Handout #48: Zechariah, 8 visions, Persia, Darius, Levite prophet, Judah, Restored Israel. ephah, basket, Malachi, bind, Messenger Dec 2014
Zechariah (Hebrew: זְכַרְיָה,) =YHVH has remembered, was considered author of his book, 11th of 12 minor prophets. He was a prophet of the two-tribe Kingdom of Judah, and like Ezekiel was of priestly extraction. According to Ezra 5:1; 6:14 Iddo is the father of the prophet Zechariah, according to Zechariah 1:1 Berechiah is the father of Zechariah, and Iddo is his grandfather. Discrepancy has several probabilities.
His prophetic career began in second year of Darius, king of Persia (520 b.c.) about sixteen years after the return of the first company from their Babylonian exile. He was a contemporary of Haggai. (Ezra 5:1) He was a Levite born in Babylon (Neh. 12:1, 16), and he was both a prophet and a priest.
Because of Israel’s rebellion against the ways of God (Zech. 1:2-6), not only did the Assyrians exile the northern kingdom in 722 BC, but also the Babylonians took the southern kingdom of Judah captive in 586 BC (Zech. 1:2-6). This second exile ended when the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire (539 BC), and Cyrus the Great decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple (Ezra 1:2-4). Shortly after their return, Levitical sacrifices were reinstituted on a rebuilt altar of burnt offering (Ezra 3:1-6), and in the second year of the return, the foundation of the temple was laid (Ezra 3:8-13; 5:16). However, because of external opposition and internal depression, the building of the Temple was halted for about 16 more years.
Zechariah opens his book with an exhortation for Israel to repent quickly so that they could be in the position to receive God’s blessing. God confirmed that He was very angry with the forefathers of Israel who did not hearken to the words of the prophets, who were sent to call them to repentance.
However, even though God used Gentile nations to come up against Israel in judgment, He was even angrier with them because they went too far. At this point, Zechariah received eight prophetic visions for Israel, which all follow the same pattern, 1) introductory words, 2) description of the things seen, 3) question by Zechariah to the angel for the meaning, 4) the explanation by the angel.
1. The Man Among the Myrtle Trees (Zech 1:7-17)
Meaning: God’s anger against the nations and blessing on restored Israel. In this vision, there was a man riding a red horse, standing in a grove of myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. The angel of the Lord explained that these horses were sent throughout the earth, and found the world at rest and peace. But, Israel was not at rest and peace. In fact, it had been exiled for 70 years and Jerusalem was in ruins. Then God lamented over His beloved people and the land of Israel. He declares, “I am
very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. (Zech. 1:14b-15,17). The message of this vision is that God was angry at the nations of the world, which spoiled Israel, and that He would bless restored Israel again, showing His faithfulness
2. The Four Horns and the Four Craftsmen (Zech 1:18-21)
Meaning: God’s judgment on the nations that afflict Israel. In this vision, Zechariah saw four horns and four craftsmen. When asked, the angel was clear in the interpretation of these symbols: “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and cast out these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people” (Zech. 1:18, 21).
In prophecy, a horn when used symbolically indicates invincible strength (Micah 4:13) or often a Gentile king who represents his kingdom (Dan. 7:24; Rev. 12:3). These clearly represent nations, compare these horns with the four great and powerful empires that came against Israel (Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and Rome). Although Babylon had been subdued, the vision was truly prophetic because the other three empires were yet to inflict their oppression upon Israel and receive judgment for it.
3. The Surveyor with a Measuring Line (Zech 2:1-12)
Meaning: God’s future blessing on restored Israel. In this vision, Zechariah saw a man with a measuring line go and measure Jerusalem to find out how long it is. An angel came up and told the angel talking to Zechariah, “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within'” (Zech. 2:4-5).
This is an incredibly prophetic statement because Zechariah was seeing his visions and giving his messages to the returning exiles of Israel who were in the process of building a wall around Jerusalem. The vision was showing that there would be a Messianic day when Jerusalem would grow to vast proportions and not need a wall because of God’s protection.
