Broken dreams and the postexilic prophets

September 03, 2021

Broken dreams and the postexilic prophets

Anthony R. Petterson

What could Jewish prophets writing 2500 years ago have to teach us about coping with shattered dreams and disappointments? Plenty, according to Anthony Petterson, who unearths their ancient wisdom and shows its relevance for us today.

* * *

Loss is readily associated with the death of a loved one, but the pain of loss can also be experienced in many other life circumstances which are often less abrupt, but no less an occasion for grief.[1] Loss is often understood as a separation from someone or something tangible to which we had a strong attachment.[2] Yet loss can also be understood as a disruption to our intangible hopes and dreams. These dreams are narratives that we live by, often constructed from childhood, that give meaning to our lives. Their loss can cause enormous grief.

For instance, the inability to have children crushes a couple’s dreams to be parents. The disability of a child radically challenges parents’ dreams for who that child would become, and their independence. Losing a job thwarts hopes to provide for family and challenges dreams for career. A failed business destroys dreams of success and future security. An injury that forces a sportsperson to retire may bring childhood dreams that supported years of training crashing down. The diagnosis of a terminal illness crushes the hopes and dreams a couple have for their retirement. Retirement itself may finish our hopes of making a meaningful contribution to society. Indeed, the current pandemic has for most of us brought many of our hopes and dreams to an abrupt end, or at least put them on indefinite hold. Weddings have been cancelled, or radically reshaped. Overseas travel is off the table. Small businesses have gone to the wall. A generation is missing out on all the social aspects of university life. All these experiences involve coming to terms with the ‘painful disparity between the thoughts and dreams about what should have been, might have been, and still may be hoped for—versus what actually is the present reality’.[3]

Loss is experienced emotionally as grief. In this state the once stable world is now in flux, and earlier plans for life are no longer possible. Psychologically the process of coming to terms with loss is mourning, which can also involve a high degree of stress. Grief and mourning themselves can pose additional challenges such as ‘hopelessness, depression, and feelings of ambivalence [that can] lead to guilt, anxiety, and immobilization. Grief becomes frozen, and the ongoing despair can be paralyzing; coping processes can be overwhelmed.’[4] Another less talked about issue is the temptation to sin at such a time, often heightened for the Christian by the challenges to faith in God that loss so often brings.

Postexilic disappointments

Having studied the postexilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi for some time now, I believe they have important lessons to teach us about life after loss and coping with broken dreams.[5]

The Jewish Scriptures—the Old Testament of the Christian Bible—tell the story of Israel, who were chosen by God to be his people. He dramatically saved them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them a land of their own. At the heart of this land was Jerusalem; and at the heart of Jerusalem was the temple, where God dwelt among them. This state of things was the fulfilment of promises God had made over generations to Abraham and his descendants. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC and the exile of many of its inhabitants were deeply traumatic (reflected in the book of Lamentations).[6] However, for the generation who returned to Jerusalem some 50 years later, few remained who had lived through this trauma. The mixed responses of those who returned to Jerusalem are seen in Ezra 3:10–13 where, upon the laying of the temple foundation, the Levitical priests led the people in joyous praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. At the same time, those who could remember the glory of the previous temple wept aloud. Their hopes and dreams for the return of the glory days did not match the reality. It didn’t take long for this disappointment to spread throughout the community, especially when they faced opposition from neighbouring peoples, and when their agricultural endeavours failed.[7]

The despair and paralysis that often accompanies grief is perhaps one of the reasons the people found it so difficult to get on with rebuilding the temple. In 520 BC, almost 20 years after the first exiles returned to Jerusalem, the book of Haggai shows that they were still making excuses for not getting on with the work, saying ‘the time has not yet come’ (Haggai 1:2). The prophet Zechariah also notes the lack of progress and calls out those who ‘despise the day of small things’ (4:10).

