« Prev 2. The Persian Period. Next »

2. The Persian Period.—The conquest of Babylon by the Persians, led by the heroic Cyrus, is, thanks to Daniel, one of the most familiar incidents of ancient history, so familiar that I need not recount it. By this conquest Cyrus—"the Shepherd, the Messiah, of the Lord," as Isaiah (xliv. 28; xlv. 1) terms him—became the undisputed master of well-nigh the whole known world of the time. Nor does he seem to have been unworthy of his extraordinary position. Of all ancient Oriental monarchs, out of the Hebrew pale, he bears the highest repute. Even the Greek authors, for the most part, represent him as energetic and patient, magnanimous and modest, and of a religious mind. Æschylus calls him "kindly" or "generous." Xenophon selected him as a model prince for all races. Plutarch says that "in wisdom, and virtue, and greatness of soul he appears to have been in advance of all44 kings." Diodorus makes one of his speakers say that Cyrus gained his ascendency by his self-command and good-feeling and gentleness. Simple in his habits, brave, and of a most just, humane, and clement spirit, he hated the cruel and lascivious idols of the East, and worshipped one only God, "the God of heaven." There is none like him in the antique world, none at least among the kings and princes of that world. And when, at the conquest of Babylon, he discovered in the captive Jews a race that also hated idols, and served one Lord, and knew a law of life as pure as his own, or even purer, we need feel no surprise either that he broke their bands in sunder and set them free to return to their native land, or that they saw in this pure and noble nature, this virtuous and religious prince, "a servant of Jehovah," and even a partial and shadowy resemblance to that Divine Deliverer and Redeemer for whose advent they had been taught to look.

Cyrus was sixty years of age when he took Babylon (B.C. 539), and died ten years after his conquest. He was succeeded by men utterly unlike himself, so unlike that the Persian nobles revolted from them, and placed Darius Hystaspes, the heir of an ancient dynasty, on the throne. As Cyrus was the soldier of the Persians, so Darius was their statesman. He it was who founded the "satrapial" form of administration; i.e. instead of governing the various provinces of his empire through45 native princes, he placed Persian satraps over them, these satraps being charged with the collection of the public revenue, the maintenance of order, and the administration of justice; in fact, he governed the whole Eastern world very much as we govern India. The internal organization of his vast unwieldy empire was the great work of Darius through his long reign of six-and-thirty years; but the event by which he is best remembered, and which proved to be fruitful in the most disastrous results to the State, was the opening of that fatal war with Greece, which at last, and under his feeble and degenerate successors, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and the rest, reached its close in the downfall of the Persian empire. We need not linger over the details of the story. It will be enough, for our purpose, to say that from the accession of Xerxes down to the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great—a stretch of a hundred and fifty years—that empire was declining to its fall. Its history towards the end was a mere succession of intrigues and insurrections, conspiracies and revolts. "Battle, murder, and sudden death" are its staple. The restraints of law and order grew ever weaker. The satraps were practically supreme in their several provinces, and used their power to extort enormous wealth from their miserable subjects. Eunuchs and concubines ruled in the palace. Manliness died out; the Persians were no46 longer taught "to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth;" cunning and treachery took its place. The scene grows more and more pitiful, till at last the welcome darkness rushes down, and hides the ignoble agony of perhaps the vastest and wealthiest empire the world has seen.

But we must turn from the despots and their adventures to form some slight acquaintance with the people, the Persian people who, by the conquest of Cyrus, became the ruling class in the empire, always remembering, however, that the Babylonians must have remained by myriads both in the capital and in the provinces, and would continue to exert their influence on Hebrew thought and activity.

