The Four Hundred Silent Years

From Malachi to Matthew


H.A. Ironside

Author of "Lectures on Daniel;" Notes on Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther;" "Notes on the Minor Prophets," etc, etc.

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Chapter 1

The Jews Under Priestly Rule

(From the times of "Darius the Persian" (Neh. 12:22) to the fall of the Persian Empire—about 425 to 335, b.c.).

The average Bible reader seldom knows much of the stirring events which followed in rapid succession the days of rehabilitation, described in the interesting and instructive records of Ezra and Nehemiah. He gets more than an inkling of the fallen condition of the restored remnant in the solemn expostulation of the last prophet, Malachi; but when he opens the New Testament and begins to read the Gospel of Matthew, he finds an utter change of atmosphere and conditions. The Old Testament closes with the people of the Jews partially restored to their land, but under Persian dominion. The New Testament opens with the same people greatly multiplied and dwelling in the the same country, but under Roman sway, and yet with an Edomite vice-king exercising jurisdiction over part of the land. In many other respects circumstances have undergone a marked change, and generally for the worse.

What brought about these changes? What movements, civil, religious, and political, were in progress during the four hundred silent years after prophetic testimony had died away with a last solemn warning of a possible curse to smite the land and people once so richly blessed? (Mal. 4:6).

We cannot turn to the unerring word of God for an authentic and inspired answer to these questions; but we are able, nevertheless, to reply to them with a large measure of assurance, since God has been pleased to preserve, uninspired but fairly reliable, chronicles of the history of His chosen people in the four centuries that succeeded the days of the prophets. The Jewish historian, Josephus, and the unknown (save to God) author of the first book of the Maccabees, have left us records that are generally considered trustworthy, and are largely corroborated by Jewish traditions and historical side-lights.

With Nehemiah, the history and experiences of the returned Remnant in the Land end, at a time when evil was creeping in and decay was beginning. In his lifetime Nehemiah earnestly endeavored to uphold their covenant-relation with God, and zealously sought to maintain that holy separation from the idolatrous nations surrounding them, as a peculiar people to Jehovah, wherein alone their strength lay. Balaam had declared, "The people shall dwell alone; they shall not be reckoned among the nations," and he had also taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before Israel by breaking down this very separation. "The doctrine of Balaam" had been their snare ever afterwards, and we see in the closing chapters of Nehemiah how difficult it was to stamp it out.

Nehemiah's efforts were largely successful; and while his godly life and testimony still had influence over the people there was a measure at least of outward separation. But Malachi is witness that people may be separated from outside evils and not be separated to the Lord. This is a constant danger. Who has not heard "heady, high-minded" believers prating of "separation from evil as God's principle of unity" (as indeed it is, other things being equal), who seem quite to forget that it is separation to Christ that alone gives power to the former.

Separation from, may end in mere Pharisaism. Separation to, will result in practical godliness, and be evidenced by devotedness, with brotherly love and unity.

But this truth ever needs consecrated men of God to insist upon its recognition; otherwise, there is always the likelihood of its being forgotten, and a form of godliness without the power usurping its place. Of Israel of old, when first settled in the land, we read: "And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that He had done for Israel" (Josh. 24:31). We have something analogous to this in the case now under consideration. The Jewish remnant, generally speaking, walked before God in a measure of holy separation and cleaving to His name and His word during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and of the elders who outlived them; but even in Malachi's time declension had made very rapid progress.

After the death of Nehemiah the "Tirshatha," or Governor, they enjoyed a large measure of independence under the mild rule of the Persian kings, and even for a time after the Medo-Persian "Bear" had been defeated and superseded by the four-headed "Leopard" of Greece (Dan. 7)—or, using the simile of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, after the silver kingdom had been displaced by the dominion of brass (Dan. 2).

Government was entrusted by these Gentile sovereigns to the high-priest, who previously was but a religious leader. In Nehemiah 12:10, 11, 22, we have the high-priestly line traced down from Jeshua, or Joshua (who came up from Babylon, with Zerubbabel at the first return, and is the one described in Zechariah's vision, chap. 3), through Joiakim, Eliashib, Joiada, and Jonathan to Jaddua, the latest historical character mentioned in the Old Testament.

Eliashib succeeded to the high-priesthood during the life-time of Nehemiah, and it was his grandson (Joiada's son), whom the Tirshatha indignantly "chased" from him because of his unhallowed alliance by marriage with the house of Sanballat the Horonite (Neh. 13:28).

