At last the full punishment for their many sins fell upon God's chosen people.
The words of warning written in the fifth book of Moses had told them plainly that if they turned aside and worshipped the wicked idol-gods of Canaan, the Lord would take their country from them and drive them out into strange lands.
Yet again and again they had yielded to temptation. And now the day of reckoning had come.
Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, sent his armies into the Holy Land. No nation at this time could resist Nebuchadnezzar; even the fierce Assyrians had to bow before him, for he was one of the most powerful kings the world has ever seen.
Yet even Nebuchadnezzar was but an instrument in the hands of God, as Daniel recognized when he said: 'Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of Heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.' (Daniel ii.37.)
This thought had been Daniel's comfort and stay, though he had been carried into the great heathen land far from Jerusalem, his beloved and holy city. But to those Jews who had no trust in God to uphold them, the sorrow was almost greater than they could bear.
For Nebuchadnezzar broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and led many thousands of her people away to be his slaves in Babylon.
'We have taken their treasure of gold and silver; we have laid their city wall in ruins; their Temple is bare and deserted; their gardens of lilies and spices are choked with weeds; their fields are unsown; their vineyards untended; the best men and women of the land are serving us in Babylon. Now, at last, there is an end of this proud Jewish nation, for all that they most valued is in our hands.'
So said the heathen Babylonians, mocking the poor captives. How little they dreamt that the Jews' most precious possession was with them still!
More valued than jewels or gold, sweeter than the milk and honey of their own land, was the Book of the Law -- the Book which told them all they knew of God.
Indeed, not until the people were forced to live in a heathen city did they really learn to understand how great a treasure their nation possessed in the written words of God.
But in Babylon, with its huge heathen temples blazing with jewels and gold, its scores of cunning idol-priests, who deceived the people by pretending to tell fortunes and make charms, and its countless images, here, at last, God's chosen people began to see the greatness of the gift with which the Lord had blessed them, when He gave them the words which have now become the first books of our Bible.
Nebuchadnezzar might break down the wall of their city, he could not break down the spiritual wall which God Himself had built round His people. Scattered through many lands, forced to serve heathen masters as they were, the Book of God's Law was a living gift which bound the Jewish people together.
As we have seen, the Psalms were written by different writers, and one of the later Psalms, the 137th, gives us a vivid picture of those sad days: 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.' (Verse 1.)
Babylon was famous for its great rivers; and the poor captives watched the flowing water, and the great wind-swept beds of reeds and giant rushes. 'We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.' (Verse 2.)
[Illustration: 'LED AWAY CAPTIVE.' -- ASSYRIAN PICTURE OF THE INHABITANTS FROM A CONQUERED CITY BEING LED AWAY INTO SLAVERY]
But their Babylonian masters had heard of the sweet psalms of the Lord's people. 'Sing to us,' they said; 'sing us a merry song. Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' (Verse 3.)
'Sing to these cruel heathen who have wasted our country, and carried us away into slavery! Sing one of the holy songs of Israel, the songs which King David wrote, that they may laugh and mock at us! How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' (Verse 4.)
No, they could not sing; their hearts were breaking with grief. Never, never could they forget the Holy City. Ruined, desolate as it lay, Jerusalem was still to them the place most loved in all the world.
And yet, even in far-off heathen Babylon the Lord called men to add to His Book.
The Book of Daniel has troubled many people greatly. It was not history at all, some critics said, but a mere collection of myths and legends. But year by year, as fresh discoveries are made, we see ever more clearly that it would have been better to trust the old Bible words after all.
'There never was a ruler over Babylon named Belshazzar' so these people said; 'the last Babylonian king was Nabonides.' A few years ago, however, Belshazzar's name was found on an old cuneiform tablet. Nabonides had been crowned king, but he seldom took any part in the affairs of the empire. All that he left to his eldest son, Belshazzar, who seems to have acted as king in his father's stead.
Almost daily further discoveries are being made, all proving the accuracy of Daniel's writings. What is probably the floor of the very dining-hall in which the hand-writing appeared has recently been uncovered.
Cyrus, of whom Ezra speaks in the first chapter of his book, was a very different king from Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar loved to pull down and destroy nations; but the great wish of Cyrus was to build up and restore. The cuneiform writings of the old Babylonian and Assyrian kings consist mostly of long lists of the nations they led away into slavery and the towns they burnt with fire; but the inscriptions made by Cyrus, the Persian king, speak of the people he sent back to their homes. 'All their people I collected, and restored their habitations.' And among these people, as the Bible tells us, were the Jews of Jerusalem.
Many and great were the difficulties before them; but led, during the reign of Artaxerxes, by Ezra and Nehemiah, they faced their troubles bravely, until at last the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt, and the city restored to something of its old beauty.
What a time of joy and triumph! Hardly could the Jews believe that they were in their own dear city once again. Psalm cxxvi. describes this wonderful day.
'When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them.' (Verses 1, 2.)
'We have sinned against the Lord, we have been untrue to our promises; but never again will we neglect His Book, nor forget His Law.'
'And all the people gathered themselves together as one man...; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.' (Nehemiah viii.1.)
A solemn day that was, as we read in the Book of Nehemiah, a day of real returning to the Lord. Picture them standing there, those men and women and little children of Jerusalem; their faces would be worn with toil and hardship.
On a raised platform of wood stood Ezra ready with the rolls of the Books of the Law, and beside him were the interpreters.
For the people had been so long in a strange land that scarcely any of them could speak Hebrew; that is, the old Hebrew language in which King David wrote. If the Law of God was to be impressed afresh on the nation's heart that day, the scribes, the writers and the teachers must translate it into the language of their heathen conquerors.
'So they read in the Book of the Law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.' (Nehemiah viii.8.)
Since those days of Ezra, the Bible has been translated into nearly every known language. It is most interesting, therefore, to read in the Bible itself about what was most likely the very first translation of all -- and this not a written translation, remember.
Now when the people heard the words of God's Book they were very sad; for now at last they understood how deeply they had sinned against Him.
They had been proud of their Bible, and had rightly felt it to be a great treasure; but now they saw that the words of the Bible must be shown forth in the lives of those who believe. To honour God's Book is not enough; we must obey it.
The Jewish people did not again learn to speak the old language of their nation. Yet all the copies of the Books of the Law, and the Books of the Prophets, the Psalms, and those writings which tell of the history of the Lord's people -- that is, the whole of the Old Testament -- were still written in the ancient tongue.
So it came to pass, after a while, that the Bible could only be read by the learned people; for the words in which the Law of God was given had become a 'dead language' -- that is, a language that had ceased to be used in daily life at all.
Before the death of Ezra and Nehemiah, or else very soon after, the scribes of Jerusalem -- that is, the writers and teachers -- began to devote themselves almost entirely to the studying and copying of the Bible.
A young lad of those days who became a pupil in the School of the Scribes at Jerusalem would have to begin by learning the Old Testament almost by heart. To read an old Hebrew writing correctly was almost impossible, unless you had heard it read two or three times, and knew pretty well what was coming. For the ancient Hebrew alphabet consisted entirely of consonants; there were actually no vowels!
The little dots you see in the specimen of Hebrew given on this page are called 'vowel-points,' and are a guide to the sound of the word; but in the old, old days of which we are speaking, these dots had not been invented. The reader had nothing but consonants before him, and was obliged to guess the rest.
Just think of it! Suppose we followed this rule in English, and you came to the word, 'TP,' you would be puzzled indeed to know whether tap, tip, or top was meant!
But the Jewish scribes had wonderful memories. A teacher would read a long passage from the Psalms to his pupil, and very soon the lad would be able to repeat the whole correctly, the consonant words just refreshing his memory.
[Illustration: THE FIRST LINE OF THE BIBLE IN HEBREW]
This would not always be as difficult as you might suppose. For instance, you can read this easily enough:
'TH LRD S M SHPHRD SHLL NT WNT.'
Indeed, to this day the Hebrew of the sacred Books in the Jewish Synagogues is all written without vowel-points.
At this time it was that the Jews became really the 'People of the Book,' and that a special society was formed to guard and copy the Bible.
How wonderfully this work was done! Never have the words of any other book been so lovingly cared for.
We have called the Bible the oldest Book in the world; we have seen that it tells about nations and people who were almost forgotten before the days of Abraham. It seems strange, therefore, that the most ancient copy of the Old Testament Scriptures, written in Hebrew and in the possession of the Jews to-day, carries us back only to the time of our Saxon kings.
This is because the Jews' custom is reverently to destroy every copy of the Books of the Old Testament -- that is, of their Bible -- as soon as it becomes worn with use, or blurred with the kisses of its readers.
'This is a living Book,' they say; 'it should look new. God's Word can never grow old.'
So, year by year, they make new copies directly the old are worn out, and this they have done for long ages. And so careful have they been in making the copies, that although all was written by hand, there has practically been no alteration in the words for more than two thousand years. God had indeed well chosen the guardians of His Book.
Let us try to picture to ourselves a young scribe of those old, old days, with his dark hair and big, serious eyes, and dressed in his white robe.
He has been very patient and industrious for many months past, working early and late; now, at last, he is to be allowed to copy one of the sacred books.
'My son,' his old teacher has said, 'take heed how thou doest thy work; drop not nor add one letter, lest thou becomest the destruction of the world.'
'Oh, may the Lord keep my attention fixed, may He hold my hand that it shake not!'
So, with a prayer on his lips, the young scribe begins his work.
And it is through such patient, careful work as his that the older part of our Bible has come down to us from the half-forgotten ages of the past.
 Cyrus became King of Persia 546 B.C., conquered Babylon 538, died 528 B.C.
 Cuneiform writing made by order of Cyrus.
 The Codex Babylonicus, the earliest known Jewish manuscript, dates from the year A.D.916.