The scripture teaches us about multiple historical events. One of them leaves us a poignant lesson in both politics and religion. I am referring to the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD.
It would not be an exaggeration to refer to the destruction of the Holy City as a turning point in human history and an instance of God’s perfect judgement. Let us recall that the siege of Jerusalem lasted more than four months. According to some accounts, the armies of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the future emperor of Rome finally overcame the walls of Jerusalem. That was not the end: the city was protected by several more rows of fortifications. Jerusalem held out for six more weeks and was finally captured, ransacked and wiped off the face of the earth by the beginning of September of the year 70 AD.
Our Saviour had predicted the fall of Jerusalem. Remember how He approached Jerusalem, saw the city and wept over it: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23: 37-38).
Later, He referred to the destruction of the temple, “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24, 2). This latter prediction of the Lord was even more tragic; if even the temple would be destroyed, what fate awaited the rest of the city? Certainly, the Holy City had fully deserved its fate (as discussed below); but the tragedy is not in the destruction of the walls, but in the suffering of the people. Human sins make the destruction of Jerusalem just retribution, but do not take away from the tragedy of the city.
Again, the Saviour refers to the time, in the year 70, as we now know, when the invading troops will surround the city and bring desolation to it (Luke 21: 20-24).
It is easy to see that the demise of Jerusalem was not a sudden or isolated event. The history of the Jewish people is intertwined with the history of human salvation and biblical history. It was the only people at the time governed by a theocracy. By that, I do not mean the merger of secular and religious law or religious leaders in political roles. I mean genuine governance of the Lord.
The historical books of the Old Testament send us a clear message: the well-being of God’s chosen people always depended on the state of its morale. The reverse is also true. The capture and destruction of Jerusalem was a huge tragedy rooted in the deep moral decline of the chosen people. One sign of the coming troubles was the emergence of false messiahs and false prophets. As we read in the above quotes, Jesus rebuked the city (or, more exactly, it people) for not foreseeing the time of His visit. The people chose to follow the false messiahs but rejected and sent to the cross the real Messiah.
As messengers of the will of God, true prophets not only censured the people for moral decadence and turning away from the Lord but also drew their attention to the troubles coming forth as punishment for their transgressions.
In a theocratic system of governance, prophets are more than religious figures; they are also political. As messengers of the will of God, true prophets not only censured the people for moral decadence and turning away from the Lord but also drew their attention to the troubles coming forth as punishment for their transgressions. In their political roles, they act as guardians of the state; for when people corrected their ways, the Lord returned to them their prosperity. False prophets were the enemies of the Jewish people, whom the Jewish people trusted nevertheless.
So let us consider, in addition to the prophecies of Christ cited above, the concrete examples of the chosen people’s failings. To this end, we turn to the testimony of Joseph Flavius. For obvious reasons, he says almost nothing about the true Messiah, but concerning the theme of the false prophets, he is far more outspoken.
From 52 to 58, Marc Anthony Felix occupied the post of the Roman Procurator of Judea. He is even mentioned in the Book of Acts (Acts 21.37-24.27). An entire party of false prophets emerged during his term in office, who fomented rebellions among the people under various pretexts. On one occasion, they lured masses of people into the desert promising to show them an omen of liberation from the Romans. The venture had a tragic end – Felix mobilised his infantry and cavalry and suppressed the insurrection with the power of the sword.
Flavius also writes about another false prophet from Egypt who gathered around 30,000 people on the Mount of Olives and convinced them to march on Jerusalem. The end was the same.
Shortly before the fall of the city, the portico of its temple ignited. Many people died in the resulting fire. Joseph Flavius writes, “Responsibility for these deaths falls on the false prophet who had announced to all the people that God was commanding them to go to the temple to view His omen for liberation.”
But the role of the Romans was to bring to ultimate fruition the process that the Jews themselves had begun. Long before finding themselves under the yoke of the Roman Emperor, the people were already leading lives of decadence and self-destruction, with lots of bickering and infighting among themselves.
The biblical accounts of Jerusalem’s fall depict the Roman armies as a formidable destructive force, which they certainly were. But the role of the Romans was to bring to ultimate fruition the process that the Jews themselves had begun. Long before finding themselves under the yoke of the Roman Emperor, the people were already leading lives of decadence and self-destruction, with lots of bickering and infighting among themselves.
During the rule of Procurator Felix, there lived a robber named Eleazar. He led a large band of robbers who terrorised the land for as long as two decades before he was caught and put to death. Another violent grouping were the dagger-wielders, or Sicarii, who carried small daggers, or sicae under their clothes. At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans and their supposed sympathisers. Then they blended into the crowd to escape detection. The first victim of the Sicarii was the first priest Jonathan. His assassination established a pattern of several killings on a day. According to Joseph Flavius, the residents of Jerusalem lived in constant fear and trusted no one, even their friends.
Further signs of the imminent fall of Jerusalem were the numerous natural disasters, omens of the future consequences of their present transgressions. Joseph Flavius writes mainly about wars, but he also reports other visitations, such as famines: “After the death of Herod Agrippa in 44, a great famine struck the city, and many died from the lack of food.
Also in his writings, he narrates another calamity, possibly an earthquake: At night, an enormous storm broke out, with a strong wind and pelting rain, frequent thunder strikes and the horrifying sound of shaking ground. It became visible to all that the order of the world was changing to bring death upon the people, and that all of these events portended many great disturbances.
The history of Jerusalem’s demise is highly instructive. As Christ has said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12, 48).
The abyss of decadence was visible in how all the people were fending for themselves in their difficult circumstances. After Jerusalem fell, Jerusalem sank into lawlessness, and crowds destroyed the reserves that the defenders of the city could have used to keep on fighting. In their wrath against Rome, the zealots and Edomites considered all opposition their enemies and targets of their attacks. Eventually, the zealots appropriated to themselves the authority to perform ordinations. They stripped the descendants of the first priests of their power. Priestly service turned into a travesty; the zealots mocked and abused the priests and made church services look more like theatrical performances. Each assassination of a high priest began a new cycle of mockery and abuse.
Soon, the people cast aside the moral law and every notion of dignity and honour. The masses were corrupted so fast that there was only one explanation for this process – the loss of God’s grace. Having rejected theocracy, the Jewish people brought about the demise of the state that was built on it.
With over a thousand years of Christianity, our people have also been given much. Admittedly, we do not have a theocracy, but the consequences of moral corruption and the suppression of the faith have not been overcome. So let us remember the lessons of Jerusalem’s fll and do our learning for the present day.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds