Are the time periods mentioned in Daniel 12:11, 12 (1290 days and 1335 days) to be understood literally or symbolically?
Adventists follow the historicist method of prophetic interpretation, by which the prophecies received by Daniel span the time from the days of the prophet to the establishment of God’s kingdom. According to this approach the year-day principle (Eze. 4:6) is used to interpret prophetic periods. The historicist approach claims that those periods were years, and that they found their fulfillment during the late Middle Ages.
Some Adventists now argue that the year-day principle does not apply to these two prophecies, and that these prophetic periods should be understood as literal days of events to be fulfilled before Jesus’ return. They are forced to speculate about which events will mark the completion of those periods. Let’s examine the context of the passage for guidance.
1. Immediate Context and the Time of the End. Not everything described in Daniel 12:5-13 is related to the time of the end. For instance, the sealing of the book and the increase in knowledge begin before that time (verses 4, 9); it is before the time of the end that the heavenly being swears “by him who lives forever” (verse 7), the breaking of the power of the holy people occurs, and the “wonders” come to an end (verse 8). The refinement of God’s people takes place throughout history, not simply at the time of the end (verse 10). Therefore, it is incorrect to say that because the immediate context mentions the time of the end, the prophetic periods belong to that same time.
2. Prophetic Periods in Daniel: Even if we were to recognize that prophetic time periods are in a context in which there are no visions and that the language is predominantly literal, that would not mean the days themselves are literal. In Daniel prophetic periods are never given in a visual form. The prophet hears or is told them by a heavenly being. In Daniel 7:25 the 3 1/2 times is introduced not during the vision, but during the angel’s explanation of the vision. In Daniel 8:14 the 2300 days are given in the context of a revelation in which the language is predominantly literal. Finally, in Daniel 9 we find the prophecy of the 70 weeks given to Daniel through an oral explanation. In all those cases the language used in the interpretation of the vision is basically literal, but the prophetic periods are not. They are introduced after the vision as additional information, but their symbolic content is not fully explained. This is exactly what we find in Daniel 12:11, 12. During the oral presentation prophetic periods are given without a detailed interpretation. Daniel is unable to understand them, but he is led to believe that God’s people will understand them in the future.
3. Connection Between the Time Periods: The 1290 days are an extension of the 1260 days mentioned in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7 as a “time, times, and half a time.” The difference in Daniel 12:11 is 30 days, suggesting that an additional month has been added to extend the period (a common practice in lunar calendars). Because the period of 1290 days is based on the 1260 days, and because it is acknowledged by historicist interpreters that the 1260 days are years, we have to conclude that the year-day principle also applies to the 1290 days.
The reference to the 1260 days in Daniel 7:25 emphasized the time during which God’s people would suffer persecution. Daniel 12:7 emphasizes the moment when the activities of God’s enemies would come to an end. The 1290 days in Daniel 12:11 emphasize the moment when prophetic time begins. In order to synchronize the beginning of the prophecy with a specific event, the period is extended by adding an extra month—instead of 42 months (1260 days) we now have 43 (1290 days). This intercalation allows the angel interpreter to be more precise concerning the event that initiates the period, as well as to its full length. The prophetic period of 1290 days is then extended by 45 extra days, making it total 1335 prophetic years, based on the year-day principle.
In conclusion, these two time periods are extensions of a well-established prophetic period, and they should be interpreted symbolically, consistent with the rest of the prophecy.