Jeremiah: He Who Wept–Chapter 13

NEWS OF JEREMIAH’S dire speech to the village elders ran on a hundred tongues through Anathoth.

When he had gained the will to stand, Hilkiah left the mulberry tree and trudged home. There he closed himself in his room, winding himself tightly around the shame inflicted upon him by his son in front of his peers. Every whisper of the wind, every creak of the tree branches sounded to his ears like accusing voices. “There is old Hilkiah,” they said, “the priest who raised a wicked son with a tongue like a jailer’s scourge. He lacks even the respect due a father from his son.”

The old priest began to decay from inside. He wanted to die for disgrace.

Libnah, for her part, felt torn between the opposing camps within her breast. She was wounded by the pain of her husband; Hilkiah was a good man who had always done his best. He did not deserve such dishonor in the days of his old age.

And yet—with a mother’s certainty she knew Jeremiah would not say such terrible things solely for effect. His feelings always lay too close to the surface to let him gratuitously tread upon anyone, much less his own father. She felt anger at her husband’s plight, but also fear that her son’s oracle was true.

That night’s dinner gathering was a desert of resentment, a sterile plain of closed glances and words left unspoken. Hilkiah concluded the benediction in a voice devoid of inflection or vitality. And so supper began: his family shared a room, yet was divided by barriers harder than stone, higher than the walls of Jerusalem.

Of all those gathered around the cheerless board, only Lemuel felt anything other than confused anger or distress. It was about time, he thought. About time that everyone else saw what a foolish, selfish, muddle-headed dreamer Jeremiah was. Lemuel’s face wore a sardonic smirk as he saw with satisfaction the mess Jeremiah had managed to make of things.Image

Yes, it was about time.

He glanced at his wife. Hannah’s face was indrawn. She wished deeply to retire from this field of battling wills, but could not decently do so.

She raised her eyes to look directly at Jeremiah, who brooded in his place, unaware. He appeared to be studying the table before him with great concentration.

In her puzzled sorrow, she lost her customary caution, forgetting to hide past and present feelings beneath a drab, dutiful exterior. In her gaze now was a ghost of the old look, mingled with a knit-browed confusion at the distress caused by one she knew to be tenderhearted and true in his deepest self, despite the hurt he had cost her.

A slap across her face from the back of Lemuel’s hand sent her sprawling onto the floor, bloodying her lip.

“You whore!” shouted Lemuel, leaping to his feet in a frenzy. “You sit there making moon-eyes at this … this … ” He pointed angrily at Jeremiah, stuttering in his wrath. “ … this idiot?”

Shocked out of their solitary grief, the family sat roundeyed and aghast as Lemuel stormed on.

“You’ve never forgotten him, have you? Despite all the hurt he caused you, despite the way he deserted you, knowing full well how you felt; despite all that, it is still he you love, and not me! Do you deny it, you ungrateful wench?”

Hannah sat silent, her eyes wide with fear, blood running down her chin.

“Is it he you think about in bed?” screamed Lemuel, his face purple in fury. “Do you lie with him in your mind, while I feed you and shelter you and clothe you? What is the charm of this wretch, that those on whom he inflicts the most harm willingly offer him sanctuary? By the names of all the gods, it shall not be so with you!” He started toward Hannah, raising his fist to strike her again.

Joash leaped from his place, grasping Lemuel’s arm as it descended toward Hannah’s unprotected face. The sinews bulged on his sun-darkened forearm as he squeezed Lemuel’s wrist, forcing him away from the now-sobbing Hannah. Lemuel grimaced and strained, trying in vain to break his older brother’s iron grip. At last he won free and bounded from the room and out of the house with an animal cry of frustrated brutality.Image

Joash stood panting, looking after him for a moment. Then he turned to stare at Jeremiah in bewilderment and distrust.

“WHY, LORD?” Jeremiah prayed, sitting outside in the starry autumn evening, chilled by more than the cool air. “Why do I spread distress and woe at every turn? Why do my words fall like sword blows on those I love?”

The house was dark. The family had drifted away from the meal in a dazed, uncomfortable silence. No one spoke to him, no one looked at him. It seemed they wanted only to be out of his presence.

He was more lonely now than when he had walked the roads and byways of Judah. He felt turmoil inside like a storm cloud, whipping his heart in a cold swirl of doubt and anguish.

