We closed our last chapter with Hyrcanus still occupying the office of high-priest, under the patronage, though really the authority, of Antipater, and both subject to Scipio. Antigonus alone remained of the adult Asmonean princes, and he was still in captivity. We now hasten on to the events of the last half century ere the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pompey’s star set as that of Julius Caesar dominated the firmament. The latter came into Syria in 47 B. C, and made a relative, Sextus Caesar, president of the province. Returning shortly to Rome, he was made Dictator of the world.
Antipater had been able to ingratiate himself with Caesar in his expedition against the Pontians and Cappadocians, and in return the Dictator made him a free citizen of Rome, and constituted him Procurator of Judea. Thus had the crafty Edomite reached the position for which he had long been scheming. He remained the friend and patron of Hyrcanus, and supported him against the appeals of Antigonus, who was endeavoring to win the favor of Caesar. But the Procurator was no longer a young man. His honors had been late in coming, and he found the additional burdens heavy to bear. Accordingly he appointed his two sons, Phasael and Herod gov- ernors of Galilee and of Jerusalem respectively, thus putting the Holy Land fully under Idumean rule. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that Idumea had been conquered by John Hyrcanus, 130 B. C, and the nation forcibly converted and circumcised, so that Antipater and his descendants, though of the house of Esau, were now Jews in religion, at least outwardly. And the after-history of the family shows that they valued Judaism from a religio-politico standpoint; their constant efforts being in opposition to the Grecianizing policy of some of the Jewish rulers. The glory of their race they conceived to be bound up with the triumph of the ancient ritual. It was Esau’s last and fruitless effort to obtain the blessing of Jacob, forfeited so long before.
Herod was but a youth of twenty years (or, as some say, only fifteen), when appointed by his father to the governorship of Judea. He was a young man of extraordinary energy and ability, and in his earlier years, before lust and ambition had done their deadly work, was characterized by many attractive qualities. But he made what might have been a fatal mistake very soon after assuming the dignities of his office. In Galilee an uprising took place of Jewish zealots, whom Josephus (out of deference to the foreigners upon whom he fawned) calls “a horde of robbers.” Herod suppressed this incipient rebellion, and, without the consent of the Sanhedrim, put their leader to death. For this act of rashness he was summoned to answer before the great council, jealous of his Idumean descent and of their own prerogatives.
Hyrcanus trembled for the outcome. He was a friend of Herod, and yet did not wish to appear to take sides against the council. Sextus Cassar wrote commanding him to clear the young governor, who had but acted as a faithful servant of Rome. Could he have done so decently, Hyrcanus would have rescinded the order of the Sanhedrim, but that was impossible under the circumstances, so Herod was called to account. He appeared, robed in royal purple, accompanied by an armed guard, and with all the bearing of a great official rather than a person on trial for a grave offence. His manner overawed the Jewish priests and doctors, who were about to acquit him, when the aged president of the council, Sameas, spoke out boldly for condemnation, declaring with what seemed like the voice of prophecy that, if they freed him, “this man whom they sought to absolve, would one day punish them all.” Stirred by the old man’s fiery words, the judges decided to pronounce sentence of death. Hyrcanus, upon learning their intention, suddenly prorogued the council, and sent word to Herod secretly to flee for his life, acquainting him with the mind of the elders.
The governor at once withdrew from the city; but in place of recognizing his indebtedness to the high-priest, came against him with an army, determined to destroy him as the representative of the system that had dared to question his authority. Antipater got word of his movements in time to interfere, and Herod was dissuaded from his purpose. He afterwards had his revenge by slaying the entire San- hedrin, with the exception of a man named Pollio, and the aged Sameas who had counselled his death.
For several years the walls of Jerusalem had been left in a state of ruin, ever since Pompey’s triumphal entry, until in 44 B. C. Julius Caesar authorized Antipater and Hyrcanus to repair them. The work was begun at once, though greatly hindered by the kaleidoscopic events of the next few years. Caesar was slain by Brutus and his co-conspirators a few months after issuing the order to rebuild the walls, and for some time confusion reigned not only in Rome but in the various provinces. In Judea Antipater had difficulty in maintaining his authority, and was eventually poisoned by an agent of the anarchistic element by the name of Malichus, who in turn was done to death by one of Herod’s agents after considerable disputations and unrest.
The friends of Malichus claimed Hyrcanus as one of their party, but this seems unlikely. The old man’s vacillating character made him the plaything of the whirling eddies in the political stream, and subjected him to much misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Herod, however, seems to have believed the high-priest was in the plot, but took no extreme steps; chiefly, perhaps, because he was espoused to the grand-daughter of Hyrcanus, Mariamne, of bitter memory.
In 42 B. C, Antigonus, of whom little had been heard for some years, again appeared and, raising an army of malcontents, made another effort to secure the crown. Herod acted with his accustomed energy and easily defeated him, driving him into exile. Antigonus appealed to Mark Antony, the Roman general and friend of the slain Caesar, but without success; for Herod had been beforehand in the matter and had won Antony’s regard by large sums of money. Antony appointed Phasael tetrarch of Galilee and Herod tetrarch of Judea, thus raising their rank and confirming their authority.
The desperate Antigonus next fled to Parthia and made a league with the king of that country, who furnished him with an army for the payment of one thousand talents and five hundred Jewish women! How low had a prince of the Maccabean line fallen who could thus sell his country-women into a slavery far worse than death! By acting quickly Antigonus took Jerusalem by assault, imprisoned Phasael and Hyrcanus, and would have apprehended Herod himself, had not the latter fled in the night with a few relatives and friends who preferred to risk misfortunes with him rather than be exposed to the wrath of Antigonus. Supported by the Parthians, Antigonus was declared king, and set up a puppet court. In order that Hyrcanus might never again be high-priest, the wretched prince bit off his ears, thus maiming the aged prelate and rendering him, according to Levitical law, unfit to serve in the temple. He then gave him into the hands of the Parthians, who took him away to their own country. Hyrcanus was afterwards slain by Herod, when he regained his authority.
Phasael, the brother of Herod, remained in prison, until feeling that his death was decreed by Antigonus and the Parthians, he decided to slay himself rather than die by their hands; so he dashed his brains out against the stone walls of his cell.
Herod sought shelter in Arabia, but it was refused him; upon which he made his way to Egypt, and there took ship for Rome, which he reached in safety, after being very nearly shipwrecked in a tempest. He repaired to the presence of Antony, who received him with much favor, listened with sympathy to his pitiful story, and commended him to Octavius Caesar and the senate. The latter conferred upon him the title of king of Judea, and sent him back to Palestine with full authority to dispossess the usurper and maintain his own title by force of arms. In seven days after Herod’s arrival in Rome as a fugitive with a price on his head, he sailed for Judea with a band of soldiers hailing him as king. This was in 40 B. C.
Herod landed at Ptolemais, and learning that his mother, sister, and Mariamne, his betrothed, were shut up in Masada, where they were besieged by Antigonus, he put himself at the head of the Roman legions, marched rapidly to the battle-ground, raised the siege, and placed his relatives in safety. He then moved quickly on from place to place, defeated the nationalist bands at every turn, and pushed on to Jerusalem, which he besieged for two years. It fell in 37 B. C, through the aid of Sosius, the president of Syria, whose soldiers were guilty of such atrocities that even the cruel Herod had to beg Sosius to restrain them, lest he be but king of a desert! It was at this time that all of the Sanhedrim but two were slain. Antigonus pleaded for mercy, but So- sius treated him with scorn and contempt, calling him “Antigone” (the feminine form of his name), and sending him in chains to Antony at Rome. Herod bribed the latter to destroy him, and he was beheaded as a rebel against the empire.
A year before, Herod had been married to the beautiful but ill-fated Mariamne, through which alliance he hoped to win the favor of the Jews, as his queen was of the Asmonean line; but in this he was unsuccessful, for his cruelty made him hated by all. “Better be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” was a proverb in after years.
There remained yet one male descendant of the Maccabees, a young man named Aristobulus, Mariamne’s brother. This young Asmonean was the hope of such as still dared to look forward to the re-establishment of the Jewish line. He was the son of Alexandra, daughter of Hyrcanus, and of Alexander, son of Aristobulus, Hyrcanus’ brother; he was therefore of unquestioned Maccabean blood. Alexandra sought to have him appointed high-priest, but Herod passed him over in favor of an obscure priest from Babylon, on whom he thought he could depend to carry out his will in any emergency that might arise. Alexandra was greatly angered by this, and applied to Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, for aid, beseeching her to use her influence with Antony in her son’s behalf. She was successful. Herod was overruled, and Aristobulus made high-priest. At the feast of tabernacles he appeared before the people, a handsome youth, clad in the gorgeous robes of the pontiff of Israel. As they thus beheld an Asmoneair again officiating in the solemn rites, the joy of the Jews was great, and they applauded rapturously. Their acclamations stirred Herod’s jealousy, and immediately after the celebration the high-priest was “accidentally” drowned in the king’s fish-ponds at Jericho.
Herod appeared to be pained and surprised at the untimely end of the last male scion of the Maccabees, and gave him a magnificent funeral, appearing himself as chief mourner. But all this sham and pretense failed to deceive the Jews, who knew that Aristobulus had been murdered at the king’s command. Alexandra appealed to Antony for judgment against Herod, again prevailing upon Cleopatra to speak for her. Herod was cited to appear before Antony to answer for the crime charged against him. He appointed his uncle, Joseph, procurator in his absence, committed his wife Mariamne (the only person he ever loved) to his care, and obeyed at once, leaving secret instructions that in the event of his condemnation and death, she was to be assassinated immediately. Josephus tells us that Joseph let Mariamne into the secret, and ironically remarks, she “did not take this to be an instance of Herod’s strong affection!”
A rumor was soon circulated in Jerusalem that Herod had been found guilty and put to death by torture; upon which Alexandra endeavored to secure the throne. She had been misled, however, for soon Herod returned, fully exonerated; his bribes having proven more powerful than Cleopatra’s pleading. Herod then cast Alexandra into prison for a time, but his fury having abated, Alexandra was released from prison.
Domestic troubles now broke out in the household of Herod, hurrying him on to fearful crimes which threw their dark shadow over all the rest of his career. His sister Salome, jealous of Mariamne’s influence over her brother, accused her secretly of unfaithfulness, naming Joseph as the guilty paramour. Herod pretended not to credit this, but became jealous and suspicious when Mariamne asked him how he could have given instructions to kill her if he really loved her? Convinced of his uncle’s perfidy, he slew him without trial, but for the present spared his wife. In 29 B. C. he was called before Octavius, and ere he left home repeated his former order. In some way Mariamne again learned of it, and when Herod returned, bitterly reproached him for his want of confidence and affection. In his jealous fury he had her put to death, only to become shortly after the victim of fearful remorse. Despair and resentment filled his mind with gloom and horror. So terribly was he affected that he fell ill, and became deranged for a time.
While Herod was in this state, Alexandra conceived the idea of again making an effort to possess herself of the government; but her plot was discovered; Herod roused himself from his melancholy, and she was put to death for her crime (28 B. C.) Thus had the Asmonean family been obliterated and the hopes of Israel almost quenched.
Not through Mattathias, however, but through David was the Seed to come through whom all the world should be blessed. And God had still preserved the royal line, though now sunk in poverty and obscurity. The “fulness of time” had almost come when the promise at last was to be fulfilled.
Meantime the bloody Edomite sat on David’s throne, and his course became more and more vile as the years went on. Mariamne had borne him two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. These boys were sent to Rome to be educated. Upon their return, at the instigation of their vindictive aunt Salome, who had been the cause of their mother’s death, they were strangled. Their half-brother Antipater, son of a former Idumean wife, Doris, had been named as Herod’s successor in 11 B. C, and in 6 B. C. the strangulation took place. The wretched king went through a semblance of law in the matter, citing his sons before the council, and there so vehemently accusing them, that sentence of death was passed upon the unhappy youths. Shortly afterwards his son, Antipater, was accused of plotting to secure the throne at once by poisoning his father, and he also was executed by Herod’s orders.
Yet through all these years of intrigues, family quarrels, and bloodshed, Herod did much for the upbuilding of Jerusalem and the prosperity of Palestine. He built many great cities on a plan far above any-thing previously attempted by the Jews. As a general, he was everywhere victorious; as a diplomat, he knew no equal; as a legislator, he displayed unexampled wisdom and care for his kingdom and the interests of his people. A lover of the arts and a patron of religion, he was, nevertheless, a monster of impiety, an Idumean Nero, who would stop at nothing to attain his selfish ends.
It was this Herod, so-called “the Great,” that rebuilt the temple in unparallelled grandeur; and he made it his boast to have outdone Solomon himself. The restored building gleamed with gold and costly marbles, and was the pride of the nation of Israel and the wonder of their neighbors. Once he had set his mind upon the attainment of any object, Herod allowed nothing to hinder the consummation desired. He moved on through bloody crimes and vilest barbarities to the goal he had before him of being considered the ablest and wealthiest of the kings of the East, winning thus for himself the title “Magnus,” or as we say, Herod the Great.
And now, as we draw near the close of Herod’s life, we must remind the reader that our Saviour was born four years before the popular reckoning known as Anno Domini. When in the sixth century of the Christian era, it was determined to begin dating from the birth of our Lord, a mistake of four years was made in computing the exact time. This was only recognized many centuries later, and it would have thrown all subsequent chronology into confusion to have sought then to rectify the error. Consequently, strange as it appears to write it, Christ was born in the year 4 B. C. This was but two years after the judicial murder of the sons of Herod and Mariamne. Consequently it was in that year the angel of the Lord announced first to Zecharias the birth of a son in his old age, John, who should be the forerunner of his Lord, to pre- pare the way before Him; and later to Mary the fulfilment of the Promise through her, in the birth of Him who was to be called Emmanuel—our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
It is no wonder that, upon the arrival of the wise men from the East, inquiring as to a new King of the Jews, the guilty monarch suspected a plot. He craftily inquired of the priests and scribes as to the Jewish expectations and hopes of a Messiah-King under pretense of giving Him honor; and when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, issued the mandate for the slaying of all the infants of Bethlehem.
Christ had indeed been born to be not only King of the Jews, but King of kings and Lord of lords. Herod and all of his class were as men doomed to destruction, whose lives were prolonged for a little season that repentance and remission of sins might be preached to all nations ere the King so long expected should fall like the mighty Stone from heaven on all the kingdoms of earth, and henceforth rule in righteousness and everlasting peace.
Herod’s death occurred, as narrated in the Gospel, during the time the infant Saviour was hidden in Egypt, and he was succeeded by Archelaus, as we also read in Matthew.
But it is not part of our task to follow the further course of events with which every reader of the New Testament is familiar. We set out to tell the story of the “Four Hundred Silent Years” which intervened between the Old and New Testaments, which God has seen fit to leave blank in our Bibles. Our task, therefore, save for a closing chapter on the literature of that period, is now done.
The reader will have little difficulty in realizing why the Saviour was not received by the covenant people. Their long years of declension had rendered them unable to recognize their Messiah when He appeared in accord with the scriptures of the Prophets. Their eyes had become blinded; their ears heavy; their hearts hardened, and their consciences seared; and so, not knowing the Scriptures, they fulfilled them in condemning the Prince of Life. Yet they were in Immanuel’s land and the Holy City; gathered to the place where Jehovah’s Name had been set of old. They were punctilious about the services of the temple; fond of reasoning about the Scriptures; proud of their descent from the patriarchs; and in their self-righteous complacency, despising their Gentile neighbors. But all this availed nothing when spiritual discernment was gone and religion a matter of ritual rather than of life. It is not necessary to press the lesson for our own times. He who sees it not himself would not heed it if another urged it upon him.