Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox church
The historical books of the Old Testament cover the life of the Jewish people from the time they entered the Promised Land under Joshua the son of Nun (1451 BC) to the time of the Maccabees (150 BC). In particular, the books of Joshua and Judges cover the earliest period in the history of the Jewish people, when the Jewish tribes that populated the Promised Land had not yet been united into one state, but were separate from each other to a lesser or greater extent. The books of Kings and Chronicles cover the monarchical period in the history of the Jewish people that lasted about five hundred years. This period ended with the fall of the Kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Judith and Esther tell us of the events that followed the Babylonian captivity and of the restoration of Jerusalem. Finally, the books of the Maccabees cover the last period of the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, as they were fighting for independence several hundred years before Christ.
††††††† The political and spiritual development of the Jewish nation spanned many centuries and took place in several stages. God chose the Jewish people to bring salvation to all nations on earth through the Jews. It was in Godís plan that the Savior of the world, Christ, the first citizens of Godís Kingdom and preachers of the Christian Faith should come from among the Jewish people. The Old Testament prophets, being sent by God, spiritually prepared the ground in the Jewish nation for building Godís Kingdom among people. The path of spiritual development of the Jewish people was not smooth. There were times of spiritual growth and prosperity, as well as times of decreased interest to religion and even apostasy.
††††††† Of course, not everything that is found in the sacred books has equal significance for us. When reading the Old Testament history, one should remember that it covers pre-Christian era. The noble Christian principles of love for oneís enemies, complete forgiveness and self-control were unknown to people in that ancient time before the coming of grace. The Jews lived surrounded by antagonistic Gentile nations ó Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Philistines, and later ó Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians and others whose superstitious beliefs and cruel Gentile customs pulled the Jews down a path of spiritual decline. There was no one from whom to learn good. These Gentiles used each and every opportunity to cruelly enslave and oppress the Jews. Throughout its history, the Jewish people constantly struggled to preserve their faith pure and to physically survive. To be correctly understood, this history must be read in the context of morals and customs of the time. Throughout the historical books of the Bible, of value are truthfulness and objectivity of this Sacred Book. The Bible does not idealize people or events, but sternly and impartially evaluates everything, including great national heroes, thus helping the reader to learn from both good and bad examples. It tells us what to do, and what to avoid.
††††††† Despite adverse external circumstances, many sons of the Jewish people achieved great spiritual heights and have left examples worthy of imitation by people of all ages. Even though the Jews often sinned no less than their Gentile neighbors, yet they were able to sincerely repent. One may assume that it was for this quality that they were chosen by God. As the Gospels say, they were given much, and therefore much was often required of them.
††††††† Another value of the historical books of the Bible is their clear message that it is not blind accident, but God that directs and decides destiny of each individual and every nation. The Bible provides excellent examples of Godís Providence by showing how He exalts and rewards the righteous for their virtue, has mercy on repentant sinners, while at the same time punishing stubborn sinners as their righteous Judge. In Biblical description of individual lives and events, the reader is able to see qualities of the Great God Whose mercy is endless, Whose wisdom is incomprehensible, Whose power is infinite, and Whose righteous judgment is inescapable. No secular book about history is able to convey such spiritual perspective on events. Only the Bible can do this!
Before we discuss historical events described in the Bible, we should briefly comment on the significance of prophets in the life of the Jewish nation. Even though the Law of Moses did command priests to teach godliness to the people, yet this commandment was rarely followed in practice. Most priests limited their activities to offering sacrifices in the temple and cared little about educating the people. For this reason the people remained in ignorance of spiritual things. Idolatry practiced by the Gentile neighbors and their cruel and immoral customs were easily borrowed by the Jews and led to apostasy from faith in God. With rare exceptions, Jewish kings and other leaders were poor role models for the people. In order to instruct the people in the true faith, God frequently sent them His prophets. Prophets had an enormous impact on the faith of the nation and quite often saved it from spiritual disaster.
