We have already seen in what important particulars the position of the elect people after the return from the Babylonian exile differed from their position before the exile. Four things are enumerated by the Rabbis as wanting in the second temple, — the Shechinah or Visible Glory, the Ark, the Holy Fire on the Altar, and the Urim and Thummim. But the Holy Spirit, the spirit of prophecy, remained; and thus there was still an immediate revelation of Jehovah's will. With Malachi prophecy ceased; henceforth there was no one to say to them, "Thus saith the Lord." All that was now possible was to gather up the words that the prophetshad spoken, with the law of Moses, and inspired songs, and apply them, as they were best able, to the regulation of their civil and religious life in the new circumstances in which they were placed. To preserve all the revelations of God, by whomsoever spoken; to interpret them, and enforce them, so far as of a practical character, was their present duty.
But by whom should this be done? It was an abnormal condition of affairs, one for which God had made no provision. Naturally the matter would fall into the hands of the priests, "for the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth." (Mai. ii. 7.) And this may have been the case at first, for Ezra was a priest; but a distinct class of men soon arose, into whose hands this work came. When through the cessation of prophecy the sacred books were looked on as the sole source of knowledge as to God's will, copies of them must be prepared, and those who prepared them must be students of the past. These soon came to constitute a special class, and they were far more than copyists; they were also interpreters, and in a manner lawgivers, since their interpretations became by degrees authoritative. New circumstances made, also, new applications of existing laws necessary. Probably Ezra took some measures to train up those who could be his successors. (Ez. vii. 6, 10.)
Thus a body of men arose, unknown to the original constitution of the theocratic state, having no official position, but very powerful in moulding the religious life of the people. The reading and explanation of the sacred books became an important part of the religious services on the feast and holy days. The scribes were able to bring gradually all classes under the observance of the law as they interpreted it, and through its provisions entering into the minute details of daily duty, to infold them as fish in the meshes of a net. Those who most strictly applied the teachings of the scribes to every-day life, were known as the Pharisees. These kept the law rigorously in all its details; they were by eminence the legalists, where all were legal. It naturally followed that they became the religious leaders of the people, recognized and honored as those in whom the legal spirit of the time found its fullest expression.
With the growth of the scribes and their adherents, the influence of the priesthood in some degree diminished. It was stripped of part of its influence as the teaching body, and the rise of synagogue worship tended in some degree to depreciate in popular esteem the temple service. The Holy of Holies empty, the fire from heaven npon the altar extinguished, this service lost in a measure its high and supernatural character; and became mechanical in its spirit, and monotonous in its routine. On the other hand, the reading of the sacred books in the synagogue, and the opportunity for comment on them, and the prayers there offered, opened a way for religious instruction and for the expression of devotional feeling, which met the spiritual needs of many; and which gave the scribes large scope to mould the opinions of the worshippers.
But if we now ask, how this changed relation of things following upon the cessation of prophecy bore upon the matter of the Messianic hope, we must answer, that it was detrimental. And this in two ways: First, through the exaltation of the law the work of the Messiah as the Redeemer from sin became subordinate, and comparatively unimportant. By the observance of the legal precepts the people were made righteous, and obtained the Divine favor. No special work of reconciliation to God was to be wrought by the Messiah, no expiatory sacrifice was needed. The one thing allnecessary and all-sufficient was to keep the law. Second, it was believed that the Messiah Himself would be subject to the law, and honor it by His perfect observance of all its precepts. The way in which He would bless the people in spiritual things would not be through any atonement offered by Him, but through His prayers based on His perfect legal righteousness, and so accepted of God. And He would enforce the law upon all nations.
It is to be noted, also, that this exaltation of the law affected in many minds the desire of national deliverance. As the legal precepts could be kept in some measure by the nation when under heathen rule, and even by those dwelling apart in heathen lands, a restoration to independence and national unity, as it should be realized under the Messiah, was of less moment. To obey the law wherever they might be, was to recognize the supremacy of Jehovah as their King. Hence, we see why many of the scribes and Pharisees were unwilling to rebel against the yoke of their heathen oppressors, and often counselled submission. The law was in a degree a substitute both for the Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom.
It was inevitable that the study of the sacred books, as carried on by the scribes, should tend to foster a spirit of intellectual pride fatal to all true spiritual selfknowledge. The scribe could not take the place of the prophet as a true guide, he could not discern the sins of the people, nor warn them of their dangers; out of the high-minded Pharisees the repentant and humble remnant could not come. The cessation of prophecy in Malachi left the people without the means of knowing their own spiritual condition, and their unpreparedness for the Messianic Kingdom. Testing themselves by a written law, they were their own judges; and the standard of their judgment was their own discernment of its meaning. In its application they naturally justified themselves, and a legal self-righteousness was the necessary result. They became vain in their own conceits, and made void the law by their traditions, which expressed their interpretation and application of it. The teachers, like the unjust steward, diminished the claims of God upon the people; where He demanded a hundred measures, they wrote down fifty. Out of this delusion of their self-righteousness, there was no one able to deliver them. No scribe could call the people to repentance; only a prophet illumined by the Spirit, and having a message from God, could discern what the sins of the people were, and declare to them His righteous anger. The Jews without a prophet easily deluded themselves into the belief that they were acceptable to God, the just who needed no repentance, a people ready for the Messiah. And no severity of judgment availed to bring them to a true knowledge of themselves, since they misinterpreted the very judgments.
It was not possible that the Messianic Kingdom could be rightly apprehended as to its spiritual character by those who thought themselves sufficiently prepared for it by an external observance of the law; and who wholly failed to understand the sacrificial ritual as intended to convince them of sin, and prepare them for its true expiation. Ignorant of their own hearts, they said of the Mosaic precepts, like the young ruler, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" As those thinking themselves prepared for His Kingdom by keeping the law, they could not see that it was needful that the Messiah should do any work for their spiritual deliverance at His coming. His work must be one of national deliverance, to free them from their enemies, and to restore their independence. This accomplished, they were ready for the fulfillment of all the promises of God to Abraham and to David. And as their conceptions of the Kingdom were low, so also their conception of the Messiah. He was to be a Scribe of the scribes, a Pharisee of the Pharisees. A great part of His office was to exalt the law, and make the people to obey it. That the Messiah was to suffer for their sins, to redeem them by His expiatory death, was something contrary to all their modes of thought; and the most express words of the prophets respecting His sufferings were easily explained away.
Thus neither the priesthood nor the scribes could prepare the people for the Lord; but God, who always brings good out of evil, did through them preserve a religious unity, and so kept the people from being swallowed up by the heathen around them. The numerous legal prescriptions of the scribes served as so many barriers to keep them distinct; and the excess of their self-righteousness, their pharisaic pride, which made them odious to all peoples, was as a separating wall of fire. Yet we cannot doubt that there were many in this long period, who, like Zacharias and Elisabeth, "walked in all the statutes and ordinances of the Lord blameless;" and who, with the outward observance of the law, knew something also of its deeper meaning; and who looked for the Messiah, both as the Redeemer from sin, and as the King of Israel. (Luke ii. 38.)
Of the three great religious parties which grew up after the exile, one, the Essenes, had so greatly departed from the sphere of Old-Testament revelations, and of the Messianic hope, as not to be once mentioned in the Gospels. Of the Pharisees we have spoken as those most diligent to keep the law in the letter, but full of self-righteousness, and feeling no need of a Messiah who should be more than a political redeemer and chief. The Sadducees were men of the world, who had no faith in any special covenant relation of the nation to God, or in any thing supernatural. They were eager politicians, who expected to bring about their worldly ends by worldly means; and their denial of the resurrection of the dead followed from their general religious position. If they had any expectation of a Messiah, it was not of one sent immediately of God, and supernaturally endowed, but of one who by his own ability and force of will could place himself at the head of the nation, and achieve its independence.