The next pictured scene is in the Court of Persia. It will not be forgotten that Daniel was a captive in Babylon under the last kings, and probably died there after the city was taken by Cyrus. Of this great man's history as a captive we shall learn more when we go with the prophets of God in their peculiar mission.
Nabonadrius, the son of Darius, usurped the throne after his father's death; and after reigning several years, Cyrus, a nephew of Darius, a Persian general who was occupied in foreign wars, turned his attention to the reigning monarch.
He marched against the gorgeous metropolis, and besieged it for two years in vain. He at last thought of a stratagem which displayed his genius and boldness of action. He determined to turn the channel of the Euphrates, which went through the whole length of the city, from the walls where it entered, and get into the capital through the dry channel, under the massive pile which no battering rams could crumble. He succeeded in making a new bed for the stream, and his troops went into Babylon over a path washed for ages by the waters of the Euphrates.
Media, a word some suppose to be derived from Madai, the son of Japheth, was the name of a region adjacent to ancient Assyria, inhabited by warlike hordes for centuries. The little that is said of these people in the Bible, is in connection with the Persians. Both seemed to have become one nation; first the Medes gaining the ascendancy, and then the Persians. But the darkness which rests upon the origin of the Asiatic lands bewilders the most careful historian.
The conspicuous appearance of the Medes and Persians begins with Cyrus the Great, the conqueror of Babylon, a remarkable monarch in power, glory, and character.
The picture of the magi who journeyed from the east to find the infant Messiah, presents a peculiar view of the Persians and Arabians. Among these gentile nations were men of great attainments in whatever of philosophy and astrology there was in the world. The Ethiopian race is represented, and it may have been that dark faces were over the wonderful child. Color was evidently then no honor or disgrace; the man was the object of regard or scorn. More will be said of these wonderful travellers in the more appropriate place in the annals of Palestine. Cyrus the first, and noble Persian monarch, was kindly disposed toward the captive Jews, and Daniel had great influence over him. In the very year of his conquest he issued a decree, in which, after acknowledging the supremacy of the Lord, and that to him he owed all kingdoms, he gave full permission to the Jews in any part of his dominions, to return to their own land and to rebuild the city and temple of Jerusalem. No sooner were the favorable dispositions of the king thus made known, than the members of the latter captivity -- those of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi -- repaired in large numbers to Babylon from their different places of residence; some to make preparations for their journey; and others, who had no intention to return themselves, to assist those who had. Most of the existing race had been born in Babylonia, and in the course of years families had established themselves in the country, and formed connections, and gathered around them comforts which were not easily abandoned. Only a minority availed themselves of the decree in their favor; the most of the people choosing to remain in the land of their exile; and it has always been the opinion of the Jews that the more illustrious portion of their nation remained in Babylonia.
The first return caravan was organized and directed by Zerubbabel, the grandson of king Jehoiachim, and by Jeshua, a grandson of the last high-priest Jozadak. The number of persons who joined them was about fifty thousand, including above seven thousand male and female servants. Before they departed, Cyrus restored to them the more valuable of the sacred utensils, which had been removed by Nebuchadnezzar, and preserved by his successors, and which were now to be again employed in the service of the sanctuary. Zerubbabel was also entrusted with large contributions toward the expense of rebuilding the temple, from the Jews who chose to remain behind. The beasts of burden in this caravan exceeded eight thousand. In the book of Ezra, the names of the families which returned to this first colony, and in those which followed, are carefully given.
The incidents of the journey are not related. On reaching Palestine the caravan repaired at once to Jerusalem, which they found utterly ruined and desolate. Before they separated to seek habitations for themselves, they raised a large sum by voluntary contributions toward the rebuilding of the temple. Then they employed themselves in securing dwellings and necessaries for their families; and at the ensuing Feast of Tabernacles again repaired to Jerusalem, where sacrifices were offered on an altar erected upon the ruins of the temple. After this the people applied themselves zealously to the necessary preparation for the restoration of that edifice. In a year from the departure from Babylon, the preparations were sufficiently advanced to allow the work to be commenced; and, accordingly, the foundations of the second temple were then laid with great rejoicings and songs of thanksgiving. While the work proceeded, the Samaritans manifested a desire to assist in the work, and to claim a community of worship in the new temple. This was declined by the Jews on the ground that the decree of the Persian king extended only to the race of Israel.