††††††† While priesthood among the Jews was inherited, yet it was God who called each prophet to the ministry individually. Prophets came from all social groups. Some of them were peasants or shepherds and were almost illiterate, while others came from royal families and were highly educated. The main task of the prophets was to point to failures of the people in matters of religion and morality and to restore godliness in the nation. While teaching people about the faith, the prophets frequently predicted the future events in the life of the nation, as well as the coming of the Savior of mankind, Messiah, and the end of the world. Often a prophet would gather quite a few followers and disciples who would stay around him for a long time. These would form brotherhoods or prophetic schools, helping prophets in their spiritual labors. Prophetic brotherhoods became especially prominent during the time of the prophet Samuel who gave them a strong organizational structure and made them a source of spiritual and moral revival of the nation. Thus the prophets were spiritual leaders (elders) of their brotherhoods, members of which lived in well organized communities where they studied the Bible, prayed to God, copied books and rewrote chronicles which would later become a source of the historical books of the Bible. Sometimes the more gifted of the disciples in these communities were called by God to prophetic ministry, thus continuing the cause of their prophet and teacher.
††††††† Out of prophetic communities came people who fearlessly opposed idolatry and uncompromisingly kept and spread the faith in God. These were men strong in spirit and not afraid to tell the truth to the face of kings and the mighty of that time. For this, prophets were often persecuted and ended their lives in martyrdom. From the time of the prophet Samuel, prophets were always present throughout the Old Testament history. Prophetic ministry reached its peaks in the time of the prophets Elija and Elisha, and later, in the times of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel.
††††††† As centuries passed, the Jews developed a concept of a true prophet as opposed to false prophets: a true prophet was distinguished by seeking no benefit of his own, by obedience to God and fearless performance of his duty, by exceptional humility and love for people, by being strict with himself and living a pure life.
The story in the Books of Moses (Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) brings us to the end of the forty-year-long journey of the Jewish nation through the desert of the Sinai peninsula. While in the desert, the Israelites were renewed spiritually and strengthened in their faith in God. It was now time for the Jews to inherit the land which God had promised to their righteous ancestors ó Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The book of Joshua tells us of how the Jews, led by a disciple of Moses, Joshua the son of Nun, conquered the Promised Land. Up until that time the Promised Land was populated by Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, for which reason the land was called the land of Canaan.
††††††† Reading the book of Joshua, we can clearly see how God was constantly helping the Jewish people in taking possession of the Promised Land. At times this help assumed the form of manifest miracles. For example, when, at the very beginning of the conquest, the Jews had to cross the Jordan, the waters stopped, and the Jews were able to walk on the dry riverbed (Ch. 3). Later, when they were taking the Canaanite city of Jericho on the border of the land of Canaan, the walls of the city collapsed after the Israelites had walked around the city and sounded the sacred trumpets (Ch. 6). It is worth noting that the site of ancient Jericho is now being excavated by archaeologists. These excavations shed light on the events of ancient history described in the book of Joshua. Godís help in conquering the land of Canaan was also manifest in ďthe stopping of the sunĒ during the battle at Gibeon (Ch. 10).
††††††† Upon conquest, the Promised Land was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribe of Judah took the southern part of the Holy Land. The tribe of Levi was the only one that did not receive a portion of the land, since descendants of Levi were to perform priestly duties for the inhabitants of the whole land. However the Levites received some cities scattered throughout the Promised Land.
††††††† After Joshua the son of Nun died, the Jewish people entered the period of so called Judges. These were temporary leaders chosen by God from among the Jews in order to save the nation from the hands of its oppressive neighbors. The four-hundred-year-long period, during which the Jewish tribes lived without permanent leaders, is described in the book of Judges.