In all moral and religious qualities the Persians were far in advance of the Chaldeans, though they were probably behind them in many civilized arts and crafts. They were famous for their truthfulness and valour. The Greeks1414   Herodotus, ix. 62. confessed the Persians to be their equals in "boldness and warlike spirit"—Æschylus1515   Æschyl., Pers., 94. calls them "a valiant-minded people"—while they are lavish in praise of the Persian veracity, a virtue in which they themselves were notably deficient. To the Persians God was "the Father of all truth;" to lie47 was shameful and irreligious. They disliked traffic because of its haggling, equivocation, and dishonest shifts. "Their chief faults," and even these were not developed till they became masters of the world, "were an addiction to self-indulgence and luxury, a passionate abandon to the feeling of the hour whatever it might be, and a tameness and subservience in all their relations toward their princes which seem to moderns incompatible with self-respect and manliness." Patriotism came to mean mere loyalty to the monarch; the habit of unquestioning submission to his will, and even to his caprice, became a second nature to them. The despotic humour natural in "a ruling person" was thus nourished till it ran to the wildest excess. "He was their lord and master, absolute disposer of their lives, liberties, and property, the sole fountain of law and right, incapable himself of doing wrong, irresponsible, irresistible—a sort of God upon earth; one whose favour was happiness, at whose frown men trembled, before whom all bowed themselves down with the lowest and humblest obeisance." No subject could enter his presence save by special permission, or without a prostration like that of worship. To come unbidden was to be cut down by the royal guards, unless, as a sign of grace, he extended his golden sceptre to the culprit. To tread on the king's carpet was a grave offence; to sit, even unwittingly, on his48 seat a capital crime. So slavish was the submission both of nobles and of people that we are required on good authority to accredit such stories as these: wretches bastinadoed by the king's order declared themselves delighted that his majesty had condescended to remember them; a father, whose innocent son was shot by the despot in pure wantonness, had to crush down his natural indignation and grief, and to compliment the royal archer on the accuracy of his aim.

Despising trade and commerce as menial and degrading, the ruling caste of a vast empire, with a monopoly of office and boundless means of wealth at their command, accustomed to lord it over subject races, of a high spirit and a faith comparatively pure, their very prosperity was their ruin, as it has been that of many a great nation. In their earlier times, they were noted for their sobriety and temperance. Content with simple diet, their only drink was water from the pure mountain streams; their garb was plain, their habits homely and hardy. But their temperance soon gave place to an immoderate luxury.1616   "There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians.... As soon as they hear of any luxury they instantly make it their own.... Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines."—(Herodotus book i., chap. 135). They acquired the Babylonian vices, and adopted at least the licence of the Babylonian49 rites. They filled their harems with wives and concubines. From the time of Xerxes onwards they grew nice and curious of appetite, eager for pleasure, effeminate, dissolute.

With the growth of luxury on the part of the nobles and the people, the fear of the despot, at whose mercy all their acquisitions stood, grew more intense, more harassing, more degrading. Xerxes and his successors were utterly reckless in their exercise of the absolute power conceded to them, and delegated it to favourites as reckless as themselves. No noble however eminent, no servant of the State however faithful or distinguished, could be sure that he might not at any moment incur a displeasure which would strip him of all he possessed, even if it did not also condemn him to a cruel and lingering death. Out of mere sport and wantonness, to relieve the tedium of a weary hour, the despot might slay him with his own hand. For the crime, or assumed crime, of one person a whole family, or class, or race might be cut off unheard. Of the lengths to which this cruelty and caprice might go we have a sufficient example in the Book of Esther. The Ahasuerus of that singular narrative was, there can hardly be any doubt, the Xerxes of secular history—the very names, unlike as they sound, are the same name differently pronounced by two different races.1717   Their common root is the Sanscrit Kshatra, a king; in the Persepolitan inscriptions this word appears as Ksérshé, and from this both the Hebrew Achashuerash (Ahasuerus) and the Greek Xerxes would easily be formed. And all that the50 Book of Esther relates of the despot who repudiates a wife because she will not expose herself to the drunken admiration of a crowd of revellers, who raises a servant to the highest honours one day and hangs him the next, who commands the massacre of an entire race and then bids them inflict a horrible carnage on those who execute his decree, exactly accords with the Greek narratives which depict him as scourging the sea for having broken down his bridge over the Hellespont, beheading the engineers whose work was swept away by a storm, wantonly putting to death the sons of Pythias, his oldest friend, before their father's eyes; as first giving to his mistress the splendid robe presented to him by his queen, and then giving up to the queen's barbarous vengeance the mother of his mistress; as shamefully misusing the body of the heroic Leonidas, and, after his defeat by the Greeks, giving himself up to a criminal voluptuousness and offering a reward to the inventor of any new pleasure.

