Time of Jacob's Trouble - Future or Fulfilled?

By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60608

"Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble, but he shall be saved out of it." - Jeremiah 30:7
There has never been a consensus or unanimity of opinion as to the meaning of this prophecy of Jeremiah. Therefore, we must be cautious not to be dogmatic about its meaning, or to build an entire theology on this one verse.
Some modern commentators have assumed that Jeremiah is writing about the future Great Tribulation period, to take place at least 2600 years after Jeremiah's time. It is believed that the Tribulation will be specifically used by God as a time of judgment, testing and persecution for the Jews, in order to force those who survive to accept Christ as their Messiah. It is further assumed that since the main purpose of the Tribulation is to clobber the Jews, there is no need for Christians to be around, and therefore they will be "raptured out" before the Tribulation begins.
However, not all commentators agree that Jeremiah is talking about a far distant future tribulation to take place at the remote end of the Church Age. Many expositors have believed that Jeremiah refers either to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews (586 to 538 BC) which began shortly after this prophecy was delivered, or else to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.
Matthew Henry assigns this prophecy to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He connects Jeremiah's statement that "none is like" this day of trouble, with Christ's statement in Matthew 24:21, (which he sees as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem) that "then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be."
Adam Clarke sees the "time of Jacob's trouble" as a reference to the conquest of Babylon, where the Jews were held captive, by the Persians in 538 BC, and then he also applies it to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. "When the Medes and Persians, with all their forces, shall come on the Chaldeans, it will be ‘the day of Jacob's trouble,' trial, dismay, and uncertainty: but he shall be delivered out of it, - the Chaldean empire shall fall, but the Jews shall be delivered by Cyrus. Jerusalem shall be destroyed by the Romans, but the Israel of God shall be delivered from its ruin. Not one that had embraced Christianity perished in the sackage of that city."
Matthew Poole casts his vote in favor of the Babylonian Captivity as the "time of Jacob's trouble:" "[It] is not agreed, nor yet whether this text refers to the times of the Messiah, when the nations should tremble, or the time when Darius invaded Babylon, or the times of Gog and Magog (of which read Ezekiel 38), or the time when the Chaldeans invaded Judah: this last seemeth most probable, and that God by this intended only to rouse the Jews out of their security, and put them off from expecting peace according to the flatteries of the false prophets, assuring them that the times that were coming next were not times of peace, but such as should make them tremble." Poole sees the "breaking of the yoke" from the necks of the Jews, in Jeremiah 30:8, as a reference to the fall of the King of Babylon at the time of his defeat by Darius.
F. Cawley, in "The New Bible Commentary," says, "The time of Jacob's trouble could be applied to the immediate situation [imminent captivity in Babylon], though it has a much longer period in view - the whole period of the captivity."
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agree that Jeremiah 30:5-7 refers to the Babylonian Captivity, with emphasis on the Persian conquest of Babylon at the end of that captivity, which results in the Jews being delivered. The "trembling" of Jeremiah 30:5 refers to "the misery of the Jews in the Babylonian Captivity down to their ‘trembling' and ‘fear' arising from the approach of the Medo-Persian army of Cyrus against Babylon" while verse 7 deals with "the partial deliverance of Babylon's downfall," which in their view "prefigures the final, complete deliverance of Israel, literal and spiritual, at the downfall of the mystical Babylon (Revelation 18, 19)." This view may give some comfort to the adherents of a future "time of Jacob's trouble" but even here the primary interpretation is with regard to the Babylonian Captivity, already fulfilled, an event which prefigures a future deliverance of literal and spiritual Israel.
Only in recent years has it become popular to use Jeremiah 30:7 as a proof-text for a "primarily Jewish" nature of the future Great Tribulation, even though there is nothing in the context of Jeremiah's prophecy that hints of such an event, or of such a remote fulfillment of a prophecy that seems to fit so well into the context of the urgent Babylonian threat against Judah at the time that Jeremiah spoke.
It is certainly convenient and comforting to think of the Great Tribulation as "primarily Jewish," which by implication lets all Christians off the hook for such a time of trouble (even though the Bible teaches that Christians should expect tribulation, Acts 14:22, John 16:33, Romans 5:3, 1 Peter 4:12, Revelation 1:9, etc.)
The description of the phantasmagoria of horrors that are soon to be experienced by the Jews in Palestine has become a staple of modern prophetic preaching. Jerry Falwell has said, "There will be one last skirmish and then God will dispose of this Cosmos . . . Millions of Jews will be slaughtered at this time but a remnant will escape."
Tim LaHaye says, "Prior to Israel's conversion, Zechariah predicts that two-thirds (‘two parts') of the Jewish people in the land will perish during the tribulation period. Only one-third of the Jewish population will survive until Christ comes to establish His kingdom on earth." In reality, Zechariah does not predict that two-thirds of the Jews will soon die in Israel. The context of Zechariah 13:8 is that of events in the First Century AD, meaning that the prophecy with regard to the deaths of two-thirds of the Jews was fulfilled at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. (One wonders, why is it that those who really believe that two-thirds of Jews living today in Israel will soon be killed are not doing everything they can to warn those Jews and urge them to leave Israel before it is too late? Don't they care about the Jews? Hmmm, and Huhhh?)
