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The Feast of Hanukkah: Testimony to Bible Prophecy

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The Feast of Hanukkah

Testimony to Bible Prophecy

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In the year 167 B.C., the worship of God in Judea was on the edge of extinction, ready to be wholly swallowed up by pagan Greek worship being forced on the people by the powerful ruler of Syria and Judea, Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. This title meant "Illustrious," but his rule was more gruesome than glorious, as he inflicted intensely cruel punishments and death on any Jew who remained faithful to the worship of God.

But God would prove faithful to those among His people who remained loyal to Him. He had foretold through the prophet Daniel that great troubles would come on the people of Judah, but He also foretold their deliverance in one of the most detailed and astonishing prophecies recorded in the Bible!

The story begins

In preparation for an attack against Egypt, King Antiochus had to unify and strengthen his vast territory, especially his southern border of Judea, which would be the staging area for a push into Egypt.

Part of his plan involved a Jew named Menelaus, who had bribed his way into the office of high priest of the Jews with the promise of high tribute payments and the assurance that he would assist the king in "hellenizing" the Jews; that is, encouraging them to adopt the Greek (Hellenistic) culture.

Though the Jewish leaders at first thought they could hellenize their community while still retaining their unique form of worship, the people perceived pagan Hellenism as a threat. While many in leadership positions within the Jewish community were quick to adopt the trappings of Greek culture, the general populace was slow to follow.

The king grew frustrated, needing to act quickly against Egypt and having been misled by this corrupt high priest to think the people would accept hellenization.

Trampling on God's laws

The apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, a helpful historical resource even though not part of the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament, records events of this tumultuous period. It tells us that Antiochus "wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath" (1 Maccabees 1:41-43, New Revised Standard Version).

Antiochus' edict prohibited observing the weekly Sabbath day and the other biblical feast days. Reading the law of Moses was outlawed, and all copies of it were ordered to be burned. Temple sacrifices were forbidden; circumcision was outlawed. The penalty for disobedience was death.

Many Jews chose to die rather than comply with Antiochus' unholy commands. Angered by resistance to his odious laws, and misled into thinking it was just a small group of radicals creating trouble, the king intensified his persecution and cruelty. If an infant were found circumcised, Antiochus decreed that his family and the person who did the circumcision would be put to death and the infant would be hung from the neck of his dead mother (verses 60-61).

Then, on the 25th day of the month Kislev, 167 B.C. (corresponding to late November or early December of our modern calendar), Antiochus profaned the temple of God in Jerusalem. Ordering an end to the morning and evening sacrifices offered to the true God, he rededicated the temple to the pagan Greek god Zeus and apparently set up an altar bearing the image of this pagan god over the temple altar. Then, in spiteful sacrilege to the Jews, he had swine sacrificed on the altar.

Revolt against Antiochus' rule

Meanwhile, in the mountains 17 miles to the northwest of Jerusalem, a popular revolt was brewing. In the town of Modin, the aged priest Mattathias had refused to offer the pagan sacrifice that was being required of him. He slew an apostate Jew who was about to do so in his stead, killed the king's commissioner, pulled down the altar and fled into the hills with his five sons.

Faithful Jews began rallying to this family of priests. They soon began to wage a guerilla war against their oppressors—a David-and-Goliath battle with the small band of faithful loyalists taking on the military might of the Syrian army and their traitorous Jewish collaborators. The Jewish historian Josephus records in his Wars of the Jews that Antiochus sent an army of horsemen, elephants and 50,000 foot soldiers against them.

During the war, Mattathias died. Leadership fell to his third son, Judah or Judas, who was called "Maccabeus"—from the Hebrew word for "hammer." A cunning military strategist, Judah led his followers in bold, hard-hitting attacks that routinely routed the larger and better-equipped Syrian forces. Judas' title of "Hammer" was soon transferred to the entire family of priest-warriors, and the war came to be known as the Maccabean Revolt. (These "Maccabees" were also known as the Hasmoneans, after Mattathias' great-great-grandfather Hasmoneus.)

After three years of battle, and against seemingly impossible military odds, the Maccabees succeeded in recapturing the temple and most of Jerusalem in December 164 B.C. Anxious to reestablish the worship of God, Judah ordered the loyal priests who had not collaborated with Antiochus to cleanse the temple and erect a new altar.

The date was 25 Kislev, 164 B.C., three years after Antiochus had defiled the temple and made it an abomination. Now they were free to again worship God in peace! The Maccabees fought on until they drove the Syrians from Judea and finally gained political independence from Syria, as well as religious freedom.

With their victory, the stage was set for the prophesied first coming of Jesus Christ to His people. God blessed the efforts of the faithful few and preserved the Jewish nation, the temple and the people for Christ to come to—as prophecy required. God proved faithful to His Word, and to those who put their trust in Him.

The Hanukkah celebration

According to Jewish tradition, at the rededication of the temple only one undefiled container of oil could be found to use in the golden lampstand in the temple—enough to burn for only one day. Miraculously, though, the flame in the lampstand continued for eight days—long enough for a new supply of oil to be prepared for this holy use!

