When should we expect a day of the Lord?

In the popular Christian mind any reference to the “day of the Lord” or the “day of judgment” is likely to be conceived in final terms, as a transcendent event at the end of history. So when Paul says to the men of Athens that God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31), it is usually assumed, despite the narrative context, that he has in mind a judgment of all humanity, not just of the Greek-Roman civilisation that is so visible in Luke’s account. Let’s have a look, then, at the use of the phrase “day of the Lord” and a few related expressions in scripture.

Great and awesome days of the Lord in the Old Testament

In the oracle of Isaiah 13 the “day of the Lord” is a day when YHWH will bring the armies of the Medes against Babylon to destroy the whole land (Is. 13:6, 9). On this day of military conquest “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Is. 13:10). The heavens and earth will be shaken. This is symbolic language, though the burning of a city would certainly darken the skies, and perhaps Isaiah imagined a real disruption of the heavenly order. People will fall by the sword, infants will be dashed in pieces, young men will be slaughtered (cf. Ps. 137:8-9). Babylon, the “glory of kingdoms,” will become like Sodom and Gomorrah, a desolation, haunted by wild animals (Is. 13:11-22).

Expansionist Egypt is opposed and defeated on a “day of the Lord,” which will be “a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes,” when the “sword shall devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood” (Jer. 46:10).

The walls of ruined Jerusalem need to be rebuilt so that the house of Israel “might stand in battle in the day of the LORD” (Ezek. 13:5). Walls will be of little use at the end of the history

Ezekiel is told to prophesy that the day of the Lord is near: “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. A sword shall come upon Egypt, and anguish shall be in Cush, when the slain fall in Egypt, and her wealth is carried away, and her foundations are torn down” (Ezek. 30:3–4).

In Joel a locust swarm is a sign that the day of the Lord is near, “as destruction comes from the Almighty it comes.” Israel will escape devastation if the people repent; otherwise they will become a byword among the nations (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11-17).

The Spirit of prophecy will be poured out on Israelites, and in their visions they will see “wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:30–31). All who call on the name of the Lord in Judah and Jerusalem will be saved, but YHWH will enter into judgment with the nations because of the harm that they have done to Israel (Joel 3:1-3). All solidly historical.

The people of Israel are foolish to desire a day of the Lord. A day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” when there will be wailing in the streets and vineyards (Amos 5:16-20).

On a day of the Lord Edom will be punished for the harm that it did to Israel (Obad. 15-16).

The royal court in Jerusalem will be punished on a day of the Lord; the city will be plundered and ruined (Zeph. 1:7-16).

Before a great and dreadful day of the Lord comes, YHWH will send Elijah to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6).

In every case, it appears, a “day of the Lord” is a day of God’s judgment against arrogant and violent nations, or against his own unrighteous people, often in the form of military attack, resulting in death and destruction. Chaos in the heavens matches the chaos on earth, but this is not the end of the world. In the Old Testament a day of the Lord (the phrase is more often than not indefinite) is never a final judgment. It is always an event in history, when God steps in to “judge” a bad situation.

The day of God’s wrath against Jerusalem

We should assume that the Jewish followers of Jesus understood the terminology more or less as it is used in the Old Testament unless there is clear evidence that they gave it a different sense. I take this to be a fundamental principle of New Testament interpretation. They are thinking as first century Jews and share the presuppositions of first century Judaism—admittedly not a monolithic category—unless they say otherwise.

