But troubled times came again to Jerusalem. The great empires of Babylon and Assyria had passed away for ever, exactly as the prophets of Israel had foretold; but new powers had arisen in the world, and the great nations fought together so constantly that all the smaller countries, and with them the Kingdom of Judah, changed hands very often.
At last Alexander the Great managed to make himself master of all the countries of the then-known world. Alexander was an even greater conqueror than Nebuchadnezzar had been. He did not treat the Jews unkindly; he neither interfered with their religion nor took treasure from their temple.
Yet while Alexander did God's people no outward injury, his influence and example led them astray.
For Alexander was a Greek, and the Greeks, although at this time the cleverest people in the whole world, were a heathen nation, and as such did many foolish and wicked things. Alexander himself offered sacrifice to Venus, Jupiter, and Bacchus (the pretended god of wine and strong drink), and to many other gods of man's invention.
Never again would God's chosen people willingly worship false gods; their troubles had cured them once for all of that sin.
But although they knew the Greek religion to be untrue, they began greatly to admire the Greeks themselves, and to take their opinion about many things.
'Who can build like these Greeks?' they will have said. 'Who can carve such beautiful statues, or paint such beautiful pictures? Every one knows that their poetry is the finest in the world, and that their books are the wisest and pleasantest to read; and then, how well they train their young people! The lads of Greece are the strongest wrestlers and the swiftest runners in the world!'
All this was quite true; but the Jews forgot that mere cleverness does not make a man or woman good, and that the fear of God is the beginning of all true wisdom. Many people forget this even to-day.
So the Jews began to give their children Greek names, and to send them to Greek schools, and, what was worse, they put Greek books into their hands instead of the Bible.
Slowly but surely this unholy 'leaven' entered the people's life, and influenced their thoughts. But, in spite of all, many Jewish men and women remained faithful to God; they kept His laws, and read in His Book daily, looking always for the coming Saviour, the Messiah, who would rule and redeem His people.
As the years passed the fashion for Greek ideas and ways grew stronger in Jerusalem, until at last even the High Priest himself began to encourage the people to neglect the services and sacrifices of the Temple, that they might go to heathen sports and games.
The Greeks were very fond of foot-races and wrestling-matches, and they held large athletic meetings two or three times a year; but no one who believed in God should have gone near those meetings, for the Grecian games were always held in honour of some heathen god or goddess.
[Illustration: FIG.1. -- COIN OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT, WITH PORTRAIT OF HIMSELF AND FIGURE OF JUPITER, THE FALSE GOD HE WORSHIPPED.
FIG.2. -- COIN OF ANTIOCHUS, THE WICKED KING. PORTRAIT OF HIMSELF, AND FIGURE OF VENUS, ONE OF THE FALSE GODS HE TRIED TO FORCE THE JEWS TO BELIEVE IN]
When Alexander died he left his vast empire to be divided among his generals, just as Napoleon did centuries later with his conquests. The descendant of one of these generals was named Antiochus, and he began to reign over Syria, which included the country of Judah, a hundred and seventy years before the birth of Christ. He was known as Antiochus IV, and was a selfish and cruel ruler.
Although indifferent to his own heathen religion, he set himself to destroy all other forms of faith. 'I am king; all my subjects shall think as I do,' he said. He was told that the Jews believed in only one God, but he cried with a scornful laugh, 'Yes, but I will soon alter that!'
Before this there had been trouble between Antiochus and the people of Jerusalem, and he thought to himself, 'I must break down their old ideas and force them to disobey the laws of Moses, as they call them; above all, I must utterly destroy their Book. The Book of their Law once gone, they will be easy enough to manage.'
So he sent one of his generals to Jerusalem, and bade him take an army of soldiers and 'speak peaceable words unto them; but all this was deceit.'
The orders of Antiochus were obeyed; the Jews suspected nothing, and the soldiers kept quiet until the Sabbath day.
But while the Jews were at prayer, and unable to defend themselves, the treacherous Greeks 'fell suddenly upon the city, and smote it very sore, and destroyed much people of Israel.' Then these wicked men built a strong castle on the hill of Zion, so overlooking the entrance to the Temple that no one could come in or go out without the knowledge and consent of the governor of the castle.
But this was only the beginning of sorrows. Soon the dreadful orders of the heathen king were cried through the streets of Jerusalem:
'It is the will of Antiochus the king that all the people throughout his whole empire shall worship the same gods as himself, and shall declare that his religion alone is true. Death to all those who disobey.'
The Jews looked at one another in utter dismay, for they knew well that Antiochus had power to keep his word.
'No more burnt offerings may be made to the God of the Jews in the Temple. I forbid the keeping of the Sabbath. The Jews' law declares the flesh of swine to be unclean. I command that on the altar of the Jewish God, in His Temple at Jerusalem, a sow be offered in honour of my god Jupiter. The Priests themselves shall be forced to eat of it.
'As for the Books of their Law, destroy them utterly; let not a word remain in the whole land. Publish this order against the Book; and if, after my will has been declared, any man is found to have a copy in his possession, let him be put to death.'
Horrible as it seems, all these wicked commands were carried out. A sow was slaughtered on the altar, and an image of Jupiter set up in God's Holy Temple. More cruel than all, the Book of the Law was torn and trodden underfoot.
