The heathen in the fort observed the return as they had observed the departure of the expedition that had ended so disastrously. Their sallies became fiercer, and more frequent, and Azariah, his forces weakened by the loss of two thousand men, found it difficult to repel them. Nothing could have exceeded the energy with which he devoted himself to this duty, or the courage with which he executed it. Night and day he was at his post, for it was here only that he found a refuge from the anguish and doubt which tormented him; here only the reproaches of the widows of the slain could not follow him. He allowed himself no rest; sleep he seemed absolutely to do without, and food he hastily snatched at any moment when the opportunity offered.
One remission only from this task he allowed himself, and this because it was a duty. He paid a daily visit to his children. They, too, poor little souls, had not escaped a share in the trouble. The life which they had led for the last two years had developed their understanding beyond their age, and they felt, if they did not fully appreciate, their father's unhappiness. One consolation they had, the care of two little orphans—the father had fallen in the expedition, and the mother had been struck down by the news of her husband's death—who had been taken into the house and put under the charge of the elderly kinswoman who looked after Azariah's household.
On one of these occasions he found the aged Shemaiah. His first impulse was to avoid the old man, but a few words of sympathy overcame him; his self-control broke down, and hiding his face in his robe he shed the rare and painful tears of a man.
When the first outburst of grief was over he spoke.
"Tell me, father, why has God forsaken His servant who trusted in Him. I went out in faith—and see the end. Would that I had died in the battle!"
"My son, may it not be that you tempted the Lord? Did you count the cost when you went forth against Gorgias, whether you had force sufficient for the attack, or skill to handle it?"
Does faith, then, go for nothing? Had Judas men enough, as soldiers reckon in such matters, or skill enough, seeing that he had had no experience in war, when he overthrew Apollonius? Yet the Lord gave him the victory because he trusted in Him."
"My son, God gave the victory to Judas, having first given him not strength only and courage, but skill also and understanding. He gives not the same gifts to all: to Moses wisdom and learning, but to Aaron eloquent speech; to David the arts of war, but to Solomon the arts of peace. Think you that because you are a servant of the Lord, you are therefore to choose the service that you will do? You would be captain of the Lord's host like Judas. Would you also indite psalms with David, and devise proverbs with Solomon? The Spirit of the Lord divideth to every man severally as He will. To Mattathias He gave discernment to see in Judas the leader and commander of the people, and the people were obedient to him. And so Judas discerned in you one who might be entrusted with the defence of the city, but not with the warfare against the heathen that are without. This was your service, but you were not content with it. Think not that the Lord has forgotten you, but rather that you have left the place in which you were set."
This was plain speaking, but given with such gentleness and sympathy that the rebuke healed more than it wounded. Humbled yet comforted, Azariah returned to his post before the fortress. But he could not forget that his great trial was yet to come. Nor was it long delayed. The next day it was evident that something was happening that had attracted the attention of the garrison. The highest tower was crowded with soldiers who were intently watching something that could not be seen from below. And indeed it was a remarkable spectacle. Judas was returning with his victorious army, escorting at the same time a vast crowd of non-combatants, men, women, and children, the whole population of the country beyond Jordan, which could no longer be inhabited with safety, and all Jerusalem had gone out to meet the champion. Then, in a moment, the tower was deserted, the gates were thrown open, and a furious sortie, the last that could be attempted with any hope of success, was made with the whole force of the garrison. It was with a desperate courage that Azariah repelled the attack. Never had he exposed himself so recklessly. He could almost have wished to fall in the fight; for now the dreaded meeting was at hand, and he had to render up to his chief the trust which he had so abused. The attack was repelled, and then Azariah had to remain in an inaction that was almost unbearable till he should be summoned to the interview with his chief.
The sun was just setting when a soldier presented himself, and, after saluting, said, "The general seeks you."
"Has he summoned the council?" asked Azariah, who dreaded a public censure.
"Nay," said the man; "he is alone."
And Azariah followed him to the captain's house, with such a tremor in his heart as no dangers of battle had ever caused.
What followed at the meeting was never known, save as far as the result was concerned. Shemaiah was awaiting his return, and the first glance showed the old man that things had gone well with his friend. The burden of trouble was gone. Azariah looked brighter and more cheerful—so great is the force of reaction—than he had done since he had lost his Hannah. Shemaiah felt that there was no need to question him, and waited in silence for what his friend should please to tell him. What he heard was this:
"The captain would have kept me in the office to which he appointed me when he departed. He said—and I repeat his words, not for my own glory, but for a proof of his generosity—'No man could have better kept the heathen from the fort in check than you have done. Therefore, I would have you stay where you are. I must go again to the wars, for the Idumeans and the Philistines have to be subdued. And I shall go with a lighter heart, leaving the defence of the city in your hands.' But I said to him, 'O my lord, let me rather go with you. You have accomplished to the full the work unto which you were sent of God, and have come back, having redeemed from captivity and death our brethren from beyond the river, nor lost one of your own people. But I, going in the presumption of my heart to a warfare unto which I was not sent, have accomplished nothing; I have wrought no deliverance for my people, and the bones of two thousand of my brethren lie scattered on the plain. Henceforth I am but a sword in the hand of the servant of the Lord.' But the captain said nothing. Let it be as he will. As for me, I am content, for I know that he has pardoned me."
Whatever the kind of service in which Judas might see fit to employ his lieutenant, it was clear that there would be no lack of work for him to do.
The victories of Judas in Gilead had been followed by successes won by Simon in Galilee. And from Galilee, as from Gilead, there had been a great migration of the inhabitants, who sought in Jerusalem a safer home than they could find in their own country.
And now, at the head of a more powerful army than he had hitherto been able to collect, Judas set out. His first object was Hebron, which had for some time past been in the possession of the Idumeans. He took it by assault; it might almost be said, so unexpected was his coming, by surprise. Indeed, one cause of his success was the extraordinary rapidity and secrecy of his movements. Almost the moment that his plans were formed, he was on his way to execute them. Even if there had been traitors or spies in his camp—and such were almost unknown—any information which they could send to the enemy was outstripped, so to speak, by his action. Hebron had to be abandoned after its capture, for he could not spare a sufficient garrison to hold it. All that could be done was to take care that it should not, for some time at least, become a stronghold of the enemy. Its citadel was destroyed; the towers on the wall burnt, and a furlong of the wall itself broken down.
From Hebron the Jewish leader marched southward, and then turning eastward invaded the country of the Philistines. Azotus, which was supposed to be safe on account of its maritime position, and was, in consequence, negligently guarded, was assaulted with success, and its temples and altars destroyed, though Gorgias was still in force at Jamnia, only nine miles to the north. Several of the smaller Philistine towns were taken on the return march to Jerusalem; and altogether this people received a lesson which they were not likely soon to forget. All this was accomplished with very little loss. Joel, the priest, however, was killed at Azotus, where he had recklessly exposed himself in the attack.
Great as was the popular rejoicing at these victories, it was nothing to the exultation caused by the next tidings that reached Jerusalem—Antiochus, Jerusalem—Antiochus, the oppressor, the blasphemer — Antiochus was dead!
The day after the return of the army a Syrian runner was caught while endeavouring to make his way into the fortress through the lines of the besiegers. He had been sent by Lysias with a despatch to the commander of the garrison. The document was of the briefest. It ran thus:
The man, when questioned by Judas and the council, was able to supplement the bare news of the King's death with some interesting details. He had had some talk with the messenger who had brought the tidings to Antioch, and had heard all that was as yet known. His story ran thus:
"The King was in Persia when he heard how his armies had been defeated, not once or twice only, in the land of Judæa. Great was his rage—so great that for the space of three or four hours none dared to come near him. Then he summoned his counsellors to him, and said, 'I will destroy this nation of rebels till there shall be not one of them left,' and giving up all other plans he marched westward with all his army. But on his way he came to the city of Elymaïs, where there is a temple, the treasury of which is reputed to be more wealthy than any in the whole land of Persia, for it has never been spoiled within memory of man. Even the great Alexander left it untouched, adding also much of the spoil which he had taken himself. This temple the father of the King had sought to plunder; but the people of the city rose against him, and drove him away. When the King came to this city he said, 'Here is another nest of rebels. Did they not rise against the King, my father? Verily I will avenge his memory upon them.' So he went into the city, having some five hundred soldiers with him. And the magistrates received him with honour. And when he said, 'I would see our temple and its treasures,' they consented. 'Only,' they said, 'it is our custom that no armed man may come within the precincts.' 'Will you strip me of my sword?' said the King. 'Not so,' they answered, 'but your followers must be without any, and not more than ten in number.' When the King heard this he was greatly wroth, and said to the magistrates of the city, 'I will come in despite of you.' So he went, he and his five hundred, to the square in which the temple stands. But he found the whole place filled with an armed multitude, and when he would have forced his way into the precincts he was beaten back, losing not a few of his soldiers, and being himself struck on the head with a stone. After this, whether it was from his rage, which became more terrible than ever, or from any other cause, I know not; but the King was smitten with some disease, and could no longer ride, as he had been wont, but was carried in a litter. And they say that the stench of his wounds was so great that the men who bore the litter could scarcely endure it, but were changed continually. So they brought him to Tabol, in the land of Persia, and there he died, being terribly tormented with pain. And I heard that when he was dying, he cried out with a most lamentable voice repenting him of the wrong that he had done against the gods in robbing their temples."
"Of what did he speak?" asked one of the council.
"Nay," said the man, "that I know not. Some said that he spoke of this Temple in Jerusalem, and some that it was the temple in Elymaïs, where men worship the moon-goddess, that was in his mind. But more I do not know."
Judas rose up in his place and repeated the last words of that great triumphal chant in which more than a thousand years before Deborah and Barak had celebrated the overthrow of another king who had mightily oppressed the children of Israel.
"So let all Thine enemies perish, O Lord, but let them that love Him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might."