The Captivities of Judah
In Jeremiah 23-30 the prophet told the people that if they would submit to God's just verdict, He would allow them to remain on the land under the wooden yoke only. But if they refused to submit to God's verdict, then they would come under the iron yoke and be deported to Babylon. In Jer. 27:2 the prophet spoke of this wooden yoke,
2 Thus says the LORD to me- Make for yourself bonds and yokes and put them on your neck, 3 and send word to the king of Edom, to the king of Moab, to the king of the sons of Ammon, to the king of Tyre, and to the king of Sidon by the messengers who come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah.
This was a message not only to the king of Judah, but also to the neighboring nations. God was giving all these nations to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to be his servants. All those nations were admonished to submit to the wooden yoke of Babylon. In Jer. 27:5-7, God told the prophet,
5 I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight. 6 And now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the wild animals of the field to serve him. 7 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. 8 And it will be, that the nation or the kingdom which will not serve him, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and which will not put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the LORD, until I have destroyed it by his hand.
In other words, God said that He had given all these nations to the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, " MY servant." God claims the right to do this by right of creation. God declares His right to do this in verse 5. Thus we see that God Himself claimed the credit for bringing the king of Babylon to Jerusalem to destroy the temple and to deport the people to another land. God had, in effect, hired the king of Babylon to execute His verdict upon the sinful nation of Judah. But Jeremiah also made it clear in verse 11 that if the people of Judah would submit to God's verdict, they would be allowed a lesser form of judgment-the wooden yoke.
11 But the nation which will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let remain on its land, declares the LORD, and they will till it and dwell in it.
The next chapter, Jeremiah 28, we are told the decision of the people through their primary spokesman, the prophet Hananiah. Here we also learn that God had actually told Jeremiah to walk around Jerusalem with a wooden yoke around his neck to let people know what he himself had decided to do. Jeremiah's decision was to submit to the king of Babylon and serve him as unto the Lord, knowing that Nebuchadnezzar was God's servant, or employee.
Judah Rejects the Wooden Yoke
The prophet Hananiah was offended at the yoke around Jeremiah's neck, so he forcibly removed it from Jeremiah's neck and broke it. We read in Jer. 28:10, 11,
10 Then Hananiah the prophet took the yoke from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke it. 11 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. Then the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
Jeremiah made no resistance, knowing that this was simply the people's answer before God. They had no intention of submitting to Nebuchadnezzar, for they thought God was on their side and would help them defeat the Babylonian army. Jer. 2:35 says about them,
35 Yet you [Judahites] said, I am innocent; surely His anger is turned away from me.
They did not believe they were guilty of rebellion against God, because they were continuing to worship Him with all the religious forms and rituals in God's temple. They did not believe that God would allow His beautiful house (temple) to be desecrated or destroyed. In Jer. 7:4 the prophet answers them,
4 Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.
God called two prophets, Jeremiah and Hananiah, to polarize the people and make manifest the hearts of the people. Those who had rebellion in their hearts naturally followed the prophecies of Hananiah, and these believed in the theology of rebellion. In rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar, they unknowingly rebelled against God Himself.
Those who believed Jeremiah's message were those who knew and understood the law of tribulation-that God would judge Israel and Judah for casting aside His law. These believers were willing to submit to the wooden yoke, even as Jeremiah did. The rebellious majority, however, decided that God would never want them to be slaves to the king of Babylon. Apparently, they forgot their own history in the book of Judges. They certainly did not believe the laws of tribulation found in Deuteronomy 28. And so they fought and died. The city, temple, and the entire land was devastated. The survivors were forcibly taken to Babylon to serve their 70-year sentence (Jer. 25:11) under a yoke of iron, even as Deut. 28:48 had warned.
Judah Sentenced to an Iron Yoke
In Jeremiah 28:12-14 we read,
12 And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, after Hananiah the prophet had broken the yoke from off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, saying, 13 Go and speak to Hananiah, saying, Thus says the LORD, You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made instead of them yokes of iron. 14 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, I have put a yoke of iron on the neck of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and they shall serve him. And I have also given him the beasts of the field.
The nation of Judah could have avoided the absolute desolation and destruction if they had taken heed to the word of the Lord from Jeremiah. However, they were far too patriotic to submit to the judgment of God. There is nothing wrong with patriotism, but when one chooses patriotism over submission to God's judgment for sin, such patriots do a great disservice to their own people. This is why it is so important even today to recognize the judgments of God, rather than merely to assume that all national enemies or oppressors are "of the devil."
