The picture which introduces these pages was drawn from a scene under the sceptre of the first monarch mentioned in the Bible.
A comparatively unimportant prince, the |King of Sodom,| whose small and wicked realm Jehovah destroyed by fire and brimstone, is mentioned.
But the empire of the Pharaohs of Egypt, was large, rich, and magnificent. And it is a singular thing, that of this nation, and all others of antiquity, excepting what the Scriptures contain, the early history is little known. A great German historian, Dr. Von Rotteck, truly writes: |The principal trait that distinguishes the first period of the ancient world is its obscurity.|
The general belief is, that the founders of Egypt went from Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians from East India or South Arabia.
|Where did the Indiamen have their origin?| you may ask; but no man can certainly answer. That all races sprang from Adam we have no doubt, but the lines of descent and emigration the wisest student of the past cannot follow.
The living oracles, in brief statements, give us nearly all the reliable accounts we have of the early history of the |Land of the Nile,| as Egypt was called. In them we learn that while the |chosen people of God,| the only nation whose annals of growth in the number of its population and its civilization, has been handed down to us, was no more than a tribe of wandering shepherds under Abraham, Egypt was the home of art, and a garden of agricultural products.
And yet the very nomades, who roamed over the uncultivated plains, like the Aborigines of this new world, have preserved the best records of the early condition of that ancient and wonderful empire, whose origin is lost in the distance and darkness of Pagan antiquities.
It seems, from the tenth chapter of Genesis, that Egypt was settled by the descendants of Noah, through Ham, his second son.
The next reference made to this remarkable country is in the twelfth chapter, where we are told of Abraham's visit there. Again, in the twenty-first chapter, is recorded the marriage of Ishmael to an Egyptian woman. In chapter twenty-ninth is related the story of Joseph's captivity and career in the capital of the Pagan monarchy. He was the twelfth son of Jacob, and one of Rachel's two boys -- lovely in his youthful character, and the idol of his father. During a period of repose in sleep he had a singular dream. The first was, that while the brothers were all in the harvest-field at work his sheaf suddenly rose upright, and the sheaves of the eleven brethren stood up and bowed to his own. The intimation that he was to rule over them made them angry, and they hated him.
Soon after Joseph's sleep he was disturbed by another dream. The sun, moon, and eleven stars, rendered homage to him. The interpretation of this was the same as that of the other, with the addition of his father and mother, who also bowed before him.
It may seem strange that Joseph should relate any thing so complimentary to himself. But he evidently did it in no boasting mood. He simply narrated the extraordinary dreams, without the least idea of what was before him.
But God saw what he did hot know, that their jealousy and enmity would be overruled for the temporal salvation of the family and nation.
The venerable, thoughtful father, silently pondered over the singular experience of Joseph.
The elder sons were shepherds, and fed their flocks in Shechem. How beautiful the ingenious, dutiful character of Joseph now appears! His father called him to go and find his brethren, to see how they were getting along. |Here am I,| was his response. That is to say: |Although my brethren hate me, I am ready to serve you, and do any thing for them.| He went to Shechem, but they had left; and the boy wandered about in the field looking for them. A citizen happened to see him, and was evidently interested in the beautiful stranger, bewildered and alone, and asked what he wanted. Joseph told him the truth of the case, when the man said that his brothers had taken their flocks to Dotham, a few miles distant.
He started for that place, and while a |great way off,| they saw and knew him. The conspiracy was instantly formed to dispose of the |dreamer.|
The first proposition was to kill him, but Reuben would not agree to the cruel suggestion. His plan was to cast the lad into a deep pit, till he could manage to get him back to his father. This less bloody way of disposing of Joseph was accepted, and when he came near they took off the |coat of many colors| the doting father had given him, and putting him in a pit without water which happened to be at hand, dipping it in blood to make his father think a beast killed him, they took it home. Scarcely was the interesting boy weeping in his prison before a caravan of Ishmaelites, and then of Midianites, came in sight.
[Illustration: Moses Found in the Bulrushes.]
A new idea now flashed upon their minds. They could avoid the unpleasant consciousness of probable murder, and make something out of his sale as a slave to the wandering traders. A bargain was soon made, and young Joseph, casting backward a farewell look of sad reproach, was carried away, and sold by the Midianites to the Ishmaelites, of whom Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, bought him for a servant. God blessed the youth, and he was soon made overseer of the officer's household. But Potiphar's wife was a vile woman, and because Joseph was nobly true to God and virtue, made a false report of him, and had him put in prison.
Egypt's monarch had wonderful dreams about a famine his astrologers could not explain; and a released prisoner, who had forgotten Joseph's kindness in explaining a dream of deliverance, advised the king to send for the Hebrew. The young man was taken to the palace, and gave a true interpretation of the dreams. Pharaoh was delighted; and from his dungeon Joseph went to the secret place of authority second to the king. Pharaoh said: |Only in the throne will I be greater than thou.| He then put a ring on his finger, a gold chain on his neck, and arrayed him in fine apparel. The beautiful illustration sets this sudden and splendid promotion before us -- the honor God put upon his youthful servant.
Soon the predicted famine came, for which the gifted and prudent Joseph had made complete provision by storing up the abundant harvests. Among the sufferers from failing crops and pasturage, was the large family of Jacob -- his sons and their households.
In their extremity they turned to Egypt. Joseph's influence was such that the patriarch's delegation found favor with the king. The prime-minister of Egypt knew his brethren, but they had forgotten him. So he managed to find out all about his father's house, and made his brothers bring dear Benjamin, when he wept aloud, and made himself known to them all. Pharaoh sent for the whole race, and soon the Hebrew caravan reached the fruitful land of Goshen, which was exactly suited to the life of shepherds. Here the strangers grew in numbers and wealth, until Joseph died, and the friendly monarch also. His successor cared neither for Joseph nor his countrymen. He was a tyrant, and enslaved the dwellers in Goshen. Centuries of captivity wore away, and God determined to deliver his people, and send them back again to Palestine.
The scene displayed in this picture you will recognize at a glance. Moses, the Hebrew babe, afloat on the Nile, in a small boat made of bulrushes by his mother, because Pharaoh was slaying the children of her nation, to get rid of them.
Neither the haughty and cruel monarch, nor the mother, nor the little voyager, thought of Moses as the future deliverer of his countrymen from bondage -- the great leader and lawgiver of Israel.
We have already had glimpses of the Hebrews in the wilderness, their progress and rulers in Palestine, after the moving multitude reached the |promised land.|
The ages of changing sovereigns, and fortunes of crimes and discipline brought them at last to another mournful captivity.
About six hundred years before Christ, while that wicked Manassah was king in Palestine, the monarch of Assyria -- a grand and powerful empire -- invaded it, and took Jerusalem. Manassah was carried in chains to Babylon, the splendid Assyrian capital. His son, Amon, became the sovereign under the Assyrian conqueror, but was soon assassinated, and Josiah took the throne.
During his reign, the King of Egypt marched into Palestine and conquered it, killing Josiah, the king.
A few years later, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian monarch, besieged and took Jerusalem, the |City of David.|
The massive walls of the cities of old was their chief protection. Those of Babylon, according to the old Roman historians, were marvelously great. Think of them rising three hundred and fifty feet, eighty-seven feet in thickness, and extending sixty miles around the city! One writer says, that two four-horse chariots could pass each other on the top. They were built of brick, cemented together with bitumen.
They had twenty gates made of solid brass, and were surmounted with two hundred and fifty towers.
The city had six hundred and seventy-six squares, each over two miles in circumference. The river Euphrates flowed through the entire extent, from north to south.
The hanging gardens, suspended from the walls, were gorgeous, and the public buildings rich and elegant.
Such was the home of the Hebrew exiles for seventy years or more.
Quintus Curtius, a Roman, has described the entrance of the great and victorious Alexander into Babylon, at a later period, who soon after died there of dissipation, while yet a young man. The pleasant sketch gives a vivid impression of the glory and pomp of this ancient capital of Babylon:
[Illustration: Christ Declaring Who is Greatest.]
|A great part of the inhabitants of Babylon stood on the walls, eager to catch a sight of their new monarch; many went forth to meet him. Among these Bagophanes, keeper of the citadel and of the royal treasure, strewed the entire way before the king with flowers and crowns; silver altars were also placed on both sides of the road, which were loaded not merely with frankincense, but all kinds of odoriferous herbs. He brought with him for Alexander gifts of various kinds, flocks of sheep and horses; lions, also, and panthers were carried before him in their dens. The magi came next, singing in their usual manner their ancient hymns. After them came the Chaldeans with their musical instruments, who are not only the prophets of the Babylonians, but their artists. The first are wont to sing the praises of the kings; the Chaldeans teach the motion of the stars, and the changes of the seasons. Then followed, last of all, the Babylonian knights, whose equipments, as well as that of their horses, showed the passion of the people for luxury. The king, Alexander, attended by armed men, having ordered the crowd of the townspeople to proceed in the rear of his infantry, entered the city in a chariot and repaired to the palace. The next day he carefully surveyed the household treasures of Darius, and all his money. For the rest, the beauty of the city and its age turned the eyes not only of the king, but of everyone in itself, and that with good reason.|
The kings and conquerors of old had no canals for boats, no railways, and not many good roads. Consequently, their invasions and various public enterprises were carried forward in a slow and toilsome manner. Heavy wagons and chariots, the latter sometimes armed with scythes or long blades for battle, were the best vehicles in use.
There were no monitors, nor fire-arms. Large swords, daggers, slings, the catapulta and battering-ram, were the principal weapons.
The last named instrument was a massive machine with a movable beam, crowned with a very hard end, often shaped like a ram's head, which could be thrown against a wall with tremendous force, beating it down.
The catapulta, which was placed upon city walls, was a great cross-bow for hurling arrows upon an enemy. In it was combined the bow and arrow, and the sling. The mammoth arrow was put in the groove, the twisted ropes were connected with levers, and the powerful recoil would send the strong and sharp arrow a great distance.
Some of the machines were large enough to discharge beams loaded with iron; and one kind, called the balista, would send great stones, crushing through the houses on which they fell.
Among the spoil, taken by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, were the costly vessels of the temple; and he graced his train with members of the royal family and the principal nobles.
He placed Zedekiah on the throne of his Hebrew province, who soon after rebelled against him.
In consequence of this revolt, the Babylonian king invaded Judea with a great army, and, after taking most of the principal towns, sat down before Jerusalem. Early in the next year the Egyptians marched an army to the relief of their ally, but being intimidated by the alacrity with which the Babylonians raised the siege and advanced to give them battle, they returned home without risking an engagement. The return of the Chaldeans to the siege, destroyed all the hopes which the approach of the Egyptian succors had excited. The siege was now prosecuted with redoubled vigor; and at length Jerusalem was taken by storm at midnight, in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, and in the eighteenth month from the commencement of the siege. Dreadful was the carnage. The people, young and old, were slaughtered wherever they appeared; and even the temple was no refuge for them; the sacred courts streamed with blood. Zedekiah himself, with his family and some friends, contrived to escape from the city; but he was overtaken and captured in the plains of Jericho. He was sent in chains to Nebuchadnezzar, who had left the conclusion of the war to his generals, and was then at Riblah in Syria. After sternly reproving him for his ungrateful conduct, the conqueror ordered all the sons of Zedekiah to be slain before his eyes, and then his own eyes to be put out, thus making the slaughter of his children the last sight on which his tortured memory could dwell. He was afterward sent in fetters of brass to Babylon, where he remained until his death.
Nebuchadnezzar evidently felt that his purposes had not been fully executed by the army, or else he was urged by the Edomites and others to exceed his first intentions. He therefore sent Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, with a sufficient force to complete the desolation of Judah and Jerusalem. He burned the city and the temple to the ground; he collected and sent to Babylon all the gold and silver which former spoilers had left; and he transported all the people who had been left behind in Jehoiachin's captivity, save only the poor of the land, who were left to be vine-dressers and husbandmen. Four years after, Nebuzaradan again entered Judea, and gleaned a few more of the miserable inhabitants, whom he sent off to Babylon.
[Illustration: The Handwriting on the Wall.]
Thus was the land left desolate; and thus ended the kingdom of Judah and the reign of David's house, after it had endured four hundred and four years under twenty kings. It is remarkable that the King of Babylon made no attempt to colonize the country he had depopulated, as was done by the Assyrians in Israel; and thus, in the providence of God, the land was left vacant, to be re-occupied by the Jews after seventy years of captivity and punishment.
The grand and melancholy march into captivity is seen in the illustration of the artist.
What a vast and sad procession! The conquerors ride proudly on the high ground with the captive host in full view. The tower of Babel and the walls of their magnificent city are visible in the distance.
The exiles found in Babylon many of their countrymen, who had been carried there in previous conquests, and were useful, respectable citizens. Among these, there was a young man of splendid abilities and noble heart, named Daniel.
He was one of the youthful sons of high family, who were carried away as hostages for the fidelity of King Jehoiachin. He and some others were put under the chief eunuch, to be properly trained in the language and learning of the Chaldeans, to fit them for employments at the court. This training lasted three years, when they were examined in the presence of the king; and Daniel and three of his friends were found to have made far greater progress than any of those who had been educated with them. They were therefore enrolled among the magians or learned men.
A few years after, Nebuchadnezzar was greatly troubled with a dream, which made a profound impression upon his mind; but the particulars of which quite passed from his memory when he awoke. Great importance was attached to dreams in those days, and men skilled in the sciences were supposed to be able to discover their meaning. Therefore, the king sent for his court magians, and required them not only to interpret the dream, but to discover the dream itself, which he had forgotten. This they declared to be impossible; on which the exasperated tyrant ordered all the magians to be massacred. Daniel and his friends, although not present, were included in such a sentence. On learning this, he begged a respite for the whole body, undertaking to find, through his God, the solution of the difficulty. The respite was granted; and at the earnest prayer of Daniel, God made the secret known to him. A colossal image which the king saw, with a head of gold, arms and breast of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and toes partly iron and partly clay, was struck down by a stone, which itself grew and filled the whole earth. This, in the interpretation of Daniel, figured forth |the things to come;| describing by characteristic symbols the succession of empires to the end of time; and it is wonderful to observe how precisely the greater part of what was then future has since been accomplished. The king was not only satisfied but astonished; he was almost ready to pay divine honors to Daniel; and raised him at once to the eminent station of Archimagus, or chief of the magians, and governor of the metropolitan province of Babylon. His three friends, also, were at his request, promoted to places of trust and honor.
Not long after, Nebuchadnezzar set up a colossal image in the plains of Dura, and commanded that, when music sounded, everyone should worship it, on pain of death. He soon learned that this command was utterly neglected by Daniel's three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; and his rage grew so high, at the example of disobedience given by persons in their high station that he ordered them to be at once cast into |the burning furnace.| The heat of the furnace was so great as to destroy the men who cast them in; but they themselves remained unhurt, and not even a hair of their heads was singed. They came forth when the king called them; and he was so much astonished and convinced by this prodigy, that he publicly acknowledged the greatness of the God whom they served.
There appear to have been good and generous qualities in the character of Nebuchadnezzar; but the pride with which he contemplated the grandeur of his empire, and the magnificence of his undertakings, was most inordinate, and he required to be taught that |the Most High ruleth over all the kingdoms of the earth, and giveth them to whomsoever he will.| He was warned of this in a dream, which was interpreted to him by Daniel; but, neglecting the warning, |his heart was changed from man's, and a beast's heart was given to him.| He was afflicted with a madness which made him think himself a beast, and, acting as such, he remained constantly abroad in the fields, living upon wild herbs. In this debased and forlorn condition the mighty conqueror remained seven years, when he was restored to his reason and his throne, and one of his first acts was to issue a proclamation, humbly acknowledging the signs and wonders which the Most High God had wrought toward him, and declaring his conviction, that |those who walk in pride he is able to abase.| He died soon after.
The next illustration is drawn from the interpretation of the dream in the royal palace. Conscious of Jehovah's favor and guidance, how courageously and grandly he stands before the monarch, and declares the whole counsel of God!
He thus became a prophet of the Most High, whose wonderful career afterwards, we shall again follow, when we come to the narratives of the seers.
[Illustration: The vision of the Dragon Chained.]
The spirit alienation from God, and of depraved desires, which ruled the ancient pagan realms is set before us under various titles. Among them is that of the dragon, in the engraving; which the |king of kings| shall yet bind forever and imprison.
The fate of the proud kingdoms which ruled Palestine, teaches the world how little importance God attaches to human glory in his punishment of the wicked.
Egypt has scarcely more than its location and name left. Its pyramids, one of which it is estimated employed three hundred thousand men twenty years in building, stand in the desert places, solitary and pillaged sepulchres.
The temple of Karnak, on the east bank of the Nile, whose massive stone roof was supported by one hundred and thirty-four majestic columns, forty-three feet high, and ranged in sixteen rows; the whole structure twelve hundred feet in length, and covered with figures of gods and heroes; is one of the grandest works of time.
Should you visit the gorges of the Theban Mountains, your feet would stumble over the bones of departed generations. Princes, priests, and warriors, after reposing thousands of years in their deep seclusion, are dragged forth by poor peasants, and scattered around the doors of those cavern-like excavations in the everlasting hills.
Lighting a torch or candle, you may wander along the rock-walled galleries several hundred feet into the heart of the summits, on each side of which are the apartments of death.
Inscriptions, three thousand years old, can be distinctly traced.
How little thought the Hebrews, while toiling under the shadow of palaces, or flying at night from the mighty realm of Egypt, of what we find to-day along the banks of the Nile!
The doom of Babylon, with that of the great invaders and conquerors of Palestine, is equally wonderful and instructive.
Probably no nation of antiquity was more distinguished for luxury and corrupt pleasures than this unrivalled city.
Its last king, Nabonnidus, reigned about one hundred years before Christ appeared; and in less than that time afterward, the city walls enclosed a hunting ground or park for the recreation of Persian monarchs. We cannot well imagine a more complete destruction than has overtaken the once rich and gay metropolis. The ruins are a number of mounds, formed of crumbled buildings, and strewn all over with pieces of brick, bitumen, and potter's vessels.
The Assyrian kings of western Asia, also invaded the Holy Land. They ruled a vast and powerful realm, whose principal city was Nineveh, to which Jonah was sent with a message from God.
Sennacherib, the monarch who reigned seven hundred years before Christ, marched his armies against the cities of Judah and took them. Not satisfied with the terms of surrender he threatened further invasion.
At this crisis, in answer to prayer, Jehovah sent his angel to destroy the troops; and in one night the unseen messenger of destruction slew one hundred and eighty-five thousand men.
Of this miraculous defeat a gifted but irreligious and unhappy poet has sung:
And there lay the steed with his nostrils all wide, But through them there rolled not the breath of his pride; And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beaten surf.
And there lay the rider, distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, and the banners alone, And the lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentiles, unsmote by the sword, Hath melted like snow at the glance of the Lord.
Now the greater part of the country which once formed Assyria, is under the sway of the Turks.
Mosul, a missionary station of the American Board of Foreign Missions, is believed to mark the site of ancient Nineveh.
The original inhabitants of Assyria, in modern history, are the Kurds; a barbarous and warlike race. Some of these live in villages, and others roam over the country. They are said to resemble, in personal appearance, the Highlanders of Scotland.
But the most remarkable fact in regard to the population, is the ancient church of the Nestorians, among the mountains. This Christian people have for ages maintained their independence, defying the storms of revolution that have swept over all the country around their mountain home.
Dr. Grant, a missionary, thinks they are descendants of the |lost tribes of Israel.| We recollect to have seen in the hands of the venerable missionary, Rev. Dr. Perkins, a copy of the Scriptures preserved for many hundred years by them: sometimes hidden away, to prevent its destruction by its enemies.
