The execution of one king and the deportation of another were but preludes to the great national catastrophe in the time of Zedekiah, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the whole people. After Nebuchadnezzar had led Jehoiachin and a portion of the people into banishment, his commiseration was aroused for the Jews, and he inquired, whether any other sons of Josiah were still living. Only Mattaniah was left. He was re-named Zedekiah, in the hope that he would be the father of pious sons. In reality the name became the omen of the disasters to happen in the time of this king.
Nebuchadnezzar, who invested Zedekiah with the royal office, demanded that he swear fealty to him. Zedekiah was about to swear by his own soul, but the Babylonian king, not satisfied, brought a scroll of the law, and made his Jewish vassal take the oath upon that. Nevertheless he did not keep faith with Nebuchadnezzar for long. Nor was this his only treachery toward his suzerain. He had once surprised Nebuchadnezzar in the act of cutting a piece from a living hare and eating it, as is the habit of barbarians. Nebuchadnezzar was painfully embarrassed, and he begged the Jewish king to promise under oath not to mention what he had seen. Though Nebuchadnezzar treated him with great friendliness, even making him sovereign lord over five vassal kings, he did not justify the trust reposed in him. To flatter Zedekiah, the five kings once said: "If all were as it should be, thou wouldst occupy the throne of Nebuchadnezzar." Zedekiah could not refrain from exclaiming: "O yes, Nebuchadnezzar, whom I once saw eating a live hare!"
The five kings at once repaired to Nebuchadnezzar, and reported what Zedekiah had said. Thereupon the king of Babylonia marched to Daphne, near Antioch, with the purpose of chastising Zedekiah. At Daphne he found the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, who had hastened thither to receive him. Nebuchadnezzar met the Sanhedrin courteously, ordered his attendants to bring state chairs for all the members, and requested them to read the Torah to him and explain it. When they reached the passage in the Book of Numbers dealing with the remission of vows, the king put the question: "If a man desires to be released from a vow, what steps must he take?" The Sanhedrin replied: "He must repair to a scholar, and he will absolve him from his vow." Whereupon Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed: "I verily believe it was you who released Zedekiah from the vow he took concerning me." And he ordered the members of the Sanhedrin to leave their state chairs and sit on the ground. They were forced to admit, that they had not acted in accordance with the law, for Zedekiah's vow affected another beside himself, and without the acquiescence of the other party, namely, Nebuchadnezzar, the Sanhedrin had no authority to annul the vow.
Zedekiah was duly punished for the grievous crime of perjury. When Jerusalem was captured, he tried to escape through a cave extending from his house to Jericho. God sent a deer into the camp of the Chaldeans, and in their pursuit of this game, the Babylonian soldiers reached the farther opening of the cave at the very moment when Zedekiah was leaving it. The Jewish king together with his ten sons was brought before Nebuchadnezzar, who addressed Zedekiah thus: "Were I to judge thee according to the law of thy God, thou wouldst deserve the death penalty, for thou didst swear a false oath by the Name of God; no less wouldst thou deserve death, if I were to judge thee according to the law of the state, for thou didst fail in thy sworn duty to thy overlord."
Zedekiah requested the grace that his execution take place before his children's, and he be spared the sight of their blood. His children, on the other hand, besought Nebuchadnezzar to slay them before he slew their father, that they might be spared the disgrace of seeing their father executed. In his heartlessness Nebuchadnezzar had resolved worse things than Zedekiah anticipated. In the sight of their father, the children of Zedekiah were killed, and then Zedekiah himself was deprived of sight; his eyes were blinded. He had been endowed with eyes of superhuman strength, they were the eyes of Adam, and the iron lances forced into them were powerless to destroy his sight. Vision left him only because of the tears he shed over the fate of his children. Now he realized how true Jeremiah had spoken when he had prophesied his exile to Babylonia. Though he should live there until his death, he would never behold the land with his eyes. On account of its seeming contradictoriness, Zedekiah had thought the prophecy untrue. For this reason he had not heeded Jeremiah's advice to make peace with Nebuchadnezzar. Now it had all been verified; he was carried to Babylonia a captive, yet, blind as he was, he did not see the land of his exile.
Though Zedekiah besmirched his career by perjury, he was nevertheless so good and just a king that for his sake God relinquished his purpose of returning the world to its original chaos, as a punishment for the evil-doing of a wicked generation. In this depraved time, it was first and foremost Jeremiah to whom was delegated the task of proclaiming the word of God. He was a descendant of Joshua and Rahab, and his father was the prophet Hilkiah. He was born while his father was fleeing from the persecution of Jezebel, the murderess of prophets. At his very birth he showed signs that he was destined to play a great part. He was born circumcised, and scarcely had he left his mother's womb when he broke into wailing, and his voice was the voice, not of a babe, but of a youth. He cried: "My bowels, my bowels tremble, the walls of my heart they are disquieted, my limbs quake, destruction upon destruction I bring upon earth." In this strain he continued to moan and groan, complaining of the faithlessness of his mother, and when she expressed her amazement at the unseemly speech of her new-born son, Jeremiah said: "Not thee do I mean, my mother, not to thee doth my prophecy refer; I speak of Zion, and against Jerusalem are my words directed. She adorns her daughters, arrays them in purple, and puts golden crowns upon their heads. Robbers will come and strip them of their ornaments."
As a lad he received the call to be a prophet. But he refused to obey, saying: "O Lord, I cannot go as a prophet to Israel, for when lived there a prophet whom Israel did not desire to kill? Moses and Aaron they sought to stone with stones; Elijah the Tishbite they mocked at because his hair was grown long; and they called after Elisha, 'Go up, thou bald head' no, I cannot go to Israel, for I am still naught but a lad." God replied: "I love youth, for it is innocent. When I carried Israel out of Egypt, I called him a lad, and when I think of Israel lovingly, I speak of him as a lad. Say not, therefore, thou art only a lad, but thou shalt go on whatsoever errand I shall send thee. Now, then," God, continued, "take the 'cup of wrath,' and let the nations drink of it." Jeremiah put the question which land was to drink first from the "cup of wrath," and the answer of God was: "First Jerusalem is to drink, the head of all earthly nations, and then the cities of Judah." When the prophet heard this, he began to curse the day of his birth. "I am like the high priest," he said, "who has to administer the 'water of bitterness' to a woman who is held under the suspicion of adultery, and when he approaches the woman with the cup, lo, he beholds his own mother. And I, O Mother Zion, thought, when I was called to prophesy, that I was appointed to proclaim prosperity and salvation to thee, but now I see that my message forebodes thee evil."
Jeremiah's first appearance in public was during the reign of Josiah, when he announced to the people in the streets: "If ye will give up your wicked doings, God will raise you above all nations; if not, He will deliver His house into the hands of the enemies, and they will deal with it as seemeth best to them."
The prophets contemporary with Jeremiah in his early years were Zechariah and Huldah. The province of the latter was among women, while Zechariah was active in the synagogue. Later, under Jehoiakim, Jeremiah was supported by the prophets of his relative Uriah of Kiriathjearim, a friend of the prophet Isaiah. But Uriah was put to death by the ungodly king, the same who had the first chapter of Lamentations burnt after obliterating the Name of God wherever it occurs in the whole book. But Jeremiah added four chapters.
The prophet fell upon evil times under Zedekiah. He had both the people and the court against him. Nor was that surprising in a day when not even the high priests in the Temple bore the sign of the covenant upon their bodies. Jeremiah had called forth general hostility by condemning the alliance with Egypt against Babylonia, and favoring peace with Nebuchadnezzar; and this though to all appearances the help of the Egyptians would prove of good effect for the Jews. The hosts of Pharaoh Necho had actually set forth from Egypt to join the Jews against Babylon. But when they were on the high seas, God commanded the waters to cover themselves with corpses. Astonished, the Egyptians asked each other, whence the dead bodies. Presently the answer occurred to them: they were the bodies of their ancestors drowned in the Red Sea on account of the Jews, who had shaken off Egyptian rule. "What," said the Egyptians thereupon, "shall we bring help to those who drowned our fathers?" So they returned to their own country, justifying the warning of Jeremiah, that no dependence could be put upon Egyptian promises.
