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RANDOM NOTES #1 – “Seventy Times Seven”

By Martin G. Selbrede
July 17, 2017

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Chalcedon Report (now named Faith for All of Life) aggregated specialty items under various headings where Dr. Rushdoony would contribute relevant insights. “Book Notices” are self-explanatory in this regard: here is where books that Dr. Rushdoony found of interest were discussed (and their content either recommended or condemned, as suited the situation). The “Medical Reports” and “Chalcedon Alerts” followed a similar protocol. 

Items that didn’t fit any other category but still had value needed a proper home, so the umbrella heading of “Random Notes” was created to catch these otherwise orphaned items. Some were very short (a sentence or two), others could fill a few paragraphs. They represented Dr. Rushdoony’s considered musings on various topics that came to mind. They were his way of sharing things outside the traditional scope of the newsletter’s ongoing concerns. 

As an experiment, we will try to revive this practice, but rather than generating one-off Facebook posts that dissipate shortly after publication, we’ll be hosting these thoughts at our website blog AND on Facebook. If interest in the first few posts warrant extension of this outreach (i.e., people find value in them), we will continue them. If, on the other hand, people see this revival of Random Notes as being more like the advent of a bunch of Random Nothingburgers, we’ll shelve this idea and move into more edifying directions (as Dr. Rushdoony’s famous essay on Titanism would require us to do). 

These notes are just that: notes, sometimes firmly established in Scripture, other times with a more speculative air (as is the case with today’s Random Note #1). Sometimes they’ll be original, and other times quite derivative (you can never exhaustively know every scholar who came before you). These notes are intended to incite discussion, provoke readers to think more deeply about the issues raised, and to increase appreciation for how “exceeding broad” the Law of God really is (Ps. 119:96). Merely because I find them interesting doesn’t mean anyone else does, but that’s what this experiment is intended to reveal! And so our experiment begins. 

“SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN”

In Matthew 18:22-23, we read the following exchange between Peter and our Lord: "Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” 

Commentators have generally understood this “seventy times seven” assertion by Christ to essentially mean “indefinitely.” Few seek to find a meaning outside of the gospel text. In other words, few seek to apply the principle of “the analogy of Scripture” to this saying. In their view, this is simply an arbitrarily large number that Christ puts forward, and the story that follows it supposedly provides all the context necessary to understand it (viz., Matt. 18:23-35). From that discussion of “the kingdom of heaven” (which Matt. 18:23 asserts is what Christ is describing), we are usually told that God’s longsuffering is unlimited, and so should ours be unlimited. This thought is usually underscored by asserting that our personal debt (due to sin) is infinite, so our forgiveness must likewise be without limit.

However, this strikes me as a hasty conclusion erected in ignorance (or neglect) of what Scripture elsewhere says about God’s forbearance for sin. In fact, there is a significant example of God’s forbearance that actually measures out at seventy times seven, and this makes the likelihood fairly high that Christ is referring to God’s ACTUAL, historical example of forgiveness, a known case of His not exacting correction (e.g., Job 37:13) upon His people for their sins against Him.

In Leviticus 25:3-7 we have God’s ordinance concerning the land Sabbaths. The land yields her strength (Gen. 4:12) and so is seen as laboring, and God requires a Sabbath for the land. But Israel stopped observing the land Sabbaths, eventually accumulating a Sabbath deficit of seventy missed Sabbaths. The Babylonian exile was triggered by this transgression, which spanned nearly five centuries of lawless abuse of the land. “My land shall enjoy her Sabbaths,” God declares to Israel through Jeremiah (Jer. 25:11-12, Jer. 29:10, compare 2 Chron. 36:21) as Lev. 26:34 and Lev. 26:43 predicted would be the case.

What is interesting is to see how the chronology works out. After the first missed land Sabbath, each subsequent year is an opportunity to repent and rest the land (and reset the clock). But Israel spurned God’s commandment, so God’s forgiveness and forbearance for that first missed annual Sabbath begins with the following year. After Israel had missed seventy land Sabbaths, there fell another six years until the seventy-first land Sabbath would take place. This seventy-first Sabbath WAS honored, because God ejected the people from their land to secure the land’s right to enjoy her seventy missed Sabbaths. So the entire time that God forbore to punish Israel amounted to seventy times seven years, each year presenting a lost opportunity to repent and make good on the direct command of Lev. 25:3-7.

If this correlation is correct, then Christ is insisting that we’re to follow God’s Own pattern in respect to forgiveness. God didn’t lower the boom on Israel for 490 years. THAT is the point of comparison: we are to be perfect as our God in heaven is perfect, and He forgave Israel 490 times for that first land Sabbath violation. His forbearance extended to seventy times seven transgressions of His Law (with each consecutive year after the first missed Sabbath representing an additional forbearance by God for Israel’s refusal to allow the land to rest as God commanded). Now ALL the missed Sabbaths over the last half millennium fall on Zedekiah’s generation to observe.

Some might object that every forty-nine years there was a Jubilee Sabbath, which would disrupt the numbering: after fifty years there would have been eight missed Sabbaths and not seven. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the Jubilee Sabbath: there is only one Sabbath at the forty-ninth year but it is twice as long as the preceding six land Sabbaths (see Dr. Rushdoony’s discussion of this question in Institutes of Biblical Law Volume 1).

God exhibited considerable longsuffering with His people, overlooking their transgression seventy times seven times as each passing year aggravated the nation’s cumulative sin against the land. After the nation had exhausted God’s longsuffering, judgment inevitably fell, and the nation (believing that God wasn’t enforcing that law, since He apparently winked at it for centuries) was blindsided by the exaction of divine justice.

Men misinterpret God’s forbearance at great cost to themselves. The Lord routinely gives us “space to repent” (Rev. 2:21) but we persist in refusing His yoke upon our necks. God intends His forbearance to bring forth the fruit of repentance, but instead He gets ever-hardening rebellion in response to the extending of grace man-ward. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” (Eccl. 8:11)  God having forgiven Israel seventy times seven simply drove the nation into deeper apostasy. In a very real sense, God heaped burning coals on the nation’s head by postponing judgment, but Israel made no use of the opportunity they were given. Neither were they grateful to God for His mercy to them.

In short, Jesus didn’t just pull a number out of a hat when he responded to Peter’s short-range view of forgiveness and forbearance. He appears to be citing the Father’s Own conduct as the model we’re to emulate. If so, we would have to confront at least two important implications of that circumstance: (1) Forgiveness is not unlimited, even for God Himself. He sets the standard, and we cannot be holier or more merciful or forgiving than God is. (2) If Christ’s “seventy times seven” answer is based on the land Sabbath legislation of Leviticus 25, then He is prima facie ratifying the validity of that legislation. If so, this would be another example of supposedly “expired” laws being enforced by the Lord Jesus. Another neglected example of this would be the rich young ruler’s violation of the poor tithe in Mark 10 (see my Position Paper: Taxation Liberty and the Bible) .

 “I’ve seen an end to all perfection, but Thy commandment is exceeding broad.” (Ps. 119:96)


If you have a question for Martin Selbrede, email ask.chalcedon@chalcedon.edu and include the subject line: Question for Martin Selbrede.


Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Justice, Old Testament History, Theology

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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