Babylon, the city which was to be the place of captivity of the Jews, was the home of the Chaldeans, who are believed not to have been the sons of Gush, like the Assyrians whom they had conquered at Nineveh, but to have been at first a wandering tribe of the north, and to have descended from Japhet. They had nearly the same gods as the Ninevites, but thought the special protector of their city was Bel-Merodach, the name by which they called the planet Jupiter. They were such great observers of the courses of the stars, that astronomy is said to have begun with them; but this was chiefly because they fancied that the heavenly bodies would help them to foretel coming events, for they put great faith in soothsayers. They settled upon the bank of the Euphrates, near the ruins of the Tower of Babel, round which a city arose, sometimes free, sometimes under the power of the King of Nineveh.
In the time of the weak and luxurious Saracus, Nabopolassar was governor of Babylon. He joined himself to the Medea, giving his son, Nebuchadnezzar, in marriage to the Median Princess Amytis; and as has already been said, the two nations together destroyed Nineveh, after which, Babylon became the head of the Assyrian Empire, and Nebuchadnezzar was the king.
He made the city exceedingly grand and beautiful. It was fifty five miles in circuit, square, surrounded by a wall eighty-seven feet thick, and three hundred and fifty high, with houses and a street on the top, and an enormous ditch filled with water all round, another lesser wall some way within. There were one hundred brazen gates in the wall, besides two larger gateways upon the Euphrates, which ran through the middle, dividing the city into two parts. It was full of streets and houses, with such fields and vineyards, that it was like a whole country walled in; and the soil was exceedingly rich, being all brought down from the Armenian hills by the Euphrates. As this river rose in the mountains of Armenia, it used to overflow in the spring, when the snows melted and swelled the stream; but to prevent mischief, the country was covered with a network of canals, to draw off the water in safety. The pride of the city was the Temple of Bel, which is thought to have been built on a fragment of the Tower of Babel. It was a pile of enormous height, with seven stages in honour of the seven planets then known, and with a winding ascent leading from one to the other. On the top was the shrine, where stood Bel's golden image, twelve cubits high, and before it a golden table where meats and wine were served up to him. On either side of the river were two palaces, joined together by a bridge, and the nearer one, four miles round, with wonderful grounds, containing what were called the hanging gardens, namely, a hill which Nebuchadnezzar had caused to be raised by heaping up earth, and planted with trees, to please his Median queen, whose eye pined for her native mountains in the flats of Babylon.
There must have been other eyes at Babylon wearying for their own free heights, for there the captives of Judah bore the punishment of their fathers' sins and their own, and repented so completely, that they never returned to their idolatry. When in 606, Nebuchadnezzar carried to Babylon Jehoiachin and the nobles of Judah, he commanded that some of the royal children should be brought up as slaves to serve in his palace, and gave them new names after his gods. Daniel, Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, gave their first proof of their obedience to the Law of their God in their exile and slavery, by denying themselves the choice meats set before them, lest they should eat of some forbidden thing, and living only on dry beans and water. So blessed was their abstinence, that they excelled all the other youths both in beauty and in wisdom, and were soon promoted above them. Soon after, Daniel was shown to be a prophet, for God inspired him, not merely with the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar's perplexing dream, but revealed to him the dream itself, which the king had forgotten. That dream was the emblematic history of the world. It was an image with a head of gold, shoulders of silver, thighs of brass, legs of iron, feet partly of iron, partly of clay, all overthrown together by a stone cut out without hands from a mountain. Great Babylon was the head, soon to give way to the less splendid Persian power, then again to the Greek dominion, and lastly to the iron rule of Rome, which would grow weak and mixed with miry clay, till at last all would be overthrown and subdued by the Stone which the builders rejected.
After this wonderful interpretation, Daniel became a chief ruler under Nebuchadnezzar, and even in his youth, his name was a very proverb for wisdom and holiness. He judged among the Jews, and confuted the two wicked elders who sought to bring about the death of Susanna; and he probably stood too high to be accused, when, soon after the taking of Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar threw the three other princes into the fiery furnace, for refusing to bow down to the golden image on the plains of Dura. Then the fiery blast was to them as a moist whistling wind, and even the tyrant beheld the Form like the Son of God, walking with them in the midst of the flame, while they sung that hymn which calls every created thing to praise the Lord. The miracle seems not to have been witnessed by a heart hardened against belief Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed the glory of the God who could work such miracles, and whose instrument of vengeance he himself was. Edom was soon after conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, thus fulfilling many prophecies.