A little while after this occurrence, when Jeremiah wanted to leave Jerusalem to go to Anathoth and partake of his priestly portion there, the watchman at the gate accused him of desiring to desert to the enemy. He was delivered to his adversaries at court, and they confined him in prison. The watchman knew full well that it was a trumped up charge he was bringing against Jeremiah, and the intention attributed to him was as far as possible from the mind of the prophet, but he took this opportunity to vent an old family grudge. For this gateman was a grandson of the false prophet Hananiah, the enemy of Jeremiah, the one who had prophesied complete victory over Nebuchadnezzar within two years. It were proper to say, he calculated the victory rather than prophesied it. He reasoned: "If unto Elam, which is a mere ally of the Babylonians against the Jews, destruction has been appointed by God through Jeremiah, so much the more will the extreme penalty fall upon the Babylonians themselves, who have inflicted vast evil upon the Jews." Jeremiah's prophecy had been the reverse: so far from holding forth any hope that a victory would be won over Nebuchadnezzar, the Jewish state, he said, would suffer annihilation. Hananiah demanded a sign betokening the truth of Jeremiah's prophecy. But Jeremiah contended there could be no sign for such a prophecy as his, since the Divine determination to do evil can be annulled. On the other hand, it was the duty of Hananiah to give a sign, for he was prophesying pleasant things, and the Divine resolution for good is executed without. Finally, Jeremiah advanced the clinching argument: "I, a priest, may be well content with the prophecy; it is to my interest that the Temple should continue to stand. As for thee, thou art a Gibeonite, thou wilt have to do a slave's service in it so long as there is a Temple. But instead of troubling thy mind with the future in store for others, thou shouldst rather have thought of thine own future, for this very year thou wilt die." Hananiah, in very truth, died on the last day of the year set as his term of life, but before his death he ordered that it should be kept secret for two days, so to give the lie to Jeremiah's prophecy. With his last words, addressed to his son Shelemiah, he charged him to seek every possible way of taking revenge upon Jeremiah, to whose curse his death was to be ascribed. Shelemiah had no opportunity of fulfilling his father's last behest, but it did not pass from his mind, and when he, in turn, lay upon his death-bed, he impressed the duty of revenge upon his son Jeriah. It was the grandson of Hananiah who, when he saw Jeremiah leaving the city, hastened to take the opportunity of accusing the prophet of treason. His purpose prospered. The aristocratic enemies of Jeremiah, enraged against him, welcomed the chance to put him behind prison bars, and gave him in charge of a jailer, Jonathan, who had been a friend of the false prophet Hananiah. Jonathan pleased himself by mocking at his prisoner: "See," he would say, "see what honor thy friend does thee, to put thee in so fine a prison as this; verily, it is a royal palace."
Despite his suffering, Jeremiah did not hold back the truth. When the king inquired of him, whether he had a revelation from God, he replied: "Yes, the king of Babylonia will carry thee off into exile." To avoid irritating the king, he went into no further detail. He only prayed the king to liberate him from prison, saying: "Even wicked men like Hananiah and his descendants at least cast about for a pretext when they desire to take revenge, and their example ought not to be lost upon thee who art called Zedekiah, 'just man.'" The king granted his petition, but Jeremiah did not enjoy liberty for long. Hardly out of prison, he again advised the people to surrender, and the nobility seized him and cast him into a lime pit filled with water, where they hoped he would drown. But a miracle happened. The water sank to the bottom, and the mud rose to the surface, and supported the prophet above the water. Help came to him from Ebed-melech, a "white raven," the only pious man at court. Ebed-melech hastened to the king and spoke: "Know, if Jeremiah perishes in the lime pit, Jerusalem will surely be captured." With the permission of the king, Ebed-melech went to the pit, and cried out aloud several times, "O my lord Jeremiah," but no answer came. Jeremiah feared the words were spoken by his former jailer Jonathan, who had not given up his practice of mocking at the prophet. He would come to the edge of the pit and call down jeeringly: "Do not rest thy head on the mud, and take a little sleep, Jeremiah." To such sneers Jeremiah made no reply, and hence it was that Ebed-melech was left unanswered. Thinking the prophet dead, he began to lament and tear his clothes. Then Jeremiah, realizing that it was a friend, and not Jonathan, asked: "Who is it that is calling my name and weeps therewith?" and he received the assurance that Ebed-melech had come to rescue him from his perilous position.
The suffering to which Jeremiah was exposed was finally ended by the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. This Babylonian king was a son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His first contact with the Jews happened in the time of his father-in-law Sennacherib, whom he accompanied on his campaign against Hezekiah. The destruction of the Assyrian army before the walls of Jerusalem, the great catastrophe from which only Nebuchadnezzar and four others escaped with their life, inspired him with fear of God. Later, in his capacity as secretary to the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan, it was he who called his master's notice to the mention of the Jewish king's name before the Name of God. "Thou callest Him 'the great God,' yet thou dost name Him after the king," he said. Nebuchadnezzar himself hastened after the messenger to bring back the letter and have it changed. He had advanced scarce three steps when he was restrained by the angel Gabriel, for even the few paces he had walked for the glory of God earned him his great power over Israel. A further step would have extended his ability to inflict harm immeasurably.
For eighteen years daily a heavenly voice resounded in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, saying: "O thou wicked slave, go and destroy the house of thy Lord, for His children hearken not unto Him." But Nebuchadnezzar was beset with fears lest God prepare a fate for him similar to that of his ancestor Sennacherib. He practiced belomancy and consulted other auguries, to assure himself that he was against Jerusalem would result favorably. When he shook up the arrows, and questioned whether he was to go to Rome or Alexandria, not one arrow sprang up, but when he questioned about Jerusalem, one sprang up. He sowed seeds and set out planets; for Rome or Alexandria nothing came up; for Jerusalem everything sprouted and grew. He lighted candles and lanterns; for Rome or Alexandria they refused to burn, for Jerusalem they shed their light. He floated vessels on the Euphrates; for Rome or Alexandria they did not move, for Jerusalem they swam.
Still the fears of Nebuchadnezzar were not allayed. His determination to attack the Holy City ripened only after God Himself had shown him how He had bound the hands of the archangel Michael, the patron of the Jews, behind his back, in order to render him powerless to bring to his wards. So the campaign against Jerusalem was undertaken.
If the Babylonians thought that the conquest of Jerusalem was an easy task, they were greatly mistaken. For three years God endured the inhabitants with strength to withstand the onslaughts of the enemy, in the hope that the Jews would amend their evil ways and abandon their godless conduct, so that the threatened punishment might be annulled.
Among the many heroes in the beleaguered city that was bidding defiance to the Babylonians, one by the name of Akiba was particularly distinguished. The stones were hurled at the walls of the city from the catapults wielded by the enemy without, he was wont to catch on his feet, and throw them back upon the besiegers. Once it happened that a stone was so cast as to drop, not upon the wall, but in front of it. In his swift race toward it, Akiba was precipitated into the space between the inner and the outer wall. He quickly reassured his friends in the city, that his fall had in no wise harmed him. He was only a little shaken up and weak; as soon as he had his accustomed daily meal, a roasted ox, he would be able to scale the wall and resume the struggle with the Babylonians. But human strength and artifice avail naught against God. A gust of wind arose, and Akiba was thrown from the wall, and he died. Thereupon the Chaldeans made a breach in the wall, and penetrated into the city.
Equally fruitless were the endeavors of Hanamel, the uncle of Jeremiah, to save the city. He conjured the angels up, armed them, and had them occupy the walls. The Chaldeans retreated in terror at the sight of the heavenly host. But God changed the names of the angels, and brought them back to heaven. Hanamel's exorcisms availed naught. When he called the Angel of the Water, for instance, the response would come from the Angel of Fire, who bore the former name of his companion. Then Hanamel resorted to the extreme measure of summoning the Prince of the World, who raised Jerusalem high up in the air. But God thrust the city down again, and the enemy entered unhindered.
Nevertheless, the capture of the city could not have been accomplished if Jeremiah had been present. His deeds were as a firm pillar for the city, and his prayers as a stony wall. Therefore God sent the prophet on an errand out of the city. He was made to go to his native place, Anathoth, to take possession of a field, his by right of inheritance. Jeremiah rejoiced; he took this as a sign that God would be gracious to Judah, else He would not have commanded him to take possession of a piece of land. Scarcely had the prophet left Jerusalem when an angel descended upon the wall of the city and caused a breach to appear, at the same time crying out: "Let the enemy come and enter the house, for the Master of the house is no longer therein. The enemy has leave to despoil it and destroy it. Go ye into the vineyard and snap the vines asunder, for the Watchman hath gone away and abandoned it. But let no man boast and say, he and his have vanquished the city. Nay, a conquered city have ye conquered, a dead people have ye killed."
The enemy rushed in and ascended the Temple mount, and on the spot whereon King Solomon had been in the habit of sitting when he took counsel with the elders, the Chaldeans plotted how to reduce the Temple to ashes. During their sinister deliberations, they beheld four angels, each with a flaming torch in his hand, descending and setting fire to the four corners of the Temple. The high priest, seeing the flames shoot up, cast the keys of the Temple heavenward, saying: "Here are the keys of Thy house; it seems I am an untrustworthy custodian," and, as he turned, he was seized by the enemy and slaughtered in the very place on which he had been wont to offer the daily sacrifice. With him perished his daughter, her blood mingling with her father's. The priests and the Levites threw themselves into the flames with their harps and trumpets, and, to escape the violence feared from the licentious Chaldeans, the virgins who wove the curtains for the sanctuary followed their example. Still more horrible was the carnage caused among the people by Nebuzaradan, spurred on as he was by the sight of the blood of the murdered prophet Zechariah seething on the floor of the Temple. At first the Jews sought to conceal the true story connected with the blood. At length they had to confess, that it was the blood of a prophet who had prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and for his candor had been slain by the people. Nebuzaradan, to appease the prophet, ordered the scholars of the kingdom to be executed first on the bloody spot, then the school children, and at last the young priests, more than a million souls in all. But the blood of the prophet went on seething and reeking, until Nebuzaradan exclaimed: "Zechariah, Zechariah, the good in Israel I have slaughtered. Dost thou desire the destruction of the whole people?" Then the blood ceased to seethe.
Nebuzaradan was startled by the thought, if the Jews, who had a single life upon their conscience, were made to atone so cruelly, what would be his own fate! He left Nebuchadnezzar and became a proselyte.
On his return from Anathoth, Jeremiah saw, at a distance, smoke curling upward from the Temple mount, and his spirit was joyful. He thought the Jews had repented of their sins, and were bringing incense offerings. Once within the city walls, he knew the truth, that the Temple had fallen a prey to the incendiary. Overwhelmed by grief, he cried out: "O Lord, Thou didst entice me, and I permitted myself to be enticed; Thou didst send me forth out of Thy house that Thou mightest destroy it."
God Himself was deeply moved by the destruction of the Temple, which He had abandoned that the enemy might enter and destroy it. Accompanied by the angels, He visited the ruins, and gave vent to His sorrow: "Woe is Me on account of My house. Where are My children, where My priests, where My beloved? But what could I do for you? Did I not warn you? Yet you would not mend your ways." "To-day," God said to Jeremiah, "I am like a man who has an only son. He prepares the marriage canopy for him, and his only beloved dies under it. Thou doest seem to feel but little sympathy with Me and with My children. Go, summon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses from their graces. They know how to mourn." "Lord of the world," replied Jeremiah, "I know not where Moses is buried." "Stand on the banks of the Jordan," said God, "and cry: 'Thou son of Amram, son of Amram, arise, see how wolves have devoured thy sheep.'"
Jeremiah repaired to the Double Cave, and spake to the Patriarchs: "Arise, ye are summoned to appear before God." When they asked him the reason of the summons, he feigned ignorance, for he feared to tell them the true reason; they might have cast reproaches upon him that so great a disaster had overtaken Israel in his time. Then Jeremiah journeyed on to the banks of the Jordan, and there he called as he had been bidden: "Thou son of Amram, son of Amram, arise, thou are cited to appear before God." "What has happened this day, that God calls me unto Him?" asked Moses. "I know not," replied Jeremiah again. Moses thereupon went to the angels, and from them he learned that the Temple had been destroyed, and Israel banished from his land. Weeping and mourning, Moses joined the Patriarchs, and together, rending their garments and wringing their hands, they betook themselves to the ruins of the Temple. Here their wailing was augmented by the loud lamentations of the angels: "How desolate are the highways to Jerusalem, the highways destined for travel without end! How deserted are the streets that once were thronged at the seasons of the pilgrimages! O Lord of the world, with Abraham the father of Thy people, who taught the world to know Thee as the ruler of the universe, Thou didst make a covenant, that through him and his descendants the earth should be filled with people, and now Thou hast dissolved Thy covenant with him. O Lord of the world! Thou hast scorned Zion and Jerusalem, once Thy chosen habitation. Thou hast dealt more harshly with Israel than with the generation of Enosh, the first idolaters."
God thereupon said to the angels: "Why do ye array yourselves against Me with your complaints?" "Lord do the world," they replied, "on account of Abraham, Thy beloved, who has come into Thy house wailing and weeping, yet Thou payest no heed unto him." Thereupon God: "Since My beloved ended his earthly career, he has not been in My house. 'What hath My beloved to do in My house'?"
Now Abraham entered into the conversation: "Why, O Lord of the world, hast Thou exiled my children, delivered them into the hands of the nations, who torture them with all tortures, and who have rendered desolate the sanctuary, where I was ready to bring Thee my son Isaac as a sacrifice?" "Thy children have sinned," said God, "they have transgressed the whole Torah, they have offended against every letter of it." Abraham: "Who is there that will testify against Israel, that he has transgressed the Torah?" God: "Let the Torah herself appear and testify." The Torah came, and Abraham addressed her: "O my daughter, dost thou indeed come to testify against Israel, to say that he violated thy commandments? Dost thou feel no shame? Remember the day on which God offered thee to all the peoples, all the nations of the earth, and they all rejected thee with disdain. Then my children came to Sinai, they accepted thee, and they honored thee. And now, on the day of their distress, thou standest up against them?" Hearing this, the Torah stepped aside, and did not testify. "Let the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which Torah is written come and testify against Israel," said God. They appeared without delay, and Alef, the first letter, was about to testify against Israel, when Abraham interrupted it with the words: "Thou chief of all letters, thou comest to testify against Israel in the time of his distress? Be mindful of the day on which God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, beginning His words with thee: 'Anoki the Lord thy God.' No people, no nation accepted thee, only my children, and now thou comest to testify against them!" Alef stepped aside and was silent. The same happened with the second letter Bet, and with the third, Gimel, and with all the rest all of them retired abashed, and opened not their mouth. Now Abraham turned to God and said: "O Lord of the world! When I was a hundred years old, Thou didst give me a son, and when he was in the flower of his age, thirty-seven years old, Thou didst command me to sacrifice him to Thee, and I, like a monster, without compassion, I bound him upon the altar with mine own hands. Let that plead with Thee, and have Thou pity on my children."
Then Isaac raised his voice and spake: "O Lord of the world, when my father told me, 'God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,' I did not resist Thy word. Willingly I let myself be tied to the altar, my throat was raised to meet the knife. Let that plead with Thee, and have Thou pity on my children."
Then Jacob raised his voice and spake: "O Lord of the world, for twenty years I dwelt in the house of Laban, and when I left it, I met with Esau, who sought to murder my children, and I risked my life for theirs. And now they are delivered into the hands of their enemies, like sheep led to the shambles, after I coddled them like fledglings breaking forth from their shells, after I suffered anguish for their sake all the days of my life. Let that plead with Thee, and have Thou pity on my children."
And at last Moses raised his voice and spake: "O Lord of the world, was I not a faithful shepherd unto Israel for forty long years? Like a steed I ran ahead of him in the desert, and when the time came for him to enter the Promised Land, Thou didst command: 'Here in the desert shall thy bones drop!' And now that the children of Israel are exiled, Thou hast sent for me to mourn and lament over them. That is what the people mean when they say: The good fortune of the master is none for the slave, but the master's woe is his woe." And turning to Jeremiah, he continued: "Walk before me, I will lead them back; let us see who will venture to raise a hand against them." Jeremiah replied: "The roads cannot be passed, they are blocked with corpses." But Moses was not to be deterred, and the two, Moses following Jeremiah, reached the rivers of Babylon. When the Jews saw Moses, they said: "The son of Amram has ascended from his grave to redeem us from our enemies." At that moment a heavenly voice was heard to cry out: "It is decreed!" And Moses said: "O my children, I cannot redeem you, the decree is unalterable may God redeem you speedily," and he departed from them.
The children of Israel raised their voices in sore lamentations, and the sound of their grief pierced to the very heavens. Meantime Moses returned to the Fathers, and reported to them to what dire suffering the exiled Jews were exposed, and they all broke out into woe-begone plaints. In his bitter grief, Moses exclaimed: "Be cursed, O sun, why was not thy light extinguished in the hour in which the enemy invaded the sanctuary?" The sun replied: "O faithful shepherd, I sware by the life, I could not grow dark. The heavenly powers would not permit it. Sixty fiery scourges they dealt me, and they said, 'Go and let thy light shine forth,'" Another last complaint Moses uttered: "O Lord of the world, Thou hast written it in Thy Torah: 'And whether it be cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and her young both in one day.' How many mothers have they slaughtered with their children and Thou art silent!"
Then, with the suddenness of a flash, Rachel, our mother, stood before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Lord of the world," she said, "Thou knowest how overwhelming was Jacob's love for me, and when I observed that my father thought to put Leah in my place, I gave Jacob secret signs, that the plan of my father might be set at naught. But then I repented me of what I had done, and to spare my sister mortification, I disclosed the signs to her. More than this, I myself was in the bridal chamber, and when Jacob spake with Leah, I made reply, lest her voice betray her. I, a woman, a creature of flesh and blood, of dust and ashes, was not jealous of my rival. Thou, O God, everlasting King, Thou eternal and merciful Father, why wast Thou jealous of the idols, empty vanities? Why hast Thou driven out my children, slain them with swords, left them at the mercy of their enemies?" Then the compassion of the Supreme God was awakened, and He said: "For thy sake, O Rachel, I will lead the children of Israel back to their land."
When Nebuchadnezzar dispatched his general Nebuzaradan to the capture of Jerusalem, he gave him three instructions regarding the mild treatment of Jeremiah: "Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do unto him even as he shall say unto thee." At the same time he enjoined him to use pitiless cruelty toward the rest of the people. But the prophet desired to share the fate of his suffering brethren, and when he saw a company of youths in the pillory, he put his own head into it. Nebuzaradan would always withdraw him again. Thereafter if Jeremiah saw a company of old men clapped in chains, he would join them and share their ignominy, until Nebuzaradan released him. Finally, Nebuzaradan said to Jeremiah: "Lo, thou art one of three things; either thou are a prophesier of false things, or thou art a despiser of suffering, or thou art a shedder of blood. A prophesier of false things for since many a year hast thou been prophesying the downfall of this city, and now, when thy prophecy has come true, thou sorrowest and mournest. Or a despiser of suffering for I seek to do thee naught harmful, and thou thyself pursuest what is harmful to thee, as thou to say, 'I am indifferent to pain.' Or a shedder of blood for the king has charged me to have a care of thee, and let no harm come upon thee, but as thou insistest upon seeking evil for thyself, it must be that the king may hear of thy misfortune, and put me to death."
At first Jeremiah refused Nebuzaradan's offer to let him remain in Palestine. He joined the march of the captives going to Babylon, along the highways streaming with blood and strewn with corpses. When they arrived at the borders of the Holy Land, they all, prophet and people, broke out into loud wails, and Jeremiah said: "Yes, brethren and countrymen, all this hath befallen you, because ye did not hearken unto the words of my prophecy." Jeremiah journeyed with them until they came to the banks of the Euphrates. Then God spoke to the prophet: "Jeremiah, if thou remainest here, I shall go with them, and if thou goest with them, I shall remain here." Jeremiah replied: "Lord of the world, if I go with them, what doth it avail them? Only if their King, their Creator accompanies them, will it bestead them."
When the captives saw Jeremiah make preparations to return to Palestine, they began to weep and cry: "O Father Jeremiah, wilt thou, too, abandon us?" "I call heaven and earth to witness," said the prophet, "had you wept but once in Zion, ye had not been driven out."
Beset with terrors was the return journey for the prophet. Corpses lay everywhere, and Jeremiah gathered up all the fingers that lay about; he strained them to his heart, fondled them, kissed them, and wrapped them in his mantle, saying sadly: "Did I not tell you, my children, did I not say to you, 'Give glory to the Lord your God, before He cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains'?"
Dejected, oppressed by his grief, Jeremiah saw the fulfilment of his prophecy against the coquettish maidens of Jerusalem, who had pursued but the pleasures and enjoyments of the world. How often had the prophet admonished them to do penance and lead a God-fearing life! In vain; whenever he threatened them with the destruction of Jerusalem, they said: "Why should we concern ourselves about it?" "A prince will take me unto wife," said one, the other, "A prefect will marry me." And at first it seemed the expectations of Jerusalem's fair daughters would be realized, for the most aristocratic of the victorious Chaldeans were charmed by the beauty of the women of Jerusalem, and offered them their hand and their rank. But God sent disfiguring and repulsive diseases upon the women, and the Babylonians cast them off, threw them violently out of their chariots, and ruthlessly drove them over the prostrate bodies.
Nebuchadnezzar's orders were to hurry the captives along the road to Babylon without stop or stay. He feared the Jews might else find opportunity to supplicate the mercy of God, and He, compassionate as He is, would release them instantly they did penance. Accordingly, there was no pause in the forward march, until the Euphrates was reached. There they were within the borders of the empire of Nebuchadnezzar, and he thought he had nothing more to fear.
Many of the Jews died as soon as they drank of the Euphrates. In their native land they had been accustomed to the water drawn from springs and wells. Mourning over their dead and over the others that had fallen by the way, they sat on the banks of the river, while Nebuchadnezzar and his princes on their vessels celebrated their victory amid song and music. The king noticed that the princes of Judah, though they were in chains, bore no load upon their shoulders, and he called to his servants: "Have you no load for these?" They took the parchment scrolls of the law, tore them in pieces, made sacks of them, and filled them with sand; these they loaded upon the backs of the Jewish princes. At sight of this disgrace, all Israel broke out into loud weeping. The voice of their sorrow pierced the very heavens, and God determined to turn the world once more into chaos, for He told Himself, that after all the world was created but for the sake of Israel. The angels hastened thither, and they spake before God: "O Lord of the world, the universe is Thine. Is it not enough that Thou hast dismembered Thy earthly house, the Temple? Wilt Thou destroy Thy heavenly house, too?" God restraining them said: "Do ye think I am a creature of flesh and blood, and stand in need of consolation? Do I not know beginning and end of all things? Go rather and remove their burdens from the princes of Judah." Aided by God the angels descended, and they carried the loads put upon the Jewish captives until they reached Babylon.
On their way, they passed the city of Bari. The inhabitants thereof were not a little astonished at the cruelty of Nebuchadnezzar, who made the captives march naked. The people of Bari stripped their slaves of their clothes, and presented the slaves to Nebuchadnezzar. When the king expressed his astonishment thereat, they said: "We thought thou wert particularly pleased with naked men." The king at once ordered the Jews to be arrayed in their garments. The reward accorded the Bariites was that God endowed them forever with beauty and irresistible grace.
The compassionate Bariites did not find many imitators. The very opposite quality was displayed by the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and Arabs. Despite their close kinship with Israel, their conduct toward the Jews was dictated by cruelty. The two first-mentioned, the Ammonites and the Moabites, when they heard the prophet foretell the destruction of Jerusalem, hastened without a moment's delay to report it to Nebuchadnezzar, and urge him to attack Jerusalem. The scruples of the Babylonian king, who feared God, and all the reasons he advanced against a combat with Israel, they refuted, and finally they induced him to act as they wished. At the capture of the city, while all the strange nations were seeking booty, the Ammonites and the Moabites threw themselves into the Temple to seize the scroll of the law, because it contained the clause against their entering into the "assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation." To disgrace the faith of Israel, they plucked the Cherubim from the Holy of Holies and dragged them through the streets of Jerusalem, crying aloud at the same time: "Behold these sacred things that belong to the Israelites, who say ever they have no idols."
The Edomites were still more hostile in the hour of Israel's need. They went to Jerusalem with Nebuchadnezzar, but they kept themselves at a distance from the city, there to await the outcome of the battle between the Jews and the Babylonians. If the Jews had been victorious, they would have pretended they had come to bring them aid. When Nebuchadnezzar's victory became known, they showed their true feelings. Those who escaped the sword of the Babylonians, were hewn down by the hand of the Edomites.
But in fiendish cunning these nations were surpassed by the Ishmaelites. Eighty thousand young priests, each with a golden shield upon his breast, succeeded in making their way through the ranks of Nebuchadnezzar and in reaching the Ishmaelites. They asked for water to drink. The reply of the Ishmaelites was: "First eat, and then you may drink," at the same time handing them salt food. Their thirst was increased, and the Ishmaelites gave them leather bags filled with nothing but air instead of water. When they raised them to their mouths, the air entered their bodies, and they fell dead.
Other Arabic tribes showed their hostility openly; as the Palmyrenes, who put eighty thousand archers at the disposal of Nebuchadnezzar in his war against Israel.
If Nebuchadnezzar thought, that once he had the Jews in the regions of the Euphrates they were in his power forever, he was greatly mistaken. It was on the very banks of the great river that he suffered the loss of a number of his captives. When the first stop was made by the Euphrates, the Jews could no longer contain their grief, and they broke out into tears and bitter lamentations. Nebuchadnezzar bade them be silent, and as though to render obedience to his orders the harder, he called upon the Levites, the minstrels of the Temple to sing the songs of Zion for the entertainment of his guests at the banquet he had arranged. The Levites consulted with one another. "Not enough that the Temple lies in ashes because of our sins, should we add to our transgressions by coaxing music from the strings of our holy harps in honor of these 'dwarfs'?" they said, and they determined to offer resistance. The murderous Babylonians mowed them down in heaps, yet they met death with high courage, for it saved their sacred instruments from the desecration of being used before idols and for the sake of idolaters.
The Levites who survived the carnage the Sons of Moses they were bit their own fingers off, and when they were asked to play, they showed their tyrants mutilated hands, with which it was impossible to manipulate their harps. At the fall of night a cloud descended and enveloped the Sons of Moses and all who belonged to them. They were hidden from their enemies, while their own way was illuminated by a pillar of fire. The cloud and the pillar vanished at break of day, and before the Sons of Moses lay a tract of land bordered by the sea on three sides. For their complete protection God made the river Sambation to flow on the fourth side. This river is full of sand and stones, and on the six working days of the week, they tumble over each other with such vehemence that the crash and the roar are heard far and wide. But on the Sabbath the tumultuous river subsides into quiet. As a guard against trespassers on that day, a column of cloud stretches along the whole length of the river, and none can approach the Sambation within three miles. Hedged in as they are, the Sons of Moses yet communicate with their brethren of the tribes of Naphtali, Gad, and Asher, who dwell near the banks of the Sambation. Carrier pigeons bear letters hither and thither.
In the land of the Sons of Moses there are none but clean animals, and in every respect the inhabitants lead a holy and pure life, worthy of their ancestor Moses. They never use an oath, and, if perchance an oath escapes the lips of one of them, he is at once reminded of the Divine punishment connected with his act his children will die at a tender age.
The Sons of Moses live peaceably and enjoy prosperity as equals through their common Jewish faith. They have need of neither prince nor judge, for they know not strife and litigation. Each works for the welfare of the community, and each takes from the common store only what will satisfy his needs. Their houses are built of equal height, that no one may deem himself above his neighbor, and that that the fresh air may not be hindered from playing freely about all alike. Even at night their doors stand wide open, for they have naught to fear from thieves, nor are wild animals known in their land. They all attain a good old age. The son never dies before the father. When a death occurs, there is rejoicing, because the departed is known to have entered into life everlasting in loyalty to his faith. The birth of a child, on the other hand, calls forth mourning, for who can tell whether the being ushered into the world will be pious and faithful? The dead are buried near the doors of their own houses, in order that their survivors, in all their comings and goings, may be reminded of their own end. Disease is unknown among them, for they never sin, and sickness is sent only to purify from sins.
The Sons of Moses were not the only ones to escape from under the heavy hand of Nebuchadnezzar. Still more miraculous was the deliverance of the pious Ethiopian Ebed-melech from the hands of the Babylonians. He was saved as a reward for rescuing Jeremiah when the prophet's life was jeopardized. On the day before the destruction of the Temple, shortly before the enemy forced his way into the city, the Ethiopian was sent, by the prophet Jeremiah acting under Divine instruction, to a certain place in front of the gates of the city, to dole out refreshments to the poor from a little basket of figs he was to carry with him. Ebed-melech reached the spot, but the heat was so intense that he fell asleep under a tree, and there he slept for sixty-six years. When he woke up, the figs were still fresh and juicy, but all the surroundings had so changed, he could not make out where he was. His confusion increased when he entered the city to seek Jeremiah, and found nothing as it had been. He accosted an old man, and asked him the name of the place. When he was told it was Jerusalem, Ebed-melech cried out in amazement: "Where is Jeremiah, where is Baruch, and where are all the people?" The old man was not a little astonished at these questions. How was it possible that one who had known Jeremiah and Jerusalem should be ignorant of the events that had passed sixty years before? In brief words he told Ebed-melech of the destruction of the Temple and of the captivity of the people, but what he said found no credence with his auditor. Finally Ebed-melech realized that God had performed a great miracle for him, so that he had been spared the sight of Israel's misfortune.
While he was pouring out his heart in gratitude to God, an eagle descended and led him to Baruch, who lived not far from the city. Thereupon Baruch received the command from God to write to Jeremiah that the people should remove the strangers from the midst of them, and then God would lead them back to Jerusalem. The letter written by Baruch and some of the figs that had retained their freshness for sixty-six years were carried to Babylonia by an eagle, who had told Baruch that he had been sent to serve him as a messenger. The eagle set out on his journey. His first halting-place was a dreary waste spot to which he knew Jeremiah and the people would come it was the burial-place of the Jews which Nebuchadnezzar had given the prophet at his solicitation. When the eagle saw Jeremiah and the people approach with a funeral train, he cried out: "I have a message for thee, Jeremiah. Let all the people draw nigh to receive the good tidings." As a sign that his mission was true, the eagle touched the corpse, and it came to life. Amidst tears all the people cried unto Jeremiah: "Save us! What must we do to return to our land?"
The eagle brought Jeremiah's answer to Baruch, and after the prophet had sent the Babylonian women away, he returned to Jerusalem with the people. Those who would not submit to the orders of Jeremiah relative to the heathen women, were not permitted by the prophet to enter the holy city, and as they likewise were not permitted to return to Babylonia, they founded the city of Samaria near Jerusalem.
The task laid upon Jeremiah had been twofold. Besides giving him charge over the people in the land of their exile, God had entrusted to him the care of the sanctuary and all it contained. The holy Ark, the altar of incense, and the holy tent were carried by an angel to the mount whence Moses before his death had viewed the land divinely assigned to Israel. There Jeremiah found a spacious place, in which he concealed these sacred utensils. Some of his companions had gone with him to note the way to the cave, but yet they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of their purpose, he censured them, for it was the wish of God that the place of hiding should remain a secret until the redemption, and then God Himself will make the hidden things visible.
