Know therefore and understand,
That from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Jerusalem
Until Messiah the Prince,
There shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times.
– Daniel 9:25, NKJV
Scriptural Support for the Decree of Daniel 9:25
This article in the series of studies on Daniel 9:24–27 was essentially completed prior to the most recently published piece on the ABR website, “Did Ezra Come to Jerusalem in 457 BC?” (https://biblearchaeology.org/abr-projects-main/the-daniel-9-24-27-project-2/4549-did-ezra-come-to-jerusalem-in-457-bc). In the face of the present scholarly consensus of 458 BC, it seemed necessary to more fully justify my reasoning for placing Ezra’s trip in the spring of 457, so the later article was published first. With that done, the 457 BC date will be regarded as established. We will now move on to an examination of how the sabbatical year cycles tie in with how the Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 should be interpreted.Looking back over my earlier work, the scriptural support for my conclusion that Artaxerxes’ decree was the one referred to in Daniel 9:25 was not as complete as it could have been, so I want to address that before moving on. There is considerable disagreement among exegetes as to which of several Achaemenid decrees mentioned in Scripture corresponds to the one referred to in Daniel 9:25. In my opinion, a key reason for this is because the pertinent scriptural passages are typically presented in piecemeal fashion, rather than being set forth in one place to see how they interact with and affect the interpretation of each other. So, we will next review what Scripture teaches about the decree of Cyrus; then present evidence that the counting of the “sevens” of Daniel 9:25 should be understood as sabbatical year cycles; and finally, evaluate what pattern of sabbatical year cycles best conforms to the historical and biblical evidence. In doing this I hope to clearly identify the terminus a quo—the starting point—from which the clock counting the time until the coming of “an anointed one” (the literal rendering of the Hebrew of Daniel 9:25) began ticking.
Toward a Biblical Understanding of Cyrus’ Decree
We begin by examining all of the applicable Scriptures, deriving a straightforward understanding of each in its immediate context. Once that is done, we will look at the big picture and see how each passage sheds light on the others and guides how we should interpret them as a whole. The NASB is used throughout, except as noted.
Isaiah 44:24, 26, 28: Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things… It is I who says [Heb. 'amar] of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited!’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘they shall be built’…It is I who says ['amar] of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! and he will perform all My desire.’ And he [Cyrus] declares ['amar] of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’”
Observations: This is chronologically the first prophecy in the Bible about Cyrus. Verses 24 through 26 inform us that it is God who says (Heb. 'amar) that Jerusalem will be inhabited and Judean cities will be build. It is His will, not simply Cyrus’s. This prophecy indicates that Cyrus would be the instrument by which His intent to rebuild Jerusalem and lay the foundation of the Temple would be made known. The term 'amar, often simply carrying the meaning “to say,” is not used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to a formal royal decree, so we should not conclude it necessarily signifies here that Cyrus himself would issue the specific edict authorizing city rebuilding—but he would definitely have something to do with it.
Isaiah 45:1, 3, 4, 13: Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, whom I have taken by the right hand… “For the sake of Jacob My servant, and Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor though you have not known Me.… I have aroused him in righteousness and I will make all his ways smooth; he will build My city and will let My exiles go free, without any payment or reward,” says the LORD of hosts.
Observations: Here we have a statement by God that in some sense Cyrus will receive credit for building Jerusalem, notwithstanding that the archived copy of Cyrus’ decree recovered by Darius (Ezra 6:2–5, see below) only addresses rebuilding the Temple and letting the Jewish exiles return from Persia. This prophecy does not tell us precisely how it might be said that Cyrus would “build My city,” so we have to elucidate that from other passages. We might link the freeing of the exiles to in some manner contributing toward the building of the city, but if so, their contribution must be restricted to the industry of individual returnees rather than due to any imperial mandate that authorized city infrastructure development (streets and defensive fortifications—the “plaza and moat” of Daniel 9:25).
Daniel 9:25: So you are to know and discern that from the issuing [Heb. motza'] of a decree [Heb. dabar, usually rendered “word”] to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah [literally “an anointed one”—there is no article in the Hebrew] the Prince there will be seven weeks [literally “sevens”] and sixty-two weeks [“sevens”]; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
Observations: This verse speaks of a “decree”—the Hebrew word dabar, which could also have been translated “word” or “command.” It is not one of the usual terms for a royal edict (cf. Shea, “Supplementary Evidence in Support of 457 B.C.,” JATS 12.1, p. 94, online at http://archive.atsjats.org/JATS12.1-09Shea.pdf), and the passage does not reveal who issues this “word.” Read in the light of the other passages under discussion, however, it seems we should understand it as an official decree which goes farther than the original Temple-focused one issued by Cyrus. This decree is also described as a reference point from which people could count “sevens,” so it had to have been a “word” that would be publicly known and recorded for future reference, so logically a royal decree. It would encompass the restoring and rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, not restricted to rebuilding the Temple, so the decree as narrowly issued by Cyrus and Darius would not qualify—Artaxerxes’ broadened decree would. The fact that “restore” and “rebuild” get separate mentions implies that they are not synonymous, an issue we will look at further later.
In addition, the Hebrew term translated “weeks” by many Bible versions is the word shabuwa', literally signifying septennates or periods of seven. In view are not literal weeks of seven days, but periods of seven years. Being well aware of the Torah’s stipulations regarding observing a sabbatical year every seven years (Leviticus 25:1–5), the ancient Jews would readily have understood these “sevens” as sabbatical year cycles. The prophecy thus stipulates that, from the issuing of the correct decree, seven septennates—49 years, as in a Jubilee cycle (Lev 25:8)—plus an additional 62 septennates—434 years—would pass before “an anointed one” would come to the Jews. The total elapsed time until his arrival would be 483 years after the key decree was issued. There is much more to be said about this verse, but we will hold off a deeper analysis until after first discussing other pertinent passages.
2 Chronicles 36:20–23: Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia—in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah—the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation [Heb. qowl, “voice”] throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!’”
