Four hundred years of silence?

What goes through your mind when you turn the page from the end of Malachi to the first chapter of Matthew? Do you ever wonder about the four hundred years of silence represented by that momentous page turn?

What if I told you that there was no four hundred years of silence – that God did not fall off the airwaves, go on leave, or stop using prophets to guide his people?

Are you surprised? Puzzled? Unperturbed?

Whenever I ask people about those four hundred years, most Christians respond with an unknowing shrug of the shoulders. They simply don’t know what happened and, for that reason, see it as insignificant for their understanding of God and the Bible. Others will describe it as the “Intertestamental Period,” in which an array of weird and wonderful literature was written, but none of it canonical. Others will repeat the notion of prophetic silence – that no prophet arose among God’s people during this time, which pressed pause for a suspenseful four centuries until Jesus came along and got things going again, as we read in the New Testament.

The problem is none of those responses is biblical.

When Jesus reflected on how vital John the Baptist was to the Kingdom of God, he said, “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matt 11:13). He did not see John as a surprise or a novel development in God’s great plans. On the contrary, he viewed John as the culmination of a continuous cohort of prophets who brought God’s revelation to his covenant people.

Have you ever noticed how, on the day Jesus’s parents took him to the temple for his circumcision, they crossed paths with two prophets, Simeon and Anna? Both were elderly, having lived the majority of the first century bc in expectation of God’s salvation and the redemption of Jerusalem because of God’s prophetic revelations to them. And, of course, there was Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, who also prophesied. That’s three prophets in the late first century bc alone. There was no sense that they were a new or revived phenomenon.

Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews gave his treatise the following headline: “In various times and in various ways of the past, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets, but on the last of these days he spoke to us by the Son” (Heb 1:1–2a). The writer did not think there had been a centuries-long hiatus before Jesus. Rather, he perceived God to have been active throughout the centuries leading up to Jesus.

What if I told you that there was no four hundred years of silence – that God did not fall off the airwaves, go on leave, or stop using prophets to guide his people?

Why is this important?

For a start, proposing a so-called “Intertestamental Period” of prophetic silence implies that God was not faithful to his covenant with Israel. God had promised to guide his people through his Law and by sending prophets. So why would he stop sending prophets during these four centuries? Was he sulking? Fed up? Tired? Fickle? Actually, he was none of these. God was indeed faithful to his covenant. He was always seeking to guide his people, despite their waywardness. He was in constant, dynamic relationship with them, leading them towards the big crescendo of all his plans in Jesus. This included sending prophets to give his people his guiding divine word. We do not possess all of this divine word, but that should not surprise us. The Old Testament mentions many prophets who arose in Israel, from whose hand we have no prophetic books. What we have in our Bibles today is sufficient for salvation and for knowing God, but it does not represent the totality of what God said and did in the past. Remember that we do not even have every detail of Jesus’s life and ministry (John 21:25).

Second, some of the biblical books were composed during these centuries or are about events that occurred in them. For example, the books of Chronicles contain a genealogy of the Davidic royal family going all the way down to about 300 bc. Nehemiah has a genealogy with a similar timeframe. Malachi and parts of Zechariah date to the late fourth century bc. Ecclesiastes has veiled references to people and events in the late third century bc, while the visions in Daniel are supremely interested in the persecution of conservative Jews in the period 171–164 bc. The Song of Songs also dates to that era of persecution.

Third, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes the following affirmation about Jesus’s ministry to Israel: “But when the fulness of time came, God sent his son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, so that we [Jews] might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4–5). While Jesus inaugurated a new covenant, his death and resurrection still occurred under the old covenant, represented by the Law. To propose a hiatus of any length, let alone four hundred years, unwittingly separates Jesus from God’s historic work and covenant. We might still pay lip service to the idea that Jesus fulfilled God’s purposes, but this ends up meaning something different from what Paul meant. We end up seeing the Old Testament as merely a set of Nostradamus-like predictions about Jesus. But Jesus was not a religious guru who simply burst onto the scene. He was the Messiah – the climax of God’s centuries-long Israelite story. It makes no sense to censor a solid chunk of that story right before the moment of resolution.