Even the Temple vessels not concealed by Jeremiah were prevented from falling into the hands of the enemy; the gates of the Temple sank into the earth, and other parts and utensils were hidden in a tower at Bagdad by the Levite Shimur and his friends. Among these utensils was the seven-branched candlestick of pure gold, every branch set with twenty-six pearls, and beside the pearls two hundred stones of inestimable worth. Furthermore, the tower at Bagdad was the hiding-place for seventy-seven golden tables, and for the gold with which the walls of the Temple had been clothed within and without. The tables had been taken from Paradise by Solomon, and in brilliance they outshone the sun and the moon, while the gold from the walls excelled in amount and worth all the gold that had existed from the creation of the world until the destruction of the Temple. The jewels, pearls, gold, and silver, and precious gems, which David and Solomon had intended for the Temple were discovered by the scribe Hilkiah, and he delivered them to the angel Shamshiel, who in turn deposited the treasure in Borsippa. The sacred musical instruments were taken charge of and hidden by Baruch and Zedekiah until the advent of the Messiah, who will reveal all treasures. In his time a stream will break forth from under the place of the Holy of Holies, and flow through the lands to the Euphrates, and, as it flows, it will uncover all the treasures buried in the earth.
At the time of the destruction of the Temple, one of the prominent figures was Baruch, the faithful attendant of Jeremiah. God commanded him to leave the city one day before the enemy was to enter it, in order that his presence might not render it impregnable. On the following day, he and all other pious men having abandoned Jerusalem, he saw from a distance how the angels descended, set fire to the city walls, and concealed the sacred vessels of the Temple. At first his mourning over the misfortunes of Jerusalem and the people knew no bounds. But he was in a measure consoled at the end of a seven days' fast, when God made known to him that the day of reckoning would come for the heathen, too. Other Divine visions were vouchsafed him. The whole future of mankind was unrolled before his eyes, especially the history of Israel, and he learned that the coming of the Messiah would put an end to all sorrow and misery, and usher in the reign of peace and joy among men. As for him, he would be removed from the earth, he was told, but not through death, and only in order to be kept safe against the coming of the end of all time.
Thus consoled, Baruch addressed an admonition to the people left in Palestine, and wrote two letters of the same tenor to the exiles, one to the nine tribes and a half, the other to the two tribes and a half. The letter to the nine tribes and a half of the captivity was carried to them by an eagle.
Five years after the great catastrophe, he composed a book in Babylon, which contained penitential prayers and hymns of consolation, exhorting Israel and urging the people to return to God and His law. This book Baruch read to King Jeconiah and the whole people on a day of prayer and penitence. On the same occasion a collection was taken up among the people, and the funds thus secured, together with the silver Temple vessels made by order of Zedekiah after Jeconiah had been carried away captive, were sent to Jerusalem, with the request that the high priest Joakim and the people should apply the money to the sacrificial service and to prayers for the life of King Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belshazzar. Thus they might ensure peace and happiness under Babylonian rule. Above all, they were to supplicate God to turn away His wrath from His people.
Baruch sent his book also to the residents of Jerusalem, and they read it in the Temple on distinguished days, and recited the prayers it contains.
Baruch is one of the few mortals who have been privileged to visit Paradise and know its secrets. An angel of the Lord appeared to him while he was lamenting over the destruction of Jerusalem and took him to the seven heavens, to the place of judgment where the doom of the godless is pronounced, and to the abodes of the blessed.
He was still among the living at the time in which Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to Palestine, but on account of his advanced age he could not avail himself of the permission. So long as he was alive, his disciple Ezra remained with him in Babylonia, for "the study of the law is more important than the building of the Temple." It was only after the death of Baruch that he decided to gather together the exiles who desired to return to the Holy Land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
The piety of Baruch and the great favor he enjoyed with God were made known to later generations many years after his death, through the marvellous occurrences connected with his tomb. Once a Babylonian prince commanded a Jew, Rabbi Solomon by name, to show him the grave of Ezekiel, concerning which he had heard many remarkable tales. The Jew advised the prince first to enter the tomb of Baruch, which adjoined that of Ezekiel. Having succeeded in this, he might attempt the same with the tomb of Ezekiel, the teacher of Baruch. In the presence of his grandees and his people the prince tried to open the grave of Baruch, but his efforts were fruitless. Whosoever touched it, was at once stricken dead. An old Arab advised the prince to call upon the Jews to gain entrance for him, seeing that Baruch had been a Jew, and his books were still being studied by Jews. The Jews prepared themselves by fasts, prayers, penitence, and almsgiving, and they succeeded in opening the grave without a mishap. Baruch was found lying on marble bier, and the appearance of the corpse was as though he had only then passed away. The prince ordered the bier to be brought to the city, and the body to be entombed there. He thought it was not seemly that Ezekiel and Baruch should rest in the same grave. But the bearers found it impossible to remove the bier more than two thousands ells from the original grave; not even with the help of numerous draught-animals could it be urged a single step further. Following the advice of Rabbi Solomon, the prince resolved to enter the bier on the spot they had reached and also to erect an academy there. These miraculous happenings induced the prince to go to Mecca. There he became convinced of the falseness of Mohammedanism, of which he had hitherto been an adherent, and he converted to Judaism, he and his whole court.
Near the grave of Baruch there grows a species of grass whose leaves are covered with gold dust. As the sheen of the gold is not readily noticeable by day, the people seek out the place at night, mark the very spot on which the grass grows, and return by day and gather it.
Not less famous is the tomb of Ezekiel, at a distance of two thousand ells from Baruch's. It is overarched by a beautiful mausoleum erected by King Jeconiah after Evil-merodach had released him from captivity. The mausoleum existed down to the middle ages, and it bore on its walls the names of the thirty-five thousand Jews who assisted Jeconiah in erecting the monument. It was the scene of many miracles. When great crowds of people journeyed thither to pay reverence to the memory of the prophet, the little low gate in the wall surrounding the grave enlarged in width and height to admit all who desired to enter. Once a prince vowed to give a colt to the grave of the prophet, if but his mare which had been sterile would bear one. When his wish was fulfilled, however, he did not keep his promise. But the filly ran a distance equal to a four days' journey to the tomb, and his owner could not recover it until he deposited his value in silver upon the grace. When people went on long journeys, they were in the habit of carrying their treasures to the grave of the prophet, and beseeching him to let none but the rightful heirs remove them thence. The prophet always granted their petition. Once when an attempt was made to take some books from the grave of Ezekiel, the ravager suddenly became sick and blind. For a time a pillar of fire, visible at a great distance, rose above the grave of the prophet, but it disappeared in consequence of the unseemly conduct of the pilgrims who resorted thither.
Not far from the grave of Ezekiel was the grave of Barozak, who once appeared to a rich Jew in a dream. He spoke: "I am Barozak, one of the princes who were led into captivity with Jeremiah. I am one of the just. If thou wilt erect a handsome mausoleum for me, thou wilt be blessed with progeny." The Jew did as he had been bidden, and he who had been childless, shortly after became a father.
The most distinguished member of the Babylonian Diaspora was Daniel. Though not a prophet, he was surpassed by none in wisdom, piety, and good deeds. His firm adherence to Judaism he displayed from his early youth, when, a page at the royal court, he refused to partake of the bread, wine, and oil of the heathen, even though the enjoyment of them was not prohibited by the law. In general, his prominent position at the court was maintained at the cost of many a hardship, for he and his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were envied their distinctions by numerous enemies, who sought to compass their ruin.
Once they were accused before King Nebuchadnezzar of leading an unchaste life. The king resolved to order their execution. But Daniel and his friends mutilated certain parts of their bodies, and so demonstrated how unfounded were the charges against them.
As a youth Daniel gave evidence of his wisdom, when he convicted two old sinners of having testified falsely against Susanna, as beautiful as she was good. Misled by the perjured witnesses, the court had condemned Susanna to death. Then Daniel, impelled by a higher power, appeared among the people, proclaimed that wrong had been done, and demanded that the case be re-opened. And so it was. Daniel himself cross-questioned the witnesses one after the other. The same questions were addressed to both, and as the replies did not agree with each other, the false witnesses stood condemned, and they were made to suffer the penalty they would have had the court inflict upon their victim.
Daniel's high position in the state dates from the time when he interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The king said to the astrologers and magicians: "I know my dream, but I do not want to tell you what it was, else you will invent anything at all, and pretend it is the interpretation of the dream. But if you tell me the dream, then I shall have confidence in your interpretation of it."