4. The Cleansing and Crowning of Joshua, the High Priest (Zech 3)
Meaning: Israel’s future cleansing from sin and reinstatement as a priestly nation. The first three visions pictured Israel’s external deliverance from Captivity, her expansion, and the material prosperity of the land. However, in the fourth, God is focusing on the internal state of Israel, which is in need of cleansing from sin and reinstatement as a priestly nation and a light to the world. This vision is a bit different from the others in that there are no questions about it from Zechariah, or explanations by the angel. The characters are identifiable and used symbolically. We see Joshua, the son of Johozadak, the high priest who returned with Zerubbabel from Babylon, who is representing the nation of Israel; the Angel of the Lord; Satan, the accuser; the attending angels; and Zechariah, who becomes a vocal participant in the vision.
5. The Gold Lampstand and the Two Olive Trees (Zech 4)
Meaning: Israel as the light to the nations under Messiah, the King-Priest. In this vision, Zechariah saw a gold lampstand with a bowl of oil at the top, from which seven channels continually supplied the seven lights on the lampstand. Then, there were two olive trees standing on each side of the lampstand with two gold pipes that continually supplied golden oil to the bowl.
Zechariah asked the meaning of the lampstand with seven lights, and was told, “These seven are the eyes of the Lord, which range throughout the earth” (v. 10b). And of the olive trees, “These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth” (v. 14). The whole vision is connected to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and the rebuilding of the Temple. The angel says that he would finish the Temple (v. 9) through the abundant supply of the Spirit of God, and then everyone would know that God’s hand was in it. Thus, the oil for the lamp is associated with the Holy Spirit. Jewish sources say that God would shed His light on Israel, in contrast to their present darkness, and this would enable God’s plans to be fulfilled.
6. The Flying Scroll (Zech 5:1-4)
Meaning: The severity and totality of divine judgment on sin in Israel. The last three visions have to do with the administration of judgment on sin in Israel, and on the Gentile nations who have not responded to the God of Israel. In the sixth vision, Zechariah saw a flying scroll, 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. Interestingly, it is the exact dimensions of the tabernacle, perhaps indicating that the message on it was in harmony with God’s presence in the midst of Israel. The scroll was not rolled up, but flying open so that both sides could be read.
The angel explained to him what it meant: “This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished. … It will enter the house of the thief and the house of him who swears falsely by My Name. It will remain in his house and destroy it” (Zech. 5:3-4).
7. The Woman in a Basket (Zech 5:5-11)
Meaning: The removal of national Israel’s sin or rebellion against God. In this vision, Zechariah saw an ephah, which is a measuring basket for grain and other household commodities. The basket represented “the iniquity of the people throughout the land.” (v. 6). When the lid was lifted, inside the basket sat a woman. The angel said that the woman represented wickedness, and he pushed the wickedness back into the basket and shut the lid (v. 8). This is not to suggest that women are wicked. Rather, the Hebrew word for wickedness is in the feminine form, and the “woman” was wickedness personified. Then, Zechariah saw two women with the wind in their wings like a stork, and they lifted the basket up into the air between heaven and earth.When Zechariah asked where the basket was being taken, he was told: “To the country of Babylonia to build a house for it” (Zech. 5:11). Babylon is the place of ancient and future idolatry and rebellion against God, so an apt location for the removal of idolatry from Israel. Putting wickedness and idolatry back in Babylon also sets the stage for her final judgment (Rev. 17-18).
8. Four Chariots (Zech 6:1-8)
Meaning: Divine judgment on Gentile nations. Then Zechariah saw four chariots coming out from between two bronze mountains. In this instance, the bronze mountains could symbolize the righteous, divine judgment of God against sin (Rev. 1:15; 2:18) meted out by chariots of war going out into the world. The first chariot had red horses, the second black, the third white, and the fourth dappled ¬ all of them powerful. It has been suggested that the colors represent: red = war and bloodshed, black = death, white = triumph, and dappled = pestilence.
The angel told him that: “These are the four spirits of heaven, going out from standing in the presence of the Lord of the whole world. The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horse towards the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south” (Zech. 6:5-6). They were sent throughout the world. The four spirits of heaven may refer to angels of divine judgment or to the power of God to accomplish His judicial purpose. The phrase, “the Lord of the whole world,” connotes a Messianic phrase when Messiah will exact universal rule from Zion.
