The promised time of deliverance from captivity was near] ing. The fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy of restoration necessitated an event unusual in the history of nations. Not only must there be royal permission for the captives of Judah to return to their own land, but the material necessities for their journey and the rebuilding of their ruined cities and homesteads must be provided.
In 538 B. C., two years before the termination of the captivity, the aged prophet Daniel studied and understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem. Daniel 9:2. With prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes, Daniel besought the Lord to remember and keep His promise. The prayer, recorded in the ninth chapter of Daniel, is a model of eloquence, yet of simplicity and earnestness, in pleading his cause. In concluding his petition, he said:
O my God, incline Thine ear, and hear; open Thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by Thy name: for we do not present our supplications before Thee for our righteousnesses, but for Thy great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for Thine own sake, O my God: for Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name. Verses 18, 19.
Had the successors of Nebuchadnezzar heeded the light that came through Daniel and his faithful associates, they, as kings of the Babylonian Empire, might have been the instruments for the fulfillment of God's word. But they sank lower in vice and degradation, until their corruption of heart and their contempt for Jehovah were signally illustrated in the impious feast of Belshazzar. Not content with a drunken orgy, coupled with debauchery, the king sent for the vessels of Jehovah's house, that he might use them as receptacles for the wine they drank while praising the inanimate gods of Babylon. In that night was Belshazzar
the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom. Daniel 5:30, 31.
In the new government of Babylon, after its conquest by Cyrus, Daniel was given prominent office. Here he had opportunity to bring to the attention of the rulers of Media and Persia the prophetic scrolls of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and to impress their minds with the remarkable fact that the work of Cyrus had been foretold more than a century before his birth. Of him the Lord had declared through the prophet Isaiah:
He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid. Isa. 44:28.
I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build My city, and he shall let go My captives, not for price nor reward. Isa. 45:13.
In a direct address to His anointed, to Cyrus, the Lord ascribes the success of his campaigns to the divine purpose and guidance:
For Jacob My servant's sake, and Israel Mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside Me: I girded thee, though Thou hast not known Me. Verses 4, 5.
Truly here is a remarkable portrayal. Writing even long before the captivity itself, the prophet was given a message concerning the restoration, calling the Persian ruler by name, and assigning to him his work. Then, two centuries later, the Lord uses another prophet, bringing him by a series of providences to the side of the king named and addressed, that he may make known to him the expressed will of God.
No less remarkable is the fact that this proud heathen king should, at the zenith of his power, bow in humble acknowledgment before the God of a despised and captive race.
Two years after the capture of Babylon the new ruler, Darius the Mede, died, and Cyrus, the great Persian general and king, succeeded him. One of his first recorded acts is as follows:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and He hath charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (He is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:1-3.
As this royal proclamation was heralded in all the provinces of the Persian Empire, it brought great joy to the hearts of many who, like Daniel, had been praying that God would remember His promise to restore His people. True, there were a large number who preferred the comforts of the homes they had acquired in the land of their dispersion to the weary journey across the desert to a land of desolation and ruin. Nevertheless, that remnant of which the prophets had spoken, did returnthe chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised. Ezra 1: 5.
Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, was appointed by Cyrus as governor of the returning exiles, and Jeshua, the high priest, was associated with him in leadership. The company of about fifty thousand who followed these leaders back to their homeland did not go empty-handed.
All they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things. Verse 6.
They also carried with them more than five thousand of the vessels of the temple that had been taken by the king of Babylon seventy years before.
Recognizing the worship of God as of prime importance, immediately upon their arrival at Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was erected, the Feast of Tabernacles was observed in
its season, and soon the work of restoring the temple was begun.
But not for long were they permitted to work unhindered. Angered by being denied a part in the work of erecting the temple, the Samaritans determined to halt the enterprise. They did everything in their power to weaken the hands of the builders; and they did not stop there. In an attempt to induce the king of Persia to repent of what they alleged was an unwise favor to the Jews, they hired counselors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius. Ezra 4:5.
