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Faithful To The Death






Source: Hebrew Heroes

The sun was setting gloriously over the hills which encompass
Jerusalem, pouring its streams of golden light on the valleys clothed
with the vine, pomegranate, and olive, sparkling on the brook Kedron,
casting a rich glow on flat-roofed dwellings, parapets, and walls, and
throwing into bold relief from the crimson sky the pinnacles of the
Temple, which, at the period of which I write, crowned the height of
Mount Zion. Not the gorgeous Temple which Solomon had raised, that had
long ago been given to the flames, nor yet the Temple as adorned by
King Herod: the building before us stands in its simple majesty as
erected by the Hebrews after their return from Babylon under the
leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Not the might of the powerful,
nor the gold of the wealthy, but the earnest zeal of a people
down-trodden and oppressed had built that Temple; and its highest
adornment was the promise which Haggai's inspired lips had uttered:
_The Desire of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with
glory, saith the Lord of hosts_ (Hag. ii. 7). _The glory of this
latter house shall be greater than that of the former_ (Hag. ii. 9).

The fulfilment of that promise was still a subject for faith; and
seldom had faith had to breast a fiercer storm of persecution than that
which was sweeping over God's ancient people at the time when my story
opens, about 167 years before the Christian era. The Roman had not yet
trodden the soil of Palestine as a conqueror; but a yoke yet more
intolerable than his lay on the necks of the sons of Abraham.
Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, one of the most merciless tyrants
that ever existed, bore rule in the city of David. He had deluged the
streets of Jerusalem with blood, he had plundered and polluted the
Temple, offered the unclean beast upon God's holy altar, and set up the
image of Jupiter Olympus in the place dedicated to the worship of the
Lord of Sabaoth. It was a time of rebuke and blasphemy, of fiery
persecution against the one pure faith; and if some shrank back from
the trial, other Hebrews showed that the spirit of Shadrach and his
brethren still lived amongst the people of Judaea.

On the evening which I am describing, a young man was wandering among
the clumps of hoary olive-trees which shaded a valley on the eastern
side of Jerusalem. The red sunbeams pierced here and there between the
grey branching stems and through the foliage, and shone full on the
figure of Lycidas the Athenian. No one could have mistaken him for a
Hebrew, even had the young man worn the garb of a Jew instead of that
of a Grecian. The exquisitely-formed features of the stranger were
those which have been made familiar to us by the masterpieces of
antiquity treasured in our museums. Lycidas might well have served as
model to Phidias for a statue of Endymion. His form was of faultless
proportions, remarkable rather for symmetry and grace than for
strength; and his face might have been deemed too feminine in its
beauty, but for the stamp of intellect on it. That young brow had
already worn the leafy crown in the Olympic contest for poetic honours;
Lycidas had read his verses aloud in the arena to the critical ears of
the Athenians, his fellow-citizens, and thousands from other parts of
Greece, and had heard their plaudits ringing through the air at the
close. That had been a proud moment for the youthful Athenian, but his
ambition had not been satisfied by this his first great success.
Lycidas was his own severest critic, and regarded himself as being
rather at the starting-point than as at the goal. He had resolved on
writing a poem, the fame of which should emulate that of the Iliad, and
had chosen as the theme of his verse THE HEROISM OF VIRTUE. Lycidas
would draw his pictures from history, choose his models from men, and
not from the so-called deities with which superstition or fancy had
peopled Olympus. The Athenian had an innate love of the pure and true,
which made him intuitively reject fables, and which, amongst his
countrymen, exposed him to the charge of scepticism. Lycidas could
laugh with Aristophanes at legends of gods and demigods, whom their
very priests represented as having more than the common infirmities and
vices of mortal men. Had Lycidas reared an altar, it would have been
like that which was seen two centuries later in his native city, with
the inscription, To THE UNKNOWN GOD. The Greek knew of no being above
earth whom he could intelligently worship; and his religion consisted
rather in an intense admiration for virtue in the abstract, than in
anything to which his more superstitious countrymen would have given
the name of piety.

