Reasons for the Loss of Empires--Social Life in Israel and in Judah--The Good King Hezekiah--The Destruction of Sennacherib--Byron's Poem--Sickness and Prayer of Hezekiah--The Prophet Isaiah--Hezekiah's Magnificent Poem on Life and Death--Louis XV-- The Evil Reign of Manasseh--Renaissance of Morality Under the Good Boy Josiah--His Zeal as a Reformer--Last Days of Judah--The Conquest and Captivity--The Brilliant Youth Daniel--His Three Friends--Their Independence--Daniel the First Vegetarian--Daniel the Psycho-analyst--The Mediums-- The Dream and Interpretation--The Fiery Furnace-- The Three Salamanders--The King Eats Grass--Belshazzar's Feast--The Writing--Daniel and the Den of Lions--Patriotic Emphasis in Daniel and in Esther--Independence of Vashti--Selection of Esther-- Proud Mordecai the Jew--The Pompous Haman and His Fate--Insomnia of the King--The Whirligig of Time Brings in His Revenges--Grand Patriotic Conclusion
When the moral law is continually broken, either by individuals, communities, or nations, a false security may last for a time, illusory as sin itself; but sooner or later evil conduct is followed by evil results, as certainly as winter follows autumn. Nations that put their confidence in the gods of iron and steel rather than in the God of Truth and Righteousness, are doomed. Both the Old and the New Testament point out the path of true national glory.
"In God We Trust" is a better national motto than "America First."
The Israelites, who had entered Canaan so proudly under Captain Joshua, who had triumphed repeatedly under King David, were utterly humiliated by Assyria. After a siege of three years, the city of Samaria was taken and the Assyrians carried away the inhabitants into captivity; it is worth remembering, in justice to these heathen, that they
treated their conquered foes more humanely than Israel had behaved toward the cities they had overcome. They placed garrisons in many Hebrew towns, and it must have been a strange sight to see the men and women from faraway Babylon dwelling like a superior race in Israel.
The social life of the tribe of Judah was so much better than the standard of morality farther north that Jerusalem was able to keep back the invaders for many years; and if it had not been for one thoroughly bad king, Manasseh, Judah might never have succumbed. Then, as in European history, fashions in character and religion were set by the king.
Everyone who is interested in the welfare of modern Europe and America, everyone who is interested in the welfare of the white race, will find valuable material for thought in reading the Second Book of the Kings. Human nature has not changed, neither has the law of causation. When a nation loses its soul, it becomes vulnerable to foreign attack. Nor is there, from the world point of view, much to regret in the results of such weakness, however regrettable the weakness itself may be. A nation that has lost its soul does not deserve power.
The moral life of the kingdom of Judah fluctuated according to the standards of character followed by her rulers; during the last century before the fall of Jerusalem there were bad kings and good kings. Among the latter, two fine specimens of royalty
stand out in bold relief--Hezekiah and the good boy Josiah. The old faith shone brightly again in these two reigns, all the brighter by reason of the following darkness. During the rule of Hezekiah, a prophet arose whose influence on literature and on conduct has been immeasurably powerful. His name is Isaiah.
It was during Hezekiah's reign in Judah that Samaria fell before the Assyrian besiegers, and the kingdom of Israel fell with it. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, also invaded Judah, and Hezekiah was forced to pay him an enormous indemnity; but later, a successful rebellion was organised and carried through. The Assyrians came down and laid siege to Jerusalem with an immense army, and Rab-shakeh, their emissary, made a long speech, counselling the inhabitants to surrender, because, said he, Sennacherib is invincible. He ridiculed the God of Judah and pointed out to the people what had become of all the other nations who had fought against Assyria and who had trusted in their gods.
This speech of Rabshakeh's is remarkable; it is exactly the kind of talk one so often hears, the talk of the "practical" men in ridicule of ideals. What good will it do you to trust in God if I take away your money and provisions? He was a plain fighting man who believed that if one had superior armaments one was bound to win. Spiritual forces were to him meaningless.
