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A Basic Introduction To The Day Of The Lord In The Old Testament Writing Prophets

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June 10, 2002

The following study will examine various references to the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament writing prophets, and argue that the frequent collocation1 was elastic in nature, diverse in scope, and varied with respect to timing. This conclusion will be drawn in response to three key questions that affect the nature, scope, and timing of the Day of the Lord. With respect to its nature, did the Day of the Lord emphasize God’s judgment, blessing, or both? Regarding scope, did the Day of the Lord primarily affect Israel, the surrounding Gentile nations, or an even broader entity? In reference to timing, did the Day of the Lord refer to a past, imminent, or eschatological event, or is it possible that multiple chronologies were in view? Following an examination of these questions, the study will conclude with a summary of common characteristics that can be ascribed to the Day of the Lord.

The Nature of the Day of the Lord

The Day of the Lord is clearly characterized by a pouring out of divine wrath on God’s enemies (Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zech 1:14-15). Imagery of natural disaster, devastating military conquest, and supernatural calamity is connected to Day of the Lord references.2

On the other hand, the day is also characterized by a pouring out of divine blessing upon God’s people (Isa 4:2-6; 30:26; Hos 2:18-23; Joel 3:9-21; Amos 9:11-15; Mic 4:6-8; Zeph 2:7; Zech 14:6-9). Thus, while divine judgment is certainly a prominent theme in the Day of the Lord, it is only part of the picture.3

The dual nature of the Day of the Lord is further illumined by its purposes. The writing prophets describe the Day of the Lord as coming so that people might turn from idols (Isa 2:18, 20) and turn to Yahweh (Joel 2:12-14).4 Those recognizing the severity of the day will cry for God’s mercy (Joel 2:17), call on the name of the Lord to be saved (Joel 2:32), and seek refuge in the Rock (Isa 2:21). All of the above purposes highlight the blessing of this day for those who have responded appropriately. Ultimately, all the nations will recognize Yahweh in that day (Joel 3:17), but then it will be too late for those destined to destruction and death (Zeph 2:12-14). The example of the nations provides a clear picture of the dark side to this same day that is a blessing for others.

In sum, an accurate presentation of the Day of the Lord requires us to recognize that the day has two sides to its nature. Sometimes one side is prominent, sometimes the other. This should not come as a surprise to those who know the nature of the God who is behind the nature of the day. If the Day of the Lord is ultimately a demonstration of God’s sovereign rule, we would expect to see both wrath and blessing simultaneously.

The Scope of the Day of the Lord

In light of the fact that the Day of the Lord has a duality to its nature and purpose, it is natural to assume that its scope will encompass the diversity of peoples affected by both the side that brings blessing and the side that brings judgment. Indeed, the Day of the Lord was connected to the judgment pronounced upon Babylon (Isa 13:1, 6, 9, 13), Edom (Isa 34:8), Egypt (Jer 46:10; Ezek 30:3), and the Philistines (Jer 47:4). Obadiah expands the individual references to peoples and announces that the Day of the Lord will bring corporate judgment to all of the nations (15). Isaiah broadens the scope of judgment even further, describing calamity that will fall upon the entire earth on the consummate Day of the Lord (13:10-13). This increasing scope suggests that judgment is not only directed toward particular peoples or even the collective nations, but toward evil in general. Thus, the Day of the Lord is properly spoken of as bringing judgment to evil wherever it may be found in fallen creation.

Since the Day of the Lord involves both judgment and blessing, we would expect to see a development of the scope of blessing in a manner similar to the scope of judgment. Indeed, references to blessing expand from David’s kingdom (Amos 9:11-15), Zion (Isa 4:2-6), and all of Judah (Zeph 2:7), to the entire earth (Zech 14:6) and its creation (Isa 11:1-10; Hos 2:18). The Day of the Lord not only has a diverse nature, but that nature accordingly affects diverse categories of God’s creation.

The Timing of the Day of the Lord

By virtue of its diversity the Day of the Lord is not properly viewed as a one-time event, and technical force should be assigned to the phrase with caution.5 Nevertheless, even when one recognizes multiple referents for the phrase, distinguishing a given referent’s precise timing remains difficult.

