The Pharisees by William Holman Hunt
It is 597 BC – the year of the first forced march of Jews exiled to Babylon. That year the Kingdom of Judea disappeared from the map. All Israel had left was a prophecy of hope by Jeremiah, that in 70 years, God would free them from their Babylonian exile and bring them back to their homeland.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.” Jeremiah 29:10
Then some 68 years later, a Persian King, Cyrus, conquered Babylon. God “stirred up his spirit” to decree that Jews could return home to Israel to rebuild their Temple.
Only 43,000 Jews were ready to leave Babylon. The tribe of Levites who were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community had fragmented. Many Jews had assimilated and intermarried. They had traded Hebrew for Aramaic, the language of Babylon, and were doing well both in business and government. Hadn’t Jeremiah told them to settle in for the long haul, build houses and bless Babylon? Certainly, life was better in the diaspora than in desolate Judea. The Persians ruled, but overall, they were amiable towards the Jewish people who were scattered across the empire.
For those who did make the trek back to Israel, lack of strong spiritual leadership, poverty, scarcity of food and endless enemies kept them from any real economic progress. So God sent Haggai and Zachariah to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple. It would still take another 20 plus years to finish.
EZRA THE SCRIBE
But it was Ezra who made the strongest long-term spiritual impact on the struggling returnees. He arrived some 80 years later. In 458 BC he brought with him another 1,800 priests, Levites and musicians, along with their families. Understand that when God spoke the promise of 70 years through Jeremiah, it did not at all mean that the Israelites’ return to Israel would flow smoothly without complications and obstacles.
First of all, these returnees were not particularly dedicated children of God. Many had intermarried with the heathen. The people clearly knew little of the Law of Moses and God’s commandments. The few Levites who had immigrated earlier to minister to the community’s spiritual needs had no choice but to leave the ministry and earn a living, because the people were not paying their tithes. Ezra was determined to turn things around by bringing back the Word of God to his unenlightened countrymen.
This Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses… “for Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Ezra 7:6,10
NEEDED: A GODLY POLITICAL LEADER
In the chaos, poverty and uncertainty, Ezra alone was not able to bring the people to true repentance. It was clear the Jewish people needed two essentials to create a godly nation: good civil government and spiritual leaders teaching the Word of God.
Heaven sent such a man. After Nehemiah arrived to become governor (without pay) and organized the people, they built a wall around the city to protect them from constant enemy attacks. It was when Israel had the combination of Nehemiah governing, Ezra teaching and the Levites worshipping (with women singers!) that revival broke out!
The whole community worshiped, celebrating with joy God’s holidays and “day by day, from the first day until the last day, he [Ezra] read from the Book of the law of God.” Nehemiah 8:18
However, when Governor Nehemiah had to leave Israel at the request of the King for a short time, he returned to Israel only to find his people had returned to their old lifestyle – intermarrying, not paying tithes to the Levites, and desecrating the Sabbath. Nehemiah again organized the people, appointed two large choirs of musicians to worship and brought in Ezra, again, to teach the Law of God. As a lover of the Word of God, Ezra created a pattern of reading the Books of the Bible for generations of Jews to come – until today.
But then the prophetic Word from the mouth of God became silent for four centuries. The Levites faded away, and different spiritual leaders rose up to reshape the Jewish religion according to their own understanding. They decided the Torah and the prophets needed new explanations and applications as times were changing.
UNDER THE GREEKS
And then everything changed for the Jewish people in 323 BC. Alexander the Great died after conquering a huge swath of the globe. Two of Alexander’s generals divided between them their conquered territories; General Ptolemy took Egypt in the south. General Seleucus made himself master of Syria in the north. Israel was in between. This would be the beginning of two-and-a-half centuries of horrific wars on Israel’s soil. The atrocities between these two dynasties included annihilation of family members, intrigues, poisonings, murders, assassinations, and unimaginable massacres of huge proportions – and in between, conquering and reconquering the land of Judea over and over.
JEWISH RABBIS TRANSLATE SCRIPTURES TO GREEK
At times, there were short periods of peace. Ptolemy the First carried thousands of Jews off to Egypt making them slaves. His son, Ptolemy II, freed them. Large populations of Jews settled in different areas of Egypt – especially the city of Alexandria (named after Alexander the Great). The younger generation of Jews soon spoke Greek, losing their Hebrew or Aramaic languages. To make the Word of God accessible to the Greek-speaking Jewish community, seventy Rabbis are said to have translated the Hebrew Biblical text into Greek. The translation would come to be known as the Septuagint (meaning 70). They started with the Torah, and over the years, the rest of the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek.
The Jewish people used this translation until the destruction of the Temple in
70 AD. Since the New Testament was also written in Greek, many of its authors quoted Old Testament Scriptures from the Septuagint.
However, as Christianity among the Gentiles began to grow, the Septuagint became tagged as a “Christian book,” and Jewish leaders decided to revert to the Hebrew text only.
