The period of the invasion of Babylonia by Cyrus, and the taking of the city, was during the time while the Jews were in captivity there. Cyrus was their deliverer. It results from this circumstance that the name of Cyrus is connected with sacred history more than that of any other great conqueror of ancient times.
It was a common custom in the early ages of the world for powerful sovereigns to take the people of a conquered country captive, and make them slaves. They employed them, to some extent, as personal household servants, but more generally as agricultural laborers, to till the lands.
An account of the captivity of the Jews in Babylon is given briefly in the closing chapters of the second book of Chronicles, though many of the attendant circumstances are more fully detailed in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in the time of the captivity. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, made repeated incursions into the land of Judea, sometimes carrying away the reigning monarch, sometimes deposing him and appointing another sovereign in his stead, sometimes assessing a tax or tribute upon the land, and sometimes plundering the city, and carrying away all the gold and silver that he could find. Thus the kings and the people were kept in a continual state of anxiety and terror for many years, exposed incessantly to the inroads of this nation of robbers and plunderers, that had, so unfortunately for them, found their way across their frontiers. King Zedekiah was the last of this oppressed and unhappy line of Jewish kings.
The prophet Jeremiah was accustomed to denounce the sins of the Jewish nation, by which these terrible calamities had been brought upon them, with great courage, and with an eloquence solemn and sublime. He declared that the miseries which the people suffered were the special judgments of Heaven, and he proclaimed repeatedly and openly, and in the most public places of the city, still heavier calamities which he said were impending. The people were troubled and distressed at these prophetic warnings, and some of them were deeply incensed against Jeremiah for uttering them. Finally, on one occasion, he took his stand in one of the public courts of the Temple, and, addressing the concourse of priests and people that were there, he declared that, unless the nation repented of their sins and turned to God, the whole city should be overwhelmed. Even the Temple itself, the sacred house of God, should be destroyed, and the very site abandoned.
The priests and the people who heard this denunciation were greatly exasperated. They seized Jeremiah, and brought him before a great judicial assembly for trial. The judges asked him why he uttered such predictions, declaring that by doing so he acted like an enemy to his country and a traitor, and that he deserved to die. The excitement was very great against him, and the populace could hardly be restrained from open violence. In the midst of this scene Jeremiah was calm and unmoved, and replied to their accusations as follows:
"Every thing which I have said against this city and this house, I have said by the direction of the Lord Jehovah. Instead of resenting it, and being angry with me for delivering my message, it becomes you to look at your sins, and repent of them, and forsake them. It may be that by so doing God will have mercy upon you, and will avert the calamities which otherwise will most certainly come. As for myself, here I am in your hands. You can deal with me just as you think best. You can kill me if you will, but you may be assured that if you do so, you will bring the guilt and the consequences of shedding innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city. I have said nothing and foretold nothing but by commandment of the Lord."
The speech produced, as might have been expected, a great division among the hearers. Some were more angry than ever, and were eager to put the prophet to death. Others defended him, and insisted that he should not die. The latter, for the time, prevailed. Jeremiah was set at liberty, and continued his earnest expostulations with the people on account of their sins, and his terrible annunciations of the impending ruin of the city just as before.
These unwelcome truths being so painful for the people to hear, other prophets soon began to appear to utter contrary predictions, for the sake, doubtless, of the popularity which they should themselves acquire by their promises of returning peace and prosperity. The name of one of these false prophets was Hananiah. On one occasion, Jeremiah, in order to present and enforce what he had to say more effectually on the minds of the people by means of a visible symbol, made a small wooden yoke, by divine direction, and placed it upon his neck, as a token of the bondage which his predictions were threatening. Hananiah took this yoke from his neck and broke it, saying that, as he had thus broken Jeremiah's wooden yoke, so God would break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar from all nations within two years; and then, even those of the Jews who had already been taken captive to Babylon should return again in peace. Jeremiah replied that Hananiah's predictions were false, and that, though the wooden yoke was broken, God would make for Nebuchadnezzar a yoke of iron, with which he should bend the Jewish nation in a bondage more cruel than ever. Still, Jeremiah himself predicted that after seventy years from the time when the last great captivity should come, the Jews should all be restored again to their native land.
He expressed this certain restoration of the Jews, on one occasion, by a sort of symbol, by means of which he made a much stronger impression on the minds of the people than could have been done by simple words. There was a piece of land in the country of Benjamin, one of the provinces of Judea, which belonged to the family of Jeremiah, and it was held in such a way that, by paying a certain sum of money, Jeremiah himself might possess it, the right of redemption being in him. Jeremiah was in prison at this time. His uncle's son came into the court of the prison, and proposed to him to purchase the land. Jeremiah did so in the most public and formal manner. The title deeds were drawn up and subscribed, witnesses were summoned, the money weighed and paid over, the whole transaction being regularly completed according to the forms and usages then common for the conveyance of landed property. When all was finished, Jeremiah gave the papers into the hands of his scribe, directing him to put them safely away and preserve them with care, for after a certain period the country of Judea would again be restored to the peaceable possession of the Jews, and such titles to land would possess once more their full and original value.