Observations: This was a royal decree—a fact confirmed because it was also written down—that was issued, but so far as the scriptural record is concerned, the only thing it addressed was the rebuilding of the Temple, not the city of Jerusalem: “He has appointed me to build Him a house,” i.e., a temple, and only a temple. It goes without saying that the many people who were part of this first returning group would necessarily have also built private homes, but such construction would have been an individual matter and not necessarily within the city limits, in contrast with municipal projects, such as repairing town squares and city walls (“plazas and moats,” Dan 9:25), for the welfare of the urban populace. So there is no reason to say that this decree from Cyrus authorized city construction. (Ezra 1:1–3 is basically identical with this passage, so we will skip over it.)
Ezra 4:1–6, 10–12, 17, 21, 24: Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the LORD God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' households, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.” But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.” Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building [the Temple], and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. Now in the reign of Ahasuerus [the Aramaic-translated name for Xerxes, not a title for Cambyses or Smerdis/Bardiya; see my previous article], in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes [the throne name for Longimanus], Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia “…let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations…. Then the king sent an answer… “issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me.”… Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia (emphasis added).
Observations: This passage begins, in verses 1–5, with a focus on the first returnees from Persia under Zerubbabel. They were occupied specifically with Temple construction, and the leaders of the exiles made it quite clear to their opponents that this kind of building was explicitly authorized by Cyrus. Nothing is said about city rebuilding. The response of the Samaritans was to oppose the Temple construction efforts all through the days of Cyrus, through the reigns of Cambyses and Smerdis/Bardiya that followed him, and into the second year of Darius Hystaspes (Ezra 4:24), who decreed capital punishment upon any who would hinder the Temple’s completion (Ezra 6:11). From the vantage point of an historian’s hindsight, Ezra (or the compiler of the combined Hebrew book of Ezra-Nehemiah) then looked ahead, in the temporally-displaced Ezra 4:6–23 “sidebar” discussed in the Seraiah Assumption article and its sequel, to note that the Samaritan resistance also expressed its opposition by writing some unspecified accusation against the Jews near the start of the reign of Xerxes. Given how clear Cyrus’ permission had been to rebuild the Temple, this complaint must have focused on something other than Temple construction. Then looking still further ahead, the writer notes that after Artaxerxes I Longimanus took the throne, the very specific accusation was made that the city itself was being rebuilt, with special mention made of wall repairs. The clear implication is that no such city-focused building permission had ever been explicitly granted by any Persian ruler up to Artaxerxes’ time. Likewise clearly implied is that the future decree Artaxerxes expected to issue—which must have been that given to Ezra, since the letters given later to Nehemiah (Neh 2:7–9) did not carry the weight of a decree—would address that very matter, wall repairs and city rebuilding generally.
Ezra 6:2–5: In Ecbatana in the fortress, which is in the province of Media, a scroll was found and there was written in it as follows: “Memorandum—In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: ‘Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God.’”
Observations: This passage quotes the original decree as issued by Cyrus. Nothing is said about rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, only the Temple. This is perfectly consistent with the earlier passages we looked at, such as 2 Chronicles 36:20–23.
Ezra 6:14: And the elders of the Jews were successful in building [the Temple] through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the [singular] decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia (brackets added).
Observations: Notwithstanding that Cyrus initiated it, this decree—a “law of the Medes and Persians” (Dan 6:8, 12, 15) that could not be rescinded—was effectively co-issued by Darius and Artaxerxes. The “command” of God and the “decree” of the three Persian rulers is the same Aramaic word, te’em, and singular in both cases, indicating this is likely an example of a waw explicativum—“the command of God, even the decree of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes,” as A. Philip Brown II suggested (see my previous article). Although the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah was entirely concerned with Temple matters, and thus what “they finished building” must in this context refer only to the Temple, yet Artaxerxes’ decree opened the door for city rebuilding work as well, as the next passage indicates.
Ezra 7:11–26, condensed: 11Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe…13“I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem…15and to bring the silver and gold…17with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs…and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem. 18Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God.… 25You, Ezra…appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them. 26Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment” (emphasis added).
Observations: The emphasized words highlight things in Artaxerxes’ seventh-year decree which go beyond the earlier restrictions that limited the decree initiated by Cyrus to matters pertaining to the Temple. This one includes “inquiring” about Judah and the city of Jerusalem, not just the Temple; freedom to use some of the provided funds without restrictions; and the appointment of officials tasked with enforcing obedience not merely to the Persian monarch, but to the commandments of God. Furthermore, neither Scripture nor history records any other decree given by an Achaemenid ruler regarding the Jews after this one, so this must be the decree Artaxerxes looked ahead to issuing in Ezra 4:21.
Pulling These Scriptures Together
When these several Scriptures are considered together, they inform us that from God’s perspective, Cyrus was His instrument to initiate the rebuilding of both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. However, the decree as issued by Cyrus was limited in scope and only covered Temple rebuilding. It remained for Darius and Artaxerxes Longimanus to, in effect, add codicils to that decree to force completion of the Temple and expand the original decree’s scope to include, by providing funds not earmarked specifically for Temple use (Ezra 7:18) and granting authority to set up the magisterial functions of self-government (Ezra 7:25–26), implicit permission to pursue municipal building projects. Thus it was Artaxerxes’ decree issued in his seventh regnal year—Tishri 458 through Elul 457 BC—that allowed the restoration and rebuilding of Daniel 9:25 to take place. He put Cyrus’ decree in its final form. Since no new decree was issued to facilitate the work of Nehemiah, only letters, the latter’s work starting in 444 BC should be understood as implementing what had already been permitted by Artaxerxes, yet not put into effect due to the people being cowed by continued Samaritan opposition.
Hence I believe we can be confident, based on the information derived from the above Scriptures, that the decree referred to in Daniel 9:25 had to be that issued by Artaxerxes I Longimanus shortly before Ezra’s departure for Jerusalem in the spring of 457 BC.
Further Exegetical Details from Daniel 9:25
Now we will dig a bit more deeply into Daniel 9:25, for there is additional light we can derive from that verse which gives a more complete understanding of its implications.
