The “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament

The Day of the LORD in the Old Testament1

The expression “the Day of the Lord” is sometimes thought to refer to the time of the end of this age.2 Unquestionably, there are passages which do refer to the eschaton, and we shall look at them, but not every usage of the phrase can be slotted into the last days—the locust plague in Joel 1 being a case in point.

In Joel 1 the Day of the Lord speaks of Yahweh using things in the natural world to punish His people. Four descriptions of the locusts are given in Joel 1:4 and 2:25 (which could describe four separate varieties of locust). This appears to tie together Joel 1 and 2. Additionally, Joel 1:6 depicts the teeth of the locusts as lion’s fangs, which is figurative, so we must take into account similes when reading about the appearance of the army in Joel 2:4 as like horses.3 For reasons such as these, Thomas Finley believes that Joel 1:5- 2:25 describes a contemporary locust infestation.4

Finley may be right, but some things in Joel 2 don’t fit his view easily. The last reference to the Day in Joel 2:31 speaks of the sun and moon being blacked out before the Day of the Lord. And Joel 3:14-16 includes the same phenomena, as well as Yahweh Himself coming to deliver His remnant; and He comes to “dwell” in Zion (Joel 3:17). These are eschatological uses of the phrase and describe events surrounding the second coming.

Regarding the circumstances of Joel 2:1-15, the first thing which strikes the interpreter is the shift to the future tense in chapter 2.5 The change in verb tenses does not of itself mean that the prophet is peering into the far distant future, but it strongly indicates a different set of circumstances than those in chapter 1. Joel still uses the locust imagery, but now more for analogy. Most striking is Joel’s use of similes. For example,

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; and like swift steeds, so they run.

With a noise like chariots over mountaintops they leap, like the noise of a flaming fire that devours the stubble, like a strong people set in battle array.

Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.

They run like mighty men, they climb the wall like men of war. (Joel 2:4-7a, my emphasis)

If this is a description of a coming trained army why say they are “like horses,” “like a strong people in battle array,” “like mighty men”? The usual answer is the employment of the caph veritatis where the expression refers to the way something actually is (or ought to be).6 This may be so, but it is not easy to claim this use in verse 4. One could say that the men were indeed mighty (Joel 2:7), but you could not say that they were horses and actually galloped (Joel 2:4).

Another point worth considering is Joel 2:6; a trained soldier (say an Assyrian or Greek) would try to kill the enemy, not mame them so that they writhed in agony. Perhaps this is the grisly part about an invasion that Joel chose to mention, but why not mention all the corpses (e.g. Jer. 41:9)? Just maybe it is because this army inflicts pain but not death? Such is the infernal army described in Revelation 9:1-10.

Far-off Eschatological Uses

After the Day of Yahweh in Joel 2:11 comes blessing from God reminiscent of New covenant blessing (Joel 2:15-27 cf. Amos 9:13-15; Hos. 2:16-23; Isa. 55:10-13; 66:10-13). This indicates the real possibility that Joel 2 is a prophecy of the tribulation, second advent, and restoration of Israel. The Day of the Lord in this context covers the first two, just as it does in Joel 3.

If we are reading through the Bible we first encounter the phrase in Isaiah 2:12-22. In that place the Day of Yahweh (Isa. 2:12) connotes a time when men will be humbled and Yahweh alone will be exalted (Isa. 2:17). The earth will be shaken, and people will behold “the glory of His majesty” (Isa. 2:21). At that time people will “go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the crags of the rugged rocks” (Isa. 2:21) to hide themselves from God. So there is good reason to think that “the Day of the Lord” in Isaiah 2 refers to the second coming. The setting of Isaiah 13:6, 9 is likewise eschatological (e.g. Isa. 13:10), and Isaiah 58:13 can be situated in the same general context, although there it is part of an ethical charge.

