I came across a relief at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City that was taken from Persepolis. It depicted two men carrying gifts–a lamb and a loaf of bread–to the Persian king Darius. After 2500 years, it’s not in great shape. I didn’t take a picture of it, but here’s a picture of part of the same relief.
You might be thinking, “Hey! I thought this blog was about the Bible, not ancient art.” And you would be right. Persia was one of the many empires that dominated Ancient Israel in Biblical times. Here’s a super brief overview of the empires: Assyria–> Babylon–> Persia–> Greece–> Rome.
Persepolis was supposedly chosen by Cyrus (yep, the same one who’s all over the book of Isaiah). Two kings later, the palace complex was constructed under Darius, the guy who threw Daniel into the lions’ den. Of course, Daniel lived at Persepolis and as one of Darius’ officials. Both Ezra and Nehemiah lived at Persepolis under Artaxerxes I who reigned there and sent both of them to Jerusalem at different times, 458 and 445 BC, respectively.
The complex itself is amazing. It’s in ruins today, but very impressive ruins! Check out the wikipedia article and some pictures. You can just picture Ezra and Nehemiah walking among the pillars of the palace and thinking about the plight of Judah.
Manasseh was king of Judah a few generations before the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile to Babylon. He is a “micro-type” of Israel. That is, he embodies in his life the spiritual path that Israel and Judah take into and out of exile.
He begins his reign as an evil king, practicing the most abominable forms of pagan worship including child sacrifice (see 2 Chr 33:6). He even boots worship of the Lord from the Temple and sets up pagan idols there. His evil is so extreme that the Lord lets the Babylonians carry him off into exile with a hook in his nose. Yet there in Babylon, a change occurs. Manasseh is so humbled that he prays to the Lord for deliverance. The Lord has mercy on him and brings him back to Jerusalem to be king again. Then the Chronicler presents the most profound statement in his story: “Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God.” (2 Chr. 33:13)
Manasseh’s story closely parallel’s the nation’s. Over the generations, Israel fell deep into sin, breaking its obligation to keep the Lord’s covenant over and over. Finally, the Lord fulfills his promise of punishment for their sins by bringing the nation into exile in Babylon. But after 70 years, the people are humbled, praying, fasting and asking the Lord to return them to the land of Judah. The Lord hears their prayers, brings them back and even helps them rebuild the Temple (Ezra) and the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah).
Manasseh engaged in his own reconstruction projects. First, he rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, then he cleaned the pagan idols out of the temple. One man, one king foreshadows the fate of the nation.
[The picture is from Michaelangelo’s Hezekiah – Manasseh – Amon on the Web Gallery of Art.]
As a young Christian, I often think about my generation–the “Y” Generation or the “Promise Generation” or whatever you want to call it. Undoubtedly my generation has “walked in the ways” of our fathers, the ’60’s generation. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are still the order of the day. Nothing seems to be on its way to changing the moral state of my generation anytime soon. Certainly there are movements of young Christians in the United States, both Protestant and Catholic, which are bringing about some level of spiritual health and conversion to my generation. But on the whole, my generation is still sliding down the slippery slope of moral decline.
So what gives?
A lot of people say we are in the Post-Modern era (whatever the heck that means!) or even the Post-Christian era. But where are we really? Is our generation a fallen away generation that knows the right thing to do but refuses to do it like Jeroboam–who set up golden calves at Bethel for the Israelites to worship? Have we rejected the Lord and followed the ways of the other nations? Or are we more like Assyria, simply lost in a pagan world with no point of reference? The Assyrians (and the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, etc.) had no clue. They weren’t as culpable for their immorality as Israel because they weren’t in a covenant with the Lord.
Are we a generation of rebels or pagans? If I had to wager, I’d say pagans. I think the ’60’s generation was a generation of rebels trying to bring about the upheaval of Christian morality in the name of “freedom.” But my generation is a different story. We haven’t really rebelled at all. We’ve simply bought the whole lie–the sex, the drugs, the whole package–hook, line and sinker. We’re simply a generation of groupies and copy-cats. There’s nothing our generation is doing that our parents didn’t do.
Yet in the midst of such moral decline, people have simply lost a point of reference. There is no sense of national identity, universal morality or even a common language. Everyone is left to pursue whatever they feel like, especially because we are so wealthy as a nation. But I think my generation and the ones following it will be desperate for a point of reference. Riches and immorality only please for a season and then give way to disaster, as in the case of the Roman Empire. Eventually our prosperity will be our downfall. We’ll become so lazy and happy as a nation, drunk on our own sin, that we won’t know what to do when disaster strikes.
In Ancient Judah, King Hezekiah sought the Lord in prayer when Assyria came against the nation and the Lord delivered Jerusalem. But our generation won’t even know who to pray to when we confront a crisis. We won’t have someone to “return” to because we weren’t with him in the first place.