Many religious people today are prone to think of "the day of the Lord" and of the word "judgment" only with reference to a future and final day in which God will judge the world. But judgments of God against sin and ungodliness have come over and over in human history. All of these point to an inevitable and final judgment at the end of time. The phrase "the day of the Lord" was often used by O. T. prophets. In order to understand its usage in the New Testament, and as used by Peter on Pentecost, we should look at its use among the Old Testament prophets, and beginning there, continue through to its use by the apostles in the New Testament. Peter's audience would understand his use of it in that light.
The message of the prophets was a message of warning and call to repentance. They sought to stay the hand of sin and turn men to God. They cried out against sin, warning of a "a day of the Lord"; "a day of judgment" which should break forth upon their world of ungodliness and corruption. However, the message was not one of destruction only, but always with the dark warning of judgment there was an accompanying bright gleam of hope, an escape for a remnant who would turn to God, or who should abide in their faithfulness. With the prophets, the "day of the Lord" was "the great day," "the day", "that day." The expression "the day of the Lord" is found in Peter's sermon on Pentecost, and many times thereafter in the sermons and writings of the apostles. O. T. PROPHETS AND "THE DAY OF THE LORD" "The Day Of The Lord" for nations other than the children of Israel: -- In his prophecy concerning Babylon, Isaiah said, " Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty…behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it." (Isa. 13:6, 9).
Now note the association of "day of the Lord," with "cruel", "wrath", "fierce anger", "desolation", "to destroy sinners". The day of Babylon's judgment should be one of darkness and destruction. While over against this is the promise, "For the LORD will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land." (Isa. 14:1). Darkness for the sinner, but hope for the faithful among the children of Israel.
In his prophecy concerning Nineveh, Nahum follows the same pattern. Before describing the destruction, he lays down for a foundation the fact that God's indignation and vengeance is terrible when it breaks forth upon His enemies, while on the other hand, for the faithful among the Israelites, "The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies." (Nah. 1:1-8).
As he spoke the word of the Lord concerning other nations, and looking especially toward Egypt and her relation to the king of Babylon, Jeremiah said of their impending doom, "For this is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries: and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood" (Jer. 46:10). Later, Ezekiel warned, "For the day…of the LORD is near…it shall be the time of the heathen…and the sword shall come upon Egypt…" (Ezek. 30:3-4).
Obadiah likewise included all the nations when he said, "For the day of the LORD is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head." (Obadiah 1:15). But of the faithful among the Israelites he said, "But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness" (vs. 17). Destruction for the nations and Edom, but escape for the faithful.
"The Day of The Lord" And Israel And Judah
As the chosen people of God, most all of the Israelites came to think of such a place in His favor as an unconditional guarantee of God's goodness toward themselves, and of the day of Jehovah as being a day of judgment only to her enemies. Wherefore Amos said of the disobedient among the nation of Israel, "Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! to what end is it for you? the day of the LORD is darkness, and not light…shall not the day of the LORD be darkness, and not light? even very dark, and no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18, 20). About one hundred years after "the day of the Lord" came to the northern kingdom of Israel in the Assyrian invasion, Zephaniah warned the southern kingdom of Judah, "Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord GOD: for the day of the LORD is at hand…and it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD, that there shall be the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and an howling from the second, and a great crashing from the hills." (Zeph. 1:7, 10). And again, "The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, A day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD: and their blood shall be poured out as dust, and their flesh as the dung." (vss. 14-17). To the unfaithful among both Israel and Judah, "the day of the Lord" would be a terrible day, a day of judgment and calamity.
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From this we can conclude that when Nineveh fell, when Babylon went down, when Egypt and the nations met days of calamity and destruction, "the day of the Lord" came for each. Likewise, with both Israel and Judah, the day of the Lord was a day of judgment upon the disobedient. But it was not all dark, for with the doom of the wicked there was refuge in Jehovah for the righteous. So likewise will it be in the final day; for most, the day of judgment will be a day of calamity and destruction, while for the righteous it will be a day of salvation.