Editor’s note: This post is part of a series featuring outstanding excerpts from student papers at the BibleMesh Institute, which offers affordable online training for local churches, schools, and ministries. The author’s name has been withheld for privacy and security purposes. She is preparing to serve as a missionary overseas.
When the people of Israel were returned to their land by foreign powers after the exile, they expected an era of God’s abundant blessings and restoration. Instead, they were met with domination by a succession of foreign rulers and integration with the culture of the foreign nations. Yet God used these nations to set the stage for Jesus and bring about His ultimate plan of redemption.
Around 539 BC the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians (Dn. 5:30-31) and flourished under the reign of Cyrus II (559-529 BC) and his successors. During this period Palestinian Jews experienced relative freedoms at the expense of government taxes. A number of well-known biblical characters lived during this time (e.g., Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther).
The Persians were dominant until 334 BC when Alexander the Great came on the scene. Alexander the Great’s military conquests expanded the territory of the Greek Empire from Palestine to India. He embraced the nations and cultures he conquered rather than eradicating them. He treated the Jews favorably, giving them authority over Jerusalem and the Temple. In response, they embraced his rule. Alexander standardized all the Greek dialects into a single tongue. This united his kingdom and contributed to the preservation of his legacy through literary works. However, he abruptly died from an illness and the next twenty years were plagued by political instability, until the empire split into three Hellenistic states—Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic.
Palestine found itself in the crosshairs of both the Seleucid and Ptolemaic powers. In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid, came to power and integrated Greek language, philosophy, and religion throughout the empire. Under his reign, the Jews were persecuted and the Temple was defiled. Basic tenets of their faith were attacked, so the Jews revolted against Seleucid rule under the leadership of a family of priests named the Maccabees and established the Jewish Hasmonaean dynasty, which lasted about 100 years until the rise of the Romans.
In the second century BC the Greek Empire fell due to political instability, and through a series of military victories Rome transitioned from farmers into military leaders and from a republic into an empire. From its inception, Rome used its military might to become the most feared force on earth, establishing a season of peace and stability known as the Pax Romana under the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Roman Empire was characterized by its road systems, social projects, and civil law that established a more unified, safe, and efficient world. Jerusalem was captured by the Roman general Pompey the Great, and Herod the Great was the Roman administrator who oversaw the transition of power from the Hasmoneans dynasty to the Romans.
Israel’s return from exile displayed God’s sovereignty over human history by using the things He hates to bring about what He loves. God is sovereign and He used the world powers during this period of “silence” to set the stage for Christ to enter the world and enact His plan of redemption. God used Persia to fulfill what He said through the prophets (Ezr. 1:2-11, Jer. 29:10, Jer. 30:3, Is. 45:1, Is. 13). God gave King Cyrus supernatural favor (though he did not worship God) and used him as an instrument of His will—to subdue nations, demonstrate His faithfulness to the Abrahamic Covenant, return His people back to the land, and rebuild Jerusalem. As the Jewish Diaspora traveled cross culturally so did the Jewish story, and they testified about God among the nations.
Under Greek and Roman rule, Jews experienced favor and religious freedoms that allowed them to grow in number and ignited their hope in the Messiah. God used Alexander the Great’s standardization of the Greek dialects by employing the Greek language as the written script of the Septuagint and the New Testament Scriptures. This gave Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles access to the Old Testament and the message of a coming Messiah and enabled the early Christian movement to spread across the Greco-Roman World. The Roman roads and Pax Romana enabled the early Christian movement to expand quickly through safe and efficient travel routes. Jesus was born under Roman occupation, lived under roman rule, and was sentenced to death by Roman authority. Following His death, Roman persecution was the backdrop against which the early Christian movement thrived.
Without overriding their personal responsibility, God worked through these foreign rulers to orchestrate history. They paved the way for the coming of Jesus and helped build a launchpad for the expansion of Christianity.