Who Issued the “Word” in Daniel 9:25?
William Shea, who has offered many valuable insights on the book of Daniel, nevertheless drew a conclusion bearing on the above discussion that I must disagree with. In “Supplementary Evidence” cited above (p. 95), he proposes that when Daniel 9:25 speaks of a “word” that goes forth to build Jerusalem, it is a word from Ezra that leads Tabeel and his cohorts to write to Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:6–23, causing the king to temporarily stop the city work initiated by the returned exiles:
From this brief lexical search of Ezra, Daniel, and Esther, no specific evidence has been found suggesting that we ought to translate the dabar of Dan 9:25 as a “royal decree.” It could just as well be the word of a person other than the king. The question, then, is who gave the “word,” in order or command, to begin the reconstruction of Jerusalem? It can only be said to be Artaxerxes in an indirect and oblique sense. Who gave the order or command in a more direct and specific sense? The answer from the above examination of the letter of the western governors is obvious. The one who sent out the word to begin the reconstruction of Jerusalem was Ezra. It was not issued by a Persian king from Pasargadae or Persepolis, it was sent forth from Jerusalem by Ezra. Just as his “voice” or word went throughout the land to gather at Jerusalem to deal with the issue of foreign wives, so his word was sent forth after the episode to call the people back to Jerusalem for its reconstruction. Thus the “going forth of the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” in Dan 9:25 was Ezra’s word, not the decree of Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes’ decree played a part in this process, however, for it led to the return of Ezra, who gave that more specific word. Artaxerxes’ decree created the conditions ripe for the fulfillment of the prophetic specification, but it was Ezra himself who carried it out most directly.
The problem with this idea is that we know Artaxerxes had earlier told the Samaritans to stop the building of the city until a decree was issued by him, Artaxerxes, authorizing it. There was nothing “indirect” or “oblique” about this. Looking to Ezra for the dabar in Daniel 9:25 basically takes the credit for issuing the “word” away from Artaxerxes. Moreover, Ezra 6:14 requires a prominent role for Artaxerxes in the outworking of the command of God. We must keep the important role of Artaxerxes clearly in mind. For this reason it appears Shea is mistaken here.
Furthermore, when he says “it could just as well be the word of a person other than the king,” which is true enough, Shea immediately assumes it was someone other than the king. This conclusion is an undemonstrated leap of logic. Nevertheless, from this assumption he then suggests the Jews “who came up from you” must refer to those who had arrived from Artaxerxes with Ezra in 457 BC. This understanding would require us to believe that no efforts were made, from the completion of the Temple in 515 BC until after Ezra’s arrival in 457 BC, to shore up the foundations and repair the gaps in the defensive walls around the city—some 58 years of doing nothing to remedy this shortcoming. This is hard to believe.
For this reason, I think it makes much better sense for “from you” in Ezra 4:12 to refer collectively to the Persian nation since the days of Cyrus, rather than from Artaxerxes specifically. As Jacob Myers points out in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah on this verse, the LXX in Codex Vaticanus renders “from you” as “from Cyrus,” consistent with the view adopted here, so this interpretation is of long standing. Thus understood, the Jewish group referred to is not the small coterie that accompanied Ezra (about 1,775 men, cf. Ezra 8), but the much larger assemblage who came up with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:64–65, “The whole assembly numbered 42,360, besides their male and female servants who numbered 7,337”). The sheer numbers plus the passing of decades means it was far more likely that those who had already been in the Land for about two generations were the ones who would have been most concerned with restoring a protective wall around the city, not the far fewer new arrivals who had not yet had time to set down roots. Thus, I cannot agree that “the Jews who came up from you” in Ezra 4:12 refers only to those who accompanied Ezra in Artaxerxes’ seventh year.
By extension, the idea that the complaint of Tabeel et al was not submitted to Artaxerxes until after Ezra arrived in 457 BC with his small group is unworkable. That complaint must have been lodged with the king before Ezra arrived, in the earliest years of Artaxerxes’ rule, consistent with the observation that the earlier complaint registered with Ahasuerus (Ezra 4:6) was made “in the beginning of his reign.” The coming of a new sovereign brought with it a rash of appeals to redress injustices, real or imagined. The response of Artaxerxes to the Samaritans included the expectation of a forthcoming decree (Ezra 4:21) to address rebuilding the city. Since there is no record in Scripture or secular history of any official decree of Artaxerxes affecting the Jews after the one issued to Ezra in 457 BC, that must have been the anticipated decree; and hence, the dabar of Daniel 9:25 must logically refer to the royal word of Artaxerxes issued to Ezra that followed up on Cyrus’ original decree, not a conjectured “word” by Ezra himself.
Ezra’s Reforms were Part of the Fulfillment of Daniel 9:25
Jerusalem is called in Scripture one of the two places where God would “cause His name to dwell” (Dt 12:11, Ezra 6:12, Neh 1:9; the other was Shiloh, Jer 7:12), even “the city of the great king” (Ps 48:2, Mt 5:35). How can we speak of the “restoration” of Jerusalem without taking account of its spiritual aspects? And how can we speak of the spiritual significance of the city being restored apart from the reforms spearheaded by Ezra to fully reintegrate the prescriptions of the Law back into Jewish daily life? Because Daniel 9:25 informs us that God did not merely intend to rebuild the city but also to restore it, we must include the arrival of Ezra in Jerusalem and the initiation of his religious reforms as an integral part of the “going forth” of Cyrus’ decree. Restoring the spiritual aspects was more important in the LORD’s eyes than merely repairing stone and mortar structures; God is always portrayed in the Word as primarily concerned with the spiritual life of His people, having them relate to Him by following His precepts faithfully, and in Daniel 9:25 the restoring is mentioned before the rebuilding, implying it was the more important consideration.
