Struggles of Israel Meditations: 23. Not the End
Lk 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah
Mt 3:1 In those days John the Baptist came
The Long Silence: There has been a silence from heaven for over four hundred years, and then suddenly there are angelic appearances to a few individuals, some unusual things taking place, then another thirty years of silence and then a prophet appears in the desert and a whole new ball game starts, that picks up and follows on from the last book in our Old Testament canon (Mal 4:5).
Israel in the ‘Silent Period’: Pre the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus, life did not stand still. The following may help us grasp something of this period:
- the rebuilding of the Temple is complete by 516BC
- Ezra goes to Jerusalem 458BC, Nehemiah comes about 445BC. (see books of Ezra & Nehemiah)
- With the fall of Babylon back in 539BC the Persian Empire had prevailed as the dominant power, first with Cyrus and other following kings.
- Between 486 and 465/64 the Persian king ruling was Xerxes I, otherwise known as Ahasuerus.
- He features in Esther 1:1 thus identifying the period where Jews’ lives were threatened throughout the Persian Empire (which stretched from India to Ethiopia Est 1:1) and were only saved by the activities of a man named Mordecai and his niece, Esther, who lived in one of the four Persian capitals, Susa. Although this was not a struggle than involved fighting, nevertheless the very existence of the returned people, and the many Jews scattered over the Persian Empire, was under threat.
- Thus the historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, together with some of the minor prophets, such as Malachi are the last Biblical books giving details of the lives of the Jews at that time.
- Round about 330BC the Persian Empire was overcome by the Greeks under Alexander the Great who brought Greek culture and language (known as the Hellenistic period which lasted for a little less than two hundred years). His kingdom was eventually divided among four of his generals.
- One of these, Ptolemy, was given the rule of Egypt and established himself as king and created a dynasty that lasted from 305BC to the Roman conquest of 30BC (the Egyptian Ptolemaic Empire) and they had control over the Jews. They are significant in that a number of Jews settled in Egypt and particularly in Alexandria and between 250 and 130BC a Greek translation of the Old Testament, which we now call the Septuagint, was produced to help those Jews living outside Jerusalem and beyond Canaan who were becoming more Greek orientated.
- About 198BC the Syrian Empire to the north gained control over the Jews and put pressure throughout their empire to spread the Greek culture, even seeking to stop the Jews following their traditional ways of life and even turning the temple into a pagan shrine.
- A revolt occurred in Israel and eventually, Judas (Maccabeus) from a priestly family took control and independence was eventually gained. In 164BC the temple was cleansed and the event became the annual celebration in December of Hanukkah, the ‘Feast of Lights’.
- The period of 164-63BC now tends to be referred to as the Hasmonean or Maccabean Period. (Hasmonean coming from the Hebrew name, Simon, one of the early Maccabean leaders). Nine rulers followed Judas Maccabeus, and as time passed they became more dictatorial and corrupt. Internal strife eventually led their leaders to ask the Roman general, Pompey, to come and restore order and thus Roman rule started in 63BC and continued until well into the next millennia.
- In 40BC the Romans appointed Herod the Great as king of Judea and he died about 4BC. Thus the nation existed under the rule of Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth.
- In 67AD came the great Jewish revolt and in 70AD the Romans destroyed the Temple and much of the city and the great dispersion of the Jews occurred (Read the allegorical description in Rev 12).
Israel to the Present Day
- Thus the Jews became the diaspora or ‘the scattered Jews’, until the establishing of the state of Israel in 1948, followed shortly by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 with violence continuing from 1950 to 1967 and the so-called Six Day War in June 1967, and in 1973 the Yom Kippur War with ongoing mixes of attempts at peace accords and frequent eruptions of violence between Palestinians and Jews, which continue to the present day.
And So: The history of this nation has been remarkable.
- Originating in Abram, then Isaac and then Jacob, renamed Israel, growing from a family to a nation in Egypt,
- delivered miraculously out of Egypt in the famous Exodus, eventually delivered into the Promised Land of Canaan, (later given names such as Palestine or Israel), held together by God-raised deliverers called Judges, followed by a prophet,
- calling for a king that opened the way for a sequence of kings, Saul, David, Solomon, and then a double string of kings in the divided kingdoms of the north and south, again and again turning to idolatry, forgetting or rejecting the God who had formed them and delivered them and made them the unique people they were,
- until the northern kingdom was swept away after a little over two hundred years by Assyria, and then a little over another hundred years later the southern kingdom swept away by the Babylonians in the Exile, to be returned forty years later by another alien king.
- Then a little over four hundred years of being a vassal state to the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Syrians and the Romans, when they eventually become what I call a God-environment to receive the Son of God from heaven, welcomed by a few, used by many and rejected by the authorities so he could become the Redeemer of the World.
- Then destruction followed by obscurity for a little under nineteen hundred years until they are granted a fresh identity and on ongoing struggling area.
Behind this general sweep was the will of a benign God, seeking to raise them to great heights in the view of the world – achieved in the early part of Solomon’s reign, but thereafter largely lost. Through it all the incredible grace and mercy of God is seen by those with eyes to see, alongside the awfulness of Sin that runs rampant throughout their history, revealing to mankind what we are all like, sinners who need a Saviour. For nearly two thousand years they largely suffered ignominy and persecution, scattered around the world, and yet becoming so often successful which only added to the mistrust of the world.
And so today, many still scattered around the world, they have now reconstituted a nation that exists in the midst of Arab hostilities, maybe still to discipline them and turn them to the Savior who still holds his hands out to them, to whoever will respond to him. They formed the basis of the early church and it was only when larger numbers of Gentiles from around the world came to Christ, did the church lose its distinctive Jewishness. The struggles go on and they continue to remind the world of their presence and thus the presence of the God who is not only the Creator and Redeemer of the World, but also the One who formed a people to be a reminder and revealer of Him. Has the Lord finished with them? Definitely not. There is still a lot of unfulfilled prophecy about them, it would seem.
And Us? I hope, as we draw a close, you feel as I do about this series that it has provided a major backdrop to your knowledge and understanding of the Lord and His purposes with this special people. For myself I have a greater sense of the awesomeness of the big spread of history as it affects this nation, drawing attention, not only to them but to their various neighbors and the big powers who came and went and who, for a while at least impacted this people. I feel we often get very parochial in our outlook and I hope this series has done something to extend our vision upwards and outwards. Right, what’s next?