The latter days is an important eschatological and prophetic concept. The phrase is used at least 14 times in the entire OT and 5 times in the NT. In the OT, the phrase is translated from the Hebrew word, acharith, meaning “final” or “last” or “the end.” It is translated in our English Bibles normally as “latter days” or “the last days.”
The phrase “in the latter days” tends to indicate not only the absolute end, or what we know as the full consummation of the final judgment, but also entails many of the events leading up to that end. Thus, the “latter days” can stretch over an extended period of time, which is exactly what we have during this age of the NT Church for the last 2,000 years.
The latter days is first mentioned in Genesis 49:1 where Jacob blesses his sons. But before he tells his sons what will happen to them, he says, Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days, or the “latter days.” The prophecy beginning in verse 8 is the one he gives Judah, and it is most significant, because we know from later revelation that it is not only through the tribe of Judah that the kingly line over Israel comes, but also the Messiah comes. Verse 10 states, The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.
There are two important concepts mentioned in this passage:
The scepter. A scepter speaks of authority, but not only any authority, but a regal authority. Someone who is a king and has authority to reign over a nation and its people. The prophecy speaks to the fact that it was through Judah’s line that the kingly line of Israel came.
Shiloh. Moreover, Jacob mentions that “Shiloh” will come. Shiloh is a mysterious word. There are two possible ways of looking at it:
First, as a Messianic title. Shiloh has the idea of “peaceful” or “peace.” If the word is a Messianic title, it would describe the Messiah’s peace making authority. In the case of Jesus, making peace between God and fallen men, or the broken relationship between the LORD and Israel.
However, a second possible way to look at it is as a compound word that produces the phrase translated as “who’s it is.” Meaning, the one who has the authority to wield the scepter and bring ultimate obedience.
Either alternative is possible, but the second one seems to fit the overall context as it is connected with the word scepter. That is because Jesus alone is the only one who can wield a scepter of absolute authority. He is the rightful king because He is our creator (John 1:3), our redeemer (Revelation 5:9), and the rightful one to inherit David’s throne (Luke 1:31, 32). Jesus is the anticipated coming Messiah.
There is a second interesting passage that expands upon the concept of the coming Messiah in the latter days found in Numbers 24:14. Numbers 22-24 tells the story of the false prophet Balaam, really who was a god broker — an “expert” in all the regional religions and the various deities associated with them. His expertise in these matters gave him the “know-how” to invoke the specified deity to either curse or bless its worshipers.
Balaam had been hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to move Israel’s God to curse them. As we know the story, God forbade Balaam from doing such a thing. When Balaam blessed Israel rather than cursing them, Balak was angry for not getting his money worth for dealing with his enemies. Balaam responded to Balak saying he had told him he was not allowed to curse Israel, and then he gave a prophecy about them and their power over the Moabites “in the latter days.” (Numbers 24:14).
The oracle that follows states in verse 17, I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, to batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult.
What is noteworthy with Balaam’s words is this Star coming out of Jacob, the word “star” being a Messianic title, who will wield a scepter, or have the authority to reign, and who will defeat Israel’s enemies, including the Moabites.
The terminology speaks of an ultimate King, one whose kingdom will be over the entire earth, a kingdom that will come in the latter days.
With this revelation, how are we to understand the “latter days?”
As we examine other texts, I believe the phrase covers 3 broad theological themes.
1) The latter days seem to be initiated with the first Advent of Jesus Christ and then consummated at the second Advent of Jesus Christ.
In Luke 1:31-33, Gabriel says to Mary,
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.
Gabriel says her baby would be given the throne (from where one wields a scepter) of His father David. And He will reign forever and His kingdom will have no end. Here we see the prophecy that Christ will establish, or initiate His reign.
Moving to Acts 2:17-21, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, who prophesied how the Spirit would be poured out in the last days (latter days). Peter states that the manifestation of the Spirit his audience was witnessing demonstrated these last days were upon them. However, Peter was not saying that the Kingdom of God had fully come in the form of the NT Church and there was no future Kingdom to be anticipated. We know from Peter’s words in his second epistle, that he exhorted his readers to be in anticipation of an eschatological coming of “the Day of the Lord,” (2 Peter 3:3-13) a coming, that according to the OT, ushered in the Kingdom of God.
2) The latter days also entails Israel’s disobedience and restoration.
We see Israel’s disobedience and restoration being discussed in such prophets as Hosea 3:4, 5 which says,
For the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They shall fear the LORD and His goodness in the latter days.
Micah 4:1, 2 says something along similar lines as does Isaiah 11:12, Jeremiah 31:10, and as even as far back as Deuteronomy 30:3, 5. Israel will be in a state of disobedience, where God sends them out of the land. Hosea says they will “abide many days” without a king, meaning they won’t have any kingdom in which to call home as it were. After they have been in a state of disobedience, they are brought back to the Lord in obedience and will be restored to their land. This takes place as Micah notes, in the latter days.
3) The latter days include the judgment of the nations.
It is during these latter days that all nations will be judged. Again, Micah 4:3ff. tells of the time when the peoples of the nations will be rebuked and judged. This is also the picture we have in the remainder of Neb’s. dream in Daniel 2: the four major kingdoms comprising the statue, are supplanted and destroyed — judged — by the rock, which is God’s coming Messianic Kingdom.