That is the length of time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. More importantly, that is the length of time Israel existed without a prophet. That is how long God’s people waited for a word from the Lord.
- 400 years of waiting, wondering, doubting, and fearing
- 400 years of questioning whether God would ever speak again
- 400 years of worrying that God had abandoned Israel once and for all
The centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth are sometimes referred to as the “400 Years of Silence.” It’s a silence Israel would have felt deeply and personally, which is why it is no coincidence that Luke’s gospel begins with silence.
Luke 1 tells the story of a man named Zechariah, whose wife had long suffered from infertility. When an angel shares the good news that his wife is finally pregnant, Zechariah can hardly believe it. “How can this be so?” he wonders, but the angel does not take kindly to this disbelief. Instead, he rebukes Zechariah with these words:
“Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak until the day these things take place.” (Luke 1:20)
Zechariah is sentenced to silence. This consequence seems to far outweigh the crime, but it’s also possible God was up to something bigger, since Luke is picking up exactly where the prophets left off. Both Zechariah, and Israel, feel separated from God by a chasm of quiet.
Thankfully, this is not how Zechariah’s story ends. Once his son, John the Baptist, is finally born, Zechariah regains his voice, and the first thing he does is to praise his faithful God.
The story of Zechariah seems like only a footnote in the Christmas story, but we cannot miss the significance of it. Zechariah’s life is a signpost; both his silence and his singing foreshadow the grander arc of God’s plan. In this opening chapter of Luke’s gospel, we learn that God is about to end the 400 years of silence with a roar of hope. God is putting an end to the era of no words, by sending the Word made flesh.
That is God’s calling card. He punctuates silence with singing, because He always ends oppression with deliverance. After all, this wasn’t the first time the Israelites had endured centuries of silence. The span of time between Genesis and Exodus was roughly 400 years as well. The Israelites suffered under years of slavery and oppression, but the story ended the same.
God sent a deliverer.
That is God’s pattern. He always shows up. He always saves. We see it in Moses, we see it in Jesus, and we see it small-scale in the life of Zechariah. God is an always-returning God. He is always coming back, and that is never not true, no matter how thick the silence.
Knowing this pattern, we are left with only one question: what will we do in the silence? Who will we become? Zechariah could have become bitter. He could have nurtured his pride, he could have rebelled against God, and he probably would have felt justified in doing so. But he didn’t. Instead, Zechariah changed. During the silence, he became an entirely different man than the one he was before.
Zechariah’s story is the story of Christmas writ small. He sings the song of a people delivered from slavery, a people walking in darkness who have seen a great light. His song is the hope of Jesus’ birth, a hope rooted in the promise that the silence will end, the darkness will abate, and Christ is coming back.
The only question is, who will we become in the meantime?
Sharon Hodde Miller leads Bright City Church in Durham, NC with her husband, Ike. She is the author of two books, Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You, and Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked, and How God Calls Us to More. She also has a PhD on women and calling, and travels the country speaking. To read more of her thoughts, or to laugh at her three funny kids, you can follow her on Instagram.