The Day of the Lord:
Metaphors of Accountability
listing of biblical passages that refer to the metaphors.)
The biblical idea of "The Day of the Lord" changed through the ten
centuries of biblical tradition. We are most familiar with the final New
Testament expression of this idea as "judgment day" (Matt 12:36; cf. Rev.
20:11-12). Yet, the biblical writers used several related ideas and symbols
that sometimes had similar meanings and other times emphasized very
different messages. This diversity suggests that the concept cannot be tied
solely to the often negative images associated with it that were popularized
in certain cultural expressions, such as, for example, the preaching of
Jonathan Edwards ("Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God").
Many scholars trace the origin of the idea to the very beginning of the
Israelite nation: the exodus from Egypt. The Israelites described the exodus
event as God entering history and visiting (Heb: paqad)
the descendants of Abraham (Ex 4:31). The term visit became a common
way of describing God's actions of revelation within human history.
While that biblical imagery does not quite in itself imply the much later
theological categories of transcendence and immanence, it did effectively
counter the dominant mythical conceptions of the ancient world that saw the
gods in cosmic terms and quite apart from human existence. To say that God
visited his people is a powerful affirmation, not only about God’s
activity in human history, but also about the very nature and conception of
God that radically parted company with surrounding cultures and religions.
Almost any event in which the people understood God to be at work could
be described as God visiting the people. Some visitations we would
describe as miraculous, such as the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1). Others, such
as rainfall (Ps 65:9), we would assign to natural processes of nature (see
Chart on Comparison of World Views). Either way, the "day of visitation"
confessed that God was Creator of the world, that He revealed Himself to
people in the arena of human history, and that all of life was the arena of
This conviction that God entered human history led to both positive and
negative developments of the idea. God could enter history and bring
deliverance to His people (Ruth 1:6). But the visit from God might
have very unpleasant results for those disobedient to His covenant (Ex
32:34; Deut. 5:9).
The prophets picked up both dimensions of this idea. They used the
negative aspect as a repeated warning that God would not tolerate sin
indefinitely. He would visit the ungodly for punishment (Isa 23:17),
or would visit their actions upon them (Hos 1:4-5), which was a way
to say that disobedience sets in motion events that bring their own
consequences that could still be described as judgment. They used the
positive side as encouragement and promise to the people (Jer 29:10).
The visitation of God emerged in New Testament writings mainly as a
positive confession that God acts in history. Luke used it this way
exclusively (Luke 1:68; see 1 Peter 2:12). In both aspects, the emphasis was
on historical events in the life of the nation that they interpreted as
visits from God.
The Day of the Lord
The Old Testament prophets made the most use of the expression "day of
the Lord." The writing prophets were not active until later in Israelite
history (750-450 BC), so this concept probably grew from the idea of the
visitation of God.
The Exodus events convinced the Israelites that God would enter human
affairs on the side of the oppressed, the outcast, the helpless (Exod
14:30-31). Yet, as they settled in the land the Israelites faced opposition
from a host of godless people. Some, like the Ammonites (or Amorites,
Numbers 21), they overcame quickly. Others, like the Philistines and later
the Assyrians and Babylonians, would continue to harass them.
So the Israelites began to long for the day when they would be free from
foreign intervention and war. God had delivered them from oppression before.
They began to look forward to God again marching into history as the mighty
divine warrior (Habakkuk 3). He would eliminate all their enemies and
establish Israel as His chosen people. They described this as "the day of
the Lord" or sometimes simply as "that day."
The prophets who were active during threats of foreign invasion used the
idea most. Obadiah, responding to the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC, wrote:
"For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it
shall be done to you, your deeds shall return on your own head." (Obad.
1:15). Similar passages occur in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
However, several prophets also used the idea in a very different way.
They added a strong moral and ethical dimension to the concept. They saw the
impending action of God in the world in terms of judgment on sinners,
especially God's people who had not been faithful. This became the basis for
later developments of the idea.
