Behold the King
WORDS BY THÉA ROSENBURG
Four hundred years of silence.
After the roars and pleas of the prophets, that silence rang—as audible, in its way, as a lament. The Israelites had grown accustomed to the prophets and their noise, which often ran behind the clamor of daily life, a muted hum. Some prophets the Israelites opposed; some, they killed. But every generation or so, God sent a new one. When he displaced their kings, he still gave the Israelites prophets. When he cast his people out of the land, he sent them away with prophets. And when he brought them back to Jerusalem, they came home in the company of prophets.
But then that steady hum ceased. The last prophet’s words hung in the air: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5–6). The Messiah is coming, the prophet said. And before him, one will come running—a herald, announcing his arrival.
Those were the last words the people heard from God for 400 years.
We know those years as the blank page between the Old Testament and the New, but in that time, generations of Israelite girls grew to womanhood, birthed babies, buried babies, raised children. They witnessed their daughters sold or bartered over or married off to foreign men. Israelite boys grew to manhood and fought wars against this invading army or that one. They accumulated wealth and lost it. Bought land and sold it. Buried their fathers, their mothers, their wives.
In those years, Jerusalem became a prize contested by dozens of well-armed kings; several in a single generation might conquer then lose the city. An Israelite, Judas Maccabeus, won the city back for a time, and people wondered: Was he the Messiah, Israel’s promised Savior? Fearsome and bold, quick to call on the Lord, and dedicated to keeping God’s covenants—they wondered.
But Judas Maccabeus died. Rule passed to his brothers, whose heirs made such dismal leaders that the Israelites themselves appealed to the Romans to come and restore order. The Romans came; the would-be Israelite king resisted, and the Romans seized Jerusalem.
And so, Israel became not a battleground but a taxed and governed province of the Roman Empire. The people had peace, but at the cost of their nation’s sovereignty; they had a king—Herod—but he was a puppet under the authority of Rome, and many Israelites despised him. They waited, but no Messiah appeared, terrible and glorious, to vanquish the Roman soldiers.
And still, no word came from God.
A messenger appeared. Not a prophet, but an angel, terrible and glorious, who blazed in the temple before Zechariah the priest. Zechariah’s elderly barren wife would bear a son, the angel said, and that son would be a prophet running ahead of the Messiah, a herald announcing his coming. Their son John would—here the angel used the final words of that last prophet—“turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 3:6).
“How shall I know this?” Zechariah wondered (Luke 1:18). He was old; he had lived with this hope for a long time and had, perhaps, found it too painful to carry. He asked for a sign, and the angel gave him one: until the baby’s birth, Zechariah would be struck dumb. After four centuries of silence, the Lord had sent a messenger at last—but the priest could tell no one about it.
The angel appeared again—but not in Jerusalem, amid the smoke and gold of the temple, and not to the priest. This time he appeared in the poor village of Nazareth, to a young unmarried woman.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he bellowed (Luke 1:28). But seeing that his words troubled and confused her, the angel spoke gently: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (v. 30). It is as though he left the room’s center—where he’d stood with his arms raised, wildly radiating joy—and sat down beside her.
Though a virgin, she would conceive and bear a son, he said—the Messiah her people so longed for. All those promises God had made to Israel, centuries and centuries ago? Her Son would fulfill them. The kingdom her people had lost? Her Son would reclaim it, and his reign would last forever. Her child would also be the child of God.
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” she answered. “Let it be to me as you have said” (v. 38).
But when news reached Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, he did not celebrate—he grieved. He mourned his beloved’s apparent infidelity and planned to dissolve their betrothal. But in a dream, an angel appeared to Joseph and assured him that Mary’s child was not the result of her infidelity but of God’s great, everlasting fidelity to his wayward people (Matt. 1:18–25).
This is no ordinary child, the angel told him. And Joseph, upon waking, went to Mary and rejoiced. Theirs would be the promised child, the Son of God.
Mary labored in a stable in Bethlehem and, sheltered there, gave birth. The Son she swaddled, whose head she cupped in the palm of her hand, had made her and all the rest of the world with his words. The Son she nursed sustains the stars.
And while that Son slept, an angel appeared in the hills outside Bethlehem. He seared the sky above a huddle of terrified shepherds. This angel brought a full chorus, and their song shook the hills:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Which is to say: the silence is broken; the long wait over. The Messiah has come! While some watched Jerusalem for a kingly savior, hair streaming and standard raised, a carpenter crowned the head of his stepson with a touch and anointed his brow with a kiss. The people expected a revolution, but God gave them a sacrifice, for this time he sent not a prophet or an angel, but his own beloved Son.