In this issue we pick up the story with conditions and circumstances that allowed the descendants of the Kingdom of Judah to return to their homeland.
The Good News has traced the history of the Old Testament from Genesis through the captivity of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This series has shown that archaeological finds have confirmed and illuminated the biblical account.
Although many of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion of Judah were exiled to Babylon for 70 years, they were not forsaken by God. In fact, some of the greatest Bible prophecies were made at that time, not just to give hope to those suffering captives but to comfort God’s people throughout the ages. The apostle Paul reminds us of one of the reasons the biblical record is important: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Daniel’s Astounding Prophecies
When Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, Daniel was one of the young princes taken captive and educated in Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. The details of Babylonian customs and its governmental system described in the book of Daniel fit nicely with historical records and subsequent archaeological finds.
The New Bible Dictionary says about the book of Daniel: “The author gives evidence of having a more accurate knowledge of Neo-Babylonian and early Persian history than any known historian since the 6th century BC ... He knew enough of 6th century customs to represent Nebuchadnezzar as being able to make and alter the laws of Babylon with absolute sovereignty (Daniel 2:13-13, 46), while depicting Darius the Mede as being helpless to change the laws of the Medes and Persians (Daniel 6:8-9). Also, he accurately represented the change from punishment by fire under the Babylonians (Daniel 3) to punishment by the lions’ den under the Persians (Daniel 6), since fire was sacred to them” (1982, p. 263, “Daniel, Book of”).
During the period Daniel served in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, he received a series of prophecies from God. These remarkable predictions described the final years of the Old Testament era, the Intertestamental period, the days of the New Testament and up to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
God revealed to Daniel that four kingdoms would rule a great part of the world from Daniel’s time to the coming of God’s Kingdom. Although parts of these prophecies, in Daniel 2-12, are in mostly symbolic language, God does reveal the identity of the four kingdoms.
The first was Babylon, the dominant kingdom of Daniel’s time (Daniel 2:37-38). Afterwards would come the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians (Daniel 8:20) followed by the Greek Empire (verse 21). Finally the Roman Empire would arise and defeat the Greeks and absorb parts of the previous empires (Daniel 2:40; 7:7, 23).
Although this final empire would experience periodic declines through the centuries, it would not permanently disappear. Rather, at successive intervals it would revive in the form of several incarnations of the “Holy Roman Empire.” God revealed to Daniel that the last revival would be guided by a world dictator and a religious leader who would govern with 10 rulers under them. They would rule until the establishment of the Kingdom of God at Christ’s return (Daniel 2:41-44; 8:23-26).
Prophecy of Babylon’s Downfall
When Daniel received this prophecy, Babylon’s power was at its peak. Nebuchadnezzar could boast of his massive building projects that had enlarged and beautified Babylon. “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” he proudly and rhetorically asked (Daniel 4:30). The existence of Nebuchadnezzar’s massive building projects are confirmed by archaeology.
Excavators at the beginning of this century unearthed some of the remains of this vast city. A historian summarizes the finds: “In 1899 the German Oriental Society equipped a large expedition under the direction of Professor Robert Koldewey, the architect, to examine the famous ruined mound of ‘Babil’ on the Euphrates. The excavations, as it turned out, took longer than anywhere else. In eighteen years the most famous metropolis of the ancient world, the royal seat of Nebuchadnezzar, was brought to light, and at the same time, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ‘Hanging Gardens,’ loudly extolled by Greek travellers of a later day, and ‘E-temen-an-ki,’ the legendary Tower of Babel. In the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and on the Ishtar Gate, which was situated beside it, countless inscriptions were discovered” (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 1980, p. 302).
Regarding Nebuchadnezzar, the same author mentions: “Hardly any other monarch in the past was such an assiduous builder. There is scarcely any mention of warlike activities, conquests and campaigns. In the forefront there is the constant building activity of Nebuchadnezzar. Hundreds of thousands of bricks bear his name, and the plans of many of the buildings have been preserved. Babylon in fact surpassed all the cities of the ancient orient: it was greater than Thebes, Memphis and Ur, greater even than Nineveh” (Keller, p. 316).
It seemed impossible for this great city to be suddenly conquered. Yet Daniel predicted its demise the same night it fell to the Persians. He interpreted the mysterious handwriting on the wall of the palace and told the king: ” ‘Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians’ ... [and] that very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom ...” (Daniel 5:28-31).
About 100 years later the Greek historian Herodotus (484-420 B.C.) confirmed Daniel’s account of the fall of Babylon: “The Persians, drawing off the river [Euphrates] by a canal into the lake, which was till now a marsh, he [Cyrus] made the stream to sink till its former channel could be forded. When this happened, the Persians who were posted with this intent made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk to about the height of the middle of a man’s thigh ... The Persians thus entered the city ... and the inhabitants who lived in the central part of Babylon were unaware of the enemies’ presence due to the great size of the city and since they were celebrating a festival. They continued dancing and exchanging gifts until they were suddenly told of their sad fate. In this manner was Babylon conquered” (History, book 1, paragraphs 191-192).
Cyrus’ Acts Foretold
True to Bible prophecy, these events occurred when the 70 years of exile expired. Cyrus the Persian, allied with the Medes, conquered the Babylonian Empire and freed the descendants of the kingdom of Judah who had been taken into captivity. Several prophets foretold the fall of Babylon. Isaiah even mentioned Cyrus by name years before he rose to defeat the Babylonians.
