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The Day of the Lord:
Metaphors of Accountability

Dennis Bratcher

(See the 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").

The Day of Visitation

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 God's activity.

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).

That Day

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 of David.  

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 expressions.

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 Esdras 12:34).

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.

Biblical Theology

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 humanity.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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