The story of Alexander the Great is one that is both old and new. More than 23 centuries after leaping from Greece to conquer most of the known world, his story continues to fascinate modern audiences and inspire scholarly study. New books pore over the ancient chronicles of his conquests, and a popular new film portrays both the factual and romantic aspects of his fame. But at the end of the day, many questions remain unanswered.
How should we understand Alexander the Great today? Are you aware of an overlooked source that refers to his exploits in the context of God's design for history and mankind?
You may be surprised to know that Alexander's exploits are mentioned in Bible prophecies ignored by modern scholars in their quest to understand his historical significance. The Bible has a great deal to teach us about God's hand in history and why events transpire the way they do.
A man on a mission
Alexander was born at Pella in 356 B.C. His father, Philip, king of Macedon, had assembled the Greek states into a coalition that laid the foundation for the army Alexander would take to Asia.
His mother was Olympias, with whom he had a close relationship. She was a devotee of the god Dionysus and is said to have astonished those at the royal court by bringing snakes into their presence. The marriage was stormy. When Philip was assassinated in 336, 20-year-old Alexander moved quickly to consolidate power and assume the kingly title.
Persia was the enemy of Greece, and there were old scores to settle. Alexander inherited his father's ambition and vision to be more than a regional monarch. Before taking on the empire to the east, he first had to consolidate his own power. He took his troops north, as far as the Danube, and south in Greece to neutralize any regional opposition. He was now ready for the invasion of Asia.
In one of the most remarkable junctures of history, the renowned philosopher Aristotle schooled Alexander. Part of the curriculum was the study of Homer's Iliad, the story of the Trojan War.
Alexander styled himself after the great warrior Achilles and carried a volume of the story on his travels, quoting frequently from its pages. What began at Troy, a great struggle between Europe and Asia, was to be continued at the hands of this new Achilles.
No more than 40,000 troops started on this most daring of kingly expeditions. Over the next 11 years he traveled farther and conquered more than any monarch before him. He would never again see his homeland.
Decisive battles establish an empire
Speed and daring were the hallmarks of the battles that decided the course of Alexander's reign. At three major engagements within four years, the Persian Empire was crushed.
In 334 B.C., at the Battle of Granicus, he met the first Persian army, quickly defeating it. Alexander was a soldier-king who often fought in the front lines with his men. At this first engagement his life very nearly came to an abrupt end. As an enemy soldier moved to strike him from behind, the king was saved by the quick action of one of his men who severed the Persian's arm.
Historians have been tempted to speculate how the whole course of history would have been changed had Alexander died at that time. Perhaps, as we will see, it might be better to seek understanding of the spiritual dimension of history so often ignored by secular historians.
Next, at Issus, the full force of the Persian army, more than half a million men, was gathered behind the standard of Darius III. By employing new tactics, slicing through the line at an angle rather than launching a full frontal assault, the Greek troops were able to get behind the enemy flank, routing the larger Persian force and sending it into chaotic retreat.
Darius fled so quickly that his treasury and family were left at the mercy of Alexander. Darius offered to make Alexander his son-in-law and give him all of Asia west of the Euphrates. But nothing less than unconditional surrender would satisfy the young Greek king.
For all intents and purposes this defeat finished effective Persian resistance. There would be one more battle, in 331 B.C. at Gaugamela in what is today northern Iraq. Here Darius III was killed by his own men when he attempted to be the first to abandon the battle, as the Greek troops crushed the last vestige of the numerically superior Persian force.
Within four short years Alexander had defeated the massive Persian Empire. After 329 B.C. no major opponent remained. Alexander's empire eventually stretched from Greece to modern Pakistan, occupying the former empires of Egypt, Babylon and Persia.
" To the ocean"
The Greeks thought the world's land mass was surrounded by what they called "the ocean." To reach this point would be to come to the end of the earth. Once the area that is now Iran was secure in 327 B.C., there was no real need to go farther east. But the allure of going to earth's end was too great. Alexander pushed his troops ahead to what one Roman author said was "all that a mortal man was capable of."
No army or power effectively stood in his way as he marched through Central Asia and what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Afghanistan he met the same kind of fierce nomadic tribal culture that endures to this day. He founded cities (many named after himself) and struck alliances, which began to stretch his men and his ability to maintain effective control.