The presence of these hostile embassies from the land of Israel caused the aged prophet Daniel grave concern. The controversy was far more extensive than between visible human agents. For three weeks, while Daniel was engaged in earnest, agonizing prayer, the mighty angel Gabriel wrestled with the forces of darkness that were seeking so to influence the mind of Cyrus that he would stop the work of the restoration of Jerusalem and the building of the temple.
At the end of this period, Christ Himself came to Gabriel's aid, and the angel appeared to Daniel in a vision, to quiet his anxiety. This was the occasion for the last prophecy recorded in the book of Daniel,a prophecy setting forth, not in symbols but in literal narrative form, a line of history reaching down to the end of time.
But though a divine restraint was exercised upon the enemies of Israel at the court of Babylon, and they were unable to accomplish their sinister purpose, the builders at Jerusalem became disheartened at the magnitude of the task before them. They yielded to suggestions of doubt, as to whether it was an opportune time to build the temple. Many left the work, and went to build comfortable homes for themselves.
Thus the work on the temple dragged on slowly for a number of years. At length a usurperthe false Smerdis, called Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:7seized the throne of Persia, and the Samaritans
maritans succeeded in their purpose. A royal decree was secured forbidding the Jews to complete their temple or city. Then for more than a year no sound of a tool was heard at the temple site. Its unfinished walls stood in mockery of their decadent ambitions.
The people, on the other hand, having built and beautified their own homes, sought earnestly to attain temporal prosperity for themselves. But, try as they might, they could not succeed. Their crops were blasted with drought, and they were facing starvation and ruin.
At this crisis, after a long period of quiescence, God again spoke to His people through the gift of prophecy. It was, as we are told with remarkable exactitude, in the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, that the word of the Lord came to Zerubbabel and Joshua. The prophet, or spokesman for Jehovah, was Haggai. Haggai 1:1.
In this message, God gave them the reason for the adversity and calamity that had come upon the people. They had abandoned their work on the Lord's house, and were selfishly seeking to enrich themselves. The drought was God's response to their neglect of the service which should have rested first upon their hearts.
This prophetic message brought a hearty response. The people rallied to their unfinished task, and the prophet brought them the promise, I am with you, saith the Lord. Verse 13.
By the twenty-fourth day of the month, three weeks after the vision of Haggai, all hands were working energetically to complete the house of the Lord.
About a month later, a second prophetic message was delivered by Haggai, assuring the peoplesome of whom had wept at the memory of the glories of Solomon's templethat the glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former. He referred not to the physical glory, but to the fact that the
courts of this temple would be trodden by the feet of the long-promised Messiah,the Desire of all nations. Chapter 2:9, 7.
Thus encouraged, the people went forward heartily with their task. Soon the prophet gave them a further message from heaven, assuring them of God's blessing from this day and upward. Verse 15. His frown, long indicated by years of adversity, was now to be changed into His favor, and marked by bountiful harvests of field and tree. A personal and special assurance of God's favor was addressed by the prophet to Zerubbabel. Thus we see the profound and determining influence exerted upon the ancient people of God through the prophets of His choosing.
The writer of the prophecy of Zechariah was a man of priestly lineage, called of God to assist the prophet Haggai in his work of arousing the people to build the temple. His first message was delivered soon after Haggai's second pronouncement. Briefly, but forcefully, he emphasizes the need of turning to the Lord wholeheartedly, reminding the people of the dire results of refusal by their fathers to heed the appeals of the former prophets.
Because of its symbolism, the book of Zechariah has been called the apocalypse of the Old Testament. The first series of visions deals primarily with the experiences connected with the rebuilding of the temple, and references are made to the leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua. The promise is made to the former that as his hands have laid the foundation of the temple, his hands shall also finish it. Zech. 4:9.