Not long ago, one of the Nestorian bishops, Mar Yohanah, visited this country, and attracted much attention. A Jew-like, noble man personally, and a devout Christian.
But if you look on the map of Asia, you will see that Mosul and the Nestorian country is in Persia, and may wonder what it has to do with Assyria. In the conquests which weakened and divided the Assyrian empire, new kingdoms were formed; and while none can now accurately trace the boundaries of that great monarchy, we have the later outline of Persia. More will be said of this remarkable kingdom when we come to the story of Mordecai and Esther.
The thrones of these ancient monarchies were, at first, no more than an ornamented arm-chair, higher than ordinary seats, with a footstool for the royal feet. Then it was made in more massive form and richly carved, with steps ascending to it.
Some of the thrones were of ivory, adorned with gold; and it is recorded, that Archelaus addressed the multitude from a throne of solid gold -- a magnificent fortune in itself. Thus gradually the throne became the highest symbol of power, and is often applied to Jehovah's sovereignty. He is represented as sitting upon a throne of light, and around him continually, attending angels, veiling their faces with their wings, and waiting to hear and obey his mandates; crying with their voices of celestial music, |Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was and is, and is to come!| A |crystal sea| is before this |White Throne| of a pure and just authority, and on it worships a resplendent host. Every sound and sight of glory and honor, that language can express, or the finest imagination picture, is ascribed to that eternal royalty.
Next to the throne, the crown became a sign of authority, although it was applied, at first, to other ornaments for the head, properly called coronets, garlands, tiaras, bands, mitres, etc.
The idea of a kingly crown was suggested by the diadem, which was a fillet -- a mere band like that used to bind the long hair worn by the people -- but richer and of a different color. It was natural and easy, with the increase of power and wealth, to make the crown a more costly and showy symbol of kingly sway.
David wore a crown of gold set with jewels, he took from the king of the Ammonites.
The more modern crowns of Asia, where all the kings reigned, of whom we have read in these pages, are of different shapes, and some of them very rich and expensive, ornamented with precious stones and plumes of the rarest kind.
Crowns are also often mentioned in the Bible as an emblem of power; and the Christian conqueror of his sins and the world, it is written, shall have |a crown of life.|
The sceptre was the third token of sovereignty. The word originally signified a staff of wood of the length of a man's height. Later, it was smaller in form, and often plated with gold, and enriched with various decorations. Inclining, or holding out the sceptre was a mark of royal favor; and kissing it by another, a sign of submission.
Jehovah's rule is mentioned frequently in the inspired record, under this figure. |His sceptre is a right sceptre,| in one of the declarations, which even the wicked and most wretched on account of transgression, dare not deny.
Under its wide dominion are Heaven, Earth, and Hell, not only, but a universe whose boundaries neither man nor angel can ever reach.
|He is God over all, and blessed forever!|
How amazing the truth of such a king and kingdom! Under the unsleeping eye of the Sovereign, the planet wheels on its axis with startling velocity, and the insect creeps on the grain of sand. A Russian poet beautifully sung:
Oh, thou Eternal One! whose presence bright,
All space doth occupy, all motion guide!
Unchanged through time's all devastating flight,
Thou only God, there is no God beside!
Being above all beings! mighty one,
Whom none can comprehend, and none explore!
Who filled existence with thyself alone;
Embracing all, supporting, ruling o'er!
Being, whom we call God, and know no more!
Thou art! directing, guiding all. Thou art!
Direct my understanding then to thee;
Control my spirit, guide my wandering heart,
Though but an atom 'mid immensity.
Still I am something fashioned by thy hand!
I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth,
On the last verge of mortal being stand,
Close to the realms where angels have their birth,
Just on the boundaries of the spirit land.
Oh, thoughts ineffable! Oh, visions blest!
Though worthless our conceptions all of thee;
Yet shall thy shadowed image fill our breasts,
And waft its homage to thy Deity.
God! thus alone my lowly thoughts can soar;
Thus seek thy presence -- Being wise and good!
'Midst thy best works admire, obey, adore!
And when the tongue is eloquent no more,
The soul shall speak in tears of gratitude.