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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Judith]

AFTER a brief season of repentance and of penance, the people of Juda again forgot the Lord. Then God, in His anger, sent them a new and terrible punishment, which would have ended in the total destruction of their nation, had it not been for the heroic courage of a certain holy woman. At that time Holofernes, general-in-chief of the Assyrian forces, came at the head of a mighty army to overthrow the kingdom of Juda, as he had overthrown many other kingdoms.

Having taken all the cities and strongholds of the country, and treated their inhabitants with savage cruelty, he came to lay siege to Bethulia (Fig. 53). He cut off the aqueducts which supplied the city with water, and thereby reduced the citizens to such an extremity that the elders resolved to give up the city in five days, unless they were relieved before that time. Meanwhile they prayed fervently to God, humbled themselves before Him, and strewed ashes on their heads.

 

Fig. 53. Bethulia (Sapur). (Phot. Bonfils.)

Now there was in the city a woman named Judith, of rare beauty and of great wealth, who, being a widow, lived retired in her own house, and spent her days in prayer and good works. Being touched with compassion for the sad condition of her people, she presented herself before the ancients of the city and said: “What is this word by which you have consented to give up the city within five days? You have set a time for the mercy of the Lord according to your pleasure. This is not a word that may draw down mercy, but rather indignation. Let us therefore be penitent for this same thing, and remember that all the Saints were tempted and remained faithful; but that those who rejected the trials of the Lord were destroyed. And let us believe that these scourges have happened for our amendment and not for our destruction.”

The ancients, inspired by these noble words, begged her to pray for the people. She consented, and retiring to her oratory, clothed herself in hair-cloth, put ashes on her head, and falling prostrate before the Lord, she besought Him to humble the enemies of her nation. While she thus prayed, Almighty God inspired her with the thought that she should go into the camp of the enemy and cut off the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Then, putting off the hair cloth, she immediately arrayed herself in her richest garments, perfumed herself with the best ointments, plaited her hair, and adorned herself with bracelets, earlets, and rings. And the Lord increased her beauty, because all her dressing up did not proceed from vanity. Then she took a servant-maid with her and set out for the camp of Holofernes.

Being brought before Holofernes, the tyrant was charmed with her majestic beauty, and supposing that she had fled from her own people, ordered her to receive every attention, and to be allowed to go and come as she pleased. On the fourth day Holofernes gave a grand banquet to the officers of his army. He and they overcharged themselves with wine, and when they lay down on their couches, they fell into a death-like sleep. Then Judith resolved to strike the decisive blow that was to save her country and her people.

She besought God, saying: “Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, and in this hour look upon the works of my hands, that I may bring to pass that which I have purposed, having a belief that it might be done by Thee.” Then she moved softly towards the tent of Holofernes. And taking his sword, which hung from a pillar near by, she drew it from its scabbard, raised it aloft, and, at the second stroke, cut off the head of the sleeping tyrant. She then gave the head to her maid, who waited without, and bade her put it into her wallet.

Departing from the camp, she returned with her servant to Bethulia, and having assembled the people, showed them the head of Holofernes, saying: “Praise ye the Lord our God, who hath killed the enemy of His people by my hand. His angel hath been my keeper and hath brought me back to you.” Then Ozias, the prince of the people of Israel, said to her: “Blessed art thou, O daughter of the Lord, the Most High God, above all the women upon the earth.” Then the people, praising God, rushed towards the camp of the Assyrians. The guards, terrified and confused, made a great noise at the door of their general’s tent in order to awaken him.

But finding their efforts useless they at length ventured to enter the tent, and seeing the headless body of their mighty general weltering in blood, they were seized with fear and fled in haste, crying out that Holofernes was slain. A great confusion ensued, and the people of Bethulia had only to complete the work commenced by Judith, and take possession of the Assyrian camp with its rich spoils.

Then the Jewish people, turning to Judith, sang with one accord: “Thou art the glory of Jerusalem; thou art the joy of Israel; thou art the honour of our people.” The rejoicings following on this splendid victory were kept up for three months. And udith became great throughout all Israel. She died at an advanced ige, and was mourned by all the people.