This book contains the history of the chosen nation from the death of Joshua the son of Nun to the time of Judge Samson (1425-1150 B.C.). Having settled in the land of Canaanites, the Jews began to get closer to them, to intermarry and borrow their idolatry and disgusting pagan customs. God punished the Jews for these sins. He allowed their neighbors ó Ammonites, Philistines, Moabites and others to enslave and oppress them. Exhausted under their enemiesí oppression, the Israelites would repent and turn to God. Then He would have mercy on them and send them His chosen one in the person of a judge. The judge would organize the army and, with Godís help, drive away the oppressor. Yet after some number of years the Israelites would again forget God, start worshipping idols and commit sin and would again be oppressed by foreigners. Then they would again repent, and God would send them another judge to deliver them. Six times Israel came under foreign oppression, and six times God delivered the nation through judges.
††††††† One of the principles clearly illustrated by the book of Judges is that an apostasy from Godís Law is followed by oppression, and repentance ó by deliverance. And Godís help is manifested in miraculous ways: the number of soldiers and weapons and other military advantages are not a factor in the outcome. This is clearly demonstrated by the example of judge Gideon. With only 300 soldiers, he vanquished a huge Midianite army and delivered the Jews from cruel oppression (Ch. 6-7). Also remarkable is the life of Samson. Having received an unusual physical strength from God, he several times seriously defeated the Philistines who were oppressing the Jews at the time (Ch. 13-16). His life, which was full of adventure, his marriage to treacherous Delilah, and his death as a hero have been a basis for an opera and a few movies.
Then there are several books in the Bible called the books of the Kingdoms and Paralipomenon. They deal with the monarchical period in the history of the Jewish people. After Samson, the prophet Samuel judged the people. Under his leadership, the tribes of Israel decided to unite into one state under a king. Samuel anointed Saul to be king over Israel. Saul was succeeded by David and, later, by Davidís son Solomon. Under Rehoboam the son of Solomon the one kingdom split into two: the kingdom of Judah ó in the south, and the kingdom of Israel ó in the north of the Holy Land. The books of the Kingdoms cover a period of 500 years from the birth of Samuel (1100 B.C) to the release of Jeconiah king of Judah from prison in 567 B.C.
††††††† In the Hebrew Bible, the book of the Kingdoms is divided into two parts called Sepher Shemuel (The Book of Samuel) and Sepher Melakhim (The Book of the Kings). However, in the Bible of the Seventy, or Septuagint, which is the Greek translation, as well as in the Russian Bible, Sepher Shemuel is divided into two parts called 1st and 2nd books of the Kingdoms. So is Sepher Melakhim also divided into two parts called 3rd and 4th books of the Kingdoms. Tradition has it that the prophet Samuel wrote the first part of the 1st book of the Kingdoms, and the prophets Nathan and Gad wrote the end of the 1st (Ch. 26-31) and the whole of the 2nd book of the Kingdoms. The 3rd and 4th books of the Kingdoms were written by several prophets.
††††††† The books of Paralipomenon supplement and, in part, repeat the books of the Kingdoms. In the Hebrew Bible they comprise a single book called Dibreh-Gaionim, or Chronicles. The Seventy called this book Paralipomenon, i.e. About That Which Had Been Omitted. They also divided it into two parts. Here are the main events recounted in the books of the Kingdoms.
The 1st Book of Samuel (1st of Kingdoms according the Septuagint) begins its story with the birth of Samuel. Godly, yet childless, Hannah prayed God to give her a son, which request was granted. She named him Samuel and, in fulfillment of her vow, consecrated him to Godís service under the high priest Eli. Hannahís song of praise for the birth of her son, found in Chapter 2 of the book, forms the basis for some extollations sung during the evening services. We find a number of interesting lessons in the life of Samuel (Ch. 1-4). For example, one can see the importance of raising children: the whole family of kind, yet weak-willed, high priest Eli was rejected by God for the wickedness of Eliís sons. When Samuel grew old, he relieved himself of the responsibility of a judge and anointed Saul of the tribe of Benjamin to be king of Israel (Ch. 5-12). Then the book of the Kingdoms tells us about the reign of Saul. Saul was at first obedient to God, but later became proud and began to be negligent about doing the will of God. For this reason God instructed Samuel to anoint a boy named David, of the town of Bethlehem, to be king over Israel (Ch. 13-16). At that time a war broke out between the Jews and the Philistines, and young David, with Godís assistance, killed a Philistine giant named Goliath (Ch. 17). The defeat of Goliath resulted in a victory for the Jews and made David famous, which moved Saul to envy. After this event Saul, till the end of his life, persecuted David, trying to kill him (Ch. 18-24). At the end of the book we read about Saulís visit to a woman who had a familiar spirit at Endor, a failed war against the Philistines and the death of Saul (Ch. 25-31). Davidís sad feelings over unjust persecution on the part of Saul were expressed in his well-known psalms.