The Book Ecclesiastes was written certainly not before the reign of Xerxes (B.C. 486-465), and probably many years after it, a period in which, bad as were the conditions of his time, the times grew ever51 more lawless, the despotism more intolerable, the violence and licentiousness of the subordinate officials more unblushing. But at whatever period within these limits we may place it, all we have learned of the Babylonians and the Persians during the later years of the Captivity and the earlier years of the Exile (during which the Jews were still under the Persian rule) is in entire correspondence with the social and political state depicted by the Preacher. The abler and more kindly despots—as Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes—showed a singular favour to the Jews. Cyrus published a decree authorizing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, and enjoining the officials of the empire to further them in their enterprise; Darius confirmed that decree, despite the malignant misrepresentations of the Samaritan colonists; Artaxerxes held Ezra and Nehemiah in high esteem, and sent them to restore order and prosperity to the city of their fathers and its inhabitants. But a large number, apparently even a large majority, of the Jews, unable or disinclined to return, remained in the various provinces of the great empire, and were of course subject to the violence and injustice from which the Persians themselves were not exempt. "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" cries the Preacher till we grow weary of the mournful refrain. Might he not well take that tone in a time so out of joint, so lowering, so dark?

52The Book is full of allusions to the Persian luxury, to the Persian forms of administration, above all, to the corruptions of the later years of the Persian empire, and the miseries they bred. Coheleth's elaborate description (ii. 4-8) of the infinite variety of means by which he sought to allure his heart unto mirth—his palaces, vineyards, paradises, with their reservoirs and fountains, crowds of attendants, treasures of gold and silver, the harem full of beauties of all races—seems taken direct from the ample state of some luxurious Persian grandee. His picture of the public administration (v. 8, 9), in which "superior watcheth over superior, and superiors again watch over them," is a graphic sketch of the satrapial system, with its official hierarchy rising grade above grade, which was the work of Darius.1818   "The political condition of the people which this Book presupposes is that in which they are placed under satraps" (Delitzsch). When the animating and controlling spirit of that system was taken away, when weak foolish despots sat on the throne, and despots just as foolish and weak ruled in every provincial divan, there ensued precisely that political state to which Coheleth perpetually refers.1919   It would be possible to collect from the Psalms of this date materials for a description of the wrongs and miseries inflicted on the Jews, and of their keen sense of them, quite as graphic and intense as that of the Preacher. Here are a few phrases hastily culled from them. The oppressors of Israel are described as being "clothed with cruelty as with a garment," as "returning evil for good, and hatred for good-will." "Lift up thyself, thou Judge of the earth; Render to the proud their desert. They prate, they speak arrogantly; All the workers of iniquity boast themselves. They break in pieces Thy people, O Lord, And afflict Thine heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger, And murder the fatherless. And they say, The Lord shall not see, Neither shall the God of Jacob consider" (xciv.). "I am bowed down and brought very low; I go mourning all the day long: Truly I am nigh unto falling, And my heaviness is ever before me" (xxxviii.). "My days consume away like smoke, And my bones are burned up like as a firebrand; My heart is smitten down and withered like grass, So that I forget to eat my bread" (cii.). "I am helpless and poor, And my heart is wounded within me" (cix.).
    Most of the "imprecatory" Psalms belong to this period; and the terrible wrongs of the Captivity, though they may not justify, in large measure explain and excuse, that desire for vengeance which has given so much offence to some of our modern critics.
Iniquity53 sat in the place of judgment, and in the place of equity there was iniquity (iii. 16); kings grew childish, and princes spent their days in revelry (x. 16); fools were lifted to high place, while nobles were degraded; and slaves rode on horses, while their quondam54 masters tramped through the mire (x. 6, 7). There was no fair reward for faithful service (ix. 11). Death brooded in the air, and might fall suddenly and unforeseen on any head, however high (ix. 12). To correct a public abuse was like pulling down a wall: some of the stones were sure to fall on the reformer's feet, from some cranny a serpent was sure to start out and bite him (x. 8, 9). To breathe a word against a ruler, even in the strictest privacy, was to run the hazard of destruction (x. 20). A resentful gesture, much more a rebellious word, in the divan was enough to ensure outrage. In short, the whole political fabric was fast falling into disrepair and decay, the rain leaking through the rotting roof, while the miserable people were ground down with ruinous exactions, in order that their rulers might revel on undisturbed (x. 18, 19). It is under such a pernicious and ominous maladministration of public affairs, and the appalling miseries it breeds, that there springs up in the hearts of men that fatalistic and hopeless temper to which Coheleth gives frequent expression. Better never to have been born than to live a life so cramped and thwarted, so full of perils and fears! Better to snatch at every pleasure, however poor and brief, than seek, by self-denial, by virtue, by integrity, to accumulate a store which the first petty tyrant who gets wind of it will sweep off, or a reputation for55 wisdom and goodness which will be no protection from, which will be only too likely to provoke, the despotic humours of men "dressed in a little brief authority."