Entire books have been written about how the Jews will suffer in the future Tribulation. Jack Van Impe and Roger Campbell, in their book "Israel's Final Holocaust," have a chapter entitled "The Time of Jacob's Trouble," in which Jeremiah 30:7 is used as the proof-text for the predominantly Jewish character of the Tribulation. They say, "It must be remembered that the Tribulation is especially related to Israel." That is a polite way of saying that God is really going to stick it to the Jews. Somehow some of us have gotten the idea that the Jews will be deserving of worse punishment than the Gentiles when Christ returns, but is this not a subtle form of anti-Semitism? Why the poor Jews should be singled out for God's wrath, over and above all the billions of nasty, brutish, unregenerate Gentiles, is not really explained, other than the ritual reference to Jeremiah 30:7, a verse which has been wrenched out of its context of events among the ancient Jews of the 6th Century BC.
Meanwhile, it must be considered very questionable whether any of the Old Testament prophecies of judgment against the Jews can be applied to the time period after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Christ said in Matthew 23:35-36 that the Jews living in His generation (from 30 to 70 AD) would suffer and pay the price for all the sins of their forebears: "That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation." (Zacharias was not chronologically the last Old Testament martyr, but he was the last martyr in the Jewish Old Testament, in which the book of 2 Chronicles is placed last).
The unsaved Jews who called for Christ's crucifixion in Matthew 27:25 were more accurate than they knew, when they said, "His blood be on us, and on our children." The punishment for their rejection of the Messiah literally fell upon them and their children, that is to say, the generation that was living when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. There is no need for any Jews living today or in the future to suffer that punishment, nor is such a judgment on the Jews predicted in the Word of God. Jewish people living today are in no way to blame for Christ's crucifixion, any more so than Gentiles living today.
Christ said with regard to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, "For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled," Luke 21:22. Virtually all commentators, including Scofield, agree that in this passage Christ was talking about the AD 70 judgment upon Israel, not some future Tribulation period. So the question is, when Christ said that ALL THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN would be fulfilled against the Jews, during the "days of vengeance" from 67 to 70 AD, did He really mean ALL THINGS, or did He mean that some things written against the Jews, such as Jeremiah's prophecy of the "time of Jacob's trouble," would remain unfulfilled until 2000 years later?
If we give Christ's words some serious thought, then it will become apparent that the concept of a "primarily Jewish" nature of a future Tribulation is unscriptural. ALL THINGS with regard to God's vengeance against the Jews, including Jeremiah's "time of Jacob's trouble" and the Zechariah 13:8 slaughter of two-thirds of all the Jews, must have been fulfilled by the time of Rome's invasion and destruction of Israel in 70 AD. Many terrible things have happened to the Jews since then (Spanish inquisition, Russian pogroms, Hitler's holocaust) but none of these things were specifically predicted in the Bible and none of them had to happen in order to fulfill any definite prophecies with regard to God's "vengeance" against the Jews. The prophecy teachers who say that two-thirds of all the Jews have to die in order for Christ to return are mistaken. Not a single Jew has to die in order for Christ to return.
My personal conviction with regard to the meaning of Jeremiah 30:7 is that the time of Jacob's trouble, and of his being saved out of it, were totally fulfilled when Judah was taken into captivity by Babylon in 586 BC and then liberated by the Persians in 538 BC.
The entire context of Jeremiah's passage is with regard to these events in ancient times. In Jeremiah 29:1-4 the prophet says he is writing to the first group of captives who are already in Babylon. He assures them that God will take care of them and cause them to prosper (29:5-7). He says they will not be coming back to Judah immediately as promised by the false prophets, but that they will be restored from captivity after 70 years (29:8-14). In 29:15-32 he rebukes various false prophets, some of whom will shortly be executed by the King of Babylon. His prophecies in chapter 30 are simply a continuation of chapter 29 - in 30:3 he promises again, as he did in 29:8-14, that the Jews will be returning to their homeland in Palestine. 30:18 speaks of the return of the captives and the rebuilding of Jerusalem which the Babylonians had left in a ruined state. There is absolutely no reason to believe that in 30:7, with the mention of the "time of Jacob's trouble," the prophet has suddenly jumped out of the context of events in the 6th Century BC, to refer to some mysterious, unknown crisis that is to come upon the Jews 2600 years later.
The Scofield Reference Bible attempts to create a discontinuity between Jeremiah 29 and Jeremiah 30 by putting a large break in the page, in the middle of those 2 chapters, with the words "Prophecies Not Chronological," hinting that at this point the prophet has suddenly jumped into prophecies of the remote, distant future. There is no justification for breaking up the text at this point. Even the chapter division between 29 and 30 is not inspired - the chapter divisions were not added until the 13th Century AD.
In light of these considerations, it is time for us to reconsider and rethink the entire school of speculative prophecy that postulates that a future Great Tribulation will be primarily for the purpose of judging and punishing the Jews. There is plenty of sin and wickedness to go around among all of us in these last days, and there is no reason for the Jews to take the brunt of the punishment, over and above the Gentiles, for mankind's end-times rebellion.
There is no hint of this emphasis on gloom-and-doom for Jews in the end-times in Paul's prophecy of Romans 11, in which he says, "blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob." Romans 11:25-26.