The Last Days: What Moses Teaches Us About End Times

time.jpegWhat are the “last days”? When are the “last days”? Are we now living in the “last days”?

These are questions that students of prophecy like to ask. They are also questions that are often answered by looking to current events, world crises, and various “signs of the times.” Yet, what if the “last days” are actually something that began 2,000 years ago (see Heb. 1:2)? What if the Bible actually begins speaking about the last days in the first book of the Bible? And what if most of the events associated with last days find explicit fulfillment in the events of the New Testament?

While not denying the blessed hope of Christ’s return, students of the Bible must consider how the Bible develops its own terminology. And if “last days” are a technical term in the New Testament, we do well to consider where does that language come from and how should be understand the Bible on its own terms.

On this question, G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology is immensely helpful. In the third and fourth chapters, he surveys the Bible to show how the Bible introduces, develops, and fulfills the language of “latter days.” In what follows, I will outline some of his thoughts on the use of “latter days” in Moses. I’ll also add a few observations of my own. And in the weeks ahead I’ll circle back to trace the rest of the biblical theology through the Old Testament into the New Testament. So stay tuned. But today, we’ll consider what Moses says about last days

“Latter Days” in Moses

Genesis 49:1

The first place Moses uses the phrase “latter days” is Genesis 49:1, although many versions translate the words differently.

Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come.”

In this verse Jacob is giving his last words to his sons before dying. Like Moses in Deuteronomy, these words carry both gravitas and instruction about the future. And as we will see, Moses records Jacob’s words in a way that both points to the events of Israel’s history in the land and to events fulfilled in Christ. As Beale notes, “The actual plural of ‘latter days’ may refer to some degree to an extended eschatological period composed of several events, whereas  the singular ‘end” or ‘last’ refers more to the definitive end (e.g., see Job 19:25; Isa. 46:10).”[1]

From this first use of the term, there are multiple observations that help us see the eschatological nature of this term.

  • “In the days to come” (be’aharît hayyāmîm) could be translated “in the latter days” (cf. Deut. 4:30; Isa. 2:2; Jer. 23:20; 30:24; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek. 38:16; Dan. 10:14; Hos 3:5; Micah 4:1).
  • Though many commentators deny an eschatological reading of Genesis 49:1,[2] there are at least three reasons for seeing this as eschatological: (1) eschatology goes back to Eden, where the protology (i.e., first things) of Genesis 1–2 envisions an eschatological goal for creation (Gen. 1:28);[3] (2) the messianic promise of Genesis 3:15 leads the reader to always look forward to his coming; (3) the promise of kings in Genesis 17:6, 16; 35:11 is assigned to Judah in Genesis 49:8–12, leading us to see Genesis 49 as a passage with near and far eschatological promise.
  • From the content of Genesis 49, we find blessings that will be fulfilled in Israel’s history (e.g., the scattering of Levi and Simeon, the scepter being given to Judah) and others that will be fulfilled in Christ (e.g., “the obedience of the nations” in Romans 1:4–5; 16:25).[4]

From these factors and more, Beale concludes,

Consequently, the expression be’aharît hayyāmîm in Gen. 49:1 is to be rendered “in the latter days,” referring to Israel’s movement in eventually fulfilling what Adam was commanded to do in a renewed and eschatologically consummated Eden. . . . This history will be marked with some of the tribes participating in unsuccessful small-scale attempts to fulfill the Adamic commission, which do not reach eschatological completion until the ruler “comes to whom it [the kingdom] belongs, and to him will be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10c–d [my translation]). In this respect, the destiny of the other Israelite tribes that fail in fulfilling their Adamic mandate continues to leave open the necessity for fulfilling it and thus comes to point forward typologically to that eschatological time when it will finally be carried out. Thus, “the latter days” refers not to the future in general but rather to the final outcome of future events, involving all of Israel’s tribes, which dovetails in Judah.[5]

Numbers 24:14

The next place Moses uses “latter days” is in Numbers 24:14, just before Balaam offers his fourth and final oracle to Balaak.

And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.”

Whereas commentators dispute the eschatological use of “latter days” in Genesis 49:1 (and Deuteronomy 4:30), there is no mistaking Balaam’s use. As Beale observes, “the phrase here is not merely a vague reference to the future but rather is an eschatological reference, which is indicated by [1] its connection to Gen. 49,[6] [2] the context of the phrase in Num. 24, and [3] its use in later biblical and extrabiblical literature.”[7]

Concerning this last reason, we find that Numbers 24 is later developed in Amos 9:11–12, which is cited and applied in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem Church makes a place for Gentiles without becoming Jewish. Likewise, just as Genesis 49 is picked up in Romans 1 and 16, the language of “morning star” is appropriated in the New Testament (see Rev. 2:28; 22:16; cf. 2 Pet. 1:19).

