The Fall Of Jerusalem And The Fiery Furnace
( Originally Published 1921 )
Let us go up today to "The city of the great king."
"Oh, this story is n't in the beginning time," I hear some little girl say, "because they did n't have kings then ! "
No, the beginning time is past and a long, long way behind us.
You remember little Benjamin and his sister Sarah turning away from the promised land and wondering as they walked why they should go back again into the wilderness. You remember, too, the promise made to Jacob that he and his children's children should inherit all of that beautiful country in which he lay asleep and dreamed the dream that made him a better man.
All these things had come to pass. For Benjamin and Sarah entered into the promised land with the great leader Joshua when they had grown to be a man and woman and had children of their own. Jacob's seed—as his descendants were called—had spread "abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south," as God had promised, and the beautiful land of Palestine belonged to Israel.
In the time of our story the little folks and the big folks were told stories about the shepherd boy David who had fought with the giant Goliath and saved his people. Their prophets kept telling them not to forget Samuel and his message to Eli. They were also to remember the last words of Moses, which he spoke just before he left Israel and the people entered Canaan with Joshua.
What were the words of Moses? That Canaan, the promised land, was theirs while they obeyed God's laws, but that they would lose it if they disobeyed.
Do you remember waking very early in the morning and trying to make out what the different objects were which you saw in the gray mist of the early dawn? Then as you stood by your window and watched the misty gray gloom disappear, the trees and houses began to stand out clearly, one by one. Little red threads of color pierced the white clouds, and then a church spire in the distance caught the first sunbeam, and window after window of the houses turned into flame as they reflected the rays of the sun. All was quiet until a cart rumbling over the pavement broke the silence and you knew the milkman was coming with your breakfast milk. You heard the rooster in the yard next door tell his family it was time to be up and stirring. The birds began to chatter, and a robin flew to his mate in the tree beside your window with a fine fat worm for her and the babies. Soon Mother called that breakfast was ready, and when it was over you started off to school.
Let us think of the "beginning time" as the gray dawn of the early morning when things seem dim and nothing stands out very clearly.
When this story opens, Israel's morning time had passed and she had entered the noontide of her history.
The people no longer kept sheep and cattle and dwelt in tents. They had built cities and had fine houses and beautiful palaces; had great kings and large armies with horses and chariots. They were a nation old enough to have had a history written about them. Some of their people had been famous generals, kings, poets, and statesmen. They had wealth, and a temple so beautiful that even to the present time there has never been anything more magnificent.
"Before you go on with the story," I hear some boy asking, "will you not tell us why you say twice two is five? Even my little sister in the kindergarten knows better than that."
It does sound foolish, does n't it? But when we have finished our story you will know that even some grown people don't know any better.
Shall we climb up to the city or wait until some boy comes by with his donkey and gives us a ride through the gates? Before we do either, let us stand here in the valley and look upward.
"What steep rocks," you say, "and a deep gorge around every side but one ! "
Yes, and on top of those rocks is the city with its great wall and strong towers.
"What is it," you ask, "that glitters so in the sunshine?"
That is the wonderful golden temple of Solomon, dazzling and sparkling as the sun itself.
Suppose the roof of your church was made of gold, and as you opened the golden doors to go inside the church you stepped on a polished golden floor. Or perhaps, if the day was warm and you had gone early to church, you had waited in the porch for your friends, and as you stood there you admired its golden ceiling. Suppose the carving of the pillars was also overlaid with gold, and looked like leaves and flowers molded out of that precious metal. Suppose your church windows had no glass in them, but were lattice work, and around them blazed and flashed costly jewels. Rich, heavy curtains, wonderfully embroidered, divided the rooms. There were golden candlesticks, and everything you used inside your church was made of gold, silver, ivory, and rare woods with ornaments of precious stones. If your church, were like this, it would be like Solomon's temple in magnificence, but would not have its form.
The glory and pride of Zion was this temple. And as we look from the valley, the temple and the city and its walls seem to hang suspended from the sky and merely touch the great, jagged rocks upon which they stand; or, as a Hebrew poet describes it in one of the Psalms,
"Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, Is mount Zion, . . . The city of the great King.
