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Understanding Bible History Pt 4: Medo-Persia Empire

Updated 26 June 2020

"Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, there stood before the river a ram which had two horns: and the two horns were high; but one was higher than the other, and the higher came up last. I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great" (Daniel 8:3, 4.).

“That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid” (Isaiah 44:28).

Babylon, like Assyria, became a colony of Medo-Persia Empire in 539 BC. Under the Medo-Persian Empire, the exile period formally ended when the Persian conqueror of Babylonia, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission (The Decree of Cyrus Ezra 1: 1-4) to return to their land to rebuild Jerusalem and the Second Temple, also known as Zerubbabel’s Temple and later as Herod’s Temple - the same Temple that Jesus visited and taught.

Isaiah prophesied and predicted, by name, over one hundred fifty years before Cyrus lived, that Cyrus will accommodate the exiled Jews to return to their land and that he is to rebuild the Temple of the Lord, at the same spot as Solomon’s Temple, that was destroyed by the Babylonians. He also told him to send the Jews back to their homelands in order to carry out this task. Cyrus equip the Jews the supplies that they needed and he also gave back the treasures that were removed from the temple by the Babylonians. Cyrus the Great was indeed a real person whose name is mentioned over 22 times in the Bible and whose tomb in Iran can be visited today.

The books of Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah are the last three history books found in the Old Testament. These books are our most important literary sources for the period of the restoration and the formation of the Jewish religious community after the Babylonian Captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah were supported by the last three prophets of the Old Testament, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

Ezra records two separate time periods directly following the seventy years of Babylonian captivity. In Ezra the restoration of the nation was reborn – Judah and Israel as a complete people, no longer separated as they were during the times of Kings of Judah and Israel. Ezra accomplished the spiritual establishment and identity, and Nehemiah succeeded in restoring the physical infrastructure (Jerusalem) to carry out their spiritual service.

First Return Under the Leadership of Zerubbabel

Ezra 1–6 covers the first return of Jews, under King Cyrus, approximately 50,000 returned from captivity led by Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah. With the help of Joshua (Hebrew Yəhōšua‘), meaning God saves, a Levite and descendant of Aaron the High Priest. Many of the exiles stayed behind and were not willing to give up the life they had established in Babylon (Ezra 2). Although faced with difficulties in farming the land and repairing ruin buildings, they started rebuilding the altar (Ezra 3:1–7) and preparing the foundation of the temple (Ezra 3:8–13). This Temple was known as “Zerubbabel’s Temple”. However, it was later renamed as Herod’s Temple due to the restoration and expansion carried out by King Herod.

What happened to the Ark of the Covenant?

The Book of Exodus tells the first part of God's rescue of his people from Egypt and their journey under His care to Sinai (chapters 1–19) and the second tells of the covenant between God and Israel. God gives Moses instructions for the construction of the tabernacle (chapters 20–40). The tabernacle had been built (Exodus 26) to house the Ark of the Covenant.

The first mention of the Ark of the Covenant is Exodus 25:10-2. The original tabernacle built in Moses’ day had been placed at Shiloh (Josh 18:1) for over 350 years. After defeating the Israelites and capturing the Ark (before Saul was made King), the Philistines bring the Ark to the Philistine city of Ashdod, where they place it in the temple of their god, Dagon (I Samuel 5:1-2). After the people suffered ungodly plagues (I Samuel 5:8-11), it was moved to number of Philistines cities and finally the people demand that the Ark be sent back to Israel. The ark was returned to Israel and it remained in Kirjath Jearim for twenty years (I Samuel 6:21; 7:2). After capturing the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, King David sends for the Ark at the house of Avinadav in Kiryat Ye’arim (II Samuel 6:2-17). When David became King (1 Chron. 11), he left the Mosaic tabernacle at Gibeon, near King Saul’s city, Gibeah, and appointed Zadok, a Levite priest descended from Aaron (1 Chron 15:11).

David built a new tabernacle on Mount Zion and brought the into it, the original tent remained at Gibeon. Solomon brought the ark from Mount Zion and the tabernacle of Moses from Gibeon and placed them in the new temple he had on Mount Moriah (2 Chron. 5:4-5).

Cyrus had continued to expand the Persian Empire until his death in 530 BC. He was followed by Cambyses II, Gaumata and by Darius Hystaspes. However, opposition from their neighbours and despair caused work to stop for a period of 14years (Ezra 4:1–5) and during this time the exiles pursued their own interest like building homes for themselves and were rebuked by Haggai (Haggai 1:1-11). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah played an important role in encouraging the people to return to their homeland and to rebuild the Temple of the Lord. After receiving complaints from the enemies of the Jews and researching the royal archives, Darius discovered the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 5:1-17 and 6:1-12) and Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, who stirred trouble against the Jews, was ordered by Darius to help the Jews rebuild their Temple by paying for the construction cost. Anyone who changed the edict would be punished severely according to the edict of Darius (Ezra 5:1-17 and 6:1-12).