On one occasion, when Jeremiah's personal liberty was restricted so that he could not utter publicly, himself, his prophetical warnings, he employed Baruch, his scribe, to write them from his dictation, with a view of reading them to the people from some public and frequented part of the city. The prophecy thus dictated was inscribed upon a roll of parchment. Baruch waited, when he had completed the writing, until a favorable opportunity occurred for reading it, which was on the occasion of a great festival that was held at Jerusalem, and which brought the inhabitants of the land together from all parts of Judea. On the day of the festival, Baruch took the roll in his hand, and stationed himself at a very public place, at the entrance of one of the great courts of the Temple; there, calling upon the people to hear him, he began to read. A great concourse gathered around him, and all listened to him with profound attention. One of the by-standers, however, went down immediately into the city, to the king's palace, and reported to the king's council, who were then assembled there, that a great concourse was convened in one of the courts of the Temple, and that Baruch was there reading to them a discourse or prophecy which had been written by Jeremiah. The members of the council sent a summons to Baruch to come immediately to them, and to bring his writing with him.
When Baruch arrived, they directed him to read what he had written. Baruch accordingly read it. They asked him when and how that discourse was written. Baruch replied that he had written it, word by word, from the dictation of Jeremiah. The officers informed him that they should be obliged to report the circumstances to the king, and they counseled Baruch to go to Jeremiah and recommend to him to conceal himself, lest the king, in his anger, should do him some sudden and violent injury.
The officers then, leaving the roll in one of their own apartments, went to the king, and reported the facts to him. He sent one of his attendants, named Jehudi, to bring the roll. When it came, the king directed Jehudi to read it. Jehudi did so, standing by a fire which had been made in the apartment, for it was bitter cold.
After Jehudi had read a few pages from the roll, finding that it contained a repetition of the same denunciations and warnings by which the king had often been displeased before, he took a knife and began to cut the parchment into pieces, and to throw it on the fire. Some other persons who were standing by interfered, and earnestly begged the king not to allow the roll to be burned. But the king did not interfere. He permitted Jehudi to destroy the parchment altogether, and then sent officers to take Jeremiah and Baruch, and bring them to him, but they were nowhere to be found.
The prophet, on one occasion, was reduced to extreme distress by the persecutions which his faithfulness, and the incessant urgency of his warnings and expostulations had brought upon him. It was at a time when the Chaldean armies had been driven away from Jerusalem for a short period by the Egyptians, as one vulture drives away another from its prey. Jeremiah determined to avail himself of the opportunity to go to the province of Benjamin, to visit his friends and family there. He was intercepted, however, at one of the gates, on his way, and accused of a design to make his escape from the city, and go over to the Chaldeans. The prophet earnestly denied this charge. They paid no regard to his declarations, but sent him back to Jerusalem, to the officers of the king's government, who confined him in a house which they used as a prison.
After he had remained in this place of confinement for several days, the king sent and took him from it, and brought him to the palace. The king inquired whether he had any prophecy to utter from the Lord. Jeremiah replied that the word of the Lord was, that the Chaldeans should certainly return again, and that Zedekiah himself should fall into their hands, and be carried captive to Babylon. While he thus persisted so strenuously in the declarations which he had made so often before, he demanded of the king that he should not be sent back again to the house of imprisonment from which he had been rescued. The king said he would not send him back, and he accordingly directed, instead, that he should be taken to the court of the public prison, where his confinement would be less rigorous, and there he was to be supplied daily with food, so long, as the king expressed it, as there should be any food remaining in the city.
But Jeremiah's enemies were not at rest. They came again, after a time, to the king, and represented to him that the prophet, by his gloomy and terrible predictions, discouraged and depressed the hearts of the people, and weakened their hands; that he ought, accordingly, to be regarded as a public enemy; and they begged the king to proceed decidedly against him. The king replied that he would give him into their hands, and they might do with him what they pleased.
There was a dungeon in the prison, the only access to which was from above. Prisoners were let down into it with ropes, and left there to die of hunger. The bottom of it was wet and miry, and the prophet, when let down into its gloomy depths, sank into the deep mire. Here he would soon have died of hunger and misery; but the king, feeling some misgivings in regard to what he had done, lest it might really be a true prophet of God that he had thus delivered into the hands of his enemies, inquired what the people had done with their prisoner; and when he learned that he had been thus, as it were, buried alive, he immediately sent officers with orders to take him out of the dungeon. The officers went to the dungeon. They opened the mouth of it. They had brought ropes with them, to be used for drawing the unhappy prisoner up, and cloths, also, which he was to fold together and place under his arms, where the ropes were to pass. These ropes and cloths they let down into the dungeon, and called upon Jeremiah to place them properly around his body. Thus they drew him safely up out of the dismal den.
Raising Jeremiah from the Dungeon.
These cruel persecutions of the faithful prophet were all unavailing either to silence his voice or to avert the calamities which his warnings portended. At the appointed time, the judgments which had been so long predicted came in all their terrible reality. The Babylonians invaded the land in great force, and encamped about the city. The siege continued for two years. At the end of that time the famine became insupportable. Zedekiah, the king, determined to make a sortie, with as strong a force as he could command, secretly, at night, in hopes to escape with his own life, and intending to leave the city to its fate. He succeeded in passing out through the city gates with his band of followers, and in actually passing the Babylonian lines; but he had not gone far before his escape was discovered. He was pursued and taken. The city was then stormed, and, as usual in such cases, it was given up to plunder and destruction. Vast numbers of the inhabitants were killed; many more were taken captive; the principal buildings, both public and private, were burned; the walls were broken down, and all the public treasures of the Jews, the gold and silver vessels of the Temple, and a vast quantity of private plunder, were carried away to Babylon by the conquerors. All this was seventy years before the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus.
Of course, during the time of this captivity a very considerable portion of the inhabitants of Judea remained in their native land. The deportation of a whole people to a foreign land is impossible. A vast number, however, of the inhabitants of the country were carried away, and they remained, for two generations, in a miserable bondage. Some of them were employed as agricultural laborers in the rural districts of Babylon; others remained in the city, and were engaged in servile labors there. The prophet Daniel lived in the palaces of the king. He was summoned, as the reader will recollect, to Belshazzar's feast, on the night when Cyrus forced his way into the city, to interpret the mysterious writing on the wall, by which the fall of the Babylonian monarchy was announced in so terrible a manner.
One year after Cyrus had conquered Babylon, he issued an edict authorizing the Jews to return to Jerusalem, and to rebuild the city and the Temple. This event had been long before predicted by the prophets, as the result which God had determined upon for purposes of his own. We should not naturally have expected that such a conqueror as Cyrus would feel any real and honest interest in promoting the designs of God; but still, in the proclamation which he issued authorizing the Jews to return, he acknowledged the supreme divinity of Jehovah, and says that he was charged by him with the work of rebuilding his Temple, and restoring his worship at its ancient seat on Mount Zion. It has, however, been supposed by some scholars, who have examined attentively all the circumstances connected with these transactions, that so far as Cyrus was influenced by political considerations in ordering the return of the Jews, his design was to re-establish that nation as a barrier between his dominions and those of the Egyptians. The Egyptians and the Chaldeans had long been deadly enemies, and now that Cyrus had become master of the Chaldean realms, he would, of course, in assuming their territories and their power, be obliged to defend himself against their foes.
Whatever may have been the motives of Cyrus, he decided to allow the Hebrew captives to return, and he issued a proclamation to that effect. As seventy years had elapsed since the captivity commenced, about two generations had passed away, and there could have been very few then living who had ever seen the land of their fathers. The Jews were, however, all eager to return. They collected in a vast assembly, with all the treasures which they were allowed to take, and the stores of provisions and baggage, and with horses, and mules, and other beasts of burden to transport them. When assembled for the march, it was found that the number, of which a very exact census was taken, was forty-nine thousand six hundred and ninety-seven.
They had also with them seven or eight hundred horses, about two hundred and fifty mules, and about five hundred camels. The chief part, however, of their baggage and stores was borne by asses, of which there were nearly seven thousand in the train. The march of this peaceful multitude of families—men, women, and children together—burdened as they went, not with arms and ammunition for conquest and destruction, but with tools and implements for honest industry, and stores of provisions and utensils for the peaceful purposes of social life, as it was, in its bearings and results, one of the grandest events of history, so it must have presented, in its progress, one of the most extraordinary spectacles that the world has ever seen.
The grand caravan pursued its long and toilsome march from Babylon to Jerusalem without molestation. All arrived safely, and the people immediately commenced the work of repairing the walls of the city and rebuilding the Temple. When, at length, the foundations of the Temple were laid, a great celebration was held to commemorate the event. This celebration exhibited a remarkable scene of mingled rejoicing and mourning. The younger part of the population, who had never seen Jerusalem in its former grandeur, felt only exhilaration and joy at their re-establishment in the city of their fathers. The work of raising the edifice, whose foundations they had laid, was to them simply a new enterprise, and they looked forward to the work of carrying it on with pride and pleasure. The old men, however, who remembered the former Temple, were filled with mournful recollections of days of prosperity and peace in their childhood and of the magnificence of the former Temple, which they could now never hope to see realized again. It was customary in those days, to express sorrow and grief by exclamations and outcries, as gladness and joy are expressed audibly now. Accordingly, on this occasion, the cries of grief and of bitter regret at the thought of losses which could now never be retrieved, were mingled with the shouts of rejoicing and triumph raised by the ardent and young, who knew nothing of the past, but looked forward with hope and happiness to the future.
The Jews encountered various hindrances, and met with much opposition in their attempts to reconstruct their ancient city, and to re-establish the Mosaic ritual there. We must, however, now return to the history of Cyrus, referring the reader for a narrative of the circumstances connected with the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the very minute account given in the sacred books of Ezra and Nehemiah.