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prime minister of his court, unable to brook the contumely shown him by Mordecai, who probably only refused to render him certain honors because he viewed them as due to God alone, procured a royal decree for their entire destruction throughout the whole world. But Esther, a Jewess, had been exalted to royalty; and through her intercession, the plot was defeated and the Jews were saved. This great event happened 452 B. C. In commemoration of it, the Jews instituted the feast of Purim, or lot, because Haman ascertained by lot the day on which the Jews were to be destroyed.
In no part of the sacred writings, do we more clearly behold the wonderful steps of divine providence for the preservation of the Church. The most trivial circumstances paved the way for the accomplishment of the most important events. A Jewess orphan became the queen of the greatest empire on earth, through the whim of a monarch in a drunken revel. A restless night of the king brought to the highest honors the object of Haman's implacable rage, and the man on whom the salvation of the Church rested. The uncertain humor of a despot was overruled to regard favorably the petition of his queen, who approached him at the hazard of her life, for the safety of her people. And when the Church was actually consigned to ruin, it was only saved by a counter decree which gave the Jews liberty to defend themselves against their enemies. In all this concatenation of circumstances, there was nothing miraculous. All happened according to the ordinary course of human affairs, and yet all was directed by the finger of God. God brought Esther to the kingdom w for such a time as this.” She saved her people, and made this mighty Ahasuerus favorable to the Church during the whole of his reign. By whom the book of Esther was written is unknown. It has been ascribed to Mordecai, to Ezra, and to Nehemiah.
Seventy-eight years after the decree of Cyrus, 457 B. C. Ezra was commissioned by Artaxerxes (the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther,) governor of Judea.* He went up to Jerusalem, with about 1700 persons, bearing a munificent present of silver and gold from the king and his counsellor, to the Lord God of Israel, and a proclamation to all the treasurers beyond the river, requiring them to furnish whatsoever
* From the decree granting this commission, are to be dated the seventy weeks of Daniel.
should be commanded by the God of heaven, for his house; -all, probably, obtained through tlie intercession of queen Esther. Like a truly pious man, who placed his dependence on the God of heaven, Ezra observed, at the river Ahava, a day of fasting and prayer; and God was with him, and made all his way prosperous before him. He found the people in a low state. They had intermarried with the Gentiles in the land. Ezra convened them, severely rebuked them, compelled them all to put away their strange wives, and publicly read to them, from a pulpit of wood, the law of God. The Holy Spirit was poured out, and the people turned to the Lord with weeping, fasting, and mourning; entered into solemn covenant with God, and became greatly reformed.
Ezra was of the sacerdotal family, and was an eminent scribe. He not only wrote the book which bears his name; but compiled from ancient records, the books of Chronicles, collected all the books of which the sacred scriptures did then consist, made such additions to them as were necessary for their completion, and placed them in their proper order. In transcribing he put the Hebrew writings into the square character of the Chaldeans, after which the ancient Hebrew character fell into disuse excepting with the Samaritans, who have retained it to this day. Ten years after, Nehemiah went to Jerusalem with a commission from the same king to repair the walls and set up the gates of Jerusalem. He was a Jew, of exalted heroism, and piety, who had obtained the place of cup-bearer to the king; not improbably through the influence of queen Esther. Under him the people fortified the city, though they were so opposed by the Samaritans, as to be obliged to carry arms to their work. Nehemiah returned to the Persian court, but he soon came back with a new commission, and entered with great zeal upon the business of re-peopling Jerusalem and of reforming the nation; especially in their abuses of the daily worship and of the holy Sabbath. His government continued near forty years. His last act of reformation was in the year 409 B. C. He died, probably, soon after this, about seventy years of age.
Under the administration of these excellent men the custom was introduced of reading publicly the law and the prophets in the synagogues, every sabbath day. Before the captivity, there were but very few copies of the sacred scriptures. In the time of Joshua, only one copy of the law was in existence. The people, therefore, were very ignorant of it. But by this new regulation, copies were greatly multiplied. Synagogues, or churches were built in every town, and every synagogue had one copy.
Contemporary with Ezra and Nehemiah, was the prophet Malachi. He was raised up to censure the people for the same offences that had excited the indignation of the governors, and to declare that God would punish and reject them and would make his name great among the Gentiles. He predicted the coming of John the Baptist, and the sudden appearance of the Lord in his Temple, to take vengeance on his enemies, and be glorified in them that fear him. His style is inferior, as he lived in the decline of the Hebrew poetry. He was the last of the prophets. By him the canon of the Old Testament was completed about 400 years before Christ.
Table of the Prophets who prophesied after the captivity. Daniel,
between 606 and 534 B. C. Ezekiel,
between 595 and 536. Haggai,
about 520. Zechariah,
about 519. Malachi,
between 436 and 400.
For many ages, the false religions of the east had remained stationary; but in this period, Magianism received considerable strength from the writings of Zoroaster. He was a native of Media. He pretended to a visit to heaven, where God spake to him out of a fire. This fire he pretended to bring with him on his return. It was considered holy, the dwelling of God. The priests were forever to keep it, and the people were to worship before it. He caused fire-temples every where to be erected, that storms and tempests might not extinguish it. As he considered God as dwelling in the fire, he made the sun to be his chief residence, and therefore the primary object of worship. He abandoned the old system of two gods, one good, and the other evil, and taught the existence of one Supreme, who had under him a good and evil angel; the immediate authors of good and evil. To gain reputation, he retired into a cave and there lived a long time a recluse, and composed a book called the Zendavesta, which contains the liturgy to be used in the fire-temples and the chief doctrines of his religion. His success in propagating his system was astonishingly great. Almost all the eastern world, for a season, bowed before him. He is said to have been slain, with eighty of his priests, by a Scythian prince whom he attempted to convert to his religion. It is manifest that he was well acquainted with the Jewish scriptures, and that he derived his whole system of God dwelling in the fire, from the burning bush, out of which God spake to Moses. He gave the same history of the creation and deluge that Moses had given, and inserted a great part of the Psalms of David into his writings. The Mehestani, his followers, believed in the immortality of the soul, in future rewards and punishments, and in the purification of the bad by fire; after which they would be united to the good.
Civil government of the Jews. Sanhedrim. Religious order. Degeneracy in piety.
Conflicts for the High-priesthood. Joshua slain in the Temple. Destruction of the Persian and erection of the Grecian monarchy. Daniel's vision of the ram and the he goat. Fulfilment of prophecies against Tyre. The Jews favored by Alexander. Course and end of the he goat. Of the four horns which stood up in its place. Death of Simon the just. Septuagint version of the Scriptures. Ptolmey's violation of the Holy of holies. The Jews favored by Antiochus the Great.
From the completion of the Scriptures of the Old Testament to the birth of Christ, was a period of about 400 years. It was a period of which indeed we have no inspired history: but as the great Edwards well remarks, it was a period whose events are much the subject of Scripture prophecy; so that, if we have no later writer than Malachi, still we have, in the Bible, a complete history of the Church; “ the account is carried on, the chain is not broken till we come to the very last link of it in the consummation of all things.” God also has provided profane historians, who, from the cessation of scriptural history, have given us authentic and full accounts of his providential dealings with his Church and the nations of the earth, and enabled us to behold the exact fulfilment of his prophetic revelations.
After the return of the Jews from captivity, they remained in a feeble state, under the Persian monarchs. The last of their governors from among themselves, was Nehemiah. At his death they were transferred to the prefecture of Syria, by which they were subjected to an easy tribute. They lived however, under their own laws, governed by the High priest, and might have been a happy people, had it not been for long continued and violent contests by brothers and others nearly related, for the sacerdotal dignity, and the tyrannical conduct of some who were raised to it. , An office so holy, should ever have been filled by holy men of God; but, like the pontificate in after ages, it was sought for by men of ambition and avarice, as a place in which the vilest passions might be gratified. As its civil authority came from the Syrian governor, it was purchased and retained by money, and the worst political artifices. The nation was thrown by contending candidates, into violent conflicts, and was burdened with heavy taxes to satisfy the demands of the prefect.
At a subsequent period, we find associated with the High Priest, in the government of the nation, a grand council called the Sanhedrim, consisting of seventy-two judges, which possessed the power of life and death. The Jews called it “ a hedge to the laws;" and maintained that it was instituted by God in the days of Moses, when he appointed seventy-two elders to aid him in the government. But as we find no account of it in the Old Testament, it is evident that it was an institution of modern date. Basnage and others have fixed its first institution in the time of the Maccabees. Its authority extended over all the synagogues in the world, and no appeal could be made from its sentence.
The religious services of the Jews continued much upon the plan established by Ezra and Nehemiah. A synagogue or church was built in every city. At the east end was a chest or ark, bearing a.resemblance to the ark of the covenant in the Temple; in which was placed the Pentateuch, written upon vellum. The people assembled for prayer, three times every day; in the morning, afternoon and evening. On the Sabbath day and on festival days, the law and the prophets were read and expounded. Their form of worship was much the same as in Christian assemblies, and is retained to this day.
As has been remarked, the Jews were cured by the captivity, of their idolatry. They ever looked upon that sin as the cause of their curse. In the great revival under Ezra, they consecrated themselves anew to God, and would have been happy, had they continued a holy people unto the Lord --looking, with lively faith, to the coming of the Desire of all nations. But alas! they soon degenerated into cold formal