What happened to the Ark of the Covenant is a question that has fascinated theologians, Bible students, and archaeologists for centuries. In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah of Judah ordered the caretakers of the Ark of the Covenant to return it to the temple in Jerusalem Second Chronicles chapter 35: 3 “Then he said to the Levites who taught all Israel, who were holy to the Lord: “Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. It shall no longer be a burden on your shoulders. Now serve the Lord your God and His people Israel.” From 597 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites, and the Ark, at the time supposedly stored in the Temple in Jerusalem, vanished from history. Whether it was destroyed, captured, or hidden–nobody knows. Forty years later, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem and raided the temple. Less than ten years after that, he returned, took what was left in the temple, and then burnt it and the city to the ground. In the New Testament, the Ark of the Covenant is mentioned again in Hebrews 8:5, Hebrews 9:23 and Revelation 11.

Interestingly, Revelation 11:19 mentions the ark as being in heaven: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.” This verse has led some to speculate that the ark was taken up to heaven to be preserved there. But the ark that John sees in his vision of heaven is probably not the same ark that Moses constructed.

Cyrus had continued to expand the Persian Empire until his death in 530 BC. He was followed by Cambyses II, Gaumata and by Darius Hystaspes. However, opposition from their neighbours and despair caused work to stop for a period of 14years (Ezra 4:1–5) and during this time the exiles pursued their own interest like building homes for themselves and were rebuked by Haggai (Haggai 1:1-11). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah played an important role in encouraging the people to return to their homeland and to rebuild the Temple of the Lord. After receiving complaints from the enemies of the Jews and researching the royal archives, Darius discovered the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 5:1-17 and 6:1-12) and Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, who stirred trouble against the Jews, was ordered by Darius to help the Jews rebuild their Temple by paying for the construction cost. Anyone who changed the edict would be punished severely according to the edict of Darius (Ezra 5:1-17 and 6:1-12).

The book of Esther is written after the Babylonian exile and depicts the lives of those who remained outside their homeland, the Jews living in the Persian Empire. It is written during the period when the first remnant of Jews returned under Zerubbabel and describes the origin of the Feast of Purim (celebrated by Jews today) and how the Jews were spared mass destruction, planned by the “Jew hater” Haman. It is the story of a young Jewish girl who became queen to Persian King Ahasuerus traditionally identified with Xerxes I of Persia. He was later best known for his massive invasion of Greece from across the Hellespont (480 BCE), a campaign marked by the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. His ultimate defeat spelled the beginning of the decline of the Achaemenian Empire known also the Persian Empire. The Persians believed in a form of worship that is today called Zoroastrianism, an ancient pre-Islamic religion. Persia is also known as Elam and since 1935 as Iran. While the book centered on anti-semitism and the final solution planned by Haman, the book of Esther never refers to God by name although Esther and Mordecai were God-fearing.

Zechariah prophetic ministry began in the second year of Darius (B.C. 520), about sixteen years after the return of the first company from exile. He preached at least two years longer than Haggai (Zechariah 7:1) and possibly even longer. He spoke more about the Messiah than any of the prophets, except the prophet Isaiah. He is the only post-exilic prophet to give a detailed overview on the history of God's people and the nations connected with Jerusalem, he prophesied that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem while riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9), the betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Zech.11:12-13), the crucifixion of Jesus, their repentance and finally their acknowledgment of the Messiah (Zech.12:10) who will appear to establish His reign of peace at His Second Coming.

Second Return Under the Leadership of Ezra

Ezra 7–10 picks up the story more than sixty years later, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus when Ezra led the second group of exiles to Israel. Ezra restored the Mosaic Law and taught the people to conform to the law of God again. Scripture states that 42,360 people returned to Judah, accompanied by 7,337 slaves and two hundred singers (Ezra 2:64–65), including members of the ten northern tribes taken into captivity by Assyria in 722 B.C. (Ezra 2:70).

Daniel’s 70 Weeks and the Messiah

41 Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying,“If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, 44 and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:42-44).

24 “Seventy weeks [of years, or 490 years] have been decreed for your people and for your holy city (Jerusalem), to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make atonement (reconciliation) for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness (right-standing with God), to seal up vision and prophecy and prophet, and to anoint the Most Holy Place. 25 So you are to know and understand that from the issuance of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until [the coming of] the Messiah (the Anointed One), the Prince, there will be seven weeks [of years] and sixty-two weeks [of years]; it will be built again, with [a city] plaza and moat, even in times of trouble. 26 Then after the sixty-two weeks [of years] the Anointed One will be cut off [and denied His Messianic kingdom] and have nothing [and no one to defend Him], and the people of the [other] prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 27 And he will enter into a binding and irrevocable covenant with the many for one week (seven years), but in the middle of the week he will stop the sacrifice and grain offering [for the remaining three and one-half years]; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until the complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who causes the horror.” (Daniel 9:24-27 Amplified Bible).

