The Old Testament epic of the people of Israel is one full of ups and downs, victories and defeats, cycling through sin and punishment and redemption. Finally, Israel is so unfaithful that God allows His nation to be defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile. This really woke Israel up, so to speak – without the land and the temple to give them identity as a people, they learned to cling to to the law, the Torah, like never before.
During the 70 years Israel spent in Babylon, that nation was conquered by the Syrians. The more sympathetic Syrian king, Cyrus, allowed Israel to return to their land and rebuild their temple, ending the period of Exile. But things were never quite the same.
The gift of prophecy had been essential to Israel’s history since its inception. Prophets spoke for the Lord, correcting where there was error, offering hope in the midst of discipline, explaining the trials Israel suffered through the purposes of their covenant-keeping God. But suddenly it all just stopped. For 400 years, there was no prophecy in Israel. This is what we call the “Intertestamental Period,” in between Malachi and Matthew.
Meanwhile, the nation underwent continuous turmoil, never fully regaining independence. The Syrians were conquered by the Macedonians (Alexander the Great), who were in turn conquered by the Roman empire. (For an awesome summary of the history of the world’s empires in 90 seconds, watch this little flash thing.) A couple of revolts were attempted, but never succeeded for longer than a few decades. At the same time, the dominant Greek culture was overwhelming all else, and no one agreed on how much to go along with it.
What was God doing? The culture of post-exilic Israel evolved around this question. Different groups came up with different answers, hence the divisions into Phrarisees, Saducees, Essenes, Zealots, etc. But without prophecy, the answer wasn’t clear – setting the stage for God’s new work.
If you’re reading along in The Drama of Scripture, this week read “Interlude: A Kingdom Story Waiting for an Ending: The Intertestamental Period,” pp. 113-127.
It’s rather difficult to come up with passages of Scripture that go along with a period not represented in Scripture, but here are some passages that reflect some of the many issues Israel faced during this time, and that meditate on God’s work in and through silence.
- Lamentations 3:1-33 – The book of Lamentations is perhaps the darkest in Scripture, as Israel went into Exile in Babylon after the temple of God was destroyed. Yet even in the depths of despair, “there may yet be hope.”
- Zechariah 2 – This passage of prophecy expresses the hope of Israel upon their return from Exile – to one again have God dwelling among them in the temple, and that many nations would be drawn to worship the One True God there.
- Job 23 – Job here cries out of silence, expressing his anger and frustration, even as he knows that God will use this trial to refine him.
- Psalm 62 – This is the psalm of silence, waiting in faith before God because he is our hope.
- Luke 2:22-38 – Anna and Simeon had lived their entire lives during the period of God’s silence. So when they met the infant Jesus when his parents presented Him at the temple, they understood the significance of this new word from God – the Word of God.
- If you have a Bible with the Apocrypha, this is a great time to read 1 and 2 Maccabees – the story of one family who led the most successful post-exilic revolt the Jews ever attempted. Judith, another (shorter) Apocryphal book, tells the story of a strong woman exemplifying Israel’s values during this time: unswerving obedience to Torah, and outsmarting the occupying overlords.
Take till there’s nothing
Nothing to turn to
Nothing when you get through
Won’t you break
Scattered pieces of all I’ve been
Bowing to all I’ve been
Where are you?
~”Silence” by Jars of Clay, on Eleventh Hour