In the centuries before Christ, the Middle East was dominated by empires and their armies, who used their learning and prosperity to conquer cities and collect their wealth. Politics at that time was nasty, and rebellions were crushed with horrifying brutality. On the other hand, taxes were much lower than they are today. The Babylonians crushed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC, burned its buildings, and deported the Jewish population. Like most ancient civilizations, the Babylonian emperor was pretty much almighty. He could command whatever he wanted and destroy whomever did not obey. To the common people, this made him a deity, one of many divine beings who controlled human life and could end human life if that life tried to oppose him.
The problem for the Jewish exiles living in the Babylonian empire was that their faith did not permit them to accept a multitude of gods. The Lord God was God alone, this was the first commandment. This commandment ran counter to the common sense of the day, which said that obviously the king was a god because he was almighty. The Jewish faith said that he was not a god, and his claim to absolute power was a lie and an insult to the true God. I do not think the Jewish exiles were too vocal about this second point. Discussion of religion was as contentious then as it is now. The Jewish faith made it impossible for them to do whatever the king said: they had to continue following God’s laws even when the conflicted with the king’s policies.
When Nebuchadnezzar was king, one of his policies was to set up a golden image and demand that all the people bow down and worship it. Whoever did not worship the official image would be burned alive – no exemptions for conscientious objectors. To object to any royal policy was seen as treason, and traitors had no right to live, only patriots. Three of the Jewish exiles refused to bow down to the golden image and were tossed into a furnace to be burned alive (Daniel ch. 3). God intervened and saved them, so that not even their clothes smelled like smoke.
Darius took power in Babylon in a subsequent election, although election should be read as meaning “armed invasion with subsequent murder of enemies”. Murder of enemies was the old fashioned way to secure the consent of the majority. During Darius’ administration, a law was pushed through by the political elite that declared no one could make a petition to any god or man for 30 days, except to Darius. Ethical objections had no place in public life: whatever the king declared was the law.
One of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, named Daniel, continued his routine of prayer to God and was thrown into a den of lions (Daniel ch. 6). He was also miraculously rescued from death. This story and the one about the furnace reminded the Jewish people not to lose their faith in exile. These stories proved that, no matter what the kings claimed, only God is almighty. The dramatic rescues are also a sign that the Hebrew nation had trouble accepting the real possibility that refusing to acknowledge the kings’ claims to divinity might mean suffering an early death.
Yet God was in command of the universe, not the king of the Babylonians or the king of the Persians who conquered Babylon. In about 500 BC, the Jewish exiles, still clinging to their faith that there was only one true God, and still keeping their ancestral traditions, were allowed to return. They began to rebuild their temple and the city of Jerusalem. As far as history is concerned, the Jewish nation should have ceased to exist, absorbed like so many others in the melting pot of the Babylonian empire. Their miraculous survival, despite the very worst that the powers of the world could do, gave the people a strong sense that their God was truly Lord of the whole universe and no earthly king was His rival. The Jews began to believe that just as God had raised the nation of Israel from the dead, He could raise His faithful servants from the dead. In other words, through the trials of history, God was revealing His power to the Jewish people and their faith was growing strong.
The shining witness of this purified faith is in the book of Maccabees. The land of Israel had been invaded again, this time by the Greeks. Under Alexander the Great, the Greek empire had conquered much of the world. When he died in 323 BC his generals divided up the world among themselves. One of the subsequent kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC) tried to forcibly convert the Jews from their customs to Greek civilization. Greek culture was urban and sophisticated, and Antiochus wanted all his subjects to adopt it, no exceptions for backwards local traditions or intransigent ethical objectors. Greek culture involved offering sacrifices to Zeus and other other gods, and many of the Jews were eager to be accepted by the Greek elite.
The second book of Maccabees (ch. 7), recounts the power of a courageous Jewish woman and her strong faith. A mother of seven sons, she was forced to watch each one be tempted and persuaded to stop being so rigid and to do what everyone was doing. As her sons refused to compromise their beliefs, each one was tortured and killed in front of her. She not only watched them die, but encouraged them to ignore the threats of the king and keep their hearts fixed on God and on His law. She said that God was Lord of life and death and if they died because they were faithful to Him, God would certainly raise them from the dead.
This woman’s faith, and the faith of her sons, shines out in a bloody world of human violence and human arrogance. The kings did not recognize any god that they had not authorized, and they claimed to be almighty and to have power over life and death. However, the light of the true God had been shining into the world, showing how empty these human claims really were. This light had freed a few faithful souls to be able to see that the king was not a god, that his official idols were lies, and that God alone deserved to be worshiped. Their confidence in God’s power freed them from slavery to the tyranny of men, but that tyranny continued while God was silent in Heaven.
Into this world of violence, Jesus Christ came to ruin the empires of men and to put an end to their tyranny……