Walk about Zion, and go round about her: Number the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks; Consider her palaces :
That ye may tell it to the generation following."
"How happy people must have been in such a city ! " you say.
They could have been, but they were not. It is not always people who may be happy that are so.
We must hurry up the steep ascent if we mean to enter the city before dark. When the sun sets, the gates will be closed and we shall have to stay outside until morning. , You think you would like to be in the valley all night, for the air is warm and the gardens will be beautiful in the moonlight. They are the king's gardens, laid out years ago when David and Solomon lived. Yes, David had wonderful gardens at the foot of the cliffs outside the city. He of course loved flowers and all the beautiful things of nature, and he it was who said,
The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night showeth knowledge."
To-night we shall not wait. There are stirring scenes going on in the city, and we must be there if we are to see them. Besides, put your ear to the ground. Do you not hear that steady tramp-tramp-tramp and the rumble as of a heavy body dragged along the ground?
It is the army of the enemy coming to take the city—it is in danger. Let us get behind its strong walls before the soldiers encamp around it.
Now that we are inside and the gates are closed, we shall stand quietly aside in this dark corner of one of the narrow streets and watch what happens.
From one of those low, flat-roofed houses there comes the cry of little children. They want their mother, but she will not come, for she and her husband and older sons ventured too far outside the city gates yesterday and were seized by the enemy and carried away captive.
The lights are out in the great gray towers upon the city walls. The huge battering-rams of the Babylonian army will know where to strike if a light is in those towers.
With his mantle drawn across his face, and his shoulders drooping as if with weariness, a man comes slowly along the street. He hears the children's cry and enters the house. Soon he comes out with a tiny girl wrapped in his cloak and leading a little lad by the hand. Poor little orphans, the kind prophet Jeremiah will see that they have their supper.
A group of people meets them and turns aside. In the faces of these people as they pass the prophet are both hate and fear. Why?
Jeremiah has warned them that their city is to be destroyed and that it is useless for them to try to save it. He has told them that their sins have cost them their city and their liberty.
The people of the city do not want to stop sinning. Everybody sins, they think; why should n't they?
Besides, they don't want their neighbors, the other nations, to call them odd. If they should stop worshiping idols, making their children "pass through the fire," and other awful practices, and instead should serve Jehovah by doing justly and living righteously, they would be an odd or peculiar people.
In the history of the Hebrew kings we read of Jehovah speaking to the people and saying,
"Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments . . . They would not hear, but hardened their neck, like to . . . . their fathers, who believed not in Jehovah their God. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant . . . . and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the nations that were round about them, concerning whom Jehovah had charged them that they should not do like them. And they forsook all the commandments of Jehovah their God. . . . Therefore Jehovah was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight."
The hour when Israel should be carried away into captivity had come. The steady tread of the great Babylonian army sent terror to the people's hearts. They did not dare go to Jeremiah for advice. He would only say, "Your city is doomed." They had imprisoned him many times, and once had tried to throw him over the cliffs to the valley below; but nothing seemed to hurt him, and his warnings only grew the more severe. Besides, the army of which they stood in fear was friendly to the prophet — perhaps the enemy respected his fearless honesty.
There were other prophets. Some of them were now in the towers upon the walls watching the army as it encircled the city. " Shall we surrender?" the white-faced people asked these smiling prophets. " Jeremiah says our sins have been our ruin and that our foes will conquer."
"Everything is going to be well with you. Don't listen to Jeremiah," we can almost hear these advisers reply as they made ready to flee if it should be necessary.
"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem,
So Jehovah is round about his people,"
the Psalmist had said. But the people had forgotten all about Jehovah, the God of Israel. They had even lost the Book in which that helpful promise had been made. All they could see or think of now were the hills "round about Jerusalem" covered with' soldiers encamping there month after month, determined to starve the city into surrendering. From forts on those hills the enemy daily sent missiles of stone into the doomed city. The people dared not open the city gates. Their bones began to pierce through their flesh, the weak and the sick were dying, and each day the strong grew more feeble from lack of food; but they would not yield.
It is night; not a light is to be seen anywhere except in the camp of the Babylonian army.
