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"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Article

The Great and Terrible "Day of the Lord"

What does prophecy mean?

Copyright © 2009 Dorian S. Cole


The Bible often mentions, in many different phrases, a day of judgment, wrath, and destruction. One phrase became popular and rolled off the tongue: "The Day of the Lord." It was an oracle of doom against others, and was not specific in time. The phrase was often spoken against Israel's enemies, and eventually served as the basis for a different type of imagery, apocalyptic. Neither served as immediate warnings to Israel's enemies, and were more typically messages of hope that God would punish the wicked, reward the good, and prevail in the end.

God of long-suffering mercy, or God of wrath and vengeance?

Prophecies of doom have their theosophical roots in the "great flood" stories and Adam and Eve "beginning" stories that many ancient civilizations have. For example the Biblical Noah story was also known earlier in Ancient Sumer. In the interpretation of the Biblical Noah story of the flood, God found the people of earth to be violent beyond redeeming, and flooded the world to destroy them. This presented the foundational idea that God uses nature to punish people for their bad behavior.

This idea is reinforced by the earlier Adam and Eve and Cain and Able stories. In these other two stories we don't just see the punishing God, we also see the merciful and tolerant God who punishes but doesn't end life. Adam and Eve were tossed out of the Garden, although they were told they would die. Cain was banished to the wilderness for killing his brother. There is a clear separation from God caused by people's actions.

All through the Bible we are told about the tolerant and loving God who is merciful and forgives, bringing people back to Him who ask for forgiveness. In interpreting Biblical literature, we have to balance the ideas of when people are redeemable, and when they are not. We also have to ask whether it is people's choices and behavior that separates them from God, or is it God who punishes?

Destruction of civilizations because of bad behavior was a high profile idea in ancient lands. Something beyond themselves had to explain destruction - there had to be an explainable cause for such things. The destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for "wickedness," or mistreating others, was a high profile example to others of what can happen when wickedness prevails. Fire and brimstone can rain down on you. We don't know what actually happened to these cities, but archaeological evidence suggests they were destroyed by fire through some mechanism.

People today no longer interpret nature's violent activities as God's retribution. By observation, call it science, we see that nature does what nature does, both to good people and bad, and God has little or nothing to do with it. There is a turning point in the Bible where the idea of a vengeful God gets raised and dismissed as an issue, and then thoroughly scrutinized later in the Wisdom literature. That turning point is when King David is not allowed to build the Temple that will represent God to man. David was a warrior king who made his name in battle - the wrong image. Instead David's son, Solomon, was allowed to build the Temple to represent a peaceful God.

As a punctuation point to the non-war nature of God, Israel's King Josiah was defeated in battle in 609 BC. Egypt and Assyria had a military alliance, and Egypt went to the aid of the Assyrians against Babylon. King Josiah seized the opportunity to become a great power and attacked Egypt at Megiddo in Judah (Northern Israel). King Josiah was mortally wounded and his army soundly defeated. Pride and overconfidence will only take you so far. - 2 Chronicles 35:20–24.

The Wisdom literature in the Bible challenges this assumption that God will destroy the wicked. Both the books of Job, and Ecclesiastes say, "Wait a minute - that isn't really true. In fact, good people suffer and bad people prosper." Job, who was a very good man who suffered one calamity after another, finally began to question God.

"Why me?" Job shouted, like we all do. His friends tried to put on him the conventional wisdom that God rewards those who follow His ways, and destroys those who are wicked. Therefore, Job must be wicked. Job challenged them, oh, yeah? The wicked see no purpose in following God's ways. They do as they please and they prosper and live long lives. Punishment? We never get to see it. Job 24:1 (NIV): "Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?" Those who are good often suffer and die for no purpose.

A younger man answers Job: Men in their pride think they can question God. God brings people to the edge of the precipice over and over so they will see the light of life. In the end of the book, God chastised the people who accused Job of suffering because he was being punished by God. He was not being punished.