The eschatological nature of “latter days” in Numbers 24, therefore, is not something to be withheld until the second coming of Christ. Rather, as Beale concludes, “the early Christian community understood ‘the latter days’ of the Num. 24 prophecy commencing in the first coming of Christ.”[8]

Deuteronomy 4:30

The third use of “latter days” comes in Deuteronomy 4:30, when Moses anticipates a day when Israel would be scattered for their idolatry (v. 27) and restored to obedience because of God’s mercy (v. 31).

When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.

Like Genesis 49:1, the eschatological nature of this verse is also denied by commentators. “This phrase does not mean the eschatological end of time (as in Isa. 2:2) but a point in the distant future, i.e., “ultimately.”[9] Despite objections like this one, there are at least three reasons to see “latter days” in Deuteronomy 4:30 as eschatological.

First, if the two previous uses of the term (see above) are eschatological, then it follows that this use is too. This is a circular argument, but a valid one if the reading of Genesis 49:1 is taken to be eschatological.

Second, the context of Deuteronomy 4:25–31 is future-looking. Whereas Moses looks back to Sinai in Deuteronomy 4:9–14 and forward to Israel occupying the land in Deuteronomy 4:15–24, Deuteronomy 4:25–31 looks to a time when after God has restored Israel to himself after scattering them for covenant breaking. Together, Deuteronomy 4:9–31 contains three movements and the last is clearly looking to future days. The question is, How far into the future is Moses speaking?

The answer comes in a third observation—namely, verse 30 says “In the latter days, when you return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.” Critically, Moses does not say “when you return to the land.” He goes further by speaking of an obedience to the Lord. From this slight distinction, read in the context of Deuteronomy, we can discern the timing of this “return.”

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses again speaks of the future. After outlining the content of the blessings and the curses in chapters 27–28, he says,

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (vv. 1–3)

In these words, we find at least three verbal connections with Deuteronomy 4 (see bolded). In other words, Deuteronomy 30 is looking to the same reality as Deuteronomy 4:25–31: after God scatters Israel into the nations because of Israel’s covenant breaking; he will bring them back to himself. This will come, both texts say, when the people of Israel “obey” God’s voice with all their heart and soul.

Under the old covenant (i.e., the covenant at Sinai) Israel had received the Law, but consistently disobeyed. Moses had commanded them to keep it repeatedly (e.g., Deut 4:9, 15); he even called them to circumcise their hearts to keep it (10:16), but they could not—not until God promised to circumcise their hearts.

Incredibly, this is the promise God makes in Deuteronomy 30:6, when after God brings judgment on his people, he will restore them by changing the heart of his people. Though it will take the rest of the Old Testament to develop, this promise of a new heart is the first promise of the new covenant. However, because Deuteronomy 30 is developing what Moses said in Deuteronomy 4:25–31, we can see how the new covenant is first mentioned in the same place where Moses says, “in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.”

From the full context of Deuteronomy, the latter days suggest a period in the future when the old covenant is replaced by the new covenant—exactly as Jeremiah 31:32 states. For this reason, it is best to understand Deuteronomy 4:30 as an eschatological statement and one that finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the covenant he brings.

Two more observations are worth noting here. The return to the Lord assumes or presupposes a return to the land. Clearly, this occurred when Israel returned from Babylon. Yet, even in that return, as Isaiah makes clear, the redemption provided by Cyrus (who returned Israel to the land) could not change the heart. A greater servant was needed (see Isaiah 53).

Hence when Jesus Christ came to the land, he found a people still enslaved to sin and to the Roman empire. Thus, his exodus (see Luke 9:31) did more than return Israel to the land; he returned people to God. This work of new creation, enabled men to serve God from the heart, so that in the new creation they might be priests in his kingdom. In redemptive history, the return to the land played a part in preparing the way for Christ, but ultimately God’s goal was a return to him.

Second, Jeremiah 31 picks up the language of “in the latter days” (30:24; 31:27, 29, 31, 33, 38) when he speaks of the new covenant. Because Jeremiah is so dependent on Moses, it makes sense that his own use of this term would reflect the way in which Moses spoke. If Moses spoke of latter days where God would circumcise the heart, it only follows that Jeremiah would speak of God writing the law on the heart (31:33). From this intra-canonical connection, we see the need to read Deuteronomy and Jeremiah together. But also, if the New Testament declares the arrival of the new covenant (see e.g., Hebrews 8), then we find another textual reason for seeing the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 4:30 in the time of Christ.

