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“For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city” (Zech. 14:2).
Six thousand Jews were murdered by Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.) during the Feast of Tabernacles in the early part of the first century B.C. Here’s how Josephus describes the event:
As for Alexander [Janneus], his own people revolted against him at the celebration of the festival [Tabernacles], and as he stood beside the altar and was about to sacrifice, they pelted him with citrons, it being a custom among the Jews that at the festival of Tabernacles everyone holds wands made of palm branches and citrons, and they added insult to injury by saying that he was descended from captives and was unfit to hold office and to sacrifice; and being enraged at this, he killed some 6,000 of them, and also placed a wooden barrier about the altar and the Temple as far as the coping of the court which the priests alone were permitted to enter, and by this means blocked the people’s way to him.
The Roman general Pompey gained control of Judea in 63 B.C. The result was a siege of Jerusalem which lasted three months. Pompey’s subjugation of Jerusalem ended the period of Judea’s regained independence under the Maccabeans. Like the Qumran community, the author of the Psalms of Solomon, “deplores the savagery of the Romans”: “The lawless one laid waste our land so that none inhabited it, they destroyed young and old and their children together. In the heat of his anger he sent them away to the West, and exposed the rulers of the land unsparingly to derision. Being an alien, the enemy behaved arrogantly and his heart was alien to God.”
Judea became a province of the Roman empire which set off a chain of events that led to the high priest being deprived of any royal status and the shut down of the judiciary and civil authority in Jerusalem (see John 18:31). The local governing power was exercised by Antipater, who was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. Antipater appointed Herod (his own son by marriage) as governor of Galilee, when Herod was only fifteen years old.
In about 40 B.C., after appealing to Rome, Herod was appointed king of the Jews. The ruthless dynasty of the Herods is evident throughout the history of Israel (Matt. 2:16; 14:1–12; Acts 12:1). The local Judean leadership was equally as ruthless. Pilate is described as someone who “had mingled” the blood of some Galileans “with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). It was because of these conditions that many Jews had hoped Jesus was their long awaited political savior.
The question remains, does the use of “all the nations” have a universal application yet to be fulfilled or is its meaning tied to the nations that made up the world known to Israel? Keep in mind that in the Bible Israel is the redemptive center of the world and the focus of history. Given what we know about the history of Israel under the domination of the Roman Empire, “all the nations” fits very well with the idea that Rome was an empire of conquered nations that had surrounded Israel politically, socially, and militarily:
During this period [A.D. 14–284] Rome organized the provinces of Gallia Transalpina, Britannia, Raetia, Noricum, Pannonia, Moesia, Dacia, Mauretania, Cyrenaica, Egypt, Thrace, Syria, Judaea, Mesopotamia, Bithynia et Pontus, Galatia, Cilicia, and Lycia et Pamphylia. The Roman world therefore encompassed an enormous area centering around the Mediterranean but extending, significantly in places, into continental Europe, Asia, and Africa. . . . The ancient Roman view was of a spherical world, the inhabited region of which (the oikoumene) was surrounded by oceans, and this world centered around the Mediterranean. It was bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the east by the mouth of the Ganges River. The southern extent of the African continent and the northern expanses of the land masses of Europe and Asia were vastly underestimated….
In addition to what we know from secular history, the Bible itself uses the phrases “all nations,” “all the nations,” and “every nation” to mean nations in proximity to Israel not necessarily nations from around the globe (2 Sam. 8:11; 1 Chron. 14:17; Jer. 28:11; Neh. 6:16; Ps. 118:10; Zech. 7:14; Acts 2:5; Rom. 16:24–26). In comments on Zechariah 14:2 from A Critical Commentary and Paraphrase on the Old and New Testament, we learn that “The Romans being lords of the known world, had the strength of all nations united in their forces.” The following biblical examples will prove helpful in making the case that “all the nations” does not refer to a global contingent of military forces led by the antichrist in some distant post-rapture Great Tribulation period:
“Then the fame of David went out into all the lands; and the LORD brought the fear of him on all the nations” (1 Chron. 14:17).
“And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Even so will I break within two full years, the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations”’ (Jer. 28:11).
“All nations surrounded me; In the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off” (Psalm 118:10).
“I scattered them with a storm wind among all the nations whom they have not known. Thus the land is desolated behind them, so that no one went back and forth, for they made the pleasant land desolate” (Zech. 7:14).
“Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).
“But now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:26).
Rome had become an empire of nations, made up of soldiers from the kingdoms it had conquered. The New Testament uses the Greek word oikoumene, most often translated as “the inhabited earth” or “Roman Empire” (Luke 2:1; Matt. 24:14; Acts 11:28), to describe this multi-national makeup of military forces. The Roman Empire “extended roughly two thousand miles from Scotland south to the headwaters of the Nile and about three thousand miles from the Pillars of Hercules eastward to the sands of Persia. Its citizens and subject peoples numbered perhaps eighty million.” This certainly qualifies as “all the nations,” certainly more so than David’s use of the phrase (Ps. 118:10). Rome was raised up like Assyria to be the “rod of [God’s] anger” (Isa. 10:5). “So completely shall the city be taken that the enemy shall sit down in the midst of her to divide the spoil. All nations ([14:]2), generally speaking were represented in the invading army, for Rome was the mistress of many lands.” Similar language is used of the nations that would serve Nebuchadnezzar: “And all the nations shall serve him, and his son, and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes; then many nations and great kings will make him their servant” (Jer. 27:7). Cyrus proclaimed that God had given him “all the kingdoms of the earth” (Ezra 1:2; cf. 2 Chron. 36:23; Jer. 34:1).