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Day of the Lord (Eschatology)


One concept in a cluster of ideas that center on the theme of divine judgment under its two aspects of condemnation and salvation. The word lord in the phrase comes from the custom of substituting this term for the divine name yahweh toward the end of the OT period. The actual content of the expression differs according to the view taken of the object and extent of the judgment. This article treats the origin and development of the concept in the OT, the use made of the term in the apocryphal writings of the intertestamental period, and the teaching embodied in the use of the term in the NT.

In the Old Testament. The phrase "the Day of Yahweh" seems to find its natural setting in the cultic context of a holy war, evidence for which may be found in both biblical and extra-biblical documents. There is no direct evidence, however, that the day of battle in a holy war was called the Day of Yahweh, but one may point to the imagery employed by later prophetic texts (see below) and to the fact that such terms as "the day of Madian" (Is 9.3), "the day of Jerusalem" [Ps 136 (137).7], and "the day of Egypt" (Ez 30.9) refer to a disaster that over-took these peoples or places in a situation otherwise viewed as a holy war.

The contrast between what the Israelite traditions presented as the messianic promises of the kingdom of god and Israel's actual situation in the world led people to expect an imminent event in which Yahweh would destroy His enemies and make good His promises. Faith impelled these people to view this act as something required by God's justice.

It was in such a context that Amos, in the earliest use of the term "the day of Yahweh" in the OT (Am5.1820), threatened that the looked-for day of "light" would not automatically ensure for Israel an untroubled possession of its land. God would act in judgment against His enemies, but these would include Israel itself, since its infidelity to the covenant had made it even more guilty than its neighbors (Am 3.2). The same prophetic irony is found in Isaiah (2.522), while in another passage (Is 22.5) the terminology of the Day of Yahweh is applied in retrospect to the humiliating events of the siege of Jerusalem (701 b.c.). The actual destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. was considered in the Book of Lamentations (2.2122; 1.21) to be the Day of Yahweh, and the same designation post eventum is found in Ez 13.5 (see also Ez 34.12; Jer 46.10). Such Semitic totality-thinking enabled the Prophets to characterize as the Day of Yahweh any event in which they perceived some of its component factors to be present and operative. A Western mind would be inclined to speak of analogy and would hesitate to transfer images from one event to another; but to a more imaginative mind such careful distinctions only obscure the force of the identification. This factor of totality-thinking, when added to the Israelite conviction that there was yet to be a definitive act of God sometime in the future, helps to explain the Prophets' expectancy of some one act of judgment even while they continued to characterize any similar event, whether past or future, in terms of this ultimate.

Many other expressions that include "day" were either coined in descriptions of the Day of Yahweh or drawn, because of some verbal similarity, into its circle of associations. The phrase "in that day" may be taken as an instance of the latter process. Though it is often nothing more than an editorial link binding together previously disparate oracles, it gradually took on the nature of a quasi-technical formula. In Zep 1.15 are six descriptive words occurring in sonorous cadence that repeat well-established terminology and that are repeated in turn by later Prophets (see Jl 2.2; 1.15). This process, by which a literary image became traditional and in which the aura of its meaning became fixed and almost technical, must be borne in mind in any discussion of the cosmic imagery found in connection with the Day of Yahweh. Given the constant concatenation of the forensic and martial elements that have been noted, it also may be regarded as highly unlikely that the origin of this concept is to be found in a liturgical feast of Yahweh's kingship or enthronement as S. Mowinckel and others hold, though there may be some interpenetration of thought and imagery in relation to the human king as possibly in Ps 109 (110).3, 5 (see kingship in the ancient near east).

The theme of judgment, especially when applied to Israel, brought with it the notion of salvation. This is already implied in Am 5.15, and the terms connected with the concept Day of the Lord and used in this sense are found throughout the prophetic writings (see Is 2.2;4.26; 11.11; Am 9.11; Jer 31.31; etc.). Both aspects of judgment are apparent in the postexilic period, and along with them is the theme of the holy war regaining its power to influence the prophetic imagery. In Is 13.122 one can trace all the events of this war as the Prophet imagined it to be coming upon Babylon; Obadiah employed the same concept in relation to the Edomites, who had connived at Jerusalem's fall (Ob 15). Joel, in a passage inspired by a then-recent plague of locusts (2.122), used the holy war imagery to create a scene of devastation and avenging fury; and still later Deutero-Zechariah (Zec 14.121) portrayed the final destruction of Jerusalem's enemies in terms of the great war first described in Ez 38.139.20. The cosmic imagery of Joel's poem can be found in connection with the holy war theme as early as the Canticle of Deborah (e.g., Jgs 5.20; Jos 10.1115) and is alluded to in the narratives relating the Exodus events (Ex 14.1920; 19.1621). Cosmic upheavals are a feature of the Day of Yahweh in its first literary description (Am 5.1820) and are found with increasing frequency (Zep 1.118; Is 13.122, and 24.123). The theme of salvation also continues in this later period, as can be seen from Zec 13.1; Mal 3.17; etc., and from the glosses inserted into the writings of the earlier Prophets, e.g., Am 9.1115.