The Goodness of God to His people. The attack of the powerful Hololofernes reduced the kingdom of Juda to a state of the greatest danger. He had already taken several places, and if the strong fortress of Bethulia had fallen, the way to Jerusalem itself would have been open to him. The Temple would then have been destroyed, and the whole country conquered. Humanly speaking all this must have happened, for Bethulia was suffering from want of water and could not hold out beyond a few days. But once more God spared for a time the faithless kingdom of Juda; and brought to nought the plots of the wicked Holofernes, through the instrumentality of a weak woman. God put it into the heart of Judith to slay the enemy of her people, and enlightened and strengthened her to carry out her dangerous undertaking. He, moreover, produced such a panic in the Assyrian army and its leaders, after the death of their general, that they completely lost their heads, abandoned their camp in their confusion, and took to flight before a mere handful of Bethulians. In this instance, as in that of Goliath, God chose the weak things of the world to confound the strong (1 Cor. 1:27).

Resignation to God’s will. The people of Bethulia believed in the true God, and had not been led away to serve idols (Judith 8:18); still their faith was not sufficiently enlightened, and their wills not sufficiently resigned. They “tempted” God, or dictated to Him, by saying: “If Thou wilt help, help soon; if Thy help does not come in five days, we shall despair of Thine assistance and surrender.” Judith was right to blame them, for it is not for us, blind, wretched men, to dictate to the great God as to when and how He shall help us. Probably the Bethulians expected that by sending rain He would put an end to the want of water; but God had decided on saving them in another way, for His thoughts are not our thoughts. Let us beware of dictating to God as to what way He is to help us. We must leave the time and mode of help entirely to Him.

The virtues of Judith. She was a very virtuous and a very holy woman. Let us see what virtues she especially displayed in this story.

a) Piety. She prayed often and devoutly. By constant communion with God she learnt to know Him, and obtained great confidence in Him. It was in prayer that her great thoughts and resolutions came to her, as also the wisdom to carry them out.

b) Mortification and self-denial. Her husband left her great riches, many servants, and flocks and herds. But although she had such great possessions, and might have led a luxurious and brilliant life, she lived quite retired from the world, in a state of voluntary poverty and chastity, and practised severe penances, wearing hair-cloth, and fasting every day. “Blessed are the poor in spirit!” It was this life of mortification that made Judith a heroine.

c) Heroism, which enabled her to save her people. The more we deny ourselves and resist our natural desires, the more holy and strong will be our wills, and the less shall we shrink from any burden or danger which could advance God’s glory and the good of our neighbour. The High Priest was right when he said to Judith: “Thou hast done manfully, because thou hast loved chastity” (Judith 15:11).

d) Love of her country. Judith knew that the Temple and her country were in extreme danger, and it was to save them that she went unprotected into the enemy’s camp, and placed herself in what was, apparently, imminent danger of death. She was willing to sacrifice herself for them, out of love for God and His holy Law.

e) Her humility is especially worthy of admiration. She was proud neither of beauty nor riches, and was truly humble of heart. “Let us be penitent, and humble our souls before God”, said she to the elders. After her heroic action she gave all the glory to God. “Praise ye the Lord our God”, said she, “who hath killed the enemies of His people by my hand.”

Type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even as the chaste Judith cut off the head of Holofernes, thereby saving her people from captivity and slavery, so did Mary, the Immaculate Mother, through her Divine Son, trample on the head of the infernal Holofernes, and free all mankind from his power. Even as Judith was lauded as “blessed above all women on earth”, so did St. Elizabeth and the angel Gabriel both say to our Lady: “Blessed art thou among women.” Judith gave all the glory to God, as did Mary in the Magnificat (New Test. IV). Judith was devout: Mary is the vessel of singular devotion. Judith was a holy woman: Mary is the Virgin Most Holy, and the Mirror of justice in which all virtues are reflected. Judith was heroic: Mary was the most heroic of women, and the Queen of martyrs. Judith was the glory of Jerusalem: Mary is the Queen of all Saints, the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem, the joy of the elect, and the honour of the whole Church.

The invocation of the Saints. The people of Bethulia recommended themselves to the intercession of Judith, because she was a holy woman, and because on that account her prayers would have great power with God. It is for the same reason that we recommend ourselves to the intercession of the Saints.”

Belief in guardian angels. “God’s angel hath been my keeper”, said Judith; and her words show us that she believed that she had a guardian angel. The Catholic doctrine about guardian angels is thoroughly founded on Holy Scripture.

APPLICATION. Do you always give glory to God, or do you cherish vain thoughts, and boast of your own attainments? Are you fond of talking about yourself? Do you try to depreciate others in order to exalt yourself? Renounce pride! Be ashamed of your silly vanity and boasting! Each day direct all your intentions to the greater glory of God, for this is an excellent way to put down pride and to obtain merit in the sight of God.

V. EPOCH

THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY

(606–536 B. C.)








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