After much talk between Nebuchadnezzar and his wise men, they confessed that the king's wish might have been fulfilled, if but the Temple had still existed. The high priest at Jerusalem might have revealed the secret by consulting the Urim and Thummim. At this point the king became wrathful against his wise men, who had advised him to destroy the Temple, though they must have known how useful it might become to the king and the state. He ordered them all to execution. Their life was saved by Daniel, who recited the king's dream, and gave its interpretation. The king was so filled with admiration of Daniel's wisdom that he paid him Divine honors. Daniel, however, refused such extravagant treatment he did not desire to be the object of idolatrous veneration. He left Nebuchadnezzar in order to escape the marks of honor thrust upon him, and repaired to Tiberias, where he build a canal. Besides, he was charged by the king with commissions, to bring fodder for cattle to Babylonia and also swine from Alexandria.
During Daniel's absence Nebuchadnezzar set up an idol, and its worship was exacted from all his subject under penalty of death by fire. The image could not stand on account of the disproportion between its height and its thickness. The whole of the gold and silver captured by the Babylonians in Jerusalem was needed to give it steadiness.
All the nations owning the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, including even Israel, obeyed the royal command to worship the image. Only the three pious companions of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, resisted the order. In vain Nebuchadnezzar urged upon them, as an argument in favor if idolatry, that the Jews had been so devoted to heathen practices before the destruction of Jerusalem that they had gone to Babylonia for the purpose of imitating the idols there and bringing the copies they made to Jerusalem. The three saints would not hearken to these seductions of the king, nor when he referred them to such authorities as Moses and Jeremiah, in order to prove to them that they were under obligation to do the royal bidding. They said to him: "Thou art our king in all that concerns service, taxes, poll-money, and tribute, but with respect to thy present command thou art only Nebuchadnezzar. Therein thou and the dog are alike unto us. Bark like a dog, inflate thyself like a water-bottle, and chirp like a cricket."
Now Nebuchadnezzar's wrath transcended all bound, and he ordered the three to be cast into a red hot furnace, so hot that the flames of its fire darted to the height of forty-nine ells beyond the oven, and consumed the heathen standing about it. No less than four nations were thus exterminated. While the three saints were being thrust into the furnace, they addressed a fervent prayer to God, supplicating His grace toward them, and entreating Him to put their adversaries to shame. The angels desired to descend and rescue the three men in the furnace. But God forbade it: "Did the three men act thus for your sakes? Nay, they did it for Me; and I will save them with Mine own hands." God also rejected the good offices of Yurkami, the angel of hail who offered to extinguish the fire in the furnace. The angel Gabriel justly pointed out that such a miracle would not be sufficiently striking to arrest attention. His own proposition was accepted. He, the angel of fire, was deputed to snatch the three men from the red hot furnace. He executed his mission by cooling off the fire inside of the oven, while on the outside the heat continued to increase to such a degree that the heathen standing around the furnace were consumed. The three youths thereupon raised their voices together in a hymn of praise to God, thanking Him for His miraculous help. The Chaldeans observed the three men pacing up and down quietly in the furnace, followed by a fourth the angel Gabriel as by an attendant. Nebuchadnezzar, who hastened thither to see the wonder, was stunned with fright, for he recognized Gabriel to be the angel who in the guise of a column of fire had blasted the army of Sennacherib. Six other miracles happened, all of them driving terror to the heart of the king: the fiery furnace which had been sunk in the ground raised itself into the air; it was broken; the bottom dropped out; the image erected by Nebuchadnezzar fell prostrate; four nations were wasted by fire; and Ezekiel revived the dead in the valley of Dura.
Of the last, Nebuchadnezzar was apprised in a peculiar way. He had a drinking vessel made of the bones of a slain Jew. When he was about to use it, life began to stir in the bones, and a blow was planted in the king's face, while a voice announced: "A friend of this man is at this moment reviving the dead!" Nebuchadnezzar now offered praise to God for the miracles performed, and if an angel had not quickly struck him a blow on his mouth, and forced him into silence, his psalms of praise would have excelled the Psalter of David.
The deliverance of the three pious young men was a brilliant vindication of their ways, but at the same time it caused great mortification to the masses of the Jewish people, who had complied with the order of Nebuchadnezzar to worship his idol. Accordingly, when the three men left the furnace which they did not do until Nebuchadnezzar invited them to leave the heathen struck all the Jews they met in the face, deriding them at the same time: "You who have so marvellous a God pay homage to an idol!" The three men thereupon left Babylonia and went to Palestine, where they joined their friend, the high priest Joshua.
Their readiness to sacrifice their lives for the honor of God had been all the more admirable as they had been advised by the prophet Ezekiel that no miracle would be done for their sakes. When the king's command to bow down before the idol was published, and the three men were appointed to act as the representatives of the people, Hananiah and his companions resorted to Daniel for his advice. He referred them to the prophet Ezekiel, who counselled flight, citing his teacher Isaiah as his authority. The three men rejected his advice, and declared themselves ready to suffer the death of martyrs. Ezekiel bade them tarry until he inquired of God, whether a miracle would be done for them. The words of God were: "I shall not manifest Myself as their savior. They caused My house to be destroyed, My palace to be burnt, My children to be dispersed among the heathen, and now they appeal for My help. As I live, I will not be found of them."
Instead of discouraging the three men, this answer but infused new spirit and resolution in them, and they declared with more decided emphasis than before, that they were ready to meet death. God consoled the weeping prophet by revealing to him, that He would save the three saintly heroes. He had sought to restrain them from martyrdom only to let their piety and steadfastness appear the brighter.
On account of their piety it became customary to swear by the Name of Him who supports the world on three pillars, the pillars being the saints Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Their deliverance from death by fire worked a great effect upon the disposition of the heathen. They were convinced of the uselessness of their idols, and with their own hands they destroyed them.
Among the dead whom Ezekiel restored to life at the same time when the three men were redeemed from the fiery furnace were different classes of persons. Some were the Ephraimites that had perished in the attempt to escape from Egypt before Moses led the whole nation out of the land of bondage. Some were the godless among the Jews that had polluted the Temple at Jerusalem with heathen rites, and those still more godless who in life had not believed in the resurrection of the dead. Others of those revived by Ezekiel were the youths among the Jews carried away captive to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar whose beauty was so radiant that it darkened the very splendor of the sun. The Babylonian women were seized with a great passion for them, and at the solicitation of their husbands, Nebuchadnezzar ordered a bloody massacre of the handsome youths. But the Babylonian women were not yet cured of their unlawful passion; the beauty of the young Hebrews haunted them until their corpses lay crushed before them, their graceful bodies mutilated. These were the youths recalled to life by the prophet Ezekiel. Lastly, he revived some that had perished only a short time before. When Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were saved from death, Nebuchadnezzar thus addressed the other Jews, those who had yielded obedience to his command concerning the worship of the idol: "You know that your God can help and save, nevertheless you paid worship to an idol which is incapable of doing anything. This proves that, as you have destroyed your own land by your wicked deeds, so you are now trying to destroy my land with your iniquity." Forthwith he commanded that they all be executed, sixty thousand in number. Twenty years passed, and Ezekiel was vouchsafed the vision in which God bade him repair to the Valley of Dura, where Nebuchadnezzar had set up his idol, and had massacred the host of the Jews. Here God showed him the dry bones of the slain with the question: "Can I revive these bones?" Ezekiel's answer was evasive, and as a punishment for his little faith, he had to end his days in Babylon, and was not granted even burial in the soil of Palestine. God then dropped the dew of heaven upon the dry bones, and "sinews were upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above." At the same time God sent forth winds to the four corners of the earth, which unlocked the treasure houses of souls, and brought its own soul to each body. All came to life except one man, who, as God explained to the prophet, was excluded from the resurrection because he was a usurer.
In spite of the marvellous miracle performed from them, the men thus restored to life wept, because they feared they would have no share at the end of time in the resurrection of the whole of Israel. But the prophet assured them, in the name of God, that their portion in all that had been promised Israel should in no wise be diminished.
Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the whole world, to whom even the wild animals paid obedience, his pet was a lion with a snake coiled about its neck, did not escape punishment for his sins. He was chastised as none before him. He whom fear of God had at first held back from a war against Jerusalem, and who had to be dragged forcibly, as he sat on his horse, to the Holy of Holies by the archangel Michael, he later became so arrogant that he thought himself a god, and cherished the plan of enveloping himself in a cloud, so that he might live apart from men. A heavenly voice resounded: "O thou wicked man, son of a wicked man, and descendant of Nimrod the wicked, who incited the world to rebel against God! Behold, the days of the years of a man are threescore years and ten, or perhaps by reason of strength fourscore years. It takes five hundred years to traverse the distance of the earth from the first heaven, and as long a time to penetrate from the bottom to the top of the first heaven, and not less are the distances from one of the seven heavens to the next. How, then, canst thou speak of ascending like unto the Most High 'above the heights of the clouds'?" For this transgression of deeming himself more than a man, he was punished by being made to live for some time as a beast among beasts, treated by them as though he were one of them. For forty days he led this life. As far down as his navel he had the appearance of an ox, and the lower part of his body resembled that of a lion. Like an ox he ate grass, and like a lion he attacked a curious crowd, but Daniel spent his time in prayer, entreating that the seven years of this brutish life allotted to Nebuchadnezzar might be reduced to seven months. His prayer was granted. At the end of forty days reason returned to the king, the next forty days he passed in weeping bitterly over his sins, and in the interval that remained to complete the seven months he again lived the life of a beast.
Hiram, the king of Tyre, was a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar, and in many respects resembled him. He, too, esteemed himself a god, and sought to make men believe in his divinity by the artificial heavens he fashioned for himself. In the sea he erected four iron pillars, on which he build up seven heavens, each five hundred ells larger than the one below. The first was a plate of glass of five hundred square ells, and the second a plate of iron of a thousand square ells. The third, of lead, and separated from the second by canals, contained huge round boulders, which produced the sound of thunder on the iron. The fourth heaven was of brass, the fifth of copper, the sixth of silver, and the seventh of gold, all separated from each other by canals. In the seventh, thirty-five hundred ells in extent, he had diamonds and pearls, which he manipulated so as to produce the effect of flashes and sheets of lightening, while the stones below imitated the growling of the thunder.
As Hiram was thus floating above the earth, in his vain imagination deeming himself superior to the rest of men, he suddenly perceived the prophet Ezekiel next to himself. He had been waved thither by a wind. Frightened and amazed, Hiram asked the prophet how he had risen to his heights. The answer was: "God brought me here, and He bade me ask thee why thou art so proud, thou born of woman?" The king of Tyre replied defiantly: "I am not one born of woman; I live forever, and as God resides on the sea, so my abode is on the sea, and as He inhabits seven heavens, so do I. See how many kings I have survived! Twenty-one of the House of David, and as many of the Kingdom of the Ten Tribes, and no less than fifty prophets and ten high priests have I buried." Thereupon God said: "I will destroy My house, that henceforth Hiram may have no reason for self-glorification, because all his pride comes only from the circumstance that he furnished the cedar-trees for the building of the Temple." The end of this proud king was that he was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, deprived of this throne, and made to suffer a cruel death. Though the Babylonian king was the step-son of Hiram, he had no mercy with him. Daily he cut off a bit of the flesh of his body, and forced the Tyrian king to eat it, until the finally perished. Hiram's palace was swallowed by the earth, and in the bowels of the earth it will remain until it shall emerge in the future world as the habitation of the pious.
Not only among the heathen, but also among the Jews there were very sinful people in those days. The most notorious Jewish sinners were the two false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah. Ahab came to the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and said: "Yield thyself to Zedekiah," telling her this in the form of a Divine message. The same was done by Zedekiah, who only varied the message by substituting the name of Ahab. The princess could not accept such messages as Divine, and she told her father what had occurred. Though Nebuchadnezzar was so addicted to immoral practices that he was in the habit of making his captive kings drunk, and then satisfying his unnatural lusts upon them, and a miracle had to interpose to shield the pious of Judah against this disgrace, yet he well knew that the God of the Jews hates immorality. He therefore questioned Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah about it, and they emphatically denied the possibility that such a message could have come from God. The prophets of lies refused to recall their statements, and Nebuchadnezzar decided to subject them to the same fiery test as he had decreed for the three pious companions of Daniel. To be fair toward them, the king permitted them to choose a third fellow-sufferer, some pious man to share their lot. Seeing no escape, Ahab and Zedekiah asked for Joshua, later the high priest, as their companion in the furnace, in the hope that his distinguished merits would suffice to save all three of them. They were mistaken. Joshua emerged unhurt, only his garments were seared, but the false prophets were consumed. Joshua explained the singeing of his garments by the fact that he was directly exposed to the full fury of the flames. But the truth was that he had to expiate the sins of his sons, who had contracted marriages unworthy of their dignity and descent. Therefore their father escaped death only after the fire had burnt his garments.
No greater contrast to Hiram and the false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah can be imagined than is presented by the character of the pious Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar offered him Divine honors, he refused what Hiram sought to obtain by every means in his power. The Babylonian king felt so ardent an admiration for Daniel that he sent him from the country when the time arrived to worship the idol he had erected in Dura, for he knew very well that Daniel would prefer death in the flames to disregard of the commands of God, and he could not well have cast the man into the fire to whom he had paid Divine homage. Moreover, it was the wish of God that Daniel should not pass through the fiery ordeal at the same time as his three friends, in order that their deliverance might not be ascribed to him.
In spite of all this, Nebuchadnezzar endeavored to persuade Daniel by gentle means to worship an idol. He had the golden diadem of the high priest inserted in the mouth of an idol, and by reason of the wondrous power that resides in the Holy Name inscribed on the diadem, the idol gained the ability to speak, and it said the words: "I am thy God." Thus were many seduced to worship the image. But Daniel could not be misled so easily. He secured permission from the king to kiss the idol. Laying his mouth upon the idol's, he adjured the diadem in the following words: "I am but flesh and blood, yet at the same time a messenger of God. I therefore admonish thee, take heed that the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, may not be desecrated, and I order thee to follow me." So it happened. When the heathen came with music and song to give honor to the idol, it emitted no sound, but a storm broke loose and overturned it.
On still another occasion Nebuchadnezzar tried to persuade Daniel to worship an idol, this time a dragon that devoured all who approached it, and therefore was adored as a god by the Babylonians. Daniel had straw mixed with nails fed to him, and the dragon ate and perished almost immediately.
All this did not prevent Daniel from keeping the welfare of the king in mind continually. Hence it was that when Nebuchadnezzar was engaged in setting his house in order, he desired to mention 'Daniel in his will as one of his heirs. But the Jew refused with the words: "Far be it from me to leave the inheritance of my fathers for that of the uncircumcised."
Nebuchadnezzar died after having reigned forty years, as long as King David. The death of the tyrant brought hope and joy to many a heart, for his severity had been such that during his lifetime none dared laugh, and when he descended to Sheol, its inhabitants trembled, fearing he had come to reign over them, too. However, a heavenly voice called to him: "Go down, and be thou laid down with the uncircumcised."
The interment of this great king was anything but what one might have expected, and for this reason: During the seven years spent by Nebuchadnezzar among the beast, his son Evil-merodach ruled in his stead. Nebuchadnezzar reappeared after his period of penance, and incarcerated his son for life. When the death of Nebuchadnezzar actually did occur, Evil-merodach refused to accept the homage the nobles brought him as the new king, because he feared that his father was not dead, but had only disappeared as once before, and would return again. To convince him of the groundlessness of his apprehension, the corpse of Nebuchadnezzar, badly mutilated by his enemies, was dragged through the streets.
Shortly afterward occurred the death of Zedekiah, the dethroned king of Judah. His burial took place amid great demonstrations of sympathy and mourning. The elegy over him ran thus: "Alas that King Zedekiah had to die, he who quaffed the lees which all the generations before him accumulated."
Zedekiah reached a good old age, for though it was in his reign that the destruction of Jerusalem took place, yet it was the guilt of the nation, not of the king, that had brought about the catastrophe.
Legends of the Jews [Table of Contents]
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