30 December 2020

“Silent years”: Did God once turn off his miracles?

It’s usually round Christmas when preachers start talking about “the silent years,” or “the 400 silent years,” and how the annunciations of John the Baptist and Christ Jesus mark the end of that era.

As it’s taught, for roughly four centuries between the writing of Malachi, “the closing of the Old Testament canon,” and Gabriel’s appearance to John’s dad, the Holy Spirit was silent. He stopped talking to prophets, and had none. ’Cause if he did, these prophets would’ve written a book, right? But no prophets wrote a book, ergo no prophets.

And during these “silent years,” it’s claimed the Spirit likewise stopped doing miracles. ’Cause if he had, again, someone would’ve written a book about it. But nobody wrote one, so nothing miraculous musta happened. If those 400 years weren’t silent, we’d have more books of the bible.

(Um… what about the books of prophets, and of the Spirit’s activity, in the apocrypha? You realize they were written during that 400-year period. But the preachers who claim there were silent years either know nothing at all about the apocrypha, or dismiss ’em as Catholic mythology—or worse, claim they’re devilish. Either way they don’t count.)

Okay, lemme first clear up a minor mistake: The actual last book written of the Old Testament was 2 Chronicles, not Malachi. It’s what we find in the Hebrew book order. There are three groupings, Law, Prophets, and Writings, which were written in that order. Malachi is among the Prophets; Chronicles is the last of the Writings. Some scholars figure they were written round the same time; some don’t.

Now the major mistake: The entire idea of “silent years” contradicts the scriptures. You knew I was gonna get to that, didn’tcha?

The prophet Simeon.

When people tell bible stories around Christmastime, sometimes they forget to include when Jesus’s parents first took their newborn to temple. There, they ran into two prophets. Beginning with Simeon.

Luke 2.25-32 NRSV
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

True, Luke doesn’t technically call Simeon a prophet. Didn’t have to. That’s clearly what Simeon was. He heard the Holy Spirit, who was not silent. He shared what he heard, and that’s what makes one a prophet. He prophesied over Jesus’s mom, Lk 2.35 a prediction of a sword which’d pierce her soul, which loads of Christians have embraced as true and accurate, ’cause she watched her son die.

The Spirit told Simeon he wouldn’t die till he saw Messiah. After seeing Jesus, Simeon told the Spirit to “dismiss your slave in peace”—he was ready to die. Christian artists reasonably tend to interpret this as meaning Simeon was old. So in art and movies he’s depicted as an old man.

To be fair it could only mean, despite being relatively young, Simeon was suffering from an illness, and wanted to die so he could be released from it. Two problems with that theory: Someone that sick would have been ritually unclean, and forbidden from temple; and why couldn’t the Spirit just cure him? So the assumption Simeon was old is likely correct. And since he was expecting to die, but hadn’t, we’re talking someone who was really old. Pushing-100 old.

To be fair, Simeon coulda been on the early end of “old,” like his seventies. Ps 90.10 Not that old, but old enough to expect his time should be up by now, so why was God keeping him around? But regardless of his age, that’s still a whole lot of years Simeon spent hearing from God, likely sharing what he heard. Samuel started hearing from God as a child, y’know. We could be talking 65 years of prophecies. That knocks out about 15 percent of our “400 silent years,” y’know.

But to be fair (and y’notice I keep saying “to be fair” because I’m repeating the objections of naysayers who wanna limit prophecy as much as possible, and keep these “silent years” dead silent), Simeon could also have got into prophecy really recently. Really recently, like within-the-last-15-months recently—round the time God ended the “silent years” and had Gabriel appear to Zechariah. Simeon could’ve been a brand-new prophet, only recently empowered to speak for God.

Why this doesn’t work is really simple. It’s for the same reason Joseph knew he could trust his own prophetic dreams. If you suddenly find yourself with a brand-new supernatural ability, you don’t yet trust it. You haven’t had it long enough to know you can trust it. Unless you’re naïve, and trust it even though you’ve never proven it—and I’ve met many an immature prophet like that, and you quickly find you can’t trust a thing they say. Simeon needed time to develop and confirm his ability. Ideally he also needed other prophets, followers of God who were more experienced and spiritually mature, to guide him. And how long might they have been prophesying?

Imagine you wake up one morning with super powers. Would you innately know how to use them? Or might you accidentally set fire to every room in your house getting the hang of your heat vision, crushing your pets (like Lenny in Of Mice and Men) ’cause you don’t know the limits of your super-strength, slamming into buildings getting the hang of flight? Same deal with prophecy. It’s only people who have no clue how prophecy actually works, who imagine it’s a lot more magical than practical, who assume Simeon woke up one morning with the power to infallibly prophesy. And he wouldn’t need any Paul-like warning to do it in love; 1Co 13.2 he could just do it! And everyone would supernaturally believe him too, just like they believed everything Jeremiah told them! …Oh, wait.

Nope. The very existence of Simeon means prophecy existed, and was practiced long before Gabriel appeared to Zechariah. Since Simeon needed to be discipled by other prophets, and those prophets needed to be discipled by other prophets, we likely have an unbroken chain going all the way back to Old Testament times.