Amos gives the best example. He condemned the northern Israelites for
violating covenant with God by oppressing the poor and failing to care for
the helpless members of the community. Even for God's people, the "day of
the Lord" might not be the great day of deliverance they expected. "Woe to
you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness and not light." Amos concluded this passage with the call:
"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing
stream." (Amos 5:18, 24).
Other prophets also used the "day of the Lord" as a symbol for God's
judgment on sin. Joel interpreted a devastating locust plague as a warning
of God's coming judgment on unfaithfulness (Joel 1:15, 2:1). Zephaniah
linked the idea with "day of God's wrath" to warn the people against
idolatry (Zeph 1). Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel interpreted the Babylonian
destruction of Jerusalem as the judgment of God on Israelite unfaithfulness.
They saw the invasion as the beginning, or even part of, the day of the Lord
(Jer 30:7; Ezek 30:3).
Because of the devastation of the country by the Babylonians, the phrase
"the day of God's wrath" used earlier by Zephaniah became nearly a synonym
for "day of the Lord" (Lam 1:12; Ezek 7:19). This, with phrases like "day of
vengeance" (Isa 63:2) and "day of doom" (Ezek 30:9), gave a doomsday
feeling to the idea that would remain.
The "day of the Lord" gradually came to refer to God's future acts of
revelation, although still within the arena of human history. It is
interesting that the Old Testament writers rarely, if ever, used the term to
describe hopes for a new Davidic king, a messiah. Some passages connect the
restored Davidic Kingdom with the vindication of God's people on "that day"
(Isa 11:11ff; note Mal 3:1-5; 4:1-5). But the punishment of sinners and the
doomsday tone dominated. Even after the coming of Jesus, the "day of the
Lord" referred to a future time of punishment for evildoers (1 Thess 5:2
ff), which tended to associate the concept with eschatological or
apocalyptic ideas of a future time of accountability to God.
The concept itself and the ideas associated with it became such a
conceptual and theological framework for speaking about the actions of God
in the world that it could be referenced obliquely without using any of the
"standard" terminology. So John the Baptizer can evoke these future
eschatological ideas by simply referring to "the wrath to come" (Luke 3:7),
which aroused the expectations of the people (v. 15). It is interesting to
note that there is also a dimension of the people’s expectation that saw the
coming messiah as vindicating the people of God, a dimension which John
clearly sets within responsibility and faithfulness to God much as the
earlier prophets had done (vv. 8-9; cf. Amos 5:18, 24).
Biblical writers used the phrase "that day" far more frequently (over 100
times) than "day of the Lord." It was often a short way of referring to the
same idea (Zeph 1:14-15). However, "that day" had a much wider range of
meaning. It could refer to any future activity of God, positive or negative,
in history or beyond (Deut 31:16-18; Ezek 29:21, etc.). "That day" is the
preferred New Testament way of talking about the future, especially in terms
of accountability to God (Matt 7:22; 24:36-37; Rom 2:15-16), which clearly
places future judgment within the context of the good news of the
Gospel (cf. Luke 3:18).
Days are Coming, Latter Days, Then
Following the return from Babylonian exile, the Israelites faced severe
problems. They were poor, lacked cities and temple, and faced continual
raids from hostile neighbors. They felt they had suffered enough for their
sins (Isa 40:1). So they again began to anticipate a day when God would
intervene in the world and vindicate his people.
During this period, the emphasis shifted back toward ideas of the future
restoration of the nation within history. While "day of the Lord" was still
used, the prophets' messages began to sound more positive. Jeremiah had
anticipated a time of restoration: "Behold, the days are coming, says the
LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house
of Judah." (Jer 31:31).
"Latter days," "that day," or simply "then" were all used to refer to the
time God would enter history and restore his people to their rightful place
as the chosen people, complete with an earthly kingdom ruled by descendants
In some contexts, this idea began to expand to a more wide ranging
perspective with Israel at the center of a global kingdom. While in some
cases the emphasis fell on the undeserved action of God in restoration, it
was never divorced from the aspect of accountability and responsibility of
response. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the concept "day of the Lord"
had very negative overtones, while the ideas associated with "latter days"
or "coming day" had a more positive ring.
This simply demonstrates the dual nature of the entire concept that could
be conceptualized with a more positive emphasis or a more negative emphasis
to address different crises and needs within the community. The overall
emphasis no matter which pole is emphasized still included the confession
that God is active in and concerned with human affairs, and that humanity is
accountable to God.
Day of Judgment
While the New Testament writers used several of these terms from the Old
Testament, the phrase "day of judgment" never occurs in the Old Testament.
Even though it comes very close to the Old Testament concept of the "day of
the Lord," it is the unique New Testament development of the Old Testament
In the four hundred or so years between the Old Testament and the birth
of Jesus, there were many books written by Jews that are not in our Bible.
In these, some of the ideas surrounding "day of the Lord," "day of wrath,"
"that day," and "day of visitation," come together in the expression "day of
judgment" (Judith 16:17). This expressed the belief that God would call all
people to account for the way they had responded to God and His covenant
(note Malachi 3).
During this period, there had also been a growing tendency in parts of
Judaism to give up on human history. Many thought that human beings had
become so wicked that God could no longer work in human affairs. He would
have to destroy the earth and begin again with a new creation (this idea is
called 'apocalyptic'). As a result, the idea of "day of judgment" was often
associated with the end of the world, usually in cataclysmic imagery (2
In Jesus' day, some thought that any future action of God would be beyond
present human history. Apart from the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), this
otherworldly view was not a major perspective presented in the New
Testament. However, because of severe persecutions at the hands of the
Romans, many in the early Church adopted this view. It again became popular
following the United States' Civil War, which spawned the millenarian and
adventist movements, and during the cold war crisis of the 1960s and 70s.
The New Testament uses "day of judgment" or sometimes "day of Christ"
(Phil 1:10), to express the idea that all people are personally accountable
to God for their actions. At some point, either within history or beyond,
God will require an accounting of actions. The image of a king (Son of Man)
sitting on his throne and dividing the wicked (goats) from the faithful
(sheep) is one of the best New Testament examples of the idea (Matt
25:31-46). This image retains the Old Testament view of God as active in
human affairs. Yet under the pressures of persecution, the future dimension
is stronger than in much of the Old Testament.
The various concepts and metaphors surrounding this idea have diverse
meanings, and can carry both positive and negative overtones depending on
the point of view of the person using the concept. God’s visitation can be
seen as positive for Israel as God vindicates His people from oppression and
injustice, while at the same time being negative for those who are doing the
oppression. But the same two dimensions can also be seen within Israel, in
positive dimensions as God vindicates those who have been faithful in the
covenantal relationship with God, and negative as he calls to accountability
those who have not. Even in contexts where the emphasis is on God's action
of restoration in spite of the total impotence of the people (for example,
Jer. 31:27ff), there is still a significant aspect of accountability to God
carried in the concept.
The actions of God in history, almost always seen in some future
dimension, are positive or negative depending on where one is in terms of
faithfulness to God. The presence of God strips away all pretense to
righteousness, leaves a person or a people in darkness or light depending on
their relationship to God. So as Amos and others clearly warn, simply
belonging to a particular nation or religion, or participating in certain
religious activities or believing certain things is no guarantee how God’s
visitation will be experienced. Those who so long for the "day of the Lord"
based on their external status may find out that the day of light for which
they longed may actually be a day of darkness as they are called to show the
fruits of their obedience and faithfulness (Amos 5:18-24; Luke 3:7-17).
And yet those who have no hope in themselves or their circumstances may
anticipate that "days are coming" in which God will again reveal himself as
God. Both are expressions of the nature of God in his work with