HOJN Lesson #3

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Study Series: HOJN
Historical Overview of the Jewish Nation

Lesson #3: July 1, 2000

Evidence of God's Sovereignty:
Part III - The Restoration & The Time Between
              the Testaments

In our third study we wrap up our bird's eye view of the history of the Jewish nation - this time focusing on the nation of Israel from the time of the restoration from exile continuing on through the beginning of the New Testament era. As before, keep your eye out for the sovereign hand of God as we survey the history of his chosen people - the Jews.

The Restoration: 538 - 432 B.C.

This period of Israel's history is recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. (The book of Esther, set during the historical period covered by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, tells the incredible story of how God inserted a young Jewish woman into the royal family of Persia in order to save the Jewish people from genocide during the period of the exile.)

At the close of our last lesson we left the Jewish people in exile in the land of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful Babylonian king who destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and exiled her people, died in 562 B.C. After his death, Babylon's strength faltered under subsequent rulers until eventually, in 539 B.C., the once-invincible nation of Babylon met its demise at the hands of the Medo-Persian Empire. This empire (a Persian-dominated federation of the former Median and Persian Empires) was ruled by Cyrus the Great who implemented a policy of benevolence towards the subjects of the empire. Rather than treating conquered peoples harshly, under Cyrus the Persians allowed their conquered subjects to own land and homes. Cyrus even allowed many groups (the Jews included) to return to their homelands. By so doing, he hoped to ensure their loyalty to the empire.

In the opening words of Ezra we are told:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.'" (Ezra 1:1-4 NASB)

And so, after 70 years of exile, with the decree of Cyrus the Jews began their long-awaited return to the land of Israel. They did not return all at once, however. (In fact, some never returned.) The repopulation of Israel occurred through a series of stages each led by a different leader of the Jews.

  • The First Return Under Zerubbabel

The first (and largest) wave of Jews to return their homeland arrived shortly after the decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C. This group was led by a man named Zerubbabel who served as governor over the returning exiles. Upon their arrival the Jews immediately rebuilt the alter of God at the exact site of the original temple and re-instituted the temple sacrifices (even though there was yet no temple). Not long after (in 536) they began the reconstruction of the Jewish temple by laying a new foundation atop the ruins of the original.

Despite a good beginning, however, work on the temple reconstruction ground to a halt not long after the foundation was completed - primarily due to discouragement from opposition which arose from the surrounding peoples. (These were peoples who had been transplanted to Palestine by the Assyrians following the exile of Israel some 200 years before.) It wasn't until 16 years later, in 520 B.C. that God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the people to re-initiate the building project. Buoyed by the words of the prophets, the people of Israel launched back into the construction project and the new temple was completed four years later (516 B.C.). Following the completion and dedication of the temple, the sacrificial worship system as outlined by Moses was re-instituted.

Note: The original Jewish temple was known as Solomon's Temple (since Solomon oversaw its construction). This second, reconstructed temple came to be known as Zerubbabel's Temple. It was neither as large nor as beautiful as the original. This temple was gradually repaired and reconstructed over many years. Eventually, in 20 B.C. Herod the Great began a huge project to greatly renovate and expand Zerubbabel's temple. This "third" temple, which was not completely finished until 64 A.D., came to be known as Herod's Temple. (This is the temple that was in existence during the life of Jesus.) From the date of its final completion Herod's temple endured only six years. It was destroyed by the Romans, along with Jerusalem, in 70 A.D. The Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt since that time. References in both the Old and the New Testament  indicate that the temple will be rebuilt again, however, sometime before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (See, for example, Daniel 9:27 and 11:31, Matthew 24:15, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, and Revelation 11:1-2.)

  • The Second Return Under Ezra

Sixty years after the completion of Zerubbabel's Temple, in 458 B.C., a second group of Jews returned from Babylon to Israel under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra was a Jewish priest who was given authority by the Persian king (Artaxerxes) to lead a group of fellow Jews back to Israel with two goals in mind: to teach the people of Israel the scriptures and to administer public matters.

