Following the Exile of the Hebrews From Babylon Before the Babylonian exile, Biblical prophesy reached its highest point. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel changed and molded the scope of the Israelite religion. Their writings were intelligent, insightful, well developed, and contained a great spiritual meaning. Following the Babylonian exile, however, prophesy took a depressing downward turn. There are many post exilic prophets, yet their writings are usually short, mostly irrelevant, repetitive, and, for the most part, anonymous.
Though this is the case for many of these prophets, their works cannot be overlooked. Haggai and Zechariah were leaders in the cultic reform of the Israelite people. Malachai calmed their fears, and assured them of God's love. Still other prophets told of a new, Messianic time when the word of the Lord would be held in its former glory. These were the most important works, as post exilic Israel needed not only protection, but spiritual guidance to sustain their society.
The prophet Haggai was in integral figure in uniting theIisraelite people. Upon return to their homeland, the Israelites found most of the infrastructure in a state of disrepair, with the people uncaring for their moral and social responsibilities, to say nothing for their religious practices. (OVC) Even the temple of the Lord had been destroyed. Haggai emphasized the return to a more cultic society. Through Haggai, God explained the plight of the Israelite people, as in Haggai 1:6: "You have sown much, but harvested little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough...Why? Because of My house which lies desolate while each of you runs to his own house." (Haggai 1:9) the word of Haggai is accepted as the word of God, and the temple is rebuilt in less than four years. "I am with you," said the Lord,in Haggai 1:13 when the temple was finally built. (EIB)
The prophesy of Haggai did not end with the building of the Lord's temple. He offered a message of hope to the people of Israel. Haggai said that the promises made by God would be kept, now that He had a dwelling place within the city. God inspired the people of the newly reformed city, saying: "Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory?...Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? the latter glory of this house will be greater than the former, and in this place I shall give peace." (Haggai 2:3,9) He also talks of a time of political upheaval and reform, when he promises to "overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms and nations; and I will overthrow the chariots and their riders, and the horses and their riders will go down, every one by the sword of another." (Haggai 2:22)
The "latter glory" foretold in Haggai's prophesy is emphasized in the book of Zechariah. Zechariah prophesied in the shadow of Haggai, but gave his words a slightly different spin. He emphasizes, like the pre-exilic prophets, the importance of a moral reform among the israelites. Zechariah's way of recieving the word of God is very unique among the prophets. the word comes to him in the form of eight visions. These "colorful and strange" visions make up most of his book. (OVC) the visions are so bizarre that the Lord sends an angel as in interpreter, so that Zeccariah can derive meaning from them. (I have taken descriptions of these visions, from the OVC and other texts, and combined them with actual verses from the bible in order to create these descriptions.)
The first of these eight visions is that of four angels, whose amazing speed is symbolized by horses. These four angels report that all is at peace with the nation, because the opponents to the nation have been silenced. This is called "a time of universal peace" (Carstensen, OVC). Even though the land is peaceful, the Lord is not, and he expresses his hatred toward those who have been allied against the Israelites.
The second vision is of four horns and four smiths. This vision fortells the complete destruction of the enemies of God. the horns may be the four most powerful armies allied against the nation, and the smiths could be the angels sent by God to protect the inhabitants of the nation.
The third vision begins with a man marking off the city boundaries with a plumb line. Again, and angel interpreter tells Zechariah to inform the man that there need be no boundary lines, because the city shall have no walls. it goes on to say that if there is true faith and belief in the Lord, a city without any defenses will be safer than the most heavily armored city. The second part of this vision is an invitation to the Israelite armies to share in the destruction of their enemies. This vision is significant because it describes the Lord dwelling with his people, an event which creates happiness in and of itself, not only because people are pleased that the Lord is with them, but because the Lord does not choose to surround Himself with depressed people.
The fourth vision is very significant, in that the character of Satan is reintroduced as the adversary. Joshua, the high priest, is brought on trial, with an angel as judge. Satan brings these charges to the court, and accuses Joshua. the angel of the Lord removes Joshua's clothes, and replaces them with a white robe, symbolizing the absolution of sin from the Israelite population. Joshua is given the responsiblity of being a moral and spiritual leader in society.
