From Malachi to Matthew
The close of the Old Testament canon left Israel in two great divisions. The mass of the nation were dispersed throughout the Persian Empire, more as colonists than captives. A remnant, chiefly of the tribe of Judah, with Zerubbabel, a prince of the Davidic family, and the survivors of the priests and Levites, had returned to the land under the permissive decrees of Cyrus and his successors
(See Scofield "Daniel 5:31") See Scofield "Daniel 9:25" and had established again the temple worship. Upon this remnant the interest of the student of Scripture centres; and this interest concerns both their political and religious history.
I. Politically, the fortunes of the Palestinian Jews followed, with one exception--the Maccabean revolt--the history of the Gentile world-empires foretold by Daniel (Daniel 2, 7.)
(1) The Persian rule continued about one hundred years after the close of the O.T. canon, and seems to have been mild and tolerant, allowing the high priest, along with his religious functions, a measure of civil power, but under the overlordship of the governors of Syria. The sources of the history of the Jewish remnant during the Persian period were purely legendary when Josephus wrote. During this period the rival worship of Samaria John 4:19; John 4:20 was established.
Palestine suffered much from the constant wars between Persia and Egypt, lying as it did "between the anvil and the hammer."
(2) In 333 B.C. Syria fell under the power of the third of the world-empires, the Graeco-Macedonian of Alexander. That conqueror, as Josephus related, was induced to treat the Jews with much favour; but, upon the breaking up of his empire, Judaea again fell between the hammer and anvil of Syria and Egypt, falling first under the power of Syria, but later under Egypt as ruled by the Ptolemaic kings. During this period (B.C. 320-198) great numbers of Jews were established in Egypt, and the Septuagint translation of the O.T. was made (B.C. 285).
(3) In B.C. 198 Judaea was conquered by Antiochus the Great, and annexed to Syria. At this time the division of the land into the five provinces familiar to readers of the Gospels, Galilee, Samaria, Judaea (often collectively called Judaea), Trachonitis and Peraea, was made. The Jews at first were permitted to live under their own laws under the high priest and a council. About B.C. 180 the land became the dowry of Cleopatra, a Syrian princess married to Ptolemy Philometor, king of Egypt, but on the death of Cleopatra was reclaimed by Antiochus Epiphanes (the "little horn" of (See Scofield "Daniel 8:9") after a bloody battle. In 170 B.C., Antiochus, after repeated interferences with the temple and priesthood, plundered Jerusalem, profaned the temple, and enslaved great numbers of the inhabitants. December 25, B.C. 168, Antiochus offered a sow upon the great altar, and erected an altar to Jupiter. This is the "desolation" of Daniel 8:13 type of the final "abomination of desolation" of Matthew 24:15. The temple worship was forbidden, and the people compelled to eat swine's flesh.
(4) The excesses of Antiochus provoked the revolt of the Maccabees, one of the most heroic pages of history. Mattathias, the first of the Maccabees, a priest of great sanctity and energy of character, began the revolt. He did little more than to gather a band of godly and determined Jews pledged to free the nation and restore the ancient worship, and was succeeded by his son Judas, known in history as Maccabaeus, from the Hebrew word for hammer. He was assisted by four brothers of whom Simon is best known.
In B.C. 165 Judas regained possession of Jerusalem, purified and rededicated the temple, an event celebrated in the Jewish Feast of the Dedication. The struggle with Antiochus and his successor continued. Judas was slain in battle, his brother Jonathan succeeding. In him the civil and priestly authority were united (B.C. 143). Under Jonathan, his brother Simon, and his nephew John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean line of priest-rulers was established, under sufferance of other powers. They possessed none of the Maccabean virtues.
(5) A civil war followed, which was terminated by the Roman conquest of Judaea and Jerusalem by Pompey (B.C. 63), who left Hyrcanus, the last of the Hasmoneans, a nominal sovereignty, Antipater, an Idumean, wielding the actual power. B.C. 47 Antipater was made procurator of Judaea by Julius Caesar, and appointed his son, Herod, governor of Galilee. After the murder of Caesar disorder ensued in Judaea, and Herod fled to Rome. There he was appointed (B.C. 40) king of the Jews, and returning, he conciliated the people by his marriage (B.C. 38) with Mariamne, the beautiful grand- daughter of Hyrcanus, and appointed her brother, the Maccabean Aristobulus III., high priest. Herod was king when Jesus Christ was born.
II. The religious history of the Jews during the long period from Malachi (B.C. 397) to Christ followed, as to outer ceremonial, the high-priestly office, and the temple worship, the course of the troublous political history, and is of scant interest.
Of greater moment are the efforts and means by which the real faith of Israel was kept alive and nurtured.
(1) The tendency to idolatry seems to have been destroyed by the Jews' experience and observation of it during the captivity. Deprived of temple and priest, and of the possibility of continuing a ceremonial worship, the Jewish people were thrown back upon that which was fundamental in their faith, the revelation of God as One, the Creator, to be conceived of as having made man in His own image, and therefore as having such analogies to the nature and life of man as to be comprehensible by man, while remaining the Eternal Spirit, God. This conception of God, enforced by the mighty ministries of the pre-exilic and exilic prophets, finally prevailed over all idolatrous conceptions, and this ministry was continued amongst the returned remnant by Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The high ethics of the older prophets, their stern rebuke of mere formalism, and their glowing prophecies of the ultimate restoration of Israel in national and religious supremacy under Messiah, were all repeated by the three prophets of the restoration.
The problem was to keep alive this exalted ideal in the midst of outward persecutions and sordid and disgraceful divisions within.
(2) The organic means to this end was the synagogue, an institution which formed no part of the biblical order of the national life. Its origin is obscure. Probably, during the captivity, the Jews, deprived of the temple and its rites, met on the Sabbath day for prayer. This would give opportunity for the reading of the Scriptures. Such meetings would require some order of procedure, and some authority for the restraint of disorder. The synagogue doubtless grew out of the necessities of the situation in which the Jews were placed, but it served the purpose of maintaining familiarity with the inspired writings, and upon these the spiritual life of the true Israel (See Scofield "Romans 9:6") was nourished.
(3) But during this period, also, was created that mass of tradition, comment and interpretation, known as Mishna, Gemara (forming the Talmud), Halachoth, Midrashim and Kabbala, so superposed upon the Law that obedience was transferred from the Law itself to the traditional interpretation.
(4) During this period also rose the two great sects know to the Gospel narratives as Pharisees and Sadducees. (See Scofield "Matthew 3:7") notes 2,3 The Herodians were a party rather than a sect.
Amongst such a people, governed, under the suzerainty of Rome, by an Idumean usurper, rent by bitter and unspiritual religious controversies, and maintaining an elaborate ritual, appeared Jesus, the Son and Christ of God.