Yair Hoffmann, “The Day of the Lord as a Concept and a Term in the Prophetic Literature,” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 93, no. 1 (1981), 50.

[17] Bakon, 153.

[18] Alexander Brown, The Great Day of the Lord, 2nd Edition, (London: Eliot Stock, 1894), 24.

[19] B. Wielenga,"The Delay of the Day of the Lord in Malachi: A Missional Reading," In die Skriflig 52(1), 2018. 2.

[20] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 191.

[21] Mark D. Vander Hart, “The Transition of the Old Testament Day of the Lord into the New Testament Day of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Mid-America Journal of Theology, vol. 9, no. 1, (Spring 1993), 3–25.

[22] Craig A. Blaising , “The Day of the Lord and the Seventieth Week of Daniel.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 169, no. 674, (Apr. 2012), 140.

[23] Arnie, 86.

[24] Tobias Nicklas and Michael Sommer, “The Day of the Lord Is Already Here (2 Thess 2:2b)-A Key Problem for the Understanding of 2 Thessalonians,” HTS Theological Studies 71, no. 1 (January 2015).

[25] Jan Lambrecht, “The Favorable Time: A Study of 2 Cor 6, 2a in Its Context,” in Vom Urchristentum zu Jesus: für Joachim Gnilka, ed. Hubert Frankemölle and Karl Kertelge (Freiburg: Herder, 1989), 377–91.

[26] R. Garland Young, “The Times and the Seasons: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11,” RevExp 96 (1999), 272

[27] John B. Lloyd, “New Directions in Eschatology: The Day of the Lord in Time and Space,” Theology. 119, no. 1 (2016), 9.

[28] Ranko Stefanovic, “The Lord’s Day of Revelation 1:10 in the Current Debate,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 49, no. 2 (2011), 284.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Augustine, “De cimiate Dei” 20.1, in Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. R. W. Dyson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 965.

[31] Craig A. Blaising, “The Day of the Lord: Theme and Pattern in Biblical Theology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 169, no. 673, (Jan. 2012), 3.

[32] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1872-1873; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 845-46.

[33] J. T. Cooper, "The Judgment, or Judgments," The Second Coming of Christ: Premillennial Essays of the Prophetic Conference Held in the Church of the Holy Trinity, New York City, ed. Nathaniel West (Chicago: Revell, 1879), 247.

[34] Clarence E. Mason Jr., "The Day of Our Lord Jesus Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 125 (July-September 1968), 357.

[35] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 543.


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