He slid off the rough stone wall and wandered into the night like a lost soul, absently pulling his cloak tighter. The breath of impending winter whispered about him, and winds of apprehension wafted treacherously through the open windows of his mind.

“I’M TELLING YOU he ought to die!”

Lemuel’s face was livid as he brought his fist down on the table of the dimly lit room. His voice had by now risen far above the conspiratorial whispers in which the conversation had begun, and the four others in the room glanced nervously at the door and windows, hastily motioning their overwrought colleague to keep quiet.

“Lemuel!” one of them hissed, “he is your brother—your own flesh and blood!”

“Aye,” murmured another, “and he preaches in the name of Yahweh. If Josiah’s agents learn of our complicity in his death, we are dead men!”

“You are all old women!” sputtered Lemuel, getting louder again. “He is a disgrace! He has no support! He insults the elders of Anathoth, my father among them, and threatens the worship of Chemosh! Do you wish to stand idly by and allow this troublemaker to stir up more noise about what we are doing, we who have remained faithful to the gods of the earth and the sky?” Lemuel held their unwilling eyes with his dilated, angry look. “Why should this muddled wanderer, who goes off for years at a time, be allowed to upset our way of doing things? I say we take care of this misfit now, and I care not a fig whose brother he happens to be!”

“And I say there is more to your words than jealousy for the reverence toward Lord Chemosh,” said another of the men. “Your ire burns hot toward your brother for something else—a woman, perhaps?”

“That is none of your concern!” shouted Lemuel, his fingers curling into claws at his side. “What matters is silencing this fool, and soon! Or do you wish to share the fate of the priests and worshipers of Ashtaroth at Nob, just up the road?”

The group fell silent as they remembered the chilling event: Josiah’s guards had slain thirty men and women with the sword, then burned their bodies and scattered the charred bones on the ruined high places of the gods. Such a desecration was frightening to contemplate. Since then, devotees of the baals and asherim had been careful to conceal their religion from any not known to be sympathetic. The worship went on, but discreetly, amid hope for better days.

“Well,” conceded one of them finally, “it may be that your counsel is sound, however flawed its motives. Very well—I will support this action. Who will stand with Lemuel and with me to slay the troublesome preacher?”

Slowly and quietly, all three of the others placed their hands atop those of the speaker and of Lemuel, who wore a hard, glittering grin of triumph.

Just outside the house where the plot was being laid, the wandering Jeremiah had stopped, hidden in the darkness. Hearing the incautious voices, he stood frozen in dismay. For as long as he could remember, Lemuel had despised him. Now, for the first time, he knew why: It was the night in the soul of his brother which hated the light of the Eternal in his own heart.

Each of the brothers was an instrument, a tool. And there could be nothing but enmity between them forever. Their hostility was born of the ancient war between the ruling forces of the two brothers’ lives—one good, the other evil.

Jeremiah remembered the words of his calling: “1 chose you while you were still in your mother’s womb … “ Could the dark architect of Lemuel’s malevolence also make such a summons?

He did not return to his room that night, cloaking himself instead in the darkness among the ravines of the surrounding countryside, seeking some word, some counsel to aid in treading the ever narrower and more treacherous path he walked.

THE NEXT MORNING the house of Abiathar gathered for breakfast in apprehension, feeling in different ways the brittle tension in the air. Lemuel sat in his place, looking even more dour and disgruntled than usual. Hannah, her eyes red-rimmed and dark from lack of sleep, sat downcast, afraid to look up.

The door slammed open, and in strode Jeremiah, his clothing still wet with the dew of the autumn morning. Without a break in his step he paced directly up to Lemuel, whose slack, open-mouthed stare bespoke his surprise at the change in his younger brother. Jeremiah had none of the defeated, brooding demeanor of last night, but rather a hard, set look, a talisman of urgent purpose chiseled across his face. With his accusing finger pointed directly between his brother’s wide eyes, his voice rang out:

“I know of the plotting in your heart. I know you have laid plans to take my life, because of the words the Lord bade me speak. I had no blood on my hands toward you, my own brother, but you have conspired with evil men to kill me, to blot out my memory from this place.

“Now, therefore, listen to what the Eternal, the Lord Most High, says about you and those with whom you devise your wicked schemes: ‘I will punish you. Your offspring will die by the sword and by famine. Your memory will be completely erased from the land, and I will bring disaster upon you in the time when I judge this nation.’”

For a moment he held his pose, his finger aimed at Lemuel like a thunderbolt from the hand of God. Then he turned on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

He had gone perhaps twenty long paces from the house when he first felt the fire in his veins begin to cool. His nostrils ceased flaring, his heart slowed its angry, racing gait. The pain of what he had said began to wrap his chest in dull, aching cords of regret. Another twenty paces, and he felt tears running down his face.

He had thought it would bring him fierce joy and a sense of vindication to pronounce the Lord’s judgment on Lemuel and the men of Anathoth. But the scene burned into his mind was not the death of Lemuel, deserving though he was. Nor was it the punishment of the baby-slaying idolaters. Instead, the faces of Hannah and his mother wavered before his tear-veiled vision, and the faces of children and families caught in the winnowing fork of God’s wrath. Prophesying judgment brought no satisfaction, nor did it lighten his burden. But he could do nothing else.

He walked into the broken country east of the village until the middle of the morning. Weak from his overnight fast and soul-weary from the questions in his mind, he crawled beneath the shelter of a heavy copse of scrub cedar and lay on his belly, his face in his arms.

“O Lord God,” he moaned, “I am cut to the depths of my spirit by the pain I carry. Why must the wicked do as they like, despite Your warnings and Your displeasure? Why, instead, do the righteous suffer at the hands of sinners?

“I am pinned beneath Your will; I feel it crushing me between You and my enemies.

“I cannot ignore the fire You have kindled within me—it blazes, and no matter how I try to hold it in, I cannot. But when I speak, my enemies gather round like wild dogs. I am a lost lamb surrounded by a hungry pack whose only wish is to tear and rend. Hear my cry, O Lord! Deliver me from the teeth of those who oppose me! Fulfill Your promise, which You made when You called me, saying, ‘I will make you like a bronze wall against your enemies.’”

His words spent, he lay silent, overcome with grief, and with longing for—he knew not what.

The wind, sighing through the pungent green cedar branches, slowed and stopped. Even the sparrows in the brush ceased their busy chatter. And the Voice was within him.

Jeremiah. “

One word. His name. Never before had the Voice spoken his name. And in those few syllables, resounding repeatedly through the hallways of his soul, he heard his entire being described, known, spun out like a thread of flax in the hands of a master weaver—seen through and through.Image

Jeremiah. Yahweh knew his name—and everything else.

The Lord God knew his hurt, his anguish; knew the pain of pronouncing death on those he loved; knew the sorrow of being alone; knew the lash of unjustified hatred; knew the piercing misery of being abandoned by those closest to him.

And He knew more. He knew Jeremiah’s pride, his self-will. He knew the dark, secret places where Jeremiah imagined himself a lofty figure on Judah’s landscape—a seer, a tower; perhaps even a Moses. The Lord God Almighty knew the traces of contempt that sometimes peeked from the corners of his vision as he beheld the sin of the people. He knew the unholy, blood-red lust for revenge that sometimes made his thoughts crawl like snakes in a vat of excrement.

Yahweh knew. He knew. And Jeremiah cried out in silence with a wail beyond weeping. He flung his arms over his head as if to hide from God’s face. He was unworthy—wholly unworthy. Yet again the Voice was within him.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how will you compete with horses? If you stumble in the plain, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Jeremiah’s inner cry was cut off now, abruptly hushed by the power of the knowing One.

“My beloved will be given into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become like a wild beast—therefore I despise her. I will bring others to spoil My vineyard. My beautiful fields will become like a wasteland, because no one cares.

“So bear your shame, Jeremiah. My anger will cause this bitter harvest. But know that after the time of tearing down will surely come a time of building up. After I uproot Judah, I will again have compassion on her. If she will turn and renew her love for Me, I will bring her again to her own land, each family to its own home. In this hope, you may find your hope.”Image

His senses numbed, Jeremiah fell into the deep sleep of utter exhaustion. When he awoke, feeling hungry, the sun was dragging its gold-and-purple train down the western sky. He slowly sat up and looked below the colors, back toward Anathoth. He could think of but one place there where he might find shelter and comfort.

He crawled out from under the cedars, and set out for the hut of Mahseiah the scribe.

This chapter is from the novel Jeremiah: He Who Wept by Thom Lemmons, copyright © 2013 by Homing Pigeon Publishing. If you’d like to download a full version of this book for your smartphone or tablet, please visit www.homingpigeonpublishing.com.

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Jabez: A Novel–Chapter 1, The Name

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In the days of the Judges, the people of Israel forgot their God and did evil in the eyes of the Lord. Israel had no king; every man did as he saw fit. And so the Lord gave Eglon, king of Moab, power over Israel for eighteen years. Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer: Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite.

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Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers … and his mother called his name “Jabez,” saying, “Because I bore him in pain …” 

And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory; that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil that I may not cause pain!”

So God granted him what he requested …

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The first thing I remember was my mother’s crying. Sometimes I think she fed me on her tears instead of her breast milk. Even then, long before she told me the story of my beginning, I think I tried to guess it in her eyes. A child sees many things that he cannot name.weeping

And then, when I was old enough, I heard it in the taunts of the other boys in the village. “Hey, Pain-boy, it hurts me just to look at you.” I was small for my age and an easy target for bullies. They tripped me and hit me and rolled me in the dirt. They told me they were making me match my name. They said it with a dirty laugh and an upturned lip. My brothers, especially, used my name that way. Like a switch on my backside or a lump of dung tossed at my feet.

I liked it when the Amalekites came through. They squatted on their mats in the square by the well with their camels tethered behind them. On the ground they spread their trinkets, their packets of spices, their god-totems and the shiny cloth woven with strange designs. I loved wandering among them, listening to the unfamiliar lilt of their words. When I said my name to the Amalekites, it was just a name. On their foreign tongues, “Jabez” meant me—nothing more. Jabez was the boy who talked to them, who wanted to know the names for things in their own language. He was not the boy with no father, the one who fit nowhere. I was always sad when the Amalekites left. I longed to follow them, my longing as dry and hovering as the dust kicked up by their camels. I wanted to be away from the taunts, the mocking looks. Away from the despite of my brothers. And away from my mother’s silent, dark weeping.

camelsHow does a boy know when he is the cause of pain? How can he give words to himself that he doesn’t have? How can he understand why his presence is a wrongness, a hurt? I don’t know. But so often when I heard my name in the mouth of someone who knew me, the wrongness slapped at me. My name was better to me when it came from the lips of strangers.

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There was an old woman, Gedilah, who lived in our village. She wandered about Beth-Zur, talking as if someone was with her, but most always there was no one there. She would sit down beside my mother when she was grinding grain. She would talk to her. No one else in Beth-Zur would sit down and talk to my mother. Sometimes I would see Gedilah on her way to the well, walking past our plot of scraggly olive trees. Sometimes, when I was pulling weeds from our chickpea patch beside the road, she would stop and settle her old, dry haunch atop the stone wall with a grunt. The bent woman would start talking to me. I don’t know why.

Gedilah would talk like someone continuing a conversation she had started some other time. She had a few teeth left in the back of her mouth, but none in front. Her leathery lips flapped around the words and made it hard for me to understand her. As she spoke, she stared off at the horizon, at the straw-colored hills, creased with faint green, that surrounded Beth-Zur. Gedilah told me stories, but she never looked at me.

I knew of no one in the village older than this woman. She talked about the days of her mother, when our people had wandered through the desert, a time before we came to live in the country between the Salt Sea and the Great Sea. A god had followed our people through the desert, she said, or maybe she said the god led them. Why this god took oldwomansuch an interest, she did not explain. She never even said the god’s name. Once, when I asked her, she said the god had no name. Or maybe her mother had told her, but she had forgotten it. At night it was a fire god, and by day it was a dust god, a towering whirlwind, she claimed.

“What good is a god with no name?” I asked her one time. “How can you talk to it? How can you ask it for things?” Everybody in the village had a few gods they kept in a safe, dark corner of the house. They were of wood or clay or stone. People rubbed them with oil and whispered in their ears and decorated them with feathers or bits of cloth or daubs of paint. My oldest brother had one that he carried out to the olive trees just before the winter rains each year; it was a sitting woman with heavy breasts. To me it looked like a small, fat water cup, but he said it was the Great Lady of Moab and that her womb was the earth. He kept the basin in her lap full of oil, and sometimes he mixed in the blood of a pigeon or a rock badger. He said she would protect our olive trees and make them bear. From the look of our trees most years, I sometimes wondered why he didn’t try a different god.

But the desert god, the woman said, had no name and no image. “What would a desert god need with an image?” she said. “He blows with the wind; he shimmers in the heat. He is. That’s all I can say.”

Maybe that was why for so long I never heard anyone but the old woman talk about this god. What did we need with a desert god? We weren’t wanderers anymore. We had settled down. We had groves and vineyards and fields. We had flocks. We needed gods for seed and bearing, not for roaming.

Still, something in me ached for roaming. At night in the summers, when the heat drove us to the housetop, to peel off all but the most needful clothing and lie limp as rags hoping for a breeze, I lay on my back and stared up at the stars. They hovered close, glittered like tears in the eyes of a hurt child. I tried to imagine their names, tried to call out to them. I wanted to know what they knew, look on all the lands they could see. I lay still and listened. Sometimes, I desertthought I could hear—something. Maybe it was the heat singing in my head. It could have been no more than the shrilling of my own blood. But it could have been something else.

~~~~~~~

My mother was neither ugly nor beautiful, though I suppose she had once been pleasing enough to look at. She was of normal size, but in my memory she is always small. Even as a child, I felt a need to be careful with her, the way you have to be careful with babies or sick people. Since I was the youngest in the household, I was the one at her beck and call. I was her errand runner, her helper. I fetched and held and stirred and carried for her. As best I can bring to mind, she struck me but a single time in all my life, and I guess I deserved that one blow. She almost never spoke harshly to me. But neither do I remember her smiling at me or singing to me. I think I would have endured a beating every day if it would have bought me her smile.

Gedilah’s tiny little hut was not far from our house. Sometimes she would come and help my mother with the spinning or the churning. Sometimes my mother would send me to her with a little bit of meal or some oil in a small pouch. Gedilah and my mother would speak of times before I was born. Once I heard Gedilah telling my mother, “If he had lived, this child would not.” My mother motioned at me with her eyes, and Gedilah said no more. She patted my head when she left.

My brothers paid my mother no mind. As long as there was something in the stew pot and their sandal straps got mended, they kept to themselves. I think they would have forgotten her if they could. Bur she was there, a constant reminder. And as if that weren’t enough, I was there too. Mostly, they looked away. I noticed, even as a child, that when I went with her to the well, the other women kept their faces turned from her. Their talk melted away when we carne near, then resumed again as we passed. The other women would help each other settle their pitchers and urns on their heads. My mother had only me.

Sometimes I wanted to ignore her too. Sometimes the silence that surrounded her made me feel ashamed or sad or wrong. But now I know why I could not treat her as the others did; it was because she, at least, saw me. Even if she looked at me with eyes full of tears, my mother would not turn away her face the way everyone else did. Even if the most accustomed language between the two of us was silence, that was better than scorn. A sparse diet for one so hungry, but better than nothing.

Often, in the evening, she would go alone into the hills. A few times I followed, at a distance. When the sun was touching the rim of the world, she would walk out in the orange light, down the road until she turned aside at the draw that led to the pastures of Tubal and his sons. She would follow the ravine’s crooked climb into the hills, picking her way among the rocks. Now and then, she would have to stop and free her garments from the grasp of a thorn bush or the spines of the briars that clung to the dry cracks between the boulders. She would climb until she came out on the hilltopbreast of the Hill of Zur. She would go to the top and stare toward the west. For a long time she would stand there, as still and straight as a pole, until the sun had dropped below the edge of the earth and the purpling night began to drift across from the east. I saw her lips move, though I was never close enough to hear any sound. Sometimes, I think, her eyes would be closed. And then, after a while, whatever secret thing pulled her there told her the time was long enough, and she turned to go the same way she had come. I would scamper out of sight to reach home before her.

I don’t think anyone but me ever saw my mother perform her lonely, silent ritual. Most likely, no one else cared enough to notice. When she came back, I tried to read her face when she wasn’t looking. I tried to see if her time on the hilltop had made any difference. But I could never see any change in her.

I had a certain dream of my mother that came to me several times as a boy. In my dream, I am walking through the doorway of our house. I am carrying something—a jar of oil, a sack of flour, I don’t know—and I’m bringing it to her. When I come in, my mother is sitting on her mat, and black things are flying all around her head. At first I think they are birds, but when I look closer I see that they have many legs and jointed bodies, like insects. Their flying makes a clicking noise, like dry bones rattling together. I try to cry out, but no sound will come from my mouth. She is looking at me and holding out her arms, but I cannot go to her because I know that she will clasp me to her and the black things will have me, too. I drop whatever it is I carried into the house and run outside, but instead of the street of our town I am running up a mountain of sand, the kind I have since seen in the wastes of the Arabah. I had never known such a sight as a boy, but that is the way of dreams. I am running up the side of the sand mountain, but with each step the loose sand slides under my feet. I cannot make any headway. When I am tired from trying to run in the sand and my breath feels hot in my throat, I stop and turn around. There is my mother, standing at the base of the sand mountain, still holding out her arms to me. The black flying things are gone now, but I am afraid they will come back. I want to go to her but I am afraid. I sit down in the sand and weep.

Each time I woke from this dream, I felt a terrible sadness, like a heavy bundle tied to my chest. Sometimes, in the dark, I would hold my breath and listen for the clicking sound. If I had known the name of a god of dreams, I would have asked it to take this dream away and never let it come back. I would have given it oil and some choice bit of meat. But I didn’t know the name of a god for dreaming.

