by Pastor Riley Fraas
In a backwater nation made up of tribes of farmers and sheep-herders lying in the hills to the north of ancient Greece, a young man named Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle until age 16, became King (of Macedonia) in 336 B. C., his father having died. What would follow just a few short years later has captivated historians for decades. This king of tiny Macedonia would become a legend who would change the known world and push on into unknown eastern frontiers never before crossed by western conquerors. His phalanxes, (a tight and impregnable formation of shielded spearmen perfected by Alexander) rolled east with all the speed and ferocity a tidal wave, and as a result Greek philosophy, language, and culture percolated down through the eastern sands until it became an integral part of life in places as far away as Libya, Persepolis, and Jerusalem. What began with a minor military expedition against the Archaemenid Empire, planned before by his father, continued through modern-day Turkey, down through Syria and Palestine, Egypt and Libya, and to the Persian imperial capital of Persepolis. By age 25, in 330 B. C. Alexander ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen. The swiftness of his victories still astounds historians.
The wake of Alexander’s conquests provided a key part of the cultural and linguistic milieu in which Christ the Lord would be born, and the New Testament penned. The New Testament was written in Greek. Have you ever wondered why the Jewish authors of the New Testament wrote in Greek? A few centuries before, Alexander had blown through the Near East like a hurricane, leaving big chunks of Greek language and learning behind in his path. By the time of Jesus’s Birth, the Romans had taken over what was left of Alexander’s former empire, but it was still the Greek language, and not Latin, which dominated. Greek was the best language to speak and write in if one wanted to be understood as widely as possible. It was the standard language for commerce and learning in all places surrounding the Mediterranean, all as a result of Alexander’s awe-inspiring adventure, when it seemed to him that he would conquer to the very edge of the earth in just a few short years.
Like a speeding locomotive, Alexander had conquered all the way through modern Iran and Afghanistan, across the Indus river in modern day Pakistan, to Punjab in what is today India with a speed and endurance that has been unmatched either before or since by any other leader. But what could possibly have enabled Alexander’s Macedonian army to accomplish such a feat unequalled in world history? What power drove his success? Was it an über-natural skill in battle, intimidation factor, unparalleled leadership, or advanced military science? For Bible-believers, the question is not a difficult one. The answer is this: the God of Israel had long before determined that Alexander would conquer the known world, with exactly that degree of speed and scope, as he had spoken through the prophet Daniel over 200 years prior:
Daniel 7:6 After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.
The seventh chapter of Daniel records a vision. In this vision, Daniel saw four beasts. The first looks like a lion, and has its wings plucked off. It represents the Chaldean empire which Daniel served in captivity at Babylon. The second is like a bear with three ribs in its mouth, eating flesh. This represents the Medo-Persian Empire that would conquer Babylon and take control of Arabia. The one side of the bear which rises higher than the other is the Persians, who gained in power of the Medes. Finally, we see a leopard, but not just any leopard. This one has four wings. The four wings represent the swiftness which carried the leopard, already of itself a very fast animal, across the known world over the longest distance in a short time. This is Alexander’s Macedonian Empire. Yet its dominion is short-lived. For we see in verse 8 that a beast appears which has iron teeth and is more fearsome than the rest. This can be none other than the Roman Empire that conquered the remnants of the Hellenized states carved from Alexander’s empire. Alexander’s fast but short-lived dominion stretched from Macedonia to Punjab in less than a decade. 1
In India, crossing the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers deep into Punjab along the Beas, Alexander’s strength waned. His leadership faltered. His dreams died. Visions of the massive armies of the Magadhan Empire along the Ganges must have made them think twice about whether to push onward. This Gangan plain was no cakewalk, for it was the territory of another great Emperor, Nanda of Magadha. As John Keay relates,
the Nanda’s army of 200,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, two thousand four-horse chariots and three to six thousand war elephants would have represented a formidable force, even if decimated by roll-call reality. It was certainly enough to strike alarm in stout Greek hearts, to awaken in them fond memories of Thracian wine and olive-rich homesteads beside the northern Aegean, and to send packing the age’s only other contender as a one-umbrella world ruler. 1
