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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 15: Exilic and Postexilic Prophets"


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Ezekiel: His ministry began with the call of God to him in 593 in Babylonia. He had been deported in 597. The date of the last of his sayings (29:27) seems to have been 571.

In contrast to Jeremiah's book, that of Ezekiel is rather well-ordered, in three major parts: Judgment on Judah and Jerusalem; Judgment on the nations; Restoration of Israel.

The first of these sections is not in chronological order, for during part of the time he seems to be in Jerusalem before its fall, whereas at the start he was already in exile.

It is often said that Ezekiel was an ecstatic prophet. The basis for such a claim is found in things like his dumbness in 3:22-27. But the ecstatic prophets are out of their mind, and hardly if at all know what they are doing. Ezekiel knew well what he was doing, it was a symbolic act that God had ordered him to perform.

Jeremiah had spoken kindly of the first wave of exiles, who went out in 587 (24; 29). But Ezekiel speaks of them as stubborn of brow and obstinate in heart (2:3-8; 3:4-9 - Jeremiah did not so much praise them as say God would help them). He tells how in Babylonia he saw the glory of God transported there on a throne-chariot (1:1 - 3:15). In this vision he saw the famous four living creatures. He also is told to eat a scroll (chapter 2), which stands for his being filled with the messages of God. This vision appointed Ezekiel as a watchman and prophet: If the watchman does not warn his people, he will be guilty of their ruin.

Chapter 4 seems to imply he is still in Jerusalem before its fall: he is told to perform symbolic actions including drawing Jerusalem on a large clay tablet, and raising a siege against it. In chapter 12 he acted out the part of an exile going into captivity.

In chapters 8-11 he is given visions as though he were transported back to Jerusalem, to see the glory of God leaving the temple. We cannot be sure if this was a physical transport, or a vision. While in Jerusalem he saw the abominations committed even in the temple precincts.

He sometimes makes use of allegory to express the sinfulness and worthlessness of Israel. In this he at times speaks of Israel as the spouse of God, as Hosea had done (16 & 23). Of major importance is his teaching on individual responsibility in chapter 18: they must stop using the proverb that said the fathers have eaten sour grapes, the teeth of the children are set on edge. Each shall bear his own iniquity. But if the evil man repents, he is readily forgiven; if the good man turns to sin, he will not live.

The vision of the dry bones in chapter 37 is especially famous: it is a vivid way of saying that God can and will still restore His people. Hence in 43:1-9 Ezekiel saw the throne-chariot return and enter the new temple, as part of chapters 40-48 which picture an idealized cult within an idealized temple.

Some have attempted to see a prophecy of the last times of the world in chapters 38-39 and even to identify Russia within it. This is quite fanciful, lacking in any solid exegetical support.

Finally, there is a fascinating possibility in 34:11: "Thus says the Lord God: I, I myself will search out my sheep and seek them out." We notice the repeated I, clearly standing for God, as though He Himself intended to come in person. Yet in 34:23: "I will set one shepherd over them, my servant David". It is possible that this could imply the divinity of the Messiah. (cf. Jeremiah 23:3-5 and 30:11 for a similar situation. The targum marks both passages of Jeremiah as messianic).

Obadiah: This is the shortest prophecy of the OT, only 21 verses long. The date is uncertain, but most likely it belongs to fifth century BC - the range of suggested dates runs from 850 to 312. The fifth century was a time when the Edomites had left their original home near the Gulf of Aqaba and had settled in southern Judah. They were among the adversaries of the Jews returning from exile. Obadiah hopes God will set things right. Please recall our comments on Jer 20:12, on the sense of Hebrew naqam.

Haggai: Here we can date the book confidently to 520 BC, and even become more precise in regard to each of the four pronouncements in the book. Haggai first said God willed work to resume on the temple - failure to do that meant that things that should naturally have helped them did not; then Haggai urges the work to continue even though the temple might not be as grand as Solomon's temple; the third section has questions to the priests about ritual cleanness; the final oracle says Zerubbabel, God's chosen one, is to be exalted.