In the days of Jeremiah, it was the religious patriots who led the people like lambs to the slaughter at the hands of Babylon.
Jeremiah's Advice to the Good Figs
There were two men named Hananiah. One represented the good figs; one represented the bad figs. The Hananiah who opposed Jeremiah was the prophet of the bad figs, for he thought that God would bless Judah even in their rebellion. He thought that being "chosen" meant that they were a people of privilege, and that God therefore would never put them into captivity or slavery.
The other Hananiah was one of Daniel's friends who submitted to God and was carried to Babylon as a captive. We read of him in Dan. 1:6. He represented the good figs as described in Jer. 24:7.
Jeremiah then wrote a letter to the captives in Babylon -that is, to the Judahites who were the "good figs," including the good Hananiah. He told them how to live in Babylon while in captivity. His advice was NOT to organize a revolt or even a general strike. He did NOT command them to assassinate any of their captors, nor plot against the king. His advice is found in Jer. 29:4-7,
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 5 Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters, and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will have welfare.
In other words, Jeremiah told the captives to pray for Babylon 's well-being, its peace. Do not pray that Babylon would be destroyed, for it was only the executioner of God's righteous judgment upon Judah. Do not work to overthrow king Nebuchadnezzar, for he was God's servant. Do not attempt to assassinate the king, for God had given Judah into his hands. Peter gave the same advice to servants, saying in 1 Pet. 2:18,
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.
The bad figs would have scoffed at Jeremiah's advice, but the good figs took heed. Neither Daniel or his friends ever made any attempt to plot against the king of Babylon. They lived to bring forth children, who then were able to return to the old land after 70 years of captivity. Jer. 29:10 says,
10 For thus says the Lord, When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.
For a complete study that explains why Judah was sentenced to seventy years in Babylon, see Secrets of Time, Chapter Seven.
The Return from Exile
In previous years Babylon had been one of the provinces of the Assyrian empire. But Babylon was able to revolt and overthrow Assyria, capturing the capital city of Nineveh in 607 B.C. Three years later they conquered Jerusalem and Judah in 604 B.C. Yet the Babylonian Empire only lasted seventy years (607 - 537 B.C.), and Jerusalem 's captivity was likewise just seventy years (604-534 B.C.). These dates are proven in Chapter Eight of our book, Secrets of Time.
About 50,000 people of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi returned to the old land to begin the long and difficult task of rebuilding a nation under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the governor, with the help of Ezra. They also had the inspiration of the prophets, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. But during the next 450 years the people had no known prophets to guide them prior to the birth of Jesus. Many of them forgot the law of tribulation, and soon the bad figs again began to multiply in the land.
Their situation was as follows: Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians in 537 B.C. This event is recorded in Daniel 5. Darius the Mede took the city of Babylon and ruled it for a few years and organized the new empire into 120 provinces (Dan. 6:1). Later, King Cyrus the Persian arrived, and Darius returned to his nation of Media. Cyrus then issued his famous edict in 534 B.C. that allowed the Judean exiles to return to their land.
The Continuing Wooden Yoke Captivity
Cyrus the Persian did not give Judah independence. Zerubbabel was made governor in Judea, but he remained under the authority of the Persian monarchs. In fact, many years earlier Daniel had already foreseen a series of four main world-wide empires in Daniel 2, which would control the world until the coming of the great Stone Kingdom-the Kingdom of God under Jesus Christ and His overcomers (Dan. 2:44, 45).
In Daniel 7 we are given further details, learning that these "beast" empires (lion, bear, leopard, and the nameless beast) would remain in power until " the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom " (Dan. 7:22). These beast empires were Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and the Roman Empire. Daniel also saw a "little horn" that would take up the reins of authority at the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. This was fulfilled in Papal Rome, which then ruled until recently. Thus, we see that the captivity was for a long duration, and the Edict of Cyrus merely exchanged the iron yoke for a yoke of wood.
So Judah simply became one of the provinces of the Medo-Persian Empire. Whereas Judah had been under an iron yoke for seventy years, now they were put under the milder wooden yoke. God allowed them to remain in their land as servants of the Medes and Persians. This Empire was pictured in Daniel 2 as the two arms of silver and in Daniel 7 as the bear.
