Week Zero: Preview
The Old Testament ends happily ever after. The people of God are freed from Babylon by Cyrus the Great who had a dream in which the Lord promises him, “The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” (Ezra 1:2) With the help of Zerubbabel, Ezra and, most notably, Nehemiah, the Jews returned to the land of promise and did build the second Temple.
As we begin the New Testament, the situation has totally changed. Not only are the Jews NOT free as a people and trapped under Roman rule, but they have a completely different temple and a new king.
What happened? A lot, actually.
It’s been four hundred years. Alexander the Great has swept across the Mideast bringing Greek philosophies, an evil Greek ruler attempted to defile the temple, the Maccabees fought for freedom, rededicated the temple and ruled for one hundred years only to have the Romans move in and declare a new ruler that would begin the Herodian Era.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is to look at the image from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that Daniel was able to interpret in Daniel 2. This image has a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, a girdle of brass and legs of iron with feet of iron and clay. Here is a quick review of what each part means.
(This image is copyrighted under a creative commons noncommercial license see https://www.loreandlegends.net/2020/05/dreams-and-visions.html)
Head of Gold:
The head of gold represents the Babylonian era or the time the Jews were held captive in Babylon from 597 to 539 BCE. In a very real way, this captivity brought a new type of strength to God’s covenant people. “The fall of Jerusalem was a great turning point in Israel’s religious life. From earliest times the sin of idolatry had existed in Israel, and the prophets of every age had combated it. After the fall, idolatry ceased to be a problem for the Jews.”(https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/old-testament-student-manual-kings-malachi/enrichment-h?lang=eng”) Many Jews accepted their captivity as a consequence of the wrath of a jealous god, and the people began to be more focused on the laws of God as a result.
Chest and Arms of Silver:
Cyrus the Great conquered the Medes and had them join his army, initiating the Medo-Persian Era. Although he freed the Jews due to his miraculous dream in 538 BCE, they were officially under Persian rule until 333 BCE when the Greeks moved in. Prophets Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Zechariah, and Haggai prophesied and helped the people to rebuild the temple, but it was Ezra that pulled together the scriptures. “… All that Ezra did in this manner was to get together as many copies of the sacred writings as he could, and out of them all to set forth a correct edition. … He collected together all the books of which the Holy Scriptures did then consist, and disposed them in their proper order; and settled the canon of Scripture for his time.” (Prideaux, The Connected History of the Old and New Testaments, in Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible … with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 2:722–23.) At this time synagogues became more important, and people began reading the scriptures together daily.
Belly and Thighs of Brass:
Alexander the Great changed the face of the Mideast. With each land he conquered, he established schools for the people to learn Greek, expanding trade and the reach of Israel’s influence. The scriptures were written in Hebrew, which was different than the common language spoken, posing a greater need for scribes. For over a hundred years, the Greeks ruled peacefully until in 167 BCE when a Greek ruler, Antiochus IV attempted to have a pig sacrificed on the temple altar. Mattathias Maccabee, a priest, and his five sons led a rebellion, won and rededicated the temple, an event now celebrated as Hannukah. Afterwards, their line ruled for about one hundred years with mixed amounts of religious piety.
Legs of Iron:
In 63 BCE Roman General Pompey arrived in Jerusalem to a civil war between two Maccabean brothers. He claimed the area for Rome and declared the older brother’s army general to become the Jewish people’s new leader. Antipater was a descendant of Esau, a convert to Judaism, and father to an eight-year-old boy named Herod. Later, under Julius Caesar, Herod was made governor of Galilee. After the assassination of his father and older brother, he was made king of the Jews and won back his throne. At the time of Christ’s birth, Herod was in his seventies, and according to Josephus, his bowels were ulcerated, gangrenous and wormy.
Herod was a prolific builder and doubled the size of the temple grounds, creating courtyards for women and gentiles. The once insular Jews were now part of the Roman Empire, interacting with other people and setting the stage for Christ’s influence to reach far beyond the small boundaries of Palestine.
Feet of Iron and Clay:
The fall of the Roman Empire brought about the birth of many countries. One of them, the Byzantine Empire used Christianity as their state religion and from it came modern Catholicism and, in turn, most presbyterian faiths. It is through these years that the Bible was compiled, maintained and shared with much of the world.
The Stone Cut Without Hands:
In 2007 Gordon B. Hinkley said, “A marvelous and wonderful thing is coming to pass. The Lord is fulfilling His promise that His gospel shall be as the stone cut out of the mountain without hands which would roll forth and fill the whole earth, as Daniel saw in vision (see Daniel 2:31–45; D&C 65:2).” The restored Church of Jesus Christ was the stone cut from the mountain without hands. It came from a different part of the world than the established faith and was initiated by the first vision, visits from angels and by Christ himself, not human hands. As missionary efforts roll forward, we are seeing it fill the earth.
Although these periods of exile and captivity of the people of God may have been difficult, each prepared the people for Christ to come and share his light with the world. When we face difficulties, we should look for how they can better prepare us individually to receive the Savior in our own hearts and share his love with others.