Rabshakeh had learned the Hebrew language,
and when he met the diplomats of Hezekiah in front of the walls of Jerusalem, they begged him to talk Aramaic, so that the people on the walls could not hear. They desired secret diplomacy. But the clever Rabshakeh particularly wished the famine-suffering men and women on the walls to hear what he had to say, so he spoke fair words in a loud voice, and in the Hebrew tongue. He advised them not to hearken to Hezekiah, but to rise in revolt, open the gates, and surrender Jerusalem to him, and after a time he would lead them away
to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and of honey, that ye may live and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah, when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us.
Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered at all his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?
Where are the gods of Hamath, and of Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah? Have they delivered Samaria out of thine hand?
Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?
The splendid discipline of the good King Hezekiah is shown in the reception that greeted these fine speeches:
But the people held their peace, and answered him not a word: for the king's commandment was, saying, Answer him not.
Hezekiah took counsel of Isaiah, the man of God, who first appears in history at this crisis; Isaiah
bade him be of good courage, for the Assyrians were to be destroyed and the mighty King Sennacherib assassinated. Furthermore, the doom would fall upon them in precisely the manner that would be most convincing, both to them and to Judah, that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. "I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou earnest."
That night one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian host were smitten with sudden death. Sennacherib decided that the location was unhealthy and departed to Nineveh, when one fine day, as he was publicly worshipping his particular little god, he was stabbed to death by his own sons.
As everyone ought to know, Byron's lyrical poems called Hebrew Melodies are interesting and melodious versions of Old Testament stories. One of the most famous is The Destruction of Sennacherib.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
The host with their banners at sunset are seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay wither'd and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass'd;
And the eyes of the sleepers wax'd deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heav'd, and forever grew still!
In the midst of the pleasures and cares of royal authority, and with his mind full of plans for the civic welfare, Hezekiah fell into a dangerous sickness, so that his life was despaired of; Isaiah came to see him and told him bluntly to set his house in order, for he would not recover. The good king turned his face to the wall and prayed, reminding the Lord of how extremely well he had behaved, and how pious he had been. Then he wept copiously, for never until the day of Dr. Johnson was there a man who loved life with more gusto, or who was more afraid of death. His prayer was so effective that Isaiah was divinely commanded to grant him a reprieve, which should last fifteen years; furthermore, the Assyrian triumph would be postponed until after his death.
When King Hezekiah recovered from his sickness, he wrote the following poem, one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible:
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.
I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.
Mine age is departed, and is removed from me as a shepherd's tent: I have cut off like a weaver my life: he will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.
Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as
a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me.
What shall I say? He hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul.
O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.
Behold, for peace I had great bitterness: but thou hast in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou hast cast all my sins behind my back.
For the grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father of the children shall make known thy truth.
The Lord was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord.
The intense love of life and horror of annihilation expressed so poignantly in this psalm appeared in a less noble fashion when Isaiah stood before the king one day and foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, saying that Hezekiah's own sons should be degraded into slaves in the Assyrian palace. Hezekiah replied with a frank statement of his own selfish love of ease and security, "Good is the word of the Lord, because these things will not come to pass until after I am gone." His reception of Isaiah's prophecy infallibly reminds us of another king, Louis XV, who in strikingly similar circumstances said cynically, "After us the deluge."
Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, succeeded him
on the throne of Judah; he was an unprincipled scoundrel, under whom the nation became so degenerate that its doom was merely a question of date. This man, however, reigned fifty-five years, one of the longest reigns in Bible history, so that, like Louis XIV and Louis XV, he had every opportunity to accomplish the ruin of his country. His son Amon became so impossible that he was assassinated after being two years on the throne, and the "people of the land" took his little boy, Josiah, eight years old, and proclaimed him king. However powerful or cruel the kings were, both in Israel and in Judah, they were never absolute monarchs; democratic sentiment ruled from the time of Saul till the very end; in the last century of the two kingdoms, revolutions and assassinations became so common as to attract only momentary attention.
