I was recently told that an excellent example of prophecy fulfillment in the Bible is the prophecy that the nation of Israel would be restored, as recorded in Ezekiel 4. If true, that would be a huge boost to the Bible’s credibility, so let’s dig in and see how it fares.
In Ezek 4:4-6, God tells Ezekiel to do the following:
4 “Lie also on your left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it. According to the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their iniquity. 5 For I have laid on you the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days; so you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Israel. 6 And when you have completed them, lie again on your right side; then you shall bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days. I have laid on you a day for each year.”
A little context is probably in order. Ezekiel lived during the time that the nation of Judah was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Much of his writings talk about the captivity that the Jews are under, and in this passage, he prophesies about when they’ll return from captivity. As the end of verse 6 says, each of these days represents one year.
The Case For This Being a True Prophecy
The person who pointed me to this prophecy gave this link as a good explanation of how this prophecy works, so I’ll be referring to its points throughout this post.
First, we take these two periods and add them together: 390 years for Israel + 40 years for Judah = 430 years.
Next, Babylon took Judah captive in 606 BCE for exactly 70 years leaving 360 years left to go. But how do we explain this leftover 360 years?
Well, it turns out that Leviticus 26 lays out all these conditions on the Israelites. There, God tells them that as long as they serve him faithfully, he’ll bless them. But if they don’t serve him faithfully, then he’ll punish them “7 fold” or “7 times” for their sins (Lev 26:18-33). So if we take those remaining 360 years and multiply them by 7, we get 2,520 years.
But we’re not done yet. We must remember that the Jews used a calendar based on both lunar and solar years. They had 12 30-day months and would occasionally add in leap-months as needed to keep the seasons lining up correctly. So to understand what Ezekiel meant by “year,” we need to convert these 2,520 years into days, which comes out to 2,520 x 360 = 907,200 days.
Now to find out how many actual years this represents, we need to convert back to the standard 365.25 day/year calendar that we use today. This comes out to 907,200 / 365.25 = 2,483.78 years.
We can finally connect all the dots:
606 BCE – 70 years = 536 BCE
-536 (since it’s BCE) + 2,483 + 1 (since there’s no year 0) = 1948 CE
And 1948 is the year that Israel was again made a nation! Furthermore, Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, 19 years after he took Judah. And Jerusalem was restored to Israel in 1967 CE — exactly 19 years after they reclaimed the nation of Israel! So the numbers work out for Jerusalem as well!
So that’s the case for the prophecy being legit. But are there reasons to be skeptical?
The Case Against This Being a True Prophecy
There are actually a number of problems with what I laid out above, and those familiar with the Old Testament may have already seen them.
First of all, why should the years in Ezekiel’s prophecy be added together at all? Ezekiel says there will be 390 years for Israel and 40 years for Judah — it’s no accident that he separated them. According to Jewish tradition, all 12 tribes of Israel were united when they took the land of Canaan. They remained united through all 15 judges and through kings Saul, David, and Solomon. But after Solomon died, the nation split into two kingdoms: the nation of Israel, consisting of the northern 10 tribes, and the nation of Judah, consisting of the southern 2 tribes. So far, the archaeological evidence leans away from this story. It appears that Israel and Judah were never united into one large kingdom, but that’s outside the scope of this article, so we’ll leave it at that for now.
Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. Many passages in later parts of the OT predict those lost tribes being restored, and it seems that this is what Ezekiel is referring to in this passage. That’s why they’re given a different period of time than Judah is — they were taken captive almost 150 years before Judah was. So it does not make sense to add these years together as though they refer to one specific thing. Israel and Judah were being dealt with separately here.
Secondly, the starting date of 606 BCE for Judah’s captivity isn’t accurate. In 606 BCE, Judah was its own kingdom, though it was a vassal state to Egypt and had been for 2 or 3 years. Egypt and Babylon were butting heads in the region during this time. Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne in 605 BCE, and he defeated Egypt at Carchemish that same year. That’s when Judah changed allegiance from Egypt to Babylon, as it was suddenly clear that they were now the most powerful force in the region. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to say they were under captivity at that time. They were still a separate kingdom that paid homage to Babylon. If we were to make the case that such a scenario equaled captivity, then Judah’s captivity would actually have begun in 609 or 608 BCE under Egypt.
In 601 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar tried to invade Egypt, but his forces were driven back, which caused several of the kingdoms in the Levant to rebel against him. Judah was one of them. In 599 BCE, Babylon besieged Jerusalem, and the city fell in 597 BCE. But at this point, Judah still retained its status as a vassal kingdom, and Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah as king. But several years later, Zedekiah revolted, aligning the kingdom with Egypt once again. This time, when Nebuchadnezzar took the city, he practically leveled it, and much of the population was taken off into captivity. This was in 587 BCE.
Considering this information, the most likely candidate to mark the beginning of Judah’s captivity is 587 BCE. Even if you try to push it back further, it’s hard to make a case for any time before 597 BCE, and this causes problems for the math that was laid out above.
One of the problems has to do with the 70 years of Babylonian captivity that was talked about above. When you were reading the above arguments, it may have struck you as odd that 70 years got subtracted for Judah’s captivity to Babylon, when Ezekiel said 40 years. The reason 70 was brought up is because of Jeremiah 29:10, where Jeremiah prophesies that Judah would be in captivity for 70 years. But that’s not what happened.
When the Persian Empire overthrew Babylon in 539 BCE, they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem that same year (Ezra 1:1). The numbers differ depending on when you count Judah’s captivity as beginning, but this makes Judah’s captivity as few as 48 years (the more likely figure) or as many as 66 years. This again causes problems for all the equations that were used above.
There’s also the issue of multiplying the years by 7. There’s some discussion about whether the passage in Leviticus means that punishments would be multiplied by 7 years, or whether it would mean 7 separate punishments (like 7 additional plagues, etc). There’s also the issue that this kind of language is often taken to be more symbolic than literal. Furthermore, if this is how God was going to mete out the punishment, perhaps that’s already been calculated into the numbers he gives Ezekiel. Again, the passage has God say “a day for each year,” and there’s no indication that it should mean anything else. But I view those as side points.
The main problem I have is why does the multiplication of 7 only apply to 360 of the years? Why wouldn’t it have applied to all of them? So if we add the years together, and multiply by 7, we would have 3,010 years, not 2,520. Even if we continue to use 360-day years, that calculation comes out to 2,966.74 years, which puts us around the year 2431 CE. Of course, that isn’t helpful to those who want this prophecy to be true.
There’s another issue that should be mentioned as well. It turns out that the Septuagint doesn’t use the same figures as the Masoretic text. The Septuagint records Ezekiel 4:4-6 like this:
And thou shalt lie upon thy left side, and lay the iniquities of the house of Israel upon it, according to the number of the hundred and fifty days during which thou shalt lie upon it: and thou shalt bear their iniquities. 5 For I have appointed thee their iniquities for a number of days, for a hundred and ninety days: so thou shalt bear the iniquities of the house of Israel. 6 And thou shalt accomplish this, and then shalt lie on thy right side, and shalt bear the iniquities of the house of Juda forty days: I have appointed thee a day for a year.
It’s hard to say if 390 is the correct number, or if 150 is. Some people think that 150 is original, but that later scribes changed it once that amount of time had passed. But who knows? Unfortunately, there’s not a way to know which number is original to the text, which makes it very hard to base predictions upon.
Finally, the last piece of this that should be questioned is using a 360-day calendar. The Hebrew calendar was based on both the cycle of the moon as well as the solar year. Therefore, it is said that their calendar consisted of 12 30-day months, and every couple of years they would add a 13th month to keep the years aligned correctly with the seasons. But this isn’t exactly right. A lunar month follows the phases of the moon, which does not work out to 30 days exactly. Instead, it will alternate between 29 and 30-day months, meaning that the Hebrew calendar year came out to 354-355 days (or 385 days on leap years). This calls into question using a 360-day calendar to recalibrate the years in Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Furthermore, the Jews still understood that a year consists of 4 seasons (which is why they used intercalary years), so it seems bizarre to redefine “year” every time it’s used in prophecies. And it’s easy to see how big a 5.25 day variance can be. In the example at the beginning of this post, it took us from 2,520 years to 2,483.78 years. Daniel 12 and the Book of Revelation are the only places in the Bible I’m aware of that use a 360-day average in reference to a year. But I think it’s hard to argue that those references mean every time “year” is used in a prophecy it should be recalculated using 360-day years. Most calendars in the ancient world did not operate that way, and 360 days per year was a good generic estimate when referring to how many days are in a year at that time. Just as today we refer to a year as 365 days, when we realize that an extra day is needed every 4 years. That doesn’t mean when someone says something will happen in 20 years we have to recompute it to 19.98 years — we know they mean 20, regardless of how the leap years fall. I’m sure there are some Christians who would argue vociferously over the need to use 360-day “prophetic” years, but they have to. Without them, too much fails.
This was a really long post, and we’ve covered a lot of ground. I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I personally do not find this prophecy to be a good example of a real prophecy. When taken at face value, Ezekiel talks about 390 years for Israel and 40 years for Judah. Neither of those figures work out correctly. Since they don’t, many different explanations have been sought after to make this prophecy point to something significant. The beginning of this post laid out one of those arguments, and on the surface, it seems pretty impressive. It gets us to the years 1948 and 1967 which are definitely important to the nation of Israel. But to get there, we’re making several sacrifices, like what year Judah went into captivity, adding the years together, multiplying some of them by 7, and converting the years to a 360-day format that almost certainly wasn’t the intent. And there’s still the issue of whether or not that translation is even accurate.
To me, this prophecy is simply too vague to be of any use. And the method used to create a connection to modern-day Israel is too problematic to be anything but evidence against prophecy-fulfillment, in my opinion.
Resources used in this article: