Having a free hour while my daughter rummaged through a thrift store, I grabbed a used Bible in the book section and hunkered down on a sofa in the furniture section. I chose a Hebrew version nestled among the Protestant and Catholic offerings and was seized with curiosity: How does the Hebrew Bible end? What is the last book? How come I never knew, or asked?
Many of you cheaters who peek at the ending of novels will know the urge. But how much more consequential the ending of a book of Scriptures. How much of our own Christian and Western civilization worldview, our natural optimism about life in general, is formed, even unconsciously, by the fact that the very last words we have from God are positive and expectant:
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).
How differently would we feel as a people—what spiritual crisis we would labor under daily—if our Bibles ended with, say, the ending of Lamentations:
“Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us” (Lamentations 5:21).
Can you guess what’s at the end? What are the words of the prophets that linger in the air and reverberate through the corridors of time in Judaism? They are these from 2 Chronicles:
“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD us God be with him. Let him go up”’” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).
It’s a bit strange at first to discover that the Jews place Chronicles last of all, since this is chronologically out of order: Ezra and Nehemiah, which are placed before Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible, actually concern events that happened after Cyrus gave the order to let the Jews return and rebuild. But literarily and pedagogically speaking, we can see why the redactors of the Tanach would be loath to have Ezra and Nehemiah be the last word: Nehemiah’s ending is flat, and Ezra’s is downright discouraging.
Ezra and Nehemiah are a journal of what happened after Cyrus gave permission for the rebuilding of the temple, but the story isn’t pretty: The community of returning exiles was small; their work was hampered and delayed by constant attacks and slander on the part of the locals, and by inertia, apathy, discouragement, and spiritual drift on the part of the Jews themselves. Who wants to end a Bible with Ezra’s last chapter—a shameful list of the names of the priests who intermarried with pagans?
No, the Hebrew Bible ends the right way (relatively speaking). The implicit message of the arrangement of the 24 books is that the messy bits in Ezra and Nehemiah are just the middle of the story. Though Jewish history may appear to be a flop, God’s good plans are unstoppable and will triumph in the end. Cyrus’ decree is the note of optimism we want to go out on—if that’s all there is to the tale.
But that’s not all there is. And how much better it will be when Israel discovers the truth of the prophecy they missed, that:
“… the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple …” (Malachi 3:1).
Many will be stirred to jealousy (Romans 11:11), and will mourn for the one “they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10), and will embrace the exceedingly joyful ending of their own proper book and history—the ending where the One to whom the temple pointed all along appears on the scene a second and final time, to the response of many voices who continue today to cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!”