The prophets of God in the later years of the kingdom of Judah not only preached that the nation should repent of its idolatry, but also warned them of what was going to happen if they did not repent. They were to be defeated and carried into captivity in Babylon. They also told them how to live in the countries into which they were to be sent. God told them…
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” (Jeremiah 29:4-6 ).
They were not just to do this just for themselves – they were people on a mission – God’s mission to the nations. They were God’s representatives, sent there as the seed of Abraham to bless the nations and not to rebel against them. They were to be God’s image-bearers among the nations.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.(Jeremiah 29:6-8).
This was a foreshadowing of something greater that was to come when the Messiah would come and His disciples be sent out to “make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28:18-20). But until that time the Jewish people were to be a positive presence creating a favorable climate into which the gospel later would be introduced.
The people who went into Babylon and after Babylon’s fall into Medea and Persia were told that their captivity would last for 70 years, after which they would be permitted to return to their own land. These years of exile, their return and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem had a far-reaching impact on the later development of Judiaism. From this time the law (Torah) began to be much more central to the thought of the people. The period of exile had seen the development of the synagogue which became a focus of education and community life, not only among the returning Jews, but among those who remained in the countries where they had been scattered. Their long-running illicit love affair with idolatry would at last be over. They would come at last to a better, though not ideal, understanding of their proper relationship with God.
All during this time as before, God, through the prophets was telling the people that there was something better in store for them. There are in the Old Testament scriptures literally hundreds of prophecies which were written over hundreds of years by a number of prophets and yet find their complete fulfillment in the short thirty-year life span of one person, many of them in one day.
That does not mean that everything was as it should have been with the nation of Israel. During the period between the close of the Old Testament period and the beginning of the New there were several historical occurrences that profoundly affected the Jews. First was the coming of Greek influence as Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 332 BC. This brought the Jews into contact with Greek language, culture and philosophy. During this period the priests largely ruled, yet despite this Jewish society became Hellenized (absorbed Greek culture) except in its generally staunch adherence to monotheism. In the cities, Greek language, games, sports and culture were readily accepted.
The second foreign influence was Rome. In 63 BC, Pompey captured Jerusalem and Judea and Roman dominion began. This was the situation that existed during the New Testament period. Rome’s influence was more in terms of the politics. They ruled with an iron fist, installing as kings and priests people who were friendly to their regime.
Through all this we must not lose sight of the fact that God was – and is – in control, working out His purpose for His creation. This is something that, for the most part, people choose to forget. Although mighty nations came and went, God was often working through them to accomplish His purposes. There is a striking illustration of this in Daniel 5 where at Belshazzar’s feast a hand is seen writing on the wall,“Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin,” meaning that God had numbered the days of the kingdom and that it was to be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. That night Babylon fell just as Daniel had said. Isaiah had prophesied of this event, actually telling who it was that would overthrow Babylon…
“Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them,
who have no regard for silver
and do not delight in gold.
Their bows will slaughter the young men;
they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb;
their eyes will not pity children.” (Isaiah 13:16-18).
By the time we come to the beginning of the New Testament, and especially in view of the oppressive rule of Rome over them, the people were eagerly awaiting the Messiah, the promised king who would set up God’s kingdom that would extend to all nations and reign over it in justice and peace. Through the prophet Daniel He told Nebuchadnezzar that in the future…
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever,” (Daniel 2:44).
It is to this kingdom and its king we turn next in the story that is the Bible.