††††††† The 2nd Book of Samuel (2 of Kingdoms according the Septuagint) covers the forty-year-long reign of David. The first few years of Davidís reign were quite successful, because God was helping him in everything he did. David took the fortress of Jerusalem away from the Jebusites and made it his capital city. Previously Jerusalem had been a Canaanite city of Ushalim, i.e. city founded by god Shalem. The city is known from the Accadian records of 14th century B.C. (correspondence of Tell-el-Amarna). The Biblical tradition identifies it with the city of Melchizedek, a contemporary of Abraham, as well as with the mount in the land of Moriah where Abraham offered sacrifice. David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and was about to construct the first temple, in place of the portable tabernacle (i.e. tent-temple). But the Lord told David, through a prophet, that the temple would be built by his son (Ch. 1-10). The second half of Davidís reign was spoiled by his sin with a married woman, Bath-sheba, and the resulting turmoil in his family life and in the life of the state. David was especially broken-hearted over the rebellion of his son Absalom and the civil war that followed (Ch. 11-24). David expressed his deep regret over his sin of adultery in Psalm 50 (51 in the English Bible), which is a psalm of repentance.
††††††† There is much a Christian can learn from the life of David: his deep faith in God, unshakable hope in Godís help, his sympathy for the weak and the oppressed, an ability to see his own faults, to repent of them and to correct them. The apostles write about David with great respect. Church Fathers frequently use examples from the life of David in their teachings. His inspired psalms are an eternal masterpiece of religious poetry and lie in the foundation of divine services. The 2nd Book of the Kingdoms contains a prophecy about the eternal kingdom of the Messiah-Christ. This prophecy was given to David through the prophet Nathan (see 7:12-16. Cf. Matt. 22:42 and Luke 1:32-33).
††††††† The 1st Book of the Kingdoms (3rd of Kingdoms according the Septuagint). Here we read about the reign of Solomon who, for his faith and humility, was gifted by God with great wisdom. Solomon built in Jerusalem a temple, the beauty and riches of which surpassed those of all palaces and pagan temples of the time. Under Solomon, the nation of Israel reached the peak of its well-being and glory (Ch. 1-11). Yet, high taxes and harsh construction labors were a heavy burden on the people and caused protests. Solomonís reputation of a wise ruler was spoiled by polygamy and construction of pagan shrines around Jerusalem. Dissatisfaction with Solomon among the people led to the division of his kingdom after his death, under his son, Rehoboam (Ch. 12). The kingdom split into two parts: the kingdom of Judah with the capital in Jerusalem, ruled by the kings of the family of David, and the kingdom of Israel with the capital in Samaria, ruled by kings of various dynasties (980 B.C.). The 1st and 2nd (3rd and 4th) books of the Kingdoms recount, in parallel, the events in both kingdoms: the acts of kings, heroic feats of prophets as well as wars and religious life of these kingdoms.
††††††† The kings of Israel were afraid that, if their subjects visited the temple in Jerusalem, they might want to reunite with the kingdom of Judah. For this reason the Israelite kings began to build pagan shrines in various parts of Israel and to encourage people to worship idols. These policies led to apostasy of the Israelite people from God. During this time of religious decline, God sent Israel a few remarkable prophets who slowed down the process of spiritual decay. Two of these messengers from God ó the prophet Elijah and his disciple, Elisha ó stand out in a special way.