Some 200 years before Cyrus was born, God said through Isaiah: “I am the Lord ... who says of Cyrus, “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’ ” (Isaiah 44:24-28).
“Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut ... I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel” (Isaiah 44:24-28, 45:1-4).
In a day when conquerors were ruthless with their captives, Cyrus is known in history as a considerate ruler who offered relative freedom to the peoples previously conquered by the Babylonians.
About a century ago, a clay cylinder inscribed with a decree from King Cyrus was found in the ruins of Babylon. Called the Cyrus Cylinder, it is on display in the British Museum. Its language is similar to the decree given by Cyrus in the Bible. The main difference is Cyrus’s use of Babylonian wording for God. He declares that he was liberating the peoples because a particular “God” had pronounced his name and chosen him in a miraculous way.
Writing from a Babylonian perspective, Cyrus said: “Marduk [the Babylonian name for the chief god] scanned and looked through all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead him. He pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, and declared him to be the ruler of the world ... and ordered him to march against his city Babylon ... Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon and calamity ... I gathered all their inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled ... all the gods ... in their former chapels” J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1969, p. 316).
Return from Exile
The biblical version of the decree, recorded in Ezra 1, reveals the prophecy’s fulfillment: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. and He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah” (Ezra 1:1-2).
“Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (verses 3-4).
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, records the reactions of the Jews when Cyrus entered Babylon:
“This [prophecy] was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision: ‘My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.’
“This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God ...” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, Chapter I, Section 2).
Thus the history of the descendants of the kingdom of Judah, the Jews, continued to be recorded in what would become the Bible. However, their brethren of the other Israelitish tribes, taken into captivity earlier by the Assyrians, had by now largely lost their identity in the former Assyrian Empire, just as foretold in prophecy (1 Kings 17).
Persian Period: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
The Old Testament period ends during the era of Persian rule. Several Bible books accurately describe the Persian customs of the time. While the books of Ezra and Nehemiah relate the return of the Jews to the land of Judah, the book of Esther recounts the story of a young Jewish girl named Esther who became the queen of King Xerxes I.
Nehemiah’s story begins with his service to the Persian king. “And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king ...” (Nehemiah 2:1). While the title of cupbearer doesn’t sound important today, it was one of the highest government posts of that time.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains: “[The cupbearer was] an officer of high rank at ancient oriental courts, whose duty it was to serve the wine at the king’s table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues, a person must be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold this position ... His confidential relations with the king often endeared him to his sovereign and also gave him a position of great influence” (1979, Vol. I, p. 837, “Cupbearer”).
Archaeologists have discovered a list of salaries paid to the highest Assyrian officials. This record reflects the general values of similar posts in the Persian administration. After the commanding general, the prime minister and the palace authority came the cupbearer, who earned the fourth-largest salary in the kingdom.
Nehemiah had enough wealth accumulated when he arrived as Jerusalem´s new governor that he had no need to tax the suffering populace. Indeed he apparently took it on himself to personally provide for a large number of his Jewish countrymen. “And at my table,” he writes, “were one hundred and fifty Jews and rulers, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. Now that which was prepared daily was one ox and six choice sheep. Also fowl were prepared for me, and once every ten days an abundance of all kinds of wine. Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people” (Nehemiah 5:17-18).
Queen Esther Saves the Jews
Even though thousands of Jews successfully resettled the territory of the former kingdom of Judah, many remained dispersed throughout the chief cities of the Persian Empire. The book of Esther gives us a glimpse of the influence the Jewish community had in the empire between 500 and 450 B.C., as well as the problems that influence sometimes engendered.
One of the Persian officials, Haman, complained to the king about the Jews: “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain” (Esther 3:8). “And the king said to Haman, ‘The money and the people are given to you, to do with them as seems good to you” (verse 11).
As the book that honors her name recounts, thanks to Queen Esther’s courage and faith, God miraculously intervened and caused her people to be spared. The book of Esther was obviously written by someone familiar with the procedures and customs of the Persian court of the mid-fifth century B.C.
Much archaeological evidence of this Jewish influence has been found throughout the territory of the Persian Empire. Assyriologist Georges Conteau writes:
“Hundreds of clay tablets have been found dating back to the beginning of the Persian period which deal with a prosperous Jewish enterprise, Murashu and Sons. When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC, he deported some of the noble families to Babylon, and the Murashu family was among them.
“The family of exiles prospered in the city of Nippur and reached its maximum influence and wealth under the Persian rule of Artaxerxes I (564-424 BC) and Darius II (423-405 BC). Many of the documents of the firm are written in both cuneiform and Aramaic characters so they can be more easily understood by a wider audience. Most deal with contracts, payments or rentals” (Daily Life in Babylon and Assyria, 1958, p. 95).
We have already seen in this article that the Persian customs and history of the account of Esther also ring true. Speaking of Esther, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes: “The author employs the customary formula for the beginning of an historical account ... [and] his references to Persian customs show considerable accurate knowledge ... More recently cuneiform evidence has been found to show that there was a Persian official named Marduka (Mordecai) in Susa [Shushan] at the end of the reign of Darius I or the beginning of the reign of Xerxes” (1962, Vol. II, p. 151, “Esther, Book of”).
In the book of Esther, Mordecai is Esther’s uncle and is a high government official who is ultimately named as prime minister to the king.
We will continue the story with a fascinating era: the Intertestamental period, the time between the testaments, when the events described in the books of the Old Testament history were completed but before the events that introduced the four Gospels.