In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, we find the only Gospel reference to an old biblical term, the Day of the Lord. But where have we heard this term before? The phrase the Day of the Lord is mentioned some twenty-five times in the Old Testament. Furthermore, the concept of the Day of the Lord is virtually non-existent in the the Law – the first five books of the Old Testament. The Day of the Lord is a theological development that is exclusively the domain of the prophets of the Old Testament.
Even the sole Gospel reference is vague and indirect. In Matthew 25, Jesus begins the parable of the ten virgins with the passage: At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. He concludes the parable of the ten virgins with the admonishment: Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Mt 25:13). This passage is a word-for-word translation of the original Greek (here). Jesus is referring to the Second Coming, when Jesus will return and, ultimately, invite those called to the Kingdom of God to the wedding banquet.
It strikes me as unusual that Jesus would refer to the Day of the Lord so elliptically in a Gospel passage about the end-times. Why should this be unusual? Because thematically, it is a prominent concept in prophetic literature. The Day of the Lord is mentioned three times in Isaiah, three times in Ezekiel, five times in the prophet of Joel, once in Amos, once in Obadiah, five or six times in Zephaniah, and once in Malachi.
In the Tanakh (the Hebrew version of the Old Testament), the Day of the Lord is translated, right to left, יוֹם-יְהוָה. For an explanation of its meaning, we should consider its earliest use in Isaiah 13:9-11:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless.
Is God, through Isaiah the prophet, speaking of the end of the world? No. He is referring to the destruction of the city of Babylon, a metaphor for the rising power of the kingdom of Assyria, which controlled the more ancient Babylon. Isaiah seems to have anticipated the destruction of Babylon by Assyria in 689 BCE, which occurred after the Assyrian forces were routed, in 701 BCE, in their attempt to invade Judah. For Isaiah, the Day of the Lord is a day of judgment and punishment for the enemies of Israel, like Babylon and Assyria.
Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah anticipates the destruction of Egypt in Jeremiah 46:9-14:
Advance, O horses, and rage, O chariots! Let the warriors go forth: men of Ethiopia and Put who handle the shield, men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow. That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated, and drink its fill of their blood. …
The word which the LORD spoke to Jeremiah the prophet about the coming of Nebuchadrez’zar king of Babylon to smite the land of Egypt: “Declare in Egypt, and proclaim in Migdol; proclaim in Memphis and Tah’panhes; Say, ‘Stand ready and be prepared, for the sword shall devour round about you.’
The prophets generally use the Day of the Lord to express a day of judgment against Israel’s enemies. That is the most common usage. However, in Zephaniah, we see a judgment being levelled against the nations, including Judah, for their disobedience:
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” says the LORD. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will overthrow the wicked; I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” says the LORD. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Ba’al and the name of the idolatrous priests; those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens; those who bow down and swear to the LORD and yet swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.” Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is at hand; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests.
Nor is the concept of the Day of the Lord forgotten in the New Testament. Paul mentions the Day of the Lord twice in I Corinthians, once in II Corinthians, once each in I and II Thessalonians, and once in II Timothy. Speaking of which, Paul understands the Day of the Lord, very consistently, to be a day of judgment.