[Illustration: The Magi offering Presents.]
Being thus frustrated in their design, the Samaritans employed every means they could devise to thwart the undertaking. Their origin appears to have given them considerable influence at the Persian court; and although they could not act openly against the plain decree of Cyrus, an unscrupulous use of their money and influence among the officers of the government enabled them to raise such obstructions, that the people were much discouraged, and the work proceeded but languidly, and at length was suspended altogether. From this lethargy they were roused by the exhortations and reproaches of the prophet Haggai; and the building was resumed with fresh zeal.
The new temple was dedicated with great solemnity and joy. The Jews were allowed the free exercise of their religion and laws, and the government was directed by a governor of their own nation, or by the high-priest, when there was no other governor. There was, in fact, a distinct commonwealth, with its own peculiar institutions; and, although responsible to the Persian king, and to his deputy the governor-general of Syria, it was more secure under the protection of the monarch than it would have been in complete independence. The dreadful lesson taught by the desolation of the land, the destruction of the temple, and the captivity of the people, had effectually cured the Jews of that tendency to idolatry which had been their ruin. But, as time went on, the distortion of character which had been restrained in one direction broke forth in another; and although they no longer went formally astray from a religion which did not suit their depravity, they, by many vain and mischievous fancies, fabricated a religion suited to their dispositions out of the ritual to which they adhered.
Early in the reign of Artaxerxes, son of the mighty Xerxes, the Hebrews went to work on the beloved city with a regular plan of its rebuilding, including an encircling wall.
This king had learned by reading and traditions, the veneration which his most distinguished predecessors had shown for the God of Israel; and about seven years after he ascended the throne, he commissioned Ezra, the priest and scribe, to take charge of the religious service at Jerusalem. And he was, in reality, the governor or viceroy under the monarch.
Those of the Hebrews who desired to do so, were invited to return with him, and others who remained, were to pay contributions for the use of the temple.
To this fund the king himself and his council contributed large sums of money; and the ministers of the royal realms west of the Euphrates, were enjoined to furnish Ezra with silver, wheat, wine, oil, and salt, that the sacrifices and offerings of the temple should be constantly kept up; all of which is said to have been done in order to avert from the king and his sons, the wrath of the God of the Hebrews, who was held in much honor at the Persian court.
An exemption from all taxes was also promised to persons engaged in the service of the temple; but this boon did not induce any of the Levitical tribe to join the caravan which assembled on the banks of the river Ahava, in Babylonia: and it was with some difficulty that Ezra at last induced some of the priestly families to go with him. The whole caravan was composed of one thousand seven hundred and fifty-four adult males -- making, with wives and children, about six thousand persons. As a party thus composed had little military strength, and as the journey across the desert was then, as it always has been, dangerous from the Arab tribes by which it is infested, they felt considerable anxiety on this account. But Ezra, from having said much to the king of the power of God to protect and deliver those that trusted in him, felt disinclined to apply for a guard of soldiers; and thought it better that the party should, in a solemn act of fasting and prayer, cast themselves upon the care of their God. Their confidence was rewarded by the perfect safety with which their journey was accomplished. In four months they arrived at Jerusalem.
While Ezra, with his sealed commission from Artaxerxes, was urging on the noble work at Jerusalem, an unexpected danger to his people in Babylon and its provinces arose -- a sudden and fearful crisis in destiny.
Among the captives there was Esther, a Hebrew maiden. The Persian king, to commemorate his victorious and prosperous reign, extending from Judea to Ethiopia, and embracing a hundred and twenty-seven provinces, made a magnificent feast, which continued six months. This was to display his power and wealth, before the nobility of his realm, and representatives from the conquered provinces of his spreading empire. At the expiration of this brilliant entertainment, he gave the common people, without distinction, a feast of seven days in the court of his palace. The rich canopy and gorgeous curtains, with their fastenings -- the tall columns, the golden couches, and tesselated floors -- are described as |white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings, and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and black, and white marble.|
[Illustration: Our Saviour Teaching in the Temple.]