Some ask, "Is the story of Job consistent with the other picture of God in the Bible, the loving God? Would a loving God actually subject one of his loyal followers, or any person for that matter, to having his family and life destroyed just to make a point to Satan?" We have to remember that the Bible was written by people who were "inspired" to write their reflections about God. Some would say that inspiration is a one way process: God speaks, people carve it in stone. But our walk with God is not a climb the mountain and talk to God type of journey. It's a daily process of gaining knowledge, experience, and integrating them into something called faith. Faith is not blind belief or choosing just what you want to see. The information in the Bible doesn't tell us what to believe - it offers the thoughts of others for our consideration.

What was happening in the wider Orient during and after the time of Job, which is actually a very old story, was a movement called "dualism." Dualism was not featured in Israelite religious knowledge, but rose to prominence in religious thought through Zoroastrianism. Dualism spoke of a war between the forces of good and evil in the spiritual world. The Book of Job reflects this "wisdom" as it took root in Israelite religious thought. We don't know the origins of the story of Job. It may have migrated from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. It reflects people's struggle to come to grips with prevalent ideas promoted by priests and other religious people, which didn't jive well with people's actual experience. In the story, God is the author of, or complicit in, pain.

It has to be left to the individual as to whether he believes the story of Job is true, or simply reflects an philosophical wrestling match between people's beliefs and reality. We have to acknowledge that life happens to everyone, bringing both good and bad, and we can choose to find good in it, or simply suffer or enjoy.

The writer of Ecclesiastes made similar observations that the wicked seem to prosper while good people suffer and die. What is the meaning of this? he asks. The prophet Jonah, who we have already looked at, confirms for us that the threats given to the wicked are meant to help us change for the good.

In contrast, in the ancient world, everything that happened could be given a religious interpretation. When people went into an event, such as a war, believing that they had the power of God behind them, they fought fearlessly as if they could not be defeated, and they usually won. The interpretation was, God had given them the victory. So we have a lot of war in the Bible, with people believing that God was the author of their enemy's destruction. People today have difficulty reconciling this "invasion, war, natural destruction" view of God with today's view of a more loving and nurturing God. Religious thought evolves as people become more refined in their thinking, interpretation, and religious writing. We err when we confuse self-serving religious interpretation with God.

What also grew from this thinking that God brought nature and people to destroy others who were evil, was the Day of the Lord imagery, that eventually grew into apocalyptic literature.

The great and terrible day of the Lord

Moses had instructed the people that prophets would speak to them after seeing a vision or a dream. The book of Deuteronomy, which supposedly was "discovered" after the people were drifting away from God, had a much stricter law code with much stricter terms and punishments than the other four books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

Moses instructed in Deuteronomy 18:20-24 (NIV) "20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death." "21 You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?" "22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." No wonder Jonah shook in his boots because he realized if the people repented then God would not destroy them - the people would destroy him instead.

Moses also told the people to stay away from interpreting omens and divining the future. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 (NIV)" 9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God.

Warnings came early to the Israelites. Moses said to them in Deuteronomy 8:19-20 (NIV) "19 If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you [in your path], so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God."

Moses encouraged the Israelites to stay firmly committed to God, and not be like those who surround them, who mistake outward beauty for inward beauty, worship other gods, and who don't recognize that God has created all. Those he will destroy. Deut. 32: 34-43 (NIV) "35 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.' ... 41 'when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.' ... 43 Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people."

One theme runs through all of this type of predictive oracle statement: the terrible end is near. The power of the statement is in both the immediacy and the terribleness.

We generally understand today that it is at our own hands that we suffer for our wrongs. While many seem to be without conscience, and remain happy, it is our messed up thinking that mistreating others is OK that limits our wisdom and understanding, and therefore our gain from this life. Those who do have a conscience suffer from the pain they have caused and become wiser for it. It is by our own hands that we learn from life. It is also God's design that life brings problems to us that help us see the light of life - He brings us to the edge of the precipice.

Prophecies or oracles?

We have the foundational thinking that God destroys the wicked through nature. Moses firmly established the pattern of stern warnings. Do this or you will die... soon. Don't do that or you will die... soon. The prophets continued the warnings: stop doing evil or you will be destroyed... soon.

