The Evil Days
It was not long before the portent which the terrified crowd had watched from the walls of Jerusalem found, or at least began to find, its fulfilment, for, indeed, many days were to pass before the wretched people had drained the cup of suffering to the dregs.
First there was the actual arrival of the army, the rumour of whose approach had struck such terror into Jason. At its head came Antiochus in person, fresh from his successful campaigns in Egypt and in his train followed the renegade Menelaüs with a crowd of unscrupulous and profligate adventurers. There was no attempt at resistance. The gates were thrown open by the King's adherents in the city. But if the citizens had hoped to soften the tyrant's heart by their submissive attitude they were miserably disappointed. For days the streets of the city ran red with blood. The prominent members of the patriotic party were the first to perish. Then came all the private enemies of the returning renegades; and then a far greater multitude who were singled out for destruction by the possession of anything that excited the cupidity of the conquerors. Lastly, as ever happens at such times, the massacre that is suggested by hatred or greed was followed by the massacre that is the result of the merest wantonness. But there were victims more unhappy than those who thus perished by the sword of the heathen. The money found on the persons and in the houses of the victims did not satisfy the cupidity of their murderers. There were thousands who had indeed nothing of their own to lose, but who were in themselves a valuable property. These were sent off in droves to be sold, till the slave-markets of the Eastern Mediterranean were glutted with the Jewish youth.
Still worse in the eyes of all pious Jews than the massacre or the captivity was the profanation of the Temple. The innermost shrine, the Holy of Holies, which the high priest himself was permitted by the Law to enter but once only in the year, was thrown open to the unhallowed gaze of a debauched heathen. With a horror that passes description the people saw the renegade Menelaüs, bound to be the guardian of the sanctity of the place, actually drawing aside the veil with his own hand, and conducting the King into the awful enclosure. They saw the most sacred treasures, gifts of the piety of many generations, treasures to which the revenue of the Persian kings, and even of the victorious Alexander himself had contributed, become the spoil of the sacrilegious intruders. The golden altar of incense and the table of the shew-bread were taken by the King,while the seven-branched candlestick of gold fell, as was commonly believed, to the high priest himself. They saw it, and it almost overturned their faith that no visible sign of the Divine wrath followed an impiety so terrible.
So Antiochus came and went, leaving behind him as his deputy, Philip, the Phrygian, "in manners more barbarous than he who set him there." The time that followed was one of grievous depression and sadness. Life went on, as it will even amidst the gloomiest circumstances, but all the joy and brightness were crushed out of it.
Micah's sister, the Hannah whom we have seen talking to him on the wall, gave birth to a son shortly after the departure of Antiochus. No feast was held on occasion of the rite that made the little one a member of the family of Abraham. When the forty days of purification were past, the mother was not taken to present her offspring in the Temple. The Temple, the haunt of pagans and apostates, was no place for faithful sons and daughters of Abraham. A visit to its courts could hardly be the seal of purification when it needed purifying so sorely itself.
An occasion that should by right have been still more joyful was allowed to pass with the absence of festivity. A younger sister of Hannah, Ruth by name, had long before been promised to Seraiah, a friend and relative of her husband. Time after time the marriage had been postponed, under the pressure of evil times; and when at last it was performed, not even then without sore misgivings and anticipations of evil among all the elders of the family, the celebration was of the quietest kind. Not a guest beyond the few friends who attended on the bridegroom was invited; and it was in dead silence, not with the usual shouts of merriment and gay procession of torches, that the bride was taken to her husband's home.
And yet, as we shall see, even for these evils there was a compensating good.
Micah, though he had affected to make light of the foreboding of evil which he had heard from his sister, had really been impressed by it—so much impressed, indeed, that he had left the city for a little country house at the northern end of the Lake of Galilee, that belonged to him. He had invited his relatives to accompany him, but they had declined. Their place, they said, was at home, among their poorer brethren, where they might do something to help and strengthen. All that Micah could do was to commend them to the protection of the Greek party in the city, with whom, in spite of his increasing disgust at their proceedings, he had not yet broken.
He had now returned, and he lost no time in finding his way to his sister's house. The ravages made by fire and sword were only too plainly visible as he walked along. Houses that he had known from his childhood, in which he had often been a guest, were now but blackened walls; others were shapeless ruins. Again and again he saw on fragments of stone and plaster hideous blotches which he knew to be of blood; and as he saw these things he cursed aloud the hands which had wrought these horrors, not without the bitterest self-reproach that his own hand might have grasped them in friendship.
It was a great relief to find that his sister's house had been spared any outrage. But when he demanded admittance in the usual way, by kicking the door, it became evident that there had been a reign of terror, and that the inmates of the dwelling were not sure that it was yet over. The door was not thrown open in the usual free fashion of Jewish hospitality, but he became aware by a slight movement of one of the closed lattices that he was being inspected from above. The inspection was apparently satisfactory, for in another minute there was a sound of undrawing bolts and unfastening chains, and the inhospitable door was at last open. Hannah, sadly aged in look her brother thought, met him in the hall, and greeted him with a silent embrace. After a pause, in which she seemed to be struggling with her tears, she said—
"Welcome, dear Micah; while you and my husband and my children are left to me I feel that I cannot be unhappy. And perhaps you," she added, with a wistful look in his face, "will draw nearer to us now. But come and see my dear ones."
She led the way to a room at the back of the house, looking out into a little garden shaded by a wide-branching fig-tree. Hannah noiselessly drew aside the curtain that served for a door, and the two stood by common consent and watched the scene that met their eyes. Azariah, the father of the family, was sitting with his back turned to them, holding on his knees a copy of the Law. On two stools at his feet sat his daughters, each holding in one hand a tablet covered with wax, and in the other a stylus or sharp-pointed iron pen. He was slowly dictating to them the words, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord," and the little creatures were laboriously forming, not without many pauses for thought, the scarcely familiar letters.
