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

[1 Mach. 1–10. 2 Mach. 8–15]

AT the time when Antiochus was thus cruelly persecuting the Jews, there was in Judæa a priest named Mathathias, who had five sons. This zealous priest, having learnt that Antiochus had profaned the Temple and nearly destroyed the worship of the true God, was filled with the deepest sorrow. He new that the wicked king would soon succeed in his impious designs, if the Jews did not offer a vigorous resistance.

He, therefore, called upon all who had any zeal for the laws of God to rise up with him, in defence of their sacred rights, then he and his sons fled to the mountains, where they were soon joined by the valiant men of Israel, and quickly formed a powerful army. They destroyed the altars of the false gods, bravely defended the law of the Lord, and compelled the apostate Jews to leave the country.

After the death of Mathathias, Judas, surnamed Machabeus, or the Hammerer, on account of his invincible courage and great valour, assumed the command of the Jewish army. In battle he showed himself brave as a lion—had several engagements with the Syrian generals, and recovered Jerusalem and the Temple. With a sorrowful heart he saw the Temple in its desecrated and desolate state, the altar profaned, and the grass growing in the deserted courts.

He then purified the Temple, celebrated his victory by a grand festival, and dedicated the altar anew, with the sound of harps, and lutes, and cymbals, and hymns of joy, in the sight of the wondering multitude.

Antiochus, hearing of the splendid victories of Judas Machabeus, was roused to fury, and, hastening to assume the command of his army, set out at once for Jerusalem. But driving at full speed in his war-chariot, he was thrown to the ground and grievously wounded. Soon worms came forth from the body of that impious king; the flesh rotted on his bones, and he became an object of horror and disgust, so that no one could approach him. He who so lately thought that the very stars of heaven should obey Him, was deserted even by his slaves.

Then, seeing the folly and wickedness of his pride, he began to humble himself before the Lord, promising to repair all the evil he had done and to proclaim throughout the whole earth that there was no god but the great God whom the Jews adored. But inasmuch as his repentance proceeded only from the fear of death and the dread of temporal punishment, it was of no avail before God. His sufferings continued unabated, and at last the wicked king, the blasphemer of God, the oppressor of His people, died in torment, the death of a reprobate, as the seven Machabean brothers had foretold him.

The son and successor of Antiochus sent his ablest generals with mighty armies to take Judæa and Jerusalem again. Judas Machabeus and his small army, seeing the hosts that were marching against them, had recourse to God in humble prayer. Then they took up their arms and advanced to meet the enemy, trusting in God alone.

In the midst of the combat five horsemen, in shining armour, were seen by the enemy in the air above, fighting for the Jews. Two of these heavenly warriors were with Judas Machabeus, as it were shielding him from danger, while the other three cast darts from on high against the Syrian host. Seeing this strange sight the enemy were seized with terror, and fled in confusion, leaving twenty thousand of their number dead on the field.

Thus favoured by divine assistance, Judas Machabeus defeated the Syrians in many other bloody engagements. But it happened in one of these that some of the Jews were slain, and on the following day, when Judas and his soldiers came to bury them, they found under their tunics certain heathen charms, or amulets, which it was not allowable even to touch.

It became manifest to all that it was because of the amulets that these men had been killed; and, praising the justice of God, they besought Him to pardon the sins of the unhappy dead. And Judas collected a sum of twelve thousand drachms of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to have sacrifices offered for his soldiers who had thus fallen in battle. “It is, therefore”, says the Scripture, “a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”

Before one of the many battles which Judas fought, he had a vision. He saw the deceased High Priest, Onias, holding up his hands, and praying for the Jewish people. After this another man appeared, surrounded with great glory. Onias said: “This is he that prayeth much for the people, and for all the holy city, Jeremias, the prophet of God.” Then Jeremias gave Judas a sword of gold, saying: “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, wherewith thou shalt overcome the adversaries of My people Israel.”

Judas, encouraged by these heavenly favours, gained many battles. At last it happened that he engaged the enemy with very unequal numbers. In this battle he was vanquished and slain. Then all the people mourned him for many days, saying: “How is the mighty man fallen that saved the people of Israel!”

The Justice of God is very clearly revealed in the account of the death of Antiochus. The wicked king had deliberately prepared tortures for the Jewish martyrs, and now he himself was slowly tortured to death. His body while still alive became corrupt, and he was unbearable both to himself and to those about him. In his arrogance he had despised God and forbidden His worship; now he had to bow down under the hand of the Almighty, and acknowledge that his terrible sufferings were but the just punishment of his pride and cruelty to God’s servants. He even prayed and made vows to God, knowing that it was only from Him that help could come; but his prayer was not heard, and he died a miserable death in unendurable agony. Contemplate the once proud king on his death-bed. His flatterers have forsaken him; his servants cannot endure to be near him. Day and night he is tormented; day and night he complains and laments—but there is no help for him! In the days of his health he had tormented many, and now he himself is tormented by bodily pain and remorse of conscience, “and indeed very justly, seeing he had tormented the bowels of others with many and new torments”. Let this story teach you to know and fear the justice of God. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebr. 10:31). Another instance of God’s justice is given in the death of the Jewish soldiers. Judas Machabeus was convinced that the reason of their death lay in their secreting the idolatrous amulets; for he believed that God, on account of their sin, had withdrawn His protection from them, and punished them by death.

Repentance must be supernatural. Why did not Antiochus obtain mercy? Because he was not truly penitent. It is true that he did repent of his offences against God’s people, but his repentance was natural, not supernatural, and sprang not from fear or love of God, but from horror of his temporal punishment (i. e. his fearful disease), and from terror of approaching death. He wished to be well again, and to live and reign longer; this was the only reason why he repented of his cruelty. Such is not supernatural repentance. It is true that he also made good resolutions, but these were of no value in the sight of God, for they were as little supernatural as his repentance. It is only supernatural repentance, and supernatural purpose of amendment which make a man truly penitent; and, not possessing these, Antiochus failed to obtain pardon, and died impenitent. As he lived, so he died. “The death of the wicked is very evil” (Ps. 33:22).

Death-bed conversions. For the same reasons that the conversion of Antiochus was not real or sincere, most death-bed conversions are very doubtful and untrustworthy, since, as a rule, they do not proceed from supernatural motives, but only from fear of death. Therefore, sinners should never put off repentance till they are near death; because, firstly, they might be called away suddenly without any preparatory illness; and, secondly, it is very difficult for a sinner to be sincerely converted on his death-bed after a long life spent in resisting grace, and heaping sin upon sin. “Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and defer it not from day to day. For His wrath shall come on a sudden, and in the time of vengeance He will destroy thee” (Ecclus. 5:7, 8).

The immortality of the soul. Judas and his companions believed that the souls of those who had died still lived, and therefore they prayed for them.

Purgatory. The Machabees and their followers believed that those who fell were not eternally lost in hell, seeing that they had fought and died for God’s honour. But, on the other hand, they did not believe that their fallen brethren were with the blessed in Limbo, for otherwise their sin-offerings for them would have had no meaning. No, they believed: a) that those who had been slain were in a middle state between that of the blessed and that of the damned; b) that they had to make satisfaction for venial sin; and c) that the survivors could help them by prayers and sacrifices, and thus make satisfaction for them to the divine justice, so that they might be delivered from their present state. Holy Scripture testifies that this belief is a correct one, since it praises Judas for offering up these prayers and sacrifices, saying explicitly: “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.” This completely corroborates the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and of prayers for the dead.

Prayers for the dead. It is a “holy” thought to pray for the dead, because it proceeds from a living faith and a sincere brotherly love. It is also a “wholesome” thought, for these prayers help the holy souls as well as ourselves. They procure for them admission to heaven, and they increase our merits and, moreover, bind the delivered souls, out of gratitude, to intercede for us before the throne of God. This leads us on to another Catholic doctrine, also confirmed by this story, namely:

The intercession of the Saints. In Judas’ vision not only did Onias pray for the Jews, but he said that Jeremias also prayed for them (“This is he that prayeth much for the people, and for all the holy city, Jeremias, the prophet of God”). The Saints, therefore, know about us and care for us, for our sufferings, struggles and necessities; and seek to help us by their intercession. Jeremias appeared as the special guardian and patron of Jerusalem. In the same way we believe that those Saints who have been chosen and devoutly venerated, as the special patrons of individual Christians, or of churches, villages, towns, parishes or estates, intercede especially for those who have been committed to their care.

The virtues of the Machabees. Mathathias and his sons fought a noble fight. They did not take up arms out of ambition or thirst for renown, but simply out of holy zeal for God’s honour, for liberty of conscience and the welfare of their country. They said: “It is better for us to die in battle, than to see the evils of our nation and of the holies.” They were ready to bleed and die for God and for their country. They carried on the war with heroic courage and endurance, and their heroism proceeded from their unshaken confidence in God. They fought not only for God, but with Him. They knew that they could not overcome without His help, so before the battle, and in the battle, they called on Him, and after it they humbly gave Him the glory, and thanked Him who had given them the victory.

The power of prayer. The wonderful assistance which was so repeatedly granted to Judas shows us the power of fervent and trustful prayer, and should encourage us to turn to God in all our necessities. Almighty God gave the victory to the faithful Jews, because “they fought with their hands, and prayed in their hearts.”

The soldiers of Christ. We all have a holy war to wage for God’s glory and the salvation of our souls, namely, the war against our own passions and inclinations, as also against temptations from without, from unbelieving and wicked men, and from the evil spirits. In this war our weapons are the sword of God’s word, the shield of faith, and the lance of prayer. Our companions in arms are our holy guardian angels, who invisibly help us during the strife in the same way that they visibly helped Judas. We are consecrated to, and strengthened for this war by the Sacrament of Confirmation.

APPLICATION. Of what kind is your repentance and your purpose of amendment? Have you always carried out your good resolutions? In order to have a hatred of sin you ought every evening to try to excite in yourself a feeling of contrition.

Do you properly venerate your guardian angel and your patron Saint? Have you read your Saint’s life? Do you commend yourself every day to his care, and try to imitate his virtues?

Do you pray diligently for the dead, especially for your relations and benefactors? Never neglect to do this, for it is a duty of love, and obtains merit for yourself. Especially remember the holy souls at Mass, after the Elevation. If even the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were only shadows and types, could help the dead, how much greater must be the help which is afforded to them by the Most Holy Sacrifice of the New Testament.

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