What is the day of the Lord?
The first thing to be aware of is that the word “day” in Scripture is often not a 24-hour day as we might normally assume. There is only one word in biblical Hebrew that is used for a determinate period of time. In English, we have words like “age”, “epoch”, and “eon” to convey periods of time that are longer than 24-hours. Biblical Hebrew does not have words like these. Instead, the actual length of time must be conveyed by context. Even in English, we use phrases like “in my grandfather’s day there were few airplanes in the sky” or “the day of Grace” to express even indefinite periods of time which have a particular character. Scripture itself contains suitable warnings about this when it says, “one day is as a thousand years” (2 Pet. 3:8) and “a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Ps 90:4). So, when considering the phrase “the day of the Lord” and similar phrases, we must remember that this refers to a definite period of time that might be substantially longer than a 24-hour day.
If we start with a simple search for the phrase “day of the Lord” we find that most of the “hits” seem to refer to the time of the judgment of Israel for their sins. But, if we also look at some of the cross-references we find several similar phrases that also refer to judgments against Israel but there are some interesting variations and other judgments. It is worthwhile taking a look at some of these.
Let’s start with a passage that I think conveys the thought, but does not use the phrase “day of the Lord.” Daniel chapter 12 starts with the verse, “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” This verse is interesting in this context because it names a particular person (angel) Michael who is “in charge of your people.” It then goes on to describe a “time of trouble.” This is evidently the same as the “day of the Lord.” So, we can see that the phrase “day of the Lord” is intended to tell us that the Lord (in this case through Michael) is acting in a special way toward his chosen people, Israel.1 That is, the Lord is beginning to take up in an obvious way His people Israel for the purpose of bringing them to repentance.
Examining verses that refer to the “day of the Lord” we find that they all refer to the time when the Lord judges His people and the nations for their sins (Isa. 13:6,9. Jer. 46:10. Ez. 13:5; 30:3. Amos 5:18,20. Ob. 1:15. Zeph. 1:7,8,14. Mal. 4:5. 1 Thess. 5:2. 2 Thess. 2:2. Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14.). Of course, the desired end is reached in repentance and blessing (See Zech. chaps 12 and 13.). Some of these descriptions may have multiple applications. For example, when Peter quotes Joel 2:28 in Acts 2:17 he says “this is what.” He does not mean that what Joel said was being “fulfilled” at that time. The events recorded in Acts were simply of the same character in part. In contrast, we have in Matthew 2:17, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.” It is true of many prophetic scriptures that we must be careful to distinguish between pre-fulfillments and the actual fulfillment.
But, there is another use of the phrase “day of the Lord” in 2 Peter 3:10. There we read “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a rushing noise, and the elements, burning with heat, shall be dissolved, and the earth and the works in it shall be burnt up.” In this case, the “day of the Lord” refers to the final disposition of this present natural creation. We also read of this final dissolution in Hebrews 1:10–12 which compares the transitory nature of this creation with the eternal Lord who is there called “The Same.” So, we cannot assign a specific judgment or time to the “day of the Lord.” Rather it is the “day” (period of time) when the Lord manifests Himself in a special way, particularly by judgment against wickedness.
We need to consider one more verse. In 1 Corinthians 5:5 different translations will give “day of the Lord” or “day of the Lord Jesus.” The ESV gives “Lord Jesus” as a footnote. This, I believe is correct2 because the situation is different from what we have been considering. Rather it is similar to what we read of in chapter 11 verses 29–32. The thought is that if a believer pursues a course of sin he jeopardizes his testimony possibly to the point of being taken away (“destruction of the flesh”) so as to prevent further damage (“spirit may be saved”). The situation is ambiguous because the person’s salvation may be questioned. We may not be able to know that he is saved only the Lord can know (2 Tim. 2:19). This does not mean that if truly saved he might be ultimately lost eternally. In the case of the man of chapter 5, he was ultimately restored (2 Cor. 2:6–7). This is the desired result of any discipline, whether from the Lord providentially (Heb. 12:7–11) or from other believers judicially.
1. Perhaps (this is only a suggestion) the first act of this “day” is Michael and the other angels casting Satan out of heaven (Rev. 12:7).
2. Here is a helpful comment from my editor. “I agree with you regarding the footnote, which repeats how Paul uses the term in v. 4, ‘gathering in the name of our Lord Jesus… in the power of the Lord Jesus’, then v5. This is a similar repetition as 1 Cor. 1:7-9 ‘wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ… guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ… called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.’”