One tradition credits the closing of the canon of Old Testament to the days of Eliashib, before the death of Ezra. "The great synagogue" was supposed to have been presided over by this venerable servant of God (Ezra), and he is generally considered to have largely edited the books and arranged the Psalms in the order in which they are found in the Hebrew Bible. Some have thought to identify him with Malachi, supposing the title "Malachi" to be an untranslated word, simply meaning "My messenger," or Messenger of Jehovah." But this seems unlikely, as Malachi apparently portrays a later stage of declension. He may have prophesied in the days of Joiada or Jonathan. It is more than likely that another tradition, which gives Simon the Just the credit of settling authoritatively the limits of the canon, is the correct one.

Of these high-priests we know but little, save that Josephus implies that the former (Joiada) was exceedingly friendly to the mixed nations surrounding Judea, as indeed seems very likely, from the fact referred to above; his son having wedded the daughter of Sanballat, the arch-conspirator (Neh. 13:28). The Jewish historian, Josephus, declares that this young man, upon being driven out by Nehemiah, went over to the Samaritans, and with the aid of his wealthy and influential father-in-law, established the Samaritan system, and projected the building of a rival temple on Mount Gerizim. Such a temple was in existence as early as the days of Alexander the Great, but whether the unworthy son of Joiada had to do with its building is questionable. It is frequently the case, however, that one outwardly connected with the truth, without knowing its power in the soul, becomes the bitterest enemy of that which is of God, when repudiated for his unholy ways.

Jonathan (who is also called Johanan) left a most unsavory record. He was an insubject, godless man; though he remained to the last among the Jews, even committing the horrid crime of murder to make more secure his own place of authority as high-priest and ruler. He profaned the very temple of God by assassinating his brother Joshua (or Jesus) within its sacred precincts. Thus had corruption and violence so soon found a foothold among the separated remnant, emphasizing the solemn fact that mere correctness of position is of no real value, so far as maintaining what is of God is concerned, unless there be personal piety and devotedness to the Lord. We often hear of being "in the right place," "on the true ground," etc., but they are hollow and empty expressions when divorced from righteousness and holiness of truth. That believers on the Lord Jesus Christ should be a separated, unworldly people, no right-thinking Christian will deny or even question for a moment; but it is to the Holy and the True we are to be set apart and only as we "go forth unto Him," will our separation be of any real value, and we ourselves "vessels unto honor, sanctified and meet for the Master's use."

Man is prone to rest in what is merely outward, while neglecting or coolly ignoring what is inward; for "man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart." Hence the importance of insisting on reality, and not being content with mere outward conformity and ecclesiastical order. A Diotrephes will demand the latter while neglecting the former; but, on the other hand, another may be equally wrong if he lays stress only on what is subjective, while paying no attention to the question of association. The well-balanced Christian will have a care as to both, and neglect neither.

But we must return to our task of tracing out the history of the Jewish people under the high-priestly regime, during the years of Persian domination.

Jaddua was exercising the sacerdotal office when, in the course of God's ways, the time had arrived for setting the Persian rule aside and giving it to the Greek. Jaddua was a man of spotless integrity, and his name is held in veneration to the present time.

It is related of him that he was a faithful servant under the kings of Persia; but when Alexander the Great had destroyed Tyre, and driven the armies of Darius Codomanus to the east in confusion, Jaddua was assured that the time had come for the fulfilment of Daniel's prophecy as to the destruction of the second world-empire and its being replaced by the third. He recognized in the youthful Macedonian conqueror the rough he-goat with the notable horn between its eyes, who was to run upon the two-horned ram in the fury of his power and destroy it completely. Hearing that the cities of Syria were falling one by one before him, and that Alexander was actually on his way to besiege Jerusalem, Jaddua is said to have put on his pontifical garments, and with the Scriptures of the Prophets in his hand, to have gone forth to meet the conqueror, attended, not by armed men, but by a body of white-robed priests. As they drew near the army of Alexander, the latter is said to have hastened to meet them, prostrating himself on the ground before Jaddua, declaring he had but recently beheld the venerable pontiff in a vision, and recognized him as the representative of the God of heaven, who would show him what would be greatly to his advantage. Jaddua opened the prophetic roll, and had one of the scribes in his company read the visions of Daniel and their interpretation. Alexander saw the undoubted reference to himself, and declared he would never permit Jerusalem to be touched nor its temple polluted, and sent the high-priest back laden with gifts.

It is impossible at this late day to know whether this story is a mere tradition or sober history; but there is nothing unlikely about it; at least it teaches a valuable lesson, reminding us that the word of God has foretold the end from the beginning, and He who inspired it has declared, "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure." Jaddua possessed those Scriptures which reveal God's plans as to the nations of the earth; for prophecy is but history written prior to the events. Therefore it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that he acted as tradition relates.