Another great work which was set for him to do, was to give the first great overthrow to the Phoenicians, and fulfil the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel, by destroying Tyre. The siege lasted thirteen years, and the besiegers suffered as much as the besieged, till, as Ezekiel had foretold, every head was bald, every shoulder peeled with the burdens that were carried; but at last it was taken in the year 573, and so utterly destroyed, that not a trace was left of it. It had been said by Isaiah, that after seventy years Tyre should take her harp and sing again, and return for a time to her former splendour and corruption; and thus it happened, for a new Tyre arose upon a little island at some little distance from the shore.
Ezekiel had promised the Chaldeans that the toils of Tyre should be repaid by the spoil of Egypt, the land that was henceforth to be a slave for ever; and in 574, Nebuchadnezzar marched thither, and conquered it with the utmost ease, there being at that time a quarrel among the Egyptians, which weakened their hands; Hophra, the last of the Pharaohs, was slain by a rebel, and Egypt has never more been free, or under native rulers. The Ammonites too, were put down for ever by Nebuchadnezzar, and he came home puffed up with the pride of conquest. Then came another warning dream, of a tree, great and spreading, the rest and stay of bird and beast, till a watcher and a holy one came down and bade that it should be cut down, and only a stump to be left, to be wet with the dew of Heaven until it should recover. It was no wonder that Daniel was astonished for one hour ere he explained the vision, which bore that the great conqueror should lose his reason, be chased from the haunts of men, and live like the beasts, with hair like eagle's feathers, and nails like eagle's claws. Nebuchadnezzar does not seem to have punished him for thus revealing the will of God; and time went on, while the city grew more magnificent under the builder's hand, till at last, in the pride of his heart, the king made his boast, "Is not this great Babylon that I have builded, for the house of the kingdom, and for the honour of my majesty?"
That moment, the watcher cried from Heaven, and sense and strength fled from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from men, and lived seven years among the beasts of the field, till for one year, reason was mercifully restored to him, and he made the best use of it in publishing to all the world the story of his pride and of his fall, and with all his heart honouring the King of Heaven, whose works are truth, and His ways are judgment.
This humbled conqueror died in 563, and was succeeded by his son, Evil-Merodach, who released the captive Jehoiachin, and made him eat at his own table until his death. Two more kings succeeded, each reigning but a few years, and then came Belshazzar, in the first year of whose reign Daniel had a vision, where the like events as were shown by the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, were foreshadowed under the form of animals, typifying the several empires. Four beasts came from the sea: the lion with eagle's wings was his own Assyria, but was set aside by the devouring bear of Persia; then followed the flying four-headed leopard of Greece; and lastly, the dreadful and terrible destroying creature, meaning Rome, which ground with iron teeth, and brake all in pieces. It had ten horns, which are believed to mean the kingdoms into which Rome was divided in later times, and one which destroyed some of the others, and became blasphemous, till all was lost in an awful manifestation of the Ancient of Days coming to judgment. This little horn is thought to mean the spirit of Antichrist, and the great falling away which is to prevail in the latter days, but the end is not yet.
A second vision was sent two years after, likewise of emblematic beasts, and was likewise explained by an angel. A ram, pushing west, north, and southwards, was Persia, whose victory was already nigh, even at the door; but in his full power came from the west the Grecian he-goat, who overthrew the ram, and stamped on him, and waxed great; but then his one great horn was broken, and four others rose up, four lesser kings instead of one great conqueror; and one of these produced a lesser horn, which wrought woe and ruin to the pleasant land. This horn was not meant, like the first, to typify the sinful one of the latter Christian days, but a terrible foe, who was to try the faith of the Jews; and all these visions seem to have been intended to show, that though prophecy, and God's visible dealings with His people, were so nearly over, yet all kingdoms and empires are His, and are founded, flourish, and decay at His will.