Prophecy in the Old Testament reached its greatest heights preceding and during the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the two Isaiahs made the most profound impressions on the religious development of the Israelite people. The period following the exile is characterized by the work of many prophets, some of whom produced writings that are preserved in the Old Testament. In general, these prophets were men of limited vision, but there were some exceptions, and the literature that belongs to this period contains some of the best insights found in any of the prophetic writings, although in most instances the authors of these passages are unknown. In this section, only those prophets for whom books in the Old Testament are named are discussed.
When the exiles returned from Babylon, they experienced many bitter disappointments. Both Ezekiel and Deutero- Isaiah promised so much that the people expected an era of great happiness and material prosperity. However, despite the help and encouragement given the exiles by Cyrus, the Persian ruler, when they returned to their own land, they experienced miserable conditions. The land was neglected, the buildings were dilapidated, and the people who had remained behind had become careless and indifferent toward their religious obligations. To make matters worse, the neighboring states assumed a hostile attitude toward the Hebrews; in attempting to rebuild the walls of their city, the Hebrews found it necessary to have their swords close at hand while working with bricks and mortar. Under these conditions, Haggai appeared as a spokesman for Yahweh.
Haggai's message is essentially one of reproof because the people have neglected to rebuild the Temple so that Yahweh might dwell in their midst. The people responded to Haggai's message and set to work with a newfound will. Handicapped by a lack of means and materials, they did the best they could under the circumstances. When they had finished, Haggai told them that even though the building they erected was poor in comparison with the earlier Temple, Yahweh would be with them; in due time, the promises Yahweh made would be fully realized.
Joining with Haggai in bringing a message of hope and encouragement to those who returned from the exile was Zechariah, whose analysis of the situation was more profound than that of his contemporary. Zechariah realized that something more than a rebuilding of the Temple was necessary before Israel's hopes could be realized. A moral transformation must take place within the people themselves, who must be cleansed of their evil nature. Furthermore, the foreign nations whom the people consider their enemies must be subdued, but not by the Israelites' taking up arms against them: Yahweh will quash the aggressors when the time is right for him to act.
Zechariah's messages are expressed in a series of eight visions, each of which symbolizes some aspect of the situation having to do with the future of his people. In one of these visions, the prophet sees an angelic surveyor measuring the area on which Jerusalem is to be built and marking the line of a wall. Another angel explains that the city will have no need of a wall because Yahweh's protection is all that is necessary. In another vision, the high priest Joshua, dressed in soiled clothes, stands before an angel. At Joshua's right stands Satan, the accuser, who brings charges against Joshua and the people to whom he ministers. The angel does not accept these accusations. Joshua is then clothed in a white robe, which symbolizes forgiveness of the sins of the people. Other visions symbolize the destruction of the forces of evil. One of the most significant statements found in the book is Yahweh's message to Zerubbabel, including the saying "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty."
A prophet whose name we do not know spoke to the returned exiles and offered them an explanation of the situation that they faced. He is known as Malachi not because this was his name but because the word means "messenger," and in his predictions concerning the future, he says that a messenger will precede the coming of the Day of Yahweh and will prepare the people for it. Later editors supposed erroneously that the prophet was referring to himself, and hence this name was attached to the writings. He was not a great prophet, but he did have some words of encouragement, as well as words of rebuke, for the people to whom he addressed his messages. Insisting that Yahweh still loves the Israelites in spite of all the misfortunes that have befallen them, Malachi calls attention to the fact that the Edomites were severely punished, which was good news to the Israelites because they despised the Edomites as traitors to those whom they should have befriended. The prophet quotes Yahweh as saying "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals."
According to Malachi, one of the reasons why Yahweh withheld his blessings from the Israelites for so long a time was their frequent use of sick and inferior animals for sacrificial offerings. Yahweh demands the best and will be satisfied with nothing less. Another reason why Yahweh did not bless them was their failure in the matters of tithes and offerings; here the prophet accuses his people of robbing God. Also, some men divorced their wives in order to marry women of foreign ancestry, which is contrary to the will of Yahweh. So careless and indifferent have many of the people become that the prophet says that even among the Gentiles, Yahweh's name is honored and feared more than it is among the Israelites. When the Israelites repent and correct all of these mistakes, Yahweh will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing so great that the people will not be able to receive all of it. This blessing will include such material benefits as bountiful crops, increase of their flocks, and freedom from sickness.
Obadiah's work is preserved in a book that contains a single chapter. Usually works of this length were placed in larger collections of manuscripts and included under the name of a different author. Presumably in this case, editors or compilers believed that the work would attract more attention if placed by itself. The book is the least significant of all the prophetic writings both from a literary and a religious point of view. Decidedly nationalistic in tone, the first part of the chapter rejoices in the fall of the Edomites. The remaining portion predicts the triumph of the Hebrew people at a time when all of their enemies will be destroyed.
Nothing is known concerning the life of this prophet. A lack of agreement exists concerning the time when he lived, but this is not a matter of great importance. The book opens with the description of an unusually severe plague of locusts and is followed by Joel's instructing the priests to proclaim a fast and to call a solemn assembly, the purpose of which is to arouse the people to repent and reform. After the people "rend [their] heart and not [their] garments," Yahweh will pour out his spirit on all flesh, causing sons and daughters to prophesy, young men to see visions, and old men to dream.
The prophets of the post-exilic period are of particular interest because they indicate the various trends of thought that were taking shape during the centuries that immediately followed the return of the exiles from Babylon. The Temple in Jerusalem and the many ceremonies and activities associated with it came to occupy a most important place in the religious lives of the people, and especially in the case of Haggai, who believed that Yahweh's presence, as well as his blessings, was dependent upon a proper place in which he might dwell in their midst. The distinction between the secular and the sacred, emphasized by Malachi and implied in the works of other prophets, came to occupy more and more attention on the part of the priests. The spirit of nationalism, which in some cases reached the point of hatred toward Israel's enemies, can be seen in Obadiah and, to a lesser extent, in Joel.
It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that these tendencies were present in all of the prophetic writers. Voices were heard from time to time in which the spirits of Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah found magnificent expression. We do not know the persons who possessed these voices, but many of their messages have been preserved in the later chapters of the Book of Isaiah. The introduction of the figure of Satan in the prophecies of Zechariah, as well as the eschatological implications of Zechariah's visions, marks an important trend in the development of post-exilic Judaism.