The Ganges lay beyond in a great fertile plain, inhabited by an advanced civilization full of culture, life, and potential subjects for Alexander the Emperor. That mighty river could have taken Alexander all the way to the sea, as he had always dreamed. (Okay, maybe not to the end of the world, but at least it could have taken him to the Indian Ocean.) But Alexander’s loyal army grew homesick and weary (as well as daunted by the prospect of fighting the mighty Magadhans.) In order to avert a mutiny, and perhaps to exit without recovering conquered land, as if he were in retreat, Alexander headed south along the Indus River. 1 Part of the army boarded a fleet in the Arabian Sea, and the rest trekked back along the north of the sea, in the desert located in southern Iran today. As far as his stamp in India, Keay says,
Alexander the Great’s Indian Adventure, though a subject of abiding interest to classically educated European historians, is not generally an episode on which historians of Indian nationality bother to dwell. They rightly note that it ‘made no impression historically or politically on India,’ and that ‘not even a mention of Alexander is to be found in any [of the] older Indian sources. ‘there was nothing to distinguish his raid in Indian history [except “perfidious massacres” and “wonton cruelty”]…and it can hardly be called a great military success as the only military achievements to his credit were the conquest of some petty tribes and states by installment.’ Alexander’s great achievement was not invading India but getting there.1
What had happened in India? Where was the courage? Where was the temerity of the young conqueror who dreamed of personally upstaging the Greek mythological heroes, Hercules and Achilles? Where was Alexander’s renowned leadership? How could Alexander’s army, who can conquered the entire known world and beyond, be on the verge of mutiny? How could they be driven to fear battle with the Magadhans?
The answers are difficult for historians, but not for Bible-believing Christians. It was God who sent the leopard across the Medo-Persian Empire and beyond in the twinkling of an eye, just as he had prophesied through Daniel in 7:6, and now Alexander’s time was done. Through Alexander’s conquest, the groundwork of history had been laid for the Lord’s mighty work of redemption. God is the One, of whom “all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” Daniel 4:35, who “worketh all things according to the counsel of His will.” Ephesians 1:11 God is sovereign; and He had raised up Alexander to swiftly conquer large swaths of the globe, not for any worthiness or righteousness of Alexander, but for His own purpose. Through this evil megalomaniac and pagan conqueror, God set the stage for the birth of Christ in the Greco-Roman world and the spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean through preaching and writing in the Greek language by apostles of Jewish background. By the infusion of Greek language and literature that Alexander left in his wake, the Old Testament was translated into Greek for Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews and read in Greek in synagogues all over the Mediterranean. (This would be the first Bible of all the New Testament churches outside of Judea.) The territory of the Roman Empire was carved out for them, awaiting their dominance. The beast with iron teeth would follow the leopard. It would be the rule of Roman law, the Pax Romana, which, with its safe roads and shipping schedules, would become a means for the apostles to travel to preach the gospel in Greece and Italy in the Greek tongue, and to allow for the copying, distribution, and reading in the churches of the Greek New Testament. The Apostle Paul’s training in classical Greek philosophy enabled him to preach meaningfully to Greeks at Athens (Acts 17:28) and is referenced in his writing to the Corinthians, (1 Cor 15:33.) It is hard to imagine how the New Testament missionary endeavor could have borne fruit without the safe and convenient roads and shipping routes of the Romans, a Bible (the Old Testament translated into Greek,) and a common Greek language for preaching and the writing of the New Testament.
Alexander’s pride and personal ambition had nothing to do with his success, and as soon as he had outrun the bounds that God had set for him, his conquest ceased. We saw what Alexander could do without the power of God carrying him on the Beas river in India. Shortly after returning to Babylon, he died. And his empire was no more. For no sooner did the Great Alexander return from India to Babylon, then his eastern capital, but he died of hepatoma, a liver cancer resulting from the Hepatitis B virus, probably a result of his wonton debauchery. He left his vast empire to be divided into four parts by his squabbling would-be successors, who immediately took up arms against one another to fight for supremacy. The empire of great Alexander fractured even more quickly than it was conquered. God had used an ungodly king of a small, backwater country as an unlikely conqueror, to do His own will. And then He was done with him.
The moral of the story: There is one Ruler of all the earth, and no one may thwart His will. For those of us saved by His grace, this is a supreme comfort. For others like Alexander the Great, it leads to a fearful end. God first raised and then brought down a king of nations to make way for the King of Kings. Blessed be the Lord forevermore, the Supreme Emperor of all the earth, the Great One, who works all things for His own glory.
1 John Keay, India: A History, London: The Folio Society, 2003, vol I, pp. 79-85.