The Bible is a historical book as well as a spiritual one. As such, it contains many important historical leaders and describes their impact on the nation of Israel. These people are not often used as symbols in the Bibles, but their influence on the history of God’s people carries symbolic importance because of the particular interactions they had. The Jews look back on these leaders as people who operated under the sovereign will of God either to help them as an instrument of mercy or to test and punish them as an executor of his just wrath.
Xerxes was the king during the time of the events written about in the book of Esther. He ruled Persia from 486-465 BC. He imposed anti-Semitic laws at the advice of his highest official, Haman (Esther 3:8, 12-14), but through the influence of Ester he later enabled the Jews to forcefully resist assaults against them (8:10-14). Esther’s actions are celebrated at the feast of Purim, observed by Jews throughout the centuries in a joyous festival. Xerxes is a portrait of a leader who changed his mind due to God’s leading.
Nebuchadnezzar was the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 605-562 BC. He captured Jerusalem, destroying the temple as he did so, and took the people of Judah into captivity in Babylon. He was the hand of God that had been warned about in Jeremiah 21-52 and elsewhere. The book of Daniel tells about what happened while the Jews were in Babylon under his rule and portrays seven years when he lost his sanity and lived among cattle as punishment for his prideful boasts (Dan 4:32). Nebuchadnezzar is an example of a leader who enacted judgment on God’s people but was still under the control of God even as he abused the nation of Israel.
Cyrus was king of Persia from 559-530 BC. He allowed the Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). Indeed, Cyrus and his successor, Darius, helped them gather materials and protected them as they worked (Ezra 6:1-12). Daniel was a member of his court as well as Nebuchadnezzar’s (Dan 1:21; 6:28; 10:1). Cyrus is remembered as a wise and just leader and religious groups. Isaiah called him “shepherd” and “anointed one” (Isa 44:28; 45:1).
Herod the Great was the Roman ruler in Palestine from 37-4 BC. He took actions that please the Jews, such as protecting the temple from being defiled by invading Romans. After the birth of Jesus, however, he tried to ensure his position by killing all male babies in the region of Bethlehem who could threaten his rule. This is known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” He also murdered his wife Mariamne, and when two of his sons discovered this, he murdered them as well. Herod the Great is remembered by Christians as the king at the time of Jesus’ birth, whose cruel murdered of infant boys forced Mary and Joseph to escape by fleeing to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15). He was a paranoid and despicable ruler.
Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled during the life and ministry of Jesus. He is the one who married Herodias, the wife of his half-brother. He came to respect John the Baptist, who spoke boldly against this action, but later had him beheaded (Matt 14:6-12; Mark 6:21-29). For a time Antipas though that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Jesus’ popularity was a threat to Antipas, so Antipas sought to kill him (Luke 13:31). Jesus called him a “fox,” indicating his cunning and deceit (Luke 13:32), and appeared before him at his trail (Luke 23:6-12). Herod Antipas seemed to be curious about Jesus but could find no wrong in him, so he returned Jesus to Pilate. We can think of Herod Antipas as a leader who was exposed to the truth on numerous occasions yet refused to accept it.
Pontius Pilate was Roman perfect of Judea from AD 26-36. He is best known for sentencing Jesus to death by crucifixion (Matt 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18-19). He was never popular with the Jews, because he did not support their religious practices; but whenever they rebelled, he backed down from his policies. That weakness was what led him to act as he did at Jesus’ trial-attempting to appease the crowd by beating Jesus, shirking his responsibility by handing Jesus over to Herod Antipas, and eventually sentencing Jesus to death but washing his hands of the whole thing in front of the crowd. Pilate is the supreme biblical example of a person who will do anything meet his own selfish goals. He knew Jesus was innocent, and he had the power to release him, but Pilate gave in to the demands of the crowd to save his own career.