††††††† The prophet Elijah (900 years B.C). was one of the strongest defenders of true faith and godliness (Ch. 17-21). Grieving over the spiritual death of his people, Elijah was determined and tough in punishing the wicked. Elijah was called to prophetic ministry under the wicked Israelite king Ahab. Ahabís blood-thirsty wife, Jezebel, who was a daughter of a pagan priest from Sidon, put many Jewish prophets to death and filled the land of Israel with pagan priests of Baal. To teach Ahab and the people of Israel a lesson, Elijah struck the land with a three-year-long drought. The prophet himself was first hiding at a creek, where he was fed by a raven that brought him food daily. After the creek had dried up, the prophet lived in the house of a widow in Zarephath. The prophet prayed, and a small amount of flour and oil miraculously lasted two years, providing food for the widowís family and the prophet. When the widowís only son died, Elijah prayed, and the boy rose from the dead. At the end of the three-year-long drought, Elijah invited the king, the pagan priests and all the people of Israel to come to the mount of Carmel. Here, at Elijahís prayer, fire in the form of lightning came down from heaven and, in front of all that were present, devoured the sacrifice offered by Elijah. Having seen such a great miracle, the people believed in God and, in tears, repented of idol worship. The priests of Baal that came to the mountain were put to death. Then, at last, it began to rain. The famine was over.
††††††† For his holy life and a great love for God, the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven alive in a fiery chariot. The story of the 2nd (4th) Book of the Kingdoms starts with this event. According to prophecy, Elijah will come again before the end of the world in order to expose the lies of the antichrist. At that time he will die as a martyr.
††††††† The holy prophet Elisha was a disciple of the prophet Elijah and received the mantle and the prophetic gift of Elijah, when Elijah was being taken up into heaven. Elisha labored for over 65 years, under six different kings of Israel, from Ahab to Joash. He was fearless in telling the wicked kings the truth and rebuking them for their wickedness. He was greatly respected by the people of Israel, he was strong in the spirit and in the faith, and he also had a gift of seeing the future. During his life, prophetic brotherhoods in the kingdom of Israel thrived more than ever before or after him. Among his most glorious miracles were the resurrection of a young man, turning fresh the salty waters of a spring in Jericho, and healing Naaman, a Syrian military commander, from leprosy.† Besides, the prophet Elisha secured numerous victories for the kings of Israel by his wisdom and ability to see the future. Elisha died a very old man in the city of Samaria during the reign of king Joash (Ch. 2-13). Our Lord Jesus Christ mentioned the prophets Elijah and Elisha several times in His discourses. Every believer should be familiar with the lives and acts of these prophets.
††††††† Despite the efforts of the prophets Elijah, Elisha and others, idol-worship and disgusting pagan customs eventually did damage to the spiritual foundation of the people of Israel. Because of this sin of apostasy, God allowed the kingdom of Israel to be destroyed. After being defeated by the Assyrian armies several times in 722 B.C, the kingdom of Israel fell (Ch.17). Then large numbers of Israelites were relocated to Assyria, and some inhabitants of Assyria were relocated to Israel. The Israelites intermarried with the Assyrians, and the nation of Samaritans was thus formed.
††††††† From this point on, the story of the 4th Book of the Kingdoms focuses on the kingdom of Judah. From among the kings of Judah, we should mention the godly king Hezekiah. Having inherited the throne from his wicked father, Hezekiah was determined to bring law and order to the weakened Judea. First of all, he took care of the internal affairs of the nation whose religious life had declined. Influenced by their pagan neighbors, the Jews began to gradually forget the true God and started building altars to pagan deities. These altars were sometimes erected next to the temple. Hezekiah boldly demolished the shrines of idols, cut down groves devoted to pagan gods and destroyed everything that reminded the people about idols. Thus he restored the true faith in Judea. Among the events that took place during his reign, the most remarkable was the miraculous defeat, by an angel, of 185,000-strong Assyrian army that besieged Jerusalem under the command of Sennacherib (Ch. 19). Good lessons can also be learned from the miraculous healing of Hezekiah who was about to die, yet God had mercy on him because of his faith and his good works. The people of Judah remembered Hezekiah along with the godly kings David and Josiah (Ch. 23). Hezekiah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah ó one of the greatest prophets of all time. Being a highly educated man and a poet, the prophet Isaiah wrote a remarkable book full of prophesies about the Messiah and His Kingdom of grace. Isaiah is also known as the Old Testament Evangelist.