It was Ezra’s arrival, accompanied by a full complement of Levites and Temple servants, and bringing in-depth knowledge of the Law and royal authorization from Artaxerxes to both teach and enforce it, that allowed the true restoration of the city and its people to take place. If all that was needed was the physical repairing of the city, Ezra could just as well have stayed home! As it is, take Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem out of the picture, and its spiritual restoration gets only partly implemented at best. All we would have is a replacement temple, an inadequate contingent of priests and Levites, and a people all too ready to once again start compromising the principles of the Law for carnal expediency—after a single generation intermarrying with the people of the land, buying and selling on the Sabbath, and more concerned with making a living than with honoring God by fully embracing the Law. Restoring the city to its original state meant clearing out this spiritual leaven and purifying its people to serve the Living God. This was Ezra’s calling.
The Rebuilding of Jerusalem
In order to fully elucidate the meaning of Daniel 9:25, we must thus appreciate the significance of the words translated “restore” (Heb. shuwb) and “build” (banah). Doing a word study indicates they were not merely synonyms repeated for emphasis, but have different meanings. We will look at the latter term first.
The term banah is readily understood as referring to construction. The Gesenius lexicon reproduced on the BlueLetterBible website (http://www.blbclassic.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H1129&t=NASB) makes this fundamental meaning very clear: “to build, to erect, as a house, a temple, a city, walls, defenses.” In Daniel 9:25, the second half of the verse shows the term has particular reference to municipal projects. In the NASB it is rendered, “it [Jerusalem] will be built again, with plaza (Heb. rĕchob) and moat (Heb. charuwts), even in times of distress.” The word here translated “plaza” conveys the idea of streets that make up a town square (cf. Ezra 10:9, Neh 8:1, 3, 16). Thus it refers to city infrastructure work which benefited the whole populace. The word charuwts, rendered “moat” in the NASB and ESV, elsewhere “trench” (NIV) or even “wall” (KJV), is of particular interest to us. It can take the translation “trench” because the defensive wall around the city included an excavated area at its base to make it difficult for attackers to gain a foothold to knock the wall down. There is a good picture of one at https://picryl.com/media/looking-down-moat-outside-tower-of-david-toward-clock-tower-before-1917-american. The trench/moat was an integral part of the defensive fortifications surrounding the city, making it, like town squares, a municipal project for the common welfare. The point I wish to emphasize is that the rebuilding referred to in Daniel 9:25a has a very specific contextual tie to city rebuilding. The passage even refers to this rebuilding taking place in “times of distress,” which is a perfect description of the period of opposition by the Samaritans that began years before Nehemiah arrived. Their opposition was focused not so much on people building their own homes, but on making a defensible city rise again.
Due to this contextual connection with the repairs of the wall of Jerusalem, some exegetes have unfortunately, and in my opinion mistakenly, viewed that wall-related rebuilding work as reason to suppose that the motza' (“going forth”) of the dabar in Daniel 9:25a must be placed at Nehemiah’s arrival in 444 BC, the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I Longimanus. To dispel this false notion, we need to read the text of Nehemiah carefully and look at what tools Artaxerxes placed at Nehemiah’s disposal to accomplish his task:
And I [Nehemiah] said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me. Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king's letters… (Neh 2:7–9, emphasis added).
Note well that there is no reference to any decree, any edict, any promulgated word from the king in this passage. Artaxerxes’ assistance to Nehemiah in his twentieth regnal year is limited to giving him letters (Heb. 'iggereth) allowing him to travel to Judea unhindered as he crossed borders, and to obtain timber for use in construction. In short, no decree was ever issued in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. This means that the primary authorization for Nehemiah’s work must be traced back to the decree of Artaxerxes’ seventh year, which he anticipated issuing earlier in Ezra 4:21: “…this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me.” There was no known decree between the time that statement was made and Nehemiah’s arrival, except that of Ezra 7:11 ff, “…the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe….” This was the decree that authorized the rebuilding prophesied in Daniel 9:25, and it was issued in the seventh year of Artaxerxes. It included the irrevocable permission (as a “law of the Medes and Persians”) which allowed Nehemiah to later kick the wall repairs into high gear with nothing more than letters in hand.
It is no wonder Nehemiah was so upset when he heard Hanani’s report: “when I heard these words…I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Neh 1:4, emphasis added). Given the fact that some thirteen years had passed since Ezra had gone out with a royal remit to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah had been expecting a much better report! Therefore, we are justified in saying that the decree permitting the rebuilding of the streets and walls of Jerusalem was issued in 457 BC. But this part of the total project was not implemented until the gutsy, shrewd administrator Nehemiah arrived years later, spurring the apathetic Jews into actually doing what they had been allowed to do since the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus.
The Restoring of Jerusalem
If the rebuilding in Daniel 9:25 deals with finishing off the city by taking care of the streets and repairing the wall, what does the “restoring” refer to? In the Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, the entry for shuwb includes reference to Isaiah 1:26. Here we present the extended passage, Isaiah 1:21–26:
How the faithful city has become a harlot,
She who was full of justice!
Righteousness once lodged in her,
But now murderers.
Your silver has become dross,
Your drink diluted with water.
Your rulers are rebels
And companions of thieves;
Everyone loves a bribe
And chases after rewards.
They do not defend the orphan,
Nor does the widow's plea come before them.
Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts,
The Mighty One of Israel, declares,
“Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries
And avenge Myself on My foes.
I will also turn My hand against you,
And will smelt away your dross as with lye
And will remove all your alloy.
Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city” (emphasis added).
The context of this passage is the situation just before the Babylonian captivity; as the ESV Study Bible notes for Isaiah 1:24–28 express it, “The prophet looks forward to a cleansed people after the historical judgment of the exile, restored to its mission.” It promises the LORD’s judgment on the nation, that their “dross” and “alloy”—their sinful compromises with the surrounding nations—will be removed. Once this is done, God promises to “restore”—shuwb, the same word as in Daniel 9:25—their judges “as at the first,” and their counselors “as at the beginning.” This is exactly what God did when he brought in Ezra, who set up magistrates teaching and enforcing the Law of Moses:
You, Ezra…appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them (Ezra 7:25).