In a view of Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of the Lord, the gracious pardon of the sinner is graphically illustrated. Joshua is clothed with filthy garments, a symbol of sin. Isa. 64: 6. The adversary, Satan, stands at his right hand to resist the work of grace that God would perform in behalf of the penitent sinner. But Satan is rebuked by the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem, and the divine command is given, Take away the filthy garments from him.
Then to Joshua are addressed the sweet words: Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. (See Zech. 3:2-4.)
The latter part of the prophecy of Zechariah portrays events connected with the coming of Christ and the setting up of His everlasting kingdom. Here are suggested the descent of Christ at the close of the millennium, and the cleaving of the Mount of Olives to make place for the eternal city of God that comes down from Him out of heaven. Then is portrayed the gathering of all nations before Jerusalem, and their destruction, following which the Lord shall be king over all the earth. Chapter 14:9.
The injunction of the prophet to arise and build, would naturally call to mind the royal decree from the king of Persia, and the punishment that would result if they were to disobey. As if in answer to this fear, the following words were addressed to the governor:
This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it. Chapter 4:6, 7.
No sooner was work on the temple resumed than the Samaritans appeared and protested. They demanded the names of the men who were responsible for this plain act of rebellion against the king of Persia.
But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease, till the matter came to Darius: and then they returned answer by letter concerning this matter. Ezra 5:5.
In response to this letter of complaint sent by the Samaritans, Darius gave commandment to search the record of the royal decrees. When he was shown the proclamation issued by Cyrus, he issued a proclamation in confirmation of it. To the complainants he said:
Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place. Ezra 6: 7.
Thus, in this crisis, when there seemed no human way out of the difficulties before them, when the people had become disheartened and had abandoned the work of God, He sent them, through His prophets, messages of encouragement. He sent them prophetic assurances to quiet their fears. He who turns the hearts of kings, wrought for them, as they went forward in faithful obedience to His word. In recording this event in history, the completion of the work is thus stated:
The elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. Ezra 6:14.
Thus the mountains of difficulty were removed. The power of God to make possible the fulfillment of His commands and the importance of the work of His prophets as the medium of His communication to His people were once more demonstrated.
The temple was completed under Ezra and Nehemiah, who later acted their part in leading more groups of Jewish exiles to the homeland. The streets of Jerusalem were built in troublous times. Civil government was established, and order was maintained. Israel had forever learned one lesson: Never again did they substitute idol worship for the worship of the God who had so wondrously wrought for them in restoring them from the land of the captivity.
Yet there were other evils that needed to be corrected. There were mixed marriages, that might lead them back to the idol worship of their unbelieving companions. There were oppressions by some in positions of authority. Others were neglectful of supporting the house of God and the worship of Jehovah, by withholding tithes and offerings. Some were questioning whether,
after all, it paid to serve Jehovah. There was grave danger of formalism and pride in their worship.
To meet these dangers and evils, there was need of another message from heaven. Accordingly, as a final flush of light before the sunset of direct Hebrew prophecy, before the dawn of the Christian era nearly four hundred years later, the last national prophet appeared in the person of Malachi.
Malachi was the coadjutor of Ezra and Nehemiah in the work of reformation. The ninth and tenth chapters of Ezra and the thirteenth chapter of Nehemiah form the background of his prophecy.
At this time, when the first enthusiasm had waned, when faith was sinking in the mire of callousness and skepticism, when the priests were conniving at the lukewarmness of the people, the prophet Malachi was raised up to revive the national spirit. He denounced the social evils of the time. He foretold the sudden coming of God's Messenger to the temple, and of His work of judgment. To those who questioned the benefits of serving God, he pointed prophetically to a time when it should be clearly distinguished between those who served God and those who served Him not. Their minds were carried forward to the day that should burn as an oven, when the proud and wicked should be as stubble, and the Sun of Righteousness should rise upon those that fear His name.