Past references to the Day of the Lord emphasized God’s sovereign judgment over the nations. Assyria was raised up to judge the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE (Amos 5:18, 20), Babylon was raised up to judge the southern kingdom of Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE (Lam 1:12; 2:1, 21-22; Ezek 7:19; 13:5; Zech 1:7-13; 2:2-3), Babylon was raised up once more to judge Egypt in the sixth century BCE (Jer 46:10; Ezek 30:3), and Medo-Persia was raised up to judge Babylon shortly thereafter (Isa 13:6, 9). Determining the fulfillment of past references to the Day of the Lord is a relatively easy task.

Future references to the Day of the Lord are not difficult to locate. However, determining whether those referents point toward an imminent or eschatological event from the vantagepoint of the writer is another matter. Some descriptions are clearly eschatological. Isaiah (2:10-22; 34:1-8), Obadiah (15), Joel (3:1-16), and Zechariah (14:1-3, 12-15) all describe judgments, which will affect the entirety of nations simultaneously. Since no such collective judgment has occurred up to the present, these references to the Day of the Lord must be yet future. On the other hand, the Day of the Lord is described with the imminent terms “near” (Isa 13:6; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15; 3:14; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7) and “coming” (Isaiah 13:9; Joel 2:1; Zeph 1:14). It would seem somewhat problematic that five different prophets spanning four different centuries would continue to refer to the Day of the Lord in such terms, especially in light of the fact that latter prophets were most certainly aware of earlier ones. In other words, how near can “near” be if the day had not arrived in over four hundred years from the time of its first mention? This very question has led some scholars to suggest that the prophets viewed the Day of the Lord with “bifocal vision,” allowing them to see both historical and eschatological fulfillments at once.6

Interestingly, both imminent and eschatological aspects of the Day of the Lord are found in close proximity in the Book of Joel. The phrase “Day of the Lord” was used to describe the plague of locusts that destroyed crops and resulted in famine (Joel 1:15-20), as well as the imminent invasion of powerful armies (Joel 2:1-11).7 However, if one reads the celestial changes in Joel 3:14-16 literally,8 then Joel also refers to the Day of the Lord as an eschatological event. If read in this manner, chapter three functions as a climax to Joel’s prophecy, telescoping from the immediate (and escalating) events of chapters one and two to the far, eschatological event of chapter three. Some may question the validity of telescoping from a near to a far event without regard for events in between, but prophetic telescoping may legitimately be credited to ignorance on the part of the writer. God only provided that information which was necessary for the writer to know—nothing more and nothing less.

Regardless of the reasons for prophetic telescoping, contextual evidence strongly suggests that it is a common feature of Old Testament prophecy. With respect to the Day of the Lord, its continual unfolding in biblical history combined with its clear future element sets up the former as a precursor to the latter in an “already/not yet” fashion. Past events worthy of the designation “Day of the Lord” provided a taste of things to come, and provide continued opportunity for repentance before arrival of the day.

Summary of Common Characteristics Ascribed to the Day of the Lord

Diversified use of the collocation “Day of the Lord” suggests that emphasis does not belong as much to timing9 as to essence. The Day of the Lord constitutes a repeated event that will find ultimate eschatological fulfillment in the future. However, the diversity found in chronology is held together by the common characteristics that each Day of the Lord possesses.

It should be remembered that the Hebrew term <oy (“day”) signaled an important event in the Jewish mindset,10 hinting at divine intervention in human history11 with particular attention to God’s rule over the earth. It should be further noted that all non-eschatological references to the Day of the Lord included the use of human instruments and activity to accomplish divine purposes, and this points to a distinguishing feature of the eschatological Day of the Lord. It has been previously noted that the “already/not yet” tension seen in historical/eschatological references to the Day of Lord is building toward an ultimate, climactic fulfillment. In this respect, the consummate, eschatological Day of the Lord finds similarity with those days that have gone before, but it is decidedly different in that the hand of Messiah and not primarily human instruments carries out divine purpose.12

This heightening of previous themes leads to the significant theological observation that the eschatological Day of the Lord represents an event in which human hands can play no part—the ultimate and permanent undoing of evil, and the lasting transformation and redemption of that which has been ravished by sin. This day is a picture of God’s ultimate triumph, and an unmistakable declaration of his prevailing justice. The ultimate purpose of this day perfectly reflects the dual nature of the days leading up to it, with the warning for some to repent and encouragement for others to persevere (cf. 1 Cor 1:8). The Day of the Lord is certainly a terrible day of judgment for some, but for others, it is the means to purification and renewed blessing that will surely ensue once the dust has settled.

Bibliography

Burge, G.M. “Day of Christ, God, the Lord.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.

