Where Have All The Prophets Gone?

Marc Chagall's illustration of Nebuchadnezzar's and Babylon's destruction of Jerusalem and Jeremiah's prophesy. A drawing in Chagall's modernist style.

Where Have All the Prophets Gone?  • 
Psalm 74:9  • 

No signs appear for us; there is no longer any prophet; no one among us knows how long. (JSP Tanakh 1999)

Psalm 74 expresses anguish at the loss of Jerusalem (maybe) and the temple (almost certainly),  and horror that foreign gods now abuse the temple and take the place of the true God.  The psalmist laments the seeming absence of God.  He expresses dismay that God is not turning away his enemies and avenging his losses.

We are interested here in verse 9 and its three claims:  1) we see no “signs,” 2) the prophets are gone, and therefore, 3) nobody knows when all this will be over.

No signs appear for us; there is no longer any prophet; no one among us knows how long. (JSP Tanakh 1999)

We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long. (ESV)

We see no signs, there is no prophet any more; none of us knows how long it will last. (David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible)

We cannot see what lies before us, we have no prophet now; we have no one who knows how long this is to last. (New English Bible)

Here is the entire psalm, from the New Revised Standard Version:

A Maskil of Asaph.  1 O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? 2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell. 3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.

4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there. 5 At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. 6 And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work. 7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground. 8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.

9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long. 10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? 11 Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. 13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. 14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.  16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. 17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.

18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name. 19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever.

20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. 21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long. 23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually. (NRSV)

The Circumstance is the Exile to Babylon, Yes?

The circumstance sure seems like the multiple invasions and assertions of power by the Babylonian empire over Syria and Judea from about 605 forward.  The Egyptians were defeated in 605 in northern Syria, allowing Chaldean Babylon to assume regional influence over the Jewish state and other small powers.  More direct assertion of Babylonian power over Judah began with another military incursion in 597, and this power by proxy became direct control in 586 when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.

4 Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. 5 They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. 6 They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. (NIV)

After 586, Babylon sent its own rulers to govern Judah, and removed the vassal Jewish king.  Furthermore, Babylonian policy was to remove large numbers of the Jewish population, and so it did.

But this was nothing new in 586.  Babylon had been doing this since at least 605, when Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were forcibly taken to Babylon.  Daniel’s prophesies begin at this time.

Daniel 1:1-2  In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god. (NASB)

The period of exile ended in 538, after which Judah and Jerusalem saw waves of return immigration of Jews.  The period of return lasted at least 90 years.

But our psalmist does not know this.  The psalmist hears nobody — no prophet or anybody — declaring when the suffering will end.

Is our psalmist writing at a time in the midst of regional military invasion and conquest?

Verse 8:  …They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land. (NIV)

Is the psalmist writing while the temple itself, in Jerusalem was being desecrated?

Verse 7b: …They have defiled the dwelling place of Your name. (NASB)

Is the psalmist writing while the temple was being destroyed?

Verse 7a: They have burned Your sanctuary to the ground… (NASB)

Is the psalmist writing years later, but still during the exile?

Verse 3a: Turn Your footsteps toward the perpetual ruins… (NASB)

Or is the psalmist writing at another time and place, and about another time and event entirely?  Some commentators think so.

Chaldeans Carrying Away Temple Treasures Philips Galle Met
The Chaldeans Carrying Away the Pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem, Philips Galle, Antwerp 1569, Whittelsley Collection, the Met.

No Signs Appear for Us

Most commentators see signs not as miraculous events, but rather as the normal customs and symbols of the Jewish state.  The invading army has banned them, removed them, and replaced them with their own.  The “signs” are the everyday institutions and “divine ordinances” of sabbath, festival, temple, tabernacle, sacrifices, Passover, circumcision, and so on.

The New Living Translation does not take this view however:

We no longer see your miraculous signs. All the prophets are gone, and no one can tell us when it will end. (NLT)

The New Revised Standard Version tries to provide the customs and symbols interpretation:

We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long. (NRSV)

John Gill notes also the possibility that the people are “blind” and “stupid,” and therefore do not recognize the visible signs of blessings, grace, and good things to come.

Both Ellicott and Cambridge point out that both absence of signs and absence of prophets are characteristic of the Maccabeaean time period following the temple destruction in 168.