To collect materials for his poem on THE HEROISM OF VIRTUE, Lycidas had
travelled far and wide. He had visited Rome, then a powerful republic,
and listened with keen interest to her annals, so rich in stories of
patriotism and self-devotion. The Athenian had then turned his course
eastward, had visited Alexandria, ascended the Nile, gazed on the
Pyramids, even then--more than two thousand years ago--venerable from
their antiquity. After seeing the marvels of the land of the Pharaohs,
Lycidas had travelled by the way of Gaza to Jerusalem, where he was now
residing. He was an occasional guest at the court of the Syrian
monarch, to whom he had brought a letter of introduction from Perseus,
king of Macedonia.

It was not to indulge in pleasant poetic reveries that Lycidas had on
that evening sought the seclusion of the olive-grove, if the direction
of the current of his thoughts might be known by the index of his face,
which wore an expression of indignation, which at times almost flashed
into fierceness, while the silent lips moved, as if uttering words of
stern reproof and earnest expostulation. No one was near to watch the
countenance of the young Greek, until he suddenly met a person richly
attired in the costume worn at the Syrian court, who came upon him in a
spot where the narrowness of the path precluded the two men from
avoiding each other without turning back, and so brought about a
meeting which, to the last comer at least, was unwelcome.

"Ha! my Lord Pollux, is it you!" exclaimed Lycidas, with courteous
salutation. "I missed you suddenly from my side to-day at that--shall
I call it tragedy?--for never was a more thrilling scene acted before
the eyes of man."

"I was taken with a giddiness--a touch of fever," replied the courtier
addressed by the name of Pollux. He looked haggard and pale as he
spoke.

"I marvel not--I marvel not if your blood boiled to fever-heat, as did
mine!" cried Lycidas. "No generous spirit could have beheld unmoved
those seven Hebrew brethren, one after another, before the eyes of
their mother, tortured to death in the presence of Antiochus, because
they refused to break a law which they regarded as divine!"

"Nay," replied Pollux, forcing a smile; "their fate was nothing to me.
What cared I if they chose to throw away their lives like fools for an
idle superstition!"

"Fools! say rather like heroes!" exclaimed Lycidas, stopping short (for
he had turned and joined Pollux in his walk). "I marvel that you have
so little sympathy for those gallant youths--you who, from your cast of
features, I should have deemed to be one of their race."

Pollux winced, and knitted his dark brows, as if the remark were
unwelcome.

"I have looked on the Olympic arena," continued Lycidas, resuming his
walk, and quickening his steps as he warmed with his subject; "I have
seen the athletes with every muscle strained, their limbs intertwined,
wrestling like Milo; or pressing forward in the race for the crown and
the palm, as if life were less dear than victory. But never before had
I beheld such a struggle as that on which my eyes looked to-day, where
the triumph was over the fear of man, the fear of death, where mortals
wrestled with agony, and overcame it, silent, or but speaking such
brave words as burnt themselves into the memory, deathless utterances
from the dying! There were no plaudits to encourage these athletes, at
least none that man could hear; there was no shouting as each victor
reached the goal. But if the fortitude of suffering virtue be indeed a
spectacle on which the gods admiringly look, then be assured that the
invisible ones were gazing down to-day on that glorious arena, ay, and
preparing the crown and the palm! For I can as soon believe,"
continued the Athenian, raising his arm and pointing towards the
setting sun, "that that orb is lost, extinguished, blotted out from the
universe, because he is sinking from our view, as that the noble
spirits which animated those tortured forms could perish with them for
ever!"

Pollux turned his head aside; he cared not that his companion should

see the gesture of pain with which he gnawed his nether lip.

"It is certain that the sufferers looked forward to existence beyond
death," continued the young Athenian. "One of the brothers, as he came
forward to suffer, fixed his calm, stern gaze on Antiochus (I doubt not
but that gaze will haunt the memory of Syria's king when his own dying
hour shall arrive), and said--I well remember his words--'Wicked
prince, you bereave us of earthly life; but the King of heaven and
earth, if we die in defence of His laws, will one day raise us up to
life eternal.' The next sufferer, stretching forth his hands as if to
receive the palm rather than the executioner's stroke, said, with the
same calm assurance, 'I received these limbs from Heaven, but I now
despise them, since I am to defend the laws of God; from the sure and
steadfast hope that He will one day restore them to me.' Is it
possible that these men believed that not only souls but bodies would
rise again--that some mysterious Power could and would restore them to
life eternal? Is this the faith of the Hebrews?" The last question
was impatiently repeated by Lycidas before it received an answer.

"Some of them hold such a wild faith," said Pollux.

"A sublime, mysterious faith!" observed Lycidas; "one which makes the
souls of those who hold it invulnerable as was the body of Achilles,
and without the one weak point. It inspires even women and children
with the courage of heroes, as I witnessed this day. The seventh of
the Hebrew brethren was of tender years, and goodly. Even the king
pitied his youth, and offered him mercy and honours if he would forsake
the law of his God. Antiochus swore that he would raise the youth to
riches and power, and rank him amongst his favoured courtiers, if he
would bend to the will of the king. I watched the countenance of the
boy as the offer was made. He saw on the one side the mangled forms of
his brethren--the grim faces of the executioners; on the other, all the
pomps and glories of earth: and yet he wavered not in his choice!"

Pollux could hardly suppress a groan, and listened with ill-concealed
impatience as the Athenian went on with his narrative.

"Then the king bade the mother plead with her son, obey the promptings
of nature, and bid him live for her sake. She had stood through all
the fearful scene, not like a Niobe in tears, but with hands clasped
and eyes upraised, as one who sees the invisible, and drinks in courage
from words inaudible to other ears than her own. She heard the king,
approached her young son, laid her hand on his shoulder, and gazed on
him with unutterable tenderness. Faith with her might conquer fear,
but could only deepen love. She conjured her child, by all that she
had done and suffered for him, firmly to believe, and to fear not.
'Show yourself worthy of your brethren,' she said, 'that, by the mercy
of God, I may receive you, together with your brothers, in the glory
which awaits us!' And the fair boy smiled in her face, and followed in
the glorious track of those who had suffered before him, praying for
his country as he died for his faith. Then, in cruelty which acted the
part of mercy, the mother--last of that heroic band--was re-united to
them by death. But I could not stay to look upon _that_ sacrifice,"
said Lycidas, with emotion; "I had seen enough, and more than enough!"

"And I have heard enough, and more than enough," muttered Pollux, on
whom the description of the scene given by Lycidas had inflicted keen
anguish, the anguish of shame and remorse.

"You pity the sufferers?" observed the Athenian.

"Pity--I envy!" was the thought to which the blanched lips of a
renegade dared not give utterance; Pollux but shook his head in reply.

"I would fain know more of the religion of the Hebrews," said Lycidas;
"I have heard marvellous stories--more sublime than any that our poets
have sung--of a Deity bringing this people out of Egypt, making a path
for them through the depths of the sea, reining back its foaming waves
as a rider his white-maned steed; giving to the thirsty--water from the
rock, to the hungry--bread from the skies, and scattering the foes of
Israel before them, as chaff is driven by the wind. I have heard of
the sun's fiery chariot arrested in its course by the voice of a man,
speaking with authority given to him by an inspiring Deity. Tell me
what is the name of the Hebrew's powerful God?"

Pollux pressed his lips closely together; he dared not utter the awful
name of Him whom he had denied. The courtier laid his hand on the
jewelled clasp which fastened his girdle; perhaps the movement was
accidental, perhaps he wished to direct the attention of his companion
to the figures of Hercules and the Nemean lion which were embossed on
the gold. "You forget," observed Pollux, "that I am a worshipper of
the deities of Olympus, that I sacrifice to the mighty Jove."

"I asked not what was your religion," said Lycidas; "my question
regarded that held by the Hebrews, of which you can scarcely be
ignorant. What is the name of that God whom they would not deny, even
to save themselves from torture and death?"

"I cannot tarry here longer, noble stranger," was the hurried reply of
Pollux. "The sun has sunk; I must return to the city; Antiochus the
king expects my attendance at his banquet to-night."

"I am bidden to it, but I go not," said the young Athenian; "slaughter
in the daytime, feasting at night--blood on the hands--wine at the
lips--I hate, I loathe this union of massacre and mirth! Go you and
enjoy the revel in the palace of your king; were I present, I should
see at the banquet the shadowy forms of that glorious matron and her
sons; I should hear above the laughter, the shout, and the song, the
thrilling tones of voices confessing unshaken confidence in the power
and mercy of their God, and the glorious hope of immortality where the
oppressor can torture no more."

And with a somewhat constrained interchange of parting courtesies, the
free Greek and the sycophant of a tyrant went on their several ways.





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