Caird, G. B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

“Day of the Lord.” In Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Edited by Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998.

Glenny, W. Edward. “The Israelite Imagery of 1 Peter 2.” In Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. Edited by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Hiers, Richard. “Day of the Lord.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Martens, Elmer. “Day of the Lord, God, Christ, the.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.

Witherington, Ben, III. Jesus, Paul and the End of the World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.


1 A study of the expression “Day of the Lord” should also take into account the synonymous expressions found in the Old Testament. The Hebrew collocation hw`hy+ <oy (“day of the Lord”) is easily identified fourteen times in the writing prophets (Isa 13:6, 9; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11; 3:4; 4:14; Amos 5:18 [twice], 20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7, 14 [twice]; Mal 3:23), but similar collocations such as hw`hy+ <oyB= (“on the day of the Lord”; Ezek 13:5), hw`hyl^ <oy (“the Lord has a day”; Isa 34:8; Ezek 30:3), toab*x= hw`hyl^ <oy (“the Lord of Hosts has a day”; Isa 2:12; 22:5) and hw`hy+-[a^ <oy (“the day of the anger of the Lord”; Lam 2:22) must also be considered. See Richard Hiers, “Day of the Lord,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., ed. by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 2:83.

2 It seems logical that the nature of the Day of the Lord would emerge from its conceptual origins. Though some have suggested a conceptual link with the day of divine rest following creation, cultic ritual (e.g., a king’s enthronement), or Israel’s troubled history, the use of battle imagery in connection with the phrase suggests a potential link with the conquest of Canaan (cf. Deut 1:30; 3:22; Josh 5:13-15; 6:2). This would certainly highlight the element of judgment experienced by some, but for others the outcome of battle meant newly acquired blessing.

3 Ben Witherington III, Jesus, Paul and the End of the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992) 148.

4 Interestingly, Joel’s call to repentance takes the standard prophetic form of an appeal attached to a motivating argument (usually in the form of a promise or threat). Joel’s appeal in 1:12-13a is followed by a motivating argument that appeals to God’s gracious character in 1:13b, and potential mercy and blessing in 1:14. See Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 183.

5 G. M. Burge, “Day of Christ, God, the Lord,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) 147.

6 E.g., G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 259.

7 There is some question as to whether the reference to an army in 2:11 is to be understood as a powerful military brigade or a figurative reference to the locusts of 1:15-20. Joel 2:25 makes reference once again to locusts, so some have argued that a literal swarm of locusts have been in view all along. Though the view which reads a literal swarm of locusts through all of chapters one and two finds support in curses leveled for abandoning the Mosaic covenant (cf. Deut 28:38-39), it is also true that multiple punishment is one of the curse types (cf. Lev 26:18, 21, 24, 28). In other words, it may be possible that the outbreak of locusts was the harbinger of an even greater catastrophe (i.e., military invasion) to come. Indeed, the Assyrian armies under Sennacherib in 701 BCE or the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar in the 590’s and 580’s would have carried the destructive potential depicted by Joel. Regardless of the manner in which one interprets the reference to an army in 2:11, this unmistakable sign of God’s judgment was clearly a past event worthy of the designation “Day of the Lord.”

8 In addition, Joel’s use of imagery seems to anticipate several New Testament texts (Matt 13:41-43, 49-50; 24:37-41; 25:31-46; 2 Thess 1:9; Rev 14:17-20). Clearer allusions are found in the collocations “that day” (Matt 7:22; 1 Thess 5:4), “day of God” (2 Pet 3:12), “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5-6), and “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10). In both anticipation and allusion, the same day produces a certain terror for the unbeliever and a joy for those who know the Lord behind the day.

9 Indeed, the collocation “Day of the Lord” is used by the prophets to describe any period of time in which God intervenes to save or judge. See “Day of the Lord,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998) 196.

10 Burge, “Day of Christ, God, the Lord,” 295.

11 Elmer Martens, “Day of the Lord, God, Christ, the,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) 146.

12 This shared yet heightened theme is in keeping with general principles of typological fulfillment. W. Edward Glenny has identified three helpful guidelines for grounding typological interpretation in a careful handling of scripture: First, the type must be grounded in scripture and possess a solid historical foundation. Second, there must be a discernable pattern between the texts under consideration. Finally, a typological interpretation must manifest a heightening of meaning from the Old Testament to the New. See W. Edward Glenny, “The Israelite Imagery of 1 Peter 2,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 158.

Related Topics: Prophecy/Revelation