“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Mal 4:5)
The day you were born and the day you die, that time you buy your first car, received the award, enter marriage, find out the results of the scan and hear the news of tragedy, as well as the joy of a new baby or a new conquest of physical fitness, let alone the hour we receive Christ as Lord, or hear that your sister has too, these are all significant times to us as human beings. Moments matter. And I hope you can enjoy these as unique times that God has assigned (Eccl. 3:1-10).
And if these individual ‘days’ are important to the way we shape the story of our own lives, how much more the global, universal acts of God in his world, the day God created the world, when he will call it all to a close, when Christ died, rose, ascended and when he will return. The New Testament describes us as being in the last days, waiting for the day of Christ Jesus and longing for the day of the Lord. But how does the Old Testament talk of these things? And what lessons can we draw?
A. The historical books of the Old Testament look back at the particular days in which the LORD acted
Do a simple word search and you’ll find that the Old Testament historical books mainly look back to the ‘day’ when God acted and the prophets look forward to the ‘day’ when he will act definitively again.
From the Creation of the world to the high-water mark of David/Solomon’s kingdom, you hear the reoccurring descriptive phrase, “the day the LORD …”
- Made the heavens (Gen. 2:4)
- Made a covenant with Abram (Gen. 15:18)
- Spoke to Moses (Ex. 6:28; Deut. 32:48)
- Brought the people out of Egypt (Ex. 12:51; cf 13:3, 14:30)
- Gives his commandments (Deut. 26:16)
- Exalted Joshua as the new leader (Josh. 4:14)
- Gave the enemies into their hands (Josh 10:12)
- Saved the Israelites from the Philistines (1 Sam. 14:23; cf 17:46)
In all these, God was openly involved in history, his providence unmasked. His people needed to bind those moments to their hearts. They created the fabric, meaning, purpose and shape of the story of people of Israel, in which they lived. For the God they served is unlike the a-historical God of the dreamtime, cult or mythology, rather he is the Lord of history who reveals himself in time. Days matter, especially those which revealed something of God.
B. The prophetic books of the Old Testament look forward to the particular day(s) in which the LORD will act
The prophets write in the crucible of suffering, tragedy, loss, guilt and opposition. When all is taken away, they are left with God, his rebuke and his promises. Each proclaims the death of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Gentiles, and also her future resurrection unto glory. When the kingship, temple, law, the sacrificial system, and the people themselves fail, the prophets preach their ruin, as well as their reformation into something far grander and more perfect in keeping to the original intension. Four expressions capture this vocabulary of destruction and hope: 1. In that day; 2. Days are coming; 3. The day of his wrath; and 4. The day of the Lord
1. In that day
The first cycle of the Eighth Century Prophet, Isaiah 1-12, is a good example of proclaiming ‘that day’ to come. The Lord God will humble, strip-bear and hand his people over to the foreign nations. This is not a day when God loses control or steps away for a moment, this is his deliberate plan. For those with spiritual eyes to see this is even more terrifying.
For the LORD of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; (Is. 2:12)
In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, … Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty. (Is. 3:18-24)
In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (…) In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.(Is. 7:18,20)
But even in Isaiah 1-12, there will also be a later time of hope, when God will gather many people to himself, including his people from exile, when they will be beautiful again and will, instead of arrogantly opposing to God, be grateful to him.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it. (Is. 2:2)
In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honour of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem… (Is. 4:2-3)
In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. (Is. 10:20)
In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. (Is. 11:11)
You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” (Is. 12:1 also Is. 12:4)
2. Days are coming
Jeremiah, the weeping prophet of the besieged city of Jerusalem, while also referring to ‘that day’, uses a mostly positive and life-affirming expression, ‘days are coming’. There will be new way or order that God will bring about, a transformation, expansion of the historical realities of the Exodus, David and covenant. God will do it.
“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ (Jer. 16:4)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ (Jer. 23:5-7)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:31-33)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jer. 33:14)
3. The day of his wrath
The wicked will receive their due. While this language is employed in Job, Psalms and Proverbs, it not a common expression in the prophets, but finds deep pathos in Zephaniah.
The possessions of his house will be carried away, dragged off in the day of God’s wrath. (Job 20:28 cf. Job 21:30 and Prov. 11:4)
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. (Psa. 110:5)
A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness (Zeph. 1:15)
Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. (Zeph 1:18)
4. The day of the Lord
While a new covenant reader might think of the day of the Lord as a day of unbridled hope, the eighth Century prophet shows it has much more in common with the day of wrath than any other category. It will be a day of judgment that will start with God’s own people.
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
While good things might come afterwards, the day of the Lord itself is always used synonymously for shuddering wrath. The day belonging uniquely to the holy God will consume those who have no refuge.
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near;as destruction from the Almighty it will come! (Is. 13:6)
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger… (Is. 13:9)
That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. (Jer 46:10)
For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. (Ezek. 30:3)
Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. (Joel 1:15)
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near .. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (Joel 2:1,11)
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Joel 2:31 cf. 3:14)
Only once in the Old Testament uses ‘day of the Lord’ itself explicitly as a time of both restoration and judgment, ‘the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.’ (Mal. 4:2).
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Mal 4:5)
There is so much more depth in the nature and language of ‘days’, but there are some clear patterns in the Old Testament prophets. ‘Days of coming’ is perhaps the most glowingly positive expression. Before it however, ‘that day’ must happen, the ‘day of the Lord’, the ‘day of his wrath’. Judgment precedes transformation. This is so very different from our twenty-first century sensibilities, and because of this we must listen even more carefully.
C. There is much we can learn this side of Jesus Christ
While there is so much more to explore in the history and the prophet’s use of the ‘day’ when referring to the Lord, there are obvious connections to the New Testament and how we are to live this life in the light of God’s definitive actions in our time and space, that now define us, with a past that gives us confidence and future that at once, scares and fills us with hope. Jesus is the key.
1. The day the LORD Jesus acted in history
In historical books of the Old Testament the people were told that God had acted and they must remember those moments. And so for us this side of Christ. We also must remember the days when Jesus was born and named (Mt 2:1; Lk 2:21), was baptised in the Jordan river, taught and healed in Nazareth (Mark 1:9), fed the 5000, raised Lazarus, was opposed by the religious leaders, crucified under Pilate. If there was a prominence in the Old Testament to the great days when God brought his people out of Egypt at Passover, lead them through the Red Sea to life and gave his law on stone, so we have the greatest day of Jesus Christ, his death liberating us, his resurrection defeating our enemies, and Pentecost, his Spirit writing the word on our hearts. The curtain of the mysteries of providence were drawn back and the Lord of history walked among us.
2. That day has come in Jesus, that day will come for us
Jesus becomes the focal point of all prophetic promises of judgement and mercy (Luke 24:25-26, 44-47). He experienced God’s terrifying wrath in his atoning work on the cross. Having been himself handed over the Gentiles, he experienced the restoration from death promised to the nation of Israel.
However, there will be a time when what was accomplished for us on the cross, will be done in us. The language of “on that day” is as natural in the New Testament as it is in in the Old. The difference is that, for God’s people, ’that day’ will be still be an awesome judgment, but also a revelation of the blessings Christ has won for his people. Knowing that day is coming means believers can have strength and confidence to serve the Lord even more in this.
… on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:17)
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (1 Th. 5:4)
…when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who have believed (2 Th. 1:10)
But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Tim. 1:12)
Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:8)
3. The days that were coming are these last days
The Old Testament uses of the phrase, ‘days are coming’, that we have seen were pointing to the New Covenant, Kingdom and Exodus (Heb. 8:8). These new days are the Messianic age.
‘The last days’ is used of our time when God has spoken to us by his Son and when the Holy Spirit has been poured out (Heb. 1:2; Acts 2:17). But these last days are also times of particular hardship and the rise of those mocking God’s ways (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3).
Jesus also uses the phrase, ‘days are coming’, but rather than positive, to warn of future pangs of suffering for the Messianic community.
And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. (Luke 17:22)
For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ (Luke 23:29)
We must know the days in which we live. What has been fulfilled and given to us as well as the accompanying trials.
4. The day of his wrath calls for action now
Like the days of wrath in the Old Testament, the New Testament is clear that God’s just anger is still being revealed in historical ways, but is ultimately kept for a final judgment day, which will be unbearable (Romans 1:18-2:5).
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Rom. 2:5)
“Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17)
Ultimately the day of wrath is a resounding warning to find refuge in the forgiveness and salvation that Christ’s cross won for us (Rom. 5:8-11 and Rev. 7:10). However there is also a very strong ethic element. The coming wrath reveals the blackness of sin. How can God’s people partner with what God will judge on the final day?
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. (Col. 3:5-7 cf. Eph. 5:6)
5. The day that belongs to the Lord Jesus
The New Testament still uses the ‘day of the Lord’ as a synonym for God’s judgment day, being like a thief in the night (2 Pet. 3:10), when the elements will melt with fire (2 Pet. 3:12) and when the last battle will be fought (Rev. 16:14). But the day that belongs to God, is also confidently called the day of Jesus Christ, yet another affirmation of his divine identity. For his followers, this, together with his first coming, shapes and creates the entire story of the believer. Getting ready, working for this day, being found safe in Christ is the entire rationale for the purpose of living now. If days were important in the Old Testament, looking back to what God has done and forward to his future plans, how much more when God reveals himself in his Son.
… who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:8)
… that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you. (2 Cor. 1:14)
… he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6)
… and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ … (Phil 1:10)
… holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Phil 2:16)