Throughout Jerusalem and all the cities of Palestine bands of soldiers went everywhere searching for copies of the Scriptures. Torn to fragments, burnt with fire, often, alas! drenched with the life-blood of those who loved them, now, indeed, the Books of the Bible were in terrible danger, for the most powerful king of the fierce heathen world was fighting directly against them!
'O God, the heathen are come into Thine inheritance; Thy holy Temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps.... The blood of Thy servants have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them.' (Psalm lxxix.)
So the cry went up from those faithful hearts who still dared to serve the true God.
The altar -- the Temple itself -- was now defiled, made 'unclean'; the Book of the Law had been torn to fragments; but His people could still cry to the Lord, and He heard.
They did not obey the wicked heathen king; and the stories of their courage thrill our hearts as we read them, for they show us what those saints of old suffered rather than deny their God.
'They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy).' (Hebrews xi.37, 38.)
It was of these times especially that the writer of Hebrews was thinking when he penned those words.
Seven young men, the sons of one woman, were with their mother brought before the king's officer -- or, as some say, before the king himself -- for refusing to break the laws of God.
They were cruelly beaten, but one of them cried:
'What wouldst thou ask of us? We are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers!'
The torturers thereupon seized the brave fellow, and so cruelly tormented him that he died, his mother and brothers being forced to look on.
But though their faces grew pale as death, and they quivered with anguish to see their loved one suffer, they gazed steadfastly at each other.
'The Lord looketh upon us, the Lord God hath comfort in us,' they said.
Then the second son was taken, and before he died he cried with a loud voice, looking his heathen judge full in the face:
'Thou, like a fury, takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for His laws, unto life everlasting!'
But when it came to the turn of the youngest son even the heathen judge was anxious to spare him, and he promised the lad honour and great riches if he would but turn from his faith.
But the youth stepped out before them all, his boyish face as brave as a man's and his boyish voice as steady.
'Whom wait ye for?' he asked. 'I will obey the Commandments of the Law that was given unto our fathers by Moses; but thou shalt not escape the hands of God.
'We suffer for our sins, but our pain is short. See, I offer up my body and life for the Laws of my fathers, beseeching God to be merciful to my nation, and that thou at last mayest confess that He alone is God!'
Last of all, after her sons, the mother died as well.
[Illustration: THE JEWS OF ANTIOCHUS' TIMES COVERED THEIR HOUSES AND TOMBS WITH HEATHEN GREEK ORNAMENTS THAT THEY MIGHT BE 'IN THE FASHION.' HERE IS THE CORNICE OF ONE OF THEM, DECORATED IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY AS THE GREEK IDOL-TEMPLES]
But the saints of God did not die in vain; their victories over pain and death fired the hearts that had grown so cold, and awakened the careless into active life. Those who had forsaken the religion of their fathers returned by hundreds to God, confessing their sins, and pleading for pardon.
So the very fierceness of the trial proved a blessing, and the days of torture were followed by a revival of faith in God, and devotion to His service.
Now there was an old priest named Mattathias who, with his four sons, had never listened to the cunning temptations of the heathen Greeks. All his life he had served God with his whole heart, and had brought up his sons to follow in his steps. When Mattathias and his sons heard what was being done at Jerusalem, they clothed themselves in sackcloth and wept, praying, and fasting continually, beseeching God to forgive His people, and to put away their sins.
In a little while the king's officers came to the heathen altar at Modin, the town where the old priest lived.
'Sacrifice to Jupiter, our master's god!' they said. 'Sacrifice, as all Jews shall be forced to do, or die!'
But the old man looked the Greek straight in the face. 'Though all the nations in the world obey the king, yet will I and my sons walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake His Law.'
As he spoke a backsliding Jew stepped up to the altar to sacrifice. The old priest's eyes flashed fire, and in an instant he had struck him down, and the Greek officer with him.
Quivering with indignation Mattathias then turned to the startled people: 'Whosoever loves God, let him follow me!'
And he turned and fled swiftly through the streets of the city.
Many followed him at once. Others joined him later in the strong camp he formed in the mountains, until at last he was at the head of an army.
Wonderful it is to read how, little by little, this army of God's people drove the heathen from the cities of Judah; how they overturned the heathen altars, and cast down the images of the false gods; and how, at last, they came to Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and purified the golden altar from the stains of heathen sacrifices.
Then, tenderly and reverently, they gathered together all that was left of the copies of their Scriptures, weeping as they saw the poor fragments, blackened with fire, stained with blood, and scrawled all over with the horrible figures of heathen gods.
As to-day we read in the clean white pages of our Bible, let us remember this scene and of the time when those torn and blood-stained fragments were all that remained to the world.
But, thank God, when all the pieces had been collected together, there was plenty of material from which to make fresh copies; and no sooner had peace been restored to the city than the scribes set to work, with eager, loving care.
The Book had become doubly precious now! Its written words were indeed sacred, for the blood of martyrs had fallen upon them, and men and women, and little children, too, had chosen to die by hundreds rather than to deny them.
 With all his cleverness, Alexander, while still quite young, drank himself to death.
 In the days of Joshua, who bought the office of High Priest under the reign of Antiochus, so many priests took part in the games that the regularity of the Temple services suffered.
 From 'Maccabees,' an old Jewish history, which is sometimes bound up with our Bible.
 This is taken from 'Maccabees.'