There Is No One Among Us Who Knows How Long

We know that the exile came to and end after 538.  But the psalmist does not know this.

Why not?  The prophet Jeremiah told us the exile would last 70 years:

Jeremiah 25:8-12   8 “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, 9 behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. 10 ‘Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. 11 ‘This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 ‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. (NASB)

If the psalm does in fact date to some slice of time during the Babylonian conquest and/or exile, we wonder why the psalmist did not include Jeremiah’s 70-year timeline in our psalm.

This is what strikes us when Bible Bits reads this psalm.  We know Jeremiah’s prophecy.  Why doesn’t the psalmist know?

When Were There No Prophets?

If we can pinpoint the date of the psalm we can then compare this to our knowledge of prophets and their times of activity, and see if this corresponds to a time of no prophets.

Alternatively,  we can use our knowledge of prophetic activity to estimate the date of the psalm.  The psalm was written during a period of prophetic silence, so if we find the prophetic silence, we find the date of the psalm.

Unfortunately, scholars and analysts cannot accomplish either of these with full confidence.  Reasonable guesses, yes.  Reasonable certainty, no.

Assuming that the psalm dates to the Babylonian exile, dating the psalm by dating the exile is tricky because dating the exile is tricky.

The starting point of the exile to Babylon is not immediately obvious, as one can make an argument for any of three dates:  a first wave after 605 as the Chaldeans of Babylon began control of the region, a 2nd after 597 when Jerusalem was itself attacked and Judah became indirectly controlled by Babylon, and a 3rd after 586 when the Babylonians destroyed the city and the temple.

The exile ended after 538 when the Persian hegemon Cyrus encouraged the return of foreigners held in Babylonia to their native lands.  Jewish return migration began around 537 and continued in waves for at least 90 years, into the active years of Ezra and Nehemiah in the mid-400s.

By the way, the Jeremiah 70 year prophesy can be confirmed by extra-Biblical source dates when using a careful selection of starting point and ending point, plus allowing for some wiggle room in the dating schemes of the ancient civilizations and Biblical writers.  We will not try to walk through that here.

What Do Commentators Say?

The Reformation Study Bible suggests that this psalm was probably written soon after the temple destruction, as, it says, several prophets were active after the return from exile and a flurry of rebuilding activity was happening.

Jeremiah was active for perhaps four decades prior to the beginning of Babylonian exile in 605, and then another two decades into that exile.  So our Psalm could not have been written soon after 605, yes?  Jeremiah was prophesying, yes?

And it was Jeremiah who gives us the 70 year prophesy.

Matthew Henry judges the Psalm to apply to the time soon after the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldean Babylonians, and that it cannot be placed at any other point in the Jewish timeline. It was written by either David or Asaph in the time of David, or another Asaph in the time of captivity, or by Jeremiah himself (suggested by its similarity to Lamentations).

Exell and Spence-Jones’ 19th century Pulpit Commentary points out that Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jeremiah were all active during the Babylonian exile time period, but add that this fact provides no reason to place this psalm in some other time period. Jeremiah is in Egypt. Ezekiel is on the banks of Chebar (i.e., likely in or near Babylon and one of the canals), and Daniel is in Babylon.

Also, says the Pulpit, the Jeremiah prophecy of 70 years may not be of much help if the starting date of the exile is not clear.  Modern analysts must do some event choosing and calendar alignment to achieve a 70 year time span.

Benson notes that Jeremiah and Ezekiel may have been dead at the time when this Psalm was composed, if composed  in that later years of the exile.  Daniel was living, says Benson, but was perhaps active as a civil administrator and not known as a prophet to his contemporaries.

Benson shares the opinion of “Bishop Patrick,” the popular name of Bishop Simon Patrick, who in 1702 argues for a date some time during the captivity in Babylon.  Benson himself suggests that Bishop Patrick’s distress over there being no prophet implies a time in the latter portion of the era of captivity.  Benson’s commentaries were published in the 1840s and 1850s.

Here, by the way, is Patrick in 1702:

bishop patrick on psalm 74 Obscure Phrases Psalms 1702 google
Bishop Simon Patrick on Psalm 74, A Brief Explanation of the Obscure Phrases in the Book of Psalms.  1702.  Image from Google Books.