Grief and temptation

Grief can also make us vulnerable to temptation. It can raise doubts, anger, and self-pity that the evil one can use to deceive us into justifying sin. Zechariah identifies the way that disappointment played itself out in antisocial ways in his community. His night visions speak of ‘the iniquity of the people throughout the land’ (5:6) and they highlight the sins of theft and deceit (5:3–4), and idolatry (5:7–8; cf. 13:2). Later in the book Zechariah identifies sins that caused a breakdown in the community’s social life. Not only did some fail to show mercy and compassion to each other, but they plotted evil against each other and lied. The vulnerable were oppressed—the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, the poor. People not only feared for their safety because of the threats of outsiders, but also from their fellow citizens (7:8–10; 8:16–17).

The book of Malachi is undated, but is set some time after Haggai and Zechariah since the temple is back in operation. Yet the hopes of Haggai and Zechariah had not been realised. Indeed, they were not even close to being realised. For instance, Zechariah held out the prospect of Jerusalem being restored and blessed, filled with sounds of children at play, with families feasting on wine and grain, and many from non-Israelite nations desperate to be a part of it all (e.g., Zechariah 8). But the reality was far different to these hopes, and it put the people at loggerheads with God. They had become cynical and selfish. People doubted God’s love (Malachi 1:2). They doubted his power and justice, thinking it was futile to continue to serve him (2:17; 3:14–15). This was in part a failure of the religious institutions, where the leadership found their duties irritating and tedious (1:12–13) and failed to teach God’s ways from the Scriptures (2:7–8). Accompanying this was the half-baked worship by God’s people and their miserly support of the temple sacrificial system, withholding their tithes and offerings (1:14; 3:8–9). Family life broke down with adultery, divorce, and marrying outside the faith (2:10–16). Vulnerable widows, orphans and foreigners were treated poorly, and businesses favoured the rich, with poor workers being defrauded of their wages. Some sought guidance from sorcerers, rather than from God’s word (3:5).

The postexilic society and ours

While we live two-and-a-half millennia later, our societies are not that different. The pandemic has smashed many of our dreams, bringing disappointment. Divisions in society have deepened and become more acrimonious. Mercy and compassion are in short supply. Idols like property and shares, which offer prosperity and security instead of God, are worshipped more than ever by those who can afford them (and those who can’t). The wealth gap has widened and the vulnerable are politicised rather than provided for. And truth is a major casualty almost everywhere, especially the truth about God. For Christians, there is a further discouragement, with secularism making inroads into society and challenging many Christian beliefs and behaviours. There is a real danger for Christians to doubt that God is at work and give in to the grief of shattered dreams. In his book on suffering, written while dealing with chronic illness, Paul Tripp writes:

Unchecked, discouragement will rob you of your hope and motivation. It will steal your reason for doing good things. It will rob you of your ability to trust. It will make you closed, self-protective, and easily overwhelmed. Discouragement will sap you of your strength and courage. It will cause you to see negative where nothing is negative and miss the positive that is right in front of you. If given room, discouragement will tell you lies that have the power to destroy your life. Discouragement is natural for someone who is suffering, but it makes a very, very bad master.[8]

What did these prophets do to address the disappointment in their days? What eventually brought about the people’s change of heart so that the temple was built? How did Malachi deal with the cynics?

i. ‘Return to me’

The first thing to note is that all the prophets call the people back to a relationship with God. Zechariah begins: ‘“Return to me,” declares the Lord Almighty, “and I will return to you.”’ (1:3). Malachi says the same, ‘Return to me, and I will return to you.’ (1:7). We were made for relationship with God, and he is the one who is to direct our hopes and dreams. Grief itself is not sinful. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). But when our grief results from sin, our return to the Lord involves repentance (‘return’ and ‘repent’ are the same word in Hebrew).

