Trusting and Obeying Between His Comings
It’s important to place Judah’s return from exile not only within a historical and political context, but within its covenantal context. With Israel’s exile from the land—the ultimate promised consequence of their abandonment of the covenant they swore to obey at Sinai (Dt 29:25-28)—the Old Covenant had served its purpose and run its course. The way was being prepared for a New Covenant, and with the exile everything began moving in that direction.
The Old Covenant itself anticipated this ever since Deuteronomy 30 (Dt 30:1-6). On the eve of exile, as the long-delayed dusk of divine discipline finally closed in, Jeremiah is forbidden to make any intercession for its postponement (Jer 7:16, 11:14, 14:11). The Old had been tried, and failed—not because of it, but because of them (Heb. 8:8). Instead, Jeremiah was commissioned to announce the coming of a New Covenant fundamentally unlike the old one (Jer 31:31-40).
From divine perspective, the return from the exile was not about restoring the Old Covenant and granting Israel a fresh start and a new chance to give it another go. Why should the outcome be any different? Israel’s quick and repeated slide back into the same moral morass, described by the post-exilic writers, was evidence enough of that. To be sure, the repeated efforts—on the part of Zechariah and Haggai, Ezra and Nehemiah, and last of all Malachi—to call the returnees back to their covenant obligations were necessary and right; the Old Covenant was still in force.
But the return was, first, about demonstrating the trustworthiness of God’s gracious promises to do so (cf. Ezra 1:1), after seven decades in a foreign woodshed (in response to eight centuries of covenant-breaking). But second, the return was about beginning the process of clearing the slate and preparing the way to renegotiate on the basis of sovereign promise implanted from within rather than sovereign law imposed from without.
Here’s a chronological irony worth noting. On the front end of the OT, the nascent nation-to-be entered 430 years of darkness and silence in Egypt in preparation for a miraculous divine deliverance and a covenantal relationship (Ex 12:40-41). On the back end, the tried-and-found-wanting nation descended into another 430 years of darkness and silence as the prelude to the ultimate divine deliverance and a new covenantal relationship.
When Malachi closed his mouth and put down his pen, the people of God embarked on an utterly unique experience in their history—no revelation from God for the next four centuries. God gave them no forewarning of this. He simply closed his mouth and left them to recognize his silence for themselves. And they did. All they had was the revelation he had already given them, along with the divine promise—through the last prophet Malachi—of the coming Messiah: “the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come … even the Messenger of the covenant …. Behold, He is coming” (Mal 3:1).
How did his already wayward people survive that long night of divine silence? As a nation, not very well. The testimony of intertestamental history confirms that. But as always, a righteous remnant survived to recognize and welcome the promised Messiah when he came, bringing with him an astonishing era of new revelation. God was speaking to man once again, in and through his Messenger of the New Covenant.
Today, the Church finds itself in much the same situation as post-Malachi Israel. When the Apostle John closed his mouth and put down his pen, the NT era of renewed revelation from God again came to a close. Again, he didn’t forewarn us that John would be the last. He let us figure that out.
Since that time the Church has experienced not four but twenty centuries of post-testamental silence—a period five times as long as the intertestamental silence. We, like the intertestamental Jews, receive no new revelation; but we, like they, have a book full of God’s purposes, promises, and self-revelations. We do not need new revelation any more than they did. We, like they, simply need to trust the words he has already given to us, and watch for him to make them good before our eyes. And we, like they, are left with the divine promise—through the final prophet John—of the coming-again Messiah: “Behold, I am coming quickly” (Rev 22:7, 12, 20).