The 490 years begin with a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Restore means to return the city to the Jews to serve as their capital from which they would rule their whole nation, according to their own laws. Four Persian decrees are considered:
(1) The decree by Cyrus in 538/7 BC allowed Jews to rebuild Jerusalem, but did not give Jerusalem back to the nation to serve as their national capital.
(2) The decree by Darius I 520 BC simply confirmed Cyrus’ edict.
(3) The decree by Artaxerses I 457 BC for the first time granted autonomy of Judah, and if we add 490 years to 457 BC, we come to the time of Christ.
(4) The second decree by Artaxerxes—in 445/4—was too late to fit the time of Christ and simply confirmed his previous decree.
The 70 weeks (490 years) of Daniel 9 begin with a decree:
“… FROM the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem …” (NASB 9:25)
Identification of this decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem is very important for a correct interpretation of the 490 years. A number of historical decrees with different dates have been suggested by scholars. This article evaluates these decrees and identifies the decree that fits the prophecy best.
Decree to Restore and Rebuild Jerusalem
The decree that we are looking for will both “restore” and “rebuild” Jerusalem. “Restore” and “rebuild” are two related but very different actions:
Rebuild means to physically reconstruct.
Restore (shûb) does not include the idea of rebuilding. To restore a city means to return it to the previous owner, for example:
The Aramean king once said to Ahab, king of Israel: “I will return (shûb, “restore”) the cities my father took from your father“ (I Kings 20:34). These cities have not been destroyed, and were simply returned (given back) to Israel.
Azariah, king of Judah, rebuilt and restored the city Elath to Judah (2 Kings 14:22). This verse contains the both verbs in Daniel 9:25; ”rebuild” and “restore.” The city had been in ruins. After it was rebuilt, it was restored (returned or given back) to Judah to rule as their own (cf. 1 Kings 12:21).
Restoring (shûb) Jerusalem in Daniel 9 therefore does not include rebuilding. Nor does it merely mean that the Jews are allowed to live in the city. “Restore” in Daniel 9:25 means that Jerusalem would again be owned again by the Israelites. But Jerusalem was also the judicial and executive capital of the nation and symbol of the Israeli people. To restore Jerusalem therefore means that it will be returned to the Jews to serve as their capital from which they would rule their whole nation, according to their own laws as a theocentric society.
The decree of God via Jeremiah
Critical scholars are academics who do not accept in the divine inspiration of Daniel. They do not believe that Daniel 9 refers to Jesus, but rather propose that Daniel was written during the persecution of the Jews by the Greek king Antiochus (around 165 BC), and that that crisis is also the crisis in Daniel. In other words, they propose that Daniel was written in the form of a prophecy, but actually describes events that occurred prior to the writing of Daniel. Since such scholars have to fit 490 years between the decree and the time of Antiochus, they select the earliest possible decree. For this reason they propose that the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem is a decree of God via the prophet Jeremiah.
But even if they take the very first mention by Jeremiah of the coming destruction and restoration of Jerusalem, in about 605 BC, they still only have 440 years between 605 BC and the time of Antiochus; not the required 490 (70×7) years. They usually explain the difference as a mistake made by the uninspired writer. But people who accept Daniel as supernaturally inspired, and particularly people who accept the messiah in Daniel 9 as referring to Jesus Christ, do not accept the announcements by Jeremiah as the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.
Four Persian decrees
The books by Ezra and Nehemiah mention four different “decrees” which deal with the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple and city. These decrees were issued by three Persian monarchs over a period of 93 years:
- 538/7 BC: Cyrus allowed Jews to return to Judah and to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4; cf. Isa 45:1).
- About 520 BC: Darius I reaffirmed and expedited the order of Cyrus (Ezra 6:1-12).
- 457 BC: Artaxerses I granted a decree to Ezra (7:12-26) to reestablish the autonomy of Judah.
- 445/444 BC: Artaxerxes I gave permission to Nehemiah to repair Jerusalem.
One of these must be the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem.
Cyrus in 538/7
More than a century before Cyrus was born, God inspired Isaiah to write:
“Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’“ (Is. 44:28)
“He (Cyrus) shall build my city and set my exiles free“ (Is. 45:13)
In 538/7 BC Cyrus decreed as follows:
“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you … let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Ezra 1:2-4)
The decree by Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Judea and to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4; cf. Isa 45:1). It also implies the right to rebuild their cities, including Jerusalem. But it is not the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem in Daniel 9:25, for it did not allow the Jews to rule themselves. It did not give Jerusalem back to the nation to serve as their national capital; to make their own laws, to govern themselves. Jerusalem, as capital of the Jews, was not yet “restored”. They were still ruled directly by Persian laws.