Zechariah 10:4. What Is the Meaning of the Symbols As They Relate to Judah? “Out of them is repeated four times in this verse. Judah will provide the corner-stone for security. In Is. 28:16 this is a figure for the Davidic king. The tent peg, or nail, was the hooked peg built into a wall to hold the implements of war as well as the household utensils. This is the attribute of reliability (cf. Is. 22:23). The battle bow refers to effective power in leadership (cf.Ho. 1:5). Every ruler (lit. ‘oppressor’); usually the word is employed in a bad sense, but here it is used positively. Their prince-leader will not oppress by unjust taxation or impose crushing burdens too great for the poor to bear, but will exact tribute from their vanquished enemies. Oesterly ascribed the above titles to Simon, Judas, and Jonathan Maccabeus, but each one of the four is undoubtedly Messianic. The ultimate reference is to the Lion of the tribe of Judah, by whose aid His people will conquer every foe.” (Guthrie and Motyer, New Bible Commentary, p. 796.)
(33-37) Zechariah 11. Armageddon
Zechariah 11–13 deals with the battle of Armageddon and its attendant horrors. Ezekiel also referred to this battle (see Ezekiel 38–39). This battle will take place before the Second Coming of the Savior. Zechariah 11 is a preface to chapters 12–13, in which Zechariah prophesied of the battle of Armageddon.
(33-38) Zechariah 11:1–3. Destruction of the Political Kingdom of Judah
The land of Israel, with all its powerful and glorious creatures, is to become desolate. Now, inasmuch as the desolation of a land also involves the desolation of the people living in the land, and of its institutions, the destruction of the cedars, cypresses, etc., does include the destruction of everything lofty and exalted in the nation and kingdom; so that in this sense the devastation of Lebanon is a figurative representation of the destruction of the Israelitish kingdom, or of the dissolution of the political existence of the ancient covenant nation. This judgment was executed upon the land and people of Israel by the imperial power of Rome. This historical reference is evident from the description which follows of the facts by which this catastrophe is brought to pass.”
Malachi, Malach (Hebrew: מַלְאָכִי,) “Messenger”, writer of the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Neviim (prophets) section in the Jewish Tanakh. He does not directly mention the restoration of the temple. He probably prophesied after Haggai and Zechariah (Malachi 1:10; 3:1, 3:10) and possibly delivered his prophecies about 420 BC, after the second return of Nehemiah from Persia (Book of Nehemiah13:6),
Malachi 1:1. Little is known of the life of Malachi, apart from what can be learned in his book. Malachi lived after the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and is believed to have been a contemporary of Nehemiah. The book was probably written about four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Lehi and his family left Jerusalem in 600 B.C., nearly two hundred years before the time of Malachi. The Nephites, therefore, could not have obtained the words of Malachi except from the Lord. The plates of Laban could not have contained them.
Malachi 1:2–5. Did the Lord Really “Hate” Esau? The word hated in Hebrew means to be loved less than someone else, not to be disliked with bitter hostility (compare Genesis 29:31). Esau was the brother of Jacob, who became Israel, father of the twelve tribes. So complete was the rejection of the Lord by Esau’s descendants that they came to symbolize to the prophets the wickedness of humanity in general (see D&C 1:36). Before Malachi’s time they were known as Edomites, or Idumeans, and their place of habitation was known as Edom. Esau symbolized the world, Jacob=Israel.
Malachi 1:6–14. Of What Sins Was Ancient Judah Also Guilty and Why? The people of Judah, and particularly the Levites living among them, were polluted and corrupt. As the spiritual sons and servants of the Lord (see v. 6), their offerings to God had become common and worthless.
The priests and Levites of Malachi’s day were mocking God by offering sacrifices to the Lord with sick, blind, and lame animals and calling them acceptable (v. 8). They had no reverence for what they were doing. The Lord told them: “I have no pleasure in you, . . . neither will I accept an offering at your hand” (v. 10). They were selfish and worldly, and not one of them would kindle a fire on the hearth of the altar unless he were paid for it. The Lord had been insulted. The table on which the offering was made was polluted. The offering itself was “contemptible” (v. 12). Such action, Malachi promised, would result in cursing rather than blessing. (Jesus the Christ, p. 21; for the special requirements of a sacrifice under the law of Moses, see Leviticus 22:18–22; Deuteronomy 15:21; 17:1.)
Malachi 2:5–7. What a Priesthood Holder Should Be Like The faithful priesthood bearer is a sincere worshiper. He acts as if he were in the Lord’s presence when upon the Lord’s errand. He is honest in all his dealings with others, and his speech is dignified and appropriate. He walks with the Lord with confidence and assurance and is comfortable in his role of blessing others and leading them into a better way of life. He is a student of the scriptures and has the capacity to teach the words of life to others. “He is the messenger [teacher, tool, representative] of the Lord of hosts” (v. 7).