This changed again about 200 years later, when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and formed the Grecian Empire. The domination of the Grecian Empire was pictured in Daniel 2 as the belly and thighs of brass (bronze) on the great image. This empire was also pictured in Daniel 7 as the leopard. In the change from Persia to Greece, Judah 's wooden yoke remained. They merely changed masters.
When Alexander died, his Grecian Empire was divided among his four generals. Ptolemy received Egypt, and Seleucid received Syria. Palestine was caught in the middle and became the battleground of these two empires, sometimes being controlled by Syria, and at other times by Egypt. Finally, about 163 B.C., after some particularly obnoxious things that the Syrian king did to the temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees rose up and threw off the yoke of Syria. For one century the nation of Judah (or Judea, as it was called in Greek) became independent. It is apparent that God allowed the wooden yoke to be removed temporarily because of the Syrian king's blasphemy.
Then in 63 B.C. the Roman army under Pompey captured Syria and Judea, and once again Judea came under a wooden yoke. The Roman Empire was pictured in Daniel 2 as the two legs of iron. In Daniel 7 it is pictured as a nameless beast with iron teeth.
Many of the Judeans grumbled and complained under the rule of Rome, not accepting them as God's servant. They did not want to be under the wooden yoke. Many false messiahs arose, promising to deliver them and bring in the Kingdom of God, but they all failed. Rome 's great iron teeth and bronze claws trampled all resistance under its feet (Dan. 7:19). If the people had understood the Scriptures, they would have realized that they themselves needed to repent and pray for Rome, even as Jeremiah had said to pray for the welfare of Babylon. But as time passed, their rebellion against God grew, and God responded by increasing the oppression of Rome.
If the people had decided to be friendly to Rome, the Romans would have treated them much more kindly-like they did with other nations. But Judea was a difficult country to govern because they were the most rebellious of all Rome 's provinces. Rome did not take kindly to rebellion. They believed in crushing all rebellion thoroughly in order to make it clear to all that rebellion was futile. They believed that only by removing all hope of success could they discourage further revolt.
The Judeans, however, believed that God was on their side, that their temple was the house of God, and that God wanted them to be free and independent. They saw pagan Rome as an ungodly, idolatrous oppressor-not as God's servant to scourge them until they repented and believed Jeremiah's message. They did not want to submit to the wooden yoke of Rome any more than their forefathers had wanted to submit to the wooden yoke of Babylon. And so Judean history moved steadily toward that final showdown in 70 A.D. when it would become known to all once and for all on whose side God would fight. God fought for Rome. Jerusalem was once again destroyed, and God put the people under the iron yoke once again.
The Revolt Against Rome (and God): 66-73 A.D.
In Abram Leon Sachar's 1930 book, A History of the Jews, page 117, this Jewish author writes,
"Ultimately, Roman patience was thoroughly exhausted and the procurators intro-duced measures of barbarous severity. Soldiers slew on the slightest provocation. Eminent Jewish leaders were crucified, while whole villages were razed. All in vain. A fever of martyrdom seemed to seize upon the harassed people. Fanatics went up and down the country, wild-eyed and frantic, prophesying the end of the world, and the advent of the Messiah. Multitudes were ready to follow every impossible visionary who claimed inspiration from heaven. Zealots rushed to their deaths crying in hysterical exaltation. What was one to do with such a nation? The Romans were frankly bewildered. They had dealt with many turbulent peoples, but with none so contrary-so insanely intractable."
The war began in 66 A.D. while Florus was the Roman procurator in Judea. Judea was seething with unrest and with hatred for the Romans. The Romans believed that yet another revolt could break out at any time. They had tried diplomacy in their own way, but it had failed. Now they instructed Florus to be firm and even ruthless, if necessary. Josephus, the Judean historian of that time, wrote in his Wars of the Jews, II, xiv, 3, 4,
"He, [Florus] therefore, every day augmented their calamities in order to induce them to a rebellion... At the same time began the war in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero and the seventeeth of the reign of Agrippa in the month Artemisius or Jyar."
In our modern way of reckoning, the beginning of the war occurred in the spring of 66 A.D. If we read history through the eyes of God, we see that history is simply fulfilled prophecy. Thus, without some knowledge of history, one cannot really understand what the prophets foretold by the inspiration of God. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. In the case of Judah in the first century, they had forgotten the laws of tribulation, and they did not believe Jeremiah's message. They forgot the reason for the iron yoke of Babylon, and so they were doomed to return to its heavy judgment.