In commemoration of these events, many Jews today celebrate Hanukkah (which means "dedication"), also known as the Festival of Lights.

While it is not a festival commanded in the Bible or one that God expects Christians to observe, since the days of the Maccabees many Jews have observed the Feast of Dedication as a national celebration of deliverance from the oppression of the tyrant King Antiochus. As July 4 is the day Americans celebrate the independence of their nation, Hanukkah is a time when many Jews celebrate their independence and deliverance.

By the time of Christ, the Jews were again a subject people—this time to the Romans—and they were again looking for a leader, the Messiah, to deliver them. And it was during this very festival that the Jewish leaders asked Jesus if He was that promised Deliverer!

Notice John 10:22-28: "Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon's porch. Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, 'How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.' Jesus answered them, 'I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.'"

Jesus pointed them toward a much greater deliverance than that of Judas Maccabeus! It wasn't the answer the people wanted to hear, but it was the answer they needed to hear. Jesus Christ would deliver His sheep, those who would listen to Him and obey Him, not from Rome, but from the slavery of sin and death. He would lead them to eternal life in the Kingdom of God!

What Judas Maccabeus did for the Jews, Jesus Christ will do for the whole world when He returns a second time, delivering humanity from an evil ruler and from sin itself.

Daniel foretells the future

Can we believe prophecy? Can we have confidence in the Bible's promises of Christ's second coming and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth?

We can have great confidence in those prophecies of God that are yet to be fulfilled when we see so clearly that prophecies have already come to pass exactly as God said they would. The deliverance from King Antiochus, celebrated by the Feast of Dedication, was dramatically foretold with amazing accuracy hundreds of years before it occurred!

In Daniel 8, God gave Daniel a vision about the kingdoms that would arise to dominate the Holy Land after his time. Though given in symbols, we don't have to wonder about their meaning because God also gave Daniel the interpretation of the symbols through the angel Gabriel (verses 16-26).

In verses 5-8, Daniel sees a male goat with a "notable horn" that attacks and swiftly destroys the ram that had preceded it. In verse 21 we are told what this goat and horn symbolize: "And the male goat is the kingdom of Greece. The large horn that is between its eyes is the first king."

The "first king" of this Greek Empire was Alexander the Great. He died young, at the peak of his power. Having no adult heirs—only an infant son who was later murdered—his kingdom was divided between four of his generals.

Daniel 8:8-9 continues the story: "Therefore the male goat grew very great; but when he became strong, the large horn was broken [Alexander died], and in place of it four notable ones [four of Alexander's generals] came up toward the four winds of heaven.

"And out of one of them [Alexander's general Seleucus, who ruled from Antioch in Syria after receiving his part of Alexander's kingdom] came a little horn which grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the Glorious Land." This little horn was Antiochus IV, whose kingdom by this time consisted of the vast eastern section of Alexander's empire, extending both north and east from Judea. Antiochus' army marched toward the south through the "Glorious Land," Judea, as it advanced against Egypt.

Daniel 8:10-12 tells us more about this King Antiochus IV, whose coming was still several centuries in the future from the time Daniel wrote these words: "And it [the little horn, Antiochus IV] grew up to the host of heaven [the people of God, the children of Israel (compare Exodus 12:41)]; and it cast down some of the host and some of the stars [leaders] to the ground, and trampled them.

"He even exalted himself as high as the Prince of the host; and by him the daily sacrifices were taken away, and the place of His sanctuary was cast down. Because of transgression, an army was given over to the horn to oppose the daily sacrifices; and he cast truth down to the ground. He did all this and prospered."

This describes the persecution Antiochus brought on the people of Judea, and how he ended the daily sacrifices and desecrated the temple and the altar.

Deliverance—past and future

This prophecy of Antiochus Epiphanes' actions, and the resulting Jewish revolt, is so clear and accurate that it has caused some scholars to question the dating of the book of Daniel! They claim Daniel had to be written centuries later, during or after the time of the Maccabees, for it to be so accurate.

However, other scholars point to evidence that clearly demonstrates Daniel wrote his book hundreds of years before the time of the Maccabees, showing it was indeed prophetic and not written after the events had already taken place.

Of course, with man it would be impossible to foretell future events with such accuracy. But God is capable of "declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure'" (Isaiah 46:10). God is able to bring about the fulfillment of His own prophecies!

God is faithful and true, and He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). As He promised deliverance for the people of Judea from the tyrannical King Antiochus, He also promises that Jesus Christ will come again, in great power and glory, to deliver mankind from destruction and to set up His Kingdom on the earth.

Consider the events the Feast of Hanukkah commemorates and the lessons from Daniel's amazing prophecy. Remember the story of how God blessed those who were faithful to Him—just as He continues to do today for any who will turn to Him.

And remember, too, the certainty of prophecy. God is faithful to His Word. GN