“When You See Jerusalem Surrounded by Encamped Armies”
THE final siege of Jerusalem in the first century C.E. was a time of unparalleled suffering for those bottled up inside the city. But it should have come as no surprise. The greatest prophet of all time had pointed forward to it decades before it became reality. That prophet wept when contemplating the horrors of the siege and its outcome.—Luke 19:41-44.
What happened to Jerusalem over nineteen centuries ago should be of more than passing interest to us today. Jesus Christ, the prophet who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, also pointed forward to a time when even greater calamity would befall, not just one city or one people, but the entire world of mankind. (Matt. 24:3-37) Hence, there are vital lessons to be learned from the experience of ancient Jerusalem. If heeded, these lessons can lead to the preservation of human life.
The Jewish historian Josephus is the main source of information for this period. He was an eyewitness and, at times, a participant in the events that he describes. But, unlike the Bible writers, he was not divinely inspired. His account is evidently colored by a desire to avoid offending his Roman overlords and also to justify his surrender to the Romans in the early stages of the Jewish war. While Josephus cannot be fully depended upon, we can, nevertheless, gain valuable background information from his writings.
In the year 66 C.E. a chain of events was set in motion that, according to Josephus, made war with Rome inevitable. A band of Jews captured the fortress of Masada, near the Dead Sea, destroyed the Roman garrison there and replaced it with their own. In Jerusalem, the temple captain Eleazar convinced the temple ministers not to accept gifts or offerings from foreigners. As a result, despite the appeals of the chief priests and prominent citizens, they stopped making offerings for Rome and Caesar.
Fearful of Roman reprisals, the leading citizens, chief priests and most prominent Pharisees called a public meeting and denounced the folly of revolt. But their efforts were to no avail. Hence, they dispatched delegations to Governor Florus and King Agrippa for help. Agrippa responded by sending a military force. Then fighting broke out inside Jerusalem, with the revolting element gaining the victory and thereafter destroying the Roman garrison stationed at the fortress of Antonia, close by the temple area.
Within three months, the Roman legate of Syria, Cestius Gallus, had assembled the twelfth legion of the Roman army, along with considerable auxiliary forces, to put down the rebellion. Arriving before the walls of Jerusalem during the festival of booths, Roman forces soon penetrated even to the heavily fortified temple walls. With apparent victory close at hand, Gallus suddenly and seemingly without valid reason ordered retreat. Jewish forces went in pursuit. Their attacks forced the retiring Romans to abandon the bulk of their baggage and their heavy siege equipment. Convinced that God had delivered them, rejoicing Jews struck coins bearing inscriptions such as “Jerusalem the Holy.”
THE ONES WHO FLED
Christians living in Jerusalem and Judea, however, did not share in any rejoicing. They recalled what Jesus Christ had foretold: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that the desolating of her has drawn near. Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her.”—Luke 21:20, 21.
Traditional sources indicate that the Christians heeded Jesus’ prophetic command and forsook Jerusalem and Judea at that time. Ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of the third and fourth centuries C.E. writes: “The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella.” Epiphanius of the same general period states that ‘the Christians who dwelt in Jerusalem, being forewarned by Christ of the approaching siege, removed to Pella.’
THE ROMANS INVADE IN FORCE
Christians were therefore out of danger when Emperor Nero appointed General Vespasian to crush the Jewish revolt. Ably assisted by his son Titus, Vespasian proceeded with a force of 60,000. He directed his legions against cities of Galilee, encountering fierce resistance. When cities were finally taken, the slaughter inflicted on the Jews was great indeed.
What happened at Tarichaeae and Gamala illustrates what took place in the region as a whole. At Tarichaeae, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, over 6,000 Jews perished in battle. The survivors were treated mercilessly. The “aged and useless,” numbering 1,200, were executed. Over 30,000 were sold into slavery, and 6,000 of the strongest young men were sent to work for Nero in digging the Corinth Canal. At Gamala, when the situation became desperate for the Jews, many men flung their wives and children as well as themselves from the walls of the city. Over 5,000 thus perished in the deep artificial ravine below. Another 4,000 were slaughtered by the Romans.
THE SITUATION DETERIORATES WITHIN JERUSALEM
As far as Jerusalem was concerned, the city became a literal battleground for rival Jewish factions—the Zealots and the Moderates. The Zealots gained control of the temple and made it their fortress. From that base, they carried out deeds of plundering and bloodshed.
Later, priest Ananus aroused the citizenry against the Zealots. Fierce fighting followed, and the Zealots were finally besieged in the temple area. But Ananus did not want to push the battle into the sacred precincts and therefore arranged for a 6,000-man guard to keep the besieged Zealots from leaving.
Undetected, the Zealots got two messengers out of the city with an appeal for the Idumeans to come to their aid. Soon a force of 20,000 Idumeans was on its way to Jerusalem. Under the cover of darkness and storm, a group of Zealots got past the guards and opened the gates to the Idumeans. Much blood-spilling followed, and the Moderates suffered total defeat. Ananus was put to death.
THE NOOSE TIGHTENS AROUND JERUSALEM
While Jerusalem was reeling from the effects of internal strife and conflict, the Roman armies continued advancing, in fact, intensifying their campaign. But that was about to change.
There was serious trouble in the Roman Empire. The provinces were in revolt and strong elements were plotting against Nero. Finally the Roman senate passed the sentence of death on him. Rather than face execution, Nero committed suicide in June of the year 68.
Vespasian was getting ready to march his forces against Jerusalem itself when news reached him of Nero’s suicidal death. This prompted him to hold up his plans, as he desired to know the wishes of the new emperor. Three rival emperors, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, replaced one another in rapid succession. Called on by his troops to be emperor (in 69 C.E.), Vespasian left off his personal direction of the war and concentrated on securing his position with a view to gaining the throne.
Meanwhile the situation was not improving in Jerusalem. Regarding the actions of the Zealots, Josephus reports: “Their passion for looting was insatiable: they ransacked rich men’s houses, murdered men and violated women for sport, and drank their spoils washed down with blood: through sheer boredom they shamelessly gave themselves up to effeminate practices, adorning their hair and putting on women’s clothes, steeping themselves in scent and painting under their eyes to make themselves attractive. They copied not merely the dress but also the passions of women, and in their utter filthiness invented unlawful pleasures; they wallowed in slime, turning the whole city into a brothel and polluting it with the foulest practices. Yet though they had the faces of women they had the hands of murderers; they approached with mincing steps, then in a flash became fighting-men, and drawing their swords from under their dyed cloaks ran every passer-by through.”
Bad as the situation was, escape from Jerusalem was now virtually impossible. The Zealots did everything they could to prevent desertion to the Romans. Any who did get out were in danger of being killed by another rival faction outside the gate of the city.
THE FINAL SIEGE
Internal conflict did not cease even when the Roman armies, now under the command of Titus, were before the very walls of Jerusalem around Passover time of 70 C.E. The city was then crowded with Passover celebrants. On Passover day, Nisan 14, worshipers were admitted into the temple area. But they unexpectedly found themselves surrounded by armed men of one of the city’s rival factions. These men had gotten in undetected, as they entered disguised, with weapons hidden. They were bent on gaining control of the inner temple and its stores. There was violence and bloodshed.
Not long thereafter Roman siege engines were pounding against the outer northern wall of Jerusalem’s triple wall system. On the fifteenth day of the siege this wall fell to the Romans. Four days later the Romans captured the second wall. But Jewish counterattacks retrieved it. At great loss, the Romans, within four days, finally drove the Jews from the second wall and then demolished the northern section from end to end. Now only one wall remained.
Later, Titus held a war council and proposed building a wall around the city. As the Jews would thus be kept from leaving Titus believed that this would bring about their surrender or make it easier to take the city owing to the resultant famine. His plan was adopted. The soldiers were organized to undertake the project. The legions and lesser divisions of the army competed with one another to finish the task. Individually the men were spurred on by desire to please their superiors. The over four-and-a-half-mile-long fortification was finished in just three days. Thus were fulfilled Jesus’ prophetic words addressed to Jerusalem: “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build around you a fortification with pointed stakes and will encircle you and distress you from every side.”—Luke 19:43.
Famine conditions in Jerusalem now became acute. Josephus writes: “The roofs were covered with women and babes, the streets full of old men already dead. Young men and boys, swollen with hunger, haunted the squares like ghosts and fell wherever faintness overcame them. To bury their kinsfolk was beyond the strength of the sick, and those who were fit shirked the task because of the number of the dead and uncertainty about their own fate; for many while burying others fell dead themselves, and many set out for their graves before their hour struck. In their misery no weeping or lamentation was heard.” Prevented from gathering herbs on account of the wall, “some were in such dire straits that they raked the sewers and old dunghills and swallowed the refuse they found there.” The Romans received reports that during the siege no fewer than 600,000 corpses had been thrown out at the city gates.
As the siege continued, the Romans finally battered their way into the temple area. After the sanctuary was in flames, they decided to set fire to everything else. On the last remaining colonnade of the outer temple some 6,000 had taken refuge, believing a false prophet who had told them to go there to receive signs of their deliverance. However, the soldiers set fire to this colonnade from below. Many Jews then jumped out of the fire to their death while others perished in the flames.
When the siege was over, the toll in lives lost was tremendous. Some 1,100,000 were dead, most of these having perished from pestilence and starvation. Captives taken from the start to the end of the war numbered about 97,000. The tallest and handsomest youths were kept for the triumphal procession. As for the rest, many were sent off to do hard labor in Egypt or Rome; others were presented to the Roman provinces to perish in the arenas. Those under seventeen were sold.
The siege had lasted less than five months. But, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, it was indeed the greatest tribulation that had ever come upon Jerusalem. The city and its temple were razed to the ground. Only three towers and a section of the western wall of the city were left standing. Josephus states: “All the rest of the fortifications encircling the City were so completely levelled with the ground that no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited.”
News of this would not have amazed any devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. They could call to mind his words: “They will dash you and your children within you to the ground, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, because you did not discern the time of your being inspected.” (Luke 19:44) “Truly I say to you, By no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”—Matt. 24:2.
What befell Jerusalem and its inhabitants should certainly impress us with the importance of paying attention to Bible prophecy. Especially is this so since we today are living in the period that the Bible terms “the last days.” And is it not true that the lawlessness and violence of the present is much like that existing in ancient Jerusalem prior to its destruction? (2 Tim. 3:1-5) But how will anyone escape the “great tribulation” that will bring these “last days” to their end? It is not by fleeing to another geographical location, for the coming “tribulation” will encompass the globe. God’s Word points to the way of escape, saying: “Seek Jehovah, all you meek ones of the earth, who have practiced His own judicial decision. Seek righteousness, seek meekness. Probably you may be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.”—Zeph. 2:3.
Are you seeking to conform to God’s standard of righteousness? Are you humbly submitting to his judicial decision? If so, you may experience God’s protective care during the tribulation soon to come. Whatever your present situation is, now is the time to take action to prove yourself to be a loyal servant of Jehovah God. This is the most important lesson we can learn from what befell Jerusalem in the first century C.E. Acting in harmony with it can mean life to us when the “great tribulation” comes upon the present ungodly system of things.—Rev. 7:13-17.