God intended to judge Jerusalem and the people for their hypocritical religion (as Isaiah put it), which they had demonstrated fully by their leaders' rejection of John the Baptist and of Jesus Himself. John had been executed at Passover of 30 A.D., and Jesus had been crucified at Passover of 33 A.D. Now their forty years of grace (obtained by Ezekiel in Ez. 4:6) was coming to an end from 70-73 A.D.
God moved upon the heart of Rome to appoint Florus over Jerusalem, knowing that his fear-based policy would only provoke Jewish rebellion, and that rebellion would in turn provoke a response from Rome in the final judgment. Florus did not know that he was but a pawn in the hands of God, for he could not see the bigger picture. The same was true for the people of Judea.
Around that time a band of Jewish extremists called Sicarii (Jewish "assassins") were expelled from Jerusalem where they had caused much havoc. They managed to take the fortress of Masada by stealth and to kill the Roman soldiers who were there-after the Sicarii had promised to spare their lives if they would surrender. Josephus says, " and thus were all these men barbarously murdered, excepting Metilius," who was spared only because he agreed to become a Jew. (These assassins, or "terrorists," as we would call them today, remained at Masada until the Romans conquered them in 73 A.D.)
At the same time the governor of the temple in Jerusalem began to refuse to make sacrifices for any foreigners, and they even rejected the customary sacrifice of Caesar. Josephus then tells us in his Wars of the Jews, II, xvii, 2, " this was the true beginning of our war with the Romans."
Within a few months, as the people were traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, open hostilities broke out ( Wars, II, xix, 1). Rome 's 12 th Legion from Antioch was destroyed under the leadership of Cestius Gallus. Five thousand three hundred footmen and 380 horsemen were killed. Rome was not pleased with this and prepared to send a greater army to put down the revolt. It became apparent at that point that Jesus' words in Luke 21:20-22 were about to be fulfilled:
20 But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city. 22 because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
Jesus was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem prophesied in Jeremiah 19. He was also speaking of the "days of vengeance" prophesied in Is. 34:8. While these prophecies have yet to see their final fulfillment, they were at least partially fulfilled in the Babylonian war and again in the Roman war.
The destruction of Rome 's 12 th Legion was the final act that sealed the fate of Jerusalem. Josephus says in Wars, II, xx, 1,
"After this calamity had befallen Cestius, many of the most eminent of the Jews swam away from the city, as from a ship when it was going to sink."
Eusebius, the fourth-century Christian historian who was the bishop of Caesarea, writes about this in Eccl. Hist., III, 5:
"Furthermore, the members of the Jerusalem church, by means of an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the City before the war began and settle in a town in Perea called Pella. To Pella, those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem."
The Christians in Jerusalem moved to Pella, a city east of the Jordan River many miles north of the Dead Sea. In other words, the tribulation did not decimate the Jerusalem Church, who represented the good figs of Judah. God brought tribulation to judge the bad figs-those who remained in Judaism, those who supported the lawless, hypocritical religious system that had rejected Jesus as the Christ. Rome surrounded Jerusalem on the morning of Passover in 70 A.D. The siege lasted until August, when the temple was destroyed on Ab 10, the same day that the Babylonians had burnt the first temple in 586 B.C. Josephus again tells us in Wars, VI, iv, 5,
"So Titus [the Roman general] retired into the tower of Antonia and resolved to storm the temple the next morning with his whole army, and to encamp round about the holy house. But as for that house, God had for certain long ago doomed it to fire. And now that fatal day was come according to the revolution of ages; it was the tenth day of the month Lous, or Ab, upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon."
The Iron Yoke Re-imposed upon the Evil Figs of Judah
Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the final devastation of the land was completed with the capture of Masada in 73 A.D. During this entire time, the Judahites adopted the same attitude as their forefathers in the days of Jeremiah. They could not believe that God would actually fight against them. They could not believe that God was judging them for their sin. They could not believe that it was the will of God for them to submit to their hated conquerors. And so once again, the religious zealots and patriots among them brought the nation into utter disaster.
It is clear from history that in 70 A.D. the Jews came under the iron yoke as defined in the laws of tribulation. Deut. 28:48-50 says,
48 Therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD shall send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you. 49 The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, 50 a nation of fierce countenance who shall have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young.
