400 years before Christ, the prophet Malachi closed out the Old Testament canon with this prophecy: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

Those who trusted God to keep his word waited for four centuries for this “great and awesome day of the LORD”. They were waiting for a prophet like Elijah (Elijah is an Old Testament prophet who was spared death – he actually was taken up alive into heaven, according to the Bible.) This Elijah-like prophet would come before the “great and awesome day of the LORD” and would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.”

In the book of Matthew, Jesus identifies this Elijah-like prophet as John the Baptist, who came before him to prepare the way for him:

This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Why 400 years of silence from God between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

The best answer I can give is that God was at work during that time. The nation of Israel knew what they were supposed to be doing. They had God’s Word (at that time, the Old Testament law and prophets). God was at work during those 400 years creating the perfect political climate in Israel for the promised Messiah to appear.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)

In other words, the time of Jesus’ birth was God’s appointed hour, a moment for which God had been preparing for a long time. Some of the exciting preparations took place during that time of “silence,” however, and you will understand your New Testament much better if you understand something of the historic events during the time between the Testaments.

The short answer for why 400 years is that it wasn’t the right time yet. The longer answer, if you’re interested, is that some geopolitical events that were prophesied by Daniel needed to take place before the world would be ready for the Messiah to come. After Malachi had ceased his prophesying and the canon of the Old Testament closed — that is, the number of the books in the Old Testament was fulfilled and the inspired prophets ceased to speak — God allowed a period of time for the teachings of the Old Testament to penetrate throughout the world. During this time, he rearranged the scenes of history, much as a stage crew will rearrange the stage sets after the curtain has fallen, and when the curtain rises again there is an entirely new setting.

At the close of the book of Malachi, the nation of Israel is back again in the land of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity, but they were a puppet nation, dominated by Persia. But when you open the New Testament to the book of Matthew, you discover an entirely different atmosphere — almost a different world. Rome is now the dominant power of the earth. The center of power has shifted from the East to the West, to Rome. Palestine is still a puppet state — the Jews never did regain their own sovereignty — but now there is a king on the throne. But this king is the descendant of Esau instead of Jacob (God’s chosen line), and his name is Herod the Great. And the high priests who now sit in the seat of religious authority in the nation are no longer from the line of Aaron (those chosen by God to be Israel’s priests). They cannot trace their descendancy back, rather, they are hired priests to whom the office is sold as political patronage.

Up to this time, Babylon had been the major world power, but this was soon succeeded by the Medio-Persian empire, as you might remember from world history. This shift had been predicted by the prophet Daniel, who said that there would rise up a bear who was higher on one side than the other, signifying the division between Media and Persia, with the Persians the predominant ones (Dan. 7:5).

At the height of the Persian power, Philip of Macedon came to power in the country of Macedonia (which we now know as a region of Greece), north of the Black Sea. He united the islands of Greece and became their ruler. His son was Alexander the Great. About 300 BC, Alexander, who was about about 20 years old, led his armies against the Persians and completely demolished them. Now the major world power was Greece. Alexander figures prominently in some of the Old Testament prophecies in the book of Daniel. So much so, in fact, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, that when Daniel’s prophecies were explained to Alexander (and he saw himself in them), he decided to spare Jerusalem from his conquests. Alexander died when he was only about thirty-three years old. He had drunk himself to death in the prime of his life, because he had no more worlds to conquer. He didn’t leave an heir (I think his son was murdered somewhere in there), so his empire was divided between his generals.

Two of those generals also figure prominently in Daniel’s prophecies. One was Ptolemy, who took Egypt and Africa; the other was Seleucus, who took Syria, north of Palestine. During this time Palestine was part of Egypt. For the next one hundred years, Palestine was caught in the middle of conflicts between Syria on the north and Egypt on the south. Daniel gave a very accurate and detailed account of the highlights of these years of conflict between the king of the North (Syria) and the king of the South (Egypt). The eleventh chapter of Daniel gives us a most amazingly accurate account of these events before they happened.

During this time Greek influence was becoming strong in Palestine. This forced a split into two major parties. There were those who were strong Hebrew nationalists, who wanted to preserve everything according to the law of Moses. They resisted all the foreign influences that were coming in to disrupt the old Jewish ways. This party became known as the Pharisees, which means “to separate.” They were the separationists who insisted on preserving traditions. They grew stronger and stronger, becoming more legalistic and rigid in their requirements, until they became the target for some of the most severe criticisms Christ ever spoke. They had become religious hypocrites, keeping the outward form of the law, but completely violating its spirit.

On the other hand, the Hellenists — the Greek lovers — became more and more influential in the politics of the land. They formed the party that was known in New Testament days as the Sadducees, the liberals. They turned away from the strict interpretation of the law and became the rationalists of their day, ceasing to believe in the supernatural in any way. We are told in the New Testament that they came again and again to Jesus with questions about the supernatural, like “What will happen to a woman who has been married to seven different men? In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” (Matt. 22:23-33) They did not believe in a resurrection, but they were trying to put Jesus on the spot.

Around this time, a young rebel Jewish priest who married a Samaritan, went down to Samaria, and in rebellion against the Jewish laws, built a temple on Mount Gerizim that became a rival of the temple in Jerusalem. This caused intense, fanatical rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans, and this rivalry is also reflected in the New Testament.

Also during this time, in Egypt the Hebrew scriptures were translated for the first time into another Greek by a group of 70 scholars called together by the Egyptian king. When they had finished, it was called the Septuagint, which means 70, because of the number of translators. This became the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.

A little later, a king named Antiochus the Great came into power in Syria, north of Palestine. He captured Jerusalem from the Egyptians and began the reign of Syrian power over Palestine. He had two sons, one of whom succeeded him and reigned only a few years. When he died, his brother took the throne. This man, named Antiochus Epiphanes, became one of the most vicious and violent persecutors of the Jews ever known. His first act was to fire the high priest in Jerusalem and sell that position to a political supporter.

When it was erroneously reported that Antiochus Epiphanes had died in Egypt, Jerusalem threw a party. Unfortunately, he was very much alive and was furious to hear that they were celebrating his death in Jerusalem. He marched on Jerusalem and invaded a very sacred part of the temple called the Holy of Holies, where he destroyed the scrolls of the law and, to the absolute horror of the Jews, sacrificed a pig on the altar. Then with a broth made from the flesh of this unclean animal, he sprinkled everything in the temple, thus completely defiling and violating the sanctuary. It is impossible for us to grasp how horrifying this was to the Jews. They were simply appalled that anything like this could ever happen to their sacred temple.

It was that act of defiling the temple which is referred to by Jesus as the “abomination of desolation” which Daniel had predicted (Matt. 24:15), and which also became a sign of the coming desolation of the temple when Antichrist himself will enter the temple, call himself God, and thus defile the temple in that time. As we know from the New Testament, that still lies in the future.

Daniel the prophet had said the sanctuary would be polluted for 2300 days. (Dan. 8:14) In exact accordance with that prophecy, it was exactly 2300 days — six and a half years — before the temple was cleansed under the leadership of a man now famous in Jewish history, Judas Maccabaeus. He was one of the priestly line who rose up in revolt against the king. They re-captured Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. The day they cleansed the temple was named the Day of Dedication, and it occurred on December 25th. Does that day sound familiar? 😉

The Maccabees ruled as priests in Jerusalem for the next 3 or 4 generations, all the time having to defend themselves against the constant assaults of the Syrian army who tried to recapture the city and the temple. During the days of the Maccabees there was a temporary overthrow of foreign domination, which is why the Jews look back to this time and regard it so fondly. Unfortunately, one of the Maccabees signed a treaty with Rome for protection from Syria. Soon Israel would be ruled again – by Rome.

Rome’s appointed ruler in Israel made his two sons kings of Galilee and Judea. The son who became king of Judea is known as Herod the Great. He was the king when Christ was born.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)

Finally, all the right actors and scenery are on the world stage, and the curtain rises for the New Testament.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)

Just like then, God is doing things “behind the scenes” now in preparation for Act III – the return of Christ. Be ready!

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