Scripture is silent with respect to the history of the Jewish state between the time of Malachi and the birth of John the Baptist some 400 years later. But we can learn something of that history from other sources. We know, for example, that the Jews were ruled by various world powers that rose and fell during this period. Since 536 B.C., they were under what proved to be a rather mild rule by the Persians. Medo-Persia, you will recall, constituted the breast and arms of silver in Nebuchadnezzar’s image dream. In the years around 333 B.C., the Persian Empire collapsed before the advancing armies of Alexander the Great, who established the Empire of Greece—the abdomen and thighs of brass in Nebuchadnezzar’s image dream.
At Alexander’s death, his empire was divided among his generals, one of whom controlled lands that included Syria, and another, Egypt. Palestine lay between those two hostile powers and was dominated sometimes by the one and sometimes by the other. For the more than 100 years during which they were subject to the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Jews fared quite well. But under the Seleucid kings of Syria, they were made to suffer severely.
Especially was this true under Antiochus Epiphanes, whose wicked reign is compared, in the prophecy of Daniel, to that of the Antichrist (see Dan. 7:25). This king made a determined effort to destroy, once and for all, the worship of Jehovah. In 168 B.C., he sacked Jerusalem, broke down much of the city’s wall, plundered the temple of its treasures, and sold a large number of Jews into slavery. He converted the temple into a shrine of the Greek god Zeus, put an image of Zeus on the altar, and sacrificed a sow there in Zeus’s honor. He destroyed every copy of the Scriptures that he could lay his hands on, and let it be known that anyone who was discovered reading the book of the law, or had it in his possession, would be executed. In effect, he outlawed Judaism, and resorted to torture of the Jews in an attempt to force them to renounce their religion.
For the Jews of Palestine, the situation was intolerable. At length an old priest named Mattathias killed a royal agent who was attempting to force the people of a Jewish village to take part in a heathen sacrifice. This touched off a general revolt of Jews against Antiochus Epiphanes. A detachment of Syrians sent against the Jews was decisively routed by the Jews, who, after the death of Mattathias, were led by Judas, one of the sons of the old priest. Antiochus then sent a much larger force, which, though far outnumbering the army of Judas, was also badly defeated. By 165 B.C. Judas had liberated Jerusalem from Syrian domination and had purified and rededicated the temple (giving rise to the Jewish Feast of Dedication). Other amazing victories by Judas (nicknamed Maccabeus, meaning “the Hammer”) brought much of Palestine under his control.
The strife continued under successors of Antiochus and of Judas. Eventually, in 142 B.C., a new king in Syria made peace with Simon, brother of Judas Maccabeus. The revolt of the Maccabees, thus, brought an end to Syrian domination of Palestine. And, for the first time since 605 B.C., when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, Judea was an independent state.
Meanwhile, however, Greece had fallen in 146 B.C. before the advance of the Romans (represented by the legs of iron in Nebuchadnezzar’s image dream). The power and influence of Rome was rapidly extending eastward, and the Maccabean rulers soon found their affairs intertwined with those of this rising world power. In 139 B.C. a treaty was signed, according to which Rome recognized the independence of Judea.
In the years that followed, the Maccabees were challenged on a number of occasions by the Syrians. But a more serious threat to peace in Judea was the almost constant internal strife. Quarrels among members of the ruling family led on different occasions to assassination, imprisonment, and civil war. Eventually the political situation became so chaotic that Rome was able to use it as an excuse to step in and settle the dispute. Roman troops under Pompey arrived at Jerusalem in 63 B.C. The defenders of the city surrendered with little resistance. Palestine became a province of Rome. Thus the independence of the Jews ended, not to be recovered till the modern state of Israel was established by the United Nations in 1948, some 2,000 years later.
A member of the Maccabean family was allowed to remain as head of the country, under Rome, but the real power lay in the hands of an Idumean (Edomite) by the name of Antipater. Through much intrigue, his son Herod (who came to be known as “the Great”) managed to have himself proclaimed by the Roman Senate to be King of Judea.
