1. Antipater’s ‘Desire’ fulfilled.—In the seventy-eighth Psalm there is a sort of dramatic summary given of some of the early experiences of the Israelites. We are told the story of the sins and sorrows in the wilderness, of ‘the fire that was kindled against Jacob,’ and ‘the anger that came up against Israel.’ Presently we come upon the verse, ‘And He gave them their own desire.’ If we did not know the sequel, how gladly we should stop at this happy-sounding little verse, thinking, ‘Now surely their troubles are over; here is peace at last for those grumbling wayfarers, since God has granted them their own desires.’ But we do know. The whole story is before us, not spelled out bit by bit, as it was with them. And we know that the gift of their own desire was just the worst of all their troubles. The moral is easy to see, if a little difficult to apply. All of us, now and then, have greedy longings for ‘flesh in the wilderness.’ We cry for it, and pray for it, with eager angry passion. And sometimes we are given our ‘desire,’ and allowed to eat to the full of the unwholesome food we crave. It was so with Antipater. He had longed to found a royal house, and had schemed and sinned to that end. He was ‘granted his desire.’ His son Herod was now King of Judea, and of all the rightful family none were left but the old, deaf Hyrcanus and a young lad named Aristobulus, the brother of Herod’s wife Mariamne.
2. How Herod strengthened his Position.—This Aristobulus, the great-grandson of Alexander Jannæus, was of course the real heir to both crown and priesthood. The crown was out of the question, but Herod thought he might indulge his wife and please his mother-in-law, and perhaps conciliate the people, by letting this young Asmonean wear the high priest’s robes. So Aristobulus was installed in the office. He was handsome and brave, like all that race of heroes; and the people, who never quite forgot that Herod was an Idumean and a usurper, were more pleased at Aristobulus’s installation than the king had reckoned on or thought safe. Presently Aristobulus was drowned, accidentally it was said, but those who knew held the king accountable for the ‘accident,’ and called it murder. The widowed mother of Aristobulus, and his beautiful sister Mariamne, were miserably angry at his death—the sister, who was also a wife, perhaps too miserable to show her anger. But the mother’s suspicions of Herod were so strong, and her desire for revenge so great, that she sent secret appeals to Cleopatra to urge Mark Antony to interfere. The Roman woman felt for the Jewish woman through all the difference of their circumstances. Herod was forthwith summoned to Rome, and commanded to explain his conduct. He explained so well that Mark Antony not only did not doubt, but was delighted with him, and Herod came back to his capital, triumphant. Later on, when Antony was defeated at the battle of Actium (B.C. 31), and fled away with Cleopatra, Herod, in doubt as to what might turn out to be the policy of the conqueror, Octavius, thought it safest to let poor old mutilated Hyrcanus quietly disappear. It was given out that he died. Perhaps he did. If so, his death was singularly opportune, for it removed the last faint chance of Roman interference, or of a popular rally on behalf of the Asmoneans. Then Herod went to Rome, and had an interview with Octavius. His manners must have been better than his morals, for the great Roman was charmed with him. His friendship with the defeated Antony was forgiven him, and Octavius readily renewed and confirmed the valuable Judean alliance with Rome. Herod returned to Jerusalem, his position assured, and proud and pleased at the result of his diplomacy.
3. Herod as Husband.—Delighted with his success, Herod reached his palace, hoping to receive from his wife the sympathy which would be most welcome of all. He was disappointed. To further his ‘desire,’ Antipater had, as we know, married his son to the young Asmonean princess. It was a diplomatic marriage, which did not turn out a success. Mariamne, if she had any feeling for her race, could scarcely be expected to feel any love for the man who had planned and profited by its downfall. Herod, to do him justice, did love her in his way. But it was not a nice way. He was jealous and mistrustful. Both times, before he set out for Rome, he left secret orders that, if accident befell him, she was not to survive. The secret leaked out. Mariamne was no patient Hindoo wife to submit to involuntary suttee. She was a proud and passionate princess, and she did not care for her husband. She never wanted his love, and she was bitterly indignant at these crooked proofs of it. There were thus no bright congratulations to greet Herod on his return, but the coldest, angriest reproaches. And there was a mischief-maker at court, a certain Salome, a sister of Herod’s, to make matters worse between the royal couple. Salome hinted that the informer, who had told Mariamne of the secret compact, was a great admirer of the beautiful queen. It was altogether a most miserable home-coming, and Herod, between his love, and his suspicion, and his ambition, and his disappointment, was half mad. Perhaps wholly so, for the time, for in his fury he ordered the execution, first of the informer, and then of Mariamne herself. At this point in his career one pities Herod. His remorse was deep, and more lasting than his rage.
4. Herod as Father.—In this relation, too, he failed. ‘On the whole, I had sooner be Herod’s swine than Herod’s son,’ said the Roman Emperor Augustus, and Augustus was Herod’s friend! Poor Mariamne had quite a little regiment of successors, none of them loved so deeply, and none treated quite so brutally as she had been; but these eight, some say ten, successors gave rise between them to endless quarrels and conspiracies in the palace. Herod feared, or was led to fear by one or other of the later wives, that two boys of his, who had called Mariamne mother, would one day avenge her death. So these two sons were executed. Another son, Antipater, was more than once in danger from this extraordinary father’s suspicions, and in the end, and only five days before his own death, Herod had him also killed.