††††††† Hezekiahís successors on the throne encouraged idolatry. The prophets were persecuted and put to death under these kings. For example, the elderly prophet Isaiah was cut in half with a wooden saw during the reign of Hezekiahís son Manasseh. The prophet Jeremiah also suffered a lot. The kingdom of Judah was filled with lawlessness, just as it happened in Israel some years earlier. Despite the alliance with Egypt, the kingdom of Judah fell, having been defeated several times by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The magnificent temple and the city of Jerusalem were leveled with the ground. Numerous inhabitants were killed or taken away to Babylon as captives (586 B.C., cf. Ch. 19-25). The Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years from 605 B.C., when the first group of people was taken away. The captivity ended in the third year after the conquest of Babylonian Empire by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C. The captive Jews were spiritually supported by the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.
††††††† The stories of the books of the Kingdoms clearly illustrate a general and unchangeable spiritual law: faith in God and godly living prolong the well-being of a nation, whereas wickedness inevitably leads to destruction. Military power, diplomatic skills and other apparent advantages are of secondary importance for the well-being of a country. The validity of this law can be traced throughout the history of many nations!
Kings of Israel
Kings of Judah
Growth of Phoenicia.
Growth of Assyria.
Founding of Rome 750
Fall of Israel 722. Siege of Jerusalem 700
Persecution of the prophets.
Fall of Nineveh 606
Fall of Jerusalem 586 and Babylonian captivity.
Fall of Babylon 539. Cyrus the king of Persia 559-29.
Return from the captivity 536
Darius I, Rebuilding of the Temple 534-516.
The Decree of Artaxerxes 446, the beginning of the weeks of Daniel.
Ezra collects the books of the Holy Scripture 450Ė425.
The book of Ezra deals with the events at the end of the Babylonian captivity. In the Hebrew Bible, there is only one book of Ezra. In the Greek Bible of the Seventy (Septuagint), there are two more, so-called deutero-canonical, books of Ezra, for a total of three. (In some English versions of the Bible the Book of Nehemiah is called 2nd Ezra, so there are four books of Ezra ó trans). The main topic of the book of Ezra is the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. The first return followed the Decree of Cyrus in 536 and was lead by Zerubbabel and the high priest Jeshua. It was then that the rebuilding of the Temple began. The second return was led by Ezra during the reign of Artaxerxes Longiman.
††††††† Ezra was a grandson of the high priest Seraiah who was killed by Nebuchadnezzar. Ezra was close to the Persian court and was among the educators of Artaxerxes Longiman. In the 7th year of his reign (457 B.C.), Artaxerxes issued a decree by which Ezra and any other Jews were allowed to return from Babylon to Jerusalem and to start rebuilding the city and providing religious education to the Jewish people.
††††††† After ruling the people for 14 years, Ezra delegated all authority to Nehemiah and focused on teaching the people about Godís Law and collecting the books of the Holy Scripture into one book. He founded The Great Synagogue ó a group which, under the guidance of the last prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, helped Ezra to review and correct the Holy Scripture and to collect it into one book, thus completing the canon of the Old Testament. The books written after Ezra were not included in the list of Sacred books, for which reason they are called deutero-canonical, even though they are highly respected and can be found in many translations of the Bible. Most of the books, composed after Ezra, were written in Greek which was commonly used at the time.
