Want to understand ‘the last days?’ Look in the Old Testament [part 1]

Since the second century A.D., the phrase “the last days” has been one of the most often misunderstood concepts in Scripture.

The phrase is found in some important passages in the New Testament (NT).

Here are three examples:

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
(Acts 2:14-21 NIV)

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
(Heb. 1:1-2 NIV)

1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
(2 Tim. 3:1-5 NIV)

What are ‘the Last Days’ Exactly?

Historically, the predominant view among Christians has been that “the last days” refers to the time period between Jesus’ first coming and His return.

(The specifics of what would occur at Jesus’ return have long been debated. Some say a thousand year reign on earth; others, the resurrection and judgment.)

Interestingly, the New Testament (NT) writers never explicitly define what the phrase “the last days” means.

All NT writers seem to assume that their primary audience (their original hearers or readers) already knew what “the last days” meant.

I’m convinced that the reason we don’t see the last days” being defined in the NT is because the primary audience did know, because they knew the Old Testament (OT) Scriptures.

You may be surprised to hear that the OT writings actually say quite a lot about “the last days.”

Unfortunately, since the first century, Christians have often been less knowledgeable about the OT writings, especially the Prophets.

If we want to understand the intended biblical meaning of “the last days,” we’ve got to study what the OT says about the subject. In this three-part series, we will do just that.

Let’s do it!

Welcome to the 11th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you’ve not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.

Heads Up on Translations

First, a quick note on Bible translations.

Modern English Bible versions make it more difficult to study references to “the last days” in the OT because they rarely use that specific phrasing.

The phrase “the last days” only occurs 8 times in the (2011) NIV and 6 times in the NKJV, for example.

But if we look closely, we can find many more references to it, as we shall see.

First Mentioned by Jacob

As discussed in the Song of Moses (part 2), the phrase “the last days” was first prophesied in Scripture by Jacob during the blessings of his sons just before he died. No explanation was there given.

1 And Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days:
(Gen. 49:1 NKJV)

Moses on the Last Days

Moses used the phrase to refer to the end of the nation of Israel:

25 After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and arousing his anger, 26 I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. 27 The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. 28 There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell. 29 But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days [Literally, “in the last days”] you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath.
(Deut. 4:25-31 NIV)

Note: This text provides an example of the physical / spiritual Israel contrast we discussed in a previous post. In v.26, GOD says the people will be destroyed; but in v.31, GOD says they won’t be destroyed. It is critical to see the distinction between the two Israels. The physical nation would become idolatrous and they would all suffer the scattering. (Daniel is one example of a righteous captive who suffered because his brethren were evil.) But, those who truly sought the LORD (per vv.29-30) would be spared. These are the spiritual Israelites—the righteous remnant, the servants of GOD.

And though the exact phrase “the last days” is not used, Moses twice refers to the end of Israel in Deut. 32. (Remember, the NT writings quote from this text at least 5 times and apply it to the first century, the time period when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.)

19 The Lord saw this and rejected them
because he was angered by his sons and daughters.
20 “I will hide my face from them,” he said,
“and see what their end will be;
for they are a perverse generation,
children who are unfaithful.

28 They are a nation without sense,
there is no discernment in them.
29 If only they were wise and would understand this
and discern what their end will be!
(Deut. 32:19-20, 28-29 NIV)

Isaiah 2

Regarding “the last days,” Isaiah wrote:

1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

2 In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

Note: Recall that GOD used physical language in the Prophets to describe spiritual concepts. The context (plus secular history) reveals that Isa. 2:2 is not speaking of a physical mountain, but the new, spiritual mountain and temple, as we saw from the Galatians 4 allegory between Hagar and Sarah.

3 Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Note: Jesus referred to Isa. 2:3 in Luke 24:47. There the resurrected Lord appeared to the disciples and said:

44 … “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
(Luke 24:44b-48 NIV)

So the fulfillment of Isa. 2 is in the time of Jesus—the first century.

4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

6 You, Lord, have abandoned your people,
the descendants of Jacob.
They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and embrace pagan customs.
7 Their land is full of silver and gold;
there is no end to their treasures.
Their land is full of horses;
there is no end to their chariots.
8 Their land is full of idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their fingers have made.
9 So people will be brought low
and everyone humbled—
do not forgive them.

Note: See the distinction in vv.5-6 between the two groups of “descendants of Jacob?” Those in v.5 are the righteous descendants by faith. Those in vv.6-9 are the wicked rebellious Jews with whom GOD was displeased. These wicked are the ones whom Moses prophesied against in the Song of Moses:

35 It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.”
36 The Lord will vindicate his people
and relent concerning his servants
when he sees their strength is gone
and no one is left, slave or free.
(Deut. 32:35-36 NIV)

10 Go into the rocks, hide in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty!
11 The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled
and human pride brought low;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

12 The Lord Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
(and they will be humbled),
13 for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,
and all the oaks of Bashan,
14 for all the towering mountains
and all the high hills,
15 for every lofty tower
and every fortified wall,
16 for every trading ship
and every stately vessel.
17 The arrogance of man will be brought low
and human pride humbled;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day,
18 and the idols will totally disappear.

19 People will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.
20 In that day people will throw away
to the moles and bats
their idols of silver and idols of gold,
which they made to worship.
21 They will flee to caverns in the rocks
and to the overhanging crags
from the fearful presence of the Lord
and the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.

Note: Verses 10-11, 19-21 sound a lot like the following passages, don’t they?

28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then

“‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
and to the hills, “Cover us!”’