Josiah was a throw-back to his great-grandfather Hezekiah; he was a thoroughly upright and spiritually minded king, as loyal to Jehovah as David himself. This reign of Josiah is the last brightness before the night of captivity. The sun of Judah, so long in the clouds, emerged just before setting, and shone with a brilliance all the greater because of the coming darkness. Josiah repaired the temple of the Lord, and during the renovation a wonderful thing happened. Hilkiah the High Priest found the book of the Law, which had not only been neglected, but had become as obsolete as statutes quite forgotten. It was like a new revelation, like a reincarnation of
Moses himself. When Josiah heard the words of the Law read aloud, he tore his garments; for the contrast between what was and what ought to be was total. He determined to make a thoroughgoing reformation; and first he enquired, curiously enough, of a prophetess named Huldah, who lived in the divinity school in Jerusalem; she received the word of the Lord, which said that Judah was doomed, yet because of the piety and devotion of Josiah, he should not live to see his country made desolate, but should go to his grave in peace.
Instead of complacently rejoicing in this message, as his great-grandfather Hezekiah would have done, he proceeded to do the work of ten men. He knew that the night was coming, and resolved to make the best possible use of his time. He certainly was one of the most admirable characters in monarchical history.
He destroyed every evidence of paganism; he put away the mediums and the abominable fakirs who had enjoyed an ever-increasing authority; he abolished unspeakable but popular practices; he brought back the observances of the Mosaic Law, and they held a Passover Feast which aroused such excitement that the historian says:
Surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah......
And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with
all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.
This zeal was in part undoubtedly owing to the reaction against previous decadence and sin--a familiar spectacle to all acquainted with history and human nature. But Josiah was in earnest; he may have hoped to turn aside the wrath of the Lord, and thus save Jerusalem. If so, his hopes were vain. All his drastic and heroic operations were palliatives, not remedies; they postponed death, but they did not prevent it. Fortunately for the king, he was killed in battle and was delivered from the evil days. Jehoahaz, his son, was wicked, and was carried off to Egypt in captivity, where he died; his brother Jehoiakim was made king of Judah by Pharaoh, which shows the national degradation; history had repeated itself, and the Hebrews were working to pay taxes and gifts to the Egyptians, just as they had done in the early days. But the wolf from Egypt was devoured by the wolf from Babylon, and Judah changed masters; Jehoiakim attempted to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian king, with disastrous war as a result; his son Jehoiachin, who followed him, was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, and carried off to Babylon, with all his courtiers, men-at-arms, and treasure; so Judah fell. The victor made Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah, king of Jerusalem, an ironically empty honour, which, however, Zedekiah might have held indefinitely if he had not seen fit to rebel.
This rebellion brought down the final catastrophe. Nebuchadnezzar, after a long siege, captured Jerusalem, took Zedekiah to Riblah, where he was subjected to a court-martial. After killing his sons in his presence--the last sight he saw on earth--they tore out his eyes, bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon. Nebuzaradan, commander-in-chief of the Assyrian forces, destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, burned the temple of the Lord and all the houses, and carried away in captivity every able-bodied man, leaving only the scum of the city to eke out what substance they could from the desolated land.
After the death of King Nebuchadnezzar, and after poor old Jehoiachin had been in a dungeon in Babylon thirty-seven years, Evilmerodach, the new king, took him out of prison, treated him with such kindness and consideration that his throne in the city was placed before the thrones of the numerous other captive kings which decorated the town, gave him fine garments to wear, a generous pension, and made him a daily guest at the royal table all the days of his life.
What a romantic history! And how amazed Jehoiachin must have been at the change in his fortunes! Writers of romance, there is a subject made to your hand.
The life of a nation is like the life of an individual. The Hebrews had weakened themselves by sin and apostasy to such an extent that they were
at the mercy of an attack which they could easily have thrown back in the days of their vigour. They and they alone were responsible for their ultimate disgrace and ruin.
Daniel holds his place among the four major prophets in Hebrew literature by reason of the extraordinary strength of his character and his thrilling adventures. His book is brief, but packed with exciting incident. It will forever be the joy and delight of children, and it is full of significance to thoughtful men and women.
When Jehoiakim was on the throne of Judah and Nebuchadnezzar captured the town, he brought the princes of the blood royal and the finest specimens of young Hebrew manhood into his own palace in Babylon, and gave command that those who combined bodily and mental gifts should be given the best of food and the best of teaching, so that they might become proficient in the art and learning of the Chaldeans and forget their nativity and their religion. It was a clever attempt to force, gently but effectively, Babylonian Kultur on the children of Judah.
Among these brilliant youths were four of especial comeliness and promise--Daniel and three others. Their Hebrew names were changed into Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It is curious that in popular parlance Daniel has always kept his Jewish name, while the other three
--originally Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah--will
forever be remembered by their foreign appellations. Possibly in English this may be because of the melodious rhythm of the three taken together; probably because the original chronicler preserved the name of the prophet, while after a struggle he seems to have adopted the Babylonian names for the others.
In the foreign court Daniel was as popular as Joseph in the court of Pharaoh, and in many striking ways seems to have resembled his Hebrew prototype; he was clever, wise, well-spoken, irresistibly charming in manner, and a psycho-analyst of such skill that he interpreted dreams without the least difficulty.
But he and his three friends were conscientious objectors, and if they had not been popular with the guards, they would not have lived to become famous. Daniel positively refused to eat the meat and drink the wine from the king's table, and begged the chief officer to let them live on vegetables and water. The twentieth century antipathy to flesh and alcohol was then unknown; and the officer demurred, saying that this meagre diet would destroy their strength and beauty, so that he would get into trouble. Daniel proposed the same test that Benjamin Franklin proposed to the beer-drinkers in the London printing-office, namely, to have a competition. The officer finally consented. Then at the end of ten days Daniel and his friends appeared
more fit than any of the others. No more was said; and they ate vegetables and drank water in peace.
Thus Daniel holds a place in history as the first vegetarian; he was far ahead of his time, and ought to be especially honoured to-day by all the numerous theorisers in diet whose preaching fills our land. There are so many just now who are so much more interested in dieting than in religion that Daniel ought to be canonised. For to-day hundreds of thousands neglect their souls, while to themselves they put these burning and primarily important questions: What shall we eat? and what shall we drink?
It so happened that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream so vivid that it tormented him; even after he woke up, and daylight flooded the place, he could not drive it from his mind. He finally sent for all his magicians, sorcerers, astrologers, fortune-tellers, mediums--indeed, all the fakirs and professional frauds that in all times and countries have made and are making a rich income off human gulls--and he gave them terrifying information. They were not only to interpret the dream, but tell him what the dream was; being a wise king, he may have suspected them, and have taken this occasion to get rid of them all. For he told them that if they succeeded in giving him the nature of the dream and of the interpretation, they should be magnificently rewarded; if they failed they should all be disemboweled and their houses turned into dunghills.
They protested; they declared that if he wished
an interpretation he must first tell them the dream. "Just what I thought you would say," he declared in a royal rage; "all you want is to gain time, so you can make up some cock-and-bull story." He at once made a proclamation that every "wise man" in the kingdom should be slain.
This of course included Daniel; he spoke with the captain of the guard, and sent word to the king that the royal curiosity would be satisfied. In a night vision Daniel received the truth; he was so delighted that he composed an especial song of thanksgiving. He petitioned the king to spare the lives of the magicians, and as soon as he was brought into the presence he told Nebuchadnezzar that this affair had nothing to do with sorcerers or astrologers; that there was a God in heaven who revealed secrets to those who followed and worshipped Him. It was therefore not through Daniel's cleverness, but through God's mercy, that he was able to give both dream and vision.
Then he narrated the dream--a great image appeared, with gold head, silver breast, brass thighs, iron legs, with an alloy of clay in the feet. A stone made without hands smote and smashed the feet; the image was pulverised, and the stone became a mountain and filled the earth. The interpretation: the present kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar was the gold head, which would be succeeded by gradually inferior kingdoms, which should finally go to ruin through dissension (iron and clay); then would
come the Kingdom of God on earth, which should rule all nations.
Nebuchadnezzar, who had never bowed his haughty head before, fell on his face and worshipped Daniel, and gave him the same position that Joseph had held in Egypt; he became prime minister. Immediately he found state offices for his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Daniel was a good politician.
Some time after this event, the king caused to be erected a statue of gold about a hundred feet in height. He then issued the following silly ukase: whenever certain instrumental music should be played by the royal court orchestra, every person must fall down and worship the golden image. And so, with a few exceptions, they did. I wonder what the music was like.
The exceptions were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were independent; they did their own thinking; they did not follow the herd; they served not the gods of the nation, nor did they care one iota for public sentiment. For the glory of poor human nature, be it remembered that out of every hundred thousand people, there are usually three who think for themselves. They must be prepared to share the doom of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; for public opinion, when aroused, is a consuming fire.
Now, although Daniel had saved from ignominious death a horde of soothsayers, he and his three
friends were not popular; which fact ought to be easily understood by those who know anything of human nature. These four foreigners were exalted office-holders, high in royal favour, and therefore the object of sharp and malignant envy.
The three non-conformists were as prominent as torches on a dark night; when the music sounded and the population fell flat and grovelled, these three gentlemen apparently heard nothing and noticed nothing; they simply went on tranquilly with whatever undertaking they had in hand.
News of their defiance was brought to the king, who had a typically regal rage. He sent for them, and asked them if the report of their behaviour was correct; if so, they would be cast into the burning fiery furnace, and where was there any God who could deliver them? Their answer is magnificent in its courage and independence. "We are not careful to answer thee in this matter"--that is, we are not in the least worried. There is a God who can deliver us, even from the midst of the flames--but then comes the splendid conclusion, the finest thing they said: even if He does not, we positively refuse to serve thy gods or bow down to thine image. There spoke true men and true believers--though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.
Nebuchadnezzar's face grew even hotter than his furnace; in a blazing fury he commanded that the furnace be seven times increased in temperature. Which shows what a fool he was; for if he had
wished to make them suffer, he ought to have had a nice, slow fire. The result was that the athletic executioners who took hold of the three victims, to cast them into the furnace, got a little too near the door thereof; tongues of flame darted out and destroyed them all. Whereas, to the amazement of the king, who had attended the ceremony in person at a safe distance, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego lost nothing in the fire but their fetters; they walked up and down in the roaring flames and seemed to like the climate; furthermore, they were under the protection of some divinity, for Nebuchadnezzar thought he saw an angel walking with them.
Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came forth of the midst of the fire.
And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king's counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them.
The king was enormously impressed. The salamandric three were promoted, and it was commanded that any man who said one word against the Hebrew religion should be cut in pieces.
Nebuchadnezzar had another dream, and he sent for the great psycho-analyst, after trying without
success the wisdom of the magicians; observe that nothing can cure one from going to mediums, once one has got the habit. Their ignorance and fraud may be proved, but they can usually do a good business even with old customers. Daniel was "aston-ied for one hour" when he heard the dream, and the king, instead of being angry, told him not to worry if he could not interpret it. But Daniel was not silent because he did not know the right answer; he was silent because he did know it. He was forced to tell the great king that a time was coming when he should be driven from power, and live like an ox in the field until he was sufficiently humbled to recognise God. Then all these things would be added unto him again.
Exactly one year after this conversation, Nebuchadnezzar was walking in the palace grounds, swelling with conceit, when there fell a voice from heaven, and within an hour he was driven out in disgrace, and ate grass in the pasture like a beast of the field. And thus he continued doing for a long time.
Personally I have no doubt this regimen was as good for his body as for his pride. The royal digestion was undoubtedly upset by high living on meats, dainties, pastry, and wine; so that to eat for many months lettuce, and cress, and cereals, and to drink only water, was a necessary change. It brought him back to reason and health. In the happiness of humility he took up again the cares of state, and
until his death worshipped the God of Truth and Righteousness, as do all kings who retain or regain their sanity.
Nebuchadnezzar never forgot the religion he had acquired through vegetation, but his son Belshazzar, who succeeded him on the throne, was frivolous and dissipated, overfond of feasting and strong liquors. One night he arranged a magnificent state banquet, one thousand sitting down to dinner in a vast hall. The king, flushed with wine, ordered the holy vessels of the temple of Jerusalem to be brought, and he, the princes and the ladies of the court, all drank out of them. In the midst of the revelry there appeared a Hand, writing on the wall, and the king was troubled. He could see the Hand but not the words. The same old mediums made the same old failure to pass the examination. The queen, who seems to have been sitting up, although not present at the feast, listened to the sudden silence in the banquet hall, more noticeable than cheers: she entered the room, and informed the king that his father, when in a quandary, invariably consulted a wise Hebrew named Daniel. Accordingly, Daniel was aroused and brought into the presence. He was informed that if he could properly interpret the mystic handwriting he should be clothed in scarlet, wear a chain of gold, and be the third ruler in the kingdom.
Daniel was harsh and rude in his reply to these gracious words; he told the king to keep his gifts or
bestow them elsewhere; this remark he followed by a denunciation of Belshazzar's career, comparing him unfavourably with his deceased father. At that moment the Hand vanished and the words appeared. The writing on the wall, said Daniel--and we can feel the suspense in the great room--is
MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN,
which, being interpreted, is as follows: The first two words mean that God has numbered your kingdom, and reached the end of it; TEKEL means you are weighed, and are a featherweight; UPHARSIN or PERES signifies that your kingdom is divided, and the Medes and Persians will take it.
Instead of killing Daniel for his insolence, Belshazzar immediately gave orders and the prophet was clothed in scarlet, a chain of gold put round his neck, and he was proclaimed the third ruler in the kingdom. One cannot praise too highly the sportsmanship and honesty and magnanimity of the king. This command was the last he uttered, for that very night he was killed, and Darius the Mede mounted the throne.
The next adventure of Daniel is one of the world's favourite stories, and peculiarly appeals to the vivid imagination of children. It would be difficult to find anyone who had not heard of Daniel in the den of lions. His other exploits are sufficiently remarkable; but the lions immortalised him.
As Daniel had been a prominent statesman under
both Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, so Darius, who became king at the age of sixty-two, made Daniel prime minister, "because an excellent spirit was in him." The courtiers and politicians looked at him with green eyes and tried to find something wrong in his administration. But this was impossible, for he was both able and honest. Finally they remembered that he had never surrendered to the state-church, and in this fact saw an opportunity to ruin him. It seems that the laws of the Medes and the Persians were stiffer than the United States Constitution; once decreed they could be neither modified nor broken. Accordingly these plotters induced King Darius to establish a decree that for the next thirty days no person should ask a petition of either God or man, but only of the king. The penalty for disobedience was the den of lions. Now kings are just as easily flattered as other men; and Darius signed the decree complacently.
Daniel, who never lacked the courage of his convictions, went into his house, opened the windows toward Jerusalem, and there in sight of the passers in the street, knelt down and prayed three times a day to Jehovah. Word was immediately brought to Darius, who was terribly depressed; he not only loved Daniel personally, but knew his value as a statesman. He set in motion all the royal influence, and worked till sunset to find some method by which Daniel could be saved. Impossible. Just before Daniel was thrown into the lion-pit, the king whis-
pered to him, "Thy God will save thee." A stone was rolled up to the den's mouth and sealed with the king's own seal.
Darius passed a much more restless night than Daniel; he ate no supper; he forbade the court orchestra to play the usual evening concert; he slept not a wink. At the first streak of dawn, he hastened to the den of lions and sobbed and wailed and called on the name of Daniel, asking if his God had saved him. Imagine the king's ecstasy when the familiar voice of the prime minister came cheerily out of the pit, saying: "Long live the King. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me."
Then Daniel was taken up into safety, and the men who had accused him under the espionage act were cast into the den of lions, together with their wives and children, whose shrieks must have drowned the roar of the huge beasts. Now the lions, whose appetite had been sharpened to a razor edge by the night-long contemplation of Daniel, leaped upon this fresh supply of human meat and tore them all to pieces before the visitors had reached the bottom of the den.
Then Darius made a new decree to the effect that the religion of Daniel should be established as the state church, and that in every province the people should fear Jehovah; and Daniel continued high in favour both in the reign of Darius the Mede and in the reign of his successor, Cyrus the Persian.
The remainder of the book of Daniel is taken up with strange prophecies and stranger mathematics; in the attempt to solve these enigmas, the population of madhouses has been increased.