Amazing! Seventy times seven years is 490 years, and we learn from the context that until the coming of Messiah the Prince is sixty-nine sevens, or 483 years. The remaining seven years, concerns the Seven Year Tribulation. Daniel and the faithful saints of God who followed him and cherished the words of this prophecy would be enabled to locate its fulfilment with accuracy. The period between 69 years, and before the 7-year tribulation is when the church was born. The church age comes to an end, when the rapture takes place. After the rapture, the 7 years that are remaining from the 490, starts with the arrival of the antichrist, the rebuilding of the temple, persecution of Israel by the antichrist, the one world religion, government and economy. After seven years Jesus returns and defeats the armies against Israel and rules as King, in Jerusalem, for 1000 years.

Dr Thomas Ice provides a chart with detailed timeline of Daniel’s prophecy below and here:

Daniel's prophesied period of time was to begin with "the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem" (Dan. 9:25). The only decree that matches this is the one that Artaxerxes, King of the Medio-Persian Empire, issued to Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1- 8). Nehemiah started rebuilding Jerusalem on March 5, 444 B.C. This began the countdown of the first sixty-nine weeks of years that culminated in Christ's Triumphal Entry on March 30, A.D. 33 (Luke 19:28-40)……
This is why any biblically literate Jew would have to know that Messiah the Prince would be cut off after the sixty-nine weeks of years (Dan. 9:25- 26). Jesus was crucified a few days later. Jesus of Nazareth is the only One who could have fulfilled that prophecy. He did fulfill that prophecy just at the Bible predicted. This is one of the dozens of prophecies that Christ fulfilled literally at His first coming and we can know for certain that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Thus, we can trust God that Christ's work on the cross was what it took to pay for the sin of those who believe on His name.

Simeon and Anna were waiting (Luke 2:25, 36-38) and others assumed that He will be the one to conquer their enemies, the Romans. Critically though the scholars and rabbis should’ve known, even the wise men knew and quoted Micah’s prophecy to Herod in Matthew 2. In the gospel of John, the people wondered whether Jesus himself might be this Prophet: “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14). Daniel prophecy was remarkably accurate and it kicked off with Nehemiah rebuilding the Temple.

Third Return Under the Leadership of Nehemiah

The prophetic clock of 70 weeks in Daniel 9 would start when a decree was issued to “restore and rebuild Jerusalem” - that decree was given by King Artaxerxes of Persia to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1-8) when further exiles returned under his leadership.

In all three books, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, the nation faced opposition, and on each occasion God used the Persian Kings to remind them of King Cyrus’ Degree and in the case of Esther God reminded King Xerxes’ gratitude to Mordecai discovered during a sleepless night.

The closure of the post exilic period ended with Malachi’s prophesy of the messenger, John the Baptist, and the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ – “see, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1) Isaiah also prophesied nearly 200 years before Malachi “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make straight in the desert

A highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill brought low;

The crooked places shall be made straight

And the rough places smooth;

5 The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

And all flesh shall see it together;

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 40:3-5.

This is was fulfilled by John the Baptist as quoted in Matthew 3: 1-4.

Prophets of the Persian Period (Post Babylonian Exile)

Haggai (520-516 B.C.) "haggay" (festal) - The prophet Haggai recorded his four messages to the Jewish people of Jerusalem in 520 BC, eighteen years after their return from exile in Babylon (538 BC). The theme of the prophecy of Haggai is "get busy and build the Lord's house."

Zechariah "tzechari yah" (Yaweh is my remembrance) - Zechariah prophesied to the people of Judah after they returned from their seventy years of exile in Babylon (Zechariah 1:1; Nehemiah 12:1, 4, 16). “The book of Zechariah has been called the Apocalypse of the Old Testament. Like the book of Revelation, Zechariah is a book of prophecy. Its theme is to set forth the program of God, which is also the theme of the book of Revelation. The difference is that in Zechariah Israel is in the foreground and the Gentile nations in the background, while in the book of Revelation the Gentile nations are in the foreground and the continuous thread that ties them together is the nation of Israel.”

