Welcome back friends! Today we are covering a measly 500 years of history, but since I can’t cover it all in an inspirational Rocky-style montage, so you’ll just have to bear with me as we hit some highlights here in the next couple of paragraphs! Yesterday we left off with Israel still in exile (beginning in 587BC), but with hopes that God would act again in history (like the Exodus) and restore his people. Specifically, the Israelites hoped for:
- living in the land of Israel again with God’s blessing
- God’s presence restored to them (Temple)
- an anointed King (“Messiah”) to shepherd them for God
- transformation of the nation into a people who kept God’s laws
So what happened to these hopes? Were they fulfilled?
Well . . . yes and no. They were partially fulfilled. When Cyrus, King of the Persian Empire, conquered Babylon in 539BC he released the Israelite exiles from Babylon and sent them home with provisions to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Throughout the Persian period many exiles from the both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Judah made their way home and were able to rebuild their homeland and their Temple (that’s why we call this period “Second Temple Judaism”). The people experienced God’s action on their behalf in history, and again received his blessing and protection. However, it was hardly a glorious return. The new Temple was not filled dramatically with God’s presence as the original one was, the Israelites still lived under the power of a foreign king, and had an extremely vulnerable existence. And this status quo remained the same year after year. Here are the empires that dominated the Israelites from the time of the Assyrians up until the birth of Jesus:
Assyrians (722BC, destroy Northern Kingdom)
Babylonians (587-539, destroy Judah)
Hasmoneans, Jewish “home rule” (163-63)
Romans (63- Jesus’ birth)
Though much happened in this period, I want to draw our attention to just a couple of developments:
1. Israel learned definitively that the empires are The Bad Guys. It became obvious in this period that the dominating powers in the world were set against what Israel hoped for, and for what they believed God wanted for his creation. In fact, in the Israelites eyes, the empires were the largest obstruction to God’s will being done on earth. You’ll see this in your reading today from Daniel 2, where the vision of the statue is a vision of the empires opposed to God, and the rock that shatters them is the Kingdom of God. So if God’s plans, and the Israelites’ hopes, were to be fulfilled, the empires would have to be dealt with.
2. Restored home rule is not necessarily just and righteous. The Israelites did fight to free themselves from the Seleucid Greeks under a group of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees. The celebration of Hanukkah is the remembrance of the “cleansing” of the Second Temple after the Maccabean army defeated the Seleucids. (Note that Jesus celebrated this, as we see him in Jerusalem for the festival of the Dedication in John 10:22). However, the victory over the Greeks did not pave the way for a rebirth of a “cleansed” Israel. The ruling family, the Hasmoneans, were hardly better than the Greeks they replaced, and their misrule ended when the Romans conquered Jerusalem, violated the Temple, and installed Herod the Great as the client king. This event reminded many Israelites that only God could bring restoration.
While this “Second Temple” period is generally neglected, I believe that a rudimentary understanding of it greatly increases our appreciation of how the hopes of Israel connect to the Christmas story. The hopes of the characters we will meet in coming scriptures and blogs, our familiar “Christmas cast,” were people formed by the trials and hopes of this period. They were people who longed to see God’s justice done in all the earth, for peace to be made by God defeating the empires, and for their relationships with God to be entirely restored (that “people of blessing” hope). While Christmas opens a new chapter of God’s faithful work for his creation, it does not leave these hopes behind. Christmas is the beginning of God’s definitive answer to the evil and oppression that haunts the earth.
And frankly, beyond anything else, this period is worth studying because it is an amazing testimony to the ability of the Jewish people to wait in hope. For those of us who struggle to wait for the smallest things, and demand instant gratification, it’s immensely impressive to consider how they wait for 500-700 years in this period for God to active on their behalf. Clearly, the Israelites had an amazing degree of hope and many practices which sustained it. Today, I’d like us to end by focusing on one of the practices that allowed Israel to survive: communal remembrance.
Communal remembrance means sharing and listening as a community to the stories of what God has done in the past. We all pass through times when it is close to impossible for us to hold on to our hopes in God individually. It is at these moments when we need our community to remind us of what God has done for the world, for his people, and for us. The community keeps our memories alive so that we can draw hope when it is difficult. At other times, we will be the ones who get to tell the stories for those who are struggling around us. The point is that our work of remembering together gives us an shared identity if our hopes, and focuses us together on the work to be done. Communal remembrance should be at the heart of why we gather as disciples of Jesus, but should also have a place in all the communities that give our lives meaning. Here are a few questions to reflect on this:
1. Do you have a community that keeps alive the stories of God’s faithfulness for you?
2. If so, do you get this through your church? Or through friends, or a small group?
3. Who in your life has reminded you of these stories when you needed it? Who have you done it for, or do it for?
4. Is there anyone who you can remind of the hope we have this Advent season? Pray about this!
Daniel 2:1-6, 17-18, 31-45 (The Empires as the opposition to God’s Kingdom)
In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed such dreams that his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him. 2 So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king, 3 he said to them, “I have had such a dream that my spirit is troubled by the desire to understand it.” 4 The Chaldeans said to the king (in Aramaic), “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation.” 5 The king answered the Chaldeans, “This is a public decree: if you do not tell me both the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. 6 But if you do tell me the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore tell me the dream and its interpretation.”
17 Then Daniel went to his home and informed his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 18 and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions with the rest of the wise men of Babylon might not perish. 19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.
24 Therefore Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation.”
31 “You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
36 “This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, 38 into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. 39 After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it shall crush and shatter all these. 41 As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. 42 As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.”
Daniel 9:3-10, 15-19 (This confession in Daniel, most likely written under the Greek Empire, is a great example of how God’s people, as a community, kept alive their past memories and future hopes in the years before Jesus’ birth.)
Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. 4 I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying,
“Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.
7 “Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. 9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him, 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets…
15 “And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made your name renowned even to this day—we have sinned, we have done wickedly. 16 O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; because of our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace among all our neighbors. 17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his supplication, and for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolated sanctuary. 18 Incline your ear, O my God, and hear. Open your eyes and look at our desolation and the city that bears your name. We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, listen and act and do not delay! For your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people bear your name!”