Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece

Israel's Exile, Captivity and Restoration
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We cannot sing songs about the Lord while we are in this foreign country!—Psalm 137:4, NCV

Jeff Mezera

The heart-rending words of Psalm 137 illustrate the treatment and hardness endured by the people of God during the Babylonian invasion. While the Scriptural account of this period describes many aspects of those who were involved and what happened to them, it is still somewhat limited. The archeological record matches the biblical record and also provides information about this time period we might not otherwise have.

The prophet Habakkuk questioned the use of the Babylonian nation to punish the people of God, when he cried to the Lord asking, “Why dost Thou look with favor on those who deal treacherously?” (Habakkuk 1:13, NAS). The Lord had said he would punish Israel due to their sinfulness using the king of Babylon: “Therefore thus says the LORD, Behold, I am about to give this city into the hand of ... Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 32:28, NAS).

The Babylonian Chronicle says: “Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Akkad (Babylon), ... laid siege to the city of Judah. He captured the city ... and carried away a great amount of plunder from Judah to Babylon.”1

Similarly, the Scriptural account states that Nebuchadnezzar had also taken “the gold and silver utensils of the house of God ... and brought them to the temple of Babylon” (Ezra 5:14, NAS). “He carried out from there all the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king’s house, ... just as the LORD had said” (2 Kings 24:13, NAS). The Babylonians did not colonize. They took captives and depopulated the lands they conquered. “Then he led away into exile all Jerusalem and all the captains and all the mighty men of valor, ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained except the poorest people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14, NAS).

After King Jehoiachin was taken captive, Scripture tells us that he was given rations by the Babylonians until his death: “And his allowance was a continual allowance given him of the king, a daily rate for every day, all the days of his life” (2 Kings 25:27-30; see also Jeremiah 52:31-34).

“Confirmation of this aspect of Jehoiachin’s life was found on a clay tablet from Babylon that lists the payment of rations of oil, barley, and other food, to captives and skilled workmen around Babylon; it lists Youkin (Yokin), king in Judah, equivalent to Jehoiachin, and his five sons as recipients of these issues of food.”2

The later king Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar appointed, made the same mistakes as his predecessors: “Then the king of Babylon made his uncle Mattaniah king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah” (2 Kings 24:17, NAS). The Chronicle of the Chaldean King also states that “he appointed a new king to his liking ... He appointed there a king of his own choice ... received its heavy tribute and sent [them] to Babylon.”3

“The biblical accounts suggest that the Babylonians were very selective about those they chose for exile and those they left behind (Jeremiah 40:7-12; 52:16; 2 Kings 25:12,22).”4

“But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left of the poor of the people, which had nothing, in the land of Judah, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time” (Jeremiah 39:10).

Not only do the “Babylonian Chronicles break off after Nebuchadnezzar’s eleventh year of rule”5, but the archeological record for this period in Israel’s history is practically void. “The strange thing is that above the remains left by these destructions, we find no evidence of occupation until the Persian period, which began in about 538 B.C. For roughly half a century—from 604 B.C. to 538 B.C.—there is a complete gap in evidence suggesting occupation. In all that time, not a single town destroyed by the Babylonians was resettled ... They were reoccupied only in the Persian period ... The only indications of a Babylonian presence in Palestine are the massive destruction levels the Babylonians left behind.”6

During the subsequent invasions and captivity, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave ... The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.” (Lamentations 1:1,4, NIV).


Even though it had been a fertile land, the remnant of those who were left behind in Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple lived under harsh conditions. While hiding from their invaders in caves surrounding the city, “the people’s diets reflected privation.”7 Archeologists have found some of these hiding places. After an examination of the vestiges of those left behind, incredibly, it is possible to know what they had eaten during this period: “There were the remains of plants, the kind that grow wild in someone’s backyard. There were no herbs and spices, few grains of wheat or barley, and no lentils or peas. People had been forced to eat whatever they could find at hand. In addition, there was also a high number of tapeworm and other parasite eggs, indicating overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and the fact that people were probably eating contaminated, poorly cooked beef.”8

“Why did the Jews of Judah survive whereas the Jews of Israel did not? The political and economic interpreters of history give this answer:

“The Assyrian policy was to break up conquered nations into small segments, then to disperse the segments throughout the empire in order to destroy national and ethnic unity, in contrast to the Babylonian policy of keeping exiled peoples intact ... Other nations defeated by Babylonia lost their national identities without being strewn all over the map ... The Israelites did not have such a conscious will to remain Jews, whereas the captives of Judah carried with them into captivity an implacable will to survive as Jews ... between the fall of Israel and the fall of Judah a spiritual reawakening of the people of Judah took place. A new Jewish character ... was forged.”9

Some of the Jews, such as Daniel the prophet and his three friends, had been chosen in their youth to be raised and taught in the court of the king. They were first given Babylonian names and while they had all the comforts of the king’s realm at their disposal, they still chose to remain faithful to the Lord and not let the culture of the Babylonians encroach upon their worship. They did this regardless of the threatened punishments of their oppressors.

Many of the Jews thrived under Babylonian rule: “In the libraries of Babylon the Jews found a world treasure of manuscripts; they acquired a love for books and a taste for learning.”10 They made enough money in business and other ventures, that many chose not to return to their homeland after the coming of their Persian conquerors: “Many of them, perhaps the majority, preferred to remain in Babylon, which became a great center of Jewish culture for 1,500 years”11 while living in the many empires which arose after Babylon.

While many of the Jews had died in the original invasion and deportation to Babylon, the second chapter of Ezra shows that they multiplied under their Babylonian rulers. It was during this period that prophets such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Habakkuk, and Malachi, had been given prophecies of a return to Jerusalem, and a destruction of those who oppose Jehovah. Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones assembling, gathering flesh, and rising again gave hope to the exiles.

The dreams recorded in Daniel of the four universal empires (Daniel 2), and the king’s madness of seven years picturing 2,520 literal years of Gentile rule over Israel (Daniel 4), are evidences we can see today of the startling fulfillments of prophecy given during this period. In the Babylonian record of kings, the last several years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign are silent. This is no mystery for those who trust the biblical account of his seven “times” of madness.


“Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 45:1).

The Persian period marked a turning point for the nation of Israel, yet their subjugation to foreign powers was a necessary fact of life. When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem, it must have looked quite different from when they had left several decades earlier.

Psalm 126 describes this return: “When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (NAS translation)

Ezra opens with the words of Cyrus: “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem. ... Also King Cyrus brought out the articles of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods.” (Ezra 1:2-4,7, NAS).

A similar story by the new conqueror of Israel is told on a cylinder housed in the British museum. On this artifact is written Cyrus’ own depiction of his overthrow of Babylon, and his subsequent liberal and tolerant treatment of those nations which Babylon had conquered.

“Nabonidus turned the worship of Marduk, ruler of the divine assembly in Babylon, into an abomination ... He also enslaved the people of Babylon to work for the state year round ... Marduk ... searched all the lands for a righteous ruler ... He chose Cyrus, ... and appointed him as the ruler of all the earth ... Because Marduk ... was pleased with Cyrus’ good deeds and upright heart, he ordered him to march against Babylon ... Marduk allowed Cyrus to enter Babylon without a battle ... and delivered Nabonidus, the king ... into the hands of Cyrus.”12

It was not a love for the Jews or the other nations that caused Cyrus to inaugurate this policy. It was always better for the Persian rulers to have other nations paying tribute to them rather than subjugating their people away from where they could produce goods of value. By allowing each nation to return to its homeland, they would better take advantage of its natural resources, and eliminate the need for Persia to stretch its own resources. Cyrus’ decree continues:

“I entered Babylon as a friend of Marduk and took my seat in the palace ... I ordered my soldiers not to loot the streets of Babylon, ... I no longer enslaved the people of Babylon to work for the state, and I helped them to rebuild their houses which had fallen into ruin ... I returned the statues of the divine patrons of every land ... to their own sanctuaries. When I found their sanctuaries in ruins, I rebuilt them. I also repatriated the people of these lands and rebuilt their houses.”13

There were many obstacles and tensions to overcome in the Jewish return to the land. Battles between the Jews who remained in Babylon and those who returned to Israel ensued. Disagreements about whether to rebuild the temple or the wall, and even neighboring nations interfered with the Jewish plans of rebuilding and rebirth. (See Ezra 4:4-6; 4:23-24; 5:17-6:5; 6:14-15; Nehemiah 1:1-3; 2:13-17; 4:16-21; 7:1-4.)