When Ezra arrived he found a rebuilt Jewish temple but a Jewish people who still needed rebuilt hearts. Since returning to the land of Israel, the Jews had intermarried extensively with the surrounding peoples - once again allowing God's holy people to be wrongfully influenced by the sinful lifestyles of the foreign nations. Just as the people had compromised in the days of the Judges by allowing various pockets of the previous inhabitants of Canaan to live among them, again they compromised and allowed their sons to marry the daughters of foreign peoples. If this situation were allowed to continue, the Jewish people would soon be back on the road to destruction.

Under Ezra's leadership, the people of Israel recognized their sin and decided to make it right. Those who had intermarried (in direct opposition to God's command in Deuteronomy 7:3-4) divorced their pagan wives and sent them away along with any children which had been produced by the marriages. (Caution: This is not to be misunderstood as teaching that divorce is acceptable to God. The whole of scripture makes it clear that God hates divorce. This incident came about as a result of the people's direct disobedience to God's command and, though extreme, was the only way to purge idolatry from the Jewish nation and set her on the right path again.) This choice of the people to set right their wrong was the first step in a spiritual renewal which began under Ezra and continued on under the combined leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.

  • The Third Return Under Nehemiah

About ten years later, in 445 B.C., the third and final group of Jews returned from exile to Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. As discussed above, the city of Jerusalem had been reestablished, the temple rebuilt, and civil administration re-instituted under Zerubbabel and Ezra. However, the walls of the city still lay in ruins. (In those days cities required walls around them to provide protection from the attack of invading armies. The city wall represented power, protection, and beauty. Without a wall, a city was not really a city.)

Nehemiah was a Jew who had grown up in the Persian Empire during the period of the exile and served as cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes. (A cupbearer was one who, among other duties, tasted wine before the king drank it to ensure it had not been poisoned by someone trying to kill the king.) When news reached Nehemiah that the walls of Jerusalem still had not been rebuilt, it grieved him and he determined to return to Jerusalem and honor God by rebuilding the walls and city of Jerusalem.

After securing the permission of King Artaxerxes to return to Israel, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem with a small group of fellow Jews and immediately set about organizing the people into workgroups to accomplish the rebuilding project. Despite rigorous opposition from various surrounding peoples, Nehemiah accomplished the task and the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days. After the walls were completed, Nehemiah continued to lead the Jewish people by appointing leaders to various religious and political positions necessary for the newly reestablished community. Once this necessary framework was established, Nehemiah continued to lead the people in a political sense as governor while Ezra maintained his role as the spiritual leader of the community. As the book of Nehemiah closes, we see these two men leading the people of Jerusalem in a time of spiritual revival and national repentance.

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The Time Between the Testaments: 432 - 5 B.C.

With the conclusion of the book of Nehemiah we reach the end of the historical account of the Jewish nation as recorded in Old Testament scripture. (The remainder of the Old Testament primarily consists of the various prophetic books written throughout the historical period we have been surveying.) In Biblical history, the approximately 400 years that separate Nehemiah from the birth of Jesus are referred to as "the intertestamental period". This period is sometimes referred to as "the silent years" because during this time there was no new revelation from God. What we know of this period comes primarily from non-Biblical sources. The section which follows summarizes in bullet form the major historical and social developments which occurred during this period and those events which led to the historical and cultural setting we find at the opening of the New Testament.


    • The Persian Period: 450 - 330 B.C.

      During the one hundred or so years following Nehemiah, the Persians continued to exercise political control over the land of Israel. However, they allowed the Jews to carry on with their own local government and religious activities.


    • The Hellenistic Period: 330 - 166 B.C.

      In 336 B.C. the world political landscape once again changed shape as Alexander the Great ascended to the throne of Macedonia and began a series of conquests which would forever make him known as one of the greatest military geniuses of all time. In 333 he defeated the main army of the Persians and gained political control of Palestine. Beginning with Alexander and continuing with his successors, the known world was subjected to an enforced adaptation of Greek language and culture (a policy known as Hellenization).

      When Alexander died in 323 B.C.  the Greek empire was divided and eventually evolved into two competing political dynasties - the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The Ptolemies controlled Palestine from approximately 320 - 198 B.C. Under Ptolemaic rule (as with Alexander before), the Jews were allowed to continue a form of local Jewish government and religious activity. However, in 198 the Ptolemies were defeated by the Seleucids and things gradually began to change. In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanes became ruler of the Seleucids and began to vigorously enforce the Hellenization policy upon the Jews.


