And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14)
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings…Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. (Malachi 4:2a, 5)
Jesus was born about 500 years after the Babylonian captivity during which Daniel lived, and 400 years after Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet. No prophet had appeared after Malachi, a gap equivalent to that between the arrival of the Pilgrims and today. We live in a very different world than that of 1620; we think and act differently than our forbears. Likewise, great changes had taken place in the intertestamental period, that between Malachi and the birth of Jesus.
Malachi was written about a century after the rebuilding of Jerusalem and about eighty years after the rebuilding of the temple. God’s restoration of Israel in their land after their total defeat and their Babylonian captivity was unprecedented (except perhaps in His earlier deliverance from Egyptian slavery and placement in Canaan), yet Malachi paints a picture of a people again grown casual in their obedience. They were back in the land, Jerusalem, and even the temple had replaced the rubble left by Babylon’s army, but the people wanted more. Prosperity and independence had not returned so they accused God of failing them (chap. 1). They had gone to the extreme of saying that God had changed His law, that He now allowed the wicked to prosper (3:15), effectively a condemnation of God’s righteousness, and an ominous indication of their emerging sense of entitlement to blessing.
Malachi thus noted the people’s failures. The priests were tolerating blemished sacrifices, which meant the people were bringing what they sought to be rid of as offerings. The people were dissolving their covenantal marriages in order to marry pagans. This shows not just a moral offense, but an abandonment of adherence to the covenant. Moreover, the prophet notes the people were not tithing; they expected blessings from God while denying Him what was His. So, the prophet warns of God’s judgment on their apostasy (4:1) but blessings on those who remained faithful (vs. 2, 3, 5). Malachi ended by speaking of judgment and the coming of the Messiah, called the Sun of righteousness (v. 2).
It is important to note what Malachi said of the people in his day—they expected blessings without obedience. That was also true of the Jews in our Lord’s day and too many Christians of our own.
We should note the reference to Elijah in the closing words of the last prophet. Elijah was, of course, long dead, but he had, we should remember, prophesied in a very apostate age. We find this reference to the coming of a man long dead puzzling, but we often speak in a similar vein. If we desire religious reformation, we say we need a Luther or a Calvin. If we want an American patriot, we call for another Patrick Henry or George Washington. What we desire is someone who can do their work, exercise the same leadership, and duplicate their efforts in our own time and context.
Some Jews did come to believe a reanimated Elijah would return before the Messiah, but that was the confusion of a largely apostate people. When John the Baptist was asked if he was Elijah, he said he was not, because he knew the absurdity behind their understanding and their question. John knew he could not encourage such a belief, but he did dress like a prophet and men believed him to be one. He has, in fact, been called the last prophet of the Old Covenant. Jesus plainly said that Malachi 4:5 referred to John (Matt. 11:14) because he spoke in the “spirit and power” of Elijah (Luke 1:16–17).
Daniel’s Course of Empires
Malachi’s prophesies pointed to the coming of the Messianic era. Generations before, some of Daniel’s prophesies had done the same at greater length. His were about the rise and fall of a succession of empires (Daniel 7), but the politics were only as touchstones, or markers, that would lead to the more important event, the everlasting dominion of the Messianic Kingdom.
Daniel’s prophesies spoke of four successive kingdoms: Babylon, Persia, Greece (or more precisely the empire of Alexander and the Hellenistic period which followed) and Rome. These four empires covered the period of the fall of Jerusalem through the life of Jesus and the apostolic era. Daniel himself lived to see the beginning of the second of these empires when Persia supplanted Babylon. Jerusalem was resettled on the orders of the Persian emperor and the temple then rebuilt.
Something noticeably missing from Daniel’s sequence of four great empires is any reference to Israel. When Jerusalem was rebuilt it was under the jurisdiction of the Persian court. The monarchy was never revived. An assembly of leaders called the Sanhedrin acted as spiritual advisors and a civil council. Both it and the priesthood were under an appointed governor.
Four hundred years passed after Malachi with no prophet; no such interval had ever passed without one. Malachi 4 and its promise of “Elijah” before the “Sun of righteousness” was, for four centuries, the last word from God.1 There may have been no prophets, but the Scriptures were carefully guarded by a group called scribes. Their role evolved over time, but they began as the copywriters of the law and later became the acknowledged experts on its interpretation, though their approach to it was more academic than practical.
Alexander the Great and Hellenism
A great change in the political map of the Middle East came with Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire in 334 B.C. and then Africa and Palestine. Whole peoples and cultures mentioned in the Scriptures disappeared because of his conquests. Alexander and his successors were the third empire of Daniel’s vision.
Alexander, however, died just a few years after these conquests, at the age of thirty-two. After a struggle, his empire was divided amongst his four strongest generals. The two who are of significance to Palestine were Ptolemy in Egypt and Seleucus in Syria. Their successors are known to history as the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. At first, the Egyptian Ptolemies ruled Palestine. Alexandria, Egypt, became a prominent city and a center of Hellenic (Greek) culture. Many Jews ended up in Alexandria so that in 280 B.C., the Scriptures were translated into Greek. This was the Septuagint translation which was in common use in our Lord’s day.
The Greek influence of the Egyptian Ptolemies produced a division among Jews. Some “Hellenized,” that is, they became more Greek culturally and religiously, while others tried to maintain their Hebraic traditions and culture. This division was evident in Palestine as well. It was reflected in two religious groups that are prominent in the gospels. The Sadducees were amenable to Hellenization and accommodated an openly syncretistic approach. They were the more liberal party, while the traditionalists were opposed to Hellenization. One such prominent group was the Pharisees.
The Egyptian Ptolemies ruled Palestine for several generations, but after 204 B.C. power shifted to Syria and its Seleucid rulers. Antiochus the Great took over control of Palestine. His son, Antiochus Epiphanes, ruled from 175–164 B.C. He decided Hebraic traditionalism was an impediment to their integration into his empire so he decided to force Hellenization on them by stamping out Jewish religion. He ordered that idols be placed in the temple at Jerusalem and intentionally defiled the altar. Not too surprisingly, there was a revolt. One evil to which the Jews never returned after the Babylonian captivity was idolatry.
The opposition was led by Judas Maccabeus. Against incredible odds, the Jews defeated the Seleucids, which thereafter emboldened these “Maccabees” because they believed God had performed a miracle on their behalf. One of their first tasks was to cleanse and rededicate the temple. This culminated in what the apostle John referred to as the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22–23), though it has also been called the Feast of Lights or the Feast of the Maccabees. It is now referred to as Hanukkah.
Whether their victory over the Seleucids was a miracle or not, the Maccabees made a fateful decision in appealing to Rome for help. When, after a century of rule the Maccabees were weakened by infighting and political corruption, the Roman Pompey conquered both the remnants of the Seleucid empire and Palestine. A few years later, Herod the Great (ruled 37 to 4 B.C.) consolidated his power by killing off all potential political rivals, including the last of the Maccabean party, and played politics shrewdly enough to be given the title of king by the permission of Rome. The Roman era lasted through the New Testament era.
Israel at the Birth of Jesus
Rome was the fourth kingdom described by Daniel. Israel, conspicuously absent in the vision of Daniel, was, in fact, itself buffeted by political developments well beyond its borders. It had no king, army, or political influence. It was an ethnic group held together by its religious distinction. This religious community centered on the temple and the law. Herod the Great was an Idumean (from the ancient Edomites) who rose to power by political treachery and the murder of his rivals. He was evil, but shrewd. He gained passive acceptance by the Jews by feigning conversion to their faith and by a major reconstruction of the temple so that it once again resembled the showplace that Solomon’s edifice was before its destruction by the Babylonians.
Religious life centered around the priests, scribes, and the Sanhedrin. Four centuries without a prophet had created a reliance on rabbinical teachings on the law, so that these “traditions of the elders” and “commandments of men” became paramount. The temple priests were controlled by the high priesthood which was under the control of the liberal Sadducees. Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, who presided over the trial of Jesus, were Sadducees.2 Temple worship was ritualistic and sacramental.
The Pharisees were far more conservative and patriotic than the Sadducees. Their name means “separate,” so they saw themselves as “pure” of Hellenic influence and compromise. They arose as a protest against the Sadducees, but did so by taking refuge not in obedience but in traditionalism, and became as spiritually bankrupt as the Sadducees. Still, Jesus’ condemnation of their false piety would have been shocking to most. For their part, they could only view Jesus with horror for His failure to follow their rules of religious propriety.
The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” represents their close relationship. The scribes were the theologically and academically acknowledged experts on all things Jewish.3 The Pharisees often parroted their views.
Herod and his descendants held power with Rome’s permission. By the time of Christ’s birth, the Romans had ruled the world for half a century. The republic had turned into a tyranny, with the emperor in charge of the empire. They governed conquered areas in different ways. If an area was easy to govern, like Galilee, Rome did it through native rulers. If it was a more sensitive area, or one with potential problems, it was through a Roman official (such as Pilate, Felix, and Festus in Judea).
Rome generally allowed freedom of religion. This was less an accommodation than it was about Roman ambivalence to the old religions. In rural areas the old gods such as Jupiter, Mercury, and Apollo were highly regarded, but among educated Romans religion was supplanted by philosophy. Thus, when Paul spoke in Athens, he referenced the ideas of the Stoics and Epicureans. The real religion of Rome became emperor worship, and the later persecution of Christians arose over their failure to offer incense to Caesar (an act of worship) or to profess “Caesar is Lord” (though Acts 17:7 shows this was a problem even in Paul’s day).
Latin was the language of the Romans, but Greek was the international language of the empire. This was because of the spread of Greek thought and culture during the Hellenic period after Alexander. The New Testament was thus written in Greek, the common language of the day. When Jesus cried “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34, KJV), the Romans did not know what He was saying. There was no mystery to this statement, however, He was merely speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic,4 and so the Roman soldiers could not understand Him.
The intertestamental period had seen a succession of empires come and go, just as Daniel had described. Some of those, such as the Hellenic and Maccabean periods, had seen repeated infighting, but the Roman period saw the first prolonged period of peace in many centuries. The apostles traveled extensively and early Christians traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe. They could do so by ship or by roads, some of which still exist. This enabled the rapid spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. As Christianity grew, Rome began to weaken. It fell, but the Kingdom of God continued to grow and is now larger than ever before in history. John was the messenger of that Kingdom’s advent, the everlasting dominion of Daniel’s visions.
1. It should be noted that the Apocrypha were written during the intertestamental period. The church later promoted these books as “worthy to be read,” until the Roman Catholic Church, after the Protestant Reformation, insisted they were canonical.
2. Five of Annas’ sons later served as high priests.
3. I have avoided the use of the term “Judaism” because what we know by that name today properly began only after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Judaism was essentially the institutionalism of the beliefs of the scribes and Pharisees as they sought to perpetuate their traditions without temple, priests, or tribes. The Old Testament belief was the faith of Abraham which saw its realization in Jesus Christ; hence Christianity is the heir to the faith of Abraham while Judaism is the heir of rabbinical thought as typified by the scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s day.
4. The phrase is transliterated from the original words differently by both Matthew and Mark, so there is a difference of opinion.