Alexander's first real "defeat" was when his soldiers refused to go further. At the River Hyphasis (modern Beas) in India the long years of marching and privation came to a climax. "This far and no farther" was their cry.
Without support from his troops, Alexander was forced to turn back to the west. What remained was the less glorious, more mundane task of consolidating and managing his enormous empire.
Aristotle had once taught him that it was more difficult to organize peace than to win a war, that the fruits of victory in war will be lost if the peace is not well organized. But Alexander would not have the time, or perhaps the ability, to prove whether he could effectively manage all that he had conquered.
The march back to Babylon took a physical toll on the morale of the troops and the health of their leader. Trusted lieutenants abdicated for home, troops mutinied and his closest friend and confidant, Hephaestion, died.
Grief, frustration and the long years of warring had taken their toll. By June 323 B.C., Alexander lay dying of fever and infection. His soldiers gathered around to ask what would become of his empire, and he reputedly replied that it should go "to the strongest."
It took two decades for the dust to settle, but when it did there were four divisions of the empire among four of his generals. The two most powerful sectors were the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and the Seleucid in Syria.
Alexander's empire foretold by Daniel
The average person today viewing a major motion picture of the life of Alexander may not realize that this luminous ancient figure is mentioned in Bible prophecy. The prophet Daniel, writing first from the courts of Babylon and then Persia (long before Alexander defeated its empire), saw visions of the future that included the rise of this Greek empire.
In the second chapter of Daniel, the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, dreamed a terrifying vision that none of his wise men could interpret. It was only when he called in the young Daniel that an explanation was given. The dream was of a huge four-sectioned image with a head of gold, a chest and arms of silver, a belly and thigh of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay.
In verse 36 Daniel was inspired by God to give the interpretation. "This is the dream. Now we will tell the interpretation of it before the king. You, O king, are a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory; and wherever the children of men dwell, or the beasts of the field and the birds of the heaven, He has given them into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all—you are this head of gold.
"But after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours; then another, a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be as strong as iron, inasmuch as iron breaks in pieces and shatters everything; and like iron that crushes, that kingdom will break in pieces and crush all the others" (Daniel 2:36-40).
Through this dream, God was showing the progression of four empires that would arise and dominate much of the known world in their day. Students of Bible prophecy correctly identify these empires as Babylon (head of gold), Persia (chest and arms of silver), Greece (belly and thighs of bronze) and Rome (legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with clay).
In the dream a "stone was cut out without hands" and struck the image on its feet (the fourth empire) and then "filled the whole earth" (verses 34-35). Verse 44 reveals that this is the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the earth. The fact that the fourth empire is struck by the stone indicates a continuation of the Roman system in some form until the second coming of Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God.
Daniel actually lived during the first two of these empires. As a captive Jew in Babylon at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, he witnessed the workings and power of the head of gold.
Another vision of Alexander's rise
Later, during the reign of Belshazzar, God gave Daniel a vision, which expanded on the earlier dream of Nebuchadnezzar. It is recorded in chapter 7. Daniel wrote down the images of his dream, which likely left him in a troubled state of mind.
Notice what he saw: "I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other. The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings. I watched till its wings were plucked off; and it was lifted up from the earth and made to stand on two feet like a man, and a man's heart was given to it.
"And suddenly another beast, a second, like a bear. It was raised up on one side, and had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. And they said thus to it: 'Arise, devour much flesh!' After this I looked, and there was another, like a leopard, which had on its back four wings of a bird. The beast also had four heads, and dominion was given to it.
"After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns" (Daniel 7:2-7).
The meaning of the four beasts
These four beasts again represent the four empires, beginning with Babylon. The Greco-Macedonian Empire is identified with the third beast, which is like a leopard.
Its attributes fit the historical description of Alexander's army and its tactics. As already noted, Alexander's army was small but powerful and quick, like a leopard. It tore at and easily defeated the massive, bearlike (powerful, but less agile than a leopard) empire of the Persians.
Daniel had another vision concerning Alexander's empire. It likewise fits in with history with remarkable accuracy.
In this vision (chapter 8), Daniel was by a river when he saw a ram with two horns, one horn being higher than the other. God's angelic messenger told Daniel the ram represented the Persian kingdom, composed of Persia and Media. The different lengths of the horns showed that Persia would overshadow Media. This ram advanced in three directions and no other power could withstand its advance.
It became a great power until a new power arose in the form of a male goat from the west (verse 5)—from the direction of Greece. This goat had a "notable horn" between the eyes. Notice the interpretation in verse 21: "And the male goat is the kingdom of Greece. The large horn that is between its eyes is the first king."
Clearly, this horn is Alexander. The prophecy even mentions the breakup of the kingdom on Alexander's death into four smaller kingdoms. "As for the broken horn and the four that stood up in its place, four kingdoms shall arise out of that nation, but not with its power" (verse 22).
The book of Daniel makes one further reference to Alexander's empire in the very long prophecy of chapter 11. Verses 3-4 refer to a "mighty king" who would arise after Persia's period of dominance and accomplish his own will before his kingdom would then split into four parts.
Of course, modern scholarship utterly rejects the idea that Daniel wrote his book in the sixth century B.C.—several centuries before Alexander rose to power—in spite of plenty of internal evidence that this is indeed when it was written. The idea that anyone could predict with such accuracy the coming of future kingdoms such as Greece and Rome is simply an unacceptable academic heresy.
Admitting such would require belief in a God who controls history and also foretells it in advance. It would require admission that the Bible is the true word of the one God who created the universe. No such admission is likely to be forthcoming.
Claiming to be divine
Late in his life Alexander actually made the claim to be a god. In 324 B.C. he sent word back to Greece that he claimed descent from Zeus-Ammon (that is, the chief Greek and Egyptian deities whom they considered to be the same god) and wished to be considered divine. This was not a sudden change, for it began during his days in Egypt.
While there he made a trek into the desert to Siwa, where there was a shrine to Ammon. There he inquired about his divinity and received assurances from the priests that he was of divine parentage. Whether the Greeks believed this or not, it is important to understand it as a key to how he brought Egypt under his dominion. Egyptians were used to looking to their pharaoh as divine.
Kings and emperors commonly reigned as divine rulers, virtual incarnations of gods, in the ancient world. Later the Roman emperors would also make such claims. (The dynamic would later change as church and state came to be represented by two rival, yet interdependent, leaders during the Middle Ages.)
When a man makes such claims of divinity, he often is near the end of his time. Alexander was dead within a year of his public boast.
Two who reshaped the world
In his assertion of divinity, Alexander was like a religious leader prophesied to come in the end time, one who also will claim to be divine. In 2 Thessalonians 2:4, the apostle Paul foretells that this person "sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God."
Revelation 13 speaks of a system to arise at the same time that will have both civil and religious power (a ruler called "the beast," backed up and supported by "another beast"—religious in nature—that has the power to deceive and work miracles). Working together for a time, they will enslave men and defy the power of God in one last human effort to achieve a one-world system apart from God.
Alexander wanted to bring together the peoples of Europe and Asia into the same system—one-world government under himself. He came closer than any man, before or after, to accomplishing this goal.
This fusion of peoples into one system did transform the world. After Alexander's death, there was the continued struggle for power, but the world he touched was transformed. Greek ideas and culture were spread far and wide (a transformation known as hellenization).
A new world was created that eventually settled under the uniform yoke of Rome. The ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were spread and became a foundation for Western civilization. It was into this hellenized world that Jesus Christ was born and founded His Church.
To this very same world that Alexander molded, the early Church took the words of the true gospel about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Theirs was the true story of a God who had become man—the reverse of Alexander's ambition. Yet, where a man who claimed to be a god failed, the One who was God and became man succeeded.
A story far from over
What different yet contrasting stories! One man was born in a royal court and died in Babylon. Another as a baby was laid in a manger and died in Jerusalem. Yet Jesus Christ, who died at almost the same age as Alexander, laid the foundation for God's eternal Kingdom rather than a temporary physical one.
Alexander sought by cruel force of arms to forge his vision of one world. Ultimately his attempt failed, just as all other attempts have failed. He fought and traveled over a part of the world where peace is still sought.
The Middle East is still the stage where civilizations clash. The final clash will ultimately include the city of Alexander's death, spiritual Babylon, vs. the city of Christ's ascension—"Jerusalem above." The story of kingdoms is not yet over! The God who became a man, Jesus Christ, is coming to extinguish and crush the system symbolized in part by the man who would be a god. GN