There is no “day of the Lord” in the Gospels, but Jesus speaks of a “day of judgment” specifically against Israel that will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15; 11:22-24; 12:36; Lk. 10:12; 17:28-30). His point is that Jerusalem will suffer a far greater catastrophe during the war than the “land of Sodom and Gomorrah,” despite the biblical notoriety of these two cities. Josephus makes similar use of the analogy:

I suppose, that had the Romans made any longer delay in coming against these villains, the city would either have been swallowed up by the ground opening upon them, or been overflowed by water, or else been destroyed by such thunder as the country of Sodom perished by, for it had brought forth a generation of men much more atheistical than were those that suffered such punishments; for by their madness it was that all the people came to be destroyed. (War 5:566)

The day will come upon Jerusalem and Judea suddenly, in the same way that the flood came upon people in the time of Noah, in the thick of life, as they were eating and drinking and marrying (Matt. 24:36-39; Lk. 17:26-27). Jesus compares it to the unexpected return of the master to punish the wicked servant who beats his fellow servants and hangs out with drunkards. The master will cut the man in pieces and “put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:48-51; Lk. 12:46)—the reference, clearly, is to the punishment of the hypocritical leadership of Israel before the current generation passes away (Matt. 24:34). The day will come upon the whole land “suddenly like a trap” before this generation passes away (Lk. 21:32, 35).

Peter quotes the passage from Joel in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 1:17-21). The Spirit of prophecy has been poured out on this group of disciples, who will therefore see visions of a great and manifest day of the Lord (again indefinite), when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (Acts 2:20). If the “men of Jerusalem” wish to be saved from the destruction that is coming upon this “crooked generation” of Jews, they must call upon the name of the Lord seated at the right hand of God, who has been give the authority to judge and rule over his people (Acts 2:34-41).

Nothing here suggests that Luke has expanded on Joel’s field of reference. This is a day of the Lord, a day of destruction, from which the generation of Jews addressed by Peter need to be saved.

The revelation of Jesus to the nations

Those who have faithfully borne witness to the exalted status of Jesus and his coming rule over the nations will be found guiltless on the day of the Lord or of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7-8; cf. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:5, 10; 2:16; 2 Tim. 1:12, 18; 4:8). On that day he will be glorified in the midst of his persecuted saints, and those who have believed the apostolic testimony will marvel at him.

What Paul envisages here is the decisive revelation of Jesus to the world as he knew it—the oikoumenē whose centre was Rome—when these pagan nations, as nations, would abandon the worship of idols and their intense opposition to the God of Israel and confess Jesus as Lord (cf. Phil. 2:11; Is. 45:20-25).

A bigger horizon has come into view, beyond the field of vision of Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. But it is still a historical horizon.

If the advent of the day of the Lord could plausibly be communicated by letter (2 Thess. 2:2), clearly we are not talking about a final judgment. Presumably, the idea is that the Thessalonians might have heard rumours of events in Jerusalem. When the day of the Lord does come, Paul says, it will be as part of a sequence of historical events: perhaps a Jewish revolt, and the appearance of a pagan king in the mould of Antiochus Epiphanes, who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Th. 2:3-4; cf. Dan. 11:36).

Whereas in Athens Paul spoke quite generally of a day when God would judge the Greek-Roman world by the agency of Jesus (Acts 17:30-31; cf. Rom. 2:16), here a more “violent” and targeted narrative emerges in reaction to the persecution of the believers (2 Thess. 1:4-7). On that day, the Lord Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” and he will kill the man of lawlessness “with the breath of his mouth” (2 Th. 1:7–8; 2:8).

But this simply reflects the two sides of the Jewish and Jewish-Christian encounter with Greek-Roman paganism—with the pervasive polytheistic and idolatrous culture, on the one hand; and with an aggressive pagan ruler cult on the other.

Many people will be taken by surprise, as by a thief in the night, but the Thessalonian believers are “children of the light” and will be ready for this day of the Lord when it comes (1 Thess. 5:2-7). A coming day of persecution or wrath will disclose the quality of apostolic workmanship (1 Cor. 3:13). Shifting the metaphor slightly, the “day is at hand” when the believers in Rome will have to put on the “armour of light” to face persecution (Rom. 13:11-14; cf. Eph. 6:13).

Peter urges the “elect exiles of the dispersion” in Asia Minor to conduct themselves honourably among the nations so that “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (en hēmerai episkopēs)” (1 Pet. 2:12). This looks like an allusion to Isaiah 10:1-4 LXX. Those who “write evil” against the “needy among my people,” denying justice to the poor and exploiting the widow and orphan, will suffer “affliction… from far away” (ie., military invasion) “on the day of visitation” (en tēi hēmerai tēs episkopēs). Context and language point to a “day” of putting things right in history.

In the heightened apocalyptic outlook of 2 Peter, the day of the Lord will also come like a thief in the night, even if it takes rather longer than they had originally expected (2 Pet. 3:8-10). But we read further that “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, elements are burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works done in it will not be found” (2 Pet. 3:10, my translation). There will be a “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly,” followed by the appearance of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:7, 11-13).

Did Peter intend this to be understood literally? Are we in the same linguistic territory as the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament? Has the author been influenced by a more intense strand of Jewish apocalyptic (cf. Sib. Or. 2:202-205; 3:53, 77-92)?

Difficult to say, but if he has in mind a final judgment and destruction of all wickedness, there is no reason to read this back into the other New Testament texts.

The story told by Jesus, his followers in Jerusalem, and Paul in Asia and Greece is in direct continuity with the Old Testament: there are momentous “days” in history when the God of history steps in to put things right—to punish arrogance and injustice, to restore his priestly people, to vindicate his name among the nations.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus will be one of those days. The revelation of Jesus to the Greek-Roman world, the vindication of his followers, the defeat of their persecutors, and the wholesale overthrow of classical paganism will be another one of those days.

Finally, the author of Revelation foresees a day of God’s wrath against the rich and powerful that will culminate in the overthrow of corrupt pagan imperial Rome (Rev. 6:17; 16:14; 18:8). In this vision, when the final judgment comes, at the end of the thousand years, it is not a “day of the Lord,” and there is no revelation of Jesus to the nations. That all happened a long time back.

So a “day of the Lord” is a day of putting things right, redressing injustices, punishing the wicked, vindicating the righteous, overthrowing kingdoms, empires, and civilisations, in the course of history. In some passages this is patently the case, in others it is implicit—the assumed narrative frame for the theology and mission of the early churches.

I am inclined to think that the coming climate emergency will be a “day of the Lord”—a day of redress, a day of visitation, when the creator God will be vindicated and avenged against profligate humanity.

Submitted by peter wilkinson on  Mon, 08/17/2020 - 22:47

Andrew — thanks for producing this in response to my comment on the previous thread, the specifics of which have yet to be addressed.

You are quite right in drawing attention to the uses of “day of the Lord” in history in biblical prophecy, and these are sometimes, perhaps often, taken to be evidence of a final day of reckoning, when they are not. This does not mean, however, that even in the Old Testament, all references to “day of the Lord” are within history.

Some examples of “day of the Lord” which do not have historic anchorage, and seem to be more general, or universal:

Isaiah 2:11-12, noting the generalised 13-18, and 19, 21; this prophecy connects with the messianic “in that day” of Isaiah 4:2. 

Isaiah 11:10 — “In that day the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him; 11:12 “He will raise a banner for the nations” — past, present or future day?

Isaiah 24, a time of devastation not linked to any historical event, “In that day” in vss. 21-23 in particular.

Isaiah 34:8 — a contrast of the imagery in the universalised 34:1-4 in particular with the historical context of the imagery in Isaiah 13:10, and noting the connection with Matthew 24:29 which combines elements of both passages. 

Jeremiah 30:8-9 is an as yet future ”In that day” — when “they will serve the LoRD their God and David their king whom I will raise up for them”.

Joel 1:15, 2:1-2, a warning of a judgment “day” to come on Israel, prompting repentance and blessing; then a separate “And afterwards” — 2:28, with apocalyptic imagery following, “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord” — 2:31, quoted by Peter in Acts 2:20 and so unfulfilled before then, and yet to be fulfilled in Peter’s day. But something has happened between the Hebrew and Greek versions of this verse: “dreadful” in OT has become “glorious” in the NT! So Peter is looking forward to a “glorious” day of the Lord. That this was the expectation of the destruction of Jerusalem seems unlikely, and there is no context yet for any prophecy about judgment on idolatrous Rome/Greeks.

Zephaniah — the prophecy against Israel is interwoven with more general prophecy — 1:2-3 paves the way for “the day” about to come to Israel, and a more general “great day of the LORD“ 1:14-18, verses 17-18 especially; 3:8 moves from the specific (Jerusalem) to the general — an assemble of “the nations/the kingdoms/the whole world”and a purifying of “the lips of the peoples” before returning to Jerusalem-specific prophecy - but which was never fully, if at all, fulfilled in history;

Zechariah 14 — What are we to make of this repeated “day of the LORD“  — 14:1 prophecy, with the repetition of - “On that day”, beginning in 12:3? It’s tempting to link 14:8 with Ezekiel 47’s river flowing from the temple, but this river flows east and west; “the LORD will be king over the whole earth (or is it ”land”?)” — 14:9; past or future? It would be stretching things to say it refers to events in past history.

Malachi 4 — “that great and dreadful day of the LORD” :5 — before which Elijah would come, who is associated with Jesus as well as John the Baptist (Mark 1:2a, which Mark mis-attributes to Isaiah), but has that day come? It’s arguable that such a day is yet to come. Malachi does not associate that day with any historical event, and neither does Jesus.

In the gospels it’s quite clear, at least towards the end of his ministry, that Jesus expected and predicted a coming catastrophe to fall on Jerusalem. Whether all the warnings of judgment to come have this event entirely as their focus is questionable. I have pointed out at least one example where the warning was very definitely ahistorical.

“Those who have faithfully borne witness to the exalted status of Jesus and his coming rule over the nations will be found guiltless on the day of the Lord or of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7-8; cf. 5:52 Cor. 1:14Phil. 1:5102:162 Tim. 1:12184:8)” — these are your words, and I agree with them all, but taking the verses cited to be future (to us), not past.

“If the advent of the day of the Lord could plausibly be communicated by letter (2 Thess. 2:2), clearly we are not talking about a final judgment” - your words again, but the logic is false. We are not told what this group of believers mistakenly understood by “day of the Lord”. It could have been an over-realised eschatology: they were too far ahead in their views of their spiritual state than the reality allowed. Maybe they thought Jesus had already come spiritually to them, and that the new age had fully dawned in their community.

2 Thessalonians 2:5-11 is at best mysterious, and difficult to link with any historical event or occurrence. I don’t think it’s possible to say with any certainty if and when this event took place in history, any more than Paul’s words about judgment to the Greeks at Athens can simply be associated with some as yet unidentified judgment on the Greek idolatrous world. It’s more likely that Paul had in mind what could be said for certain, that judgment at the end of time was inescapable.

The “day” in 1 Cor 3:13 is also unidentified, and as likely to be an assessment of what is of lasting worth and what is not at the end of time as much as in history. “The day is at hand” in Romans 13:11-14 because the day was already dawning, and the night-time of ignorance and unbelief was already passing. It is not necessarily connected at all with “the evil day” of Ephesians 6:13, which could be any day.

1 Peter 2:12 could be a day in history; it could also be the day of judgment at the end of time. 

I’d have thought your conjunction of 2 Peter 3:10 with 2 Peter 3:7, 11-13, with ”the heavens and earth that now exist … stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” being linked to “the coming of the day of God” demonstrates a future day of the Lord quite clearly.

You don’t mention Jude 6, where the angels who abandoned their home are bound for judgment “on the great Day”, a further warning looking beyond history to an ahistorical judgment, an event repeating the warning in 2 Peter 2:4, and looks forward to the same “day” — outside history and time. 