Amos 5:18, 20 and Obadiah 15 are a little harder to decide. Obadiah 15-21 is reminiscent of Zephaniah’s usage in Zephaniah 2 (see below). It appears that the fulfillment of Obadiah’s oracle on all nations will occur in the eschaton.7 Amos alludes to the people foolishly wishing that the Day of the Lord would come, which implies that they thought it was the time when Yahweh would put everything to rights, doling out punishments to Israel’s enemies while rewarding the Jews. Hence, they must have believed it was the great Day of Yahweh’s coming.

But Zechariah 14:1 and Malachi 4:5 are eschatological. In fact, they both focus in on specific events in the future time of trouble. Zechariah has Yahweh coming in person and fighting for Israel, His feet even touching the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:1-4). Malachi 4:5 promises the arrival of Elijah “before the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord.” Hence, for Zechariah and Malachi, the Day of Yahweh is a shortened period prior to and including the second coming. Zephaniah’s use of the term looks out to the time of the end. His book is saturated with the theme of God’s Day of wrath coming before New covenant blessing.

Although in Zephaniah 2 there is a list of many cities and states that will experience the Day of the Lord, the tenor of the book implies that the prophet is looking at judgments to come in the last days.8 At the beginning of the third chapter God castigates Jerusalem, calling her that “rebellious… polluted …oppressing city” (Zeph. 3:1). The doom-laden language continues until Zephaniah 3:9 when a new theme of hope is assumed. Thus, Zephaniah 3:1, while it could be viewed in light of its ANE setting, still relates to the closing Day before the kingdom era.

Clear Near-at-Hand Uses

Nonetheless, there are places in the Prophets where the term “the Day of the Lord” refers to matters which were not centuries away from the time of the prophet. That is to say, the “Day of the Lord” is not an eschatological concept in certain places. In Jeremiah 46:10 the expression is used for the devastation of the Egyptians at Carchemish at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s army. The two uses in Ezekiel (Ezek. 13:5; 30:3) make sense in an ancient setting, and can only with manipulation be thrust into our future.

Additionally, the geographical markers in Zephaniah 1:11; 2:4-8, 12-13 could be read in terms of close at hand fulfilment in Old Testament history. But these markers (e.g. cities) are dealt with in such a way as to point to the final consummation. For example, in Zephaniah 2:11 the nations are said to turn to Yahweh after He has “reduced to nothing” all of their idols. So here contemporary issues are answered in terms of final outcomes.

In Summary

The expression “the Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament refers to the appearance of Yahweh in judgment9 and is applied in general in two ways. It is used to describe God’s impending judgment against a nation in Old Testament times. The form the judgment took varied, but the outcome was devastating. The other use of the term refers to the final time of God’s judgment before the New covenant kingdom is inaugurated. It can refer to the whole time of tribulation, or to a part of it. It may even include the second coming itself. The instances of the Day of Yahweh that occurred in the past (e.g. the locusts in Joel 1) are sometimes adumbrations of the eschatological Day.10


1 See also the treatments of the individual books. I appreciate that it might well be rendered “the Day of Yahweh,” but I shall mainly retain the more common terminology

2 E.g. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, 230-231; Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Day of the Lord,” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), general editor, Mal O. Couch, 87-88

3 Patterson notices that both the Italian and German words for locusts refer to their horse-like appearance. See Richard D. Patterson, “Joel,” in EBC, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 7, 249 n. 4

4 Thomas J. Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 41

5 Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, 333-334

6 Ibid, 338-339

7 Thomas J. Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 370-371

8 This does not rule out contemporary judgments against these places

9 See William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 108, although Dumbrell allows the possibility of blessing in connection with the Day of the Lord.

10 Interestingly, the New Testament uses of the term only concern themselves with the second, eschatological sense of “Day of the Lord,” although again the term covers several occurrences.

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There are 2 Comments

pvawter's picture

Thanks, Paul.

Your brief survey here reminds me of the importance of studying each mention of the day of Yahweh in its context rather than making blanket assertions as many seem inclined to do. 

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, I am going against many Dispensationalists here (though not all)

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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