This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
The Israelites in Zechariah’s time regarded their day as a “day of small things” (Zech 4:10). It is tempting for us to view the post-exilic period of Israel’s history in much the same way. After all, Israel’s glory days of conquest, kingship, and independence were a thing of the past. As subjects of the Persian empire, post-exilic Israel lacked national autonomy. They lacked a Davidic king ruling from the throne in Jerusalem. Though the temple was eventually rebuilt, this second temple lacked its former glory so that those who had seen Solomon’s temple wept at the sight of it (Ezra 3:12; Hag 2:3). Understandably, the post-exilic community struggled with discouragement, doubt, and despair as they wondered if God’s promises of future glory would ever become a reality. Into this situation God sent the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi to speak powerful words of challenge and comfort to his world-weary people, words which are just as relevant and powerful for Christians today.
A Call to Remember
Time and again the post-exilic prophets call God’s people to remember their past. Israel’s past reminded them that their God is faithful and will certainly fulfill all that he has promised. For example, in response to Israel’s questioning his love for them, God responds, “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Mal 1:2-3). By contrasting the fates of Jacob’s descendants and his brother Esau’s descendants, God is recalling his long history of care, forgiveness, and restoration of his covenant people. The implication is clear. This God who has provided for his people so faithfully in the past may be relied upon to continue to provide all that is needful for them in the future.
The post-exilic prophets offer the important reminder that there are spiritual realities at work behind the scenes of observable history.
We too can look back to times when the church seemed to be stronger, or to have more influence, or to be more fruitful. Like Israel, we are prone to grumble, complain, and lose hope as the difficulties of our present circumstances loom large in the foreground while God’s deliverances of the past and promises of the future fade to the background. The post-exilic prophets call us to adjust our focus. Like the Israelites, we must look back and clearly see God’s faithful provision for his people. However, Christians today have the greater privilege of looking back to God’s ultimate provision and deliverance as we remember Jesus, the Son of God dying for the sins of his people. At the cross, we see the fulfillment of God’s promises made through the post-exilic prophets when Jesus the true temple (John 2:19-22) and great high priest (Heb 4:14) offered himself as the perfect sacrifice (Heb 9:12-14) for a sinful people, prone to grumble and forget his love. Thus, the call to remember is just as urgent for us today as it was for post-exilic Israel.
A Call to Trust
The prophetic call to remember is at the same time a call to faith, a call which in the post-exilic context offers an important perspective on the nature of faith. To live by faith means trusting God’s word especially when it challenges our experiences in the present. When post-exilic Israelites look around them, it was far from apparent that their God was Lord over all things and in complete control of history.
Judging by appearances, it was the pagan Persian empire who was the almighty, all-knowing, sovereign power over the entire known world. And yet, with vivid oracles and other-worldly visions, the post-exilic prophets declare that Israel’s God is sovereign over even the greatest empires of this world, and that he is powerfully guiding all of history toward his appointed goal of blessing his people through the work of his Messiah. God says, for example, through the prophet Haggai, “Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag 2:6-7).
Like post-exilic Israel, we too can struggle to believe that God is sovereign and that he cares about the trials and suffering of his people. When we read the morning headlines or watch the evening news, it can often seem as if evil is triumphing. The post-exilic prophets offer the important reminder that there are spiritual realities at work behind the scenes of observable history, and that God himself, as the apostle Paul puts it, is “working all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). The prophetic call to faith, therefore, is a call for us to trust God’s word over our own doubts, feelings, and experiences.
A Call to Hope
Finally, the post-exilic prophets reminded Israel, and they remind us, that the injustices, oppression, daily sorrows, and struggles with sin that characterize this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4) are not the end of the story for God’s people. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi announce that a new world order is coming, a world order in which sin and the curse of sin will be no more and God’s people will live in perfection communion with him without fear or danger (e.g., Zech 5:5-11; 8:4-8). For the post-exilic prophets, this coming new creation gives God’s people a reason to hope and press on in faith and obedience in the midst of great trials and hardship.
The arrival of this new world order is inextricably connected with the arrival of Israel’s Messiah who will establish God’s gracious presence with his people for all eternity (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 9:9-15; Mal 4:1-6). In fact, the post-exilic prophets offer some of the most vivid prophecies about the person and work of the coming Messiah in all of Scripture. For example, Zechariah announces that the Messiah who comes as Israel’s victorious king who will nevertheless come in outward expressions of humility: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9). Though the Messiah will come as a faithful shepherd (Zech 11:4-16), he will nevertheless suffer a deathblow from the sword of God’s judgment (Zech 13:7-9). Perhaps the most dramatic depiction of Christ’s work in redemption is found in Zechariah’s vision of the heavenly court-room drama in which he witnesses God throw out Satan’s accusations against the high priest Joshua, and then replace his excrement-covered clothing with clean white linen robes (Zech 3). Here we’re given one of the clearest depictions of Christ’s work in removing our sin and giving us his own perfect righteousness that we might stand blameless in the presence of God.
Though they had experienced God’s great act of deliverance in their release from exile and their return to the land of promise, post-exilic Israel was nevertheless keenly aware that there was a greater deliverance yet to come. They knew that they were not home yet. In a similar way, Christians live between the accomplishment of their redemption at Calvary and the consummation of their redemption when Christ returns. In this in-between time, we need to hear the message of the post-exilic prophets as they call us to remember, trust, and hope.