Friday, December 23, 2022

From Nebuchadnezzar to Herod

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” 
(Galatians 4:4-5)

When the New Testament begins its narrative, centuries had passed since the events recorded in the historical parts of the Old Testament. What happened in between? That is what I sought to explain in a recent Sunday school lesson, which you can listen to here. What I have written below is adapted from that lesson. Much of this time period is reviewed in the prophecies of Daniel. Four empires would hold sway from the time of Nebuchadnezzar to the coming of the Christ: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. 

1. The Jews under the Babylonians

Babylon gained control over Jerusalem in 605 BC, which is when Daniel was taken to Jerusalem. After a rebellion against Babylon, King Jehoiachin of Judah surrendered in 597 BC and was brought to Babylon. His uncle Zedekiah later rebelled against Babylon and was captured in 587 BC. Yet Jehoiachin was elevated from prison in 561 BC and his grandson Zerubbabel was appointed as the Persian governor of Judah in 538 BC.

2. The Jews under the Persians

Cyrus the Great consolidated control over the Medes and Persians and then conquered Lydia and Babylon. His son conquered Egypt. After his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, Cyrus issued a decree in 538 BC encouraging the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. A group returned under Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, and they finished the new temple in 516 BC.

The Bible also records the reforming work of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi in the mid-400s. After this, prophecy ceases and emphasis is given to the work of priests and scribes who copy and teach Scripture, continuing the legacy of Ezra. The Jews remained under Persian rule until 332 BC.

3. The Jews under the Greeks 

Alexander the Great, a Macedonian king who was Greek by education and culture, took over Persia and beyond. He allowed the Jews to follow their customs. After his death, his kingdom broke up into four successor kingdoms. 

The Ptolemys, the “kings of the south” (i.e. Egypt) maintained control of Judea throughout the 200s and were relatively lenient. A number of Jews moved to Egypt and the Old Testament was translated into Greek during this time (this translation was called the Septuagint).

The Seleucids, the “kings of the north” (i.e. Syria) gained control of the region in 198 BC and were initially supported by the Jews. King Antiochus III was favorable toward them. He was also friends with the enemies of Rome, like Hannibal, and was defeated in battle by the Romans.

His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fought the Ptolemys. After one unsuccessful campaign in Egypt, he sacked Jerusalem because of their revolt against his appointed high priest, Menelaus (169 BC). After another unsuccessful Egyptian campaign, foiled by Rome, he sent a general to Jerusalem who slaughtered many and promoted pagan worship and customs (168 BC). Antiochus then adopted an official policy of forced Hellenization. As Daniel had prophesied (Dan. 8, 11), Antiochus took action against the holy covenant and persecuted the saints. As 1 Maccabees 1:41-42, 44-50 recounts,
“Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. … And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt-offerings and sacrifices and drink-offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.’”
Some Jews compromised while others remained faithful despite torture and execution. In 167 BC, Antiochus had the temple desecrated with the abomination of desolation. An image of Zeus was placed on the altar of burnt offerings and pig’s flesh was offered on it.

Resistance was first offered by Mattathias, a priest and local leader, in a village 17 miles north of Jerusalem, when an official sought to force them to sacrifice to an idol. He and his five sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan) would lead the Jews against the Seleucids for decades. In this way, the faithful would “receive a little help” (Dan. 11:34). Judas defeated the forces of Antiochus, and in 165 BC he led the restoration of the temple on the anniversary of its desecration.

4. The Jews and the Hasmoneans

The descendants of Mattathias were known as the Hasmoneans. They established a largely independent kingdom and ruled the Jews from the 160s to 37 BC, often as both king and high priest, along with the Council (the Sanhedrin). They allied themselves with the Roman Republic. Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, expanded the Hasmonean kingdom and forcefully converted the Idumeans (Edomites) in the south.

Yet, these kings, beginning with John Hyrcanus, gradually declined in faithfulness to the law and became increasingly corrupt. Different approaches to the situation led to the formation of various groups in Judea, such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Eventually their Roman allies had to intervene in a Jewish civil war in 63 BC and took over.
  • The Sadducees valued stability, the high priest, and the temple. They supported the Hasmoneans, as well as the Romans when they came to power. They were usually associated with the priests and the upper classes. They prioritized the Torah over the rest of Scripture and tradition. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or the final judgment.
  • The Pharisees were usually laymen and were more popular with the common people and critical of the compromises of the establishment. They stressed purity and faithfulness to the law as defined by Scripture and the traditions of the elders. They believed in the existence of angels, demons, the resurrection (which had been a source of hope for the Maccabean martyrs), and the final judgment.
  • The Essenes stressed purity and were more separatistic and ascetic than the Pharisees. Many of them retreated from society altogether into desert communities such as Qumran.
  • Many Jews were not members of any party.

