Seventy times seven
Frequently, in the gospels, when Jesus has words or parables that apply to us as individuals, he is also making a deeper theological point that applies to his people, his church. This is the case for how he speaks to Peter about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-22:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Certainly Jesus’s answer is applicable to us as individuals. But it is not merely the case, as many commentators suggest, that Jesus is employing hyperbole to underscore that our forgiveness is to be without condition, presumably just as God’s forgiveness is without condition. We can see this from the fact that seventy times seven is not just a random and meaningless number that Jesus makes up. There are two previous occurrences of seventy sevens in the Bible that I can make out.
The first is in the time of sin and apostasy leading up to Judah’s exile. Leviticus 26 warns Israel what will happen “if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, if, instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant” (vv. 14-15). God will give them over to their enemies, make their land desolate, and scatter them among the nations. God concludes that “the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it will observe the rest which it did not observe on your sabbaths, while you were living on it . . . the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them” (vv. 34-35, 43). But God also assures them that “if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me . . . I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am Yahweh” (vv. 40, 45).
Thus, when Jeremiah prophesies seventy years in exile for Judah (Jeremiah 25, 29), we should recall Leviticus 26 and realize that the land is making up for seventy sabbath years, seventy times seven. God tells us this explicitly in 2 Chronicles 36:21, that the exile “fulfill[ed] the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.”
The second occurrence of seventy sevens comes as Daniel, the prophetic representative of Israel, realizes the seventy years of exile are ending, and so confesses and repents in obedience to Leviticus 26. Daniel prays:
Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances. Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land. . . . O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name. (Daniel 9:4-19)
In answer to Daniel’s prayers, the angel Gabriel reveals that there will be a second period of seventy weeks, seventy sevens, for sin to abound and then to be covered forever. This is the great exile which will end with the Messiah’s final great exodus into new creation.
Jesus is self-consciously calling attention to this in his answer to Peter. Jesus is identifying himself as the anointed one who has come at the end of Daniel’s seventy sevens to bring about the new creation, the new covenant, the enduring forgiveness. But, as we see from Leviticus, this new creation is a double-edged sword (Matthew 10:34ff). One of the things that Jesus is doing in the gospels is bringing an indictment against his people, his bride. It turns out that God’s forgiveness is not without condition: after the seventy sevens comes the purging fire of exile; on the other side of exile is death for those who, like the unforgiving servant, treat God’s forgiveness lightly; but resurrection life for those who forsake wickedness and identify with the anointed king and his way of life (which includes seventy sevens’ worth of patient forgiveness). Jesus clearly warns Israel of this throughout the gospels, including the parable of the unforgiving servant that immediately follows his conversation with Peter (Matthew 18:23ff), but elsewhere in even more pointed terms (e.g., Matthew 24).
Thus, while Matthew 18 has general application to individuals today, it had a particular prophetic application in the time of Matthew’s writing. It was both a warning and an encouragement to Israel and the people of Israel that time was running out: they were to identify with their Messiah and walk in his ways, or else suffer final destruction. This prophetic application continues to apply today to God’s church; as Paul reminds us, “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either” (Romans 11:20-21). And this same prophetic perspective continues into Matthew 19. When Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about divorce, there is an implied subtext that Jesus would divorce his own bride for her persistence in adultery, and that he would form a resurrected bride out of the remnant (c.f., Ezekiel 16). In every new covenant the old things must pass through death and resurrection; the old kingdom must come over to the new king (2 Samuel 5:1-5).
If, with Matthew 18 and Daniel 9, we speak of seventy sevens of forgiveness and atonement, we are almost certainly speaking about 490 days of atonement (Leviticus 16, 23) — 490 years. But if, with Leviticus 26 and 2 Chronicles 36, we are speaking of seventy sabbaths, it is possible we have a different time interval. If we count jubilee years as years of rest for the land, then seventy years of rest are accomplished in about 430 years. This makes me wonder if seventy sevens also applies to God’s patience toward converted Canaanites. Abraham carried on a ministry of establishing places of worship in Canaan, including among the Amorites (Genesis 13:18, 14:13). God told Abraham that he would delay the conquest of Canaan because “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Unlike the Amalekites, whom God had singled out for destruction for their great wickedness (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), it seems that God had greater patience with the Amorites because at one time they had worshipped him through Abraham. Depending on the starting point, the Amorites were given 400 (Genesis 15:13) or 430 (Exodus 12:40-41) years. Consider, too, that the Amorites were given a further forty-year reprieve because of Israel’s disobedience (Numbers 14). Israel herself is granted a similar reprieve: if Jesus’s resurrection marks the end of Daniel’s seventy sevens, then Israel had forty more years to come into the church before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Incidentally, this makes the church’s struggle with Jews and then Judaizers a kind of wilderness period before entering into the fullness of the new covenant.