Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Malachi, and Daniel
In 539 B.C. the armies of Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians. Some of the people of Israel in exile in Babylon are able to return home, under the more lenient rule of the Persian Empire. Within twenty years the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt and the religious practices of the people of Israel restored. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah are among those who labor to make this dream a reality.
By the beginning of the first part of the fifth century, before the death of Joel and the prophecy of Malachi, it is clear that Israel will long remain a vassal state and may never regain the political preeminence and power it knew under the rule of David and Solomon. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra record the efforts of these national leaders to restore Israel to its former greatness. But in fact Israel remains weak, divided, and without power as a nation or prestige as a people.
In pronouncing the judgment of God upon the people of Israel the prophets speak of the coming day of the Lord. Before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the people, the day of the Lord is thought to mean the judgment of Israel for the failure of the people to keep their covenant with God. It was a day in history that marked the beginning of a time of trial until the people repented and were again restored.
After the exile, the day of the Lord is understood as foretelling the punishment of the enemies of Israel. As time passes and Israel does not regain its greatness, the day of the Lord comes to mean the last day of history and the end of time itself, when God will judge all peoples and restore Israel to its place of preeminence in an entirely new creation. History no longer is seen as the vehicle of God's justice, and so God's judgment of the living and the dead is anticipated to bring about the end of time.
In the book of Malachi the image of a refiner's fire is used to describe God's messenger, who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord on the last day. "But who can endure the day of his coming," says the prophet, "and who can stand when he appears?" (Mal. 3:2-3) On the day of fire "all the arrogant and all the evil doers will be stubble," say the Lord. "But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." (Mal. 4:1-2)
The prophet Zephaniah foresees the day of judgment as a "day of distress and anguish, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness." It is to be a day of battle, and the blood of the people "shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung," because "they have sinned against the Lord." The wrath of the Lord will be for all peoples and nations, and not just for Israel, for the day of the Lord will bring an end to life for "all inhabitants of the earth." (Zep. 1:15-18)
The prophet Isaiah envisions a natural disaster even more devastating than that which God brought to the earth during the time of Noah. "For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble," he writes. "The earth is utterly broken, the earth is rent asunder, the earth is violently shaken." Like a drunken man the earth staggers, for "its transgression lies heavy upon it." The earth falls and "will not rise again." On the day of the Lord "the Lord will punish the host of heaven" as well as "the kings of the earth." (Is. 24:18-21) In a word, the universe itself is to be recreated. "For behold," say the Lord, "I create new heavens and a new earth." The young child shall not be taken from life, but "shall die a hundred years old" and "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together." (Is. 65:17-25)
The New Creation
In varying images then the prophets depict the coming day of the Lord and the rule of the Lord to follow, as a total break with life as it always has been and is now. In the book of Isaiah we read that in the new world, "the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem." (Is. 24:23) The rule of God is no longer to be from heaven, through kings and princes, but from the heavenly city of Jerusalem and the holy mountain of Zion. From Zion on that day the Lord will destroy "the covering that is cast over all peoples" and "will swallow up death for ever." (Is. 25:7-8)
Zechariah sees that after Jerusalem is destroyed by a gathering of armies from all the nations, God will restore Jerusalem and on "that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem" to the east and to the west. Everyone that survives "of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts." (Zec. 14:8-18) Finally, the author of the latter part of the book of Isaiah tells the nations that in the day of the Lord they will all come to Jerusalem, as to their mother: "and you shall suck, and you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees." For as children are comforted by their parents, so will the righteous of the earth be "comforted in Jerusalem." (Is. 66:12-13)
The images depicting the wrath and the new creation of the Lord are drawn from the history of Israel and from the prophets' personal experiences of the presence of God. We are reminded of the garden of Eden and of the time when God walked the earth like a person with the first man and woman. But the image of this pastoral scene, when even the wild animals no longer need to kill for food, is now related to a heavenly city on earth. Between the time of the wandering patriarchs and the kings of Israel, the city of Jerusalem and the mountain of Zion within it have come to represent the place from which God will one day establish a new kingdom upon the earth.
The prophets differ in their descriptions of how this is to come to pass. However, we must not assume that these differences reflect merely their own opinions, or render their witness less significant. Each feels grasped by the hand of God and thrust into the future. Thus their writings are passionate glimpses into that which cannot be clearly understood or adequately described.
The Spirit of the LORD
In the book of Isaiah the prophet speaks of the coming day of the Lord because "the spirit of the Lord God" is upon him. The Spirit of God speaking through him calls forth a vision of the day of the Lord as a day of judgment and retribution, but also as a day of "good tidings to the afflicted" and of "liberty to the captives" and the poor. (Is. 61:1) The prophet Joel not only experiences the Spirit of God, but foresees that in the day of the Lord the Spirit will be poured out "on all flesh" bringing prophecy in the name of the Lord to the lips of both young and old among the people of Israel. (Joel 2:28)
The prophet Ezekiel, who lived just before the time of Joel and Haggai and Zechariah and the author of the latter portion of the book of Isaiah, also speaks continually of the Spirit of God in his writings. As the Hebrew word for spirit can also mean breath as well as wind, we are reminded of the breath of God that first called forth life across the face of the deep and brought forth the life of man from the dust of the earth.
In a sense then the Spirit of God has always been present in creation, bringing life to the earth and its inhabitants, but it has also been given to individuals so they might speak for God to those with ears to hear. Now, as we look forward to the coming day of the Lord, we learn that this exceptional experience within the life of faith will become a common experience for all those who are allowed to enter into God's new kingdom.