    • The Hasmonean Period: 166 - 63 B.C.

      Antiochus' efforts to wipe out the Jewish religion were so severe that in 166 B.C. they resulted in a full-fledged revolt of the Jewish people known as the Maccabean revolt. This rebellion, led by a patriotic Jewish family known as the Maccabees (or more correctly the Hasmoneans), was successful and resulted in the political independence of Judah for approximately 100 years. During this period, the Jews were led by successive members of the Hasmonean family who, despite patriotic beginnings, eventually adopted many of the Greek lifestyles they had originally rebelled against.


    • The Roman Period: 63 B.C. and on through the New Testament

      The Hasmonean family continued to rule Palestine until 63 B.C. when, after a civil war had erupted between two fighting factions of the Hasmonean family, the expanding empire of Rome stepped in to intervene. Led by the general Pompey, the Romans captured Jerusalem and established firm political and military control over all of Palestine. In 40 B.C., after continuing power struggles within the Hasmonean family, Rome appointed Herod the Great king of Judea. (As noted above, one of Herod's most significant accomplishments was the expansion and renovation of the Jewish temple.) As the New Testament opens, Herod is the ruler over all of Palestine.


    • New Testament Judaism

      The form of Judaism (the Jewish religion) in practice during New testament times was established during the period of the Assyro-Babylonian exile. While exiled, the Jews were not permitted to practice the sacrifices and other rituals central to their faith. As a result, they did what they could - they studied their scripture (primarily the Torah) and focused more on prayer and personal piety. One of the central ideas associated with New Testament Judaism was the coming of a future Messiah; however, the Jewish picture of the Messiah was a human figure who would free them from Roman political and military domination - not a Messiah who would free them from the domination of sin.


    • The Synagogue

      The Jewish synagogue (meaning "assembly") arose during the period of the exile when the temple did not exist. Prior to the exile, the temple was the center of Jewish worship. During the exile the Jews had no temple to worship at and so they met together in small groups to worship and study the scriptures. Once this form of Jewish worship gathering was established, it continued on even after the return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple.


    • The Pharisees

      This Jewish sect so often criticized by Jesus in the New Testament probably originated around the second century B.C. During New Testament times they were the larger of the two major religious groups in Israel (the other being the Sadducees - see below.) The Pharisees were made up mostly of middle-class laymen and, as such, wielded significant influence among the common people. They believed in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses) along with the other books which now make up the Old Testament scriptures; however, they also gave equal authority to various teachings that were based more on Jewish tradition than on scripture. (Jesus often criticized them for their emphasis of "the oral tradition" over scripture.) They believed in angels and demons and in a bodily resurrection and eternal life.


    • The Sadducees

      This lesser-known Jewish sect also criticized by Jesus in the New Testament probably originated during the Hasmonean Period (166 - 63 B.C.). The Sadducees were made up mostly of aristocrats (i.e., upper class people) and thus were most interested in maintaining the status quo so as not to lose their enjoyable position. Unlike the Pharisees, they believed that only the Torah was authoritative scripture and did not give credence to the oral traditions that were so important to the Pharisees. They rejected belief in angels and demons and argued there is no bodily resurrection nor eternal life.


    • The Sanhedrin

      The Jewish supreme court, known as the Sanhedrin, originated during the Hasmonean Period. In New Testament times, although the Jews were under Roman authority, the Sanhedrin was allowed to maintain ultimate authority among the Jewish people regarding religious and domestic issues. This group (also referred to as the "council", "chief priests and elders and scribes", etc.) was presided over by the Jewish high priest and consisted of seventy members from both the Pharisaical and Sadducean sects.

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  1. Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995. Used by permission.
  2. Bible Explorer, Copyright © 1995, 1999, Epiphany Software. All rights reserved. (see Site Links page)
  3. Copyright © 1996-2000, Walking In Their Sandals, Columbia International University, Columbia, South Caroline, USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (see Site Links page)
  4. eBibleTeacher.com (see Site Links page)
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  6. eBibleTeacher.com (see Site Links page)

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