Four Centuries of Temple Turmoil

Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 5

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”  Isaiah 49:14-16 NIV

The restoration of the Temple in 516 BC and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem seventy two years later in 444 BC once again secured the Jewish people in their identity and in their relationship with God. It established a focal point for their worship, prayer, and sacrifices. Even those Jews yet scattered among the surrounding nations in the Diaspora, first dating from 700 BC, found solace in being able to pray toward the Temple in Jerusalem as Solomon had prescribed in his dedication prayer (1 Kings 8:29-30, 35,38,42, 44, & 48). With successive generations of Persian kings, plagued by internal power struggles, the influence of their empire began to wane. This gave opportunity for a period of Jewish self-rule by a dynasty of high priests claiming to have descended from the Davidic priest Zadok. Unfortunately these priests, like the secular rulers of the empire of which they were a part, fell prey to infighting and division themselves. Peace and stability in Jerusalem under their rule could not be sustained and sedition within their ranks eventually led to the murder of a high priest over contention as to who should control the riches of the Temple treasury. News of the unrest in Jerusalem gave incentive for the Persian governor to attack Jerusalem and loot its wealth.

While all this was going on the Greek nation of Macedonia was growing in strength both militarily and geographically. As all the city states fell under their control, the Macedonians began to set their sights on the Persian Empire purposing to take revenge for its previous invasions of their land. In 336 BC a twenty year old named Alexander succeeded his father to the throne becoming the king of Macedonia. Within three years Alexander the Great, as he would be called, had conquered the western Persian Empire and began to march south along the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus records that a most cooperative high priest welcomed the conqueror at the gates of the city with much pomp and circumstance. Remarkably the priest then led him to the Temple where Alexander is said to have made a sacrifice to the God of the Jews. Some historians question the plausibility of this account. Regardless, it is a fact that Alexander, like Cyrus before him, did choose to accommodate the Jews by deciding to support the continuance of their Temple worship. Obviously the hand of God was upon Alexander just as it had been upon Cyrus. Perhaps Alexander’s greatness could be attributed as much to this kindness as to the fact that he was undefeated in battle and established one of the largest empire of the ancient world before age 30. Leaving Jerusalem, never to return again, he continued south to conquer Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria as its new capital. It would eventually become one of the great centers of influence in the Mediterranean world for almost a thousand years. From there he marched east completing his triumph of the Persian Empire and eventually extended his kingdom all the way to Pakistan.

In 323, while ruling from Babylon, Alexander just 33 years of age, became mysteriously ill. As he lay upon his death bed and subordinates questioned him as to whom he would leave his kingdom, he replied “To the strongest.” This set in motion a power struggle between generals which resulted in the division of Alexander’s empire into two dynasties that lasted for over 250 years. Known as the Hellenistic period (from the Greek word Hellas for Greece) the influence of Greek culture with its arts, architecture, philosophy, science, and language permeated every aspect of life. In the North was the Seleucid Empire which included Greece, Turkey, Syria, Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the South the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt. Judea had the misfortune of being situated between these two empires and quickly became their battleground. Jerusalem changed hands six times within the first twenty years.

Finally in 301 BC the Ptolemy’s took control of Jerusalem and ruled it for one hundred years. Initially they rampaged through the city and carried off half the inhabitants into exile. However, sixteen years later when King Ptolemy II took the throne he reversed its fortunes by granting favor to the Jews. During his reign from Alexandria he ordered the translation of the Jewish Tanakh (Law, Prophets, and Writings), into Greek. Legend has it that it was completed in just seventy-two days by seventy-two Alexandrian Jewish scholars who, working independently, miraculously came up with identical translations. It became known as the Septuagint, taken from the Greek word septuaginta which means seventy. This was a hallmark event for the Jews, and later for the Christians, as they sought to spread the faith. Greek continued as the internationally accepted language for centuries to come. The Septuagint translation made the Bible accessible for virtually everyone to read. Judah thrived during this period with Jerusalem ruled by high priests and the minting of its own coins inscribed with its Hebrew name “Yehud.” As an aside, it should be noted that the term “Jew,” meaning “from the Tribe of Judah” is derived from this word.

In 201 BC the Northern Empire of the Seleucids overthrew the Egyptian Ptolemy’s taking control of Jerusalem. Under their indulgent rule Temple life continued as the center of Jewish life, the feasts were celebrated and pilgrims poured into the city. The high priest at the time, a man called Simon the Just, was a paragon of virtue ruling both the political and religious affairs of the city. The first use of the term “theocracy” was coined by Josephus the historian to describe his reign. Things took a turn for the worse however in 167 BC when Antiochus, an evil Seleucid king turned on Jerusalem. Capturing the city, he slaughtered thousands, destroyed the walls, and forbade upon pain of death possession of the Torah, all Jewish observances, and services in the Temple. To heap insult upon injury he desecrated the Temple with the flesh of pigs, revelry, harlotry, and idol sacrifice. While not the first, nor the last, it was a foreshadowing of the “abomination of desolation” predicted by Daniel to be an end time occurrence in a future Third Temple (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11).

This intolerable oppression sparked a Jewish uprising against the Seleucids led by an old priest named Mattathias and his five sons. Although he died soon afterward, his third son Judah took the lead and finally succeeded in conquering all of Judea and he recovered control of Jerusalem in 164 BC. After four hundred years, Jewish independence was finally restored. The Temple, deserted and overgrown, was reclaimed and the Holy of Holies was rededicated in an eight day ceremony. Despite a shortage of oil, the candelabra miraculously continued to burn and never went out. Though some hold this aspect of the account to be a myth, this memorable event and the rededication of the Temple is annually celebrated among the Jews today as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. This triumph began a one hundred year Jewish reign by the Maccabees, a name given to the sons of Mattathias. According to Jewish tradition the word “Maccabee” was derived from a Hebrew acronym for the verse “Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Adonai!” which had become their battle cry. Also known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, some of their early history is recorded in the Old Testament apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.

The century long Maccabean rule, like every dynastic era before them lacked sustainable peace and tranquility. It was fraught with ongoing battles with the Seleucids, the death or capture of all the ruling brothers, and infighting and atrocities perpetrated by their descendants. Finally in 64 BC with the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, Pompey its all-conquering general, took Syria ending the Seleucid kingdom. He then descended upon Jerusalem and bombarded the fortified Temple Mount with catapults for three months. Taking advantage of the pious Jews who were marking the Sabbath with a fast, he stormed the Temple, killed the priests guarding the altar and entered the Holy of Holies. Looking around, he realized there was nothing there of significant value save the sanctity of the space and withdrew. Twelve thousand Jews died in the conflict, fortifications were destroyed, and the Maccabean monarchy abolished. Judea and Jerusalem were now ruled by Rome. In spite of four centuries of wars, occupation, profane abuse and misuse, the Second Temple was still standing. The only plausible explanation for its miraculous preservation is that her walls are indeed, ever before the Lord (Isaiah 49:16).

To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

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