5. Herod as King.—Disappointed in gaining the affections of his family, Herod was equally unsuccessful in attaching his subjects to him. He made great efforts. He restored the temple at immense cost; he built a great palace for himself to give work to the unemployed; and when a time of pestilence and famine afforded him his chance, he was really helpful and generous to the sufferers. But it was all in vain. He gained at best but a sullen submission. For one thing, he never understood the people. Even when well-intentioned, he made mistakes and jarred on them. He introduced into Jerusalem the Roman fashion of public games and fights with wild beasts. He did it to amuse and please his subjects, but it was a dire offence to Jewish feelings. And his home life was a standing scandal to all the good Jewish husbands and wives who lived happily and respectably with their children. Altogether his kindnesses were distrusted and his motives suspected, and his pleasant relations with Rome were regarded as so many concessions to heathenism. Herod boasted, and not untruly, that Jews in all parts of the great Roman Empire were protected because of him and through his influence. The favour in which the Roman Emperor held him was, in truth, useful to the Jews. But nevertheless, in all his thirty-three years of kinghood, Herod never won one bit of loyal love from any one Jew who was near enough to him to know him.
6. The End of Herod’s Reign.—He died at last, four years B.C. The long unlovely reign of the Idumean usurper was over. ‘He was not estranged from his desire; and while the meat was yet in his mouth the wrath of God overtook him.’ So miserably conscious was the bad, unhappy king of the rejoicing which his death would cause, that he actually left orders for wholesale executions to take place on the day of his funeral. He longed, with an intensity that is somehow pathetic, in spite of the grotesque wicked form it took, that some sound of mourning should be heard in the city. But his unrighteous will, which in life had been fulfilled from fear, in death was disregarded. He lived, and men and women wept; he died, and they smiled on one another.
7. Hillel: a Contrast.—There is never a cloud without a silver lining. Whilst Herod the Idumean raged in the palace, Hillel, ‘the greatest of the Rabbis,’ taught in the schools. Hillel was president of the Sanhedrin from 31 B.C. till the year 9 of the common era. He was one of the first, and certainly the most famous, of the presidents to whom the title of Nasi3 came to be given. Hillel was born in Babylon, but when quite young he went to Jerusalem, which was a sort of university for students. He was very poor, and had some difficulty once in getting admittance to a certain school. It is said that, one winter’s morning, he climbed up on the window-sill of the class-room, and there listened as well as he could till the cold and the cramp made him drowsy. The lesson went on, and the master fancied that the room was darker than even the thick-falling snow would account for. He went to the window, and there was poor Hillel curled up fast asleep and more than half frozen. When Hillel grew up and became teacher instead of student, pupils in his school met with no such adventures. He was always ready to listen and to help, and as painstaking and sweet-tempered as he was wise. ‘As patient as Hillel,’ and ‘as modest as Hillel,’ came to be used as proverbial standards. One day there came a knock at his school door. A heathen lad stood there, laughing and defiant. ‘Teach me the law,’ he cried, ‘in the time in which I can stand on one leg.’ He meant to mock at the Rabbis and at the Law they taught, and he had already been driven away from the door of Shammai, another famous Rabbi. Shammai took impertinence as a personal affront. Hillel looked on it rather as a sign of disease or deficiency. ‘A sensible and well-bred man will not offend me, and no other can.’ That was the spirit in which Hillel received the rude jester. ‘Certainly,’ we may imagine him saying to the lad in his dignified way, ‘it is rather a short time for a lesson, and, possibly, standing before me in the usual attitude would be more comfortable for you. But I can teach you what you want to know whilst you stand on one leg. “Do not unto another what you would not that another should do unto you. That is the whole of the law; the rest is commentary.”’ Often Hillel would robe his wisdom in wit, as is somewhat a Jewish trait. ‘I must hurry home to a guest I have been rather neglecting of late,’ he said one day as he finished his lecture at the school, ‘a guest who is here to-day and gone to-morrow.’ Some of his disciples wondered, but some were quick enough to divine their master’s meaning. Hillel meant his soul, the guest who has his ‘lordly dwelling-place’ in the body, but often has very little given beyond the lodging.
A great many of Hillel’s sayings have been preserved. Here are two helps against conceit and hasty judgment. ‘Do not believe in thyself till the day of thy death.’ ‘Do not judge thy neighbour until thou hast stood in his place.’ And Hillel had another charm which, perhaps, is not quite so universal as wit and wisdom amongst scholars. He was very particular as to personal appearance. ‘They wash the statues,’ he used to say, ‘and cleanse and beautify the temple. How much more attention ought we to give to the temple of the soul!’ His work, too, was as good as his talk. He plodded away at the traditional store-heap, and made some order and system out of the chaos. He set to work on the numerous injunctions, and made a beginning at their collection. He laid down certain rules—seven in number—for the interpretation of the Law. His labours were of great use to other workers in the same field, later on. His own life, however, was the very best of all his lessons.