posted on May, 26 2017 @ 05:01 PM
When I was at school, we called it the Persian empire.
That’s how it’s labelled on the scruffy-looking map filling half a page in my old notebook.
The book of Daniel describes the state more accurately as the kingdom “of the Medes and the Persians”. The Medes were the leading nation in the
grand coalition which built up the empire, until they came under Persian rulers.
The empire had a strong impact on the development of the Jewish nation, though the fact is not fully reflected in our collected prophecies.
As far as the Old Testament is concerned, these nations first become visible in the turmoil which accompanied the collapse of the Assyrian empire and
the rise of the Babylonians to take their place.
When Jeremiah is sending his notional “cup of the wine of the Lord’s wrath” to the nations of the world, the list of recipients includes “all
the kings of Media” (Jeremiah ch25 v25).
Persian mercenaries are found in the armies of the king of Tyre (Ezekiel ch27 v10).
Persia is also mentioned in the grand coalition of northern tribes which is expected to fight under the banners of “Gog of the land of Magog”
(Ezekiel ch38 v5).
These peoples become interesting for prophecy when they seem capable of overcoming the empire of Babylon.
When Isaiah prophesies against Babylon, he says “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them…” (Isaiah ch13 vv17-18).
And again, “Go up, O Elam, lay siege, O Media;
All the sighing she has caused I bring to an end” (Isaiah ch21 v2).
Similarly in Jeremiah; “The Lord has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for
that is the vengeance of the Lord, the vengeance for his temple” (Jeremiah ch51 vv11-12).
These hopes were fulfilled in a spectacular way when Babylon was absorbed into the kingdom of Cyrus. For political reasons of his own, he chose to
allow the various “captive nations” which had been collected by the Babylonians to return to their old homes.
Of course, the Jews of Jerusalem were among the beneficiaries of this policy.
Therefore Isaiah celebrates Cyrus as the unconscious agent of the Lord’s plans for the redemption of Israel;
“I am the Lord…
Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and he shall fulfil all my purpose’;
Saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built’,
And of the Temple, ‘Your foundations shall be laid’.
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him…
‘For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me…’” (Isaiah ch44
v28, ch45 vv1-4).
Later kings allowed Ezra and Nehemiah to go and help to rebuild the community.
The Persian empire went through a time of crisis after the death of Cambyses.
We know that Cambyses led his armies into the conquest of Egypt.
According to the “official story” (as provided by Darius later), he made a point of killing his brother Bardes first.
While he was in Egypt, a man called Gaumata, but claiming to be Bardes, launched a rebellion and claimed the throne for himself. Cambyses hurried home
from Egypt, when he heard the news, but he died at some point on the way back.
A group of Persian nobles killed Gaumata and placed Darius on the throne instead.
(The “conspiracy theory” version would be that Gaumata really was Bardes, and that the official story masks a change of dynasty)
Darius had a lot more work to do before he could call his throne secure.
There was an immediate rebellion in Babylon, which had not forgotten being an independent state. Once he had suppressed that rebellion and was
establishing control there, further rebellions broke out in the north among the Medes, in the east among the Bactrians, and among the nomadic tribes
While he was out campaigning in these areas, the Babylonians rebelled again.
Part of the problem was the dubious loyalty of the satraps, or provincial governors, appointed by his predecessors. He needed to assert his control
over them, and his command of the empire was not complete until he had carried this process into Egypt, five years after the crisis began.
This turmoil is the background of the book of Haggai and the opening chapters of Zechariah, which are set in the “second year” of the reign of
The four horsemen of Zechariah’s first vision had been sent out by the Lord “to patrol the earth”.
They now stand among the myrtle trees, waiting to report back on the information they’ve gathered.
“We have patrolled the earth, and behold all the earth remains at rest” (ch1 vv7-11).
The news makes the angel of the Lord very indignant, because of the contrast that with God’s people in Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah,
“against which thou hast had indignation these seventy years”.
Then the angel himself is able to report the Lord’s response to this complaint;
“I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry [with Jerusalem] but a
little, they furthered the disaster” (vv12-15).
The premise of this reaction is that the peace of the world at large comes at the expense of the peace of Zion.
The Lord promises to restore his people; “The Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (v17).
But this can only be done by overturning the peace of the rest of the world.
That is the prophet’s understanding of the great succession crisis in Persia.
It is the God-given opportunity for the community of Jerusalem to develop their own plans, while the central authorities are distracted.
In the first place, they want to rebuild the Temple. The prophet Haggai provides the stimulation that gets the project moving;
“Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel [the governor] and Joshua the son of Jehozadak the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the
voice of the Lord their God and the words of Haggai the prophet” (Haggai ch1 v12).
Zechariah adds the promise that Zerubbabel, having laid the foundation, would also be allowed to complete the house of the Lord (Zechariah ch4 v9).
There were objections from local rivals, according to the story in Ezra. Nevertheless, a search of central records confirmed that royal permission had
been given in the past, and the building was completed (Ezra ch6).
The kings of Persia had been generous enough to appoint the current representative of the house of David as their local governor. The title of
“governor”, however, was the most they were prepared to allow.
The prophets hint at the possibility of raising Zerubbabel to a higher status, taking advantage of the political turmoil of the time.
“Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying; I am about to shake the heavens and the earth and to destroy the thrones of kingdoms… On that
day, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, says the
Lord of hosts” (Haggai ch2 vv21-23).
Zechariah calls him “the Branch”, and says that once the Temple is complete the Branch will “bear royal honour and shall sit and rule on his
If this was attempted, it cannot have been successful, in the long term. We may guess that autonomous action would not have been tolerated by the
All we know is that the house of David don’t appear again, even as governors.