Albert Barnes, in his comments on Psalm 74, tells us that Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi were all active after the return to Judah, beginning after 535.  Barnes offers the additional line of speculation that the psalm was written before captivity, during the time of invasion.

With Barnes, we again note the fact of waves of exile.  Not all Jews were taken, and not all Jews who were taken were taken at once.  There was a period of at least 20 years with at least three waves of removals.

We point out with Barnes, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, and others that even though certain prophets were active for decades in the general time of interest, none may have been active in the specific year or years of Psalm 74 conception and writing.

Furthermore, a prophet speaking and writing in the exact same time period may not have been heard by our psalmist living in violent times in Judah.

And then, the claim that there are no prophet may be a psalmist exaggeration.

When the psalmist says there is no longer any prophet, is his list of known prophets the same as ours?  Just who is a prophet anyway?  The psalmist may be generalizing the term to include wise teachers and persons of rank or spiritual awareness and leadership.

When we speak of prophets we tend to think of those prophetic persons who were well-enough known or respected to have a book named after them, or a smaller handful of other well-known Bible characters who delivered prophecy and appeared in some sufficient number of Bible episodes.

Here is Bible Bits’ short list of prophets based more or less on this limited, less than adequate criteria. We show the time periods of activity.

Samuel  active ~925 to 900 or perhaps earlier
Elijah          870 to 850
Elisha          850 to 800
Obadiah         845 to 840 ?
Joel            835 to 796 ???? 
Jonah           780 to 760
Amos            765 to 750
Hosea           755 to 715
Micah           740 to 690
Isaiah          740 to 680
Zephaniah       640 to 608
Nahum           630 to 612
Jeremiah        627 to 585
Habakkuk        606 to 604
Daniel          606 to 536
Ezekiel         592 to 570
Zechariah       520 to 515
Haggai          520 to 516
Ezra            458 to 433
Nehemiah        458 to 433
Malachi         430

Estimates vary quite a bit from researcher to researcher on the dates of activity.  We have chosen dates from the ESV Study Bible and Blue Letter Bible.

The graphic below shows those prophets active during the time period of Babylonian dominance over Syria and Judah, and the Jewish exile in Babylon.  Do you see gaps in coverage by prophets which might match the time period of Psalm 74?

prophet activity during the 70 year babylonian exile

For those prophets with a lengthy period of activity, observe that the starting and ending dates are better researched and estimated than the interior stretch of time. Note especially the lengthy time period given for Daniel. Our dates and graphic give the impression that Daniel was steadily active as a prophet, in addition to being a Babylonian government official with other tasks, for seventy years. We and others believe this to be unlikely.

The psalmist may have been witness to many prophetic voices earlier during his lifetime, where none of these are witnessed in the Bible and therefore known to us.  Those he calls prophets may be ordinary and unremarkable religious and civic leaders of solid, Godly virtue, silenced by the tumultuous times.  These local and historically undocumented voices may have disappeared during the times, perhaps narrow times, expressed by Psalm 74. Our psalmist may be referring to these missing persons, who were never known to us in the first place.

It’s Not About the Babylonian Exile

Ellicott, Cambridge and others remark that the lament of Psalm 74 is consistent with the period in and around the intertestamental time of the Antiochus rulers and Jewish Maccabean opposition.  This is 300 or more years after the Babylonian exile, in the second and first centuries prior to Christ.  A date of particular interest is 168, when Antiochus IV, who referred to himself as “God manifest” (Epiphenes) outlawed Jewish rituals and ceremonial practices, placed a statue of Zeus in the temple (which had been rebuilt and finished in 516), sacrificed pigs on the alter, stole anything of value, and defaced every other emblem (or sign) of Judaism.

This certainly fits the lament of Psalm 74, but not the idea of 400 years of silence in Protestant Bibles.

So Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

At the end of the day, we have not found solid answers to our questions about dating and gaps in prophetic activity.

We find any number of legitimate reasons for the psalmist to reasonably cry out that no prophets are to be found, and nobody knows the end-date of the troubles.  We find no problem, even if others nearby might have themselves found prophets and others again might have spoken with Jeremiah and heard God’s message regarding 70 years.

We love the Bible and these little Bits!

Please let us know what your good sources of scholarly and faithful analysis have to say on this topic, should you come across them.

And read the actual Bible for yourself!  And may God bless you!  🙂