5. The Jews under King Herod and Rome

In 63 BC, Pompey, a Roman governor, intervened in a Jewish civil war between two Hasmonean rivals. He conquered Jerusalem and installed one of them as a ruler and high priest under a Roman governor. But wars between rival claimants continued. In 40 BC Antigonus seized the throne with the help of the Parthians from the east. Herod escaped and was appointed king by the Roman senate. With Roman help, he defeated Antigonus and took possession of the kingdom in 37 BC.

Herod the Great replaced the Hasmonean dynasty (his wife Mariamne was Hasmonean). “By religion he was a Jew, by race an Idumaean, by cultural sympathies a Greek, and by political allegiance a Roman” (D.S. Russell). Herod was “the king of the Jews” and a rex socius (a “confederate king”) of Rome, a client king directly under Caesar and the Roman senate (not under a provincial governor). He became famous for his building projects, especially for his reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem.


The spread of Greek culture and education under Alexander and his successors known as “Hellenization” provided both temptations and opportunities. On the one hand, the Jews were faced with the temptation to compromise with paganism. Some gave way to temptation while others remained faithful, although there were disagreements on the exact boundaries of faithfulness. On the other hand, the spread of the Greek language fostered international communication. The Old Testament was translated into Greek, the language of the nations, and some Gentiles became proselytes at synagogues throughout the world, from Rome to Alexandria to Babylon. The New Testament would be written in this international language, proclaiming the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. 

By the time of Christ’s birth, the Roman Empire had been established and its government held sway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River, over all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. On the one hand, this meant that Gentiles still held supreme power over the kingdom of the Jews. But the Romans had established the Pax Romana, a period of remarkable relative peace for 200 years beginning with the reign of Caesar Augustus. Rome had brought peace to lands that had been torn by warring rivals, not only Judea, but also Rome itself and most of the Mediterranean world. Rome and Herod also engaged in significant building projects, such as the Roman roads and the temple. Although the roads were built for the military and trade, they would also be used by apostles and evangelists of Christ.

The Jews had been prepared by various trials for the coming of the Christ. The prophecies and promises regarding the heir of David had been fostering messianic expectations for centuries. Astute readers of Daniel would have noted that they were living the in the days of the kings of the fourth kingdom, in which God would set up his kingdom through the Christ (Dan. 2, 7, 9). Belief in the resurrection of the dead had grown more clear and certain through reflection on Scripture and the trials of persecution. And even though there were various solutions offered, there was a general sense that Israel was being humbled for its sins and defilement and in need of deliverance. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Thy Will Be Done

Question 103: What do we pray for in the third petition?
Answer: In the third petition, which is, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven, we pray, that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know, obey, and submit to his will in all things, as the angels do in heaven. (WSC
Sometimes we use these words, “thy will be done” to say, “Let your eternal decree be fulfilled in history. I am content with your providential guidance of history, even when I don’t like it, for you love me and are wiser than I am.” This is a good prayer. Nevertheless, it is not the main point of this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, although contentment and submission to God are part of it.

“Your will,” in this passage, refers primarily to God’s law. It refers to his revealed will, contained in Scripture. It “being done” refers to obedience and submission. His revealed will is currently not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Much of earth is in rebellion against him. In heaven his will is perfectly obeyed by angels (Ps. 103:20-21). This prayer asks God to bring humanity on earth into the same conformity to his righteous will (Ps. 119:33-37).

We have rebelled and it is only through God’s grace that we can do his will. His grace gives us the ability to understand his revealed will. His grace renews our will so that we want to obey and submit to his will. More and more, God brings our thoughts and actions into conformity with his good will, and we look forward to the day in which this work will be complete in glory.

We desire obedience to his will, because God deserves obedience and we are zealous for our Father. We desire it because God’s will is good. If we love God’s character, we will want his will obeyed. We desire it because rebellion against God’s will is a source of disorder, judgement, and misery. We desire it for ourselves and we desire it for all the peoples of the earth, that earth may be as heaven.

As John Chrysostom, a noted preacher of the early church, said concerning this verse:
“He hath enjoined each one of us, who pray, to take upon himself the care of the whole world. For He did not say, ‘Thy will be done’ in me, or in us, but everywhere on the earth; so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth.”