31 For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
(Luke 23:28-31 NIV)

15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
(Rev. 6:15-17 NIV)

22 Stop trusting in mere humans,
who have but a breath in their nostrils.
Why hold them in esteem?
(Isa. 2:1-22 NIV)

Key Takeaways from Isaiah 2

To summarize from Isaiah 2 regarding “the last days:”

  1. The mountain and temple of GOD would be established in the last days.
  2. Many nations (i.e., the Gentiles) would stream to this temple.
  3. The word of the LORD would go forth from Jerusalem at that time.
  4. GOD abandoned the wicked Israelites during this timeframe.
  5. A day of judgment is connected with this timeframe.

Micah 3-4

We find very similar statements to that of Isa. 2:2 in Micah’s prophecy, plus other important details.

3:1 Then I said,

“Listen, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel.
Should you not embrace justice,
2 you who hate good and love evil;
who tear the skin from my people
and the flesh from their bones;
3 who eat my people’s flesh,
strip off their skin
and break their bones in pieces;
who chop them up like meat for the pan,
like flesh for the pot?”

4 Then they will cry out to the Lord,
but he will not answer them.
At that time he will hide his face from them
because of the evil they have done.

Note: Verse 4 sounds a lot like this, doesn’t it:

19 The Lord saw this and rejected them
because he was angered by his sons and daughters.
20 “I will hide my face from them,” he said,
and see what their end will be;
for they are a perverse generation,
children who are unfaithful.
(Deut. 32:19-20 NIV)

5 This is what the Lord says:

“As for the prophets
who lead my people astray,
they proclaim ‘peace’
if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
who refuses to feed them.
6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
and darkness, without divination.
The sun will set for the prophets,
and the day will go dark for them.
7 The seers will be ashamed
and the diviners disgraced.
They will all cover their faces
because there is no answer from God.”
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.

9 Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10 who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
Zion will be plowed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.

Note: Verse 12 clearly prophesies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. While it is likely, given the reference to the primary audience, that GOD is referring here to the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians, it is intriguing that the very next statement is “In the last days.”

4:1 In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.

2 Many nations will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Note: Mic. 4:1-3 repeats the prophecy of Isa. 2:2-4, which we have previously noted is fulfilled in the first century, per Luke 24:44-48.

4 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.

6 “In that day,” declares the Lord,

I will gather the lame;
I will assemble the exiles
and those I have brought to grief.
7 I will make the lame my remnant,
those driven away a strong nation.
The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion
from that day and forever.
8 As for you, watchtower of the flock,
stronghold of Daughter Zion,
the former dominion will be restored to you;
kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.”

Note: Verse 6 says, “In that day…” What day is GOD speaking of? Per v.1, in the last days. So the gathering of the exiles and turning them into a strong nation occurred at the same time period as the establishment of the mountain of the LORD’s temple and streaming of many nations to it (per 4:1-2).

In the previous post, we studied Deut. 30:1-3 and Isa. 11 and observed that the physical return of the remnant of Israelites from Babylonian captivity was a shadow of a second spiritual gathering during Jesus’ reign. Mic. 4:6-8 refers to this same second spiritual gathering. The strong nation of v.7 is not physical Israel, but spiritual Israel—the disciples of Jesus.

9 Why do you now cry aloud—
have you no king?
Has your ruler perished,
that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labor?
10 Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion,
like a woman in labor,
for now you must leave the city
to camp in the open field.
You will go to Babylon;
there you will be rescued.
There the Lord will redeem you
out of the hand of your enemies.

Note: In v.9, GOD pivots to address the physical people of Judah. In certain texts within the Prophets, it is easy to get confused by thinking that the prophecies of destruction and gathering are referring to the Babylonian siege, captivity and return. And some are.

It becomes clear, however, that the Babylonian captivity should be viewed not as the ultimate fulfillment of the destruction prophecies, but rather a temporary period of suffering and cleansing, with the ultimate destruction and “end” yet to come.

Remember, Daniel, when he prayed as recorded in Dan. 9, seemed to think the prophecies that had been spoken against Israel were fulfilled in the suffering of his day. In Dan. 9:12, Daniel prayed to GOD that He had fulfilled the words of Moses’ curses if Israel disobeyed. But GOD doesn’t say, “Yeah, Daniel, you’re right. It’s nearly over now.” No, GOD replies (paraphrasing), “You’ve misunderstood. There are still ‘seventy sevens’ left until the end, Daniel. It ain’t over yet.” (See Dan. 9:24.)

No, the end of physical Israel as foretold in the Song of Moses was fulfilled in the first century, not the Babylonian captivity.

11 But now many nations
are gathered against you.
They say, “Let her be defiled,
let our eyes gloat over Zion!”
12 But they do not know
the thoughts of the Lord;
they do not understand his plan,
that he has gathered them like sheaves to the threshing floor.
13 “Rise and thresh, Daughter Zion,
for I will give you horns of iron;
I will give you hooves of bronze,
and you will break to pieces many nations.”
You will devote their ill-gotten gains to the Lord,
their wealth to the Lord of all the earth.
(Mic. 3:1-4:13 NIV)

Key Takeaways from Micah 3-4

So, to recap Micah 3-4:

  1. In the last days, the mountain of GOD’s temple would be established and nations would stream to it. This prophecy is identical to Isa. 2:1-3.
  2. During that timeframe GOD would gather the exiles of Israel into a strong nation and rule over them in Zion.
  3. A prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple might be a reference to this same time period, given its immediate proximity to the phrase, “In the last days…”

Continue to the next post, where we continue looking at other Scriptures from the Old Testament which discuss “the last days.”

Got comments or questions? Drop them below.


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