Malachi "malachi" (My messenger) - In Hebrew, the name comes from a word meaning “messenger,” which points to Malachi’s role as a prophet of the Lord, delivering God’s message to God’s people. Malachi offered no other identifying information about himself, leaving out markers typical of other prophets such as his father’s name or the current leader of Israel. It’s commonly accepted that this preaching of Malachi occurred in Jerusalem sometime around 450 B.C. This was after Hebrew exiles had been allowed to return home from captivity in Babylon, and about 65 years (a generation or so) after the temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. At the time of Malachi, well over a thousand years after Abraham’s era, the Israelites had the advantage and weight of history on their side; they experienced blessings, judgements and exiles. But even then, with all that perspective, the book of Malachi teaches us that they still strayed from the Lord’s path. They needed God’s intervention as much as ever, so this book, as a final statement of judgment in the Old Testament, anticipates God’s saving work through the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The period between Malachi and Matthew was 400 years, commonly known as the silent years.

Archaeological Evidence

Nehemiah's wall uncovered - The remnants of a wall from the time of the prophet Nehemiah have been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem's ancient City of David, strengthening recent claims that King David's palace has been found at the site, an Israeli archeologist said Wednesday. The section of the 2,500-year-old Nehemiah wall, located just outside the Dung Gate and the Old City walls facing the Mount of Olives, was dated by pottery found during a recent dig at the site, said Hebrew University archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar.

Book of Nehemiah Found Among the Scrolls - Anyone familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls can tell you that portions of nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible are represented in these ancient texts discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. The only exceptions were the Book of Esther and the Book of Nehemiah;* scholars assumed the latter had been written on the same scroll as the Book of Ezra (as was common) but simply hadn’t survived—until now. In a recent blog post,** Norwegian scroll scholar Torleif Elgvin of Evangelical Lutheran University College in Oslo, Norway, announced that he and colleague Esther Eshel of Bar-Ilan University will be publishing a collection of more than two dozen previously unknown scroll fragments, including the first known fragment of Nehemiah.

3 tiny, extremely rare 4th century BCE Jewish-minted coins found in Jerusalem - The Yehud coins were minted during a rare period in which Jews semiautonomously ruled under the Persian Achaemenid Empire, from circa 539-332 BCE, in a province called Yehud Medinata. With a capital in Jerusalem, Yehud Medinata existed for some 200 years until the conquest of Alexander the Great. This period is recorded in several books of the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Nehemiah describes the trials and tribulations of Nehemiah, once an important cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes I of Persia, who requested to be governor of Yehud/Judah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian conquest.

The Tombs Of 4 Biblical Persian Kings - Carved into the face of a mountain near the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis (the Persians had 4 capitals), are the tombs of 4 ancient kings. These kings once ruled the greatest empire the world had known up until that time, the empire of the Medes and the Persians. At its height, an astounding 44% of the worlds population was ruled by Persia making it the largest empire in history by share of population. These kings styled themselves as the “King of Kings”. Four of these kings are mentioned in the Bible: (1) Darius II - He appears to be the “Darius” referred to at Nehemiah 12:22. (2) Artaxerxes I - also known as Artaxerxes “Longimanus”, meaning “Long Handed” because his right hand was longer than his left. (3) Artaxerxes I was the son of Xerxes I. He is referred to in the Bible at Ezra chapter 7 and Nehemiah chapter 2. (4) Darius I - Darius was preceded by Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. He was also known as Darius the Great (Ezra chapter 4).

Three Persian Inscriptions Related to Jewish History - These three Persian inscriptions confirm an event (the public policy of Cyrus to return exiles to their home countries to rebuild their places of worship), a place (the palace of Darius I at Susa) and a person (Tattenai, governor Beyond-the-River) described in the Bible. They are evidence that the Bible is historically reliable.

Cyrus: An Archaeological Biography - Cyrus II was the founder of the Persian empire and the most prominent of the Achaemenid kings, often referred to simply as Cyrus the Great. Pasargadae was the first capital of the Persian empire, and it’s remains include numerous monuments and inscriptions, examples of early Persian art and architecture, as well as the tomb of Cyrus II. Since the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great stretched from modern-day Turkey in the west to India in the east, several inscriptions attributed to the Persian king have been discovered in far away lands. A fired, clay brick found at Ur bears the Babylonian inscription, “Cyrus, king of the world, king of Anshan, son of Cambyses, king of Anshan.

Three Things in Susa Esther Likely Saw - In 479 BC, the Persian King, Xerses,1 returned to Susa after his failed invasion of Greece.2 Susa was the winter capital of Persia, and it was here that he chose a new queen, having deposed his former queen, Vashti, for her refusal of his wishes (Est 1:10-22). A young Hebrew woman named Esther was chosen to enter the king’s harem and then elevated to the status of chief wife (Est 2:17)….. French archaeologist Jean Perrot was the Director of Excavations at the palace of Darius/Xerxes at Susa for over a decade. He concluded, “One today rereads with a renewed interest the book of Esther, whose detailed description of the interior disposition of the palace of Xerxes is now in excellent accord with archaeological reality.”

Xerxes: An Archaeological Biography - The book of Esther begins with the words, “Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants” (Est. 1:1-3).

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