If even Shakespeare,2020   Sonnets, LXVI. in an unrestful and despairing mood strangely foreign to his serene temperament, beheld

"desert a beggar born,

And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,

And purest faith unhappy forsworn,

And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

And strength by limping sway disabled,

And art made tongue-tied by authority,

And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,

And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,

And captive good attending captain ill;"

if, "tired with all these," he cried for "restful death," we can hardly wonder that the Preacher, who had fallen on times so evil that, compared with his, Shakespeare's were good, should prefer death to life.

But there is another side to this sad story of the Captivity, another and a nobler side. If the Jews suffered much from Persian misrule, they learned much and gained much from the Persian faith. In its earlier form the religious creed whose documents Zoroaster56 afterwards collected and enlarged in the Zendavesta was probably the purest of the ancient heathen world; and even when it was corrupted by the baser additions of later times, its purer form was still preserved in songs (Gâthâs) and traditions. There can be no reasonable doubt that it largely affected the subsequent faith of the Hebrews, not indeed teaching them any truth they had not been taught before, but constraining them to recognize truths in their Scriptures which hitherto they had passed over or neglected.

In its inception the Persian creed and practice were a revolt against the sensuous and sensual worship of the great forces of Nature into which most Eastern religions, often pure enough, in their primitive forms, had degenerated, and, in especial, from the base forms into which the Hindus had degraded that primitive faith which is still to be recovered from the Rig-Veda. It acknowledged persons, real spiritual intelligences, in place of mere natural powers; and it drew moral distinctions between them, dividing these ruling intelligences into good and bad, pure and impure, benignant and malevolent,—an immense advance on the mere admiration of whatever was strong. Nay, in some sense, the Persian faith affirmed monotheism against polytheism; for it asserted that one Great Intelligence ruled over all other intelligences, and through them over the universe. This Supreme Intelligence, which the Persians57 called Ahura-mazda (Ormazd), is the true Creator, Preserver, Governor, of all spirits, all men, all worlds. He is "good," "holy," "pure," "true," "the Father of all truth," "the best Being of all," "the Master of Purity," "the Source and Fountain of all good." On the righteous He bestows "the good mind" and everlasting happiness; while He punishes and afflicts the evil. His worshippers were to the last degree intolerant of idolatry. They suffered no image to profane their temples; their earliest symbol of Deity is almost as pure and abstract as a mathematical sign, a circle with wings; the circle to denote the eternity of God, and the wings his omnipresence. Under this Supreme Lord, "the God of heaven," they admitted inferior beings, angels and archangels, whose names mark them out as personified Divine attributes, or as faithful servants who administer some province of the Divine empire.

To win the favour of the God of heaven it was requisite to cultivate the virtues of purity, truthfulness, industry, and a pious sense of the Divine presence; and these virtues must spring from the heart, and cover thought as well as word and deed. His worship consisted in the frequent offering of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; in the reiteration of certain sacred hymns; in the occasional sacrifice of animals which, after being presented before Ormazd, furnished forth58 a feast for priest and worshipper; and in the performance of a mystic ceremony (the Soma), the gist of which seems to have lain in a grateful acknowledgment that the fruits of the earth, typified by the intoxicating juice of the Homa plant, were to be received as the gift of Heaven. A sentence or two from one of the hymns2121   Haug's Essays, pp. 162-3, quoted by Rawlinson. of which there are many in the Zendavesta, will show better than many words to how high a pitch Divine worship was carried by the Persians: "We worship Thee, Ahura-mazda, the pure, the master of purity. We praise all good thoughts, all good words, all good deeds which are or shall be; and we likewise keep clean and pure all that is good. O Ahura-mazda, thou true happy Being! We strive to think, to speak, and to do only such things as may be best fitted to promote the two lives" (i.e. the life of the body and the life of the soul).