Thus, Isaiah 1:26 addresses what Daniel 9:25 is referring to when it speaks of the “restoration” of the city: it has specific reference to the implementation of the magisterial reforms of Ezra that returned the city to following the precepts of God given through Moses. The passage in Isaiah 1:26 is a prophecy of what Ezra would do. Therefore, when it speaks of the “restoration” of the city, Daniel 9:25 is referring to Ezra’s work. Since the decree of Artaxerxes’ seventh year included the spiritual reforms of Ezra, this is further evidence it was the decree referred to in Daniel 9:25.
God’s Principle of Sabbatical Year Observance
Sabbatical Year Observance was Required
Now we turn to examine the connection of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks to the sabbatical year cycles. Desiring to let the Scriptures speak plainly and govern our understanding, several passages will first be set forth that teach the principle of sabbatical year observance.
Exodus 23:10–11: “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove” (emphasis added).
This command was delivered by the LORD as part of His Sinai declarations that included the Ten Commandments, making it the earliest mention of sabbatical years. Later, He looked ahead to when the people would enter the Promised Land:
Leviticus 25:1-4: The LORD then spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard’” (emphasis added).
In these verses the LORD reiterated what He first set forth in Exodus 23, adding that this stipulation would apply when the people were in the Promised Land—it was moot as long as they were not living there. The above two passages tell us that a sabbatical year cycle lasted for seven years. Moreover, the observance of these regular cycles was a non-negotiable requirement of the Law laid upon the Jews: “You shall” do these things, said the Almighty. To neglect them carried a severe penalty:
Leviticus 26:14–15, 32–35: “But if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, if, instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant…I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled over it. You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste. Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it will observe the rest which it did not observe on your sabbaths, while you were living on it” [emphasis added].
Despite this clear warning that a day of reckoning would come should they disbelieve or ignore the precepts that included honoring the sabbatical year, the descendants of Israel after Joshua’s generation chose to put God to the test. The result was the coming of Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the people from the Land:
2 Chronicles 36:19–23: Then they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles. Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete [emphasis added].
Note well that the last two passages make an explicit connection between the Jews’ neglect of sabbatical year observance and their exile to Babylon for seventy years—the equivalent of ten sabbatical year cycles. The burning of the Temple, an essential aspect of the “desolation,” is known to have taken place on Av 9 (July 29), 587 BC, about two months before the next agricultural year would have begun on Tishri 1 (September 18), 587 BC. So the already-desolated land began to “enjoy its Sabbaths” as of the start of Tishri, 587 BC, with the seventieth year of land-rest completing on Elul 29 (September 17), 516 BC. Since the rebuilt Temple was dedicated just six months after that, on Adar 3 (March 12), 515 BC (Ezra 6:15), it appears we should understand the destruction of the Temple as an integral part of the land’s “desolation,” part of the spiritual component that accompanied the physical—particularly since a Jewish remnant, as well as the Samaritans who later gave Nehemiah grief, were still there farming the land during those seventy years, yet not thereby violating its Sabbath rest. This fact emphasizes that the sabbatical year’s significance was fundamentally a spiritual matter, a sign of the people keeping covenant with their God, rather than simply giving the land a break.
Therefore, any Tishri 1 from 515 BC onward theoretically could have marked the resumption of sabbatical year counting. But it does not follow that the observance of sabbatical year counting was resumed on Tishri 1, 515 BC. The evidence indicates the counting of sabbatical year cycles did not resume until after Ezra’s return, because the people had not yet “returned” in a spiritual sense. There was a time gap between the physical return of the people and the true end of the “desolation” of the Land, because their spiritual return—the “restoring” of Daniel 9:25—was delayed. There had to be both a physical and a spiritual return for the “desolation” to be fully lifted.
Sabbatical Years Began in the Month of Tishri
In an article about the Jubilee and sabbatical year cycles published in the Fall 2008 issue of Bible and Spade (online at https://biblearchaeology.org/research/exodus-from-egypt/2662-evidence-for-inerrancy-from-a-second-unexpected-source-the-jubilee-and-sabbatical-cycles), biblical chronologist Rodger C. Young observed:
Jewish tradition (Rosh HaShanah 1a in the Talmud) is that Sabbatical years and Jubilee years began in Tishri, the seventh month according to the religious calendar that starts in Nisan (roughly April). This is consistent with the text of Leviticus 25, which for both Sabbatical and Jubilee years speaks of sowing before mentioning reaping. In Israel, the sowing of the winter crops (barley and wheat) takes place in approximately November and reaping takes place in the spring. If the Sabbatical and Jubilee years started in Nisan, then the crop sown in the preceding fall could not be harvested, after which the fall sowing would be missed, thus resulting in two years without harvest rather than the one year that is intended in the legislation. Sabbatical and Jubilee years therefore started in Tishri, the month in which the Jewish Rosh HaShanah or New Year’s Day was celebrated in the past and is celebrated in our own day.
Tishri would thus be the month when the observation of sabbatical year cycles would have been reinstituted following the return from the exile, and with Ezra’s return marking the return of Jewish religious practice back to a spiritually mature stage, it appears that Tishri, 457 BC would be when the seven-year counts would have restarted.
Sabbatical Year Cycles were Reset After the Exile
Another matter which must be taken into consideration is that sabbatical years of the post-exilic period had to be reset when the Jews returned to the Land under Ezra. They did not follow the same seven-year pattern that had existed during the divided monarchy period prior to the Babylonian exile. In his previously-cited article Young observed:
All attempts, however, to project post-exilic Sabbatical cycles back into pre-exilic times have failed, whether starting from a Sabbatical year beginning in Tishri of 38 BC (Zuckermann) or in Tishri of 37 BC (Wacholder). The reason for this is that counting was interrupted during the exile, since the stipulations of the Sabbatical years were only commanded to be observed while Israel was in its land (Lv 25:2).