Nehemiah descended from the tribe of Judah and was likely a member of the royal family. He occupied the high post of the butler at the Persian court. In the 20th year of the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes Longiman (465-424 B.C., i.e. in 446 B.C.), Nehemiah learned, from his kinsmen that came from Palestine, about the desperate condition the city of Jerusalem was in. He convinced the king to send him to his country as a ruler with high authority. He rebuilt the city and surrounded it with walls, despite resistance on the part of the Samaritans. Having rebuilt and populated the city and sanctified its walls, Nehemiah, together with Ezra, began to educate the people about religion, morals and the life of society. The Law of Moses was read, the feast of Tabernacles was celebrated, the rich forgave the debts of the poor, the covenant between the people and God was renewed. Then Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes, but later came to Jerusalem again and uprooted various crimes among the people. Thus, during 30 years before his death, Nehemiah labored to restore Jerusalem and strengthen the faith among the people.
††††††† Just as Nehemiah continued the cause of Ezra, his book is also a continuation of the book of Ezra. Ezra describes the beginning of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, namely the reconstruction of the temple and the religious and moral education of the people. Nehemiah deals with the construction of the walls, the settlement and rebuilding of the city, the structure of the society based on religious principles. Both books record the history of the people of God and show the ways of Godís Providence by which the nation was saved and prepared for the coming of the promised Messiah.
††††††† The decree of Artaxerxes, issued to Nehemiah in 446 B.C., has a special significance as a starting point for the weeks of Daniel related to the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah (Dan. 9:22-27).
††††††† As a historical reminder about Godís mercy to the chosen people, the book of Nehemiah contains numerous lessons for us to learn. Nehemiahís self-sacrificial love for his country and his people, which caused him, like Moses, to neglect the luxury and comfort of the royal court, his constant hard work for the well-being and glory of his country ó all this provides us with a model worthy of imitation.
The book borrows its title from its main character named Esther, which means Star. For her beauty, a Jewish orphan by the name of Hadassah became the wife of the Persian king Artaxerxes or, probably, Xerxes who reigned in 485-465 B.C. Her name was later changed to Esther. Esther was raised by her uncle Mordecai who was a gatekeeper at the royal court. A few years earlier, Mordecai saved the kingís life, when some of the kingís servants conspired to kill him. Mordecaiís service to the king was recorded in the Persian documents.
††††††† Some time after Esther became the queen, the kingís powerful and proud minister named Haman, who hated the Jews, decided to exterminate all of them within the borders of the Persian Empire. For this purpose, he wrote an appropriate decree, as if on the kingís behalf, and began to look for a convenient occasion to have it signed by the king. By Godís Providence, Mordecai learned about Hamanís plan. Being confident of success and hating Mordecai, Haman built gallows on which to hang him. But Hamanís plan fell through. At a banquet, Esther boldly exposed his conspiracy and rebuked him for his intention to hang her uncle who had saved the kingís life. Having learned about the evil character of Haman, the angered king frustrated the plan of Haman and ordered him to be hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordecai (as a Russian saying goes, ďdo not dig a pit for someone else, for you will fall into it yourselfĒ). To commemorate deliverance of the Jews from Haman, the feast of Purim was established (Purim is Hebrew for casting lots).
The events described in the book of Judith took place in Israel during the reign of the king Manasseh. The book is named after its main character. Judith was a beautiful and godly widow of a certain Manasseh of the tribe of Simeon from the city of Bethulia. By her courageous deed she saved her city and the whole country from the Assyrian armies that came to devastate the land under the command of Holofernes (approx. 650 years B.C.).
††††††† Having occupied all of the coastal land, Holofernes and his huge army made a stop on the border of Judea near Bethulia in the tribe of Issachar. The inhabitants of Bethulia were suffering from starvation and thirst and were about to surrender, when Judith, being firm in her faith in Godís coming help, showed up in the enemyís camp. Having found favor with Holofernes, Judith decapitated him at night, after a party. Then she took the commanderís head to her fellow-citizens. Encouraged by this, the Jews drove the Assyrian army away. After this Judith was highly respected, lived a long godly life and died at the age of 105.