“The exiles and emigrants … preserved their warlike character even in their new settlements in foreign lands. Jews began to figure prominently in armies and military settlements both in Babylonia and in Egypt and their dependencies down to the Roman period. … These martial qualities were also one of the main reasons why Cyrus, king of Persia, permitted and actively promoted the return of the Babylonian exiles to Judah. After capturing Palestine in the wake of the great Persian conquest that wrested supremacy from Babylonia … he wished to have the country secured by a population at once warlike and loyal, but not strong enough to make itself independent. What better way than to grant the Jews the right to return to a very curtailed Judah, with hostile neighbors checking any attempt at throwing off benevolent Persian overlordship?”14

While many of the Jews took advantage of Cyrus’ policy and chose to return to Jerusalem, “the land had grown wild during their absence in exile; it would take years of back-breaking labor to restore its fruitfulness. As time went on and quarrels and hardships continued, some openly regretted that they had left their comfortable homes in Babylonia. It was one thing to dream hope; it was quite another to toil without promise of improvement.”15

Many Jews would not return until Ezra and Nehemiah reminded them about what it meant to be Jewish and to seek the Lord again. Many of them would not return at all and it would not be until “a second effort, with the full backing of … Darius”16 that a larger number of them would return. There were a few attempts at rebuilding, but it was not accomplished until Ezra and Nehemiah encouraged and inspired more of the Jews to return to rebuild the city, wall, temple, and nation.

It was during the Babylonian and Persian period that the concept of the synagogue developed as a means by which they could still worship God. After their return to Jerusalem the synagogue survived side-by-side with the temple. It did not replace the temple completely until the Roman destruction in 70 A.D. and the diaspora. It was through these regular meetings that the nation and faith of the Jews survived: “The rabbi as teacher of Torah had now become more important than the priest performing an ancient ritual.”17

It was also during this period that the development and finalization of the canon of the Old Testament, as well as the reproduction of the Scriptures had begun. The scribes first made their appearance in this period, gathering the Scriptures, and copiously transcribing them to preserve their heritage and the words of God. “It is in the Persian period that coins make their appearance in Palestine, making it possible from this time to date archaeological strata with a precision hitherto seldom possible.”18 While Jewish culture refined and developed in this period, the Persians “introduced no new concepts and exerted no new influence on world thinking.”19


Little is known of Jewish life between the Persian period until after the breakup of Alexander the Great’s kingdom. Most of what we know about Alexander comes from five historians who lived centuries afterward: Arrian a Greek author and statesman, Diodorus of Sicily, Quintus Curtius of Rome, Plutarch the Greek philosopher, and Josephus, the Jewish historian. While their manuscripts are not complete, they were based on journals of contemporaries who lived and fought with the Grecian king. These journals no longer exist and are not otherwise quoted in any ancient writing.

Instead of bringing the nations they subjected to Greece, Alexander had colonies planted throughout his sprawling kingdom and encouraged them to spread Greek culture. Instead of using the sword to subdue nations, he encouraged his officers and generals, and those in the colonies, to intermarry among those they had conquered. A complete fusion of races was Alexander’s objective. His desire was not only to conquer the world, but convert it to the Greek way of thinking:

“Greek thought dominated the Near East for six hundred years ... though the Jews in the main did resist the Greek philosophies, they mastered the Greek philosophers.”20

“Alexander was a noble, generous conqueror ... [who] in no way interfered with the peculiar development, the customs, or religious rites of any nation under his sway. He did not force the Grecian faith on any nation, and the favor which he granted to other nations he certainly did not deny to the Judeans.”21

While the Jews were no longer isolated, in the wake of the Greeks “the economy boomed; living standards rose.”22 “While almost all the ancient peoples whose names are mentioned in the Bible disappeared completely, early in the Greek period, swept away by the flood of Greek influence, the Jews remained steadfast in their own faith and their own manner of living.”23

It was at this time that minor divisions within Judaism became strong disagreements. New sects arose, pushing some extremists into the desert to escape what they considered corruption by the Greeks. Through three Gentile empires—Babylonian, Persia, and Greece—many Jews no longer spoke Hebrew; they spoke Greek. Both the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek and the earliest Dead Sea scrolls are from this period.