There were some critical developments that occurred in these four centuries. For example, in 350 bc there was an attempt to reunite the northern and southern halves of Israel in line with the mandate of the Law. The problem was that the northern Israelites (the Samaritans) were the driving force behind this attempt, and they had built their own temple to rival the one in Jerusalem. It raised the prospect of an Israel united under leaders who denied God’s promises to David and his dynasty. Malachi and parts of Zechariah give a stinging critique of this so-called “unity.”

The answers are found in these four centuries, which were anything but silent.

In 301 bc, one of the successors to Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I, besieged Jerusalem and deported half its population to Alexandria. It was yet another exile in the history of God’s people. The last few chapters of Zechariah deal with the trauma of this event, while also affirming that God had not abandoned his people, and was indeed still passionately devoted to them. It was a prophetic interpretation of a devastating event in the life of God’s people, instilling hope for the future.

Also, have you ever wondered how the members of the Davidic dynasty went from celebrated would-be kings and temple builders under Zerubbabel in the late sixth century bc to simple tradesmen in a Galilean village by the first century? Have you ever pondered how the priests end up displacing the House of David to hold the highest power within Judaism? How did the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin come about? If rebuilding the temple was so important to the prophetic program of restoration, why did Jesus want to tear it down?

These are all vital questions that impact directly on the person and work of Jesus. The answers are found in these four centuries, which were anything but silent.

So where did this whole concept of prophetic silence come from?

In 142 bc, the Jewish nation gained independence under the leadership of the High Priest, Simon Thassi. He was the last of the Hasmonean brothers, who had led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Greeks of Syria. But not everyone approved of him as the final word on the leadership of the Jewish nation. Simon’s opponents managed to get a clause into the constitutional document describing his powers. He was given approval to lead “until a reliable prophet should arise.” Of course, it was in the political interests of Simon and his successors to deny that any such prophet could arise, so they began to suppress the idea that prophecy was still active in Israel.

But not everybody believed this. There were still those who held that God had more to accomplish with his people, that his revelation was not yet complete, and that his plans were still securely tied to his ancient promises to David.

That’s why, when John the Baptist began baptising and prophesying, the expectant crowds who came to him asked whether he was “the Prophet” who would arise to point God’s people towards a new era and a new revelation. John, of course, pointed to someone who would come after him, who was even greater than he. And this is why that greater one, Jesus, asked the temple authorities about what they thought of the origin of John’s baptism. This was no evasive tactic or academic matter, but a pointed challenge for the leaders of the Jewish nation to pin their colours to the mast: would they accept God’s revelation through John and recognise Jesus himself, or would they protect their own power?

A few days later, the nation’s leaders arrested Jesus, assaulted him and taunted him to prophesy about who hit him, and then arranged to have him crucified.

The early church never accepted that God’s prophetic Holy Spirit had ceased to work within Israel. When Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, he accused the national leaders of suppressing the Holy Spirit and killing the prophets, the chief example being the execution of Jesus. A century later, Rabbinic Judaism pronounced that the spirit of prophecy had ceased four hundred years before Jesus. It was one of the ways that Rabbinic Judaism challenged the claims of the early church: Jesus could not have been a prophet, let alone the Messiah, for God stopped speaking and acting prophetically within Israel four centuries before him.

Tragically, this is a line that Christians, who believe Jesus was the Messiah, have ironically perpetuated to this day.

There was no four centuries of silence. God was dynamically active among his people right up to the coming of Christ.

For those interested in finding out more, my forthcoming book, Bridging the Testaments (Zondervan Academic) details what happened to God’s people during these four centuries and what theological developments occurred.

The Rev Dr George Athas is Director of Research at Moore Theological College, and author of several books and articles, including Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (The Story Of God Bible Commentary Series and Deuteronomy: One Nation Under God.