Deuteronomy 31:29

 The fourth and final place where “latter days” (be’aharît hayyāmîm) is used by Moses is Deuteronomy 31:29.

29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”

Picking up the themes previously mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:25–31 and 30:1–6, Moses is again looking days after his death, when Israel will turn aside from the Lord. In Deuteronomy 31 he makes final preparations for his departure and he stresses how sinful Israel is and will continue to be (vv. 20–21, 27–29). For this reason Moses wrote a song to remind Israel of their covenant God (vv. 19–22), so that when they were scattered because of their sin they would have this song to bring God’s covenant to mind.

From this setting, the words of Deuteronomy 31:29 tell us of the judgment that would come in the exile of Israel from the land. While this verse does not specify what the anger of the Lord is, the covenantal context of Deuteronomy and the rest of Israel covenantal history do. The evil that will befall Israel is their idolatry; God’s covenant curses will fall on them in response. Yet, the hope is that while severe, the coming judgment will not override the gracious purposes of God to bring redemption to the children of Israel and through them salvation to the world (Deut 4:31).

Thus, by reading Deuteronomy 31:29 with Deuteronomy 4:30 and especially Deuteronomy 30:1–6, we can see that the judgment upon Israel comes before the new covenant, not before the second coming of Christ. Thus, the latter days are again not a time preceding Christ’s second coming. Rather, “the days to come” (better: latter days) precede Christ’s first coming. The return of Israel to the land, led by Nehemiah and Ezra, prepares the way for Christ to return his people to himself. But ultimately, it is Christ who comes and dies under the old covenant to establish the new covenant—a reality that Moses himself sees from afar.

What Moses Teaches Us About the Latter Days

All in all, from Moses’s use of “latter days,” we are in good position to see how he understood the latter days. From his perspective as God’s Prophet, Moses teaches us that the latter days came to fulfillment in Christ and the events leading up and following Christ’s first coming. Rather than jumping over the rest of the Bible to the end of this age, Moses teaches us to watch how these promises unfold in the Prophets and Writings, before they are fulfilled in Christ.

Though, we need to see how the rest of the Bible considers “the last days,” it is reasonable to conclude Moses vision of the last days is indicative of what will follow. In particular, we have good reason for believing his own eschatological vision focuses on Christ, for Christ himself spoke of Moses saying, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).

Truly, in Moses we do not just find law and history, we find new covenant promises and biblical eschatology. We do not need to wait for Daniel or Revelation for descriptions of the last days. The first five books of the Bible speak of the latter days. And as I have attempted to show here, only by beginning with Moses can we rightly understand our own place in the story of God’s redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

_________________________

[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 96.

[2] Ibid., 92n18.

[3] “Genesis and Exodus portray history as a repeated cycle of new-creational commencements [= New Adams] that never reach their designed eschatological goal of irreversibly completed and incorruptible new-creational conditions” (Ibid., 93)

[4] Beale notes, “Romans 1:4–5; 16:25–26 allude to Gen. 49:10” (Ibid., 99).

Genesis 49:10: Unto him [the coming Israelite conqueror] will be the obedience of the nations.

Romans 1:4–5: Jesus Christ . . . through whom we received grace and apostleship unto the obedience of faith among all the nations.”

[5] Ibid., 98.

[6] Beale lists five connections between Genesis 49 and Numbers 24 (ibid., 99–100):

  1. Virtually the same wording in Gen. 49:9 occurs in Num. 24:9: “He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him?”
  2. The term “scepter” is used in Gen. 49:10 and Num. 24:17.
  3. Both the Genesis and Numbers texts identify their respective prophecies to be about “the latter days” (cf. Num. 24:14).
  4. Numbers 24:8, like Gen. 49, explicitly refers to the “nations” as Israel’s enemies who are to be defeated.
  5. Just as the prophecy of Israel’s future conqueror in Gen. 49 is directly linked to new-creational imagery (vv. 11-12, as well as wv. 22, 25-26), so is the case in Num. 24 (cf. vv. 7b–9 with vv. 5–7a).

[7] Ibid., 99.

[8] Ibid., 101. Cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 106; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.9.2.

[9] Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, 133n29. Cf. Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 141n9.

One thought on “The Last Days: What Moses Teaches Us About End Times

  1. Pingback: Because God Has Spoken: A Biblical Defense of Expositional Preaching (Deuteronomy 4:32–40) | Via Emmaus

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