The Falling Away
Though Jerusalem was almost wild with joy—and, indeed, so utterly, had the Greek army disappeared that deliverance was complete for the time—Judas's heart was full of sad forebodings. Demetrius, he knew, had a steadfastness of purpose which augured ill for the future. He was not a madman like Epiphanes, nor a child like Eupator; but a cool-headed, resolute man, who had seen something of the world, and would carry out his plans with both perseverance and skill. Would he sit down under the defeats which he had received and recognize Jewish independence? Judas thought it unlikely. The vengeance might be laid aside, but it would be sure to come. Could he hope to repeat these victories again and again? Once before he had been reduced to the greatest straits, and had only escaped by an unexpected change in the purpose of the young Antiochus. Could he look for anything so marvellous again? Only one plan appeared to him to be possible, and he lost no time in calling a council of his principal followers and announcing it to them. It was certain, he told them, that there would be another war, and a war that would last for years, if only the Jewish people could hold out so long. "We warriors may endure it, and if the worst come to the worst, we can but fall on the field of battle. But what of the old and the weak? What of the women and children? And then we are not united. Our foes are of our own household. We have to fight not only against the Greek, but against the Jew also. And even in this assembly there are some," he went on, with an emphasis which could not be mistaken, "who speak evil of me behind my back. What, then, shall we do? Speak, any one who has counsel to give."
The appeal was met with silence, and the speaker continued, "You have nothing to advise. Listen, therefore, to my counsel, and resist it not in haste because it seems strange. There is a nation that, rising from a beginning small as ours, has now made for itself a great dominion. They are stern to their enemies, but they are just and faithful to their friends. Like Israel in the earlier and better days, they have no king to rule them after his own pleasure, but an assembly that weighs every plan carefully and wisely. And in battle they cannot be resisted. Have you heard of such a people?"
One or two voices answered with the word "Rome."
"You have said well," he said; "it is of the Romans that I have been speaking. Let us make alliance with them. We shall be, as it were, an outpost for them against the King of Syria, against whom they have fought already, and, doubtless, will fight again. And they will be a protection to us. And with the Romans on our side, we need fear the Greeks no more."
One of two of the council were in Judas's secret. Others had guessed? more or less correctly, what he was intending, but on most the announcement of his intention fell like a thunderbolt. For a few moments there was the pause of intense astonishment. Then followed a burst of indignation, in which, of course, the Chasidim led the way.
"Say not," cried one of their chief speakers, "the Romans are like to Israel because they have no king. Did not Samuel say to the people, when they fell away from their faith because Nahash the Ammonite, and would have a king after the manner of the heathen round about, 'The Lord your God is your King.' And shall we, knowing that the Lord Jehovah is the King of the Jews, reject Him from reigning over us, and choose us for rulers an assembly of some three hundred idolaters. Will you set these men of sin to be lords over the City of God?"
"Nay," replied Judas, "you speak unadvisedly and rashly. We shall have our own rulers. We shall worship after our own way. The Romans will help us in war; and we shall help them as we only can. Did not David make friendship and alliance with Hiram, King of Tyre, and did not Solomon, in whose reign was peace, make that friendship and alliance yet closer?"
The Chasidim replied, quoting the prophets and denunciations of the Egyptian alliance. "Even that accursed Rabshakeh," they said, "spoke the truth, when he said that Pharaoh, King of Egypt, was a bruised reed which will go into a man's hand and pierce it, if he lean upon, it. So shall it be with thee, if thou lean upon Rome."
The war of words raged long and furiously. The Chasidim had the best of the argument, but to the majority of the council the prospect of a settled peace was irresistibly alluring. And the influence of Judas, too, was overpowering. By a large majority it was decided to send to Rome, Eupolemus, the son of John, and Jason, the son of Eleazar, envoys who had been selected for the mission by Judas himself.
When the resolution had been passed the council broke up, and the Chasidim dispersed with dark looks and saddened hearts. The next few days passed in uncertainty and gloom. No news had come from Antioch as to the movements or intentions of the King. But there was little doubt as to what he would do. Whatever they might try to believe in their secret hearts they could not but own that when the opportunity came Demetrius would deal them a blow into which he would put all his strength.
And how would that blow be met? Would they be able to escape it, or parry it, or stand up against it? The Chasidim, the Ironsides, the men who had been the stay and strength of Judas's armies, who had followed him to victory at Beth-zur, at Beth-horon, at Adasa, were miserably dejected. The embassy to Rome had broken their spirits. The issue, before so simple to these stern souls, narrow, perhaps, in their range of vision, but of a clear and single eye, was now confused. While they fought for the Lord against the gods of the heathen, they could confidently expect that He would show Himself greater than all gods, and this faith had made them irresistible. But now, if Jew and Roman were to fight side by side, with what confidence could they call upon the Lord of Hosts? Was He the Lord of that host, in whose ranks were ranged the battalions of the uncircumcised?