Malachi 2:8–10. The Lord’s Anger toward Unfaithful Priesthood Bearers In these verses the Lord reminded the priests and Levites that His representatives were men who formerly walked with Him in peace and equity and turned many away from iniquity (see v. 6). He then spelled out the sins of Judah and her priesthood. The latter, for example, had “caused many to stumble at the law” by rendering unjust and immoral decisions, thus bringing them to spiritual destruction and ruin (v. 8). When compared with the instructions to the Levites set forth in Deuteronomy 33:8–11, such conduct falls short of God’s intended standard. For this reason they were contemptible to the people rather than loved by them as the Lord had intended (see vv. 8–9).
Malachi 2:11–17. Of What Sins Was Judah Guilty? As a result of the failure of the priests to judge and lead in righteousness, Judah had fallen once again into a serious sin. She “hath profaned the holiness of the Lord which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange God” (Malachi 2:11). This passage calls to mind again the often used figure in the Old Testament of the husband (Jehovah) and the wife (Judah/Israel). As solemn a bond or covenant exists between Jehovah and Israel as exists between a husband and his wife. But Judah had chosen another partner, “the daughter of a strange God,” meaning that Judah had formed a temporal or spiritual alliance with a nation that did not regard Jehovah as the Lord of heaven.
Malachi 3:1. Who Was the Messenger Sent to Prepare the Way of the Lord, and Who Was the Messenger of the Covenant? One of the messengers sent to prepare the way of the Lord at His first coming was John the Baptist. John’s mission was performed in the spirit and power of the priesthood of Elias (see Luke 1:17). Elias is a name for a forerunner, one who goes before or prepares the way for someone or something greater. In that sense the Aaronic Priesthood is the priesthood of Elias because it prepares and qualifies individuals for greater blessings.
Joseph Smith explained: “The spirit of Elias is to prepare the way for a greater revelation of God, which is the Priesthood of Elias, or the Priesthood that Aaron was ordained unto. And when God sends a man into the world to prepare for a greater work, holding the keys of the power of Elias, it was called the doctrine of Elias, even from the early ages of the world.Joseph Smith was also an Elias in that he was a forerunner, one who prepared the way, who laid the foundation for the Second Coming through the restoration of the gospel.
In the meridian of time the way was prepared by John for the Messenger of the Covenant Himself to come and bring the greater blessings (see Matthew 3:1–3, 11–12). He who was mightier than John and followed after him to baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is called the Messenger of the Covenant because He mediates the gospel of salvation unto men.
“This sudden latter-day appearance in the temple does not have reference to his appearance at the great and dreadful day, for that coming will be when he sets his foot upon the Mount of Olivet in the midst of the final great war. The temple appearance was fulfilled, in part at least, by his return to the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836; and it may well be that he will come again, suddenly, to others of his temples, more particularly that which will be erected in Jackson County, Missouri.
(34-9) Malachi 3:2. “Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?” The Lord’s return to earth in glory will be a great and dreadful day. As John the Baptist told the Jews, the Savior will gather in the wheat (the righteous), and the chaff (the wicked) He will burn with “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). The only ones who survive will be those who have kept their covenants with the Lord or who are worthy of at least a paradisiacal, or terrestrial, glory. All wickedness will be destroyed from the earth.
Malachi 3:3–6. What Is the Offering in Righteousness to Be Made by the Sons of Levi? There is more than one meaning for the “offering in righteousness” to be made by the sons of Levi at or near the Second Coming of the Lord.
Malachi 3:7–9. “Will a Man Rob God?” At this point the Lord, through Malachi, engaged Judah in a series of questions and answers. He said they have strayed from His ordinances, and He begs them to return. “Wherein shall we return?” they ask (v. 7). He replies that they have robbed Him, even God. Again they question, “Wherein have we robbed thee?” to which He replies, “In tithes and offerings” (v. 8). Therefore, He says, they “are cursed with a curse” (v. 9). Ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house.’
