The term Day of the Lord in the Bible is a term that sometimes confuses Christians. The main reason is that it is applied to different events in prophecy, while many erroneously think it is the same event every time the phrase is used. The general meaning of the term is a time when God breaks through in history to judge. When prophecies are given, the predicted Day of the Lord is sometimes a near event and not an end-times event. For example, before 800 BC, Joel describes both a locust plague and a coming invasion from a northern army as a day of the Lord (1:2–18; see especially v. 15). In addition, the exilic prophet Ezekiel in 13:5 and 30:3 uses the phrase day of the Lord to refer to the judgment of Judah and the nations by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. While other passages could be mentioned in this regard, these are sufficient to alert the Bible reader that all references to the Day of the Lord do not speak of the end-times days. Every passage must be studied in its own context.
All of these expressions are equivalent to “Day of the Lord” and refer to the same idea of God breaking through in history to judge.
Sometimes different terminology is used in place of the “Day of the Lord,” which complicates understanding. For example, in Zechariah 12—14, 12 times the text mentions “in that day” (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2; 14:4, 6, 8, 9) which seems to point to a single day in time. Similarly, the same prophet declares that “a day is coming for the Lᴏʀᴅ” (14:1)—“a unique day which is known to the Lᴏʀᴅ” (14:7). All of these expressions are equivalent to “Day of the Lord” and refer to the same idea of God breaking through in history to judge. In these examples, the Second Coming of Christ is in view. Zechariah 12—14 teaches that God (through Messiah) is coming on a single day to deliver Israel and Jerusalem from their enemies which He judges. He also will provide forgiveness of sins for the nation of Israel (13:1–9). He will put His feet on the Mount of Olives (14:4) and establish His Kingdom over all the earth (14:9).
One debated passage is 2 Peter 3:10, which says, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heart; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” The preceding verses (vv. 3–9) are about the Second Coming. The following verses speak of the new heavens and a new earth (vv. 11–13). This raises the question: Does verse 10 and its day of the Lord reference go with the preceding context or the following verses? If it goes with the following context, then this particular day of the Lord in verse 10 would be at the end of the Millennium as God prepares the new earth by fire. This is the best interpretation, although the text allows for the Second Coming to be in view.
Other passages use the phrase Day of the Lord to refer to the Tribulation. Joel 2:1 says that the “day of the Lᴏʀᴅ is at hand” and describes it as a negative event that will never happen like that again (v. 2). The prophet portrays it as a time of war ending with God’s judgment (vv. 2–11). The description that there is nothing like it again can also be found in Daniel 12:1, Matthew 24:21, and Mark 13:19, which all refer to the end-times days and the time of trouble known as the Tribulation period. The prophet Amos describes the Day of the Lord as negative judgment, darkness and not light (5:18–20). This is not a single event such as the Second Coming but the period of time leading up to the Lord’s coming to Earth. It is similar to the Time of Jacob’s Trouble spoken of in Jeremiah 30:7.
Perhaps the most significant passages using the term Day of the Lord are found in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, he reminds the church at Thessalonica that all who have died in Christ will be joined by those who are alive when Christ comes to catch up the church to be with Him. That is followed chronologically by the Day of the Lord: “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night” (5:2). This day of the Lord is a time of the wrath of God which the church will not have to endure due to the previous Rapture (5:9).
This day of the Lord is a time of the wrath of God which the church will not have to endure due to the previous Rapture.
But what event or time period does this Day of the Lord judgment refer to in history? Various Rapture views answer that question differently. If one adopts the position that the Rapture of the church takes place at the Second Coming of Christ to the earth at the end of the Tribulation (posttribulation view), then it would be quite natural to see the Day of the Lord as the judgments associated with the event of the Second Coming. But this view cannot easily handle 1 Thessalonians 5:3. The Day of the Lord comes upon the unbelieving world like a thief while they are saying, “Peace and safety.” That is, they believe they are moving toward peace, when, in fact, they get the opposite. The posttribulation view is thus untenable since the Second Coming is preceded by the battle of Armageddon which is clearly not a time of peace and safety. Therefore, those who believe the church is raptured before the Tribulation have the upper hand here. There is a peace treaty between the Roman prince (Antichrist figure in Daniel 9:27) to start a seven-year period. This fits the peace-and-safety statement of 1 Thessalonians 5:3. In light of that truth, it is quite easy to see the Day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 as the full seven years of judgment called the Tribulation period.
If the full seven years is meant in 1 Thessalonians, the Day of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians 2:2–3 must also refer to the entire Tribulation period. There a person or group of people had apparently presented some wrong teaching as if it came from the apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 2:2). They were telling the people that the Day of the Lord had already come, causing the saints to be troubled. If the Day of the Lord in this passage means the Second Coming, then why are they troubled? If Christ has come to set up His Kingdom, there is nothing to worry about. It makes much better sense to see the Day of the Lord in the passage as the Tribulation period. Thus, the wrong teaching bothered the believers, making them think they were living in the predicted time of trouble. Then Paul assures them the Tribulation has not yet come.
Other passages and positions could be discussed, but these are sufficient to show that the Bible interpreter must be meticulous in his study to discern the meaning of each passage in its own context. In all cases, however, the Day of the Lord points to the fact that God will judge sin in Israel and also among the nations.