In the Apocryphal Writings. The eschatological and apocalyptic potential of the elements that composed the concept of the Day of the Lord were well exploited by the writers of the intertestamental period, who began to calculate the exact moment when the day would come and to accentuate its cosmic aspect. They described the Day of the Lord, which they designated also by all the terms used in the prophetic literature, according to their theories regarding the events that would take place at "the end" (2 Baruch 85.20). The Day of the Lord was predominantly a day of judgment (Enoch 19.1; 94.9;100.4; Jubilees 5.10; 23.4; Testament of Levi 3.3; etc.), although the nature of this judgment became more and more individualistic. For some authors the Day of the Lord was an event in which God, either Himself or through His messiah, would destroy His enemies and usher in a new period of peace and prosperity in this world (Enoch 22.10). For most writers, however, there was a real distinction between this age and the "age to come," and they based their reasoning on a more cosmic outlook regarding the nature of the coming struggle. Again, the protagonist was to be either God Himself or the Messiah, and the final Day was either to come suddenly or to be preceded by an earthly reign of God (see 4 Esdras 7.112114; Assumption of Moses 10.17; Enoch 93.110; 51.13; 54.13; Jubilees 1.29; 1QpHab 7.16; etc.).

In the New Testament. The concept of the Day of the Lord in the NT reflects the profound transposition that affected all OT teaching. The fundamental context of definitive judgment is preserved, though there the judge is Christ or God through Christ (Acts 17.31; Rom 2.16). There are texts that employ the familiar phrase "Day of Judgment" (Mt 11.22, 24; 1 Jn 4.17), and these sometimes include the notion, characteristic of late Jewish thought, that men and angels are being held for some future moment of universal judgment (2 Pt 2.9; 3.7; Jude6). When the name of Christ is substituted in the formula, usually the context is likewise one of judgment. Such phrases are: "the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor1.8), "the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor 5.5; 2 Cor 1.14), "the day of Christ" (Phil 1.10). In the same context are found such phrases as "the day" (1 Cor 3.13; Heb 10.25), "that day" (2 Tm 1.12, 18; 4.8), "day of visitation" (1 Pt 2.12), "day of redemption" (Eph 4.30), "day of salvation" (2 Cor 6.2).

There is also a rather large number of passages in which one finds overt allusion to the NT teaching regarding the "passing away" of this world. A complete scenario of the Day of the Lord is provided by St. Paul in his earlier writings (1 Thes 4.135.3; 2 Thes 2.112; 1 Cor 15.2428, 5155), and this bears many resemblances to the Synoptic tradition regarding Our Lord's eschatological discourse (Mt 24.151; Mk 13.135; Lk 21.536); the most explicit description, however, is found in Mt 26.3146. Since these texts reflect not only the doctrine but also the standardized imagery of the prophetic writings, it is difficult to determine the exact nature of the event that is described, but there is no doubt that it centers on Christ. Thus the forensic and cosmic aspects of the Day of the Lord blend in with the theme of Our Lord's parousia.

The prophetic totality-thinking that described the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. as the Day of the Lord, either immediately before (Zep 1.118) or after (Ez 34.12) the event, seems also to be operative in the predictions and post factum descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. There are also passages that speak of the day or days of the son of man in such a way as to include the present Christian era as well as the future (Lk 17.22, 26, 30; see also Jn 8.56). This sort of anticipated escha tology can be seen also in the use of the term "the last day" or "the last days" (Jn 6.39, 40; 2 Pt 3.3), while there are other texts that describe post-Resurrection salvation history as "the day" or "that day" (Mk 2.20; Jn 14.20; 16.23); St. Peter is quoted in Acts 2.1436 as applying the oracle about the "last days" of Jl 3.14 to the events of Pentecost. Other places in the NT seem to use the term "Day of the Lord" in a less integrated manner (2 Pt 3.1012) or merely to repeat pre-Christian images (Rv 16.14).

It might be observed here that the patristic use of biblical imagery reflects all the many facets of the inspired text itself and continues the sacred tradition, though sometimes it is too dependent on the thought-world that gave rise to the apocalyptic literature of late Judaism and to the cosmic speculations of Hellenism.

The OT teaching concerning the Day of the Lord was transposed into the new context of the Christ-event, preserving its analogous qualities as an act of judgment present, imminent, yet still to achieve definitive realization. So too the ancient concept of the holy war, with the cosmic imagery it inspired, has been transposed and linked with the notion of Parousia so as to become the symbol of this event, which marks the cessation of all those cosmic and human forces now resisting God's merciful designs to bring about this Day of the Lord on which all things are summed up in Christ.

See Also: resurrection of the dead.

Bibliography: g. von rad, "The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh," Journal of Semitic Studies 4 (1959) 97108. l. ČernÝ, The Day of Yahweh and Some Relevant Problems (Prague 1948). k. d. schunck, "Strukturlinien in der Entwicklung der Vorstellung vom Tag Jahwes, " Vetus Testamentum 14 (1964) 319330. f. prat, The Theology of St. Paul, tr. j. l. stoddard, 2v. (London 192627; repr. Westminster, Md. 1958) 2:352476. d.s. russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia 1964). h. w. robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the O.T., rev. l. h. brockington and e. a. payne (Oxford 1946) 135147. j. schmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, (Freiburg, 195766) 9:127375. For additional bibliography, see eschatology (in the bible).

[f. martin]

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