It was about 180 years before the Christian era. The Jews had long since come home from Babylon, and built up their city and Temple at Jerusalem. But they were not free as they had been before. Their country belonged to some greater power, they had a foreign governor over them, and had to pay tribute to the king who was their master.
At the time we are going to speak of, this king was Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria. He was descended from one of those generals who, upon the death of Alexander the Great, had shared the East between them, and he reigned over all the country from the Mediterranean Sea even into Persia and the borders of India. He spoke Greek, and believed in both the Greek and Roman gods, for he had spent some time at Rome in his youth; but in his Eastern kingdom he had learnt all the self-indulgent and violent habits to which people in those hot countries are especially tempted.
He was so fierce and passionate, that he was often called the 'Madman', and he was very cruel to all who offended him. One of his greatest desires was, that the Jews should leave their true faith in one God, and do like the Greeks and Syrians, his other subjects, worship the same idols, and hold drunken feasts in their honor. Sad to say, a great many of the Jews had grown ashamed of their own true religion and the strict ways of their law, and thought them old-fashioned. They joined in the Greek sports, played games naked in the theatre, joined in riotous processions, carrying ivy in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine, and offered incense to the idols; and the worst of all these was the false high priest, Menelaus, who led the King Antiochus into the Temple itself, even into the Holy of Holies, and told him all that would most desecrate it and grieve the Jews. So a little altar to the Roman god Jupiter was set up on the top of the great brazen altar of burnt offerings, a hog was offered up, and broth of its flesh sprinkled everywhere in the Temple; then all the precious vessels were seized, the shewbread table of gold, the candlesticks, and the whole treasury, and carried away by the king; the walls were thrown down, and the place made desolate.
Some Jews were still faithful to their God, but they were horribly punished and tortured to death before the eyes of the king; and when at last he went away to his own country, taking with him the wicked high priest Menelaus, he left behind him a governor and an army of soldiers stationed in the tower of Acra, which overlooked the Temple hill, and sent for an old man from Athens to teach the people the heathen rites and ceremonies. Any person who observed the Sabbath day, or any other ordinance of the law of Moses, was put to death in a most cruel manner; all the books of the Old Testament Scripture that could be found were either burnt or defiled, by having pictures of Greek gods painted upon them; and the heathen priests went from place to place, with a little brazen altar and image and a guard of soldiers, who were to kill every person who refused to burn incense before the idol. It was the very saddest time that the Jews had ever known, and there seemed no help near or far off; they could have no hope, except in the promises that God would never fail His people, or forsake His inheritance, and in the prophecies that bad times should come, but good ones after them.
The Greeks, in going through the towns to enforce the idol worship, came to a little city called Modin, somewhere on the hills on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, not far from Joppa. There they sent out, as usual, orders to all the men of the town to meet them in the marketplace; but they were told beforehand, that the chief person in the place was an old man named Mattathias, of a priestly family, and so much respected, that all the other inhabitants of the place were sure to do whatever he might lead them in. So the Greeks sent for him first of all, and he came at their summons, a grand and noble old man, followed by his five sons, Johanan, Simon, Judas, Jonathan, and Eleazar. The Greek priest tried to talk him over. He told him that the high priest had forsaken the Jewish superstition, that the Temple was in ruins, and that resistance was in vain; and exhorted him to obtain gratitude and honor for himself, by leading his countrymen in thus adoring the deities of the king's choice, promising him rewards and treasures if he would comply.
But the old man spoke out with a loud and fearless voice: 'Though all the nations that are under the king's dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments; yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances! We will not hearken to the king's words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand or the left!'
As he spoke, up came an apostate Jew to do sacrifice at the heathen altar. Mattathias trembled at the sight, and his zeal broke forth. He slew the offender, and his brave sons gathering round him, they attacked the Syrian soldiers, killed the commissioner, and threw down the altar. Then, as they knew that they could not there hold out against the king's power, Mattathias proclaimed throughout the city: 'Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me!' With that, he and his five sons, with their families, left their houses and lands, and drove their cattle with them up into the wild hills and caves, where David had once made his home; and all the Jews who wished to be still faithful, gathered around them, to worship God and keep His commandments.
There they were, a handful of brave men in the mountains, and all the heathen world and apostate Jews against them. They used to come down into the villages, remind the people of the law, promise their help, and throw down any idol altars that they found, and the enemy never were able to follow them into their rocky strongholds. But the old Mattathias could not long bear the rude wild life in the cold mountains, and he soon died. First he called all his five sons, and bade them to 'be zealous for the law, and give their lives for the covenant of their fathers'; and he reminded them of all the many brave men who had before served God, and been aided in their extremity. He appointed his son Judas, as the strongest and mightiest, to lead his brethren to battle, and Simon, as the wisest, to be their counsellor; then he blessed them and died; and his sons were able to bury him in the tomb of his fathers at Modin.
Judas was one of the bravest men who ever lived; never dreading the numbers that came against him. He was surnamed Maccabeus, which some people say meant the hammerer; but others think it was made up of the first letters of the words he carried on his banner, which meant 'Who is like unto Thee, among the gods, O Lord?' Altogether he had about six thousand men round him when the Greek governor, Apollonius, came out to fight with him. The Jews gained here their first victory, and Judas killed Apollonius, took his sword, and fought all his other battles with it. Next came a captain called Seron, who went out to the hills to lay hold of the bold rebels that dared to rise against the King of Syria. The place where Judas met him was one to make the Jews' hearts leap with hope and trust. It was on the steep stony broken hillside of Beth-horon, the very place where Joshua had conquered the five kings of the Amorites, in the first battle on the coming in of the children of Israel to Palestine. There was the rugged path where Joshua had stood and called out to the sun to stand still in Gibeon, and the moon in the valley of Ajalon. Miracles were over, and Judas looked for no wonder to help him; but when he came up the mountain road from Joppa, his heart was full of the same trust as Joshua's, and he won another great victory.
By this time King Antiochus began to think the rising of the Jews a serious matter, but he could not come himself against them, because his provinces in Armenia and Persia had refused their tribute, and he had to go in person to reduce them. He appointed, however, a governor, named Lysias, to chastise the Jews, giving him an army of 40,000 foot and 7000 horse. Half of these Lysias sent on before him, with two captains, named Nicanor and Gorgias, thinking that these would be more than enough to hunt down and crush the little handful that were lurking in the hills. And with them came a great number of slave merchants, who had bargained with Nicanor that they should have ninety Jews for one talent, to sell to the Greeks and Romans, by whom Jewish slaves were much esteemed.
There was great terror in Palestine at these tidings, and many of the weaker-minded fell away from Judas; but he called all the faithful together at Mizpeh, the same place where, 1000 years before, Samuel had collected the Israelites, and, after prayer and fasting, had sent them forth to free their country from the Philistines. Shiloh, the sanctuary, was then lying desolate, just as Jerusalem now lay in ruins; and yet better times had come. But very mournful was that fast day at Mizpeh, as the Jews looked along the hillside to their own holy mountain crowned by no white marble and gold Temple flashing back the sunbeams, but only with the tall castle of their enemies towering over the precipice. They could not sacrifice, because a sacrifice could only be made at Jerusalem, and the only book of the Scriptures that they had to read from was painted over with the hateful idol figures of the Greeks. And the huge army of enemies was ever coming nearer! The whole assembly wept, and put on sackcloth and prayed aloud for help, and then there was a loud sounding of trumpets, and Judas stood forth before them. And he made the old proclamation that Moses had long ago decreed, that no one should go out to battle who was building a house, or planting a vineyard, or had just betrothed a wife, or who was fearful and faint- hearted. All these were to go home again. Judas had 6,000 followers when he made this proclamation. He had only 3,000 at the end of the day, and they were but poorly armed. He told them of the former aid that had come to their fathers in extremity, and made them bold with his noble words. Then he gave them for their watchword 'the help of God', and divided the leadership of the band between himself and his brothers, appointing Eleazar, the youngest, to read the Holy Book.
With these valiant men, Judas set up his camp; but tidings were soon brought him that Gorgias, with 5000 foot and 1000 horse, had left the main body to fall on his little camp by night. He therefore secretly left the place in the twilight; so that when the enemy attacked his camp, they found it deserted, and supposing them to be hid in the mountains, proceeded hither in pursuit of them.
But in the early morning Judas and his 3,000 men were all in battle array in the plains, and marching full upon the enemy's camp with trumpet sound, took them by surprise in the absence of Gorgias and his choice troops, and utterly defeated and put them to flight, but without pursuing them, since the fight with Gorgias and his 5,000 might be yet to come. Even as Judas was reminding his men of this, Gorgias's troops were seen looking down from the mountains where they had been wandering all night; but seeing their own camp all smoke and flame, they turned and fled away. Nine thousand of the invaders had been slain, and the whole camp, full of arms and treasures, was in the hands of Judas, who there rested for a Sabbath of glad thanksgiving, and the next day parted the spoil, first putting out the share for the widows and orphans and the wounded, and then dividing the rest among his warriors. As to the slave merchants, they were all made prisoners, and instead of giving a talent for ninety Jews, were sold themselves.
The next year Lysias came himself, but was driven back and defeated at Bethshur, four or five miles south of Bethlehem. And now came the saddest, yet the greatest, day of Judas's life, when he ventured to go back into the holy city and take possession of the Temple again. The strong tower of Acra, which stood on a ridge of Mount Moriah looking down on the Temple rock, was still held by the Syrians, and he had no means of taking it; but he and his men loved the sanctuary too well to keep away from it, and again they marched up the steps and slopes that led up the holy hill. They went up to find the walls broken, the gates burnt, the cloisters and priests' chambers pulled down, and the courts thickly grown with grass and shrubs, the altar of their one true God with the false idol Jupiter's altar in the middle of it. These warriors, who had turned three armies to flight, could not bear the sight. They fell down on their faces, threw dust on their heads, and wept aloud for the desolation of their holy place. But in the midst Judas caused the trumpets to sound an alarm. They were to do something besides grieving. The bravest of them were set to keep watch and ward against the Syrians in the tower, while he chose out the most faithful priests to cleanse out the sanctuary, and renew all that could be renewed, making new holy vessels from the spoil taken in Nicanor's camp, and setting the stones of the profaned altar apart while a new one was raised. On the third anniversary of the great profanation, the Temple was newly dedicated, with songs and hymns of rejoicing, and a festival day was appointed, which has been observed by the Jews ever since. The Temple rock and city were again fortified so as to be able to hold out against their enemies, and this year and the next were the most prosperous of the life of the loyal-hearted Maccabee.
The great enemy of the Jews, Antiochus Epiphanes, was in the meantime dying in great agony in Persia, and his son Antiochus Eupator was set on the throne by Lysias, who brought him with an enormous army to reduce the rising in Judea. The fight was again at Bethshur, where Judas had built a strong fort on a point of rock that guarded the road to Hebron. Lysias tried to take this fort, and Judas came to the rescue with his little army, to meet the far mightier Syrian force, which was made more terrific by possessing thirty war elephants imported from the Indian frontier. Each of these creatures carried a tower containing thirty-two men armed with darts and javelins, and an Indian driver on his neck; and they had 1000 foot and 500 horse attached to the special following of the beast, who, gentle as he was by nature, often produced a fearful effect on the enemy; not so much by his huge bulk as by the terror he inspired among men, and far more among horses. The whole host was spread over the mountains and the valleys so that it is said that their bright armor and gold and silver shields made the mountains glisten like lamps of fire.
Still Judas pressed on to the attack, and his brother Eleazar, perceiving that one of the elephants was more adorned than the rest, thought it might be carrying the king, and devoted himself for his country. He fought his way to the monster, crept under it, and stabbed it from beneath, so that the mighty weight sank down on him and crushed him to death in his fall. He gained a 'perpetual name' for valor and self-devotion; but the king was not upon the elephant, and after a hard- fought battle, Judas was obliged to draw off and leave Bethshur to be taken by the enemy, and to shut himself up in Jerusalem.
There, want of provisions had brought him to great distress, when tidings came that another son of Antiochus Epiphanes had claimed the throne, and Lysias made peace in haste with Judas, promising him full liberty of worship, and left Palestine in peace.
This did not, however, last long. Lysias and his young master were slain by the new king, Demetrius, who again sent an army for the subjection of Judas, and further appointed a high priest, named Alcimus, of the family of Aaron, but inclined to favor the new heathen fashions.
This was the most fatal thing that had happened to Judas. Though of the priestly line, he was so much of a warrior, that he seems to have thought it would be profane to offer sacrifice himself; and many of the Jews were so glad of another high priest, that they let Alcimus into the Temple, and Jerusalem was again lost to Judas. One more battle was won by him at Beth-horon, and then finding how hard it was to make head against the Syrians, he sent to ask the aid of the great Roman power. But long before the answer could come, a huge Syrian army had marched in on the Holy Land, 20,000 men, and Judas had again no more than 3000. Some had gone over to Alcimus, some were offended at his seeking Roman alliance, and when at Eleasah he came in sight of the host, his men's hearts failed more than they ever had done before, and, out of the 3000 at first collected, only 800 stood with him, and they would fain have persuaded him to retreat.
'God forbid that I should do this thing,' he said, 'and flee away from them. If our time be come, let us die manfully for our brethren, and let us not stain our honor.'
Sore was the battle, as sore as that waged by the 800 at Thermopylae, and the end was the same. Judas and his 800 were not driven from the field, but lay dead upon it. But their work was done. What is called the moral effect of such a defeat goes further than many a victory. Those lives, sold so dearly, were the price of freedom for Judea.
Judas's brothers Jonathan and Simon laid him in his father's tomb, and then ended the work that he had begun; and when Simon died, the Jews, once so trodden on, were the most prosperous race in the East. The Temple was raised from its ruins, and the exploits of the Maccabees had nerved the whole people to do or die in defense of the holy faith of their fathers.