Maccabees (Historical): Temple Defiled and Rededicated
We have learned how the Jews who came back from Babylon rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple, and began to prosper again in their old home under the favor of the king of Persia. When we open the New Testament, we find Herod king, and the great nation that gave him power was not Persia but Rome. The story of the time between the Old Testament and the New (about 440 years), which brought about this change, is told in part in the books of Maccabees, which are sometimes bound with our Bible, though they are not a part of the Lordís Word.
The greatest name among the Jews in the time between the Old Testament and the New is Judas Maccabees, who with wonderful courage and skill and trust in the Lord saved the Jewish people from the Greeks. You know how Alexander the Great went out from Macedonia in northern Greece, and conquered Egypt and Babylon and Persia, and most of the then known world. Alexander came to Jerusalem in 333 B.C. and the Jews submitted to him peaceably. When Alexander died in Babylon, he divided the conquered countries among his generals. Palestine was held now by the family of Seleucus reigning at Antioch to the north, and now by the family of Ptolemy reigning in Egypt.
The Jews prospered in an outward way, but their religion was becoming mixed with what they learned from the Greeks. There was danger that the worship of the Lord would gradually be forgotten. By and by, Antiochus Epiphanes (168 B.C.), who was king at Antioch, forbade the keeping of the laws of Moses. He defiled the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing swine to idols and commanded the books of the law to be burned. Sad Psalms were sung in those days, some of them perhaps for the first time, like Ps. 74 and 79, and it seemed as if the nation and religion of the Jews would be destroyed. But really this persecution was useful, for it awakened the people to defend their faith.
A brave priest Mattathias in the little village of Modin, a few miles northwest of Jerusalem, refused to otter sacrifice to idols, and killed the officer of the king who brought the command. It was the beginning of a great revolt against the Greeks and of strict obedience to the law of Moses. Judas Maccabaeus, "the hammerer," a son of Mattathias, became the leader. His little band grew to an army, and he gained one splendid victory after another over much larger armies which the Greeks sent against him. One battle was at Bethhoren, where Joshua had gained his victory over the southern kings, and another was by the valley of Elah where David had killed Goliath. Judas remembered how the Lord had helped His people in the old days, and he had faith that He would help them still. His courage and skill and his grand faith inspired new life into the Jews. After three great victories, Judas and his men cleansed the temple and built a new altar in place of the one that had been defiled, and dedicated it again to the worship of the Lord. It was on the fifteenth day of the ninth month, which was in the early winter and they commanded that a feast of eight days should be kept each year at this season in memory of the dedication. (1 Mac. 4:36-59; 2 Mac. 10:1-9)
But what of the Romans? Their first power in Palestine came about in this way. Though Judas Maccabaeus had gained victories and rededicated the temple, he met some defeats before his death. He saw that the enemies of his people were growing stronger, and that the Jews and their religion would yet be destroyed unless they had the help of some great strong nation. He had heard of the Romans, that they were strong and that they were true friends to those who made a league with them. So he sent messengers to Rome, which was a very long journey in those days, and an alliance was made between the Jews and the Romans, that they would help each other. (1 Mac. 8) Before the messengers came back, Judas had been killed in a battle, but the league was made and was renewed by the brothers of Judas. (1 Mac. 12:1-23; 14:16-24)
The new strength which began with Judas Maccabaeus increased for fifty years, and for a time the Jews were independent. It is sad to learn how the descendants of Judas' family lost the noble spirit of their fathers and quarreled among themselves. This opened the way to the Romans. Pompey took Jerusalem (63 B.C.), and Crassus plundered it. Roman power made Herod king, and his wife Mariamne was the last of the family of the Maccabees.
The courage and skill and faith in the Lord of Judas Maccabaeus saved the Jewish nation. The Scriptures were studied with new interest, and two classes of students grew up, the Sadducees and Pharisees. And as they studied the Scriptures, they began to notice more and more the promise of the Messiah, till all the people were looking for the King, and each year a feast was kept in memory of the cleansing and rededicating of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus. "And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch." (John 10:22-23)
It is interesting to notice the preparation for the coming of the Lord, and for preserving and spreading abroad the knowledge of His life. Not only was the work of the Maccabees useful, but the sending back of the Jews by Cyrus with much of the learning of the East, and the conquest by Alexander which brought the more worldly learning of the West and opened communication with Europe and the Roman power which spread a hush of outward peace and order over the world.
The yielding of the Persian power to the Greek is mentioned in the prophecy of Daniel, in the vision of the ram and the male goat, where it is said that the ram with two horns is the kings of Media and Persia, and the rough goat is the king of Greece. (Dan. 8:20-21) Persia and Greece, therefore, stand for the same elements of character as the ram and goat, which we know are charity and mere intellectual strength. (E. 66; A. 4769; E. 632) The temple is defiled by the Greeks when we trust in mere knowledge and live evil self-indulgent lives. Then we need to rise up with courage and with trust in the Divine strength and rededicate the temple.
Did the Lord also need to resist in people and in His own human nature this tendency to intellectual pride and self-indulgence? Does not the Gospel tell us so when it speaks of Jesus in the temple, in the winter, at the feast of dedication? Notice also the character of those who met Him there.