The Stranger by the Golden Altar
( Originally Published 1915 )
IN THE land of Palestine one city was loved by the Jews above all other places. That was Jerusalem, the largest city in the land in the province of Judea. It was to the Jews everywhere, not only in Palestine but over all the earth, wherever Jews lived, "the holy city." From all parts of the land the people came at least once in every year, and many families, three times each year, to worship God in Jerusalem. At these great feasts, as they were called, all the roads leading to Jerusalem were thronged with travelers going up to Jerusalem for worship. .And the Jews in other lands, many hundreds of miles away, even as far as Rome itself, tried at least once in their lives to visit the city. They sang about Jerusalem songs such as:
"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning; Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth If I remember thee not, If I prefer not Jerusalem Above my chief joy."
That which made Jerusalem a holy city was its Temple, a magnificent building on Mount Moriah, just across a valley from Mount Zion, where the larger part of the city stood. The Temple they called "The House of God," ,for in it the Jews believed their God made. his home. In front of this Temple stood an altar, which was like a great box made of stone, hollow inside, and covered with a metal grating. Upon his altar a fire was kept burning night and day, and on the fire the priests who led in the worship of God, laid offerings of sheep and oxen, which were burned as gifts to God; while around the altar the people stood and prayed to God as the offering, which they called "a sacrifice," was burning.
Inside the Temple building were two rooms. The room in front was called "the holy place," and in it stood on one side a table covered with gold, on which lay twelve loaves of bread as an offering to God; one loaf for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. On the other side of the room stood a golden lamp-stand, with seven branches, called "the golden candlestick." At the farther end of the room stood another altar, made of gold, smaller than the great altar in front of the Temple. On this golden altar the priest offered twice each day a bowl of incense, which was made by mixing some sweet-smelling gums, frankincense and myrrh, And burning them, so that they formed a fragrant white cloud, filling the Holy Place.
Beyond the Holy Place was another room called "The Holy of Holies." Into this room no one entered except the high priest, and he on only one day in the year; for this inner room was set apart for the dwelling-place of God; and the Jews believed that in this room the light of God was shining so brightly that no one could endure it. In the first Temple built by King Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant stood in the Holy of Holies. This was a chest covered with gold, within which lay the two stone tables on which the Ten Commandments were written. But the Ark of the Covenant had been lost, and in the time of which we are speaking, nothing was in the Holy of Holies except a block of marble.
One day an old priest named Zacharias was offering incense upon the golden altar in the Holy Place. He had filled the bowl, which they called a censer, with the frankincense and myrrh, and had-placed in it some coals of fire from the great altar in front of the Temple.
He had come into the Holy Place, bringing his censer of incense, which sent its white cloud into the air, and was just about to lay it upon the altar, when he was startled at suddenly seeing someone standing by the golden altar on the right side.
Zacharias was surprised to see anyone in the room, for he knew that no one but himself had a right to be there. But he was still more surprised and filled with ear when he looked at this stranger standing by the altar. He seemed like a young man, and his face and body and clothes were bright and shining like the sun, so glorious 'that the old priest could not bear to look upon him.
At once Zacharias knew that this glorious person was an angel sent from God. He trembled with fear; his knees shook, and he could scarcely keep from falling on the floor. The angel spoke to him, gently and kindly:
" Zacharias, do not be frightened. You have nothing to fear. I have come to you with good news. God has heard the prayers that you and your good wife Elizabeth have been sending up to heaven for these many years. You shall have a son, and shall call his name John. Your son when he becomes a man will bring joy and gladness to many people; for he shall be great in the sight of the Lord; and it shall be his work to make his people ready for the coming of the King for whom they have been looking so long. You must see that your son never drinks any wine or strong drink, for he is to be set apart for God, to serve God only, and to speak the word of God to the people, telling them that their King and Saviour is at hand."
The priest was so filled with surprise and fear that he could scarcely believe what he heard.
"How can these wonderful words be true?" he said. "I am an old man, and my wife is also old. We are too old now to have children. How can I believe all this?"
The angel was not pleased when he saw that Zacharias doubted his word, and he said:
"I am the angel Gabriel, that stands before God; and I have been sent from God to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Now, because you did not believe God's word, you shall be stricken dumb, and shall not be able to speak until my words come true and your child is born."
And then the angel vanished out of sight as suddenly as he had come, and Zacharias was left alone.
All this time a great crowd of people was standing outside the Temple, worshipping God while the offering was made. They wondered that Zacharias was waiting so long in the Temple; and they wondered more when he came out and they found that he could not speak. He made signs to them, trying to show them he had seen an angel, but he did not tell them what the angel had said, for that was meant for himself only and not for others.
Each priest stayed for one week in the Temple and then went to his house; so after a few days Zacharias left Jerusalem and returned to his house in the southern part of the land, not far from the old city of Hebron, the place where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the early fathers of the Israelites, were buried.
How happy Elizabeth was when her husband, by signs and by writing, told her of the angel and his promise that she should be the mother of one who was to bear the word of the Lord to the people. Such men, to whom God spoke and who spoke for God, were called "prophets." Many great prophets in past years had spoken the word of God to the Israelites, men like Samuel and Elijah and Isaiah. But more than four hundred years had passed away since the voice of a prophet had been heard in the land. Their promised son was to rise up and speak once more God's will to his people. Zacharias and Elizabeth might not live long enough to hear his voice as a prophet, but they had God's promise, and in that promise they were happy, waiting for their child to come and grow up to his great work.