There is special interest in 2:6-7, where God says: "In a little while, I will move heaven and earth and the hemdat of all the nations will come in, and I will fill this house with glory". St. Jerome translated: "The one desired by the nations will come in", i. e., the Messiah. More commonly it is translated "the desired things [or treasures] of all nations will come in." The fact that hemdat is singular, while its verb is plural causes a problem, and inclines many to translate "desired things, or treasures. But even if so, the picture is that of all nations coming to Jerusalem - which points to the messianic age. And God says He will fill the temple with glory, and even, in verse 9, says the glory of this new temple will be greater than that of Solomon. Materially this did not come true - but there was greater glory, in that Jesus the Messiah came in to the new temple. Therefore in view of the background, even if we do translate hemdat as plural, there is at least an implication of the messianic age in it - which is only "a little while" - from 520 BC!

Zechariah: He was a contemporary of Haggai. There are two main sections of this book. The first, chapters 1-8 has a series of eight night visions, dated to 519 BC, promising the restoration of Israel. First there are four horsemen who patrol the earth; then there are four horns, standing for the four nations that dispersed Judah and Israel, but they are terrified by four blacksmiths, agents of the Lord; then there is the measuring of Jerusalem, foretelling the restoration of Jerusalem. Next, in chapter 3, the High priest, Joshua is made glorious and given responsibility for both civilian and religious restoration. In the fifth vision (chapter 4) Joshua and Zerubbabel share responsibility for the golden lampstand, which is the restored community. In 5:21-4 there is a flying scroll, standing for God's curse on those who swear falsely. In chapter 5:5-11, a woman in a bushel is taken to Babylon, to remove wickedness from Israel. In the eighth and final vision (6:1-8), four chariots and horses patrol the earth, to prepare restoration, as in the first vision. The remainder of the first part of the book (6:9 - 8:23) is a series of oracles concerning the messianic age: coronation of the messianic king, then a stress on the ethical ideals of the prophets as more suited for the restoration than mere external observances. Finally, chapter 8 gives an idealized image of the messianic age in Jerusalem.

The second part of the book, chapters 9-14 - which many scholars assign to a later prophet - again focuses on restoration, and humiliation of the enemies of Israel, the gathering of the dispersed people, the power of God over nature and history. Already in 9:9-10 Jerusalem is told to rejoice, for her King will be righteous, coming riding on a donkey - Palm Sunday, of course. Very impressive is the allegory of two shepherds (11:4-17): the prophet seems to have acted out the part of a good shepherd, the Messiah, rejected by the sheep, paid for by thirty silver pieces. Then the Lord Himself said to the prophet who was acting for Him: "Throw it [the price] to the potter, the fine price at which they valued me." The me seems to refer to the Lord Himself - and since the Messiah is in view, we can gather that the Messiah is the Lord. It would be hard not to think of Mt. 27:3-10. Of course we are reminded of the remarkable text of Ez. 34:11 where the Lord says :"I, I will search out my sheep" and Jeremiah 23:3: "I myself shall gather the remnant of my sheep (and 23:5-6 according to the targum, speaks of the Messiah), and "this is the name they give him: 'The Lord is our justice'." Samson Levey, op. cit., p. 70 comments that a later rabbinic document said, referring to this text, "His name is 'the lord'"- in Hebrew Yahweh! - These texts could give a hint that the Messiah is God Himself!). Cf. Apoc/Rev 1:7.

The final chapters 12-14 foretell the Day of the Lord. Within them, 12:10 is striking. The Lord says He will pour upon the people of Jerusalem a spirit of favor and supplication, of repentance: "They will look upon me the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child." The strange shift from me to him is striking. It seems that the Lord speaks of Himself here - even as He did in 11:13 - as the pierced Messiah - and then they will mourn for him. The targum does not see this as Messianic, but we in the light of the later events can easily do it. It foretells the final conversion of Jerusalem - of which St. Paul speaks in Romans 11:25-26 - when they will be converted and will mourn over the fact that they did pierce the Messiah, the Lord. This understanding is helped by the words of 13:7, which Jesus Himself quoted shortly before His death: "Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be dispersed" - we recall how the Lord identified Himself with the good shepherd above in 11:7-13.