But if Simeon isn’t enough evidence for ya, he was hardly the only prophet in Israel in 7BC.

The prophet Anna.

Simeon wasn’t called a prophet in Luke, but Anna bat Phanuel definitely was. (And she was from Asher, one of the “lost tribes of Israel” which was never actually lost… but let’s deal with one popular Christian false belief at a time.)

Luke 2.36-38 NRSV
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Also, unlike Simeon, we have Anna’s age: 84 years old. Luke brings up how long she’d been a widow because it was probably the point she took up residence in the temple, praying her brains out and prophesying to all who’d listen to her. Assuming she’d been married at the usual age of 13, we’re talking a 64-year ministry.

So all those “but to be fair” statements I made in the last section: All of ’em totally apply to Anna. Yeah, I was just playing with you. Shoulda read your bible.

I certainly don’t count Anna as the only other prophet at work before Jesus’s birth. The book’s jammed with prophets. There’s John’s mom, who prophesied over Mary. John’s dad, who prophesied over John. Mary, who prophesied about what God did for her. Joseph, who had and obeyed prophetic visions. God intentionally had his newborn prophets John and Jesus raised by prophets. None of these people were unfamiliar with prophecy. It wasn’t a new experience. It’s a very, very old experience.

Those years were hardly silent.

We don’t have a book of Simeon in the bible. Nor a book of Anna. Nor, for that matter, books of Elijah or Elisha.

Contrary to what certain publishing companies tell people these days, not every prophet has to write a book. The absence of prophetic books in no way indicates the absence of Spirit-empowered prophets, sharing messages and doing God’s work. Tens of thousands of prophets have ministered God to others without putting a single prophetic word on papyrus, parchment, paper, or processor for us to keep. Including Christ Jesus himself.

And those who did, didn’t automatically make it into the bible. The prophet Baruch ben Neriah, who wrote some of Jeremiah’s prophecies down, Jr 36.4 appears to have written his own prophecies down in the book of Baruch. Problem is, the only ancient copies we have of it are in Greek. So the Jews don’t consider it scripture, and Protestants include it in the apocrypha. Other Christians figure it is bible. But whether you believe in Baruch or not, it just goes to show there are plenty of other prophets out there. We just don’t include their books in our bibles.

Some of those books, like 1–2 Maccabees, were written during the so-called “silent years.” They tell of the mighty things God did at that time. Hanukkah, the festival of the temple rededication in 164BC, which Jesus himself celebrated, Jn 10.22 took place smack in the middle of the “silent years.” Of course, if you’ve never read 1–2 Maccabees (and most Protestants have never bothered), you wouldn’t know this. Plenty of people assume God has only ever acted within the pages of their bibles—and at no other time in history.

Which is foolish. God is everywhere in human history. You just gotta learn history. Those who believe in the “silent years,” don’t know history—and often don’t figure they need to. They know it all. Tell ’em God did something outside the realm of their knowledge, and they refuse to accept it. That’s just how thick they can be.

The earworm of ignorance.

Here’s something just as thick: I know people who know about the history of Israel between the Old and New Testaments. They know God never stops speaking; that there’s no such thing as “silent years.” They believe miracles happen in the present day; they’ve even done a few.

Yet when Christmastime rolls around, I kid you not, they refer to the time before Jesus as “silent years.”

Why? Well everybody else calls ’em that.

One pastor claimed, with a totally straight face, they’re called “silent years” because the bible is silent about what happened between Malachi and Matthew. I have no idea where he came up with that ridiculous explanation. Betcha he invented it: He wants to use the term, but rejects the theology. But it’s definitely not what other Christians mean by “silent years.”

I heard the term again four years ago when a Messianic Jew was trying to explain Hanukkah. That guy firmly believes God actively defended Israel during the Maccabeean wars. God inspired prophets, God empowered soldiers, God kept the oil from running out despite only having a day’s worth of oil. Yet he still described these events as happening during the “silent years.” Even though he knows they weren’t silent at all.

Well. I know the sun doesn’t literally rise in the morning; the earth rotates to face it, and out of custom we call it “sunrise.” We all know better, and were taught better. But the term stuck. We don’t use it to deceive; we use it ’cause we haven’t invented a better word. “Earthspin” is too awkward. But you notice: Because we keep using the words “sunrise” and “sunset,” we often have to remind ourselves it’s not the sun moving: It’s the earth. It’s us. We’re so caught up in how a sunrise or sunset looks, we actually forget who’s moving and what isn’t. Our perspective takes precedence over facts.

It doesn’t just happen with sunrises. It happens with plenty of things. When we’re too pessimistic, we blow off good news. When we’re too emotional, we justify destructive or foolish things. When we’re not in a mood to think things through, we go with whatever knee-jerk reaction has been conditioned into us.

Same with “silent years.” Because humans have no problem juggling contradictory ideas, plenty of us can call them “silent years”—yet still believe God is never silent. Problem is, like the sunrise, when “silent years” is on the brain, we forget and run with it: We act as if God wasn’t around (or wasn’t around so much) during the time between the testaments. We even act as if God isn’t around now.

If any tradition gets in the way of your relationship with God, ditch it. I nominate “silent years.” Try not to call it that. It doesn’t at all reflect who God is.