The Old and New Testaments are separated by one blank page in most Bibles. But that single page represents a long interval known as the 400 years of silence, as we have no record of God speaking through the prophets or inspired writers.
Nonetheless, God was at work orchestrating world affairs to bring about the fullness of time, his planned redemption of humanity.
In the Old Testament, God had allowed the Assyrians and Babylonians to take the Israelites into exile because of their disobedient worship of false gods. By the time of Malachi, a remnant of the Jews had returned to Israel, then under the rule of the great Medo-Persian empire.
Israel had ceased to be an independent nation, the annexed territory of a succession of larger empires. A puppet state with no king of their own, but allowed to practice their religion.
But the Exile had left its mark on the Jews and their religion. Despite repeated warnings from the prophets, they went through a formal pretense of serving God, but inwardly blaspheming his name while living in disobedience.
Such is the atmosphere at the end of of the Old Testament (around 430 BC), which concludes with both a warning and the prophecy often considered the capstone prophecy of the OT.
This ushered in the Intertestamental Period.
A dark and silent period in Israel’s history.
Even though the intertestamental period was dark and silent period in Israel’s history, God was preparing the way for Christianity, through the rising of three major world powers: the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. A shifting which moved the center of world power gradually westward. And a crucial step in setting the stage for Christ’s arrival, in which each of the successive six eras played an important role.
The Persian era
Under Persia (397-336 BC), Israel mostly governed itself, and was allowed to rebuild the temple and restore the sacrificial system. Both were vital for preserving the Jewish religion and keeping the promise of the coming Messiah alive.
The Greek era
The Greek era (336-332 BC) had long-lasting and important influence. Alexander the Great pushed toward the Hellenization of the world: a worldwide empire united by the same customs and with one language. Ironically, it was his death which brought his plan to fruition. After his death, the empire divided into four dynasties, spread far and wide, and making Greek the common language. This was instrumental in preparing the way for the OT to be translated into Greek.
The Egyptian era
The Ptolemaic dynasty, centered in Egypt, was very tolerant of Judaism and facilitated the translation of the OT Scriptures into Greek. This Septuagint version of the OT became widespread, taking the promise of God’s soon-coming Messiah throughout the world. It was even frequently quoted in the New Testament. This was perhaps the single greatest development in preparing the world for the coming of Christ.
The Syrian era
When the Syrian based Seleucid Dynasty (198-165 BC) took over, Israel entered a period of almost uninterrupted martyrdom. Antiochus Epiphanes, determined to wipe out the Jewish religion, forced Jews to accept Greek culture, religion, and language. He even sold the priesthood, and desecrated the Holy of Holies.
The more the Jews were denied worship and separated from the temple, the more important their OT Scriptures and synagogues became to them. The synagogues, located throughout the Greek world, became the great missionary vessel for spreading Israel’s Messianic hope everywhere.
The Maccabean era
Antiochus Epiphanes’ act of sacrilege led to an uprising and civil war, led by Judas Maccabeus, resulting in Jewish independence. It is still celebrated with the eight-day Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah.
The Maccabean era (165-163 BC) was important because it brought about a renewal of Jewish nationalism and renewed hope for the arrival of the coming Messiah.
The Roman era (66-63 BC)
The Romans gained control of Israel in 63 BC, at which time Pompey walked into the Holy of Holies. An act which estranged every loyal Jewish heart from Rome, and created a burning desire for the Messiah’s arrival. John the Baptist stepped into this scene, announcing the Christ’s arrival, and bringing the 400 years of silence to an end.
Rome, by establishing peace, economic stability, and building roads throughout the empire, made the spread of Christianity much easier.
What can we learn from the 400 years of silence?
First, that God is never completely silent and always at work. Even when all seems dark. But primarily, that he is sovereign and holds world affairs in his hands. If he can move and situate great nations and kingdoms to do his will, then he can also orchestrate the affairs of our humble lives.