Isaiah predicted that Cyrus “shall build my city and set my exiles free“ (Is. 45:13), but Cyrus did not set the Israelites free to rule themselves; only to return to Judea. Nevertheless, Cyrus did initiate a process that ultimately led to the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, authorizing Jerusalem to be returned to the Jews, to serve as their judicial capital.
Darius I in 520
In response to Cyrus’ edict the Jews slowly began to return to their homeland (Ezra 3). More than 15 years later Haggai and Zechariah (their ministry began about 520 BC) tell us that instead of making the rebuilding of the temple their priority, the returnees had set about their own business. While the affluent built luxury homes, the majority of the returned exiles lived in and around the ruined city and suffered crop failures and droughts. The temple was still in ruins (Haggai 1:1-11).
Zerubbabel and Joshua, under the influence of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, again started to rebuild the temple seventeen years after the decree of Cyrus, but experienced resistance (Ezra 5). Israel’s old enemies—the Samaritans—complained to the authorities. In response, the local governor inspected the work, and wrote a letter to Darius to verify the claims of the Jews. An investigation was made and the decree of Cyrus was found. Darius confirmed the decree of Cyrus by means of an additional edict (ca. 520 BC) (Ezra 6:3-12). The temple was finished and dedicated in March, 515 BC (Ezra 6:13-18).
The royal decree of Darius I mentions only the restoration of the temple. It simply confirmed Cyrus’ edict, and therefore also did not restore Jerusalem as legislative and executive capital of the nation in order that the Jews may govern themselves.
[Note that the Samaritans appealed to the Persian authorities, which confirms that that Jerusalem has not yet been restored.]
Therefore the main contenders are the two decrees by Artaxerxes I. He issued decrees in 458/7 and in 445/4 BC.
Artaxerxes in 458/7
The decree in 458/7 BC (Ezra 7:12-26), about 60 years after the temple had been completed, granted permission to the exiles to return to Jerusalem, assigned funds for the support of the temple in Jerusalem and exempted the temple and temple personnel from tax. These are not different from the previous decrees. But what was now added is that the decree established a legal system based on the Torah for all the Jews in Judea. This included appointing magistrates and judges to enforce the law. Judea was to enjoy significant judicial and civil autonomy under the larger overlordship of Persia. Of particular importance is vs. 26:
“Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.”
In this way the Persian king made the Mosaic law part of his own law, and granted authority to the Jews to govern themselves on the basis of the law of God. It does provide for a measure of civil autonomy unknown since the Babylonian desolation of Jerusalem and Judea (vss. 25-26).
In response to this decree, Ezra, with a considerable company of people (priests, Levites, singers, gate-keepers, and temple servants) went up from Babylon in Mesopotamia to Jerusalem in the seventh year of his reign (Ezra 7:6-7, 11-17). After a journey lasting several months, they arrived at Jerusalem.
All historical sources point unanimously and harmoniously to the fact that the seventh regnal year of Artaxerxes I extended from March/April of 458 BC to March/April of 457 BC. The Jews who lived in this historical period, however, did not use the Persian-Babylonian March/April calendar. Their calendar began in September/October:
Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1 provide specific evidence for this. Both verses date the events to Artaxerxes’ twentieth year, but to different months. In 1:1 it is the “month Chislev” and in 2:1 it is the “month Nisan”. But in the Persian-Babylonian calendar Chislev was the ninth month and Nisan was the first. If Nehemiah had used the Persian-Babylonian calendar, then Nehemiah 2:1 should have been dated to Artaxerxes’ twenty-first regnal year. The fact that the regnal year number did not change is evidence that Nehemiah employed the Jewish calendar, which used the same names for months, but started the year in a different month.
Since Ezra was a contemporary of Nehemiah, it is possible to apply the same Jewish calendar to the dates in Ezra. This would mean that the decree recorded in Ezra 7 was issued sometime in the year that began in the September/October of the year 458.
Artaxerxes in 445/4
In the king’s twentieth year (Neh. 2:1) (445/4 BC) Nehemiah, cupbearer to Artaxerxes I, received a report from a group of Jews who had arrived in the Persian capital from Jerusalem:
“The survivors there in the province who escaped exile are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Neh 1:3; cf. 2:3).
