Earlier this year I bumped into a couple of Old Testament characters, not literally, but I stood there looking at depictions of them created in their own lifetime. We are all familiar with paintings of biblical stories and characters, created from medieval times to our own day, but I have never before seen anything created in the character’s own lifetime. Before me, in the National Museum in Tehran, was a stone frieze from the royal palace at Persepolis, which included the Persian King Darius, seated on his throne and crown prince Xerxes standing behind him. Both feature in the Old Testament story.
In 586BC, the Jews suffered a major defeat at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon; Jerusalem was destroyed and many people were taken into exile. It was a low point in Jewish history remembered through a number of Psalms of which Psalm 137 is the best known – ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion’. The Book of Lamentations is also set in the period of exile – ‘How lonely lies Jerusalem, once so full of people......No one comes to the Temple now to worship on holy days..... the city gates stand empty and Zion is in agony’. Prophets like Ezekiel brought little cheer when they preached to the exiles telling them that they had brought it upon themselves by turning away from God.
But eventually they were saved and allowed to return to Jerusalem and this salvation came through King Cyrus of Persia, who came to the throne 27 years after the Jews had been carried off to Babylon. Cyrus was an empire building king; he conquered not just the whole of the Middle East, but his empire eventually reached far into India and Africa. When he conquered Babylon he discovered the Jewish exiles there and as he bore no grudge against them he agreed to their request to be allowed to go home and rebuild Jerusalem which then lay within his jurisdiction in the province known called Trans-Euphrates by the Persians. The story of the Jews’ return is told in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah. They didn’t have an easy time. After they had rebuilt the Temple, they tried to rebuild the city wall but the surrounding peoples rose up against them seeing it as a military threat. The Jewish leader therefore appealed to King Darius, grandson of Cyrus, for confirmation that they had been given permission to rebuild and in the book of Ezra we have that correspondence recorded. Darius confirmed that they could go ahead, enabling the Jews to re-establish themselves in their homeland.
Xerxes, son of Darius succeeded him as king in the year 485BC. The Old Testament includes the delightful little book of Esther, set in the Persian capital of Susa during his reign. Xerxes (known as Ahasuerus in older translations of the Bible) falls for Esther and marries her, unaware that she is a Jewess. One of his officers, Hanam, starts an anti-Semitic uprising and Esther reveals to her husband that she is Jewish herself and pleads for her people to be saved. The outcome is good for the Jews but less good for Hanam. It is interesting that the Jewish community in this part of Iran survives today and is not persecuted by the government, despite that government’s continuing opposition to the existence of the Israeli state.
In Darius and Xerxes, standing there in the Tehran museum, we have two kings who each brought salvation to God’s people. On the 25th November, we close the Church’s Year with our annual celebration of ‘Christ the King’ remembering that Jesus was born of the Jewish royal line of David and reigns today in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an aspect of Jesus that we rarely think about focussing on his humanity as read the gospel stories. But his kingship is the real Jesus, he belongs in the glory of his Kingdom. But in God’s mercy, he became man, not just to set us an example of how to live our lives, but through his death to pay the price for our sinfulness. He is the King who brings salvation to his people who like the Jewish people of old have gone astray. It is only through Christ that we can be forgiven and permitted to return to be citizens of his Kingdom.