These books bear the name of the heroes whose actions they describe. The books recount the events that took place in 330-130 B.C. The domination of the Persian Empire was replaced by that of the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. His huge Empire did not last long. After Alexanderís death, it was split into four kingdoms, two of which ó those of Egypt and Syria ó played an important part in the history of the Jewish people. Palestine ended up being a disputed territory as the rulers of these two kingdoms fought over the inheritance. In 203 B.C. Judea changed hands, and the Jews suffered much under the rule of the kings of Syria, since the Syrian rulers made every effort to convert the Jews to a pagan religion. The Jews who believed in the true God were persecuted with special cruelty by the king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.). During his reign, the Greek pagan cult was declared to be the official state religion. Those who refused to convert to paganism were persecuted and put to death. Godís temple was desecrated. Antiochus claimed the honor due to God and called himself Epiphanes, which means the appearance of God. For his cruel persecution of believers, he became a type of the coming last persecutor of the faith ó the Antichrist. When writing about the Antichrist, Apostle Paul predicted that he would sit in the temple of God, claiming to be God (2 Thes. 2:4), thus reminding them about a similar situation involving Antiochus. When Jesus Christ was talking about the abomination of desolation in the sanctuary of Godís temple (which was predicted by the prophet Daniel in Dan. 9:27, cf. Matt. 24:15), He reminded them of the condition of the temple in Jerusalem under Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus was struck by a terrible disease and died, being devoured alive by worms.
††††††† The 1st Book of Maccabees, after a brief remark about the conquests of Alexander the Great and the division of his kingdom between his commanders (330-310 B.C.), describes the horrors of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes (175 B.C.). The priest Mattathias and his five sons stood up to defend the faith. For their successful fight against the supporters of paganism, they were named Maccabees, i.e. hammers. From among the sons of Mattathias, Juda, Jonathan and Simon became particularly famous.
††††††† The 2nd Book of Maccabees complements the first one by giving more details about the fight of the Palestinian Jews against the enemies of the faith sent by the Syrian kings, starting with Heliodorus sent by the king Seleucus Philopator to rob the Jerusalem temple, to the victory of Juda Maccabee over Nicanor ó a commander sent by Demetrius Seleucus. During the persecution raised by Antiochus Epiphanes, a 90-year-old priest Eleazar, the seven brothers and many others were put to death as martyrs in 166 B.C., after suffering cruel tortures (Ch. 6-7). These sufferers became later known as the Maccabeean Martyrs and are remembered by the Church on August 1/14.
††††††† The 3rd Book of Maccabees contains an account of earlier persecutions of the Jews in Egypt that started in 216 B.C. during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator, i.e. 50 years before the time of Juda Maccabee. The persecution was caused by king Ptolemyís anger with the high priest Simon, at whose prayer the king was prevented by God from entering the sanctuary of the temple at Jerusalem. The book describes Ptolemyís plot to destroy the Jews by luring them to the Hippodrome and trampling them with elephants.† At the high priestís prayer, God send two angels who scared the elephants, and the Jews were thus saved.
††††††† In conclusion we must say that the books of Maccabees are full of accounts of courage and strong faith in God. During the time of persecution by pagans, Christians found in these books numerous edifying examples of patience and strength in the faith.
The events that took place later in the history of the Jewish people are not recorded in the Bible. In 63 B.C. the Holy Land was occupied by the Roman commander Pompey. From that time on, Palestine with its four regions became subject and tributary to Rome. The power soon was concentrated in the hands of a crafty Edomite by the name of Antipater who managed to win the trust of the Romans. Antipater passed the power on to his son, the cruel Herod the Great, who declared himself the king of the Jews in 37 B.C. He was the first to call himself a king of the Jews without being a Jew. During his reign the true King and Savior of the world, Jesus, was born in a small town of Bethlehem. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy which patriarch Jacob uttered 2000 years earlier: ďThe scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people beĒ (Gen. 49:9-11).
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