The people of the city are asleep, trusting in the strength of their city's massive walls. As they sleep perhaps in their dreams they feel the ground trembling, and for a moment visions of tottering towers and falling walls disturb their slumbers.
Sleep on, Jerusalem. That shock was a break made in your wall by the enemy's battering-rams. Already the soldiers are quietly stealing along the black-stone pavements of your streets and entering your holy temple. Your king and his warriors have quietly slipped out of one of your gates and are fleeing to the distant hills. When you open your eyes again to greet the morning sun, it will be to look into the faces of your conquerors.
The royal palace and the golden temple were set on fire. The huge copper sea of Solomon, standing in the court of the temple, and the massive copper pillars or columns supporting the roof of the temple porch, were broken in pieces by the soldiers and carried away, together with all the temple's silver and gold and jewels.
Think of copper columns twenty-seven feet, or more, high, and eighteen feet around, so beautiful that Solomon gave them names just as we give names to girls and boys. What were the names he gave the columns? Jachin and Boaz, which meant "strength" and "stability." Just the right names for pillars that held up a heavy roof lined with gold, were they not?
"What is a copper sea?" you ask. It was really a gigantic bowl in which the priests washed their hands and feet before they offered sacrifice. Solomon had ordered one made so large that it would hold ten thousand gallons of water, and the people called it a sea. It was made of copper and rested on the backs of twelve great copper oxen.
The beautiful gardens were trodden down, the city walls were reduced to rubbish, and the forests outside the city were destroyed by the Babylonians. The soldiers spared nothing that they could ruin. The people, old men and little children, young men and maidens, were torn from their homes and separated from their families, to be sent captives to the city of Babylon. In the desolate city only the poorest and feeblest of its people were left.
"What became of Jeremiah? Was he made captive?" you ask.
No, both Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and Nebuzaradan, the commander of his army, were friendly to the prophet. Don't you remember what the wise man says in Proverbs? "When a man's ways please Jehovah, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him."
Jeremiah had served Jehovah. The faith of the prophet and his service had protected him from the Babylonians. He was given his liberty and was told that he might live where he pleased, and Nebuchadnezzar warned all his own people against doing harm to him.
I asked you to go with me to "The city of the great king," and together we entered the gates of Jerusalem and watched from our dark corner as the city fell.
Now come with me to Babylon, where our captives have been taken. We will stop in front of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, enter, pass through its halls, and lift that heavy curtain which hides the room we wish to see.
Yes, there they are, three fine-looking youths; they belong to the "blood royal" of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar has had them trained in all the "learning of the Chaldeans," who were his people. The lads have been in Babylon three years, and in their examinations have always won the highest marks. They are in the personal service of the king and already have positions of authority. What are their names? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.
We are interrupted by shouts and cheers from persons outside the palace. Crowds of people are pushing toward an open square of the city where stands a huge image of gold. Let us follow them. There is a burst of music; the blare of the cornet and the shrill pipe of the flute rise above it all. Why do all the people go down upon their knees and hold up their hands in worship to the golden idol as they hear the cornet's call?
It is the king's command. All who do not obey are to "be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace."
You look around for our three lads from Jerusalem, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, and cannot find them. Let us go back to their room and see if they are there.
Yes, but no longer studying or chatting pleasantly with one another. Their faces are very serious, but they are not sad or frightened. A messenger from the king is with them. He has said that because they had not worshiped the golden image the king was angry, and that they must come before him and give the reason for their disobedience.
Let us follow them into the king's presence.
They bow before the furious king, then rise and wait to hear him speak. The soldiers and guards of the palace wonder why these lads do not beg and cringe as persons who offend the king usually do. The smiling courtiers are waiting to hear Nebuchadnezzar condemn these culprits to the punishment of fire. The captive foreigners have been favored by the king and have positions the courtiers covet.
What! Not afraid of me nor of my power, thinks the king; and so he asks: "Who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?"
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego are not looking at the cruel face of the king. They are thinking of a song of David which they had often sung in the temple at Jerusalem:
"O Jehovah! Thou art my God.