Nehemiah then requested and obtained permission from Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city (Neh. 2:5).
The two decrees of Artaxerxes
We have to choose between the two decrees of Artaxerxes. It is proposed that the 458/7 decree is the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, for:
(1) It fits the time of Christ and
(2) It fits the requirement that it restored Jerusalem to the Jews.
The decree of 458/7 fits the time of Christ.
The inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry (Mark 1:11-14; Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38) was at His anointing by the Holy Spirit at His baptism (Acts 10:37, 38), in the fifteenth year of the Roman emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1, 5, 21). Finegan (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Princeton, 1964, p265) dates His baptism to AD 26/27. If this was the predicted appearance of the “Messiah the Prince” (9:25) at the end of the 7+62 weeks, and if the 490 years began in 458/7 BC, then it fits the time of Christ perfectly. His baptism was exactly 483 years after the decree in 458/7 (7×7+62×7=483), as specified by the prophecy. (Remember, no year nil. From 1 BC to 1 AD is one year, not two.)
If the 490 years began in 445/4 BC, then the Messiah would appear 483 years later in 39/40, which is far beyond the time of Jesus. The dispensational scheme, preferring the decree of 445/4 BC, interprets the 483 years as “prophetic years” of 360 literal days each. This reduces the 483 years by approximately 7 years in order to end the period at the time of Christ. However, the prophecy of Seventy Sevens is based on the seven-year sabbatical cycle. This means that the 70 weeks are 70 literal cycles of seven literal years each. No symbols are used in the prophecy of Daniel 9.
The decree of 458/7 for the first time “restored” the city to the Jews by allowing the Jews to rule themselves from their capital city.
The Nehemiah-decree did not restore the city to the Jews and substantially added nothing to the previous decrees. It deals only with the physical construction of the walls.
The decree of 458/7 did authorize the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem.
One objection against the decree of Artaxerxes I to Ezra in 457 BC (Ezra 7:1-26) is that it did not specifically authorize the rebuilding of Jerusalem. However:
Implied: The right to rebuild the city—the national administrative center (cf. Ezra 7:25-26)—is implicit in the authorization to set up a judicial system at a central place, based on the law of God.
The previous decrees of Cyrus and Darius already implicitly authorized the Jews to rebuild their cities. The following also prove that construction of the walls began before Nehemiah arrived.
(1) When Nehemiah arrived, he inspected the wall (Neh. 2:15). The next verse refers to “the priests … who did the work”. This must have been work on the wall as the temple was completed 70 years earlier in 515 BC (Ezra 6:13-18).
(2) Nehemiah repaired the walls in only 52 days (Neh. 6:15). This implies that work have been done before, for it is unlikely that the damage caused in 586 BC, together with the neglect of the next 150 years, could be reversed in less than two months while battling constantly with opposition.
(3) Some Persian officers complained to Artaxerxes that “the Jews … are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls…” (Ezra 4:12). The letter requested the king to put a stop to the work, which he did (vs. 23). Since no such interruption is recorded in the book of Nehemiah and because Nehemiah completed the walls of the city within 52 days, this was not an interruption of Nehemiah’s work on the walls. Since Nehemiah finished the walls, this interruption, and therefore this work on the walls, occurred prior to Nehemiah.
Further evidence that the previous decrees of Cyrus and Darius already implicitly authorized the Jews to rebuild their cities are:
(a) Nehemiah expected the walls to be completed before he went to Jerusalem. About 13 years after Ezra arrived at Jerusalem—in 445/4 BC—Nehemiah is informed that “the walls of Jerusalem” were broken down and the gates destroyed by fire (Nehemiah 1:3). Nehemiah was deeply troubled by the news—he wept for days (Neh. 1:4). The fact that Nehemiah was devastated by the news implies that he expected to hear that the walls and gates have been completed. This means that permission to rebuild the walls and gates was already granted, and that Nehemiah knew about people that went to Jerusalem for that purpose.
(b) Nehemiah did not ask to rebuild the city. Nehemiah only asked for permission to go to Jerusalem (2:5) and for wood to build the walls (2:8). These requests imply that permission has already been granted for the reconstruction of the walls.
In summary, the 458/7 decree fits the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem better:
(a) It fits the time of Christ;
(b) It restored Jerusalem as judicial capital to the Jews, and:
(c) Implicitly authorized the Jews to rebuild the city.