The prophecy of Daniel points to the Grecian empire as the belly and thighs of brass in the image of chapter two; the exact name is given in Daniel 8:21 where Alexander is named as the “first king” and “great horn.”

Other verses in Daniel refer to this king and some of his military exploits. History records how Alexander pushed eastward in his several blows against Persian King Darius only to find he had escaped:

“Alexander visited upon the Persian forces in a battle at the Granicus River in 334 B.C. With only thirty-five thousand men, Alexander’s forces plunged through the river attacking Darius’ one hundred thousand footmen and ten thousand horsemen, reportedly killing twenty thousand at a loss of only one hundred Greek troops. Complete victory was assured at the battles of Issus the following year and at Guagamela in 331 B.C.24

Daniel’s prophecy records these events by stating that “he came up to the ram that had the two horns ... standing in front of the canal, and rushed at him in his mighty wrath ... [and] struck the ram ... [and] hurled him to the ground” (Daniel 8:6,7, NAS). Upon finding the king, Alexander gazed upon the lifeless body of Darius who had been stabbed and deserted by his own soldiers.

The historian Josephus relates an interesting story concerning Alexander the Great. After he had taken Gaza, he quickly made way to Jerusalem. As his caravan approached, a procession of priests had been waiting for him to arrive. Alexander quickly expressed obeisance to the priest. One of Alexander’s men asked why he had done this and his recorded answer was, “The vision of this priest’s appearance once came to me, to lead me on to victory.”25

According to the Jewish historian, the priests then showed the Macedonian king prophecies from Daniel showing how the first Grecian king, Alexander, would subdue the Persian Empire. Many historians today either do not believe Josephus’ testimony about Alexander’s entry into Jerusalem, or consider it grossly exaggerated: “When Alexander resettled Samaria, it is probably true that he gave part to the Jews as a tax-free present ... Though Alexander would have met the Jewish leaders, the story that he did obeisance before the Jewish high priest is obviously a Jewish legend.”26 Other historians claim that “Alexander had never visited the capital of Palestine.”27 Some find fragments of truth in the narrative:

“Strenuous efforts have been made to discredit this statement of Josephus, but without good reason. It has been said that it is not based on reliable historical information, nor the general belief of his time, but is merely a private opinion of his own. It is obvious, however, that this cannot be the case. Josephus was a man of considerable learning, and had every facility for acquainting himself with the history of his own nation, upon which he had written largely in his ‘Antiquities.’ His priestly origin afforded him special opportunities for becoming familiar with the religious opinions of his countrymen ... he gives no intimation that what he here says is simply his own opinion. It is stated as a certain and acknowledged fact.”28

Whether the events surrounding Alexander’s entry into Jerusalem are true or not, it is considered quite possible by several historians that he had at least entered the holy city. Alexander spent seven months in his siege of Tyre, and Jerusalem would have been close enough to find provisions for his army.

A work of romantic fiction, called the Pseudo-Callisthenes, was written shortly after Alexander’s death. While it contains many unbelievable concepts, approaching science fiction of the era, it also suggests that Alexander visited Jerusalem. The fantasy expresses various exploits of the king, claiming that “Alexander is the two-horned who flies on the back of an eagle to the heights of Heaven ... the two-horned also travelled to Jerusalem ... Even the depths of the sea were explored by the mighty King, who spent many days and nights in a glass diving cage.”29

The historian Arrian states that Alexander had subdued all of Syria, which was called Palestine.30 Justin states that many princes of the east met Alexander with their mitres.31 He also states that while the siege of Tyre was underway, Alexander left for Gaza and returned eleven days later.32 Jerusalem is not that far from Gaza and none of the historians state how long Alexander and his armies stayed in Gaza to refresh their supplies. Diodorus suggests that he stayed in Gaza long enough to settle the affairs of the country in and around Gaza.33