In the book of Daniel we encounter a series of visions which are unique in the Hebrew Bible in portraying the day of the Lord as the end of time. The stories and visions of Daniel are set in Babylon during the time of Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and carried away to Babylon the temple treasure and Israelite captives. However, the author of this book is a pious Jew living much later under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, who reigned over Israel from 175 to 164 B.C.
The author looks back to an earlier time of persecution and attributes his writings to a leader mentioned twice in the prophecies of Ezekiel, in order to encourage the people of his own time by recalling the courage of their forefathers. This literary device also gives greater authority to his proclamation of the ultimate victory of the Lord on the last day.
In the first section of the book of Daniel we find that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have been selected to advise the king. Then the king demands that his counselors interpret a dream he has had, even though he has not revealed the dream to them. This mystery is explained to Daniel in his first "vision of the night." (Dan. 2:19) He appears before Nebuchadnezzar, relates and interprets the dream, and thus is given rule over Babylon much as Joseph was appointed ruler over Egypt after interpreting Pharaoh's dream.
Shortly thereafter Nebuchadnezzar casts a golden image and decrees that all his subjects are to bow before it. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to violate the first of the Ten Commandments of the law of Moses by complying with this decree, Nebuchadnezzar has them thrown into a "burning fiery furnace." To his astonishment the king sees not three men in the furnace, but "four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods." (Dan. 3:19-25) When the king calls them out of the furnace he finds that their hair is not even singed. So he blesses their God and orders that worship of their God be allowed throughout the land.
Daniel then predicts the madness and death of Nebuchadnezzar and also the fall of his son, after a mysterious finger writes on the wall of the palace. And under the rule of Darius of Persia he becomes distinguished among all the counselors for his wisdom. However, Darius is persuaded to invoke a decree for thirty days requiring that anyone, who petitions a god or man other than the king, shall be cast into the den of lions. When Daniel learns of the decree he returns home, kneels before an open window facing Jerusalem, and begins to pray. He is arrested and thrown into a den of lions, but God saves Daniel from the jaws of the lions, and out of respect for the power of Daniel's God the king returns him to his place among the court counselors.
Then Daniel sees "in the night visions" the appearance of four terrible beasts, which seem to represent the kings of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Medes, and the Greeks. With the passing of these beasts, thrones are placed before Daniel and on a throne of fire, with wheels of fire, Daniel sees "one that was ancient of days" take his seat. Then thousands stood before him as "the court sat in judgment, and the book were opened." One of the great beasts is slain, while the other three lose their dominion over the earth. (Dan. 7:1-12)
Daniel writes, "I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man" before the "ancient of Days." And "to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him." His dominion "is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." (Dan. 7:13-14)
When Daniel in his vision asks one of those standing there "the truth concerning all this," he is told that after the fall of the four great kings "the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess it for ever, for ever and ever." As Daniel watches, the beast with the horn wars against the saints and prevails until the "Ancient of Days" gives judgment "for the saints of the Most High." Thus the time comes for the saints to receive the kingdom. (Dan. 7:16-18)
Daniel has other visions after this one which confirm the coming end of time. In one a being "having the appearance of a man," who is identified as Gabriel, speaks to him of a coming Prince of princes who will prevail against the kings of the earth. Gabriel returns to Daniel in a second vision to interpret the coming of an anointed one who will rule "until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator." (Dan. 8:1526) Later Daniel sees "a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold," and with a face like lightning and a body which gleamed like bronze. This being touches Daniel to strengthen him and then tells him "what is inscribed in the book of truth." (Dan. 10:5-21)
Thus, the book of Daniel closes by depicting the historical events that will precede the day of the Lord and will hasten the coming of the end. And "at that time," Daniel is told, "your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book." Even the dead shall be raised and judged along with the living, "some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." As for Daniel, he is told not to worry because a place has already been allotted him "at the end of the days." (Dan. 12)
We see then that the tales of the end and of the coming day of the Lord also speak of the beginning of a new creation. For as always with death, there is the hope of new life. We have come a long way from the beginning of creation and the garden in which Adam and Eve first walked with God. We have recalled the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and have reviewed the history of the people of Israel. In doing so we have retold the story of faith which is preserved for our remembrance in the writing of the Hebrew Bible, and we have made it possible thereby to understand and interpret the New Testament.
At times we have felt able to state the meaning of the story. We saw that Israel tells its story with an unremitting sense of its calling by God for a special purpose. When Israel is successful this purpose seems to be embodied in its success. But when Israel becomes the victim of the success of other peoples, the purpose of God is understood to involve the redemption of Israel and the coming of a new order. When it appears Israel will not be redeemed in history, it is affirmed that the day of the Lord will not only bring history to an end, but will also usher in the reign of God in a new creation.
Is then the faith of Israel merely a rationalization of its experience? Is God merely the imaginative conclusion of a people who want to believe they are not alone? Is life really without purpose? There are those who would understandably answer these questions in the affirmative. Yet, others will continue to recall the tales, live in remembrance of the God of their ancestors, and open their lives to the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, some will be called to light the way through the darkness of our time so that we might glean through faith, from despair and death, the love of new life.
Isaiah 60-62 Restoration of Jerusalem, God's people.
Joel The outpouring of God's Spirit.
Zechariah 1-6 Visions.
Zechariah 12-14 Day of the Lord.
Zephaniah The wrath of the Lord.
Malachi Day of judgment.
Daniel 2 Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
Daniel 3 The fiery furnace.
Daniel 6 Daniel in the lion's den.
Daniel 7-12 Visions of the end.