Three and a half years of persecution – is that literal?

A student asked us: “Daniel 7:25 – Is that persecution of 3 1/2 years literal or symbolic?” (Mr. Wood)

Answer given by pastor Christian Salcianu,
7 February 2023, Watford

When we have to deal with pieces of prophetic text it is always safe and helpful to see its context. A short answer would be “Yes, it is symbolic”. But even so, what does that mean? So let’s dive into the world of prophecy:

1. Key text (first instance)

Let’s read the text at it first appears in the pages of Daniel, one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Chapter 7 presents a series of events related to four beasts. As explained in other posts and resources on our website (see Daniel – the seer of Babylon), each of those four beasts represents an empire of the ancient world.

This interpretation has been provided by the angel, so it’s beyond human speculation. As Daniel mentioned, “he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things”: 

“The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.”

(Daniel 7:16-18)

In Bible prophecies repetition is a common feature, where each subsequent prophecy adds more details or increased focus on specific elements, based on previous ones (would you review this entire video series dedicated to the book of Revelation? Hope, Meaning and Purpose). This story in Daniel 7 is in fact Daniel 2 reloaded, enriched with different symbols. In other words, the four kings/kingdoms here are the same as the four kingdoms in Daniel 2, that is, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome.

The verses quoted above (remember, the angel is speaking) imply a great controversy, since the kingdoms of this world will, at one point in time, be defeated by the kingdom of God. Thus “the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom.” This controversy is detailed in the following verses and this is where the persecution you mentioned comes into the picture. The last of the empires, Rome, has a specific horn (king) that will wage war against the saints:

“As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favour of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.” (Daniel 7:21-22)

A few verses later, in verse 25 we get right there, where the time period is mentioned:

“He [the little horn] will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.”

2. But wait, where did you/we get the 3 + 1/2 years from?

A keen student of the book of Daniel will find this period of time being repeated in the same book. Even more, it comes again in the book of Revelation. In total, there are 7 occurrences. (By the way, it may be very helpful to read this article, answering another student’s question: Is there a link between Daniel and Revelation?)

Let’s see them, as they appear in different units of time measurement — “times” (the footnote of your Bible mentions “or years“), “months”, or “days”. On each you will see the 1+2+1/2 model, equalling 3.5 units.

Bible referencePeriod in symbolic unitsPeriod in total
Daniel 7:25(1) time, (2) times and (1/2) half a time3.5 “times” (see footnote “years”)
Daniel 12:7(1) time, (2) times and (1/2) half a time3.5 “times” (see footnote “years”)
Revelation 11:242 months (12+24+6)3.5 years
Revelation 11:31,260 days (360+720+180)3.5 years
Revelation 12:61,260 days (360+720+180)3.5 years
Revelation 12:14(1) time, (2) times and (1/2) half a time3.5 years
Revelation 13:542 months (12+24+6)3.5 years

One needs a big picture of the prophecies and to understand that in all of the above texts there are two players: one that persecutes and one that is being persecuted. Taking different forms, or being veiled in different symbols, it is the same story: a persecutor hunts the people of God in order to destroy them.

If you’ve taken the Focus on Prophecy course, covering both Daniel and Revelation, you may have noticed that this period of time is a constant feature (as it appears so often) and covers a period of persecution from 538 AD to 1798. The persecutor of God’s people has been described in this article, The Little Horn in Prophecy.

How did we get to such a long period of time?

3. Is this period 3.5 literal years or does it have a symbolic application?

And thus we come to the essence of our answer to your question. (But we needed such an introduction, to get into the context.) Three arguments for our position that it is a symbolic timing:

First. It appears seven times, in two different books, both apocalyptic works in their nature. So many descriptions in both books are made in the forms of symbols (well known to God’s people and to a student of the Bible). The time which passed between the writing of Daniel and that of John is some two and a half millennia. To have them both using the same forms (even as a “code”) shows both inspired authors saw in it a symbol that remained valid over centuries.

Second. The period, as we said, is one of persecution — that is the constant feature of it in all the occurrences. Whether it is Satan (as a dragon), a little horn (as representative of a worldly power) or just “Gentiles” (enemies), they all represent evil in persecution of good — saints, woman (as a symbol of God’s people), remnant etc. To put that much focus on a period of only some 3.5 literal years is way too disproportionate. Just reason with us: when other prophecies like the 70 years of captivity (in Jeremiah) or the 40 years / one generation for the destruction of Jerusalem (Jesus’ words in the Gospels,) are taken into consideration, this time of only 3.5 years is way too small.

Third. The symbols used to describe it, in its seven occurrences shows again that it should be viewed symbolically. In some instances two of its forms are expressed in the same passage, one after another (Revelation 11:2 and 3 or 12:6 and 14), showing clearly that they are interchangeable.

We believe it to be a symbolic period of time. But that doesn’t mean the reality depicted is not real!…

4. What does it mean “symbolic”?

The Bible uses many symbols to indicate realities. Once again, a full study of the Focus on Prophecy course would help a lot. Just to give some examples: beasts = kingdoms, horns = kings, waters = multitudes, women = churches (faithful or apostate), lamb = Jesus, dragon = Satan etc.

Regarding time, there are two key instances where the Word of God makes it clear that it can also be expressed in symbols. Reading from the books of Numbers and Ezekiel:

Numbers 14:34, they spied the promised land for 40 days and then betrayed the call from God. Accordingly, they were to wander in the wilderness for an entire generation… God said:

“According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection.”

Ezekiel 4:6, the prophet is required to convey a message of punishment by taking different positions for certain times.

“When you have completed them [some days], 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.”

We will use this historicist year/day principle (proven, as we mentioned, in Daniel – the seer of Babylon), for the 3.5 years of symbolic time period, which equals and is expressed as well as 42 months or 1,260 days. And thus it gets projected on to a much bigger timeline. Applying one literal year for each of this 1,260 prophetic days you get a period of 1,260 years. Years of persecution, unfortunately.

The persecutor of God’s people has been described in this article, The Little Horn in Prophecy. We recommend you continue your study either taking the Focus on Prophecy course or reviewing the material offered by the Biblical Research Institute regarding The Historical Confirmations of Prophetic Periods.

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