God let 400 years pass between the end of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus. Why?
Candles aren’t needed in the day. No one notices the contrast of light on light. But as night descends and settles into the nooks and crannies of the world, the candle flame holds up underneath and the darkness cannot penetrate. As we celebrate the advent of the Messiah during the Christmas season, we get lost in the tinsel and evergreen. The networks have come to the rescue and gift us with cheddary Christmas tales where a scroogey hermit remembers the true meaning of Christmas through the sagacious 6-year-old girl. It’s sweet. Heartwarming, even.
But it isn’t so much the sickening peppermint sweetness of our modern Christmas, but that there is no meaningful contrast to it, and it is in the contrast that we find the true meaning.
The circumstances preceding the birth of Christ were intended by God to be the darkest in Jewish history, that when the Light of Man came, it would be a light in the darkness. This period of time, between the last oracles of Malachi and the birth of Christ, represent over 400 years of history where no word of God came to his people. This period is referred to as the ”Four Hundred Silent Years.”
I would like to take a brisk walk through these years to give the birth of Christ a historical and cultural context. The history is complex, with much power mongering, risings and topplings of empires, murder, death, deceit and desecration that left Israel with a near pulseless identity. Many names, dates and interesting happenings will be passed over for the sake of the time-space blog continuum, and we will concern ourselves more with the pathos of the time and the hearts of the people as this dark, swampy history slogs toward lighter, higher ground. If you would like more information, I would recommend the small book by H.A. Ironside entitled, The Four hundred Silent Years. You can read the free online version here.
We leave the writings of the Old Testament with the prophet Malachi prophesying from the Medo-Persian Empire, having just defeated the mighty Babylonians. Malachi is foretelling a messenger, which we now know to be John the Baptist, that will precede the coming of the Day of the Lord. Israel is divided and in exile, save for the small remnant permitted to return to Jerusalem by the edict of the Persian king Darius, led by Ezra and Nehemiah around 450 BC. Life under the distant Persian rule was mild, and the remnant in Jerusalem was left to govern and defend themselves. Israel had no king, though the office of the high priest remained intact and, thus, the people’s tangible connection with God through that office.
After the death of Ezra and Nehemiah, the lineage of high priests quickly became corrupt. One murdered his brother to make his position more secure. Another’s son married a foreigner and ran off to Samaria and built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim and had the audacity to amend the Ten Commandments to include an eleventh: “Thou shalt build an altar on Mount Gerizim, and there only shall you worship.” (This is the mountain the woman at the well refers to in John 4.) Israel had had some odious priests in the past, so nothing terribly new here, but only to show the thin string of Israel’s connection with God was already fraying.
In Macedonia, far west of the Persian hub, a man named Phillip united Greece. His son Alexander, in the greatest military conquest of history, overcame the Persians and conquered the known world in just under two years. The Persian Empire fell in 336 BC. The center of the world was now in Greece and the Grecian Empire was born.
After the Persian Empire was thoroughly defeated, Alexander, with no more worlds to conquer, drank himself to death and left his vast empire with no heir. There was an immediate land grab by a couple of his generals, and Palestine got tossed back and forth through a series of battles where thousands of Jews were killed and hundreds of thousands exported to Egypt. There they dissolved into Hellenized Egypt and lost their native tongue and customs.
From the fall of Persia in 336 BC and for the next century, Palestine was fought over by increasingly nefarious rulers in Syria to the north and Egypt to the south. There was lots of intra-kingdom murders, inter-kingdom marriages, violence, deceit, intrigue and lootings. Think of reading a history of The Young and the Restless, except with more poisonings and fratricide. Whichever side won, the Jews lost; whoever prospered, they were robbed. I will highlight a couple of interesting facts from this period that give the Gospels more context.
During this time, a high priest named Onias decided he didn’t feel like paying tribute to the ruling power. Onias had a son who traveled to Syria, the incumbent power du jour, to parlay leniency for his father’s insubordination. On the way he overheard a group of foreigners traveling with him who intended to ask the Syrian king for the right to farm the taxes in Palestine. Thinking this was a fantastic idea, the son of the high priest bribed the king and won the rights to farm the taxes. He became the first “publican”—tax collector—and was despised by the Jews for his shameless exploitation of his own people. It was this same group of abominable humans that Jesus dined with, as we see in Mark 2, when he went to the house of the “publicans and sinners.”
Also during this time, we see the seedlings of two factions taking shape among the leaderless Jews, which would ripen over the next hundred years. The dominant party was the Hellenizing faction who sought to integrate all things Greek into the Jewish culture. They didn’t see any deliverance for the Jews except by following the ways of the heathens. They desired to see all that was Jewish to be replaced by Grecian culture. This group eventually came to be known as the Sadducees.
A smaller, weaker, though intransigent group, took the opposite view and doubled down on their traditions and adherence to Mosaic law, adding to it and becoming more and more dogmatic in order to preserve their faith. They wanted to separate themselves from the carnal, lascivious culture and gave themselves the name Pharisees, which means “to separate.”
It is now 220-ish BC. Enter Antiochus IV and arguably the darkest time in Jewish history. Along with waging continual war with Egypt, he managed to wound the heart of Jewish culture more than anyone else prior to, and probably since, this time. Affectionately referred to as “the Antichrist of the Old Testament,” it is this man that the prophet Daniel foretold as the “abomination” (Daniel 11:31), though he gave himself the surname “Epiphanes,” which means, “the Illustrious.”
Here’s what happened.
The high priest of the time had a brother named Joseph who surreptitiously went to Antiochus and bribed him for the position of high priest, promising to do all in his power to completely Grecianize the Jews, even changing their name to “Antiochans,” which doesn’t have the same ring to it, but apparently Antiochus liked it and gave Joseph the priesthood. Joseph changed his name to Jason, after the famed Greek hero, just to prove he was legit. In local Palestine life, this put the burgeoning Sadducean party in complete power, who were all too willing to slough off Judaism and mate it with Greek philosophy, religion and sacred games.
Well, Jason reaped what he had sown, because four years later, his brother bribed Antiochus, promising to yet more Grecianize the Jews, if that were possible. And it was! He changed his name to Menelaus, sold the sacred golden articles in the Temple to fund his bribe and had his father assassinated when he spoke out against him. Furthermore, Menelaus wasn’t even in the priestly line, leaving the once venerated and exclusive role of high priest instituted by God through the line of Aaron up for the highest bidder.
The Jews hadn’t had a king for a couple of centuries, and now even the office of high priest in the Aaronic line was dissolved. And no word yet from God. No judge. No mediator to speak on their behalf. No prophet to speak against the corruption.
One fine day, while Antiochus was on a campaign against his perennial Egyptian enemy, a rumor reached Jerusalem that Antiochus had been killed. The Jews took the opportunity and rioted, overthrowing the apostate Menelaus and killing Antiochus’ sentries in Jerusalem.
Well, Antiochus wasn’t dead. That’s why we don’t spread rumors. When he heard of the uprising, he came back with a vengeance and slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews. Forty thousand people were killed in three days, houses were destroyed, the city set aflame. Then, he went into the Holy of Holies, guided by the vile Menelaus, with a sow and slaughtered it on the sacred altar. After making a broth with the flesh of the unclean animal, he sprinkled every sacred item in the temple, desecrating it utterly. The prophet Daniel prophesied about this abomination (Daniel 11:31), and many believe Antiochus Epiphanes is the Antichrist of the Old Testament for this reason.
But Antiochus was not done. He instituted the Act of Uniformity, compelling all Jews to worship his gods. Mothers who were found circumcising their sons in conformity to Jewish law were thrown from the city wall, their babies at their breasts. Those found observing the Sabbath were burnt alive.
It is not possible for us to understand the devastation of this event. The Temple, one of the few remaining ties to their identity, was violated in the most egregious manner and aided by the high priest himself. The times were dark. The Jewish identity was flatlining, the culture diluted by foreign impositions—and all this instigated or assisted by their own leaders.
But, perhaps, on the horizon, there was a sliver of light.
Just at this time there arose a family, the Maccabeans, who would rebel and win back from the detestable king their independence. The Maccabean revolt was led by Judas “The Hammer” Maccabaeus, with his father and brothers. Though hopelessly outnumbered for the entirety of their campaign, they consistently overcame their enemies through strategy and guerilla warfare. It is from one of these conflicts that the Jewish holiday Hanukkah was born.
This epic under-dogging is worth reading about in depth, though for the sake of space, we will not tell that story. After Antiochus had been routed, the temple was cleansed and rededicated. Antiochus eventually died a horrible death, raving in madness til his disease-ridden end. The Maccabeans fought and overcame every oppressor that came against them. Furthermore, Judas made an alliance with the growing power in the west, Rome, to make the Syrian kings think twice before attacking. When Judas died, his brother Jonathan took up the torch and was coaxed into accepting the position of high priest. It seemed now as though all must be well: a Maccabean was high priest, the Syrians were crushed and a Roman-Jewish alliance was in force. Once again, the Jews had a leader who feared God, fought for them and coalesced their identity back in the heart of Judaism, the Temple.
Could this be the fulfillment of the prophecy foretold, when Israel would rise up and crush its enemies? Alas, false summits can bring about a greater despair than if they never were, and hope deferred makes the heart sick.
Although this revolution was a glorious reinvigoration of the Jewish spirit, it was short-lived. There descended upon Palestine a maelstrom of pseudo-allegiances, short lived promises and murder that trickled through the line of the Brothers Maccabaeus, until at last their descendants became as vile and wicked as the Syrians against whom they fought for so long.
The chaos that defined the following several decades was largely civil, with the parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees, now both well-defined, fighting amongst themselves for power. So active and harsh were the Pharisees that many Jews living in Jerusalem asked for leave to relocate because of the inability to live under their extreme dogmas. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were so busy ingratiating themselves to the Gentiles, loose in their lives and and liberal in their religious views, they did little to aid the common Jew during the chaos. The two parties eventually came to blows and civil war broke out.
We are now up to about 100 BC. The unquestionable world power is Rome, and they are busily subjugating the world. Rome allowed the Jews a king to govern over them, though they were firmly under the Empire’s thumb. Alexander, grandson of Simon Maccabaeus and the acting king from 106-79 BC, was a ruthless extremist, killing those who were not circumcised and quelling rebellion so completely as to mutilate men, women and children.
It is difficult to summarize the frequent and horrific bloody conflicts that occurred from Alexander to Herod the Great, a period of time lasting only about a half a century. The net effect was a further destabilization of Jewish life, until the Roman general Pompey, around 60 BC, stormed Jerusalem and wrecked the walls, yet again. Jerusalem is the most-usurped city in history, having been sacked and exchanged between powers 27 times, at last count.
Herod the Great was a young man when he came to power. He was a brilliant diplomat, intractably ambitious and an excellent civil servant. Also, he murdered a ton of people. In order to maintain his seat of power, he resorted to killing. He killed several of his wives, two of his sons, his brother and uncle, 69 out of 70 of the Sanhedrin and Aristobulus, the absolute last of the line of the famed Maccabees. Numerous other political rivals were off-ed as well.
So you can imagine when the Magi show up at the palace and ask where this newborn King of the Jews has been born, Herod was less than thrilled. “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” And by worship he meant kill. It is no surprise, given Herod’s ravenous power hunger, that he had all male babies under 2 in Bethlehem killed just to snuff out this flame.
Even though Herod did greatly expand the Temple and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, he was no true king to the Jews. He wasn’t even a Jew, but of the line of Esau—an Edomite, a long-time enemy of the Israelites.
We are now at the birth of Christ, but lets sum up the position of the Jews: A murderous Edomite on David’s throne, two bickering and intolerable religious factions, the land of Palestine habitually ravaged and looted, the Roman war engine in control of the world and an enduring silence from God.
Or so it seemed. It was into this darkness the Lord of Light was born, a Savior. Born of a virgin under a decaying religion, in a powerless nation, with feckless leadership and no one to plead their cause. His birth was attended by foreigners and the poor and insipid farm animals in a drafty cave. Israel didn’t need help; they needed saving. People with strength need help; the helpless need saving. The words of “O Holy Night” are that much more invigorating given the context:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
As I was thinking about all these happenings in history and how God was preparing the world, not just Israel, for the coming of a Savior—the pining, the fulminating of sin, the crumbling religion, the orphaned sentiment mushrooming in the dank spiritual soil, the spiritual darkness alighting like a black butterfly on the hearts of all men—it contrasts starkly with my yearning to buy my kid a Hatchimal. The juxtaposition of these two realities is difficult to justify. What preparations would I need to make in my daughter’s life so that, when she receives a Hatchimal, a new and glorious morn would break?
In my life, things are pretty good. Probably yours, too. Food on the table, roof over the head, friends, ugly sweater Christmas parties, eggnog and yule logs. Candles are quaint and add ambiance. To be quite honest, I don’t like writing about Christmas. We have gotten so Cindy Loo-Who-ian about it. We are presented with Currier and Ives smiles and Kinkade pastels and not a stroke of darker hues. But Christmas is about the contrast: Light and dark, life and death, hope and despair, heights and depths, dirty and clean; a sweet baby with violent intentions; a newborn stormcrow heralding the destruction of oppression and darkness. Christmas is the sweet and somber celebration of the tectonic plates of spiritual reality upheaving. It is a story of violence on violence, the brute force of Love overpowering the lesser darkness. The love of God—fiery, sharp, bright, ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die—conquering sin through his Prince of Peace.
The Gospel of John has no Nativity narrative but does have the best word on Christmas: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).