The Day of the Lord is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures. K. A. D. Smelik defines this day well. He states, the “Day of YHWH is an event in the future or the past determined by a theophany of YHWH during which he crushes his enemies. It can be depicted in terms of a Holy War or a cosmic catastrophe. The enemies of YHWH can be nations threatening Israel, but they can be found in Israel as well.”1 One thing that Smelik misses in his definition is that Yahweh’s judgment is always tempered with His mercy. Therefore, a better definition would be: The Day of Yahweh is a day, both past and future, in which Yahweh intervenes into human affairs bringing judgment for those who work iniquity and mercy on a faithful remnant.
It is essential to understand each aspect that this phrase carries with it. First, there is an eschatological outlook that needs to be observed as well as the bipolar combination of salvation through judgment. This idea will be taken up within the following two positions. Next, the reader must appreciate the use of this phrase in the contextual milieu of the Old Testament Prophets. Finally, there will be an excursion into the awareness the New Testament writers had of this phrase and the hermeneutic they bring to it. Each of these interpretive features should lead the reader to fear and reverence Yahweh as king and sovereign over history and the future. These should also lead the believer to delight in the hope of the final consummation of the second advent of Christ.
Day of Yahweh in the Old Testament
Even before arrival into the Promised Land, the exile had been foreseen by the prophet, Moses.2 Observe Leviticus 26:33-9: “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” (NASB). And as the exiles took place, prophets arose to speak a message from Yahweh. Hosea and Amos were two that challenged northern Israel by declaring an impending, woeful Day of Yahweh. “The entire conception in the OT is dark and foreboding.”3 It is described as “a ‘day of visitation’ (Isaiah 10:3), a day ‘of the wrath of the Lord’ (Ezekiel 7:19), and a ‘great day of the Lord’ (Zephaniah 1:14).”4
The first mention of the Day of Yahweh appears in these eighth century prophets along with the actuality of its characteristics of salvation through judgment.5 The first to mention this day is the prophet Amos around 760 B.C. This Day of Yahweh is one “filled with a concrete event” in Israel’s history, a “day determined by and filled with the action of YHWH.”6 This phrase “describes God’s intervention in human history for the accomplishment of His testament.”7 This concrete event of the Day of the Lord must be recognized in the Israelite’s historical and cultural milieu. Therefore, these exiles into enemy territories, promised by God through Moses and declared imminent by the eighth century prophets, should be seen as the contemporary handiwork of God at that time. He directed the Assyrian empire to defeat Israel and then He oversaw the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians. Yahweh’s involvement in history should be viewed as a sovereign act of a holy God; He alone sent these oppressors. The responsibility of the Israelites was to repent and become clean. However, even through warnings by the prophets, they remained obstinate and rebellious.
“Characteristically, the classical prophets warned their contemporaries in Israel and Judah that the ‘Day of Yahweh’ would soon come upon them in the form of cosmic or meteorological catastrophes or of powerful enemy armies which would bring Yahweh’s judgment against them for breaking the covenant requirements of the law.”8 As stated by Lorin Cranford, this day is a day of wrath, which is “fierce (Ex. 32:12; Ezra 10:14), is kindled like fire (Ps. 106:40), and waxes hot like molten wax (Ex. 22:24; 32:10).”9 The Day of Yahweh is coming, according to Amos, because of the people’s indifference to social justice and deteriorating moral obedience to God. Israel expected to be saved on that day because they knew of the past acts of God on their behalf and they believed that because they were the chosen people they would have no harm done to them. “Israel anticipated that for them God’s coming would hold favorable prospects, that it would be a day of light.”10 However, Amos makes clear that their crimes will only bring a sentence of harsh judgment. This day then was going to be a terrible day for the Israelite people. Examine what Amos says:
Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, for what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness, not light; as when a man flees from a lion and a bear meets him, or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him. Will the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?” (5:18-20, NASB)
“The classic statement of this woeful aspect of the day of Yahweh comes…in Zephaniah’s presentiments of impending distress and desolation…. Yet Zephaniah… concludes his prophecy…[with] popular optimism in reference to the day of the Lord.”11 To illustrate this, observe the comparison between Zephaniah 1:15 and 3:17. “A day of wrath is that day, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…” (1:15, NASB) and “The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (3:17, NASB). This idea is a bipolar understanding carried throughout the Old Testament. “In the Day of the Lord, justice is done. This is a positive time for victims, but a day of reckoning for oppressors.”12 Where there is judgment by Yahweh on his people, there is still a show of mercy by Yahweh by delivering a remnant. The Day of Yahweh is considered to have this dual purpose: Prune the land of the wicked and save a remnant for Himself.
Three distinct doctrines are at work here. Geerhardus Vos suggests two for certain. He states that the “two topics which we have to deal may be called the doctrine of judgment and that of restoration.”13 The other doctrine that includes these is the doctrine of Divine Retribution.
If Israel would not maintain ‘separation’ from sin and the world, then she would have to be purged and resanctified before God could accomplish His further work through her.. If, however, Israel were living in a way sufficiently separate, and if certain pagan nations from the outside should threaten to overwhelm God’s people, then He would see to it that these Gentiles should be divinely ‘purged’ (punished).14
Thus, the conclusion that the Doctrine of Retribution proposes is that if one obeys, he will be blessed, but if one disobeys, he will be cursed. This can be examined specifically in Zephaniah. King states that “the day of the Lord is the time when Yahweh comes to invoke the treaty curses against the violation of His covenant.”15 King affirms correctly that
An…aspect of the day of the Lord proclaimed in Zephaniah is that it will implement terms of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. In other words the events that await Israel on the day of the Lord comport closely to curses and blessings delineated in the Mosaic Covenant, and the sins that prompted the onset of these curses parallel sins condemned therein.16
This is exactly what Yahweh obligated Israel to for His mercy on them to be their God, who rescued them from slavery. This doctrine is especially played out in the prophets’ call for repentance. “A call to repentance is found especially in Zephaniah 2.2-3. Reminiscent of Micah 6.8, this passage calls the hearers to ‘seek the Lord’ and ‘seek righteousness, seek humility,’ thereby offering the hope of escaping the terrible Day of the Lord.”17
The contemporary setting of the prophets on execution of the Day of Yahweh is revealed in the events that occurred in each prophets lifetime. For instance, the day represented by Joel consisted of a locust plague that would darken the very sun (1:15, 2:2-3), and for Zephaniah it related to the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C. (1:7), and Isaiah saw it as the capture of Babylon by the Medes and Persians in 539-538 B.C. (13:7, 13).18
The contemporary message that the prophets posed also has an eschatological outlook. For instance, the post-exilic prophet, Malachi, refers to the Day of Yahweh as an event that will come in the still further future. Malachi 4:1-2 is the climax of this eschatological understanding. Yahweh states through the prophet,
“For Behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the ignorant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of Hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” (NASB)
The eschatological significance of future hope is quite clear in the perception of the “Day of Yahweh.” Within this vision there is embedded within that day not only judgment but also hope. “Some 60 occurrences of ‘the Day of Yahweh’ and similar expressions refer to the future time when Yahweh would reestablish the fortunes of Israel/Judah or the Jewish peoples.”19
Isaiah, in particular, mentions such hopefulness for the people of God. He says, “On that day the deaf will hear words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. The afflicted also will increase their gladness in the Lord, and the needy of mankind will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel” (29:18-9, NASB). Furthermore, according to Isaiah this future redemptive hope will not only effect Israel, but also other nations as well. Notice Isaiah 2:2-4:
Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us conserning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war (NASB).
This future proclamation given by Isaiah obviously has not yet been fulfilled. Today’s context proves this. The twentieth century has been riddled with warfare and is continuing into the present. Therefore, this future hope is not simply within the context of the prophets’ cultural sitz en lieben. This future hope is still to come.
Another Old Testament prophet that illustrates this restorative and salvific awareness is Zephaniah. King maintains that according to the prophet, this time of salvation is “so thrilling and wonderful that Yahweh Himself will burst into songs of rejoicing (3:17).”20 King goes on to demonstrate the numerous ways that the Day of Yahweh is also a day of deliverance. He demonstrates through Zephaniah that there is a “delineation of the remnant concept,” “universal worship of Yahweh,” “joyful cheers of Yahweh…and His people,” and the “structure of the Book of Zephaniah.”21 The structure of Zephaniah demonstrates the focal point of the whole book in a climax that proclaims the message of salvation.
The eschatological aspect as well as the cursing and blessing of the Day is most evident in Daniel 12:1-3:
Now at that time, Michael, the great prince who stands over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the duct of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
The last days are described vividly by Daniel and illustrates that the Day of Yahweh will be one that ends this age and begins the age that will come. Stone states that “this present world is not the end; the full glory does not abide init; therefore those who were strong prayed for the weak. But the day of judgment will be the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come.”22
The Old Testament is transparent in its use of the phrase “Day of Yahweh.” It has both a localized understanding for the people of Israel in their contextual milieu as well as a universal and eschatological outlook. Coupled with this, is the understanding of the Divine Covenant exercised by Yahweh on that day, between Himself and His people in the curse of judgment and hope of blessing. Further, the day of Yahweh, as described by the prophets, is both in their present day and in the future of mankind. It is considered the end of this age and the beginning of the age to come. In the next section, the Day of Yahweh becomes even more specific with the coming of Christ.
“In the New Testament the appearance of God is more distinctly the coming of Christ, specifically the return of Christ, his second coming. Paul’s mention of the ‘day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:8) is likely the day of ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him’ (2 Thess. 2:1).”23 The Day of Christ in the New Testament is similar to the Day of Yahweh described by the Old Testament. “In reading the Greek OT (LXX), Jews and early Christians very likely rendered the OT expression ‘Day of Yahweh’ as ‘Day of the Lord.’ Early Christian leaders likely took over the OT expression but now understood it to refer to Jesus’ return as their Lord, as the Christ….”24 The characteristics of each both involve salvation through judgment, the Doctrine of Retribution and an eschatological outlook. “Since in the NT the judgment occurs when Christ returns in glory, it is Christ who sits in judgment at the grand assize. Nevertheless, it is God’s judgment that is enacted, as was the case when God’s messiah acted as God’s agent of judgment in the OT.”25
As already mentioned, The Day of Christ is the Day of Yahweh described in the Old Testament. The very conception of Jesus “as ‘the Son of Man’ points to this day.”26 This day, as in the Old Testament, is described as both a wonderful day of joy and victory as well as one that is dark and foreboding. Romans 2:5-8 describe the Day of Christ in woeful terms as well as jovial:
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
This passage also highlights the Doctrine of Retribution that is portrayed as an essential truth throughout the Old Testament. “The concept of retribution for good and bad is also applied to believers (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10), but the specifics of rewards and punishments are not stated. However, the New Testament is absolutely clear in declaring the certainty of Judgment Day from which no one will escape (Acts 17:30-31).”27 “To the unbeliever, the NT depicts it as a day of terror; to the believer, as a day of joy.”28
So far, the discussion has evolved around what the Day of Yahweh/Christ will be like and that it is a future event. Another important feature that needs to be addressed are the signs that are mentioned by the New Testament writers that would occur before “God would finally intervene in human history to establish his righteousness and to do away with sin…[and]…judge and remake his people. Then the veiled divine activity behind all history would be made plain.”29 Paul in 2 Thessalonians “knew that the Day of the Lord had not yet (started to) come, [therefore,] he quenched the aroused messianic fervor of his addressees by saying that certain things must happen.”30 These events that would happen are as follows: 1. The man of lawlessness is to be revealed and display himself as God in the temple (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8), 2. Wickedness and distress will become more extreme (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7) and 3. God pours out his wrath on the disobedient (2 Thessalonians 2:8-12).
In accordance with New Testament writers, the Old Testament affirms that there will also be an infiltration of foreign nations into Israel as God’s people before the Day of Yahweh.
The prediction of the Old Testament exhibit three stages of appreciation in respect to the presence of Gentiles within Israel…. 1) The Gentiles may be seen as fellow inheritors of the testament, heirs along with Israel of God’s promise of reconciliation….2)…the Gentiles are foreseen as in some way related to the Israelites….Finally, 3) believing Gentiles may be identified simply as Israelites, inseparable from God’s people….31
This is an important event that will happen before the Day of Yahweh. “Many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day and will become My people” (Zechariah 2:11a, NASB).
As the reader may observe the similarities between the Day of Yahweh and the Day of Christ are significant. There can be no doubt that these two are in apposition to each other. The Day of Yahweh will be the second advent of Christ when he comes in glory to judge both the quick and the dead.
Conclusion: Theological Significance and Application
According to Elmer A. Martens the theological significance is threefold. He correctly states that
First, without question, the day of the Lord is a day of God’s vindication. In the battle between evil and God, it is God who is victorious and vindicated…. Second, the day of Yahweh addresses the question of theodicy – not only the existence of evil, but especially undoing the havoc that it brings and making all things right…. Third, the certain coming of that day with its dark side of judgment and its bright side of a giant transformation encompassing human beings, human society, the world’s physical environment, and the cosmos as such, calls on believers especially to live in its light.32
Martens is accurate in describing these theological points, especially the third point; one’s theology should always lead to doxology. The reader should see the significance of the present life. How ones lives and behaves today has definite bearing on eternity. What the reader should be moved to is a reverent fear for a holy, sovereign and wrathful God. Further, the reader should subject him/herself to Yahweh as King over the nations, in fact the universe. The reader should bind him/herself to the mercy of Yahweh, for the day is coming when He will judge the wicked and save the righteous. The reader constantly needs to ask him/herself what it is he/she is believing and doing in regard to this most momentous event in human history.
Aus, Roger D. "God's Plan and God's Power." Journal of Biblical Literature 96, no. 4 (December 1977): 537-53.
Cranford, Lorin L. Holman Bible Dictionary. Edited by Trent C. Butler, et.al. Nashville: Holman, 1991.
__________. "The Day Of The Lord (Yahweh)." Day Of The Lord, 2005. http://net.bible.org/dictionary.php?word=Day%20Of%20The%20Lord%20(Yahwe) / (accessed October 25, 2006).