“…But the people who know their God shall be strong and carry out great exploits.” Daniel 11:32
This past Sunday at sunset, Jewish people all over the world began celebrating Hanukkah. This annual holiday is a beautiful time of family coming together to commemorate the historical rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem on the twenty-fifth day in the month of Kislev (late November or December according to the Jewish calendar) and how the oil for the temple lamps miraculously stayed lit for eight days. It’s also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.
You’ve probably noticed Hanukkah celebrations in your town or city. Usually, there is a lighting of a menorah in deference to the temple oil, singing of traditional songs, giving gifts, and the eating of foods fried in oil.
What you won’t find in a Hanukkah celebration, though, is the retelling of the unpleasant origin of the holiday — the Maccabean Revolt — and how it played a huge part in God’s big plan of salvation and redemption.
Antiochus, the Antichrist Preview
If you’re like me and you’re not entirely versed in Bible prophecy nor Catholic, you may have never heard of Antiochus IV Epiphanes or the Maccabees. But I discovered that both had a profound influence on the Jewish faith, and they are the reason Hanukkah exists.
If you have a Catholic Bible handy, turn to 1 and 2 Maccabee. And, if you have another Bible handy, turn to Daniel 11. Because Daniel is prophesying here, it can be a bit confusing, so let me break it down for you.
The Maccabees were a Jewish family of priests who oversaw the holy temple and handled the daily activities of Jewish tradition. During that time, Israel was ruled by a ruthless Seleucid (Syrian) emperor named Antiochus III who was fairly tolerant of the Jewish faith. But after his assassination in 175 B.C., his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, slyly seized power while his brother was held hostage in Rome (why he was held hostage I have no idea, but it’s intriguing, don’t you think?).
Antiochus IV was a tyrannical, evil man (Daniel 11:21), far worse than his father. His persecution of the Jews was on par with Hitler, and he is considered a pre-figure of the Antichrist who is to come in the last days. To sum it up, he had some seriously twisted thinking and a deep, dark, black heart that was continually dominated by satanic forces.
His ultimate goal was to take over the world and, at one point, Antiochus was in the middle of a back-and-forth war with Egypt involving a bunch of lying, betrayal, and evil strategizing. He attended a conference in Egypt in an effort to cause more mayhem, but Egypt thwarted his plans. Steeped in anger, he returned to Syria to regroup, passing through Israel on the way.
The Maccabean Revolt
It was in Jerusalem where he first encountered the priestly Maccabees led by Judas Maccabeus who was disgusted by what Antiochus was doing to Israel. He felt enough was enough and he led a revolt against Antiochus, but the Maccabees weren’t very successful at first.
Based on his hatred of the Jews, Antiochus and his army massacred roughly 80,000 Jewish men, took 40,000 men prisoner, and sold approximately another 40,000 men into slavery during this first encounter with the Maccabean Revolt (Daniel 11:28).
Over the following years, Antiochus continued having a field day trying to dismantle the Jewish faith and conquer Egypt until Rome entered the picture and made Antiochus back down (Daniel 11:30). Of course, the defeat enraged Antiochus, and he took his anger out on Israel.
This time, the evil Syrian emperor hired people who opposed Moses’ law (the holy covenant) like him. He hired them to kill Jewish men, women, and children on the Sabbath when he knew the Jews would not fight back.
Antiochus also outlawed Judaism, destroyed the Torah, banned daily sacrifices, looted the temple, and desecrated the temple by sacrificing pigs and spreading their blood on a temple altar that he dedicated to Zeus. The Bible records in Daniel 11:31 the incident as “the abomination of desolation,” which means the ruining of Jewish worship.
Despite their persecution, there were people called Hasideans (Daniel 11:33) who stood firm in their faith and remained loyal to God. They would rather die than give in to Antiochus, and many of them did. Daniel 11:32 foretold their uprising this way: “…but the people who know their God shall be strong and carry out great exploits.”
Led by Judas Maccabeus, the Hasideans continued to defy Antiochus for twenty-four years until they had successfully recaptured the temple in 165 B.C. According to 2 Maccabee 10:1–9 in the Catholic Bible, Judas ordered the temple to be cleansed, a new altar built, and new holy vessels made. Once that was done, the temple was rededicated to the Lord. This is why Hanukkah is sometimes called the Feast of Dedication.
The Feast of Dedication is almost entirely based in rabbinic tradition and is not Biblically commanded. The story goes that after the Jews were ready to rededicate the temple, they could only find one small jug of olive oil that had not been defiled by Antiochus to light a menorah. The oil should have been enough to last only one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, giving the priests enough time to produce more oil. This miracle is why Hanukkah lasts for eight days.
Jews still celebrate the Feast of Dedication every year in honor of both God’s provision and protection and of those who stand firm in their faith during times of persecution.
The Maccabees and Jesus
Later, the Maccabees’ descendants founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which established the office of the High Priest and was the early foundation for creating the Sadducees. The dynasty remained in power until the Romans completely overtook Jerusalem in 63 B.C.
(King Herod’s palace in Masada, Israel)
Under Roman rule, two Hasmonean priests continued battling for the office of High Priest. The fight stirred up the people and caused frequent civil unrest, so the Romans made Herod the Great king of Judea in 37 B.C.
Does that name sound familiar? Yep, it’s the same Herod the wise men visited as they followed a star to find “the king of the Jews” and the same king who ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in the hope of destroying baby Jesus.
As you probably remember, Mary and Joseph fled Israel with their newborn baby to Egypt until Herod died. Herod’s son assumed his father’s ruling position, but he too wasn’t a nice guy.
Why does that matter? Because it caused Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to move to a town called Nazareth so the prophecy might be fulfilled that said, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23, Isaiah 49:7; 53:3).
Isn’t history cool?
It’s Okay, Go Ahead and Celebrate
Even if you’re not Jewish, Hanukkah is a very special time of year worth celebrating. It’s not just about lighting candles and eating latkes, it’s also about remembering God’s provision during incredible persecution and His sovereign power to ensure the fulfillment of prophecy when His son, Jesus, the Savior of the world, was born.