Of this grandeur, in the ashes strewn by wasting ages, are imposing remains. Modern travellers pause before |the vast, solitary, mutilated columns of the magnificent colonnades,| where youth and beauty graced the harems of Persian monarchs.
Upon this occasion, the queen had a private pavilion for her female guests. But during the successive days of dissipation, the mirth waxed loud in the apartments of the king. The flashing goblet circulated freely, and his brain became wild with |wine and wassail.| As the crowning display of his glory, Vashti, in her jeweled robes and diadem, must grace the banquet. The command was issued, and the messenger sent. This mandate, requiring what at any time was contrary to custom, the appearance of a woman, unveiled, in an assemblage of men, now when revelry and riot betrayed the royal intoxication, overwhelmed the queen with surprise. A thousand wondering and beaming eyes were upon her during the brief pause before answering the summons. Her proud refusal to appear, roused the fury of Ahashuerus, already mad with excitement. It would not answer to pass by the indignity, for a hundred and twenty-seven provinces were represented at his court, and the news of his sullied honor would reach every dwelling in his realm, and curl the lip of the serf with scorn. The nobles fanned the flame of his indignation. Unless a withering rebuke were administered, their authority as husbands would be gone, and the caprice of woman make every family a scene of daily revolution.
Vashti was divorced -- and to provide for the emergency, his courtiers suggested that he should collect in his harem all the beautiful virgins of the land, and choose him a wife. Among these was Hadassah, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. He urged her to enter her name among the rivals for kingly favor. It was not ambition merely that moved Mordecai. He had been meditating upon the unfolding providence of God toward his scattered nation, and felt that there was deeper meaning in passing events than the pleasures and anger of his sovereign. Arrayed richly as circumstances would permit, the beautiful Jewess, concealing her lineage, joined the youthful procession that entered the audience chamber of Ahashuerus, where he sat in state, to look along the rank of female beauty, floating like a vision before him.
The character of Esther is here exhibited at the outset; for when she went into the presence of the king, for his inspection, instead of asking for gifts as allowed by him, and as the others did, she took only what the chamberlain gave her. Of exquisite form and faultless features, her rare beauty at once captivated the king, and he made her his wife.
Mordecai was a man of a noble heart, grand intellect, and unwavering integrity; there was nevertheless an air of severity about him -- a haughty, unbending spirit; which with his high sense of honor and scorn of meanness would prompt him to lead an isolated life. We have sometimes thought that even he had not been able to resist the fascinations of his young and beautiful cousin, and that the effort to conceal his feelings had given a greater severity to his manner than he naturally possessed. Too noble, however, to sacrifice such a beautiful being by uniting her fate with his own, when a throne was offered her; or perceiving that the lovely and gentle being he had seen ripen into faultless womanhood could never return his love -- indeed, could cherish no feeling but that of a fond daughter, he crushed by his strong will his fruitless passion. In no other way can I account for the life he led, lingering forever around the palace gates, where now and then he might get a glimpse of her who had been the light of his soul, the one bright bird which had cheered his exile's home. That home he wished no longer to see, and day after day he took his old station at the gates of Shushan, and looked upon the magnificent walls that divided him from all that had made life desirable. It seems also as if some latent fear that Haman, the favorite of the king -- younger than his master, and of vast ambition, might attempt to exert too great an influence over his cousin, must have prompted him to treat the latter with disrespect, and refuse him that homage which was his due. No reason is given for the hostility he manifested, and which he must have known would end in his own destruction.
Whenever Haman, with his retinue, came from the palace, all paid him the reverence due to the king's favorite but Mordecai, who sat like a statue, not even turning his head to notice him. He acted like one tired of life, and at length succeeded in arousing the deadly hostility of the haughty minister. The latter, however, scorning to be revenged on one man, and he a person of low birth, persuaded the king to decree the slaughter of all the Jews in his realm. The news fell like a thunderbolt on Mordecai. Sullen, proud, and indifferent to his own fate, he had defied his enemy to do his worst; but such a savage vengeance had never entered his mind, It was too late, however, to regret his behavior. Right or wrong, he had been the cause of the bloody sentence, and he roused himself to avert the awful catastrophe. With rent garments, and sackcloth on his head, he travelled the city with a loud and bitter cry, and his voice rang even over the walls of the palace, in tones that startled its slumbering inmates.