Rome 's national symbol was the eagle. The Roman Empire was also the fourth beast kingdom in Daniel, which the prophet describes as having legs of IRON. So this prophecy of the iron yoke and an eagle nation seems particularly descriptive of Rome.
52 And it shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land, and it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout your land which the LORD your God has given you.
The Roman army besieged Jerusalem and all the towns of Judea until it had subdued all of them, even as Moses specified.
62 Then you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven for multitude, because you did not obey the LORD your God. 63 And it shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you shall be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. 64 Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. 65 And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul.
Take note that Moses said this would happen to the people because of their disobedience to God. Those who do not believe the words of Moses may blame the Romans for this calamity in 70 A.D. Others will blame circumstances. Some Christians blame the devil. But Moses gives God the credit for bringing this tribulation. Jesus said of them in John 5:45-47,
45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?
The iron yoke as defined by Moses meant that the Judeans would be dispossessed from the land. Over a million Judeans were killed in this war. Many more were sold into slavery into other lands. But they were not yet fully dispossessed from the land. That is, they were not yet forbidden to set foot on that land. This order was given later after yet another revolt known as the Bar Kochba revolt from 132-135 A.D.
In spite of all their protests to the contrary, the Jews did not believe Moses any more than they believed Jesus. If they had believed Moses, they would have understood that it was not the Romans, but God who was bringing judgment and tribulation upon them. If they had believed Jeremiah, they would have submitted to the Romans and prospered under the wooden yoke, even as their forefathers had prospered in Babylon. But their reaction to the Roman army was identical to the reaction of the bad figs toward the army of Babylon many years earlier.
They did not understand that God was judging them. Instead, they continued to fight to the death, thinking that God would always be on their side. It seems to be a fact of history that those who are lawless are also blind to their own lawlessness. For this reason, they fight the ones that God raises up to judge the nation. They fight the stick, rather than repent before the One who wields it. Deut. 28:64 prophesies that they would serve other gods in their captivity in other lands. Judaism fulfills this prophecy as well, for they do not worship the God of the Bible, except with their lips.
And so Jewish history books are full of complaints about how other people have treated them badly. As Christians, let us not be among those who purposely mistreat anyone, including Jews. And yet let us also recognize that God raised up people of ungodly character against them in order to judge them according to the law of Moses. God uses evil men for His purposes as much as He uses men of good character-but in different ways.
The Timing of the Judgment on Jerusalem
This judgment from God came as a direct result of their rejection and execution of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. God gave them forty years of grace in which to repent, but they refused. In their blind religious zeal, they fought until the whole land was devastated and millions dead or sold into slavery.
John the Baptist was executed at Passover of 30 A.D., about six months after he had baptized Jesus. Matthew 14:1-12 tells us that after John was executed, his disciples came and told Jesus. Jesus then fed the 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish. (The same story is told in John 6, where we learn in verse 4 that this miracle was done near Passover.) John died at Passover of 30 A.D.
Forty years later at Passover of 70 A.D., the Romans began to lay siege to the city of Jerusalem. Josephus, one of the Judean generals who had fought against the Romans until his capture, wrote of the 115,880 casualties carried through just one gate of Jerusalem. In his Wars of the Jews, V, xiii, 7 he wrote:
"No fewer than a hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and eighty dead bodies, in the interval between the fourteenth day of the month Xanthicus, or Nisan [i.e., Passover], when the Romans pitched their camp by the city, and the first day of the month Panemus, or Tamuz."
Josephus recorded that the Romans pitched their camp around Jerusalem to begin the siege at Passover in 70 A.D. This was precisely forty years after the execution of John the Baptist. The city was destroyed by late August of the same year. The temple was burned. All the gold melted from the heat. Later, in the scramble for gold, the people pried every stone from the other to salvage the gold that had collected like water between the rocks. By the time the destruction was finished, not one stone stood upon the other, as Jesus foretold in Matt. 24:1, 2,
1 And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple building to Him. 2 And He answered and said to them, Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.
So the words of Jesus were fulfilled.
The Capture of Masada: 73 A.D.
The Zealots were the Jewish extremists of the day. They were called Sicarii, which means "people of the daggers." They were assassins and terrorists. Everyone was their enemy that did not help them try to overthrow the Roman authorities. One of Jesus' disciples, Simon Zelotes, had been one of them (Luke 6:15) before Jesus showed him a better way. Zelotes means "the Zealot."
In 73 A.D. a man named Eleazar was the commander of the Sicarii. Before going to Masada, he and his men killed thousands of people in Jerusalem, terrorizing the people so they would join the revolt against the Romans. Anyone who was peaceable among them was assassinated. When the Sicarii were finally expelled from Jerusalem, they took over a fortress mountain called Masada.
Three years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Romans finally captured Masada. The Romans had to build a ramp up to the fortress in order to take it. They finished the ramp on the fourteenth day of the first month in 73 A.D. This was the day the people would normally have killed their lambs for Passover to be eaten that evening. The Romans then decided to storm Masada the following morning. But that night the Sicarii in Masada assisted each other in committing suicide instead of keeping the Passover. Only one elderly woman and five children hid themselves and survived the ordeal. The fact that they had to hide in order to survive the night shows that this was more than a voluntary suicide. It was also murder in the guise of "assisted suicide." There is no way to tell how many of those people were actually murdered. Josephus tells us in Wars of the Jews, VII, ix, 1,
"This calamitous slaughter was made on the fifteenth day of the month [Xanthicus] Nisan."
One cannot help but be reminded of the slaughter of the firstborn in Egypt which occurred at the original Passover night. The only reason the Israelites were spared was because they had placed the blood of the lamb on their door posts and lintels. Ex. 12:12, 13 says,
12 For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments-I am the Lord. 13 And the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
The Sicarii did not celebrate Passover in the spring of 73 A.D. Instead, they helped each other commit suicide on the night commemorating the slaughter of the first-born of Egypt. This event identifies the Sicarii, not with righteous Israelites, but with the Egyptians who died on that first Passover. It is also significant that the Sicarii terrorists who died at Masada are memorialized by the Israelis today as heroes. They ought rather to be memorialized as examples of bad figs whose attitudes and actions are to be abhorred by all future generations.
Josephus makes it clear that these religious zealots (the Sicarii) were among the ones most responsible for the disasters that came upon Jerusalem and the whole nation. Their doctrine of rebellion was " to look upon God as their only Lord and Master " ( Wars, VII, x, 1). They did not believe that God wanted them to be ruled by any foreigner. By this they meant that they were duty-bound by God Himself to make war on any nation that had conquered them. They did not comprehend the law of tribulation in Deut. 28. They did not understand the book of Judges, where God makes it very clear that He would not allow them to be free, as long they were in rebellion against His law and remained in an unrepentant condition. Neither did they learn anything from the writings of Jeremiah and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of Babylon.
Thus, the bad figs of Judah, in attempting to throw off the wooden yoke, succeeded only in securing for themselves the iron yoke. Many were slaughtered, the land was devastated, the nation itself destroyed, and the people sent into foreign lands as captives and slaves. Everything that Moses prophesied in the law of tribulation came upon them.
This iron yoke continued until the twentieth century, when modern Zionism was born. Zionism was the attempt to throw off the iron yoke and to return to the old land without first repenting of their hostility against Jesus Christ, as the law demands. The movement itself, therefore, is lawless. But many Jews became tired of waiting, yet remained blinded to the causes of their dispersion.
The question is, why did Zionism succeed in establishing the Israeli state, even though the law of tribulation seemed to make this impossible? There is no biblical precedent for throwing off a yoke of either wood or iron until the people had repented. The answer is found in the fact that Judaism is fulfilling two sets of prophecies, one for Judah, and one for Edom. Under the banner of Judah, the people were banned by divine legislation from throwing off the yoke of iron.
But under the banner of Edom, the Jews had a genuine case to present before the divine court. God had promised Esau-Edom that he would be given the land of Canaan. Jacob-Israel was obligated by law to give the land back to his brother, because he had taken it by fraudulent means. And so, in 1948 the "Union Jack" flag of Great Britain was removed from Palestine, and a new nation was born, calling itself Israel. The name "Jack" is short for Jacob. In 1948 Jacob was forced to return the land to the Zionist Jews, not because they were descended from the northern House of Israel, nor yet because of their descent from the southern House of Judah, but because of their descent from Edom.
But before we can make sense of these more recent events in the twentieth century, we must explain the significance of the rejection of Jesus Christ at His first appearance.