Make thy face to shine upon thy servant." Not the face of a vindictive king but the face of Jehovah was what they saw.
Shall they kneel and ask favors of a help-less block of wood or gold because a king requires it — a king who is himself helpless in Jehovah's presence?
Our captive youths remember that they and their people are in Babylon because they had served idols instead of obeying the laws of Jehovah, the invisible God, of whom no image can be made. Also, had not Solomon prayed when he dedicated his costly temple: " If thy people . . . make supplication unto thee in the land of them that carried them captive, saying, " We have sinned' . . . . then hear thou their prayer and their supplication . . . . and maintain their cause?"
Had not Jeremiah told them that doing evil only makes more evil, and that it was foolishness to do wrong and expect good to result? Why, that was as foolish as saying twice two is five !
"Is it of purpose," Nebuchadnezzar asks them, "that ye serve not my god, nor worship the golden image which I have set up?"
The three boys with one voice answer, "0 Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of thy hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."
"Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury . . . . And he commanded certain mighty men . . . . to cast them into the burning fiery furnace."
The king is anxious to show his power, so anxious that he does not give the men who execute his orders time to protect themselves against the awful heat. As they open the top of the furnace and hurl in the brave lads, bound hand and foot, the fiery tongues shoot upward and burn to death the soldiers of the king.
Watch the king from a safe distance as he peers into the furnace. Its fiery breath even from where he sits scorches his flesh. But why does he start and gaze with wide-open eyes into its depths? Hot as the flame is, his face is whitening and he trembles with terror. See ! His knees shake under him. His voice is hoarse as, rising, he points to the door of the great oven and says, "Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?"
"True, O king," is the answer.
He leans heavily upon one of his soldiers. The mighty monarch, the wave of whose hand means life or death to his subjects, is weak as a straw driven before the wind. He lifts his head and listens as a song of triumph comes from the furnace mouth : "They shall not be confounded who put their trust in thee."
"I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the fourth is like a son of the gods,"
Nebuchadnezzar replies to his questioning soldiers.
He springs to the furnace mouth in spite of the outstretched hands of his courtiers, who fear he may be harmed by the flames which like a red mountain tower above them.
"Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, ye servants of the Most High God, come forth, and come hither," he entreats.
And they came forth, the king retreating slowly from them as they approached him.
Nebuchadnezzar is afraid as he asks him-self the question, what mighty power is this before whom his will is worth no more than that of his most helpless slave? He thinks that if this power be as cruel as himself, he has need to tremble, for it may destroy him as readily as it preserved the three lads.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego came forth unharmed. " The fire had no power upon their bodies, nor was the hair of their head singed, neither were their " hosen" changed, nor had the smell of fire passed on them."
It was but lately that the king's wrath had condemned these youths to death because they had not obeyed his whims. All was changed now. He knew nothing of mercy; vengeance was the law of this heathen king. His gods taught him nothing better, and in the same way that he thought of his own gods, so did he think of the God of the Hebrew captives. He felt it was not best to anger the God who could save as Jehovah had saved, and so he spoke kindly to the lads, saying, "Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego !"
Nebuchadnezzar had often heard these lads talking of God and had laughed at their faith. Could any power equal his, the king's, he had asked himself? He had been answered and was silenced.
"How is it that you were not hurt?" he asked the youths, and they replied, "Once a king of our nation, David was his name, was delivered from a great danger and afterward thanked Jehovah, saying,
" ` The angel of Jehovah encampeth round about them that fear him,
And delivereth them.'
"Of this we thought, O king, and `the angel of Jehovah came down into the oven and made the midst of the furnace as it had been a moist whistling wind.'"
"I make a decree," said Nebuchadnezzar, " that every people, nation, and language which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, shall be cut in pieces . . . . because there is no other god that is able to deliver after this sort." Then the king gave Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego high offices in the province of Babylon.
Let us go again and stand in the empty room from which our lads have gone. They will not come back, for they are no longer captives. We will drop the curtain which hides their door and slip quietly out of the palace into the streets of the city. Hand in hand we walk until we reach the city gates. But before we go our separate ways will you tell me, was it the boys or the king who said, "Twice two is five?"