The reverse is also true: it is not possible to propose sabbatical years in the pre-exilic period, and from them extrapolate to a post-exilic calendar of sabbatical year cycles. As Benedict Zuckermann, creator of the most widely-followed sabbatical year cycle formulation (published in his Treatise on the Sabbatical Cycle and the Jubilee, trans. A Löwy, 1974), has written:
It is necessary to assume the commencement of a new starting-point [after the exile], since the laws of Sabbatical years and Jubilees fell into disuse during the Babylonian captivity, when a foreign nation held possession of the land of Canaan . . . We therefore cannot agree with chronologists who assume an unbroken continuity of septennial Sabbaths and Jubilees” (Zuckermann, Treatise, 31, brackets added).
Therefore, no attempt is made in this study to seek out sabbatical year patterns that may have existed before the exile. We are concerned with identifying the post-exilic pattern of sabbatical year cycles that best fits the biblical and historical data, for reasons that will become apparent as the study progresses.
The “Weeks” of Daniel 9:25 were Sabbatical Year Cycles
To any ancient Jew, the “weeks” of Daniel 9:25, which were periods of seven years, would immediately bring to mind the sabbatical year cycles the LORD established in Exodus 23:10–11 and Leviticus 25. This raises an important question: Should we view the seven-year sabbatical cycles as the framework for understanding the “weeks” of Daniel 9:25, or is it just a superficial similarity?
Bear with me for a moment while I make a seeming digression. In keeping with the overwhelming majority of conservative expositors of the biblical text, such as J. Paul Tanner (“Is Daniel’s Seventy-Weeks Prophecy Messianic? Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July–September 2009, p. 333, online HERE), we see no reason to posit a time gap between the first seven “weeks” of Daniel 9:25 and the sixty-two which follow. Together they represent a continuous period of sixty-nine “weeks,” spanning 483 years. However, since Daniel 9:25 seems to split off the initial seven “week” period from the sixty-two following it by mentioning the seven separately, this is a curiosity we would like to explain.
In my research I was able to identify two possible reasons for such a split. One was that the initial seven “weeks” signified forty-nine years spent rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. This view is promoted on pp. 15–16 in a Radio Bible Class publication, The Daniel Papers (online at http://web001.rbc.org/pdf/discovery-series/the-daniel-papers.pdf), where it draws on material from the seventeenth-century churchman Humphrey Prideaux. The latter, in his 1716–18 work The Old and New Testament connected in the History of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations, vol. 1 Book 5, pp. 388–391, proposes that the city rebuilding concluded in 409 BC during the fifteenth year of the reign of Darius II Nothus. A chronological chart is presented at https://archive.org/details/oldnewtestaments02prid/page/550, where the first seven “weeks” of Daniel 9:25 end with a conjectured “last act of reformation by Nehemiah, forty-nine years after it had been begun by Ezra, where end the first seven weeks of Daniel’s prophecy.” In Tanner’s article, p. 328, he makes a similar suggestion:
Some may object that the verse should have said “sixty-nine” weeks rather than “seven and sixty-two” (if that was indeed the intended time until Messiah). However, there is good reason for expressing two stages of time. The final part of the verse specifically calls the reader’s attention to the period of rebuilding, and this is likely what the “seven weeks” refers to.
The difficulty I see with this is that Daniel 9:25, as noted earlier, draws our attention specifically to the rĕchob (“plaza” or “square”)—apparently referring most particularly to the open areas where the city gates were (cf. Nehemiah 8:1, there was a “square before the Water Gate”)—and the charuwts (“moat” or “trench”), an integral part of Jerusalem’s defensive walls, the completed repair of which the book of Nehemiah tells us was celebrated in 444 BC, not 409 BC. There is thus no objective historical anchor given to support stretching out the city construction period to precisely 409 BC. Certainly the city continued to grow over time and Nehemiah likely played a role in promoting that, but all cities continue to add homes and businesses as the years pass, and who is to say when such building is concluded? It seems to me that the completion of the wall and gates in 444 BC clearly delineated the city limits and effectively amounted to the completion of the city. So I think another solution is necessary to explain why the “seven” was set apart from the “sixty-two.”
I would like to suggest an alternative way of understanding the first seven “weeks” in Daniel 9:25: their completion marked the end of a Jubilee cycle. It amounted to God dropping us a hint as to how to interpret the prophecy. In his article at https://biblearchaeology.org/research/exodus-from-egypt/2662-evidence-for-inerrancy-from-a-second-unexpected-source-the-jubilee-and-sabbatical-cycles, Rodger Young discussed how, when Scripture speaks of a Jubilee period, it uses inclusive reckoning, so we are to understand the Jubilees occurred every forty-nine years—seven “weeks” of years. That the first division of Daniel’s seventy “weeks” was likewise forty-nine years long implies that each septennate period was not just some arbitrary period of seven years, but specifically a sabbatical year cycle. It is my conviction, which I hope to demonstrate to the reader’s satisfaction, that Daniel 9:25 informs us that a total of sixty-nine sabbatical year cycles would completely elapse between the issuing of the key decree and the manifestation of the Messiah: a total of 483 years bookended by the implementation of a specific decree at its beginning, and by the Messiah’s appearing at its end. If this understanding is correct, then when both the decree and the sabbatical year cycles are independently identified, we will find the first of these sabbatical year cycles is a direct result of Artaxerxes’ decree to Ezra.
