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

What proof do Christians have of an absentee God? Only the lack of books between testaments. Which is hardly enough.

It’s usually round Christmas that 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 them.

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, God was silent. He had no prophets—’cause if he did, the prophet would’ve written a book, but no prophets wrote a book, ergo no prophets. And he did no miracles—’cause if he had, someone would’ve written a book about it, but nobody wrote one, so nothing 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 divine doings, among the apocrypha, which were written during that 400-year period? Oh, insist these preachers, they’re mythology. They don’t count.)

Okay, first let me clear up one minor little mistake. The last book written of the Old Testament was more than likely 2 Chronicles, not Malachi. It’s what we find in the Hebrew book order: Malachi is bunched together with the middle books, called the Prophets, which the Pharisees accepted as canon before they accepted the last-written books, the Writings (Chronicles included among them). To be fair, they were both likely written round the same time, but still: 2 Chronicles last.

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

The prophet Symeón.

Have you read the gospels? Good. ’Member the prophet Symeon?

Luke 2.25-32 KWL
25 Look: There was a person in Jerusalem named Symeón.
This righteous, devout person was awaiting Israel’s helper, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
26 By the Holy Spirit, it was revealed to him he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Lord’s Messiah.
27 He was led by the Spirit to the temple.
When the baby Jesus’s parents were bringing him,
to do to him as following the Law’s custom about him,
28 Symeón took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now dismiss your slave in peace, boss, like your word said.
30 My eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you prepared to show all the people—
32 a light of revelation to the nations, and the glory of Israel’s people.”

Yeah, technically Luke doesn’t call Symeón a prophet. Doesn’t matter; that’s clearly what he was. He heard the Holy Spirit. He spoke like 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.

Symeón wasn’t gonna die till he saw Messiah, and after seeing him told God to “dismiss your slave in peace”—he was ready to die. Christian artists reasonably tend to interpret this as meaning Symeón was old. So he’s painted as an old man, or portrayed as old by actors.

To be fair, it could only mean, despite being relatively young, Symeón 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 God just cure him? So the assumption Symeón 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, Symeón could have been on the short 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 Symeón spent hearing from God, and 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 “silent years,” y’know.

But to be fair (and you’ll notice I’m gonna keep saying “to be fair” because I’m repeating the objections of those naysayers who wanna limit prophecy as much as possible, so as to keep these “silent years” dead silent) Symeón could have started prophesying recently. Like really recently. Like within-the-last-15-months recently, round the time God ended the “silent years” and had Gabriel appear to Zechariah. Symeón could’ve been a brand-new prophet, only recently empowered to speak for God.

Why that doesn’t work is really simple: It’s for the same reason Joseph knew he could trust his prophetic dreams. If you suddenly find yourself with a brand-new supernatural ability, you don’t 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 trustworthy. I’ve met many a stupid prophet like that. You quickly find you can’t trust a thing they say.) Symeón needed time to develop and confirm his ability. Ideally, he also needed some other prophets, followers of God who were more experienced and spiritually mature, to guide him. And how long might they have been ministering?

Imagine you woke 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 didn’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 Symeón could’ve woke up one morning able 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 Symeón means prophecy existed and was practiced before Gabriel appeared to Zechariah. And since Symeón needed to be discipled, prophecy existed and was practiced before Symeón became a prophet either. And those prophets needed training… and so on, and so on, all the way back to Old Testament times.

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

The other prophets of Jesus’s infancy.

Luke 2.36-38 KWL
36 Anna bat Fanuél, of the tribe of Asher, was a prophet. She was old; full of days.
She’d been with a man seven years after her virginity, 37 and a widow till the age of 84.
She never left the temple,
worshiping with fasting and prayer, night and day.
38 At that time, standing nearby, she began praising God and speaking about Jesus
to everyone who had been waiting for the rescue of Jerusalem.

Symeón wasn’t called a prophet in Luke, but Anna definitely was. And unlike Symeón, 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 apply to Anna. Yeah, I was just playing with you. Shoulda read your bible.

I don’t just count Anna as the only other prophet in Luke. The book’s jammed with prophets. There’s John’s mom, who prophesied over Mary. John’s dad, who prophesied over him. Mary, who prophesied about what God did for her. Joseph, who had and obeyed prophetic visions. God had his newborn prophets raised by prophetic parents. 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 Symeón 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 needs 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 were plenty of other prophets out there. We just don’t have 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 won’t accept it. That’s just how thick they are.

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. And 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 explanation. Betcha he invented it. He wanted 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. He 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.