The Prophets After Exile
The post-exilic prophets include Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and probably Joel. They convey the message of God for this period of time with cumulative clarity since they come at the end of a long age of prophetic indictment against the people. These prophets have great explanatory power for progressive revelation up to their time. They also open the door to a new age soon to come.
For a long time, God had made His desires known to the people in a covenant relationship formula that occurs time and again: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Even so, 2 Chronicles (coming at the end of the Hebrew scriptures) sums up this sad period well: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:15–16).
These post-exilic prophets, therefore, look to the restoration of the people in the land of Israel, but they look beyond the restoration as well. The people of God who returned to the land after Cyrus’ decree (538 b.c.) never realized the former glories of the monarchy, nor did they see all the promises of the prophets fulfilled in their own generation (see Haggai 2:6–9). These post-exilic prophets are also heralds of a new covenant, and they look beyond the restoration to a new day, a new creation, and an ultimate consummation.
The apostle Peter, for example, saw this clearly. He says: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10–12).
So the prophets’ message was not just for the Hebrew people of Israel, the first auditors of this message; indeed, according to the apostle Peter, their message is for the Christian church then and now.
Right from the outset in these prophets, you see the lawsuit that they are bringing through their indictments because of the breach of the covenant and the slowness of the people to grasp God’s rule over them. The restoration community was often apathetic. Even so they are urged to persevere (see Haggai’s emphasis on completing the temple) and summoned to be holy — not complacent.
However, what the people could not accomplish under the Mosaic covenant, God would initiate and deliver through the covenant of grace in the new covenant. Jesus Christ, the true son of Israel, would be their penalty payer and probation keeper.
Zechariah: A New King Is Coming
Zechariah 9 is a good example of this shift in emphasis. In Zechariah 9:1–8, the prophet communicates that there shall be a new conquest. It is not like the old conquest performed by Joshua. In this conquest, it is the Lord Himself who encamps around His people (v. 8). God will indeed protect His people so that never again will there be marauding forces bearing down on God’s people. The greatest king of the monarchy, David, could not even protect them. The people cannot accomplish it. Therefore, the Lord Himself will accomplish it. This is an unfolding of the promises portended all the way back in the testament of Jacob (Gen. 49:8–12), which describes the Shiloh king that will bring peace.
Who is this judge of the enemies of God’s people? It is none other than God Himself (Zech. 9:9). He will be the one “righteous,” that is, “vindicated.” In other words, here is the single combat warrior, the champion of God having run His course, victorious and “saved,” that is, the champion of God’s people. He is the one who defends His people and saves them (vv. 11–17), not only in the Gospel age but also in the final judgment.
Joel: A New Democratization of the Spirit Is Coming
In Numbers 11:29, Moses had made a wish in response to the requests of his enthusiastic would-be successor: I wish “that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” But behind the wish lay a prophecy — as Geerhardus Vos recognized in commenting on the divine promise of the Spirit in Joel 2:28–32, which “extends it into the eschatological age” (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, pp. 198–199). There is probably no greater elaboration of the prophetic doctrine of the democratization of the Spirit in the Old Testament.
We don’t know the date of Joel for sure. Recent scholarship sets a probable date somewhere around 520 b.c. in the same ideological milieu of Haggai and Zechariah; but regardless of final decisions about the date, Joel’s message is still transparent, as Calvin recognized.
Joel 2:18–32 is intimately related to everything that precedes and follows it. Chapters 1:2–2:17 center around the distress encountered on account of the locust plague. This enemy invasion is deserved: the results are due to the spiritual infidelity of God’s people with regards to the stipulations (commands) outlined in the Mosaic covenant. Joel sees this curse as the harbinger of the great and dreadful day of the Lord (2:32), a major theme in the prophets. By the time we come to the post-exilic prophets, the people undoubtedly would have been looking for the fulfillment of the eschatological dimension of the Day of the Lord, that is, a final day of reckoning in the judgment of the nations and a fuller presence of the kingdom of God.
So in chapter 2:18, we see a decisive turn in the text. Here begins the Lord’s response to the people’s anguish. Before this in the book of Joel, distress had been the dominant theme; now rescue from invasion, drought, and desolation become dominant. This all leads up to the self-revelation of Yahweh in 2:27, providing clear entrance into the climactic section that follows with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see Joel 2:28–32).
Pentecost was indeed one fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, but it by no means exhausted it. Luke quotes the prophecy in Acts 2:16–21, and Acts 2:40 seems to be in keeping with the Joel passage. It seems that in this part of Peter’s speech he makes an appeal to the people to escape the terror of judgment. We must remember that in all likelihood the people whom Peter is addressing recently saw the portents of the sky when our Lord had been crucified.
Paul seems to pick up on the Joel passage in Romans 10:13: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Here we see that Paul refers it exclusively to Jesus Christ. He finds full warrant for the Gentiles being included within the bounds of the Joel quote. We may safely say that he is extending the meaning of the passage to include them. “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord,” seems to have been frequently used as a synonym for Christians (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:22). Final echoes of the Joel passage may be noted all the way into Revelation 6:9–17 and 9:2 and following.
Malachi: A Future Remnant
Although Malachi ministered in an age of great compromise and unfaithfulness, he testifies that a remnant still exists during the post-exilic era and that God will craft a people as His own dear personal possession (Hebrew: segullah). This is the essence of the covenant: spiritual Israel would be God’s treasured possession. We see this clearly in Malachi 3:17: “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession [segullah], and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.”
The promises of the prophets belong to this remnant, this segullah. Israel alone was Yahweh’s treasured possession but “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” as the apostle Paul understood in this new age (Rom 9:6). Indeed, the exile had to come, and Israel had to fall, although not irrevocably; rather, it was to bring the elect Gentiles into that treasured relationship so that they may provoke Israel to jealousy, and thus the Abrahamic promises will indeed be fulfilled (Rom. 11:11).
Paul would exult at these truths saying, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33). Our hearts should sing too, if indeed we have been made participants of His people, His own dear personal possession. Peter was right, “concerning this salvation” that the prophets announced, “they were not serving themselves” but Peter’s audience and us by announcing “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1: 10–12).
First published in Tabletalk, February 2008.
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