With a closing injunction, Remember ye the law of Moses, and the foreshadowing of the coming of Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord should come, this prophet closes the canon of the Old Testament. (See Malachi 4.)
The records of history mention no more great prophets in this higher sense and sphere, until the advent of John the Baptist. That there were prophetic men and women who kept alive the work of teaching the will of Jehovah during this time is, however, certain. With the absence of the national prophets, more heed was given to the multiplication of the writings of the former prophets. Synagogues were established, in which were read from
Sabbath to Sabbath the words of inspiration that had been preserved through the centuries. Ample instruction had been given them in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, until another crisis should arise, when God would again visit them with remarkable manifestations of the prophetic gift.
Before we leave this Old Testament division, and face the dreary gap between Malachi and John the Baptist, let us note these marvelous words recorded for our learning and admonition:
As the Jews had departed from God, faith had grown dim, and hope had well-nigh ceased to illuminate the future. The words of the prophets were uncomprehended. To the masses of the people, death was a dread mystery; beyond was uncertainty and gloom.
In the region and shadow of death, men sat unsolaced. With longing eyes they looked for the coming of the Deliverer, when the darkness should be dispelled, and the mystery of the future should be made plain.
Outside of the Jewish nation there were men who foretold the appearance of a divine instructor. These men were seeking for truth, and to them the Spirit of inspiration was imparted. One after another, like stars in the darkened heavens, such teachers had arisen. Their words of prophecy had kindled hope in the hearts of thousands of the Gentile world.
For hundreds of years the Scriptures had been translated into the Greek language, then widely spoken throughout the Roman Empire . Among those whom the Jews styled heathen, were men who had a better understanding of the Scripture prophecies concerning the Messiah than had the teachers in Israel. There were some who hoped for His coming as a deliverer from sin. Philosophers endeavored to study into the mystery of the Hebrew economy . The true Interpreter must come. (Italics mine.)The Desire of Ages, Mrs. E. G. White, pp. 32, 33.
It is true that in every generation God had His agencies. Even among the heathen there were men through whom Christ was working to uplift the people from their sin and degradation. But these men were despised and hated. Many of them suffered a violent death. (Italics mine.)Id., p. 35.
Truly these are significant words! They sustain the premise maintained throughout this work; namely, that the prophetic gift bestowed upon the race after the fall of man was never permanently withdrawn. This continuing gift was not limited to
the indicated Hebrew prophets, and did not cease with Malachi. Let these words be engraved as with a pen of steel upon the tablets of the mind, never to be forgotten:
Outside of the Jewish nation there were men who foretold the coming of Christ, and to whom the Spirit of inspiration [mark it!] was imparted. Such were denominated teachers, of whom it is soberly declared, Their words of prophecy [again note it!] had kindled hope in the hearts of thousands in the Gentile world.
Without doubt, the wise men from the East, whose visit to the Babe in the manger is recorded in the Scriptures, came from this class of teachers in the Gentile world to whom the Spirit of inspiration was imparted. They knew the time of Jesus' birth. They were guided by a heavenly star to Bethlehem. They were warned in a dream to return home by another route than Jerusalem, to avoid the wicked Herod.
Of such a class of men it is said that they had a better understanding of the Scripture prophecies concerning the Messiah than had the teachers in Israel. This being true, how tragic! Yet how miraculous, and how gracious of the Lord!
Here is enunciated a profound truth and a mighty covering
principle: Every generation has had its inspired witnesses, could we only find
them, and could we but read the records as does our heavenly Father. This great
truth we are to remember and to apply as we pass into and through the Christian
era, wherein the apostle-prophets called by Christ Himself cease with John. But
the spiritual gifts that God gave to men in the fullest, highest,
and newest sense, passed not from the world, but truly appear through the
passing centuries to guide and to instruct, to warn and to comfort, the people
of God in times of unparalleled spiritual peril and apostasy. These will be
found if we but diligently seek them.