After they were exiled for seventy years in Babylon, the Jewish people came back to their homeland in three waves. The Persians had conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return. In these waves, they rebuilt the Temple, reinstituted the Law of Moses, and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. While these tasks were completed, they were implemented imperfectly. The Law was still broken by the people, the building of the walls caused strife, and the glory of God did not preside in the second temple as it had in the tabernacle tent and the first temple. With these imperfections, a messianic expectation began to grow amongst the Jewish people to restore Jerusalem to its former glory under Kings David and Solomon.
The Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern conquest. After his death, Alexander’s legendary empire was divided amongst his officers. Eventually, Antiochus Epiphanes became King over the Seleucid Empire. When the Greeks reigned, rather than exiling those they conquered, they attempted to Hellenize the whole region in an effort to spread their culture and economic system. When met with resistance, Antiochus Epiphanes was determined to spread Hellenism by force. This was met with great disdain from orthodox Jews. Antiochus placed an ‘abomination’ on the altar of sacrifice to worship the Greek gods, built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, and forbade circumcision under penalty of death. Many Jews allowed themselves to be Hellenized, but some orthodox Jews held strong in the face of persecution. Among them were Mattathias and his sons.
Around 167 BC, When the Greeks came to Mattathias’ town to force all the Jewish inhabitants to sacrifice to the Greek gods, they asked Mattathias to go first since he was well respected in the community and could influence the rest to do so. Mattathias boldly refuses and then kills an eager Jew who was about to make the sacrifice. He then killed the Greek representative of the king facilitating the sacrifices, and went through the town calling all of those who still served the Lord to follow him. He and his sons fled to the mountains and hills to begin their rebellion.
After Mattathias died, his son Judas Maccabeus led the rebellion as a warrior. Judas’ brother Simon was the source of wisdom and guidance in the ways of the Lord. Judas was the most famous of the Maccabees. He led the rebellion that would ultimately lead to the freedom of the Jews for a short period of time. From his conquests, we have many famous stories that are a testament to God’s power.
In one of his early battles, Judas Maccabeus found himself vastly outnumbered by a Syrian army that desired glory in the conquest of Judas and his army. His men were greatly troubled. They were certain that they would be defeated, especially since they were so few and had been fasting. But Judas encouraged them, expressing that it is not their numbers or strength that they trust, but the power of God. Numbers do not matter to Him, just faithfulness. With this faith, the Jews under Judas Maccabeus crushed the Syrian army despite its fast numbers.
Judas continued to fight the enemies of the Jews in the land. He looked to Jerusalem to purify and rededicate the temple. They tore down the ‘abomination’ in the temple and Judas instructed faithful priests to tear down the altar of sacrifice and store the stones until they could figure out what to do with them. Then they built a new altar, replaced the lampstands and showbread within the temple, and began to burn incense to the Lord once again. Judas declared an eight day festival to rededicate the temple. This festival became known as the festival of lights or Hanukkah and is still celebrated today.
Judas would go on to lead Israel for a few years, and continued to face persecution from invading nations. He eventually fell in battle protecting the Jews from foreign invaders in 160 BC. He was succeeded by his brother Jonathon who was more successful with guerrilla warfare, and ended up making peace with the invaders, although he did not eradicate them. He ended up dying when he was double crossed, captured, and eventually executed in 142 BC. His brother Simon succeeded him as leader and eventually did drive out the invaders and began the Hasmonean dynasty of priest kings in Judea.
The freedom of the Jews did not last long. After a couple generations and some infighting, the Romans came and took control of the region in 63 BC, setting up the Herods as the authority. While the Maccabean revolt was admirable and blessed by God, their dynasty was never meant to last. As we may recall, the covenant that God made with David was that the sons of David would be the ones who ruled Israel. David was of the tribe of Judah. However, the Maccabees were from the priestly tribe of Levi, thus their kingdom was doomed to fail.
With this being said, the scene was set for God’s Messiah to come into the nation of Israel, and the expectation was at an all time high. Because of the Maccabean brothers, the Jews now expected the Messiah to be a military king and leader who would deliver them from the oppressive power and taxation of Rome. However, the Messiah to come would save them from a much deadlier power, sin.