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The Hammer by  Alfred J. Church

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THE DEDICATION OF THE TEMPLE

[254] JERUSALEM now began to assume an aspect very different from that which it had borne for some years past. Thousands, who had been driven away by the terrors of the evil days, now hastened to return. Many of the lower class, constrained by the necessity of poverty, had always remained, enduring persecution as best they could, and often, of course, escaping it by their obscurity. Now the wealthier inhabitants began to flock back from their hiding-places in the country and from foreign lands; the streets again began to be busy; the shopkeepers displayed the wares which there had been no one to purchase, or which they had been afraid to show; the long-shut markets were reopened and thronged with purchasers.

The priests alone, gathered as they were from their abodes scattered throughout Palestine, made a considerable addition to the population of the [255] city. They were a numerous class, far beyond any requirements of their sacrificial duties, and commonly remained at home, awaiting the rarely recurring occasion of services that called them to Jerusalem. But now a work was before them in which all could take part, for the Temple, having been cleansed and having received such repair as could be done at once, was to be dedicated afresh.

The first neccessary work was the construction of a new altar of sacrifice. This work was to be of the primitive kind, in strict conformity to the Law, and as unlike as possible to the elaborate erections of the alien worship, and it was to be done from first to last, by the consecrated hands of the priests. They dug out of the earth of the valley rough stones. No tool of iron was to be used in raising them from their place; none was to be employed in hewing them into shape. It was the priests again who solemnly conveyed them into the Great Court of the Temple, who joined them together with mortar, and covered them with whitewash. Meanwhile other preparations for a wholly renovated service were being busily carried on. Most of the furniture of the Temple had been carried off by a succession of plunderers; if any of the less valuable and less easily removed articles had been left these had suffered an irremediable, defilement. Everything therefore had to be replaced; and workmen were now busily employed [256] in this work. The altar of incense, the candlestick with its seven branches, the table on which the loaves of the shew-bread were to be placed, the mercy-seat with the overshadowing cherubim that was the chief feature of the Holy of Holies, and the various curtains that were needed for the separation of the various parts of the building, were manufactured with all possible haste, some of the articles, from lack of time and materials, being intended to serve their purpose only till they could be more worthily replaced. Generally, however, it was time rather than means that was wanting, for in the late campaigns treasure almost enough to replace the spoliations of years had been taken from the Greeks, and this, after being duly purified and blessed, could be devoted to holy uses.

And so came on the day that had been appointed for the Feast of Dedication. It was to be the 25th of the month Chisleu. It was a memorable day, both for good and evil, in the annals of Jewish worship. On this day, ages before, Jerusalem, the newly-won capital of the nation, had been finally chosen as the place where God should set His name; for on this day David, as he made atonement in the day of pestilence, bought the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite to be the future dwelling-place of the Presence of the Lord God of Israel. And on this day, again, five years ago, the first [257] idol sacrifice had been offered within the consecrated precincts.

In the early morning, before the sun had risen upon the earth, a spark was obtained by striking stone against stone, the fire was rekindled on the altar, the golden candlestick was lighted and the table of the shew-bread duly furnished with its twelve loaves.

Meanwhile the rest of the people also had been busy in making preparations for the great celebration. Every family, even the poorest, was to keep festival on the day that was to be a new beginning of the national life. The women and children were early afoot, gathering branches of palms and other "goodly trees"; none of them having busier hands than Ruth and her nieces. Even the little Daniel would take his part in the work, tottering along by his mother's side with his arms full of boughs. When they had gathered as great a burden as they could carry, Ruth gathered her little company about her, and told them, just as the rising sun began to flood the valley with its slanting rays, the story of the day—of the glory and the shame which it had brought to Israel.

And, now, as the time of the morning sacrifice drew near, the whole people moved in one great stream towards the Temple, and the Great Court was crowded. On the walls of the fortress the heathen soldiers of the garrison stood in throngs watching the solemnities of the day. Some of them, [258] of course, were ready with their mockery; but most looked on in respectful silence. Many of them had witnessed the prowess of these strange fanatics in the field. They might be given over to a "senseless and tasteless superstition," but they could deal shrewd blows with their swords, and therefore they were not to be despised. No truce had been arranged, but one was tacitly observed. The forbearance of the Greeks was partly due to a wholesome awe of the Jewish archers and slingers, partly to a curiosity that, as has been said, was not wholly unmixed with respect.

Then came the solemn ritual of sacrifice. This ended, the whole congregation of the people united in solemn supplication to the Lord God of Israel. Usually it was the custom to stand during the office of prayer; sometimes the attitude of kneeling was used; now, as if to express the intensity of their feeling, they threw themselves flat upon their faces, and poured out their entreaty that evils such as they had endured in the past might never again come upon them in the future. "O Lord,"—this was the burden of their prayer,—"if we sin against Thee any more, do Thou chasten us Thyself with Thine own hand, after the multitude of Thy mercies. Make us suffer that which shall seem good to Thee here in our own land, but scatter us no more among the heathen, and deliver us not again unto the nations that blaspheme Thy holy name."

[259] The prayer ended, came the great Psalm of Thanksgiving; and then the people dispersed to their houses to hold festival. Their mirth was prolonged far into the night, which, indeed, was almost turned into day throughout the streets of Jerusalem, so brilliant was the light that streamed from the lamps set in almost every window.

For eight days the Feast of Dedication was continued. Each day the services began with the customary morning sacrifice. At earliest dawn the Master of the Temple summoned the priests who had been watching round the fire in the gate-house as they waited for his summons. Then they went out and fetched the lamb for the burnt-offering. The creature had already been examined on the previous day, and pronounced to be free from spot or blemish. This done, they went outside the court in which the great altar stood, and watched for the coming day. The Mount of Olives stood between them and the East, and far behind it were the mountains of Moab. Here the first streaks of the morning light were to show themselves. Then the priest whose turn it was to slay the victim of the day bathed in the great laver. Thus purified for the performance of his office, he stirred up the burning embers from under the ashes of the altar, and added fresh fuel. This done, he was joined by the other priests, and the morning sacrifice was offered. Then followed the special ceremonies of the festival, [260] among them the prayer for deliverance from captivity, as already given, and the singing of the great Thanksgiving. And every day the public services were followed by private rejoicings. No one could have believed that the rejoicing city, gay with its brightly dressed throngs of merry-makers and resounding with the music of tabret and harp, was the desolate place so long trodden down by the heathen. There had been days in the past when the most hopeful could scarcely discern any light in the darkness. But now they could see the "silver lining of the cloud." In this very Temple, now dedicated afresh with such joyous zeal, but a few years before, the priests "had left the sacrifices when the game of the Discus called them forth." That deadly folly had been purged with blood. The brutal violence of Antiochus had saved the nation from an imminent relapse into heathenism.

Among the many hearts that were gladdened by these rejoicings there was one, as sorely burdened as any, that had found a complete deliverance from the troubles of the past. The unhappy Huldah, in proportion as her charge gained strength, and her work became less absorbing, had seemed to be falling back into her old condition. For the time her thoughts had been concentrated on the suffering Eglah; now they were free to be turned upon herself, her own troubles, her own dismal memories. Eglah did all she could to keep her employed, and [261] the girl's gentle and affectionate nature still felt her influence. Yet it was evident that unless some remedy could be found the old madness would resume its sway.

On the first day of the Dedication festival, the two were standing together in the Court of the Women. The priests, who were making a circuit of the whole building, sprinkling everywhere the blood of purification, came in due course to the spot. As they performed their office a drop fell upon the garment of Huldah, who had been joining in the prayers with an earnestness almost frenzied. The effect was marvellous. In a moment the excitement passed away. Her eyes lost their wandering look, and, in a tone calmer and more collected than any that she had ever before been known to use since the time of her trouble, she said, showing the crimson spot to Eglah—"He has heard my prayer; He has sprinkled me with the blood of cleansing." She stood silent and collected until the whole ritual was finished, and when the time for the hymn of thanksgiving came round joined her voice with a quiet happiness to the voices of the congregation.

When the people returned to their homes Huldah left the Temple in company with Eglah. But it was evident that her strength was exhausted. She could barely totter along with all the help that Eglah and a neighbour could give her, and when she came to the house of Seraiah and Ruth, which happened [262] to lie in her way, she sank almost unconscious to the ground. Providentially at that moment Ruth came up with her husband and the little Daniel.

"She seemed so much better in the Temple—was quite calm and peaceful again—and now I am afraid that she is going to be very ill," said Eglah.

Woman's wit suggested to Ruth a happy thought for dealing with the sufferer.

"Leave her to me," she said. "She was happy here once, and here, if it please the Lord, she will be happy again."

Ruth and her husband carried her into the house, and laid her upon her bed in her old chamber. Once there she was able to swallow a little broth which had been hastily prepared, cast one grateful look of recognition at her old mistress, and then fell into a deep sleep. The next morning she awoke, entirely restored to reason, and, though still somewhat weak, able to go about the household tasks in which she had been once employed, and which she resumed at once without a question, and as if, indeed, they had never been interrupted for a day. The three years of misery were entirely blotted out of her memory; nor did any spectre from the past ever come back to trouble her.


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