One of the most interesting periods in history, I believe, is the period of silence between the close of Old Testament revelation and the incarnation, at which point revelation continued. After giving so much information about the coming Savior, information about His character and accomplishments, God stopped speaking. As just indicated, the last prophet to speak before this silence commenced was Malachi.

The people of Malachi’s day were steeped in sin. Some of the most serious charges ever made by God against wayward people are found in the book of Malachi. God accuses them of robbery—they were robbing God by withholding His tithe; perversion of justice—they were calling evil good; mistreatment of the needy—they were taking advantage of the poor and defenseless among them; showing contempt for God—they were offering to Him blemished animals in their sacrifices. And, in the midst of it all, God tells them He knows what they are thinking; they are thinking that God didn’t care about their wicked behavior or despicable lack of regard for Him. But they were wrong.

To say that the sin of Israel had been costly would be a massive understatement. The visitation of God’s covenant curses had decimated the nation, that nation that once had such a glorious future. About 100 years before the time of Malachi, the people had returned from the Babylonian captivity. Eventually, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the temple and city walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. But instead of gratefully and humbly living out their lives in service to Jehovah, the people continued their unfaithful ways.

When Malachi came upon the scene, the people were far from God in heart, in devotion, and in faith. The time for God to exhort Israel to obedience and the days when He would patiently receive them back after periods of rebellion were coming to an end. One of the last things they hear, however, has to do with that message that has been given again and again, that promise of God upon which the nation was founded, the promise that the majority of the people counted as insignificant. The last words spoken to them are about God’s intention to save our race from the misery of sin:

3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts.

Interestingly, although he is speaking of the coming day of the Messiah, this prophet focuses attention for the first time on another character—not the Messiah Himself, but one who will appear at the time of the Messiah to serve as a herald of the Savior’s arrival. Speaking through Malachi, the LORD describes one He calls “My messenger.” The task of this messenger will be to “clear the way” before the LORD. We know, of course, since we have additional information, that this messenger is John the Baptist, the man who preached repentance to the Jews and called them to prepare themselves for Christ’s arrival.

In reference to the coming of God in the flesh, the LORD asks: “But who can endure the day of His coming?” This question sets the mood for what follows, which is a warning that the Messiah will come to purify the people of God; His arrival will mean judgment. He is not coming to accept the people as they are, but to make them into what they should be—and that is part of the wonderful story of our salvation

The people of Judah and Jerusalem, which is a way of describing those who follow the LORD in the day of the Messiah, will be made pleasing to Him once again (v. 4). The Messiah will ensure the acceptability before God of all who are found with Him. Those who break God’s laws, however, will have every reason to fear, the LORD adds (v. 5).

So, Malachi is the last to speak and his message is both encouraging and disturbing. As I noted already, after this, there is silence from God. And this silence was not short in duration. It lasted for more than 400 years. The faithful and unfaithful alike who were alive with Malachi went to their graves with those final words of the LORD ringing in their ears.

The Jews of Malachi’s day were under the authority of the Persians who had conquered the Babylonians, the ones used by God initially to disperse His people in response to their unfaithfulness. For the first 60 years of this period of silence, the Jews remained under Persian rule. Then, as Daniel had predicted many years before, the Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, subdued the Persians. Eventually, the Jews came under the Syrians who were the political descendants of one of Alexander’s generals. The Syrians took over Judea and the region was divided into various provinces, including Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. This period of Syrian rule was one of much calamity for the Jews.

Antiochus the Great, the leader of the Syrians at the beginning of this period, was harsh in his treatment of the Jews, but his successor, Antiochus Epiphanes began a campaign of terror against them. In 170 BC, Antiochus marched on Jerusalem under the pretense of quieting various Jewish factions He promptly destroyed the city and committed unspeakable acts against the Jews. Thousands were killed; women and children were sold into slavery. The temple was invaded and the Holy of Holies desecrated. Jewish religion was outlawed and a foreign governor was appointed. All copies of the Law that were found were burned or otherwise mutilated; those in whose possession copies of the Law were found were executed. After offering a pig on the altar of God, Antiochus erected on that spot a statue in honor of the pagan god, Jupiter Olympius.

If we understand the significance of the temple and the Holy of Holies within the temple, then we understand the stunning implications of this event. The temple represented the presence of God in Israel; the Holy of Holies was the place where He appeared to the high priests. God has left His people. This event, like few other events ever could, signaled the breach between God and His covenant people. The year was 168 B.C., and still, no word from God.

Three years later, a resistance movement emerged under the capable leadership of Judas Maccebeus, or Judas “the hammer.” The movement grew and, in time, Jerusalem was retaken from the Syrians, the temple was refurnished and on the 25th of December, three years to the day after Antiochus sacrificed that pig on the altar of God, the sacrifices of the Jews were offered once again. This resistance movement, however, was greatly hampered by fighting between the orthodox Jews who wished to preserve their heritage and those who wished to continue the assimilation of the Jews into the surrounding culture. In time, the Maccabean family died out and a rival family, the Herods, moved into a position of power. The Herods secured the support of the Romans who were, at this time, conquering that territory. From 63 B.C. onward, the Romans were in control. The Jews had passed from under the authority of the Persians to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the Syrians, and from the Syrians to the Romans.

In about 3 B.C., Herod the Great died and his son, Herod Antipas, became king over the region in which the Jews lived. Now, God began to speak once again:

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. –by the way, let me note here that the people had been taught to pray for the Messiah during this particular incense offering– 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

In this familiar story, we are told about Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zacharias are introduced as “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly” before Him (v. 6). This phrase does not mean that they were without sin; it means that they were true worshipers of Jehovah. We also are told that they were childless and “advanced in years.” (v. 7) Luke means to indicate that although they wanted children, Elizabeth was barren and, at this point in their lives, the two were beyond the time of having offspring. Luke states further that Zacharias was chosen to perform a particular act during temple worship (vv. 8, 9). He was to enter the temple and offer the incense that was associated with both the morning and evening sacrifices. The interesting element here is that there were so many qualified priests at this time, that a man had an opportunity to perform this task only once in his lifetime.

We know what happened while Zacharias was in the temple. An angel of the Lord revealed that he soon would become a father (vv. 11 ff). This child, the angel explains, “will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (v. 15) And the angel applies to this child the prophecy of Malachi, that prophecy we just considered—those words that were among the last spoken by the LORD before His voice fell silent (vv. 16, 17). That prophecy, you’ll remember, told of a figure who will appear just before the Messiah, and his task would be to announce the Savior’s coming. Here, the angel adds that this messenger “will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.” This quotes from the very end of Malachi’s book where the LORD again emphasizes the ministry of the coming Messiah.

Now that the silence is broken, the news that had been anticipated for so many generations is being broadcast by God to His servants. For over 400 years, God had said nothing, but now He is speaking again and what He is saying is the most wonderful message our race could hear. The day of redemption has arrived; the day of the Messiah, promised in the Garden of Eden and longed for by the faithful, is dawning.

Elizabeth conceived and gave birth; Zacharias, having been made deaf and dumb by the angel, insisted that the boy be called “John.” His ability to communicate was restored and we are told that “Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied.” His words are found in Luke 1:68-79. For four centuries, the people of God have had no communication, no assurance that God would keep that promise He made, no revelation telling them to remain hopeful. But now the Spirit moves upon Zacharias in the same way He did upon the prophets of the Old Testament. Their words were the words the Spirit wanted communicated and the same is true in this instance.

As he begins, Zacharias blesses the Lord God of Israel because the birth of his son meant that God was coming to visit His people and accomplish their redemption (v. 68). Zacharias believed that the birth of John means God is worthy to be praised—not just because John is born, but because of what is going to happen in connection with John’s birth. Additionally, two things stand out in this prophecy. First, Zacharias ties together many of the ideas and themes that are part of the story of redemption from Adam through Isaiah. The overall theme, of course, is mentioned immediately: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” This is what the promise given by God was all about for those many centuries. God promised to save the faithful and deliver them from sin.

Zacharias says, the Lord “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.” (v. 69) This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament. It is a symbol of power and victory. In this case, Zacharias is connecting the birth of John to the Messianic prophecies concerning the house of David. The Messiah would be a descendant of David and would come to occupy David’s throne to rule over the people of God. In vv. 70-75, he refers to God’s previous promises of redemption spoken through the prophets. The events unfolding had been foretold long ago and had been anticipated by the faithful. Above all, as Zacharias says, the coming of the Messiah would mean that we would be able to serve God without fear, serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days. This is what the faithful longed to see generation after generation; they lived for this day, they prayed for this day, they knew that the day of the Messiah would mean salvation for the world.

The second element that stands out in this prophecy is the specific information given about John, the son of Zacharias. After tying together many of the Messianic strands in his prophesy, Zacharias adds information not yet given. The ministry of John would be unique among all the prophets who ever spoke for the LORD. He is the last prophet to appear before the Messiah, who Himself is God’s final Prophet. John will be “the prophet of the Most High” and he will “go on before the Lord to prepare His ways.” (v. 76) Zacharias shows the association between John’s coming ministry and that of Christ when he says that John will “give to the people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.” (v. 77) John will declare to the people that the way of redemption has come and that in Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness and reconciliation—the very things needed by fallen man.

Notice how Zacharias closes his prophecy: the Messiah will come “to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (v. 79) This is a partial quote from Isa. 9 where that prophet characterized the people as being in spiritual darkness. So John’s ministry would be to announce that the One spoken of in such prophecies had come and with Him had come deliverance from the darkness of sin.

Here again we see how the message of hope has been one. John would not predict the Messiah’s coming, like all his brethren before him, he would announce that their predictions were realized and now the time had come to receive the Messiah, not just long for Him; now the time had come to embrace Him instead of hoping for Him; now, that which had been the focus of attention throughout history was a reality. God was no longer silent, but had come in the flesh and was preparing to save His people.

From this story of the breaking of God’s silence, we should come to an important realization: God does not ignore sin. This is one of the ironies of this season. Much of the world is celebrating its condemnation. If Christ has come, it means that sin is real and the fall of our race is real and our condemnation before God is real and our alienation from God is real. For those not found in the Savior, His arrival means judgment. His coming means deliverance for those who love Him, but just as assuredly means judgment for those who do not embrace Him.

Throughout history people have often mistaken the supposed silence of God to indicate that He is not there or, if there, cares little about the behavior of those on the earth. When God is not speaking or striking down His enemies, the wicked assume there is no accountability. They ridicule those who warn them about the coming day of judgment. Christians alone have reason to celebrate. The coming of Christ meant our deliverance from condemnation, not our confirmation in condemnation. Keep this in mind as you interact with people this season. Spend some extra time, perhaps, praying for the salvation of a friend or relative.