Never was there a time when God left Himself without a witness; and in these darkest times of the Jewish history, He raised up a defender of His Name. There was a small town, named Modin, near the sea shore, whither a Greek officer called Apelles was sent to force the people into idolatry. He set up an altar to one of his gods, and having ordered all the inhabitants to assemble, insisted on their doing sacrifice. Among them came a family of priests, who, from their ancestor, Hasmon, were known as the Asmoneans. The father, Mattathias, declared with a loud voice that he would permit no such dishonour to his God, and the first Jew who approached to offer incense, was by him struck down and slain. Then with his five brave sons, and others emboldened by his example, he fell upon Apelles, drove him away, and pulled down the idolatrous altar. He then fled away to the hills, where so many people joined him, that he had a force sufficient to defend themselves from their enemies; and he went round Judea, circumcising the children, and rescuing the copies of the Law which the Greeks had seized from the synagogues. Some of these holy books, which had been defiled by paintings of the heathen idols, were destroyed, by order of Mattathias, after the writing had been carefully copied. It was at this time that the Jews began to read Lessons from the Prophets in the synagogue, because Antiochus had only forbidden reading the Law, without specifying the prophetic books. Mattathias, who was already an old man, soon fell sick; and gathering his sons about him, reminded them of the deeds that God had wrought by the holy men of old, and exhorting them to do boldly in defence of His Covenant. He appointed as their leader his third son, Judas, who for his warlike might was called Maccabaeus, or the Hammerer; and the second, Simon, surnamed Thassi, (one who increases,) was to be his chief adviser.
In the year 166, Judas Maccabaeus set up his standard, with the motto, "Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the gods?" the first letters of which words in Hebrew made his surname, Maccabee. He went through the land, enforcing the Law, and putting the cities in a state of defence. Antiochus, meantime, was holding a mad and hateful festival at Daphne; but on hearing of the revolt of the Jews, he went into a great rage, and sent a huge army to punish them. Maccabaeus defeated this force, drove it back to Antioch, and then marched to Jerusalem, and forced the Greek garrison to take refuge in a fortress called Akra, on Mount Zion. The courts of the Temple were overgrown with shrubs which stood like a forest, the priests' chambers had been pulled down, and the Sanctuary lay desolate. These brave men rent their clothes and wept at the sight; and then set at once to repair the holy place, their priest-leader choosing out the most spotless among them for the work. They pulled down the Altar that had been defiled, and setting aside its stones, built a new one, and out of the spoil that was in their hands, renewed the Candlestick, the shewbread table, and the Altar of incense; and then they newly dedicated the Temple, after three years of desolation. The anniversary was ever after kept with gladness, and was called the winter feast of dedication. Still Judas was not strong enough to take the castle on Mount Zion; but he built strong walls round the Temple, so that it too became a fortress, and he then went to Bethshan to defend the south border of Judea against the Edomites.
These tidings terribly enraged Antiochus, who was gone on an expedition to Persia, and he designed to form a league with his neighbours for the utter destruction of the Jews; but "he came to his end, and none could help him," for an overturn of his chariot so much increased an inward disease that had already begun, that he fell into most horrible tortures, and was in such a state of decay that scarcely anyone could bear to come near him. Horrible fears tormented him, and in his remorse he repented of all the evil he had done to the Jews, and sent them a letter assuring them of his favour; but it was now too late, and he died in great misery in 164. His son, Antiochus Eupator, was only nine years old, and his affairs were managed by a governor named Lysias, who continued the persecution, and led an army to the relief of the garrison in Mount Zion. Judas marched out to meet him, but was repulsed with the loss of six hundred men, and of his younger brother, Eleazar, who seeing an elephant of huge size, with a tower of unusual height on its back, thought the king himself must be there, and running beneath it, stabbed it so as to be crushed himself in its fall. Lysias then advanced upon Jerusalem, and laid close siege to it, placing the Jews in extreme peril. Just then another regent rose up against Lysias, and he made a hasty peace with Maccabaeus, and was admitted into the city; but when he saw its strength, he broke his promises, and overthrew the wall. On his return to Antioch, he punished the apostate high-priest, Menelaus, as the author of all these misfortunes, by smothering him in a tower filled with ashes. "Woe to the idol shepherd who had left his flock!" Another half heathen, named Alcimus, was appointed in his place, and when the Jews would not receive him, brought down their enemies upon them again. Judas gained a victory, and wrote to entreat the alliance and protection of the Romans; but ere the answer to his letter arrived, he had, with only 800 men, fallen on a whole army of the Syrians, and was killed in the battle, B.C.161. His brothers, Jonathan and Simon, took up his body, and buried it at Modin, in the tomb of their fathers; and they continued to lead the faithful Jews, while Alcimus held Jerusalem, and there began to alter the Temple, taking down the wall of separation between the courts of the Jews and that of the Gentiles; but in the midst of the work he was smitten with palsy, and died.
It was the plan of the Romans to take the part of a weak nation against a strong one, because it afforded them an excuse for conquering the mightier of the two, so they gave notice that the quarrels of the Jews were their own; and after much fighting, Jonathan obtained two years of peace, and became high-priest. Onias, the son of the good Onias, whom Jason had set aside, went to Egypt, and ministered in a temple built by the Jews, who had settled there.
Ever since the Syrian kings had begun to misuse the Jews, they had grown weak and miserable. Antiochus Eupator was dethroned and murdered by his cousin Demetrius; but shortly after, a man named Balas came forward, calling himself the son of Antiochus Epiphanes, and begging Jonathan to take his part, sending him a golden crown and purple robe, and naming him commander of the Jewish force. In a battle in the year 153, Demetrius was slain; and Balas became king. Both Balas and his son Antiochus treated Jonathan with great favour, and he fortified Jerusalem, got possession of many other towns, and considerably strengthened the rightful cause: but a wicked rebel named Trypho, who designed the murder of his young master, Antiochus, began his conspiracy by treacherously assassinating Jonathan in the land of Gilead, B.C.143, and soon after succeeded in killing the young king.
Simon Thassi was the only survivor of the brave Maccabaean brothers, but he finished their work, and obtained from Rome, Egypt, and Syria, an acknowledgment that the Jews were a free people, and that he was their prince and priest. He took the castle on Mount Zion from the Syrians, and so fortified the Temple, that it became like another citadel, and he was honoured by all his neighbours. He built a noble tomb for all his family at Modin, consisting of seven pyramids, in honour of his father and mother, and their five sons; all covered in by a portico, supported on seven pillars, the whole of white marble, and the pediment so high that it served for a mark for sailors at sea. He died, like his brave brethren, by a bloody death, being murdered at Jericho, B.C.135, by his own son-in-law, who hoped to usurp the government; but his eldest son, John Hyrcanus, was able to punish the murderer, and to obtain the full authority, by giving large presents both to the Romans and Syrians. It is said that he found, laid up in the sepulchre of David, 3000 talents of silver, which he used for this purpose. Hyrcanus was a very powerful and mighty prince, and not only reigned over all Judea, but conquered Edom, with all the curious dwellings in the rocky caves of Petra; he brought the country under subjection, circumcised the inhabitants, and brought them under the Mosaic Law. From that time Idumea decayed, and now has become an utter wilderness, the carved faces of the rocks still witnessing to the truth of prophecy, as they stand forth, lonely and deserted in their grandeur, though glowing freshly with the rosy marblings of the rocks of Seir.