ii. Grief can make God feel distant

C.S. Lewis described his experience of prayer after the death of his wife as ‘a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.’[9] In grief and loss, the knowledge that God is with us can be a real comfort. Haggai tells the people twice ‘“I am with you,” declares the Lord’ (1:13; 2:4). Similarly, in Zechariah God promises ‘I will live among you’ (2:10–11). Jesus also assures his followers of his presence (Matthew 28:20). This is far more comforting than the alternatives we often seek solace in such as alcohol, food, and television. We need to take God’s assurance of his presence to heart and pray on, regardless of how we might feel. In times of grief, it is appropriate for prayers to include lament (e.g., Zechariah 1:12).

iii. Remember God’s grace

In calling us back to God, the prophets emphasise God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Haggai promises that God will fix the problem of the people’s defiled and unacceptable deeds and worship, and bless them (2:14–19). Zechariah promises that God will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and comfort Zion (1:13–17). Zechariah 3 contains a marvellous vision of the high priest being cleansed by God’s grace for service in the newly rebuilt temple. This anticipates the cleansing and forgiveness of all God’s people. In Zechariah 9–14, Zechariah envisions a fountain opening in Jerusalem to cleanse God’s people from sin and impurity and enable a new covenant relationship with them (13:1). This fountain is opened through the death of the Messiah (12:10; 13:7–9). Zechariah is the most quoted prophet in the passion narratives in the Gospels, which explain how this forgiveness was won through Jesus’ death on the cross. Malachi says that God’s mercy is constant: ‘I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob are not destroyed.’ (3:6) Experiencing God’s mercy should change us. If we’ve been forgiven, we must forgive others (Matthew 6:12). Many have noticed that in the world of social media and ‘cancel culture’, there is no forgiveness, mercy, or grace. Deeds from the past are dug up to prosecute in the present and punish in the future. Yet we all fail in our relationships. Christianity enables us to be honest about this and find a way forward. If our grief is a result of sin, forgiveness is something we need to receive ourselves and practise towards others.

iv. Know judgment is coming

As well as proclaiming God’s compassion, the postexilic prophets (like other prophets) are unapologetic about proclaiming God’s coming judgment day, even though some of God’s people mocked the idea (e.g., Malachi 2:17; 3:14–15). By and large these days, Christians are not very enthusiastic to speak of the coming judgment day. But this is not consistent with the prophets (nor Jesus). Somewhat ironically, the non-Christian world wants justice to be done. The popularity of murder mystery, crime, and detective novels, and similar television dramas, reveals a deep longing for justice. The prophets assure God’s people that the day will come when God will fix this world, bring justice, and do away with all those things that bring grief. Haggai speaks of it as God shaking the heavens and the earth, filling his temple with glory, and bringing world peace (2:7–9; cf. Zechariah 9:10). All opposition to God’s glorious reign in this world, as powerful as that opposition might seem, will be overcome (2:20–23). Zechariah graphically portrays the judgment day as a military campaign against Jerusalem, when God will fight to purify and save his people, and all those who have opposed God’s people will be destroyed (e.g., 9:4–6, 15–16).[10] Malachi also speaks about this day, when those who oppose God will be purified and judged by fire (3:3–5; 4:1). What Zechariah and Malachi show is that it is often through grief and pain that God’s people are refined and strengthened, and the day will come when this will be complete.

v. Hope in God and his Word

When we grieve, the postexilic prophets show us where to put our hope. They are emphatic that it is only God’s word, empowered by his Spirit, that will change the world (Haggai 2:5). ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty.’ (Zechariah 4:6) Sometimes the grief of disappointment can arise from wrong expectations of our own abilities. If we think we can change the world, or that we have the technology to solve all our problems and fix all our diseases, we’ve only set ourselves up for discouragement and disappointment. If we think we can control the course of our own lives, we are in for a shock. Humanity is ingenious, but there are limits, as the pandemic has painfully shown us. Realising this limitation can bring grief and despondency. However, Motyer captures the prophets’ response well:

The Lord’s rejoinder to his people’s despondency is to turn their minds from what they think to be true of themselves (we cannot match the past, we cannot achieve in the present) to what is true about him. They say ‘we,’ the Lord says ‘I ... my Spirit’ ... they are speaking and he is speaking ... To which word will they listen? The key to tackling despondency is found here: stop listening to ourselves and start listening to him and his word of promise.[11]

vi. Obey God

Of course, it is not just a matter of listening to God’s word. The postexilic prophets call the people to trust it, and to obey it. The Israelites had a special task here—to reflect God’s character to the world. They were to so live out the law that it made God attractive to others. Christians have a similar calling (see Matthew 5:16; 1 Peter 2:12). While the book of Malachi does not make it explicit, it seems that grief associated with failed expectations led to a vicious circle. Their disobedience led to problems, which they then responded poorly to, which contributed to further problems. Loss can cause us to doubt the goodness of God and his ways, and if we feed this doubt, it will show itself in cynicism and selfishness, and we risk being sucked down a vortex. This is what we see in Malachi, where the list of problems is not that different to what we face today. It is not surprising that as Western societies move further away from their Christian heritage, they have become more fragmented and fearful. There is no standard that we can agree on for our ethics. There is no unifying story to be found that can bear the weight of uniting us or comforting us in our collective grief. Malachi calls the people back to covenant faithfulness, which involved remembering the law of Moses (4:4), at the heart of which was love of God and love of neighbour. The way to break out of the vicious circle was to return to the Lord, serve him with fear and so honour his name (1:6; 3:16). This involves serving others. When we grieve, it is easy to retreat into our own worlds, but the postexilic prophets urge us to engage with others and to seek their good, especially those who are weak and vulnerable (Zechariah 7). Indeed, the prophets themselves are examples of those who served God and others when it was personally costly.

Opportunity to reorient

In all of this, the postexilic prophets sought to set people’s lives into a larger narrative, and in doing so they recast the people’s dashed hopes and dreams. Grief is not an entirely bad state of affairs, especially if our broken life-narrative was a false one in the first place. Grief is a God-given opportunity to reorient our expectations of life and to drive our hope in the world to come. This world is not heaven. Loss and grief remind us that God has promised a better world. The postexilic prophets help to reorient and reshape our lives, showing us the things that matter now, and in eternity.


Rev Dr Anthony Petterson lectures in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at Morling College, Sydney.



[1] These include, for example, infertility, disability, life-threatening illness, separation, divorce, leaving home, migration, redundancy, retirement, or the dementia of a loved one. These more ambiguous losses are also called ‘nonfinite’ in the sense that unlike a death, which happens at a point in time, these circumstances of loss continue to be lived without a known end. For instance, in dementia, the person that one has known and loved has been lost even though they are physically present, and this continues as a source of grief while they are alive.

[2] The attachment theory of John Bowlby has been highly influential in academic studies of grief. See John Bowlby, Loss: Sadness and Depression, Attachment and Loss vol. 3 (Pimlico, 1998).

[3] Pauline Boss, Susan Roos and Darcy L. Harris, ‘Grief in the Midst of Ambiguity and Uncertainty: An Exploration of Ambiguous Loss and Chronic Sorrow’. Robert A. Niemeyer, et al., eds., Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society: Bridging Research and Practice (Routledge, 2011), pp163-175 (p168).

[4] Ibid., p167.

[5] Anthony R. Petterson, Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi AOTC 25 (Apollos, 2015).

[6] Accounts of the capture of Jerusalem are found in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52.

[7] God used the curses of the national covenant to call his people back to himself, sending drought, blight, mildew, and hail that caused great hardship (Haggai 1:11; 2:16–17).

[8] Paul David Tripp, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Crossway, 2018), ch. 8 [e-copy].

[9] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Harper & Row, 1961), p18.

[10] Also Zechariah 9:4–6, 15–16; 10:11–12; 12:1–9; 13:7–9; 14:1– 6.

[11] J. A. Motyer, ‘Haggai’. Thomas Edward McComiskey, ed., The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, vol. 3 (Baker Books, 1998), pp963-1002 (p987).

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