Daniel and the Captivity of Israel

The Book of Daniel is concerned with the exile of the Jews and how they survived under foreign oppression. It looks ahead not only to a return from the exile but to a restoration of the theocratic kingship under a descendant of King David.

Jeremiah had said that the Babylonian captivity would last seventy years. (Jeremiah 25:11, 12; 29:10.) This period of time had been decreed by God because for almost five centuries his people had failed to keep the Sabbath years set forth in Leviticus 25. In this way God saw to it that the land enjoyed its rest. (2 Chronicles 36:21.)

The Babylonian captivity was one of the great turning points of history. The people of God had been troubled by many nations, from Egypt to Assyria, but the divinely established dynasty of David had still continued to rule from the time of its founding around 1010 B.C. until the rise of the new Babylonian empire. In 609 B.C. the last righteous king of Judah, Josiah, was slain by Pharaoh Necho. Josiah's son, Jehoahaz, reigned a few months, but Necho replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim, who ruled from 609-597 B.C.

In the year 605 B.C. under the reign of Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar, the heir apparent of the throne of Babylon, invaded Judah and forced Jehoiakim into submission. As part of training in the service of the empire, Daniel and his three companions were among these first, noble captives from Judah. (Daniel 1:1-7.)

However, the real desolations to Jerusalem did not come in 605 B.C., but began after Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar some three years later. (2 Kings 24:1.) Nebuchadnezzar eventually laid siege to Jerusalem and captured it in 597 B.C. Though Jehoiakim died during this time, his son, Jehoiachin, was taken captive to Babylon after a reign of only three months. This marked the first major deportation of the Jews; in addition to King Jehoiachin, most of the nobility and much of the treasury was removed to Babylon in 597 B.C. And, "None remained except the poorest people of the land." (2 Kings 24:11.)

Nebuchadnezzar then placed on the throne of David, Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah, the son of godly King Josiah. In the course of time, in spite of many warnings from the prophet Jeremiah, Zedekiah, too, rebelled, and the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem once again on January 10, 587 B.C. This siege produced devastating famine and pestilence within the city, which finally fell to the Babylonians on July 9, 586 B.C. They wrought terrible destruction to the city, burning down the temple several weeks later on August 1 (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the same day of the same month that Titus destroyed the Second Temple, six hundred, fifty-six years later, in 70 A.D..), and then destroying the walls of Jerusalem.

King Zedekiah was eventually captured by Nebuchadnezzar. The last sight he had before having his eyes put out was to see his two sons slaughtered. (2 Kings 25:7.) So came to an end the glorious reign of the sons of David.

Yet, the prophet Isaiah had foretold that out of this seemingly dead stump of Jesse (David's father.), a green shoot would spring forth. (Isaiah 11:1.) This branch from David's chopped-down tree would rule all nations and cause them to submit to the God of Israel. (Isaiah 2, 11.) Then, not only Israel, but all nations, would enjoy the great Sabbath-year Jubilee (Isaiah 61:1-4.) of which the Levitical Jubilee as but a dim foreshadowing. (Leviticus 25.)

The Lord Jesus began proclaiming that great gospel Jubilee in his thirtieth year in the synagogue of Nazareth. (Luke 4:16- 21.) At the time of his second coming, he will bring his great work to consummation, and we will live in the new Eden (Isaiah 11.), the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13.)

In the book of Daniel, the exile of the Jews in the Babylonian captivity and their return to the land of Judah under the Persians is the backdrop of the drama of a greater captivity and a greater deliverance. Through a series of visions, God proceeds to unfold his plan for his people. The seventy years of exile would come to an end with the fall of Babylon, but the true liberation of Israel and the restoration of the fallen house of David would take, not seventy years, but seventy times seven. (Daniel 9.) And instead of the passing of Babylon marking the time of true fulfillment, empires yet unknown to the Jews would rise and fall.

These empires are revealed to Daniel in a series of terrifying visions. History records that after Babylon's fall in 539 B.C., the Jews became subject to the empire of the Medes and Persians, under whose yoke they remained until 331 B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered the Persians, and Israel came under the influence of Greece. At Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his empire was divided among his generals, four of whom eventually won out:  Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy. The history of Israel for the next century or so is a record of conflict between two of these generals' dynasties: the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt.

In 165 B.C. Israel won her independence from the Hellenistic kings under Judas Maccabaeus. But this independence did not last long, nor did it see the house of David restored, for a more ominous empire was menacing the Middle East. In the year 63 B.C. the Roman general, Pompey, entered the city, thus beginning the subjugation of the Jews to the fourth great empire, Rome.

These four great empires are portrayed by various means to Daniel. Early in his reign Nebuchadnezzar had a nightmare which is recorded in Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar's dream centered around a colossus with a head of gold (Babylon, 2:32, 38.), a chest and arms of silver (Medo-Persia, 2:32, 39.), a stomach and thighs of bronze (Greece, 2:32, 39.), and legs of iron with feet of iron and clay. (Rome, 2:33, 40-43.) During the time of the last empire, Rome, God would begin the long awaited deliverance. (2:34, 35, 44, 45.) He would strike this metallic colossus with a stone cut without hands, and the colossus would disintegrate: "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands -- a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy." (Daniel 2:44, 45.)

In the seventh chapter of Daniel these same empires are depicted as four terrifying beasts. Babylon is a lion with eagle wings (7:4.), while Persia is a bear. (7:5.) The four Hellenistic kingdoms are portrayed as a four-headed, four-winged leopard. (7:6.) Rome is so terrifying it cannot be compared to any earthly creature, a ten-horned beast with iron teeth (7:7-12; 23-29.). Once again, the coming of the fourth empire is the omen of the doom of all man centered attempts at world dominion, for then God intervenes to save his people: "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." (Daniel 7:13, 14.)

Two of these empires receive special attention in a vision in Chapter 8: the Medo-Persian kingdom is seen as a two-horned ram (8:3, 4.), which is defeated by a he-goat (Greece.). This goat has one horn (Alexander the Great.). But this great horn is broken off, and four take its place (Alexander's four generals: Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy.). (8:8.) Out of one of these horns a little horn rises who persecutes God's people. (8:9-14.) This little horn represents the last of the Greeks to rule over God's people, Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled the Seleucid kingdom from 175-163 B.C.

Antiochus receives special attention in Daniel (8:9-14; 23-25; 11:21 ff.) not only because he would desecrate the temple of the Lord with pig's blood in honor of the Olympian Zeus and would wreak more havoc on Israel than any ruler from the time of Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century B.C. until Titus the Roman in 70 A.D., but because he is the great foreshadowing of the ultimate persecutor of God's people, the man of sin. But Daniel, like its New Testament counterpart, Revelation, does not end on a negative note, but on the triumph of the Lord at the consummation of history: "At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people -- everyone whose name is found written in the book -- will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." (Daniel 12:1-3.)

Bob Vincent