THE HELLENIZING OF THE JEWS
Meanwhile, the two warring dynasties of Ptolemy and Seleucus were united in one area. These power-crazed conquering generals and their progeny were determined to impose the Greek culture upon all the races and nationalities they governed. That, of course, included their gods. Many of the Jewish aristocratic elitists, including Israel’s high priests, were receptive to the sophisticated and glamorous Greek lifestyle. The common people, on the other hand, wanted to cling to the Law of Moses.
But one of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes, was determined to eradicate all signs of Judaism from the entire Jewish people. He converted the Temple into a sanctuary of Jupiter. He placed a statue of Jupiter on the altar. Heathen sacrifices were offered and swine’s blood was poured upon the altar, with the broth sprinkled all around the Temple. He also decreed it unlawful to keep the Sabbath and festivals. Torah scrolls were rent in pieces and burned. Children found to be circumcised were slaughtered, along with their mothers. All told, Antiochus murdered tens of thousands of Jews.
The liberalized Jews gave in. They were too worldly to be martyrs. On the other hand, the common folk were resigned to passive resistance. They presumed (from the Book of Daniel) the end of the world was at hand, and they just had to hold on until the Messiah appeared and set up his kingdom.
AN OLD PRIEST AND HIS FIVE SONS
Instead, help came in the form of Judah the Maccabee, son of a priest, who believed in active resistance. He and three of his brothers, gave their lives fighting for freedom to believe in the Most High God, the Holy One of Israel. God gave him and his warriors success and three years later they rededicated the Temple. Some of the pious common people, called Hasidim, decided to join Judah’s army. This was the beginning of the Pharisees, who, at their conception, were strongly devoted to the Word of God.
The last of the living Maccabee sons, Simon, became the leader, backed by the emerging Roman Empire, and ruled a peaceful country for seven years. For a brief moment, the Jews were free to practice the laws of their faith. However, when Simon received the combined titles of “prince, commander and high priest forever” in 141 BC thanks to the Romans – the Hasidim opposed him because no priest was to become also a king. The two titles were only to be given to the coming Messiah, from the tribe of Judah.
Soon things went south. Simon and his wife and family were murdered by his ambitious son-in-law, governor of Jericho. Simon’s surviving son, Johanan Hyrcanus (135-104 BC) became totally immersed in the Greek lifestyle. He also designated himself as both high priest and head of the Jewish commonwealth.
From that time on, the priesthood became completely corrupt. High Priests gained their positions with money.
DISINTEGRATION OF TRUE WORSHIP
For the next hundred years, until the birth of Yeshua, there was continuous war, mass murders, scheming, and deception between the two Greek dynasties still fighting over the Holy Land, only to be ultimately defeated by the rising Roman Empire. The people were truly sheep without a shepherd. The elite, wealthy liberal Jews, including the High Priests, used Machiavellian cunning to curry favor from the latest foreign conqueror. The priestly rulers became known as Sadducees – who believed neither in heaven nor hell. Yet in religious matters they were rigidly observant, accepting as obligatory the Torah commandments. Nevertheless, morally, they were corrupt and worldly, with one thing in mind – power.
The Pharisees were hardly much better off. With no more godly prophets speaking the true words of God, the faith of the Pharisees’ religion evolved into countless outward commandments and traditions, much of it created by themselves. They muddied the water with their feet, as Jeremiah warned. By making fear the highest motive for the service of God, they busied themselves with minutiae. And they loved the accolades of the people who were in awe of their ostentatious display of piety. Except for a remnant, these leaders had forgotten what it meant to humbly serve God and to love Him with all their heart and soul and being, and to serve their fellowman. The Apostle Paul would write later, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Romans 10:2
THE WORD OF GOD APPEARS
By the time the Love of God appeared in the person of Yeshua, the Son of God, they had no idea who He was – the Word of God in the Flesh. But they were no longer familiar with the pure Word of God; they had strayed so far with men’s commandments, they couldn’t recognize Him.
From Israel’s example, we see that times of turmoil and war do not tend to bring spiritual blessing to a people. In fact, they often bring out deep wickedness in men’s hearts. It is active prayer and intercession that will maintain civil peace and freedom to a nation, and in this peace, allow the Kingdom of God to thrive.
Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. I Timothy 2:1-4
Thankfully, there were not a few Jews who did recognize Yeshua when He came and took it upon themselves to share this Good News with the world. The world can be ever grateful to those Jews who followed Him and gave their lives to the Gospel.
No matter how dark the times, we have the promise from God that the Lord will bring the Jewish people back to Him through Messiah Yeshua. The New Testament says, “All Israel shall be saved, as it is written…!” Romans 11:26
When that day comes, God will pour out His Spirit on the whole world, giving them also the opportunity to be saved. The pure Word of God will again provide new life when the Messiah returns!
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Isaiah 2:3b
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea. Habakkuk 2:14
To be continued next month: The Word of God among the Gentiles