As Herod obtained the throne by intrigue, so also he maintained it. The submission of the inhabitants of Jerusalem was gained, it seems, only by a show of force (which included the execution of a majority of the Sanhedrin). And in the course of his long reign, which was characterized by reckless cruelty and bloodshed, his ambition, jealousy, and suspicion led to the further deaths of, among others, his uncle, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his favorite wife (he had ten in all), and a man he had appointed to be high priest. His slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem was, therefore, entirely in keeping with the character of his reign. He would stop at nothing to retain the throne for himself and for what he intended to be his dynasty.
At the same time, Herod tried to gain popularity among the Jews. He spent enormous sums of money to remodel the temple, which had been erected 500 years earlier by Zerubbabel. By the time he was finished with it, it was virtually a new building. But because he had taken it down and rebuilt it one section at a time, over a number of years, it continued to be considered the second temple. He made use of marble and gold plates to an extent that the people of Zerubbabel’s day could never have afforded. He did, in fact, gain the favor of some in Judea, but he never won the admiration of the Jews generally. For the most part they hated this foreigner and they stood in constant fear of his ruthless wrath.
Such was the history of the Jews during the years between the Testaments. In that history we see the Lord at work. World powers rise and fall at His command, and only in order that they might serve the church. For no other reason. Why was there a Rome? Because there had to be a Caesar Augustus, by whose decree “the world should be taxed.” There had to be a Pontius Pilate, through whom the world could pass judgment on the Christ of God. There had to be a Roman Empire, at first to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations and later, through persecution, to purify that church. More often than not we, as mere creatures, are unable to trace it, but the finger of God most emphatically directs the course of history.
That is unmistakably true with respect to what Paul would later call “the fulness of time” (Gal. 4:4)—that is, the fullness of time on the clock of God, who, as Rev. M. Schipper once wrote, “stipulates the exact moment of time that coincides with His plan when His Son must make His appearance in the world of darkness, when the development of history, which is nothing more than the succession of moments that God uses to realize His eternal purposes, is reached.” The moment, therefore, that was foreordained. And foretold of old. A prophecy that, more than once, must have seemed impossible of fulfillment. Perhaps never more so than at this time in the history of Old Testament Jewry. The Jewish nation?—fast becoming apostate. The very house of God having become a “den of thieves.” The royal line?—“the royal family tree of Jesse as to its power, majesty, and glory was cut down, so that all there remained of it was a mere stem or stump” (Rev. G. M. Ophoff).
But is that not the way the Lord often works? When was Isaac born to Abraham? It was when Sarah was “past age” and Abraham “as good as dead” (Heb. 11:11, 12)—in order that it might be clear on the very face of it that salvation is of the Lord. So also now, when does “Shiloh come”? When does the “bright and morning star” arise? Why, just before dawn, when the night is at its blackest.
The “scepter shall not depart from Judah,” Jacob had prophesied, “till Shiloh come” (Gen. 49:10). But had not the scepter already departed from Judah? Has not the promise already proved to be untrue? Indeed, Judah’s typical throne had fallen for good when Nebuchadnezzar carried the Jews off into captivity in Babylon. And now, though they have been restored to the promised land, it is the Romans that rule, and a descendant of Esau sits on the throne that once was David’s.
What hope can there be for such a people, and at such a time? Only this: “I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal. 3:6). And: “The Sun of righteousness [shall] arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2). The promise of God will not, can not, fail. Yes, the throne of David had disappeared. But the royal line had not. And the prophecy of Jacob was that it would not fail, that it would surely extend itself till it brought forth the Christ. Did that line end in Mary, a virgin? If so, the cause of God in this world would appear to have been forever lost. At just such a time as this, when the promise appeared all but impossible of fulfillment, the Lord would “suddenly come to his temple” (Mal. 3:1). The ruins of the throne of David will be rebuilt, and it will continue firm forever in the person of Jesus Christ.
Next time: Zacharias and Elisabeth