In the fifth vision, there is a golden lampstand, adorned by seven lamps. These lamps smbolize the light of the Lord, and His vision, which not only gives light to the people, but oversees the actions of the people, both on and off of holy ground. On either side of the lampstand are two olive trees, representative of Joshua and Zerubbabel.
In the sixth vision, God uses a large, flying scroll to symbolize a curse on evildoers, mostly thieves and liars. The curse gives an ominous vision of death to those who disobey the word of God. Though theft and perjury are the only two sins mentioned here, they are probably just symbols of a longer list of greater sins which would fall under this curse.
The seventh vision speaks of a woman trapped in a wine cask. The angel lifts the lead cover to show Zechariah the woman, who is called Wickedness. The angel talks of building a temple in the land of Shinar, where she will be sent so that the Israelite land will be absolved of sin.
The eighth is a wrap-up, in the tradition of the first vision. Four horsemen bring news that the land is calm, and now that His people are reformed, God is also calm. Later in this chapter, there is also talk of the coronation of Joshua, the son of the high priest. It is told that later, Joshua would build the temple of the Lord, uniting the people and nations of the Middle East.
Zechariah and Haggai both told of the rebuilding of the temple and the return to the cultic society by the Israelites. Haggai focused more on the cultic activities than Zechariah. This is not to say that Haggai ignored the moral aspects of society. He believed, through the building of the temple, the Lord would reside in the city, and the community would come together. Zechariah prophesied to the same ends, in that by unifying the people, the Lord would be with them, and further, by rebuilding His temple, the people would return to their former religious ways. God would see this, and want to reside with His people. Through both of these books, there are undertones of a future society, where the power of God would be realized.
The future society is the focus of the books of Malachai and Obadiah. The prophet known as Malachai could have been anyone. The word Malachai, in Hebrew, means "messenger". The author of the book of Malachai told of another prophet who would be born to the earth to prepare the people for the return of their God. The later editors assumed that the prophet was referring to himself, which was not necessarily the case. He brought a word of warning to the Israelites, warning them that their half hearted attempts at sacrifice would not be sufficient. He said, "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? If I am a master, where is My respect?" (Malachi 1:6) He goes on to tell the priests how they have upset him so: "You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, 'how have we defiled Thee?'...But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil?" (Malachai 1:7,8). The Lord then goes on to invite the Israelites to offer such inferior animals to their governor, and see if their community leader is as forgiving.
Much of the post-exilic prophesy is warning, with undertones of a glorious future. Through these prophets, we see a sence of rebuilding, of picking up the nation where it left off. Much of the ceremonial history of the Israelites is shaped in this time period, mostly by Haggai, who believed that a strong sense of ceremony must accompany a strong moral belief to satisfy the Lord. Furthermore, to receive the Lord's residence with the people as well as his blessing, there must be a suitable house in which he can dwell.
Palaces, beliefs, and the restructuring and rebuilding of society all played a major role in the healing of the Israelite population following the Babylonian exile. These prophets played an important part in leading the people to social stability. Their words are a minor portion of the Bible, but the implications of their words drastically shaped the Israelite society.
It amazed me that such a minor spot in such a huge book could have such great implications on a society. Had these prophets not interceded in the affairs of the Israelites, the entire Jewish religion would have been on the verge of collapse. Many of the practices and beliefs set during the post-exilic period have lasted in Israel for hundreds of years. I found it ironic, however, that after the nation healed itself, it immediatly began to discuss plans for war with other nations. Throughout the Bible, there are discussions of prosperity and peace, but does it have to come at the expense of other nations? It would have been more economical for the Israelites to at least establish a solid medium for trade, and a constant source of manpower and funds before they began to wage war on other cities. In researching this paper, I found the OVC to be especially helpful. It contained a verse by verse breakdown of the entire book, as well as historical backgrounds. Scripture quotations are from my New American Standard Bible.
Achtemeier, Paul J. Harper's Bible Dictionary. Harper and Row, 1985.
Barker, William P. Everyone in the Bible. Fleming H. Revell, 1966.
Brownrigg, Ronald and Comay, Joan. Who's Who in the Bible. Crown Publishers, Inc, 1946 and 1952.
Carey, Gary. Cliff's Notes on Old Testament. Cliffs Notes, Inc, 1995.
Carstensen, Roger N. The Book of Zechariah. From the Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible. Abingdon Press, 1971.