"Now read it, my children," said Azariah, when the task was finished; and one after another the sweet, childish voices repeated the well-known words. Micah, as he listened, felt himself strangely touched. Presently he heard his sister murmur to herself, "In Thy Law will I meditate day and night," and glancing at her face saw it illumined a joy which he could scarcely have believed those wasted features capable of expressing.
" 'Tis well, Miriam; 'tis well, Judith," said Azariah to the little girls, and putting his hands upon their heads, as they stood before him, for they had risen to repeat the holy words, he repeated, "The God of Abraham and Sarah bless you:" And then, for they were mere children after all, and not above childish rewards, gave each a ripe fig from a basket which stood on a table by his side.
The lesson being over, Hannah advanced, and her brother followed. Azariah turned and greeted the new comer not unkindly, but with a certain reserve, for he could not forget that his visitor was a Menander as well as a Micah, and that he had been the friend of the traitorous Jason, and the yet more traitorous Menelaüs. The children, after their first feeling of alarm, for a strange face was seldom seen in that home, and when Miriam, the elder, had recognized her uncle, showed no reserve in their welcome. They clung about his neck, and kissed him. They insisted on his coming to see their pets—Miriam's turtle-doves, and Judith's dormice, and the little gazelle fawn which they owned in common. "They have not heard a word against me," thought Micah to himself; and this affectionate loyalty touched him to the heart. From his sister he might, perhaps, have expected it, but that the stern Azariah, a narrow-minded bigot, without a kindly thought for any that did not walk in his way, as he had been accustomed to think of him—that Azariah himself should have dealt with him so mercifully, was a surprise as it was also a reproach.
He stopped with them for the rest of the day, and after the evening meal, when the little ones had gone to bed, after making their uncle promise that he would soon come and see them again, the three had much serious talk together.
Micah had, of course, the family history to hear, for, stranger as he had been to them for some years past, he knew scarcely anything about it. He learnt now for the first time that a little boy had been born who, had he lived, would have been about two years younger than Judith. The mother had much to say about his beauty and goodness, and his rare promise of intelligence. Micah was touched all the more because he could not forgive himself for the alienation which had prevented him from saying a word of comfort to his sister in the hour of her bereavement. "It was, indeed, a terrible loss," and he rose from his seat and kissed her. He felt that this little proof of his love would be better than many words.
"Nay," she said, with a cheerfulness that almost startled him—"nay; you must not say that we have lost our dear little Joshua. I know that I have a son still, though he is not here. I confess that it was very hard to part with him. But he is quite safe in Abraham's bosom, safer and better off," she added with a sad smile, "than he would be here; and some day I shall see him, and show him to you, dear Micah, and we shall be happy together."
After this the little party had much talk about the state of things in the present, and the prospects of the future. Again Micah was astonished to see the cheerfulness and courage which his sister and her husband kept up in the midst of circumstances which must have been most disheartening.
"Ah!" said Azariah, when the conversation turned upon the desolation of the Temple, and the loss of all the ceremonial of worship, the daily sacrifice, and the great festivals of the year—"Ah! there are consolations even here. Perhaps we thought too much of these things in the old time. We were taken up with the outside, with the show and the splendour, the vessels of gold, and the clouds of incense smoke as they curled about the pillars and the roof, and we forgot what they meant. But now that the outside things are taken from us, we can give our hearts to that which is within. We have our gatherings still, though the Temple doors are shut. Every Sabbath-day we meet, and the Law and the Prophets are read in our ears—aye, and there are those who can expound them, and speak words that comfort and strengthen us. I, myself, have felt the Spirit move me once or twice to exhort and cheer the brethren. No, brother! believe me, it is not wholly loss that we cannot assemble any more in our beautiful house. Our fathers learnt much when they sat mourning by the waters of Babylon, and we also are learning much in this our second captivity."
This sounded strange to the young man, who, indeed, had dulled his understanding of spiritual things by his follies and excesses. Still he could not help feeling deeply impressed by the evident earnestness of the speaker. But he felt that he could say nothing. A trifler and unbeliever like himself could only remain silent in the presence of thoughts and feelings so much higher than anything to which he could reach.
After a short pause Azariah went on—"The Lord has not seen fit to renew among us the spirit of prophecy, and we know not certainly of the things that are coming upon the earth. Yet a man, though he be no prophet, may read the signs of the times. Believe me, there are days to come more full of evil and darkness even than those that we have seen. My heart sometimes fails me when I think of this dear woman," and as he spoke he laid his hand upon his wife's shoulder, "and of the little ones whom God has given us. It will be a hard time for men to battle through—but for women and children——." And his voice faltered.
Hannah turned to him with her brave, cheerful smile—" 'As thy days, so shall thy strength be.' The great prophet said it, did he not, to all his people—to the weak ones as well as to the strong?"
Shortly after Micah took his leave. As he walked through the deserted streets he thought much of the words which he had heard that night, and still more of the cheerfulness and courage, ten times more eloquent than all words, which he had witnessed.
"Is all this a delusion?" he asked himself. "Six months ago, perhaps even six hours ago, I should have had little doubt in saying so. But now—well, if it is a delusion, it is strangely like a reality. Anyhow its effects are real enough. Dear Hannah! always the best and kindest of sisters, but a timid creature, whom I used to amuse myself by frightening. But now—she is as bold as a lioness. Well, I can only hope that the truths which I have been learning, if they are truths, will stand me in as good stead when the need comes."