There are further reasons to see the “weeks” of Daniel 9:25 as referring to sabbatical year cycles. In an article entitled “Chronomessianism: The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles” in Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975) pp. 201–218 (online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/23506873), Ben Zion Wacholder discussed evidence that the “sevens” of Daniel 9:25 must be understood as referring to sabbatical year cycles. Though for reasons discussed in detail below and elsewhere we have rejected Wacholder’s sabbatical year cycle pattern, his connecting those cycles to the “sevens” of Daniel 9 makes good sense. On pp. 202–203 of the above work he states:
The ancient Jewish exegesis of Dan. 9:24-27 differs from modern scholarship in two significant ways. With a few exceptions, all medieval and recent commentators translate the key-word shavu‘a (supposedly following the LXX) as heptomad or a “week,” seven years. The ancient exegetes, it will be shown, understood shavu‘a to refer to the seven-year cycle, the last year of which was “the year of the Lord” (Lev. 25:2), the equivalent of the year of shemittah or release (Deut. 15:1–2), when debts were canceled and land lay fallow. The difference between the two interpretations is that, according to the former, any septennial number will do; according to the latter, however, each seven-year period had its fixed place in a series, precise in beginning and end. A second difference stems from the first. Modern exegetes interpret the passage without reference to Jewish chronology current at that time. The ancients, however, took it for granted that the numbers in 9:24–27 had to harmonize with their calendar of sabbatical cycles. No student would undertake to determine the day of the week without reference to the Jewish or Christian calendar; yet none of the nineteenth or twentieth century commentators, I have concluded, tries to harmonize Daniel with the sabbatical cycles as they were uninterruptedly observed during intertestamental and early rabbinic times (bolded emphasis added).
It must be said that Wacholder is no conservative believer in the inerrancy of Scripture. For instance, on pp. 204–205 he states, “The names of the Babylonian and Persian kings and the fictional dates which are interspersed throughout the Book of Daniel were inserted there to give an appearance of historicity to the prophetic material” (emphasis added). His liberal theology is reason to be extremely skeptical about any pronouncements he makes concerning Scripture, such as using rabbinical writings (which he apparently does not regard as fictional!) to interpret them. Nevertheless, he is able to corroborate his view that shavu‘a signified the sabbatical cycle using certain historical documents, thus placing the equating of shavu‘a with sabbatical year cycles on firmer ground. I will just give here the evidence he cites from the Dead Sea Scrolls:
In its description of the beginning of rule of Light, the Manual of Discipline mentions the monthly and annual seasons: the period of years “for their weeks” (לשבועיהם); and at the beginning “of their weeks” a period of “freedom (דרור i.e., jubilee).” The so-called Zadokite Document alludes to the Book of Jubilees in these words: “And the exact statement of the epochs of Israel's blindness to all these, behold it can be learnt in the Book of the Divisions of Times into their Jubilees and Weeks” (ובשבועותיהם ספר מחלקות העתים ליובליהם). These and similar passages allude to the sabbatical cycles known to have been observed in Palestine from the post-exilic period to the fifth or sixth Christian century. A recently excavated synagogue at Khirbet Susiya contains fragments of a mosaic dated in the “second year of the Week (שלשבוע) four thousand years... after the world was created.” This inscription comes from a synagogue probably built not before the fifth Christian century, yet the basic meaning of shavu‘a had hardly changed through the centuries (emphasis added).
Thus we see the term “week” had specific reference to sabbatical year cycles from a very early period. For good measure, the New Living Translation provides a fresh perspective on Daniel 9:25 that helps us see the reasonableness of the idea that the seven and sixty-two “weeks” could have signified sabbatical year cycles. It reads:
Now listen and understand! Seven sets of seven plus sixty-two sets of seven will pass from the time the command is given to rebuild Jerusalem until a ruler—the Anointed One—comes. Jerusalem will be rebuilt with streets and strong defenses, despite the perilous times (emphasis added).
“Sets of seven” is readily seen as a synonym for sabbatical year cycles. For these reasons the term shavu‘a strikes me, as it did Wacholder, as having a direct connection to the regular seven-year periods from one sabbatical year to the next. If this is indeed the case, then what Daniel 9:25 says can be paraphrased thus, basically following the NIV:
From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a ruler, comes, there will be seven sabbatical year cycles (one Jubilee) plus sixty-two sabbatical year cycles.
Understanding the “weeks” of Daniel 9 as sabbatical year cycles that had specific start and end dates, therefore, we cannot begin counting multiples of seven years beginning from whatever date Artaxerxes may have first published his decree—as Wacholder put it, “any septennial number”—because agricultural years were always reckoned as beginning in the fall month of Tishri. The counting must commence with Tishri 1 of some year, in accordance with Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1a: “On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for…the Shemittah (sabbatical year) and the Yoveil (Jubilee) count...” (http://www.emishnah.com/moed2/Rosh_HaShanah/1.pdf). Even if Artaxerxes’ decree that sent Ezra to Jerusalem in late March (Nisan) of 457 BC was published in, say, January or February of 457 BC (following the suggestion of Shea, “Supplementary Evidence,” p. 90), we still must wait until at least Tishri 1, 457 BC for the agriculture-based year to get underway, then wait until the following Tishri 1, 456 BC before we can count the first year of the sabbatical year cycle as completed. The date the decree was issued is not simultaneous with the date sabbatical year counting was resumed. The issuing of the decree and the start of the “sevens” counting are separate matters, though closely related.
Hence, we should approach our study with an eye to relate the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 to a sabbatical year calendar. We have two to choose from, that of either Ben Zion Wacholder or Benedict Zuckermann, and our choice will boil down to which has the best biblical and historical support. Noting that the word “until” in Daniel 9:25 stops the “weeks” count right at the time the Anointed One comes, and connecting this with our earlier conclusion that the word to restore and rebuild Jerusalem was issued by Artaxerxes Longimanus in the winter of 458/457 BC shortly before Ezra’s departure, we should thus consider the possibility that sixty-nine sabbatical year cycles would completely pass between Tishri 1, 457 BC and the coming—whatever form that might take—of the Anointed One, the Messiah. Let’s file away this thought for the moment, we will return to it shortly…
Ezra Reinstituted Sabbatical Year Observance after the Exile
There is no evidence I am aware of that the sabbatical years, among other things specified in the Law, were honored by the exiles in the years immediately following the return under Zerubbabel. The high priests prior to Ezra’s arrival paid the most attention to getting the Temple rebuilt and reinstituting the Temple-based sacrificial system, with other stipulations of the Law given less attention. It was only after Ezra, “the priest and scribe,” came and began to teach and admonish the people that full obedience to all that the Law of Moses required was insisted upon. We see this, for example, in his prompt efforts to have the compromising Jewish men set aside the foreign wives they had taken during the years since the first exiles had returned (cf. Ezra 9–10). Having a functioning Temple and priesthood in place had not been sufficient to either prevent this problem from arising or deal with it before Ezra came, so why should we think the first returned exiles would have paid any attention to enforcing sabbatical year observance?
We find the people promising in Nehemiah 10:31 to “forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.” (The NIV is clearer: “Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.”) This shows that by Nehemiah’s arrival in 444 BC the people had been made quite aware of these sabbatical year requirements, and strongly implies that Ezra and his Levites had made their faithful observance a live issue from the time they arrived in 457. Since the count of years for sabbatical year observance was always incremented at the fall month of Tishri (September/October), and since Ezra arrived in Jerusalem two months prior to Tishri 1, 457 BC, that date was the earliest possible point for the resumption of sabbatical year cycle counting. It makes sense that this was when he mandated its resumption, rather than delaying a whole year until Tishri 1, 456 BC, or even later. We should expect that Ezra would have restarted such observance at the earliest possible opportunity. Is there any evidence this was the case?
In a word, yes. Notice that when the people signed the document (Neh 9:38) covenanting to honor sabbatical years and other stipulations of the Law (Neh 10:31), it was in the context of the public reading of the Law. As Nehemiah 8:1–2, 8 records:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month…. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.
The “first day of the seventh month” of the year Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem was Tishri 1, 444 BC. Why is this significant? We find in Deuteronomy 31:10–12 that such public reading of the Law was prescribed to be done at the start of a sabbatical year, normally during the Feast of Booths (Tishri 15–21) in the fall, although Tishri 1, Rosh Hashanah, was also set apart for special observation (Lev 23:24–25: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation”). Deuteronomy 31:10–12 reads:
Then Moses commanded them, saying, “At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law.”
“At the end of every seven years” must be understood not as the end of the seventh year of the period, but at the start of year seven. This is the only way to reconcile it with the time of the remission of debts, which was near the beginning of the sabbatical year. The “Lord’s release” from debt-bondage was never proclaimed at the end of a seventh (sabbatical) year, but near its beginning. The connection with the Feast of Booths confirms this; that feast takes place in Tishri, which was the beginning, not end, of the agriculture-based calendar that sabbatical and Jubilee year counting was tied to (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1a). The principle of release at the beginning of year seven, not at its end, is also given by several Scriptures:
Exodus 21:2: “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.”
Deuteronomy 15:9, 12, 18: “Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’…. If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free…. It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do.”
Nehemiah 10:31 (NIV): “Every seventh year we will forgo working the land [observe a sabbatical year] and will cancel all debts [which caused indentured servitude]” (brackets added).
Exodus 21:2 is self-explanatory. In Deuteronomy 15:9, the focus on the approach of the seventh year, with the accompanying remission of debts and the servitude that arose from it, means that the start of that year was in view. Besides, if the creditor had waited until the end of the seventh year, the debtor would have given him seven years of service, not six! And the verse from Nehemiah 10 ties together the start of each seventh (sabbatical) year with the remission of debts. Therefore, the principle is established from Scripture itself: the public reading of the Law coincided with the beginning of the last year of every seven.
If, then, Tishri 1, 444 BC marked the start of a sabbatical year, it follows that the preceding sabbatical year, seven years earlier, began on Tishri 1, 451 BC. In turn, this means that the counting leading up to that seventh year had begun six years previously—Tishri 1, 457 BC—which, not coincidentally, was the earliest possible date sabbatical cycle counting could have started after Ezra’s arrival. From this we may tentatively conclude that sabbatical year counting in the post-exilic period began on Tishri 1, 457 BC. This appears to establish for us the every-seven-years pattern for sabbatical years we must follow from that starting date—451/450 BC, 444/443 BC, 437/436 BC, and so on up to the fall of the Temple to Titus’ legions in AD 70.
The above understanding, that counting years for sabbatical year observance would promptly begin at the earliest time after Ezra’s arrival, is supported by something written in the midrashic chronographic work Seder ‘Olam Rabbah. Although for reasons discussed below it is quite problematic as a source of reliable history, an observation it makes is nevertheless pertinent to what we are discussing. The SO, as pointed out by Jack Finegan in §224 of his revised Handbook of Biblical Chronology, “says that Scripture compares the coming of the people in the time of Ezra to their coming in the time of Joshua: ‘Just as at their coming in the time of Joshua they became subject to tithes, sabbatical years, and Jubilees…so too at their coming in the time of Ezra.’” Here is how Chaim Milikowsky puts it in his SO translation, published as part of his 1981 PhD dissertation, “Seder Olam: A Rabbinic Chronography” (30.27–37, p. 545):
And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so” (Neh 8:17). Is it possible to say so? [Scripture] compares their entry in the time of Ezra to their entry in the time of Joshua; just as at their entry in the time of Joshua they became subject to tithes, Sabbatical years and Jubilees, and sanctified walled cities, and were happy and joyous before the Omnipresent, so too at their entry in the time of Ezra...
In “Notions of Exile, Subjugation and Return in Rabbinic Literature,” in James M. Scott, ed., Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 265–296 (online at https://www.academia.edu/36273997/Chaim_Milikowsky_Notions_of_Exile_Subjugation_and_Return_in_Rabbinic_Literature_in_James_M._Scott_ed._Exile_Old_Testament_Jewish_and_Christian_Conceptions_Leiden_Brill_1997_265-296), the above translation is quoted with this comment:
The main thrust of the passage is to compare the second entry into the Land, in the time of Ezra, to the first entry into the Land, in the time of Joshua. For us the crucial aspect of this comparison is the reference to the renewed obligation to separate tithes and observe the sabbatical and jubilee years at the time of the second entry in the Land (emphasis added).
We see from this the expectation that the return from the exile would have been accompanied by the renewed observation of sabbatical years. Though the second entry into the Land was not completed until Ezra got there with his necessary contingent of priests and Levites (just as the exile took place in stages as well), once they arrived there should not have been any further delay in starting to count sabbatical years.