So we have the prophetic message that was intended to get the people to change from their wrongdoings and turn back to God. We also have predictive oracles about other nations, and this is where it gets confusing. The first oracle giver in the Bible shows up in Numbers 22. Balaam, a Mesopotamian diviner or oracle, was called on to see if the Israelites who were entering the land could be defeated. He consulted God, we can infer he did so in a dream, and he was told not to bother them. He would have created an enchantment (spell), or divined (learned through some mechanism such as omens) their fate, but nothing worked against them. So Balaam gave the king who consulted him an oracle, which told of all the misfortune that God would do to his people in coming years.

So now we have a clearer view of two types of foreseers of the future in the Bible. Oracles used various mechanisms to see and predict events in the future, and they often were religious people who felt they were directed in their sight by God. They were consulted by other people - they didn't go around offering advice - and were paid for their services. Oracles commonly were in the service of kings, and the Biblical kings did use them, even though Moses had forbidden such activity. Prophets, on the other hand, had a clear mandate to deliver messages delivered through dreams and visions, from God to people and kings, unbidden, that were about their behavior. They foresaw destruction if people didn't change. Their proclamations were usually if... then.... If you don't change, then you will be destroyed.

It gets even more confusing. The prophets began to make proclamations against other nations, similar to the other oracles. They said against Israel's enemies, "God is going to make you suffer and destroy you." Sometimes these prophets may have been in Egypt or Babylon speaking directly to Israel's enemies. Most of the time they were in Israel, speaking to Jews. Why speak oracles against enemies to the Jews?

In evaluating Biblical prophetic literature, the trick is to understand the intent, and whether the message was a prophecy, a further development of prophecy, or was from an oracle. How do we understand the contrast here? On the one hand we have the Day of the Lord judgment God who sends prophets to proclaim doom, and their word must be absolutely true, and who will take vengeance on the wicked. On the other hand we have the God of peace who sends prophets to deliver a message of doom to get people to change, and then he doesn't destroy the wicked, even if they remain wicked. Is this a natural evolution of religious thought? Or is God simply capricious and will one day love you and the next day kill you? The two images of God presented in the Old Testament have puzzled people for thousands of years.

The Prophet Isaiah was very concerned with social justice (how we treat each other). His prophecy begins with a vision in which he says in short that the people rebel against God and they mistreat others. God is tired of them showing up at the Temple with their sacrifices and having all their feasts in His name. He wants them instead to stop their evil and learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Most of Isaiah's prophecy is filled with these ideas.

Isaiah was the first to use the exact language, "Day of the Lord." The exact phrase is used around 26 times in the Bible. Isaiah didn't use it in prophecy. He used it in a predictive oracle in Isaiah chapter 13. The oracle was a message of doom for the country that had annexed the Northern kingdom of Israel: their arch-enemy Babylon. Isaiah 13:6 (NIV) "Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty."

In Isaiah 13, Isaiah delivers this condemnation of Babylon, saying, the people will tremble in their boots from fear. Verse 9 (NIV): "See, the day of the LORD is coming — a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger — to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it." He will make the heavens tremble and the earth shake out of its place. They will be killed by the sword, their infants mauled before their eyes, and their wives ravished." Nasty stuff. We learn how this is to be done in verse 17: the Medes will invade them. And in the last verse 22), we learn that "...Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged."

So we have an oracle that is very specific about who this will happen to, how it will happen, and that it will happen soon. The language is filled with colorful pictures of fear and terrible destruction. Can we give the same credibility to the oracles of prophets as to prophets? Did this actually happen? Yes, Isaiah possibly saw the beginning of this 2 years before his death in 687 BCE, and it was completed 62 years after Isaiah, as shown in two sources:

"In 625 Nabopolassar, a Chaldean, established a new dynasty in Babylon (it is variously described by historians as Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian). Nabopolassar attacked Assyria, allying himself with the Medes - eastern neighbours of Assyria, and technically one of their vassal states. In 612 Nineveh was captured and destroyed after a three-month siege. This brought to an abrupt end the story of Assyria. It would be absorbed, eventually, in the Persian empire.
- Read more:

"During the reign of Sennacherib of Assyria, Babylonia was in a constant state of revolt, led by Mushezib-Marduk, and suppressed only by the complete destruction of the city of Babylon. In 689 BC, its walls, temples and palaces were razed, and the rubble was thrown into the Arakhtu, the sea bordering the earlier Babylon on the South. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib was held to be in expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death, Babylonia was left to be governed by his elder son Shamash-shum-ukin, who eventually headed a revolt in 652 BC against his brother in Nineveh, Assurbanipal.
Once again, Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assurbanipal purified the city and celebrated a "service of reconciliation", but did not venture to "take the hands" of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance. (Albert Houtum-Schindler, "Babylon," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed.)
Under Nabopolassar, Babylon threw off the Assyrian rule in 612 BC and became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire."

The Prophet Jeremiah was active from 627 BCE to sometime after 580 BCE. Like Isaiah before him, he brought messages to the people from God about the way they treated each other. He also spoke oracles against other nations. In chapter 46 of Jeremiah, he mentions the Day of the Lord with reference to Egypt. Egypt and Babylon had been battling each other for supremacy and real estate in the area. Israel was sandwiched between these behemoths. Jeremiah said that Egypt, like the Nile, was attempting to rise and cover the entire world, destroying civilization as it went. Memphis (in Egypt) would be destroyed and Egyptians would go into exile.

Jeremiah 46:10 (NIV) "But that day belongs to the LORD [RSV: the Day of the Lord], the Lord Almighty — a day of vengeance, for vengeance on his foes. The sword will devour till it is satisfied, till it has quenched its thirst with blood. For the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will offer sacrifice in the land of the north by the River Euphrates."

Did it happen? By 601 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar and Neco fought to a stalemate at the Egyptian border (in Israel):

"The Egyptians met the full might of the Babylonian army led by Nebuchadnezzar II at Carchemish where the combined Egyptian and Assyrian forces were soundly destroyed by the Babylonians and the Assyrian Empire collapsed. Assyria ceased to exist as an independent power. Egypt retreated and was no longer a significant force in the Ancient Near East. Babylon controlled the territory up to the Wadi of Egypt and the Pharaoh no longer left Egypt to exert any influence in the affairs of the region[1]."

As far as we know, Memphis was not destroyed and people in Egypt were not taken into exile as slaves (although captured soldiers and those who travelled with the army may have been). Memphis was significantly far enough into central Egypt to indicate conquering the land. This didn't happen. Egypt lost the war, was embarrassed and lost power. (Note that scholars disagree about another invasion from Babylon in 565 that may have been more destructive and pervasive, or might not have happened at all, but this is an earlier time.)

The second "Day of the Lord" oracle delivered by Biblical prophets was about 50% accurate. Was Jeremiah not a prophet to be believed?

The statements in chapter 48, against Moab, appear to be statements about what had happened recently in Jeremiah's time, with vengeful celebration at the plight of Nebo and coming additional destruction.

Prophecy is not perfect. It does not offer perfect sight into the future. Why do I say that? 1 Corinthians (NIV) "8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." Later this year I will write an article on the maturing in both the Old Testament and New Testament on how people sought the will of God.

Generally oracles didn't carry the weight or accuracy of prophecy. Kings had groups of seers from whom they would seek knowledge of the future. One oracle might be wrong. Perhaps oracles had more weight when proclaimed by actual prophets.

The fact is, Jeremiah could have spoken oracles about any enemy in the Middle East and it would likely have come true sooner or later, and the oracles never had a date attached. Babylon and Egypt got banged up more often than a car in a demolition derby. The countries at that time were always at war and always conquering each other as rulers conquered other areas, consolidated territory, shared power with family members, murdered each other, and gained power. Most of the oracles are about countries that were Israel/Judah's enemies, and their destruction in the near future. Some predictive oracles appear to be gloating about destruction of enemies that has occurred, offering a moral lesson and a lesson about God's power and favor, or they offered hope about the future destruction of Israel/Judah's enemies.

We don't even know for sure that Isaiah's and Jeremiah's oracles were even spoken before the events, although we assume they were. They were not predictive of Israel's success over its enemies, and they probably did not provide any type of warning for their enemies. Unlike prophecy, even though Jeremiah was probably in Egypt for a time, they weren't warnings that were intended to get people to change, they were just messages of hope. It is important to note the context and what the intent of these oracles was: lessons (affirming God's power) and hope.

Predictive oracles serve three purposes: 1) They warn of destruction for wickedness 2) They affirm the power of God over evil, and 3) they offer hope. These threats of destruction are counterbalanced by a tolerant and long suffering God of peace who wants the best for people and who doesn't destroy. For example, Abraham tried to intervene for Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord acknowledged that if there were only a few good people, the entire civilization would not be destroyed. God is tolerant and merciful. Destruction is not the intent of predictive oracles. Hope is.

Hope run amuck

After Isaiah and Jeremiah, we have the Prophet Amos, who apparently had heard people calling too much for the Day of the Lord, while they continued with injustice and mistreatment of others. Amos said to them, "Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!" It would be a terrible time for them.

Amos 5:18-20 (NIV) "18 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. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light — pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?"

These oracles, delivered by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, raise troubling questions. First, why are they doing something that Moses specifically prohibited - that is, fortune telling? Second, why were they reveling in God's vengeance on people? There is a mismatch in this time between what came earlier (Moses condemnation of oracles) and what came later: apocalyptic literature.

We have to question whether it was the influence of the kings and the priests that subtly influenced prophets to begin speaking these poetic oracles against Israel's enemies. The priests used the urim and thummim to determine the will of God. These are widely regarded to have been somewhat like throwing the dice or flipping a coin. They were elements of chance, which fell under Moses ban on divination. The kings maintained groups of oracles to see future events for them, which fell under Moses ban on oracles. All around them in the land, people interpreted omens and used other types of divination to foresee the future. Were the prophets regarded as incompetent if they couldn't do such things?

Perhaps the poetic voice that these oracles were delivered in is a clue. People remember poetry, particularly when it is poignant to their situation. Were these oracles actually songs or verses of hope that the people sang or chanted or remembered when they feared for their future? The intent of predictive oracles was hope.

During a time when the people of Judah had been subjugated by Babylon and many dragged into exile as slaves, or were used to disperse and mingle the population to dilute culture, at a time when major powers all around them fought with each other, with no indication which power would occupy them next, the oracles offered hope: God would protect them, favor them, and destroy their enemies... soon.

Apocalyptic literature grew out of the Day of the Lord imagery and the oracle statements. But the Day of the Lord imagery continued right through the time of Christ.

Next: The Apocalypse

Yours in Christ,

- Dorian Scott Cole

Author's Books

The Prophetic Pattern: Discussion Guide for Ancient and Modern Prophecy

Are we all going to die on Friday, December 21, 2012? My new book critically examines that question. Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing. Description.

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On Friday, December 21, 2012, are we all going to die? Are there really signposts to the world's end? Does modern prophecy really merge with ancient prophecy? Will all of the Christians suddenly disappear? The answers may surprise you.

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  • The challenges of the 21st.Century

Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. He is a licensed minister with a mainline denomination with full time pastoral and counseling experience. His education in religion and psychology was through a state university (IU) followed by independent study. Other books and publications: Ontology of God, How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor,, and

Reading type: Mainstream, nonfiction.

Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak.

My recent book, Ontology of God, looks at what we can learn through the ages regarding the history of several aspects of religious development as affected by the ancient societies they were in, including law, mercy, and love. Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing. Description.
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Echoing through time are the voices of ancient people telling us about God. From Mesopotamia and Egypt 5000 years ago, often from even earlier oral traditions, every civilization has been inspired to tell us about God. Their voices vary widely and even conflict. Is there a common message that they thought was so important that they had to pass it on? In this book, the ancient voices speak.

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Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. Other books and publications: How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor,, and

Reading type: Mainstream Scholarly Specialist

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