So Was It 70 Years, or Not?
If God said the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years, is 66 years close enough? How accurate do we expect God to be? Or does prophecy entail a relaxing of the rules of literalism that we tend to apply everywhere else?
Eugene Merrill’s Kingdom of Priests is, in my opinion, the best OT history text out there. His handling of this issue is one of my few disappointments with the book. He dates Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy from 605-539, and explains (p. 482):
This is obviously a round number since the captivity was only sixty-six years in fact, but the figure is close enough for Daniel to use it (Dan. 9:1-2). The reference to seventy years in Zechariah 1:12 and 7:5 applies to a different period, that between the destruction of the temple (586) and its rebuilding (515).
God, of course, can use round numbers if he wants to. But my first inclination is to assume that an omniscient God can afford the luxury of being precise. Why should God’s prediction through Zechariah be exact, but his prediction through Jeremiah be excused as “close enough”?
To argue for precision need not mean 70 years to the day. January 9 is not the only day this year that I could legitimately say that I’m 58 years old. But if you ask, “How old are you, 54?” and I say, “Yes” (all the while thinking, “Hey, that’s close enough”), you’d probably consider my reply to be less than forthright. So 70 years need not mean to the day or to the month; but it ought to be assumed to mean 70 years to the year unless it can be demonstrated to be intended otherwise.
The biblical and historical data leave the door open here, because we don’t know exactly when the Israelites actually returned to the land. But nobody—not even Merrill—thinks the return happened in 539. That means we have to pay close attention to the details of the prophecies themselves; because several passages reference a 70-year period, and they don’t all describe it in exactly the same terms.
This prophecy came to Jeremiah in 605 BC (Jer 25:1)—Nebuchadnezzar’s first year, and the beginning of Judah’s phased exile to Babylon. It specifies that Judah and the surrounding nations would serve the king of Babylon 70 years (Jer 25:9-13). Everyone agrees Babylon’s terminal year was 539 BC. But what year marks the commencement of Babylon’s regional hegemony? That’s what this prophecy describes, after all.
Babylon (with its allies) destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, in 612. When the Assyrians relocated their capital in Haran, Babylonian King Nabopolassar conquered it as well, successfully resisting an Assyrian counterattack, decisively driving them beyond the Euphrates, and effectively ending Assyrian dominance in the region in 609. For all practical purposes, that’s when Babylon became the new dominant world power.
That means that when the prophecy was given (605) the 70 years was already underway. No problem; we know that Jeremiah’s next 70-year prophecy (Jer 29) came after that prophetic timeclock had already commenced ticking.
So when did the 70 years of Jeremiah 25 commence? The language of Jer 25:12 allows some flexibility; judgment on Babylon would come when or even after the seventy years are completed. That allows a starting point of either 609, or possibly even 612. In either case, it is at least a full 70 years.
This prophecy came in 597 BC or later (Jer 29:1-2), in a letter addressed to those already in exile (Jer 29:4-7). Because the passage refers twice to Judah’s being carried away “to Babylon” (Jer 29:1, 4), the most natural translation of the lamed preposition in Jer 29:10 is not “for Babylon” but “at Babylon” (KJV, NKJV; cf. NLT). In other words, this prophecy seems to be specifying the duration of Judah’s exile “at Babylon.” Again, pretty much everyone agrees that the exile began in 605; but when did the exile end and the Jews actually return to the land of Judah? I’ll return to that question in a moment.
2 CHRONICLES 36:20-21
The author of Chronicles (Ezra?) provides a theological explanation for Judah’s exile to Babylon: the captivity fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy “until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths . . . seventy years” (2 Chr 36:20-21). This specifically marks the beginning of the 70 years at 605, since it makes reference to the beginning of Judah’s captivity. But again, when did it end? Clearly, whenever the Jews actually returned to the land.
Cyrus took Babylon in 539 BC. The official “first year of Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1) was 538; that was the year he announced his repatriation policy. But what we’re not told in any historical record that I’m aware of is (a) exactly when in Cyrus’s first year the decree was promulgated, (b) how long the Jews’ preparations took, (c) how long the Jews’ return journey took, and therefore, (d) exactly when the Jews actually arrived in Judah.
The task of return was a monumental one. The preparations for uprooting after 70 years were time-consuming endeavors—homes to sell, businesses to liquidate, caravans to organize, temple furniture to catalog and pack (Ezra 1:7-11), and livestock and provisions to gather for the 1,000-mile journey back.
If Cyrus’s decree were promulgated late in 538, allowing 8 or 9 months of preparation (most of 537), and 4-5 months for the actual journey (based on Ezra’s later journey, Ezra 7:8-9), an actual arrival early in 536 is entirely feasible. Counting inclusively from 605, that’s 70 years.
ZECHARIAH 1:12-16; 7:4-5
Zechariah’s opening prophecies are dated to 520 (Zech 1:1, 7). Zechariah seems to envision this 70-year period (Zech 1:12-16) as ongoing, and the completion of the temple (which would come 4 years later) as the terminal punctuation mark on that period. Zech 7:4-5seems to be looking back in retrospect on the same time period indicated in Zechariah 1. The reference point for the 70 years described in Zechariah, as Merrill’s opening quote observed, seems to be the destruction and rebuilding of the temple (586-516 BC).
I’m admittedly starting from a strong bias towards the accuracy of God’s words. No apologies there. So if we have to make assumptions (which everyone does here), I’m going to make feasible assumptions that favor what I consider to be an eminently justifiable bias—the reliability of an omniscient God’s prophetic time estimations. The benefit of any doubt should be settled in God’s favor. And I have this sneaking suspicion that once all the historical data are on the table, we will discover that God’s predictions were not merely “close enough” but far more exact than we ever imagined.
The data seem to me to indicate the possibility of three overlapping but distinct 70-year prophecies:
- 70 years of Babylonian domination over Judah and the surrounding nations (609-539; Jer. 25:11-12).
- 70 years of Jewish captivity in Babylon (605-536; Jer. 29:10; 2 Chron. 36:20-21; Dan. 9:1-2).
- 70 years of indignation on Jerusalem and Judah (586-516), marked by the destruction and rebuilding of the temple (Zech. 1:12ff; 7:5).
It looks to me like God may well be precisely accurate three times over.