Malachi 3:10–12. Blessings for Paying Tithes To Israel, ancient and modern, the Lord promised to “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (v. 10). All material and spiritual things are His to give as He sees fit. Included in His “blessings from heaven” are revelations from Him in one’s personal life. All blessings are, of course, conditional (see D&C 82:10;130:21; 132:5). He desires to bless His faithful children abundantly (see 1 Corinthians 2:9).
“The devourer” may mean locusts and other pests to agriculture, but it may refer to Satan as well. The Lord promised that the fruits of the ground and vine will not come forth ahead of their time when they would be of little or no value. The implication is that our efforts to provide for ourselves would be blessed and bear fruit in their season. Because of the blessings that will come to the faithful, they will be recognized by the world around them, both individually and as a people.
Malachi 3:13–15. Is It Vain to Serve the Lord? One truth about covenant relationships is that both parties must observe their promises in order to keep the covenant in force. Sometimes when those lacking faith lose promised blessings, they blame the Lord (see D&C 58:29–33). But the Lord is God; He never breaks a promise (see D&C 82:10).The difficulty, as described by Malachi, is that the critics of the Lord have twisted the truth. They question the profit stemming from observing the ordinances of the Lord and maintain that “it is vain to serve God” (v. 14). They see inequity when the wicked prosper and those who work evil are elevated, and they blame the Lord for permitting such things to exist. Thus, their words of criticism are “stout” against the Lord (v. 13).
Malachi 3:16–18. What Is the “Book of Remembrance”? Those who devote themselves to the Lord earn for themselves the privilege of having their names recorded in the Lamb’s book of life. This sacred “book of remembrance” (v. 16) is kept in heaven and contains the names of the faithful children of Father in Heaven, or, in other words, those who are His precious jewels. (See D&C 128:6–7; Psalm 69:28; Revelation 3:5; 21:27.) They are those who will inherit eternal life, for this book contains “the names of the sanctified, even them of the celestial world” (D&C 88:2). Those whose names are written there and who afterwards return to sinful ways will have their names blotted from the book (see Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 22:19).
(34-17) Malachi 4:5–6. What Is the Great Work Elijah Commenced? This earth has a destiny. Its purpose is to provide a place for people to work out their eternal salvation before the Lord. Part of that salvation depends on their acquiring the necessary ordinances, in righteousness, that will seal them to God and to each other for time and all eternity. But the ordinances are not for the living only. Otherwise, billions would have been denied these blessings simply because the necessary priesthood power was not available in the time or place they lived.
Joseph Smith was told by Moroni that Elijah would come. Moroni mentioned the “promises made to the fathers” (JS—H 1:39) in ancient times. These promises, Moroni said, would assist in turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “What was the promise made to the fathers that was to be fulfilled in the latter-days by the turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers? It was the promise of the Lord made through Enoch, Isaiah, and the prophets, to the nations of the earth, that the time should come when the dead should be redeemed. And the turning of the hearts of the children is fulfilled in the performing of the vicarious temple work and in the preparation of their genealogies.” (Doctrines of Salvation,2:154.)
Elijah came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in fulfillment of the Lord’s promise recorded by Malachi. His visit occurred on 3 April 1836 in the Kirtland Temple. The priesthood keys Elijah brought were the sealing powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood, the means whereby that which is bound and sealed on the earth is also bound and sealed in the heavens. (See D&C 110:13–16.)
Commenting on the meaning of turning hearts, Joseph Smith said: “Now, the word turn here should be translated bind, or seal. But what is the object of this important mission? or how is it to be fulfilled? The keys are to be delivered, the spirit of Elijah is to come, the Gospel to be established, the Saints of God gathered, Zion built up, and the Saints to come up as saviors on Mount Zion.” (Teachings, p. 330.)
Some of the lessons and insights that make a careful study of the Old Testament not only meaningful but critical are—
1. The testimony of the existence of God.
2. The record of the beginnings of mankind as a divine race placed on the earth for eternal purposes.
3. The importance of establishing a covenant relationship with God.
4. The history and purpose of the establishment of the elect lineage through which the priesthood would be restored and the blessings of the gospel extended to all in the last days.
5. The revelation of a divine law upon which civil and criminal codes of many nations would be built.
6. The knowledge that God intervenes directly in the lives of men and nations and that through Him many are divinely led, directed, and protected.
7. The blessings of obedience to the laws of God and faith in His name.
8. The consequences of disobedience and rebellion against God and His laws.
9. The corruption that results from any form of idolatry and the reasons for the commandments of the Lord against it.
10. The need to live and endure throughout mortality in obedience to God’s laws, even though suffering and pain and persecution may come.
11. The way by which the Saints can escape the corruptions and resulting judgments of the last days.
12. The promises of a literal gathering of Israel in the last days and a time of restoration and redemption for Israel.
13. The greatness and the dreadfulness of the day when the Lord will come in His glory.
14. The testimony that the God of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ and that He came to earth to free us from death and make it possible for us to be freed from sin and thus return to the presence of God the Father.
The Last Recorded Prophet in Old Testament Israel
For years Israel had denied, dishonored, persecuted, fought, and rebelled against the prophets. Malachi was the last of the true prophets in Israel in the Old Testament period of whom we have a record. God had desired that this nation be holy, His peculiar treasure. Upon them He had promised to heap His riches, glory, and power: “I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy.” (Psalm 132:15–16.) Not only this, but He desired to have them sufficiently pure that He could make their cities His place of habitation. They were to become Zion, where the Lord declared He would make His abode forever. (See Psalm 132:13–14.) By rejecting the prophets, Israel forfeited the promises and potential of becoming like Enoch’s people.
After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish nation zealously taught and practiced the law and gathered and preserved the words of the prophets. This in itself was good, but by the time of Christ, the learning of scribes gained precedence over continuing revelation, and the oral tradition in many cases had come to overshadow the law. The temptation for the Jews during this period was to honor dead prophets over living ones. Dead prophets do not have power to say “no,” any more than did the false gods worshiped by the Israelites in earlier times. Dead prophets call only past generations to repentance, or so it seems to those who reject the living ones.
The word of God to dead prophets can be falsified, misinterpreted, and bent to where it has lost its power to bring people to the Lord. Individuals are able to maintain a false sense of piety and righteousness even as they reject the living oracles. Christ criticized the people of His day for building the tombs of the prophets (Luke 11:48), and Samuel the Lamanite called the Book of Mormon people to repentance for the same sin (see Helaman 13:25–27).
The men who guided Israel during the period of Persian domination, unlike Moses, did not derive their authority from divine revelation but from the commission of a foreign emperor. A human king gave status and authority to the Torah, encouraged its codification, and threatened any offender of Mosaic precepts with fines, banishment, or death. In this way the law of Moses was established and made known to, even imposed upon, all Jewry under foreign rule. Unfortunately, the human hand by itself can preserve only the letter of the law.
Being a part of the empires of the day was a blessing for physical, if not spiritual, Israel. Throughout Israel’s history the sedentary Israelites were continually pressured by the Arabic and Aramean nomads. The power of the Persian, and later the Greek, armies preserved the security of the Jewish population during those periods when the nation was too weak to defend itself. Had Judah not been part of the gentile empires, the nomads might have overwhelmed the inhabitants of Judea. They could have pushed the Jews into the sea. Thus, as in so many other things, the centuries of subjection brought Israel both blessings and problems.
The Rise of the Scribes
When Judah returned from exile in Babylon, they brought back with them a number of things that were not a part of their original beliefs. If one of these things could be picked out to typify all the rest and symbolize what they meant, it would be the scribes. The scribes were originally educated men who made their livelihood keeping the records of the empire or as copyists of the scriptures.
These they studied diligently, both to detect scribal errors and to understand the scriptures’ meaning. Eventually their role expanded. Not only did they supply copies of the scriptures to the growing number of synagogues, but they also became teachers of the law. As long as Israel had prophets, the scribes remained teachers and copyists. But when the prophetic voice ceased in Israel, these experts in the law of Moses began to fill the vacuum.
“Once the true prophet has been duly rejected and passed to his reward, swarms of experts descend upon his words to begin the learned business of exegesis [drawing meaning out of the written word]. The words of the dead prophets become the peculiar possession of armies of specially trained and carefully conditioned scholars.”
A major factor contributing to the escalation of the power of the scribes was the shift of the common language of the people from Hebrew to Aramaic. Though a sister tongue, Aramaic was still sufficiently different that it made the Hebrew of the scriptures hard to understand. So, the people had to rely on the scholars for their information and understanding. The titles the scribes took upon themselves reflected their growing importance: lawyers, doctors, elders, and rabbis. It should not be surprising that there was no unity of interpretation among these scholars.