[Illustration: Humility Exemplified -- Giving Alms in Secret.]
It was told Esther, and she ordered garments to be given him, but he refused to receive them, and sent back a copy of the king's decree, respecting the massacre of the Jews, and bade her go in and supplicate him to remit the sentence. She replied that it was certain death to enter the king's presence unbidden, unless he chose to hold out his sceptre; and that for a whole month he had not requested to see her. Her stern cousin, however, unmoved by the danger to herself, and thinking only of his people, replied haughtily that she might do as she chose; if she preferred to save herself, delivery would come to the Jews from some other quarter, but she should die.
From this moment the character of Esther unfolds itself. It was only a passing weakness that prompted her to put in a word for her own life, and she at once rose to the dignity of a martyr. The blood of the proud and heroic Mordecai flowed in her veins, and she said: |Go, tell my cousin to assemble all the Jews in Shushan, and fast three days and three nights, neither eating nor drinking; I and my maidens will do the same, and on the third day I will go before the king, and if I perish, I perish!| Noble and brave heart! death -- a violent death -- is terrible; but thou art equal.
There, in that magnificent apartment, filled with perfume, and where the softened light, stealing through the gorgeous windows by day, and shed from golden lamps by night on marble columns and golden-colored couches, makes a scene of enchantment, behold Esther, with her royal apparel thrown aside, kneeling on the tesselated floor. There she has been two days and nights, neither eating nor drinking, while hunger, and thirst, and mental agony have made fearful inroads on her beauty. Her cheeks are sunken and haggard -- her large and lustrous eyes dim with weeping, and her lips parched and dry, yet ever moving in inward prayer. Mental and physical suffering have crushed her young heart within her, and now the hour of her destiny is approaching. Ah! who can tell the desperate effort it required to prepare for that terrible interview. Never before did it become her to look so fascinating as then; and removing with tremulous anxiety the traces of her suffering, she decked herself in the most becoming apparel she could select. Her long black tresses were never before so carefully braided over her polished forehead, and never before did she put forth such an effort to enhance every charm, and make her beauty irresistible to the king.
At length, fully arrayed and looking more like a goddess dropped from the clouds, than a being of clay, she stole tremblingly toward the king's chamber. Stopping a moment at the threshold to swallow down the choking sensation that almost suffocated her, and to gather her failing strength, she passed slowly into the room, while her maidens stood breathless without, listening, and waiting with the intensest anxiety the issue. Hearing a slight rustling, the king, with a sudden frown, looked up to see who was so sick of life as to dare to come unbidden in his presence, and lo! Esther stood speechless before him. Her long fastings and watchings had taken the color from her cheeks, but had given a greater transparency in its place, and as she stood, half shrinking, with the shadow of profound melancholy on her pallid, but indescribably beautiful countenance, her pencilled brow slightly contracted in the intensity of her excitement, her long lashes dripping in tears, and lips trembling with agitation; she was, though silent, in herself an appeal that a heart of stone could not resist. The monarch gazed long and silently on her, as she stood waiting her doom. Shall she die? No; the golden sceptre slowly rises and points to her. The beautiful intruder is welcome, and sinks like a snow wreath at his feet. Never before did the monarch gaze on such transcendent loveliness; and spell-bound and conquered by it, he said, in a gentle voice: |What wilt thou, Queen Esther? What is thy request? It shall be granted thee, even to the half of my kingdom!|
Woman-like, she did not wish to risk the influence she had suddenly gained, by asking the destruction of his favorite, and the reversion of his unalterable decree, and so she prayed only that he and Haman might banquet with her the next day. She had thrown her fetters over him, and was determined to fascinate him still more deeply before she ventured on so bold a movement. At the banquet he again asked her what she desired, for he well knew that it was no ordinary matter that had induced her to peril her life by entering unbidden his presence. She invited him to a second feast, and at that to a third. But the night previous to the last, the king could not sleep, and after tossing awhile on his troubled couch, he called for the record of the court, and there found that Mordecai had a short time before informed him through the queen, of an attempt to assassinate him, and no reward been bestowed. The next day, therefore, he made Haman perform the humiliating office of leading his enemy in triumph through the streets, proclaiming before him: |This is the man whom the king delighteth to honor.| As he passed by the gallows he had the day before erected for that very man, a shudder crept through his frame, and the first omen of coming evil cast its shadow on his spirit.
