CHAPTER 2

OPINIONS IN THE AGE OF THE MACCABEES

 

In the preceding chapter, a general view has been given of God’s system of retribution. It appears that by Moses, as a lawgiver, he made no revelation of a future state, and no appeal to its retributions, but derived his rewards and punishments entirely from this life.

From this many have inferred that there was among the Jews no knowledge or belief of a future life. In opposition to this view, we alleged that there were causes among the pious Jews leading to a belief of a future life and its retributions, growing out of a covenant with God, and their personal experience and habits of communion with him, and confirmed by certain prominent and sublime events of their history. In proof of this, the great fact was alleged that in the days of the Maccabees, nearly two centuries before Christ, there was developed among the Jews a clear conception and a firm belief of the doctrine of the resurrection, and of the retributions of a future life, a belief of such power that it sustained illustrious heroes in the torments of most cruel martyrdom. These facts are of such fundamental importance that they deserve a more full development. Moreover, the age and circumstances in which they occurred call for particular consideration, if we would thoroughly understand the thinking of subsequent ages.

Point of Vision.

It is for this reason that we shall make the age of the Maccabees a point of vision for the whole history. It is a remarkable point in many respects. It is the beginning of Jewish theological and religious writing outside of the Bible. Before this time there was the Bible alone. We, at this day, can hardly conceive of such a state of things. The Bible is now so imbedded in commentaries and systems of theology by the Fathers, the Scholastic divines, the Reformers, and the modern sects, that it is quite overshadowed by them. But up to this point the Old Testament stands in sublime majesty and solitude, overshadowed by nothing. But here, human comments, reasonings, inferences, and developments, begin to make their appearance.

It is no less remarkable as making the completion of the circuit of those great periods of foreign influences to which the Jews were, in the providence of God, exposed, and by which it has been alleged that their religious thinking was greatly affected.

Egyptian, Persian, and Grecian Periods.

The first of these periods was during their early captivity in Egypt, in which they came in contact with a clearly-defined doctrine of the immortality of the soul and of future retributions, connected with the theory of the transmigration of souls. The second was during the captivity of Babylon, and during their subjection to the Persian power. During this period they came in contact with the system of Zoroaster, of Eastern origin, containing a doctrine of future retributions, involving the resurrection of the body, the eternal reward of the righteous at a future judgment, the temporary punishment and final restoration and purification of wicked men, and the annihilation of evil spirits, so as to harmonize the universe in good. This system is based on professed direct revelations from God, and not on philosophical speculations.

The third period was during the Greek power of Alexander and his successors. During this period they came in contact with a doctrine of the immortality of the soul and of future retributions, based, not on a professed revelation, but on philosophical principles. It was also, as in Egypt, connected with a doctrine of the transmigration of souls. In it, also, the doctrine of the preexistence of souls was held, based upon their divine, immortal and eternal nature, they being regarded as a kind of self-existent and immortal divinities. These views were developed by Plato, and are repeated by Cicero as derived from him. The first of these periods lasted over two centuries, and terminated in the fifteenth century before Christ. The second lasted from the Babylonian captivity to the conquests of Alexander, over two centuries, terminating in the fourth century before Christ. The third lasted till Christ, for the religious and philosophical systems of the Greeks and Romans were substantially the same. The age of the Maccabees is a part of the third period. Now, it is certainly remarkable that, though the doctrines of a future life and of eternal retributions are not taught in the law of Moses, yet the Jews were, in the providence of God, so long and so repeatedly brought into contact with various forms of those doctrines that they could not but think of them, and the age of the Maccabees is noteworthy as marking the completion of this great circuit of influences on the Jewish mind. It is no less remarkable as the point at which we unmistakably meet the first clear and full development among the Jews, and outside of the Bible, of the doctrine of retribution in a future life as an element of all-pervading popular power. Before this point we have no Jewish theological and religious writing, except what is contained in the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. And it has been earnestly debated whether the doctrine of future retribution occurs in the Old Testament at all. But it cannot be debated whether that doctrine was promulgated at this point, for it was clearly proclaimed – as clearly as at any subsequent time. 

General Plan.

We shall, therefore, in the first place, clearly prove this statement, and then, from this point of vision, cast our eyes backward and endeavor to trace its river of opinion upward to its source; then returning, we shall trace it downward to Christ, and thence onward through the Christian ages.

Martyrdom and War.

The fundamental characteristics of the age of the Maccabees are, in the first place, a great religious persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes, and then a great religious war. This war, like that under Cromwell, or that of the Netherlands, was based on deep religious convictions, by which a handful of heroes were enabled to encounter and defeat the whole power of the Syrian kingdom of Antiochus, and these convictions were based on eternal retributions. It was a crisis not only in the history of the Jews, but in that of the religion of the Bible and of humanity. It affected the Jews, not only in Palestine and Egypt, but throughout the world. Antiochus, cooperating with a party of Jewish apostates, deliberately undertook to eradicate the religion and religious usages of the Jews, and to replace them by those of Greece. He repeatedly took Jerusalem, and plundered the temple and massacred the people. He set up the altar of Jupiter on that of Jehovah, and defiled the temple by sacrifices of swine’s flesh thereon. He sought to destroy all the copies of the Law of Moses, and punished with death any with whom they were found. He prohibited not only the temple-service, but the keeping of the Sabbath and circumcision. Women who circumcised their children were put to a cruel death with their infants. Edicts commanding these things were published throughout Judea, and officers were appointed to enforce them. Inasmuch as Christianity was involved in Judaism, this was, by anticipation, a fundamental assault on the kingdom of Christ. This assault was met first by martyrdom and then by war. And the story of the heroic warfare of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers in defense of the law of God, the narrative of their victories, defeats, and martyrdoms, resulting in the final independence of the Jews, is inferior in interest, sublimity, and importance, to no history in the language of man.

A lofty and noble enthusiasm of faith in God and in eternal retributions was developed, from which a great religious reaction toward faith, and the more spiritual observance of the law of God, took its rise, which by sympathy elevated the tone of spiritual Judaism among all the Jews dispersed in all parts of the world.

Faith in Eternal Retributions.

This faith in the resurrection and in eternal retributions pervaded the whole army of Judas Maccabeus as thoroughly as it did the army of Cromwell, and was testified by public acts in behalf of those who died in battle, of which we shall elsewhere more fully speak. It was still more strikingly manifested in the case of the martyrs. Among these a mother and her seven sons were put to death by Antiochus for refusing to abjure the law of Moses and sacrifice to the gods of Greece. They endured extreme torments with wondrous and heroic power, through the hope of the resurrection and of eternal life. The second of the seven martyred brethren said, with his last breath, as he was dying of extreme torments, “Thou, O persecutor, removest us from this present life, but the King of this world will raise us up to everlasting life, since we die for his laws” (2 Macc. vii. 9). The fourth said to the tyrant: “It is a great blessing, when dying by the hands of men, to cherish the hope inspired by God, that we shall be raised up again by him. But to thee there shall be no resurrection unto life” (2 Macc. vii. 14).

The heroic mother, after cheering and sustaining her seven sons in the mighty conflict, at last died a triumphant martyr’s death.

Dogmatic Statements.

Not only was the belief in immortality and eternal retributions thus set forth in heroic actions and suffering, but it was also embodied in didactic statements. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon wrote in the second century before Christ, after the establishment of the kingdom of the Maccabees. He does not refer to these martyrs by name, but no one can doubt that they were before his mind when he wrote the following eloquent unfolding of the doctrine of future retribution and of eternal life:

“But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction; but they are in peace. For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality. And having been a little chastised they shall be greatly rewarded, for God has proved them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace hath he tried them; and received them as a burt-offering. In the time of their visitation they shall shine and kindle a conflagration, as sparks among the dry straw. They shall judge the nations and have dominion over the people, and their Lord shall reign forever” (Wisdom of Solomon iii. 1-8).

“But the ungodly shall be punished according to their own imaginations, who have neglected the righteous and forsaken the lord. He shall rend them and cast them down headlong that they shall be speechless; and he shall shake them from their foundation, and they shall be utterly laid waste and be in sorrow, and their memorial shall perish. Then shall the righteous man stand in great boldness before the face of such as have afflicted him and made no account of his labors.

“When the wicked see it they shall be troubled with terrible fear, and shall be amazed at the greatness of his salvation. Repenting and groaning in spirit they shall say, This is he whom we once derided. We fools accounted his life madness and his end without honor. But now is he numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints.” Then they lament over the extreme brevity and worthlessness of worldly joys. They are like dust blown away by the wind, like the foam of the ocean scattered by the storm, like smoke dissipated by a tempest. The writer then proceeds:

“But the righteous live for evermore; their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them is with the Most High. Therefore shall they receive a glorious kingdom and a beautiful crown from the Lord’s hand” (iii. 10; iv. 19; v. 2-5, 15, 16).

Retribution on the wicked is then described in sublime, figurative language.

The right-aiming thunderbolts shall fly to the mark. Hailstones of wrath shall fall. Floods and tempests shall sweep them away.

Can anything be more explicit than this vivid account of a future life and future retributions? Indeed, the beautiful expression “a hope full of immortality” has been transferred from this passage to the religious language of Christendom. On the points of modern controversy such as the literal eternity of punishment, or the annihilation of the wicked, the language is not explicit. Of this we shall say more. But as to a glorious reward of the righteous, and a fearful punishment of the wicked in the world to come, the testimony is unequivocal.

FORWARD>> (Next Chapter: THE AGE OF THE MACCABEES)

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