God had given to His people a Book foretelling the coming of the Christ -- or Messiah, as the word is written in Hebrew -- so that they might be prepared and ready for His appearance. Yet when He came they did not receive Him. They were looking for an earthly king, and the beautiful words spoken by the ancient prophets had no meaning to them.
When Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, the Jews were under the iron rule of the Roman Empire, of which they formed a part, for although the Jewish family of the Herods reigned over Judea, they only held their throne under the Roman Emperor. This the Jews could not endure. They longed to be a free and independent nation once again.
'When our Messiah comes He will be a great warrior,' they said. 'He will utterly destroy all our enemies. He will make Jerusalem the greatest and richest city in the whole earth; all other nations will bow down before us, acknowledging that the Jews alone are the chosen people of God.'
Thus they were expecting a Messiah who would begin his work by killing all the Roman soldiers in Palestine.
Had Jesus of Nazareth been willing to become their earthly king and to lead the nation against the Romans, the Jews would probably have followed Him to a man. (John vi.15.) But He saw that, even from a human standpoint, the nation could not be helped in this way, and that the Jews would only rebel against the Romans to their destruction.
Instead of widening the breach between them and their conquerors, the Saviour sought to heal it. He called out the faith and gratitude of the Roman centurion, and His answer to the Jewish leaders, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's (Mark xii.17) showed them the right attitude in which to regard the Roman rule.
When, therefore, He was brought at last before Pilate, the Roman Government had no quarrel with Him. 'Thine own nation ... hath delivered Thee unto me,' said Pilate who would have released his prisoner, had not the Jews prevented it.
'If thou let this Man go, thou art not Caesar's friend,' they cried, thus compelling Pilate, at the risk of being reported as a traitor to his Emperor, to crucify Jesus of Nazareth, and to free Barabbas.
But in choosing the rebel, Barabbas (Mark xv.7) as their hero, the nation started on their downward road, as the story of the forty years which followed the Saviour's crucifixion clearly shows.
For the Jews were determined at all costs to throw off the Roman yoke, and the history of those years is one long list of terrible risings and massacres, while cities were ruined, villages wrapped in flames, and men, women and children perished with hunger.
Yet the keener the suffering, the more desperate the Jews became. Their whole souls were possessed with a wild and mad passion for revenge.
The Saviour had warned His hearers most earnestly against following false Christs. 'Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.' (Matthew xxiv.23.)
Yet no sooner did a daring rebel or murderer gather a band of robbers around him, and begin to kill and plunder, than multitudes of Jews cried, 'The Christ, or Messiah has come; now we shall have vengeance on our enemies!'
They were fighting against God now, and against the Book which He had given them. All peace-loving people who could possibly do so left the country.
[Illustration: THE PRECIOUS GOLDEN CANDLESTICK, FROM THE TEMPLE AT JERUSALEM, CARRIED BY THE ROMAN CONQUERORS THROUGH THE STREETS OF ROME -- FROM THE BROKEN ROMAN CARVING STILL TO BE SEEN IN ROME TO-DAY]
At last, in 66 A.D., all the Jews in Jerusalem rose in a body against their Roman governors. They surrounded the great tower of Antonia where the Roman soldiers were quartered, and cried out to the garrison within that their lives should be spared if they would lay down their weapons. The Roman soldiers hesitated, but the Jews promised most faithfully to keep their word.
The Romans believed them, and opened their gates; but no sooner were they in the power of the Jewish mob than they were fallen upon and murdered to the last man!
As they died the Roman soldiers, whom not even death could terrify, lifted up their hands to Heaven, as though calling upon God to witness that the Jews had broken their solemn oath.
The Roman Emperor could not overlook such rebellion and treachery, and he sent a great army against Jerusalem. The Jews shut the gates of their city, and so began the awful siege of Jerusalem.
'And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.' (Luke xxi.20.)
Forty years before, Jesus Christ Himself had spoken these words, and now there began for Jerusalem days filled with horror and woe, 'such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time.' (Mark xiii.19.)
The story of these days has been written for us by a wise Jew named Josephus. He was a prisoner in the Roman camp during the siege of Jerusalem, and he watched with dismay the great battering-rams and war engines crashing through the walls of the Holy City. His ears rang with the cries of rage and despair which broke from the Jews within, as one by one their defences fell, and the end drew near!
Then food failed in the city; men fought like demons in the streets for a tiny loaf of barley-bread; so frantic were the people with hunger that mothers even snatched the bread from their own children's mouths!
'Look over the walls, O people of Jerusalem; the Roman soldiers are crucifying all the prisoners they have taken, and the line of crosses is as long as our city is wide!'
Hard, merciless as was the Roman general, even he grew sick with horror at last, and he sent his Jewish prisoner, Josephus, to the Jews, promising them their lives if they would give up the city. But a furious madness had possessed the people, and they refused to yield.
Josephus pleaded in vain. He was not a Christian, but he could see plainly enough that God was no longer with His people.
'Ah, my countrymen,' he cried, 'we did nothing without God in the past, but now you are fighting against Him. Had God judged you worthy of freedom, He would have punished the Romans as He did the Assyrians long ago. God is fled out of your holy place, and stands on the side of those against whom you fight!'
It is strange and wonderful to read these words in the old history. Even a Jew who had no faith in Jesus Christ could see plainly that the ancient power and glory of his nation had gone.
At last the end came. The first wall fell, then the second and the third, until the Roman soldiers, now as mad as the Jews themselves, burst into the Holy City, hewing down the defenceless people at every step.
And so they came to the Temple -- that beautiful Temple of white marble and gold, which still glittered like a hill of snow in the morning sunshine, or sparkled as though wrapped in flame when the sunbeams struck full on its golden roof.
Then redder flames than ever the sunshine made leapt above the golden roof; pillars fell, beams crumbled to ashes, while round the altar of sacrifice the people of Jerusalem lay heaped together, slain in such numbers in the Holy Place that their blood flowed down the broad marble steps in a heavy crimson stream.
And the golden candlestick and the Book of the Law were carried away in triumph into heathen Rome.
Alas for the Holy City, over which the Saviour of the world had stood and wept forty years before, knowing the suffering that lay before her!
'These Jews are dangerous. We must not allow them to rebuild their city, or to become a separate people again. As a nation they must cease to exist.'
So the Roman conquerors of Jerusalem agreed; and from that day onward the Jewish people have had no country of their own. They have, indeed, been 'led away captive into all nations' (Luke xxi.24) exactly as the Lord foretold.
There is scarcely a country in the world where Jews may not be found, but Jerusalem lies still in the hands of strangers, and is the property of the Turkish nation.
The Jews were now no longer a nation. They had become merely a body of people led by their Rabbis, or teachers of the Law; but they were still 'the people of the Book,' for even after frequent rebellions had so angered the Romans that they passed a law forbidding a Jew to enter the partially re-built city of Jerusalem under pain of death, they allowed the Jewish teachers to continue the synagogue services in other parts of Palestine, and to teach in their colleges.
The most famous Jewish college of these days was at Tiberius, on the shores of the 'Sea of Galilee,' over whose clear depths the Lord Jesus Christ had sailed so often, and beside whose shores He had done so many wonderful deeds of love and mercy.
A great and beautiful college it was, with broad terraced gardens, where the students paced to and fro, their whole hearts and souls absorbed in their work. The Temple copy of the Book of the Law was now in the palace of the heathen Emperor in Rome, but many less precious copies were left to them. So all day long they studied and copied the old Hebrew Bible.
As we have seen, the Jewish scribes had not been content with taking the Word of God just as it stood; they had begun, even in our Lord's day, to invent explanations of many parts of the old Books which quite altered their true meaning.
After the fall of Jerusalem the learned Jews, shut away in their colleges and striving to forget their sorrows, began to write down the Scripture explanations, and to add to them so greatly that it became more difficult to recall the comments on the Bible than it was to remember the Bible itself.
[Illustration: MEDAL MADE BY TITUS, THE CONQUEROR OF JERUSALEM. THE WORDS, IVDAEA CAPTA, MEAN 'CAPTIVE JUDEA.' THE WOMAN WEEPING UNDER A PALM-TREE STANDS FOR THE CITY OF JERUSALEM]
These explanations, all collected together, are called 'The Talmud.' Now the learned Jews grew so fond of their Talmud, that they declared a man to be a blockhead if he knew only the Scriptures and not the Talmud explanation.
'The law of Moses is like salt, but the Talmud is balmy spice,' they would say.
Yet although they heeded so little the true meaning of God's Book, they guarded its words more and more carefully; and the rules for copying any portion of the holy Books were strict indeed.
'My son,' an old teacher would say to his pupil, 'before you copy a single word you must wash your body all over, and clothe yourself in full Jewish dress, preparing your mind with solemn thoughts. The parchment you write upon must be made from the skins of "clean" animals only -- that is clean according to the Law of Moses.
'The ink you write with must be of a pure black, made only from a mixture of soot, charcoal, and honey. Though you know the whole Book of the Law by heart, you must not write a single word from memory, but raise your eyes to your copy, and pronounce the word aloud before trusting it to your pen. Before writing any of the names of God you must wash your pen: before writing His most sacred Name you must wash your whole body. If, after your copy has itself been examined, three corrections have to be made, that copy must be destroyed.'
Not satisfied with all these directions, the master taught his scholar to count the letters of every Book.
One of the letters in Leviticus xi. is the middle letter of all the five Books of Moses, a word in chapter x. is the middle of all the words, and a verse in chapter viii. is the very centre of all the verses. The letter 'A' -- that is the Hebrew letter which stands for 'A' -- occurs 42,377 times; the letter 'B' 35,218, and so on.
Not only this, but every scribe was required to know from memory exactly how many letters of each kind there should be in his sheet before he began to write. Every sheet of parchment must contain an equal number of lines, and the breadth of each column had to be thirty letters wide.
There are eleven verses in the Book of the Law beginning and ending with 'N,' there are forty verses in which 'Lo' is read three times -- and so on, and so on.
How tedious and meaningless such information appears! Of what value were all these details?
To spend all his days in learning such things as these could have no influence on a man's character, nor make him a power for good in the world. Not for this purpose had God revealed His will to man.
Some years ago in the coffin of an Egyptian mummy, a little jar of wheat was found. For thousands of years it had lain there, shut up in the dark, while out in the fields the corn which had been sown had grown up and been reaped every year, and men and women had been fed. But this jar of corn was useless, because it had been prevented from doing the work in the world for which it was created.
Just so was it with the Hebrew copies of God's Word. Locked up in a dead language, kept close, away from the world, they were like the jar of wheat which could not grow.
But meanwhile God's Book was growing in the wide fields beyond. While the Jews were keeping safe the letters of the Old Testament, the New Testament was beginning to do its mighty work in the great heathen cities of the world.
 Josephus: 'Wars,' Books v. and vi.