I think you take the apocalyptic language of Revelation about judgment in a too woodenly literal way. Yes there will be a judgment day at the end of time, which will be anticipated in the distress to be suffered by the Roman empire (through many upheavals, and its final demise), but which is only one way of talking about multiple upheavals throughout time (including our own). This contrasts with the complete calm with which Jesus(?) seated on the great white throne exercises his judgment out of this turbulence. Two instructive and contrasting perspectives on the same event perhaps.

I’ll just address the Old Testament texts here. The main response is that although not all these “day” passages refer to actual historical events (such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians), they all refer to events expected to happen in the course of history, not at the end of history. That was the basic distinction made in the post.

So I disagree that Isaiah 2, for example, does not have historical anchorage.

Isaiah foresees a day when YHWH will humble the nations around his people; they will forsake their idols, and YHWH will be exalted among them. At the centre of this narrative is the judgment and restoration of Judah and Jerusalem and the regathering of scattered Jews. The “mountain of the house of the Lord” will be established, and the nations will come to Jerusalem to learn the ways of YHWH; he will judge the nations, settle their disputes, bringing conflict between the nations to an end.

This is a recurring vision in Isaiah (eg., Is. 4:2-6; 11:10-12). The prophet envisages a righteous hegemony for Israel among the nations, promoting justice and peace rather than injustice and war. It is not a transcendent reality; it is a new order within history.

Isaiah 24 speaks of the desolation of the “land” of Israel because its inhabitants have broken the covenant with YHWH—a demonstration of the righteousness of YHWH that will be welcomed and celebrated widely (Is. 24:13-14).

Isaiah 34:8 refers to a “day of vengeance” against Edom. The Lord is angry with the nations which have opposed and harmed his people, and he invites all peoples of the earth to draw near and witness his action against them. In other words, this is a very localised day of YHWH’s wrath.

Jeremiah 30 is a prophecy about the return from exile. Israel will be liberated from servitude to foreigners to serve the Lord and the Davidic king (Jer. 30:8-9).

Joel describes a future day of the Lord when the Spirit of prophecy will be cured out on all Jews, when some Jews in Jerusalem will be saved, the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem will be restored, and ploughshares will be beaten into swords in order to punish the nations which scattered Israel among the Greeks (Joel 2:28-3:16). What’s not historical about that?

Peter found the word epiphanē in Joel 2:31 LXX, where it means something like “notable, manifest, conspicuous.” Habakkuk says of the Chaldean that he is “frightening and conspicuous (epiphanēs); his judgment will be from himself” (Hab. 1:7). The sharp criticism of the priests in Malachi 1:6-14 concludes with “my name will be feared among the nations” in Hebrew and “my name is notable (epiphanes) among the nations” in Greek. YHWH will send Elijah before the “great and notable (epiphanē) day of the Lord,” when he will destroy the unrighteous in Israel. It is a conspicuous day, therefore, because of which God’s name will be feared and hallowed among the nations.

So I think it is certain that Peter expected judgment against Israel and destruction on the “great and notable day of the Lord,” from which only a few Jews would be saved by calling on the name of the Lord.

Zephaniah 1:17-18 does not refer to a “more general” day of the Lord. English translations are misleading. YHWH will bring distress on people in Israel, not on “mankind” (ESV); it is the “land” of Israel that will be consumed. The wider geopolitical transformation envisaged in Zeph. 3:8-10 conforms to the vision of regional domination that we find in Isaiah.

Since Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah (Matt. 11:14; Mk. 9:11-13; cf. Lk. 1:17), it seems pretty clear that he understood John to have proclaimed the coming of a day of wrath for Israel “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble” (Mal. 4:1). Matthew confirms this when he has John say that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and that the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:10, 12).

As I say, the Old Testament never depicts an end to history. The hope was for a regional transformation that would put Jerusalem at the centre of a new political-religious order, securing righteousness and peace for the nations. Obviously this did not happen, but the important point is that it was conceived in real world, historical terms. My argument is that when the vision is taken up in the New Testament, the day of the Lord is still conceived in real world, historical terms, not as a final transcendent event. All that changes is the seat of kingship, the place from which the Davidic king will rule.

Peter’s argument in Acts 2 is that the greater Davidic king has been seated at the right hand of YHWH in heaven to judge his people and rule in the midst of his enemies. The new Jerusalem, the capital of YHWH’s empire, towards which the nations will orient themselves, is not on earth but in heaven.

But the hope otherwise remains the same: the wicked in Israel will be judged and destroyed, the nations will abandon their idols and come to the new Jerusalem to learn the ways of YHWH, and those who call on the name of the Lord to save them from the wicked generation of Jews will be a renewed priesthood in the Spirit. This is not an end-of-the-world day of the Lord, any more than it was in the Old Testament. It is the transformation of the idolatrous nations of the Hellenistic-Roman oikoumenē, just as Paul predicts in Acts 17:31.

In response to your comments on the OT texts and prophecies, your statement “Obviously that did not happen” says it all. Maybe I was not careful enough in my wording, as the Jewish hope seems to have been a turning point in history in which Israel would achieve “regional dominance” (your words). I would associate this with “final judgment” on the nations which had harmed Israel, on a “day”, which would also be the “day” inaugurating the era of Israel’s dominance and prosperity. This is the final judgment, though Amos indicates that Israel was to expect judgment on herself first, and not be complacent about such an eventuality.

In the NT, this expectation is modified into a final judgment which will precede a worldwide transformation of new heavens and new earth. Catastrophes such as the destruction of Jerusalem simply anticipate the judgment to come. I still see that in all the texts you have cited, allowing for any preceding upheavals as in some way anticipating the final judgment.

So for instance, it’s possible that the immoral man of 1 Cor 5 might experience the destruction of the flesh when Rome was judged/abandoned idolatry, though unlikely since this happened over three centuries later. It’s more appropriately associated with the final day of judgment, at the return of Jesus, “the day of the Lord”, which Paul expected imminently, although the timing doesn’t really matter.

I’ll look again at some of the texts where you have corrected my interpretation, and I appreciate the word study involved. It doesn’t really alter my main point about some (not all) OT day/judgment prophecy having a final turning point in history, if you like, in view — beyond any local or long since fulfilled day/judgment prophecies on individual (or corporate) nations. Also, the language of prophecy sometimes impels the assumption of finality, and looking beyond the immediate historical, even when the prophecy itself may address more local historical occurrences.

By the way, the Isaiah 13/34 apocalyptic prophetic descriptions which are echoed in Matthew 24 still hold good for a local/non local prophetic address. I’ve come to the conclusion that both perspectives are evident in both passages, but certainly in Isaiah 34, where a local prophecy against Edom is preceded by a worldwide prophecy against the nations (34:1-2), which is immediately followed by the apocalyptic description, and only after verse 5 is there a local prophecy, an expression of the more general warning, against Edom.

Thanks for taking time to look at many, if not, all of my OT examples in detail. I always appreciate the time and energy you give to support your case, even though we differ in some fairly important areas, and I’m sticking with my understanding of Acts 17:31, within the framework described in this post.

I’ve come to the conclusion that both perspectives are evident in both passages, but certainly in Isaiah 34, where a local prophecy against Edom is preceded by a worldwide prophecy against the nations (34:1-2)…

I don’t think Isaiah is that incoherent. The drama at the centre of these prophecies is the attack on Jerusalem. The nations are “all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her” (Is. 29:7).

This context is still operative when we get to chapter 34. When YHWH restores Jerusalem, he will “sift the nations with the sieve of destruction”—not all the nations of the world throughout history but the nations which made war against Jerusalem (Is. 30:28). So the people of Israel should not trust in Egypt, Assyria will fall by the sword, “Lebanon is confounded and withers away” (31:1, 8; 33:9). This is a regional drama with historical parameters

So YHWH is furious with the armies of “all the nations” for a particular historical reason: they have fought against his people. Edom is then singled out as a particular example, perhaps recalling the devoting of the Canaanites to destruction (Is. 34:2).

If we keep the whole context in view, we do not need to make these anachronistic distinctions between historical and final judgment scenarios.

But surely this is the same as saying the prophet anticipated something like a final judgment — in history if you like — when Israel would be restored and the nation’s sifted? It’s neither incoherent nor anachronistic. 

In the post, “final judgment” was taken as referring to a judgment of all humanity, including all the dead, at the end of history—the sort of thing described in Revelation 20:11-15. That seems very different to what Isaiah had in mind—a regional political-religious realignment centred on restored and resplendent Jerusalem, not including more distant nations which did not make war against Israel, and certainly not including all the dead.

He may have thought of this event in “final” terms, in the sense that the new political-religious arrangement would last throughout the coming ages. It’s difficult to tell with prophetic language. Edom will lie waste “from generation to generation” and wild creatures will possess it indefinitely (Is. 34:10, 17)—yes, given Isaiah’s historical purview. But he is talking about what happens in human history—no new heavens and new earth from which all evil, suffering and death has been abolished, which is what I think John describes in Revelation 21:1-8.

The main point is that Isaiah foresaw prophetically a great reversal for Israel, in which the nations would be judged and Israel would become dominant, and within the worldview of the time “regional” would mean the world as far as it could be known. There is an OT day of judgment for the entire world, that is the region known to the ancient middle east, which comprised all the nations and empires with which Israel had had such troubled dealings.

The NT modifies this by prophetically describing the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead and the change of the living, judgment, new heaven and earth, and the new Jerusalem. So there is an intervention of the messiah Jesus, the start of a new messianic age, a new Jerusalem, and new earth. Even in Isaiah, some of the prophetic imagery is taken and applied to the NT vision, and there are elements of the NT vision in other OT prophets as well.

The conclusion — OT and NT envisage a final judgment and entirely new order emerging, with the messiah at the centre, but the NT takes the OT vision further, beyond death itself, and no longer making a distinction between God’s people and the nations.

Right, and that’s where we disagree….

Yes, but I hope we now agree that Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a “day” of the Lord envisaging a final age of prosperity and blessing for Israel, not simply within an already fulfilled history, or even an on-going history, has elements which are shared with and extended further in the NT vision of a “day” of the Lord. This “day” also envisages a final age to come beyond this age.

I know you don’t agree with this version of the whole picture, but there’s a reason for it, with roots in the OT, as described.

I have pointed out at least one example where the warning was very definitely ahistorical.

If you mean the reference to Sodom, I addressed that in the post. If not, then what?

It could have been an over-realised eschatology: they were too far ahead in their views of their spiritual state than the reality allowed. Maybe they thought Jesus had already come spiritually to them, and that the new age had fully dawned in their community.

In the context of the Thessalonian correspondence that seems very unlikely. The saints in Thessalonica were waiting for the Son from heaven who would save them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10). They were worried that those who had died would miss out on the coming day of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18). They already knew that the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2). The content of the supposed letter had to do with their being “gathered together to him,” which was the cause of alarm (2 Thess. 2:1-2). A realised eschatology would not have alarmed them!

Just because you find 2 Thessalonians 2:5-11 mysterious doesn’t mean that it transcended history. The point remains that a real world event is envisaged that could plausibly have been communicated by letter. The Thessalonians found the whole thing alarming, not mysterious. Paul sought to reassure them by outlining a sequence of historical events.

If you take 1 Corinthians 3:13 out of context, then, yes, it could be a rather odd way of speaking about the final judgment. But in a letter with a strong eschatological outlook, an emphasis on the concrete work of the apostles, an expectation of imminent distress and the passing away of the world as they know it, it seems much more likely that the day of fire is to be construed historically as a day of persecution, which will test the quality of the apostles’ workmanship. I think that makes excellent sense, but you’re welcome to disagree.

I kept an open mind on the 2 Peter texts.

I’m not sure how I missed Jude 6. Like 2 Peter this is drawing on extra-biblical apocalyptic imagery (cf. 1 En. 6-19), which makes it difficult to interpret but also dissociates it from the dominant stream in New Testament eschatological thought. The “judgment of the great day” of 1 Enoch 10:6, 12; 14:4; 16:1; 19:1 and Jude 6 is not the “day of the Lord” or the “day of judgment” of the rest of scripture.

Yes there will be a judgment day at the end of time, which will be anticipated in the distress to be suffered by the Roman empire…

But this is not what we find in Revelation. The judgment of Rome is the climax to the narrative, not the anticipation of something else. The final judgment is sui generis. Nothing points to it having been foreshadowed by the judgment against Rome.

You do refer to Sodom on the day of judgment  in Matthew 11:24 and Luke 10:12, but seem to miss the point that this is an ahistorical appearance of Sodom, which had long since ceased to exist by the time of Jesus. Sodom is summoned on judgment day, not AD 70, along with Tyre and Sidon. “It will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” — Luke 10:12.

You rightly correct me, in some respects, over Thessalonians. The alarm in 2 Thess 2:2 suggests they may have feared that they had missed out  on the “gathering together” which would accompany the coming of Jesus Christ. The alarm may have been caused “by some prophecy, report or letter” saying that the day of the Lord had already come. If this was simply a day of wrath, perhaps the dead would be better off missing out on it! I’m not entirely sure which “wrath to come” you understand by 1 Thess 1:10. Is it the destruction of Jerusalem, or Rome (whenever/if that happened)? The only interpretation which makes sense to me is if it refers to a final judgment, at which Jesus returns. But clearly, the Thessalonians had rather limited understanding of what this day would entail, be it in history or the end of history, since there could have been no doubt about either eventuality.

It’s not just me that finds 2 Thess 2:5-11 mysterious. I’m more sceptical of those who claim to know exactly what it all means.

If you take 1 Cor 3:13 to refer to a day of imminent distress, which I’m not particularly disputing, to which “day” do you think it refers, and when might this have happened? I think in the absence of a clear answer to that question, a final day at the end of time is plausible, whether Paul expected it imminently or not.

Isn’t it rather too convenient to use “apocalyptic” as grounds to sidestep the judgment passages of 2 Peter and Jude?

Again, my choice of “anticipates” in the Revelation passages was rather careless. I do think however that the “great white throne” judgement is not entirely separated from the preceding description of judgment on Babylon, and although that was a codeword for Rome among Christians in the 1st century, the passages lend themselves to catastrophic events throughout history, and not least on some sort of final reckoning on all social, economic, political and spiritual systems that set themselves up in independence of God. It is entirely appropriate that some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe should immediately precede the final judgment.

I think that describes my more considered reflections on the passages in question and your comments on my interpretation of them.

This is quite like old times Andrew!

Submitted by James Mercer on  Thu, 08/20/2020 - 19:47

Thanks for this Andrew. With reference to the last paragraph, who might we anticipate will emerge ‘justified’ after such a Day of the Lord (assuming anyone survives)? Not necessary, I guess, (western) Christians, who may be counted amongst the ranks of the most profligate. Greenpeace, ARocha and XR activists perhaps?

I guess a second question has to be: how do we distinguish between the inevitable natural/historical consequences of human profligacy and poltical folly and a ‘Day of the Lord‘? Or are they effectively the same thing?

Good question. I think normally they would be the same thing. Israel sins by not trusting YHWH, makes bad political decisions, and suffers the consequences. There are always going to be historical explanations for historical events. Did the pagan order fall because a rider on a white horse led the hosts of heaven to strike down his enemies with the sword of his mouth and rule the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:11-16)? Or because a moribund and corrupt system collapsed in the face of the religious and ethical integrity of the churches? As with creation, there are always two ways of telling the story. No?