Altogether, Zechariah is, next to Isaiah, the most messianic of the prophets.

Joel: Dates have been proposed for Joel from the late 9th century to the late 4th century. From his knowledge of and interest in cultic matters, some think Joel may have lived near Jerusalem. The first part of the book (1:1 - 2:17) speaks of a devastating plague of locusts - which could be taken as a literal infestation, or as describing a foreign invasion, or as an apocalyptic account of a divine judgment on Judah. The remainder of the book is concerned with the Day of the Lord, a day of judgment on the nations, but blessings for Israel. For the battle that will lead to such blessings, they will beat their plowshares into swords - not a contradiction of Isaiah 2:4, which speaks of the period when the blessings are won and assured, while Joel speaks of the battle needed to reach that day.

The language becomes heavily apocalyptic at times: in 2:10 and in 4:15 the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars do not give their light. We saw other examples of this pattern of speech in chapter 4 above, from Isaiah and Ezekiel.

St. Peter in his address on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) quoted Joel 3:1-5, and said it was being fulfilled then. But there is multiple fulfillment in some prophecies, and so the words of Joel are to apply again before the final day of the Lord.

Malachi: We have no personal information about Malachi, and some even doubt that Malachi - which means "my messenger" - was his name. We gather something on the date from 1:8, which speaks of the nation as ruled by a governor - which was true in the Persian period (540-450).

There are six oracles in this book. It opens with the expression of God's love for Israel/Jacob, in contrast to His anger with Edom; secondly, God charges the priests have become careless, they even offer defective victims, He prefers the clean oblation offered from the rising to the setting of the sun (more on this below); then God objects to mixed marriages. He will come in judgment, they have wearied Him. His messenger will come first. The Lord will refine the priesthood. In fifth place He complains of their failure to pay the tithes, promises reward if they do. Then, He rebukes those who question the value of obedience to God. The faithful will be written in the Lord's book. The prophet Elijah will come before the Day of the Lord.

We must ask about the offerings made by the gentiles in 1:11. Many opinions have been proposed: some think the prophet means pagan sacrifices - but, would an Israelite prophet speak that way? We recall St. Paul who in 1 Cor 10:20 says what the pagans offer is offered to demons - in the sense that the demons promote such offerings. Some have suggested it refers to proselytes - but they were not so numerous, or so widely spread, to qualify. Some suggest it refers to the fame of the name of Yahweh. But that would not be called a sacrifice. Some think it means prayer, praise etc., in the days of the Messiah - Again, this is not sacrifice.

So by elimination, we go back to an interpretation found in many of the Fathers of the Church: this is a prophecy of the Mass. Of course, all Protestant commentators would reject that. The Council of Trent (DS 1742) said the Mass is the fulfillment. So did Vatican II, LG ยง17.

The words of 3:1 are remarkable: "Behold, I am sending my messenger, who will prepare a way before my face, and suddenly the Lord will come to His temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you are desiring." This is related to 4:5: "Behold I am sending to you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord comes." The noted former form critic (more recently Fuller declared form criticism bankrupt), Reginald H. Fuller (The Foundations of New Testament Christology, Chas. Scribner's Sons, NY, 1965, p. 48) said that 4:5 is a note commenting on 3:1: "Elijah appears as the forerunner not of the Messiah but of Yahweh himself...." Of course, we know the Messiah is God, and we note that Jesus Himself in Mt 11:3-10 (Lk 7:24-27) referred Mal 3:1 to Himself, implying He knew His own divinity. (He used the then current form of the words in which it was modified by similarity of wording to Ex 23:20).

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