In this course of well-doing the faithful were animated and confirmed by a devout belief in the immortality of the soul and a conscious future existence. They were taught that at death the souls of men, both good and bad, travelled along an appointed path to a narrow bridge which led to Paradise; over this bridge only pious souls could pass, the wicked falling from it into an awful gulf in which they received the due reward of59 their deeds. The happy souls of the good were helped across the long narrow arch by an angel,2222   This helpful angel is by no means peculiar to the Persian faith. All the imaginative races of antiquity conceived of a being more divine than man, though originally not equal to the gods, who guided the departed soul on its lonely journey through the dark interspaces of death. Theut conducted the released spirit of the Egyptian to the judgment-seat. Hermes performed the same kind office for the Greeks, Mercury for the Romans. Yama was the nekropompos of the Hindus, and the Persians retained the legend. The Rig-Veda represents him as the first man who passed through death to immortality, and as therefore the best guide of other men. Nor is it doubted that the Persians derived their belief in a future life from the primitive Hindu creed. If their faith was, as I have said, a revolt from the degenerate forms of Hindu worship, it was also a return to its more ancient forms, as religious reformations are apt to be. The fathers of the Aryan stock had an unwavering assurance of a future life. In his Essay on the Funeral Rites of the Brahmans, Max Müller cites a sort of liturgy with which the ancient Hindu used to bid farewell to his deceased friend while the body lay on the funeral pyre, which is, surely, very noble and pathetic: "Depart thou, depart thou by the ancient paths, to the place whither our fathers have departed. Meet with the ancient ones (the Pitrs); meet with the Lord of Death; obtain thy desires in heaven. Throw off thine imperfections; go to thy home. Become united with a body; clothe thyself in a shining form. Go ye; depart ye; hasten ye from hence" (Rig-Veda x. 14).
    To which, as choral responses, might be added, "Let him depart to those for whom flow the rivers of nectar. Let him depart to those who through meditation have obtained the victory, who by fixing their thoughts on the unseen have gone to heaven.... Let him depart to the mighty in battle, to the heroes who have laid down their lives for others, to those who have bestowed their goods on the poor" (Rig-Veda x. 154).

    As the body was consumed on the pyre the friends of the dead chanted a hymn in which, after having bidden his body return to the various elements from which it sprang, they prayed, "As for his unborn part, do Thou, Lord (Agni), quicken it with Thy heat; let Thy flame and Thy brightness kindle it: convey it to the world of the righteous."

    It was from this pure and lofty source that the Persians drew their faith in the better life to be.

    Max Müller also quotes as the prayer of a dying Hindu woman, "Place me, O Pure One, in that everlasting and unchanging world where light and glory are found. Make me immortal in the world in which joys, delights, and happiness abide, where the desires are obtained" (Atharda Veda xii. 3, 17).

    Cremation itself bore witness to the Hindu faith in immortality, since they held that "the fire which set free the spiritual element from the superincumbent clay, completed the third or heavenly birth," the second birth having been achieved when men set themselves to a faithful discharge of their religious duties.
and as they entered Paradise a great archangel rose from his throne to greet each of them with the words, "How happy60 art thou, who hast come to us from mortality to immortality!"

This wonderfully pure creed was, however, in process of time, corrupted in many ways. First of all, "the sad antithesis of human life," the conflict between light and darkness, good and evil—the standing puzzle of the world—led the votaries of Ormazd to dualism. Ormazd loved and created only the good. The evil in man, and in the world, must be the work of an enemy. This61 enemy, Ahriman (Augrô-maniyus), has been seeking from eternity to undo, to mar and blast, the fair work of the God of heaven. He is the baleful author of all evil, and under him are spirits as malignant as himself. Between these good and evil powers there is incessant conflict, which extends to every soul and every world. It will never cease until the great Deliverer arise—for even of Him the Persians had some dim prevision—who shall conquer and destroy evil at its source, all things then rounding to their final goal of good.

Another corrupting influence had its origin in a too literal interpretation of the names given to the Divine Being, or the qualities ascribed to Him, by the founders of the faith. Ormazd, for example, had been described as "true, lucid, shining, the originator of all the best things, of the spirit in nature and of the growth in nature, of the luminaries and of the self-shining brightness which is in the luminaries." From these epithets and ascriptions there sprang in later days the worship of the sun, then of fire, as a type of God—a worship still maintained by the disciples of Zoroaster, the Ghebers and the Parsees. And from this point onward the old sad story repeats itself; once more we have to trace a pure and lofty primitive faith along the grades through which it declines to the low, base level of a sensuous idolatry. The Magians, always the bitter enemies of Zoroastrianism, held that the four elements—fire, air,62 earth, and water—were the only proper objects of human reverence. It was not difficult for them to persuade those who already worshipped fire, and were beginning to forget of Whom fire was the symbol, to include in their homage air, water, and earth. Divination, incantations, the interpretation of dreams and omens soon followed, with all the dark shadows which science and religion cast behind them. And then came the lowest deep of all, that worship of the gods by sensual indulgence to which idolatry gravitates, as by a law.