Not only would Alexander likely have gone to Jerusalem to refresh supplies, but “he might perhaps consider God as a local deity, and offer sacrifices to him at Jerusalem, as he did to Hercules at Tyre, and to Jupiter Hammon in Egypt, and to Belus in Babylon.”34

Alexander’s journey to see the oracle at the temple in Egypt nearly killed him, but it provided exactly the answer to a question that bothered him. He was trying to find out if he was indeed a son of god. His entry into Jerusalem, and this event in Egypt were possibly the greatest spiritual events in Alexander’s life:

“Alexander and his companions climbed up the steps into the temple ... and the priest greeted Alexander with a slip of the tongue. He meant to say ‘Oh my son,’ but his Greek wasn’t up to much, and what the Macedonians had heard him say was ‘son of Zeus.’ Now for Alexander that was a good start.”35

While he considered himself to be a god, he died a mortal man at the age of thirty two. Soon after his death, strenuous battles between four of his generals split the kingdom into quarters, as predicted by Daniel (Daniel 8:8).

The centuries before the birth of Christ find Jewish history nearly silent within the Scriptural record. Just as God protected his people through these periods of time, subsequent articles illustrate this same providential power of God for his chosen ones.

God not only punished his chosen people in ages past through his providential power, but he also preserved and protected them and their faith in preparation for the Jewish re-gathering, forgiveness, and acquaintance with the Messiah in his millennial kingdom.


 1.  Annals of Nebuchadnezzar, 5, BM 21946: 11-3. Quoted in Matthews, Victor H.,
      Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, p. 184.

 2.  Free, Joseph P., Vos, Howard F., Archaeology and Bible History, p.189.

 3.  Annals of Nebuchadnezzar, 5, BM 21946: 11-3. Quoted in Matthews, Victor H.,
      Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, p. 184.

 4.  Cline, Eric H., Jerusalem Besieged, 2007, p. 65.

 5.  Ibid., p. 57.

 6.  Editor, Hershel Shanks (2004; 2004). Biblical Archeology Review 26:06
      (Nov/Dec 2000). Biblical Archaeology Society.

 7.  Marcus, Amy Dockser, The View from Nebo, p. 157.

 8.  Ibid.

 9.  Dimont, Max I., Jews God and History, pp. 60-61.

10.  Ibid., p. 65.

11.  Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews, p. 85.

12.  Marcus, Amy Dockser, The View from Nebo, p. 193.

13.  Ibid., pp. 194-195.

14.  Herzog, Chaim and Gichon, Mordechai, Battles of the Bible, 1978, p. 262.

15.  Grayzel, Solomon, A History of the Jews, p. 23.

16.  Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews, p. 86.

17.  Trepp, Leo, A History of the Jewish Experience, p. 37.

18.  Gray, John, Archaeology and the Old Testament World, p. 189.

19.  Dimont, Max, I., The Indestructible Jews, p. 73.

20.  Dimont, Max I., Jews, God and History, pp. 77,78.

21.  Graetz, Henrich, History of the Jews, Volume I, p. 413.

22.  Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews, p. 97.

23.  Grayzel, Solomon, A History of the Jews, p. 48.

24.  Ferguson, Sinclair B., The Preacher's Commentary on Daniel.

25.  Talmud; Yoma 69a, quoted in Trepp, Leo, A History of the Jewish Experience, p. 40.

26.  Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great, p. 222.

27.  Savill, Agnes, Alexander the Great and His Time, p. 145.

28.  Green, W.H., General Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon, p. 38.

29.  Savill, Agnes, Alexander the Great and His Time, p. 205.

30.  Arian. de Exped. Alex. 1.2., c. 25.

31.  Justin. Hist. 1. 11, c. 10, 6.

32.  Arian. de Exped. Alex. 1. 2., c. 20.

33.  Diod, Sic, 1. 17, c. 49.

34.  Newton, Bishop, On the Prophecies, Volume 1, p. 243.

35.  The History Channel, The True Story of Alexander the Great, 2005.