[Illustration: Herod's Cruel Massacre.]
The way was now clear to Esther, and so the next day, at the banquet, as the king repeated his former offer, she, reclining on the couch, her chiseled form and ravishing beauty inflaming the ardent monarch with love and desire, said in pleading accents: |I ask, O king, for my life, and that of my people. If we had all been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I had held my tongue, great as the evil would have been to thee.| The king started, as if stung by an adder, and with a brow dark as wrath, and a voice that sent Haman to his feet, exclaimed: |Thy life! my queen? Who is he? where is he that dare even harbor such a thought in his heart? He who strikes at thy life, radiant creature, plants his presumptuous blow on his monarch's bosom.| |That man,| said the lovely pleader, |is the wicked Haman.| Darting one look of vengeance on the petrified favorite, he strode forth into the garden to control his boiling passions. Haman saw at once that his only hope now was in moving the sympathies of the queen in his behalf; and approaching her, he began to plead most piteously for his life. In his agony he fell on the couch where she lay, and while in this position the king returned. |What!| he exclaimed, |will he violate the queen here in my own palace!| Nothing more was said; no order was given. The look and voice of terrible wrath in which this was said, were sufficient. The attendants simply spread a cloth over Haman's face, and not a word was spoken. Those who came in, when they saw the covered countenance, knew the import. It was the sentence of death. The vaulting favorite himself dare not remove it -- he must die, and the quicker the agony is over, the better. In a few hours he was swinging on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai.
After this, the queen's power was supreme -- every thing she asked was granted. To please her he let his palace flow in the blood of five hundred of his subjects, whom the Jews slew in self-defence. For her he hung Haman's ten sons on the gallows where the father had suffered before them. For her he made Mordecai prime minister, and lavished boundless favors on the hitherto oppressed Hebrews. And right worthy was she of all he did for her. Lovely in character as she was in person, her sudden elevation did not make her vain, nor her power haughty. The same gentle, pure, and noble creature when queen, as when living in the lowly habitation of her cousin, generous, disinterested, and ready to die for others, she is one of the loveliest characters furnished in the annals of history.
It is a little singular that the words, God or Providence, are not mentioned in the whole book of Esther. The writer seems studiously to have avoided any reference to them, as if he did not wish to recognize the interposition of Heaven in any of the events that transpired; while his narrative is evidently designed to teach nothing else. The hand of Providence is everywhere seen managing the whole scheme.
But the greatest acts of Providence awaken the least attention among blind, mortal men. We are startled when some great occurrence meets us, but overlook the vast effects which follow causes that attracted no eye but God's. We see the flying timbers and flaming ruins of a conflagration, and forget that a concealed spark did it all.
A noble mind and body are wrecked, and many weep; yet how few think that the blast of moral ruin which stranded the life-bark, was once the quiet breath of a mother's unholy influence leading the boy astray.
So the splendid career of a hero and patriot, like Mordecai, Moses, or Washington, is less glorious than the simple decision made amid the conflicting emotions of youthful aspiration to honor God and serve a struggling country.
Jehovah illustrates this principle in all his administration. What to Elijah on the solemn mount was the sweep of the hurricane, rending the cliffs and tossing rocks like withered leaves in air -- the thunder of the earthquake's march -- the blinding glow of the mantling flame -- compared to the |still small voice| that thrilled on his ear, so full of God! It is not strange that there is to be a reckoning for |idle words| even, for they have shaken the world, and their echo will never die away.
Their mutual love and devout character, remind us of the affectionate fidelity to each other and to God, of Ruth the Moabitess, and her Hebrew mother-in-law Naomi, who lived in the time of the Judges.
Naomi's family were self-exiled on account of famine in Palestine. Ruth had married a man of Moab; but he and her father-in-law died. A sister whose husband was brother to her own, was also a widow; and when Naomi determined to return to her native land, at her request, Orphah sought her people and friends.
