|Day of the Lord, God, Christ, the |
Expression, often in the context of future events, which refers to the time when God will intervene decisively for judgment and/or salvation. Variously formulated as the "day of the Lord" (Amos 5:18), the "day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Col 1:8; cf. 2 Col 1:14), the "day of God" (2 Peter 3:12; Rev 16:14), or "the last day(s), " the expression highlights the unmistakable appearance of God. God will make visible his rule of righteousness by calling for an accounting by the nations as well as individuals, dispensing punishment for some and ushering in salvation for others.
In the Old Testament the expression "day of the Lord" occurs eighteen times in prophetic literature, most often in the books of Joel and Zephaniah. It is not found in Daniel. A similar expression that stands close to it is "on that day, " which occurs 208 times in the Old Testament; half the occurrences are in the prophets. In the New Testament, equivalent expressions, such as "day of Jesus Christ, " are found in 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:14; Philippians 1:6, 10; and 2 Peter 3:10, 12. "Day of the Lord" appears in 2 Thessalonians 2:2.
Origin of the Expression. The origin of the expression is in dispute. Some suggest that it is anchored in creation vocabulary (e.g., the seventh day as especially God's day). Others point to Israel's history, theologically interpreted. Scholars have suggested a cultic ritual, such as the day of a king's enthronement, as providing the setting for the expression. More likely, however, is the proposal that the wars of the Lord in Israel's history serve as the background, since battle images abound (Joel 3:9-10; Rev 16:14) and issues of jurisdiction and authority are central to the day of the Lord.
The Quality of the Day. A cluster of various meanings belong to the expression, "day of the Lord." Its first occurrence (Amos 5:18), for example, does not refer to the end of the world; in the New Testament, however, such a meaning emerges.
In biblical thought the character or quality of a day (time period) was of greater importance than its date (the numerical quantity in a sequence). From the first mention of the expression by Amos (although some date Obadiah 15 and Joel earlier), the notion of divine intervention, of a "God who comes" is evident. Israel anticipated that for them God's coming would hold favorable prospects, that it would be a day of light. Amos announces that, given Israel's great evil, God's coming will signal for them disappointment and calamity, a day of darkness. Predominant in the divine intervention is the awesome presence of the Almighty. It is as though God not only comes on the scene, but fills the screen of all that is. His presence totally dominates. Human existence pales before this giant reality. On that day, "all hands will go limp, every man's heart will melt" (Isa 13:7). At a later time the descriptions move beyond human experience. The cosmos will go into convulsions. In stereotyped language it is said that the sun will refuse to give its light, the moon and the stars will cease to shine (Isa 13:10). Joel, preoccupied with the subject, cites wonders in heaven and on earth, including the moon turning to blood (Joel 2:30-31).
In the New Testament the appearance of God is more distinctly the coming of Christ, specifically the return of Christ, his second coming. Paul's mention of the "day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1:8) is likely the day of "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him" (2 Thess 2:1). Whether the day is the parousia, or the climax of history and all things as in the "day of God" when the dissolution of the heavens occurs (2 Peter 3:12), the "day" will be characterized by the unquestioned and unmistakable presence of Almighty God.
As depicted by Joel, the day of the Lord means decision: "Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision" (3:14). A verdict will be rendered. God will adjudicate peoples. His decision for some nations, such as Tyre, Sidon, Moab, Philistia, and Assyria, will be punishment (Joel 3:4-13; cf. Zeph 2:6-15). Divine judgment will be executed. On that day a decision will be rendered against everything proud (Isa 2:12-18). God Acts with dispatch as he judges nations in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:2,12-13). The decision for others will have a saving dimension, for God's promise of blessing will be activated and realized (Joel 3:18-21).
The Calendaring of the Day. The "day of the Lord" is not a one-time occurrence. Days of the Lord, while often represented in the Bible as in the future, are not limited to the future. There have been days of the Lord in the past. The catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. was described as a "day of the Lord" (Lam 2:21). Isaiah says that the day of the Lord will involve the fall of Babylon. God's agency will be recognized, for he will "make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place" (Isa 13:13). God's immediate agent will be the Medes whom he will stir up against Babylon; their action will be decisive. "Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians' pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah" (13:19). Historically, that event is to be dated to 539 b.c. Joel, in turn, describes a grasshopper plague that for him represents the day of the Lord as imminent, even immediate. The day of Pentecost, now history, is described as the day of the Lord (Acts 2:16-21).
Still, for the prophets and for many of the New Testament writers, the day of the Lord points to the future. That future may be centuries distant, as in Isaiah's prophecy about Babylon (chap. 13) or Joel's prophecy about the Spirit (2:28-32), or it may be in the far distant future. Isaiah's language about the universal humiliation of the lofty and arrogant indicates a grand finale, possibly at the end of history (2:12-18). The New Testament, while speaking of the Christ event as a day of the Lord (Acts 2:16-21), also speaks of the anticipated day of Christ as his return (2 Thess 2:1-2), which is yet, after almost two thousand years, still future. The surprise factor (it will come "like a thief in the night") is a marked feature of the day in the New Testament (1 Thess 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10). Eventually the day of the Lord (God) came to mean the termination of the world.
The Day of the Lord as a Day of Calamity. The day of the Lord means destruction of the godless. With metaphor the prophets excel in describing the calamitous aspect of day of the Lord. Amos speaks of it as a day of darkness (5:18). Joel depicts it as a day of clouds and thick darkness (2:2). Zephaniah's description (1:15-16a) is vivid as he mixes direct description and metaphor:
That day will be a day of wrath,
A day of distress and anguish
A day of trouble and ruin,
A day of darkness and gloom,
A day of clouds and blackness
A day of trumpet and battle cry.
Isaiah describes a massive leveling; whatever is lofty will be brought low (2:12-17). A frequent metaphor is war. Isaiah invokes the war model to characterize the day of the Lord"The Lord Almighty is mustering an army for war" (13:4). With war comes fear and cruelty. The opponents are afraid; "pain and anguish will grip them… They will look aghast at each other" (13:8). Joel describes the Lord's army: "They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line" (2:7). Their effectiveness is telling: "Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste" (2:3). The effect is awesome: "Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles" (2:10). Zephaniah, emphasizing the destructive nature of that day, compares it to a sacrifice (1:8). In keeping with the motif of fire, the Septuagint renders Malachi 3:19: "For the day of the Lord is coming burning like an oven." The New Testament only confirms the destructive character of the "day" (1 Thess 1:9-10). The author of 2 Peter reiterates the theme of fire and explains that by fire the earth and the elements themselves will be destroyed. The heavens will disappear, also by fire (2 Peter 3:10-11).
The elaborate description of the day of the Lord in Joel is about calamity for Israel. Drought has paralyzed the economy (1:4-12), brought the giving of gifts in worship to a halt (1:13), and jeopardized even the survival of animals (1:18). To forestall total disaster the prophet calls for a fast (1:14; 2:12). Amos depicts a day of darkness for Israel. The reason for such calamity lies in Israel's failure to do justice (5:7, 10-12) and her devotion to gods other than Yahweh (5:25-27). Zephaniah announces that great distress will come on the people, to the point that "their blood shall be poured out like dust." He explains that nothing—neither silver nor gold—will be able to save them (1:17-18). It is because the people have been violent and deceitful that such calamity will come (1:9, 17). The "day of the Lord" is focused, then, on Israel. Even though they expected their righteousness to be vindicated against their enemies, they were to discover that God's righteousness entailed his move against them.
Early descriptions of the day are found in the oracles against the nations. Joel graphically depicts a roll call of Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia. They will be judged on the basis of their treatment of Israel, the people of God. These nations are indicted for appropriating parts of the land of Israel (3:2), for inhumane treatment of young boys and young girls (3:3, 6), for traffic in slavery (3:6), and for expropriating temple articles (3:5). Obadiah announces that the deeds of the nations will return on their own heads (v. 15). Zephaniah's roll call is more extensive (Gaza, Moab, Ethiopia, Assyria) and the accusations include reproaching God's people (2:8, 10) and arrogance (2:15). Zechariah's announcement about the day of the Lord includes a battle with nations (14:3; cf. Rev 16:14). More universally Isaiah lumps together all those who are proud, lofty, and arrogant: "The loftiness of man shall be bowed down and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low" (2:17). In the same vein, Paul associates the second coming of Christ with destructive power (1 Thess 5:2-3).
The outcome, according to Isaiah, is the massive abolition of idols (2:18, 20). Threatened by God's fury, men and women will seek refuge in rocks (Isa 2:21). One striking consequence of the day of the Lord for nations will be a recognition of Yahweh (Joel 3:17), but not without desolation (Zep 2:13-14) and death (Zep 2:12).
The day of the Lord also affects the natural order. The plague of locusts in Joel—whether a pointer to the day of the Lord or itself a "day of the Lord"—brings unproductive conditions for trees and vines and jeopardizes the survival of animals (1:12, 18). An upheaval of cosmic proportions means changes in the sun, moon, and stars (2:30). Some hold that these luminaries are symbolic, as often in the ancient Near East, of potentates and governmental powers. While there is no direct evidence that civil powers are intended, it must be understood that the authors were describing the indescribable, and that rigorous literalism need not always be required. Still, an overriding impression is that the day of the Lord will powerfully affect nature.
The Day as Salvation. While the judgment dimension is dominant in descriptions of the day of the Lord, the salvation dimension, although less emphasized, is nevertheless present. Some metaphors for the day are negative. Other metaphors are positive. It is a time of return to paradise (Isa 35:1-10). The mountains will drip with new wine and the hills will flow with milk (Joel 3:18). The setting is as a day of abundant harvest (Joel 2:24).
The day of the Lord brings salvation for Israel. Drought and disaster drive Israel to their knees. They cry for God's mercy (Joel 2:17), and he answers. Salvation follows judgment. God forcibly and effectively removes the enemy (2:20). Salvation consists in abundance of grain, new wine, and oil, "enough to satisfy you fully" (2:19; cf. 2:24, 26). In the words of Zephaniah, God will "restore their [Judah's] fortunes" (2:7), an expression that implies the restoration of a desirable situation, a recovery of what has been lost. To God's saving activity will belong his pouring forth of his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:29). In the words of Zephaniah, "The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love" (3:17). It will mean that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Joel 2:32).
In the New Testament the day of the Lord is more precisely the day of Jesus Christ and especially the manifestation of his glory. While this revelation of the person of Jesus spells calamity for unbelievers, for believers it means to be caught up to be with Christ their redeemer forever (1 Thess 4:13-5:3). Such a prospect leads to joyous expectation and fervor. With this prospect and other promises in mind, Paul urges Christians to persevere (1 Cor 1:8).
The day of the Lord portends salvation for the nations. Announcements about favorable prospects for Gentiles, while considerable, are not often found in conjunction with language about the day of the Lord. Still, pictures of Gentile response given elsewhere (such as Psalm 96) are reinforced by Zephaniah's classic description of the day of the Lord: "From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings" (3:10; cf. 3:9). The same prophet also portrays nations, each in their own place, bowing down to the Lord (2:11). Such a day is on the far side of the day of judgment, a situation true for peoples generally but also for the individual. Paul urges the church at Corinth to discipline the immoral person so that at the day of the Lord his spirit may be saved (1 Cor 5:5).
The day of the Lord will transform nature. For God's people, Israel, the day of the Lord will mean physical abundance and spiritual blessing. Nature will be affected. Joel addresses an oracle to the earth, calling on it not to fear, and promises that it will be fertile and productive (2:22) so that threshing floors will be filled with grain and vats will overflow with new wine (2:24). Although the new heaven and earth are not in the Old Testament specifically connected to the day of the Lord (Isa 65:17-25), that connection is made in 2 Peter 3:13. The old world has passed away to be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. The table below sketches the nature of the day of the Lord as described by the preexilic prophets.
Theological Significance. The theological significance of the day of the Lord may be summarized along three lines of thought. First, without question, the day of the Lord is a day of God's vindication. In the battle between evil and God, it is God who is victorious and vindicated. He is the ultimate power to whom is given the final word and against whom no force can stand (Isa 2:17). God's summons of the nations for an accounting in Joel 3 and Zephaniah and the description of the cosmos being annihilated through fire (2 Peter 3:10-13) are two impressive ways of insisting on the truth that God is fully in charge. The preview of the day of the Lord, as in the destruction of Babylon or at the time of the Christ-event, including the day of Pentecost, already shows evidence of God's extraordinary work and power, so that the day of the Lord at the end of history is quite beyond human description.
Second, the day of Yahweh addresses the question of theodicy—not only the existence of evil, but especially undoing the havoc that it brings and making all things right. Ambiguities will be resolved. The message of the day of the Lord is that evil be trounced and evildoers will in the end receive their due. There is justice after all. God will settle his accounts with all that is godless and anti-God, arrogant and pridefully hostile against the Almighty. On the other hand, the scenes about God's blessing and the recovery of an Edenic paradise have and will continue to offer hope for those whose trust is in God (2 Peter 3:13).
Third, the certain coming of that day with its dark side of judgment and its bright side of a giant transformation encompassing human beings, human society, the world's physical environment, and the cosmos as such, calls on believers especially to live in its light. The purpose of discussions about the day of the Lord, past or future, is to illumine the present. Peter's question is rhetorical but pointed. In view of the coming day of the Lord, "What kind of people ought you to be?" (2 Peter 3:11).
Elmer A. Martens
See also Day; Judgment, Day of
Bibliography. G. Brauman and C. Brown, NIDNTT, 2:887-88, 890-91; E. Delling, TDNT, 2:943-53; A. J. Everson, JBL93 (1979): 329-37; E. Jenni, IDB, 1:784-85; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology; E. A. Martens, God's Design; R. L. Mayhue, Grace Theological Journal6 (1985): 231-46; W. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2:119-25; B. Witherington, Jesus, Paul and the End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology.