Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years. It sounds strange, I know, but when your sole occupation is reading and re-reading the sacred texts, you begin to empathize with the writers. There are days when I feel as if I could turn to Jeremiah and say, “At what point does lament become sinful bitterness?” or debate politics with Elijah.
But they never answer. It’s probably for the best. If I really started hearing voices, well…maybe what the others say of me would be true after all.
You see, the prophets, they understand loneliness. They understand captivity. Theirs was Babylon or Assyria, mine is Rome.
Here in Jerusalem, Herod keeps us, scribes of the Hebrews, in his collection of soothsayers and pagan priests, to bring out when the whim strikes to advise him on the will of the gods. As if there could ever be more than one.
These visitors from the East upset him. It was all the court could talk about for days, their magnificent procession into Jerusalem, the city of kings, looking for the ruler of the Jews. Not Herod the Pretender, but our Messiah, the deliverer the prophets speak of.
They saw a star, of all things. Very strange, it seems to me, but what do I know of how God chooses to work? He lit a bush on fire to get Moses’ attention. Why not a star?
“Where is he?” Herod demanded of us. “Where do your holy texts say your king will be born?”
It took me too long—much too long—to remember the answer. Thirty full seconds went by before I recalled the text. I am becoming slow in my old age.
Micah wrote: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
I begged my fellow scribes and priests not to reveal the answer. “Brothers,” I said, “don’t the annals of our history tell us, over and over: there can only be one king?” But they did not listen. They have knowledge, but no wisdom, and they have bowed down to the ruler they fear the most.
And I ask you, I call you down as witnesses—can Caesar’s wrath compare to the plague that ravaged the Israelite camp, the angel of death whose avenging sword cut down Egypt’s firstborn, the word of power that can part seas, stop the sun, tear down walls, and bring life or death?
But they made their choice, and I could not stop them.
I have heard what Herod’s men did in Bethlehem at his command. The slaughter of innocents. And now my fellow scribes hang their head in shame. “We did not know,” they say. “It is not our fault.”
I wear sackcloth and ashes for them. If they will not mourn, I will. Ezra, Josiah, Nehemiah—they all confessed the sins of their people as if they themselves had committed them.
But I can’t help but wonder: should I have done more to prevent them? Will God forgive me this great sin?
Soon, my eyes will fail, and I will have only the Scriptures I have put into my mind…which is most of them. They describe a God of endless patience and mercy. I can only hope in what I know of him.
But all those children, those innocent children….
Oh, Micah, my old friend Micah, who saw his people killed in conquest, how could you speak words of hope in the midst of such chaos? How could you say, after telling of the coming king in Bethlehem, “And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace”?
There is no peace in Bethlehem. Not this night. It feels like there never will be.
Sometimes I have longed for God to give me a message, like one of the prophets of old. What would it be like to dare to speak his name, to feel the Spirit move within me and open my mouth to shout, “Thus says the LORD”? Then maybe something in this broken world could be restored. Maybe the people would turn back. Maybe the Deliverer would come.
I have prayed and prayed. But a message from God has not come.
So I remain faithful in the silence.
I promise I did not choose the book of Numbers as my favorite book of Scripture simply because no one else likes it. Though that may have contributed—it seems I am drawn toward the last and the lonely.
But I favor it most of all because there is a precision to the dates and lineages and laws that I find fascinating: an intricate map of God’s expectations and workings.
So, some numbers for you: there were four hundred years of slavery in Egypt from our forefathers before Moses came. And it has been four hundred years since the last of the prophets spoke the word of God. It ended—did you know?—with the word “curse.” Such an ending…if you believe it to be the end. I do not.
Because the Scriptures say, “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
And then Moses was born, though it would be more than forty years before he became the Deliverer.
I have often thought, considering those numbers: very few of the people who prayed for rescue ever saw it. They died in captivity. And none of the people who in these verses cried out to God stepped into the land of promise. They were the people of the Silent Years, praying to an invisible, nameless God and never seeing the answer.
But God heard, God remembered, God saw—and God knew.
I know that because the text says it, but I also know it because I feel it, deep in my desert soul, tired of slavery and wandering, I of the Silent Years come again.
But there is a difference, this time. We have been given more than our brothers and sisters in the first long silence. Our God has a name. He has spoken to us in his Word.
It is time. Yes, it is time. I will not be here to see it, but the ending of the story has begun, the one my friends the prophets spoke of. The King has come at last.