Ruth would not leave the pilgrim to the Holy Land. Embracing Naomi, she said: |Entreat me not to leave thee, for where thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be mine, and thy God my God: where thou diest I will die, and there will I be buried: naught but death shall part us.|
Beautiful and brave heart! home, and friends, and wealth, nay, the gods she had been taught to worship, were all forgotten in the warmth of her affection. Tearful yet firm, |Entreat me not to leave thee,| she said. |I care not for the future; I can bear the worst; and when thou art taken from me, I will linger around thy grave till I die, and then the stranger shall lay me by thy side!| What could Naomi do but fold the beautiful being to her bosom and be silent, except as tears gave utterance to her emotions. Such a heart outweighs the treasures of the world, and such absorbing love, truth, and virtue, make all the accomplishments of life appear worthless in comparison.
God blessed their devotion to him and each other, giving his special tokens of favor to the young heroine from Moab. Upon reaching Bethlehem, she went into the fields of a kinsman of her mother-in-law, Boaz, a wealthy citizen, to glean after the reapers. He inquired after her, became interested in her, and, remembering his obligations on account of their relationship, married her. An honorable portion and plenty crowned the homeless wanderings of Ruth and Naomi, as they did the captivity of Mordecai and Esther.
About two hundred years after the death of the latter, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek by the order of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Egyptian sovereign of Palestine, making the famous Septuagint -- the name probably referring to seventy-two persons engaged on the work.
A little over two centuries passed, and the Roman armies began their conquests in Asia. Less than a score of years later Herod the Great governed Judea, under the Roman emperor. This Herod, whose reign closed the ancient annals of Palestine, was an Edomite -- a cruel and ambitious man.
Less than thirty years passed, and one of the darkest, bloodiest acts of any sovereign since time began, disgraced the reign of Herod.
Jerusalem was astonished by the arrival of three sages from the distant east, inquiring for a new-born king, saying that they had seen |his star,| and had come to offer him their gifts and homage. They found him in the manger at Bethlehem: and then repaired to their own country without returning to Jerusalem, as Herod had desired. The jealousy of that tyrant had been awakened by their inquiry for the |King of the Jews;| and as their neglect to return prevented him from distinguishing the object of their homage, he had the inconceivable barbarity to order that all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age should be put to death, trusting that the intended victim would fall in the general slaughter; but Joseph had previously been warned in a dream to take his wife and the infant to the land of Egypt, whence they did not return till after the death of Herod.
That event was not long delayed. In the sixty-ninth year of his age. Herod fell ill of the disease which occasioned his death. That disease was in his bowels, and not only put him to the most cruel tortures, but rendered him altogether loathsome to himself and others. The natural ferocity of his temper could not be tamed by such experience. Knowing that the nation would little regret his death, he ordered the persons of chief note to be confined in a tower, and all of them to be slain when his own death took place, that there might be cause for weeping in Jerusalem. This savage order was not executed. After a reign of thirty-seven years, Herod died In the seventieth year of his age.
Sir Walter Scott's beautiful |Hebrew Hymn| will fittingly close these sketches of Palestine:
When Israel, of the Lord beloved,
Out from the land of bondage came,
Her father's God before her moved,
An awful guide, in smoke and flame.
By day along the astonished lands,
The cloudy pillar glided slow;
By night Arabia's crimsoned sands
Returned the fiery columns' glow.
There rose the choral hymn of praise,
And trump and timbrel answered keen;
And Zion's daughters poured their lays,
With priests' and warriors' voice between.
No portents now our foes amaze,
Forsaken Israel wanders lone;
Our fathers would not know Thy ways,
And Thou has left them to their own.
But present still, though now unseen,
When brightly shines the prosperous day,
Be thoughts of Thee, a cloudy screen,
To temper the deceitful ray.
And oh! when stoops on Judah's path,
In shade and storm, the frequent night,
Be Thou long-suffering, slow to wrath,
A burning and a shining light.
Our harps we left by Babel's streams,
The tyrant's jest, the Gentile's scorn,
No censer round our altar beams,
And mute our timbrel, trump, and horn,
But thou hast said, |The blood of goat,
The flesh of rams I will not prize,
A contrite heart, an humble thought,
Are more accepted sacrifice.|