Nevertheless, we must remember that, even at their worst, the Persians preserved the sacred records of their earlier faith, and that their best men steadily refused to accept the base additions to it which the Magians proposed. Corrupt as in many respects many of them became, the conquest of Babylon was the death-blow to the sensual idol-worship which had reigned for twenty centuries on the Chaldean plain; it never wholly recovered from it, though it survived it for a time. From that date it declined to its fall: "Bel bowed down; Nebo stooped; Merodach was broken in pieces" (Isa. xlvi. 1; Jer. l. 2). The nobler monarchs of Persia were true disciples of the primitive creed of their race. It was similarity of creed which won their favour for the Hebrew captives. In the decree which enfranchised them (Ezra i. 2, 3)63 Cyrus expressly identifies Ormazd, "the God of heaven," with Jehovah, the God of Israel; he says, "The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He hath charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem." Nor was this belief in one God, whose temple was to be defiled by no image even of Himself, the only point in common between the better Persians, such as Cyrus and Darius, and the better Jews. There were many such points. Both believed in an evil spirit tempting and accusing men; in myriads of angels, all the host of heaven, who formed the armies of God and did his pleasure; in a tree of life and a tree of knowledge, and a serpent the enemy of man; both shared the hope of a coming Deliverer from evil, the belief in an immortal and retributive life beyond the grave, and a happy Paradise in which all righteous souls would find a home and see their Father's face. These common faiths and hopes would all be points of sympathy and attachment between the two races; and it is to this agreement in religious doctrine and practice that we must ascribe the striking facts that the Persians, ordinarily the most intolerant of men, never persecuted the Jews; and that the Jews, ordinarily so impatient of foreign domination, never made a single attempt to cast off the Persian yoke, but stood by the declining empire even when the Greeks were thundering at its gates.

64On one question all competent historians and commentators are agreed; viz. that the Jews gained immensely in the clearness and compass of their religious faith during the Captivity. That, which was the punishment, was also the term, of their idolatry; into that sin they never afterwards fell. Now first, too, they began to understand that the bond of their unity was not local, not national even, but spiritual and religious; they were spread over every province of a foreign empire, yet they were one people, and a sacred people, in virtue of their common service of Jehovah and their common hope of Messiah's advent. This hope had been vaguely felt before, and just previous to the Captivity Isaiah had arrayed it in an unrivalled splendour of imagery; now it sank into the popular mind, which needed it so sorely, and became a deep and ardent longing of the national heart. From this period, moreover, the immortality of the soul and the life beyond death entered distinctly and prominently into the Hebrew creed. Always latent in their Scriptures, these truths disclosed themselves to the Jews as they came into contact with the Persian doctrines of judgment and future rewards. Hitherto they had thought mainly, if not exclusively, of the temporal rewards and punishments by which the Mosaic law enforced its precepts. Henceforth they saw that, in time and on earth, human actions are not carried to65 their final and due results; they looked forward to a judgment in which all wrongs should be righted, all unpunished sins receive their recompense, and all the sufferings of the good be transmuted into joy and peace.

Now this, as we shall see, is the very moral of the Book Ecclesiastes, the triumphant climax to which it mounts. The endeavour of Coheleth is to show how evil and good were blended in the human lot, evil so largely preponderating in the lot of many of the good as to make life a curse unless it were sustained by hope; to give hope by assuring the Hebrew captives that "God takes cognizance of all things," and "will bring every work to judgment," good or bad; and to urge on them, as the conclusion of his Quest, and as the whole duty of man, to prepare for that supreme audit by fearing God and keeping his commandments. This was the light he was commissioned to carry into their great darkness; and if the lamp and the oil were of God, it is hardly too much to say that the spark which kindled the lamp was taken from the Persian fire, since that too was of God. Or, to vary the figure, and make it more accurate, we may say that the truths of the future life lay hidden in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that it was by the light of the Persian doctrine of the future that the Jews, stimulated by the mental culture and activity acquired in Babylon, discovered them in the Word.

66It is thus, indeed, that God has taught men in all ages. The Word remains ever the same, but our conditions change, our mental posture varies, and with our posture the angle at which the light of Heaven falls on the sacred page. We are brought into contact with new races, new ideas, new forms of culture, new discoveries of science, and the familiar Word forthwith teems with new meanings, with new adaptations to our needs; truths unseen before, though they were always there, come to view, deep truths rise to the surface, mysterious truths grow simple and plain, truths that jangled on the ear melt into harmony; our new needs stretch out lame hands of faith, and find an unexpected but ample supply; and we are rapt in wonder and admiration as we afresh discover the Bible to be the Book for all races and for all ages, an inexhaustible fountain of truth and comfort and grace.

« Prev 2. The Persian Period. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection