Apr 23, 2012

The Post-Exilic Prophets

4 Min Read

The exile was a major turning point in the history of Israel. Judah and Jerusalem had fallen to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. Many of the people of the land had been taken captive to Babylon, while others had fled to Egypt and parts unknown. A small number of the poor had remained behind in Judah. The ultimate curse of the covenant had been realized. After centuries of prophetic warnings, the death penalty had been carried out on Israel. The land was in ruins, and the people were in exile. In 539 B.C., however, Babylon fell to the Persians, and in 538, Cyrus issued a decree permitting the exiled Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. Were the prophecies of restoration now to be fulfilled? Would the messianic kingdom of God now be established? These are the questions faced by the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

In order to understand the post-exilic prophets, some historical context is necessary.1 The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had died in 562, and his death had precipitated the rapid decline of his empire. His reign was followed in quick succession by the reigns of Evil-Merodach (562–560), Neriglissar (560–556), and Labisi-Marduk (556) before any semblance of stability was reached with the reign of Nabonidus (555–539). Yet even under Nabonidus there was trouble because of religious controversies. Due to these problems, Nabonidus was absent from the capital for lengthy periods of time. His son Belshazzar was the effective ruler of Babylon during these periods. In 539 B.C., Belshazzar was present in the city when Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian.

Cyrus had a policy, unusual for the time, of allowing captive peoples to return to their homelands, so in 538, he issued a decree allowing the exiled Jews to return to Judah (cf. Ezra 1:1–4). Tens of thousands returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua, but an even larger number remained behind, not willing to give up the life they had established in Babylon over the previous decades (Ezra 2). Those who did return to the land were faced with numerous hardships.2 The land was in poor shape for farming, and many buildings were in need of repairs. In addition, the Jews who had remained in Judah had taken the land of those who had been exiled. Furthermore, Judah's neighbors were adamantly opposed to the rebuilding program. All of this caused widespread discouragement. Thus after rebuilding the altar in 537 (Ezra 3:1–7) and preparing the foundation of the temple in 536 (Ezra 3:8–13), opposition and despair caused work to come to a standstill for over fifteen years (Ezra 4:1–5).

To the northeast of Judah, Cyrus had continued to expand the Persian Empire until his death in 530. He was followed by Cambyses II (530–522), and Gaumata (522), before Darius Hystaspes (522–486) came to the throne. After receiving complaints from the enemies of the Jews and researching the royal archives, Darius discovered the decree of Cyrus. In 520 B.C. he ordered opposition against the Jews to cease in order that they might complete the temple (Ezra 5:1–6:12). It was near the beginning of his reign that the prophets Haggai (520 B.C.) and Zechariah (520–518 B.C.) arose in Judah to bring God's word to the people.

After much work, the temple was finally completed in 515 B.C. In Persia, Darius' lengthy reign was followed by that of Xerxes (486–465) and then Artaxerxes I (464–424), during whose reign Ezra led a second group of returnees to Judah in 458 (Ezra 7:1– 28). Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem with a third group of returnees in 445 to finish rebuilding the wall of the city (Neh. 1–2). He returned to Persia in 433. The ministry of the prophet Malachi likely occurred sometime in the period soon after Nehemiah's departure but before his second visit (cf. Neh. 13:6).

The post-exilic prophets faced a daunting task. Earlier prophets had foreseen a glorious restoration following the judgment of exile (cf. Amos 9:11, 14–15; Micah 4:6–7). Daniel, on the other hand, had borne witness to a sevenfold extension of the punishment of exile (cf. Dan. 9:24–27). Yet Cyrus had now permitted the Jews in Babylon to return to their land. Was this the promised time of restoration or not? The post-exilic prophets reveal an eschatological tension in their writings. They bear witness to the inauguration of eschatological restoration, but also proclaim that the fullness is yet to come.3 They provide the first hints that the promised restoration from exile is not to occur all at once.

This article is part of the The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology collection.

  1. For helpful surveys, see Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,1996), 475–515; Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster, 2003), 278–303.
  2. Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 422.
  3. Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 87.