Some left the leader whom they now regarded as unfaithful to his trust, and departed to distant villages, hanging up the swords which they were steadfastly resolved not to draw side by side with the heathen. Others, in whom the military instinct of discipline, or the personal attachment to Judas, as the general who had led them so often to victory, were so strong as to overpower all other considerations, remained with him. Nothing could take them from his side, but they went with heavy hearts and with an outlook on the future that was almost hopeless.
Meanwhile the embassy started. What the answer of the Romans would be Judas did not doubt. They would rejoice to secure the alliance of a people who could lend them aid so useful. But would the answer come in time to save the city and the Temple from the wrath of Demetrius?
And indeed that wrath did not linger. Within a month Bacchides was on his way from Antioch with a force of twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse. The renegade Alcimus accompanied him, and was to be reinstated in his high-priesthood. Their line of march was through Galilee. On their way they took the fortified town of Masaloth, and put the garrison to the sword. It was about the time of the Passover feast that the invaders reached Jerusalem. There was some talk about attacking it; but Alcimus was urgent in resisting the proposal. "The King's quarrel," he said, "is with Judas, who is the cause of all this mischief, and Judas is not here. And the King has commanded that I should be replaced in my office; but what shall my office profit me if there be no city for me to govern, nor Temple in which I am to minister?" Bacchides yielded to these representations, and leaving the city unhurt marched to Beeroth (a few miles north-east of Jerusalem) and there pitched his camp.
Among the patriots there was such doubt and dismay as had never been felt from the day when the aged Mattathias struck the first blow for freedom, not even in that dark hour when Judas and his famine-stricken followers were about to make their desperate sally from the Temple fortress. It was not that they were fighting against overwhelming odds, for they had faced as great before; it was that they had lost their unquestioning faith in their leader.
"Ah!" said Micah to Azariah, when they were discussing the matter for the twentieth time—and indeed it was almost the only subject of their talk—"I have seen these heathen from near at hand—I say it with shame—and I know that they are better than you, better than Judas, who is so good that he can scarcely believe that other men are bad. "He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled," says Jesus, the son of Sirach, and though our captain is greater than other men, in this matter he is but as they are. What madness drove him to meddle with the accursed thing? God forgive me if I speak evil of the ruler of my people, but I must say that whch is in my heart."
"Nay," said Azariah, still loyal to his great-hearted chief, though he too had doubts which he had to crush down by sheer force of will—"nay, you go too far. Did not Jehoshaphat, the servant of the Lord, make alliance with the children of Edom when he fought against Mesha, the King of Moab?"
"But the children of Edom," answered Micah, "were akin to our people; but as for these Romans, they are utterly unclean. O, brother, I have often thought whether, as a faithful servant of the Law, I could remain any longer with the captain."
"You will not leave us?" cried Azariah—"it only wants that, and I shall be ready to fall on my own sword."
"No; I shall not go. If I am wrong the Lord pardon me; but I cannot go when so many are falling away. Yet if these Romans come—then I shall depart."
"They will not come—at least before the battle. Judas knows it, and it troubles him. As for me, I know not. But this I know, that he is the servant of the Lord, and I will follow him to the death. Nevertheless I cry day and night unto the God of Israel that He will not suffer His servants to be found fighting in the ranks of them that know Him not."
There were the same doubts among the faithful in the city. The aged Shemaiah had been in the Temple all day, assisting at the sacrifices which were being offered, and the prayers which were being put up for the success of Judas and his army. All night the services would be continued; but the old man was utterly worn out, and he had been led back by one of the Levites to Seraiah's house.
"Father," said Ruth, "do you think that our prayers are heard? I know that God does not vouchsafe the visible signs of His presence in His Temple as He did in the days of old, and that He does not touch with fire from heaven the sacrifice that He accepts. But yet He sometimes seems to answer, and we feel in our hearts that He will give us what we ask. Has it been so to-day with you, father?"
There was a touching eagerness in her manner, as she put the question. Not Miriam, not Deborah, had loved their country with a sincerer passion than did she; and then she had a husband and a brother in the camp, and she knew that before another sun had set, their fate and the fate of their country would be decided.
The priest shook his head. "My daughter," he said, "I can give you no comfort, for no comfort has been given to me. My heart was cold within me while I prayed, for I could not forget that the servant of the Lord had touched the accursed thing when he sought the alliance of the Romans."
"O sir," broke in "Huldah, who had been eagerly listening, "he did not do it for his own gain or advancement. He did but seek the peace of Israel."
"Daughter," said the old man, solemnly, "there are that cry 'Peace! Peace!' when there is no peace; and that is no peace which can be got only by unlawful dealing with the heathen. It is God, and God only, that can give this blessing to His people. And He has greater blessings in store than this. Does Judas seek to be honoured and to make us honoured by the nations round about? If he would be in truth the servant of the Lord let him rather be content with the lot of which Isaiah the prophet speaks: 'He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.' So only shall he make many righteous; so only shall he be exalted of God. This is the lot of the chosen people: not to live at ease among the nations."