The lack of national bias so characteristic of the purely historical books of Samuel, of the Kings and the Chronicles, is by no means in evidence either in Daniel or in Esther; these two books, containing some of the best stories to be found anywhere in literature, are frankly written to glorify the Hebrew nation; they are warmly patriotic, the intention being to show that even during the captivity there were no men like the Hebrews, and no God like Jehovah. Even in the darkest hours they were a race of heroes and heroines. This bond of national pride unites the story of Daniel with the story of Esther; one great man and one great woman upheld the splendour of Israel in a strange land.
But there is this difference between them: the book of Daniel is deeply religious, and is an offering before Jehovah; the book of Esther is not religious at all, and is the only book in the Bible which does not mention the name of God. It is simply a superb drama, a drama so thrilling that it has been repeatedly transferred to the stage.
The mighty King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) gave a state dinner at Shushan (Susa), to inaugurate a world's fair which should last one hundred and eighty days, in which the riches and glory of his
kingdom should be fittingly celebrated. When the exposition was over he gave a special feast to commemorate the occasion, a feast continuing for a week. This feasting was held in the palace garden at Susa, which had been decorated for the occasion in the most lavish style. There were pillars of marble, to which were attached curtains of gorgeous colours; the couches were of solid gold and silver, placed on a pavement of red, blue, black, and white marble. The king's special stock of wine was opened, and every guest was allowed to drink as much as he pleased. The result was what might have been expected.
Queen Vashti gave a special feast at the same time for the ladies of honour. I wish we knew more about her, for she must have been an interesting woman, with a mind of her own. Our forefathers, who tried to extract some piety out of every page in the Bible, believed she was stubborn, rebellious and wicked; the sin of pride was always reprehensible, but particularly so in women. The New England primer said
Vashti for pride
Was set aside.
As a matter of fact, I have nothing but commendation for her behaviour.
On the seventh day of this general debauch, the king was exceedingly drunk, and was bragging of
the beauty of his queen. By a natural but regrettable impulse, he determined that she should be publicly exhibited before all the company, that they might see for themselves her shapely beauty. She was accordingly sent for; but having no desire to be paraded before the revellers, she flatly refused to come, showing more regard for her dignity and modesty than for the king's alcoholic caprices. Perhaps she believed that when he became sober again he would condemn her for such an exhibition and discard her forever. Anyhow, she refused. The king flew into that kind of rage that so frequently accompanies drunkenness, and wondered just what particular punishment might fit this crime.
There followed a conversation which, read in the light of the twentieth century, is decidedly amusing. The courtiers told the king that unless Vashti were deposed there would be no keeping the ladies down. Her obstinacy would be known everywhere, and wives would get the idea that they, too, might follow her example and set up their wills against their husbands, which simply would not do. What would become of society if women should feel independent, and not be subject to their lords and masters?
Accordingly, King Xerxes promulgated a law that throughout the kingdom every man should rule in his own house and the wives should give honour to their husbands, both great and small. This was not the last time that an attempt has been made to change human nature by legislation; it probably had
the usual result. Can't you see in certain households capable wives sniffing contemptuously when their irresolute husbands quoted the law?
Then it was decided that the whole country should be searched for fair virgins, just as in the twentieth century a prize is given for the prettiest girl, and her picture is published in the papers, followed by an increase in her correspondence. All these village beauties were to be paraded before the king, so that he might pick a new queen.
Now it happened that in Susa there lived a certain Mordecai, who was a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin, and of the family of Kish, from which Saul, the first king of Israel, had sprung. As King Saul had come from the family of Kish in Benjamin, so Esther, the queen of Persia, came from the same family, and carried on the royal traditions. Although the children of Israel were in subjection, by clever manipulation they managed to get one of their own kingly stock on the conqueror's throne.
Esther was the daughter of Mordecai's uncle; I think that makes her his cousin, but I am not sure, not being strong on genealogy; her father and mother were dead, and she was penniless; but her face was her fortune, as we shall see. King Cophetua and the beggar maid--a favourite combination in romance.
Mordecai gave her some shrewd private coaching, and when her turn came to be shown to the king, he forgot all the other virgins and crowned her
queen. Meanwhile, Mordecai, who sat in the king's gate, had discovered a conspiracy against the life of Xerxes; he informed Esther, who in her turn told her royal spouse; the plotters were seized and hanged on a tree, and the whole story set down in the state chronicles.
Prime Minister Haman was a pompous and conceited ass, who strutted conspicuously in public and enjoyed seeing the people bow down and do homage wherever he appeared; he loved to be saluted. Now just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had taken an independent attitude in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, Mordecai behaved in the same fashion in these times; when Haman passed the king's gate, Mordecai not only gave no salute, he did not take the trouble to rise from his chair. Like all little men dressed in authority, Haman could not endure this. When the courtiers remonstrated with Mordecai and asked him why he would not salute, he answered proudly, "I am a Jew." Haman therefore determined to destroy the entire Hebrew population.
These people were scattered abroad in every province, as they have been ever since; accordingly, with the king's consent, a decree was sent forth to north, south, east, and west that on a certain day they should be exterminated. Xerxes and Haman sat down to drink confusion to the Jews; but the city of Susa was perplexed.
Esther, carefully tutored by Mordecai, risked her life by appearing before the king unrequested; but
she was looking uncommonly pretty that day and knew her power. The king told her in his enthusiasm that he would give her anything she asked for. She made the strange request that she would like a little dinner party of three--Xerxes, Haman, and herself. When Haman received his invitation, he expanded and did what many a man has done-- bragged to his wife. Yet he added that he could not have unalloyed happiness so long as that stubborn Mordecai looked at him disdainfully. He suspected in his heart that Mordecai's cynical eyes appraised him at his true worth; his self-confidence was shaken, and he could not enjoy life so long as he had any doubt of his own greatness.
The sweets of popularity are sometimes embittered by one shrewd dissenter.
Zeresh could not really have loved such a preposterous fool as Haman, even though she was pleased with her social position; in her advice to her husband, she may have had some notions of her own. She suggested that he have erected a gallows so high that everybody in town could see its burden; then when the king is enjoying his dinner, to get his consent to decorate this lofty gibbet with Mordecai.
There followed a scene which seems strangely modern. On that night the king could not sleep, and after turning over, counting sheep, and trying to get his whirling mind out of the gear of care, he finally did what everyone has done; he decided to have light made, and to read awhile. Accord-
ingly they brought before him what corresponded to the Congressional Record and began to read aloud, thinking the result would be certain; but when they reached the story of the conspiracy discovered by Mordecai, to their amazement the king sat up excitedly and asked if anything had been done for this man. Nothing.
It is at this point that the famous story has given the most delight to readers in all nations; for human nature enjoys nothing more than to see a rascal paid in his own coin, or, as Hamlet expressed it, to see the engineer hoist with his own petard. Hamlet's remark is particularly applicable in this case, for Haman was certainly hoisted.
The king sent for Haman, and asked him what ought to be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour. Haman naturally took this remark to himself, and suggested a public parade. Imagine his feelings when he was told to hurry and escort Mordecai through the streets. After this long draught of wormwood, he went home to his wife in quite different spirits from those which haloed his departure. She calmly told him to expect the worst. While he was in this state of humiliation and fear, the chamberlains came to bring him to the banquet à trois.
In the midst of this little feast, Queen Esther suddenly rose and dramatically denounced him to the king, who rushed out into the garden to cool off. He returned and asked a question, in response to
which a chamberlain informed him that the lofty gallows erected by Haman was convenient. Accordingly, Haman was hanged on the gibbet he had erected for his foe, and the king felt better.
The story ends with a patriotic flourish. Queen Esther followed up her success by getting the decree against the Jews reversed. The intended victims turned the tables and had the pleasure of slaughtering hundreds of their enemies. They "did what they would unto those that hated them." It was a field day. When the list of casualties was presented to Xerxes, he glanced over it with some interest and asked if there was anything else the queen desired. It appeared that she wished that the ten sons of Haman, who had already been slain, should also be publicly hanged; which was done.
Imagine the pride with which subsequent Hebrews of later times read the following three verses, a consolation for the conquest of their country:
And Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a garment of fine linen and purple: and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad.
The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour.
And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.