~~~~~~~

This chapter is from Jabez: A Novel, by Thom Lemmons. The complete novel is available for your e-reading device. Download it at http://www.homingpigeonpublishing.com

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 30

“AND IN EVERY PART of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For He is the living God and He endures forever;

“His kingdom will not be destroyed,

“His dominion will never end.

“He rescues and He saves;

“He performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth—

“He has rescued his servant Daniel from the power of the lions.”proclaim

The herald’s voice resonated into silence among the glazed tiles on the high ceiling of the throne room of Babylon. Daniel watched from his seat beside the empty throne as the cautious glances of the nobles silently queried his face, found their answer, and turned aside.

Daniel did not deceive himself: The Most High would not suddenly replace Marduk either in the Chaldean pantheon or in the hearts and minds of these listeners—nor was such the intent of this decree of Cyrus. The proclamation was far from meaningless, however. At least during the lifetime and memory of the Persian kings, the worship of Adonai could not be persecuted or hindered without risking the punishment of the emperor. The solemnity of Cyrus’s written word would not be questioned, despite its somewhat inconvenient implications for the Esagila establishment. If El Shaddai was to continue to be ignored by the majority of Babylon’s denizens, at least His faithful might not be harmed.

Again Daniel silently thanked the Holy One for His gracious provision. By his entry into the lions’ den, he had been a channel of blessing for all of Jacob’s children.

Daniel allowed a few moments for the import of the herald’s message to be absorbed, then announced in a voice no less firm for his great age, “You have heard the edict of Cyrus, the Great King, the King of Lands, in whose name I administer this land of Chaldea, and all the lands between the Two Rivers.” He gestured toward the ceremonially vacant throne of Cyrus, who had remained in Shushan. “Let his word be obeyed.” A moment more he sat, still holding them by the authority of the proclamation, the force of his imperial and divine protection, and the weight of his venerable and storied wisdom. Then he stood, giving them leave to return to their duties.

As he limped back toward his suite, leaning heavily on his cane, he thought of the aftermath of his deliverance. If Cyrus’s relief had been great, so had been his wrath, his determination to render justice on the accusers. With a shudder Daniel heard again the eager snarling of the lions, the screams of the wives and children of Adad-ibni’s accomplices … and then—the horrible silence. Daniel had found little comfort in the grisly demise of his lifelong foe. Even though it fell upon such a craven scoundrel as Adad-ibni, Daniel could not find it within himself to rejoice in such a dreadful vengeance.lions

Reaching the door to his quarters, he paused to allow one of his bodyguards to open the way for him and to check within to ascertain the security of the suite. This done, Daniel went inside, groaning with the weight of his years as he slowly sank into the cushioned chair beside his table. He began sifting through the documents brought before him for his inspection.

He had arrived back from Shushan to find a messenger from Judah awaiting him. Hananiah was dead—his last words were that Daniel should be notified. It was a black time for the last survivor of the four young boys who had come to Babylon so very long ago. He alone was left, and the sudden onslaught of loneliness drove him to his couch for three weeks. He took only enough food to maintain life, and he would not allow his attendants to minister to him with salves or baths or anything that might bring him comfort. For he mourned more than the passing of Hananiah: A time, a life, a past had been finally taken from him by the death of this last friend of his youth and old age. Again the obscurity of Sheol whispered its message of inevitability into his grieving ears.

Only in the last two days, since the written edict of Cyrus had arrived, had he returned to his court duties. During his convalescence the matters of state had accumulated, awaiting his attentions.

Daniel’s secretary, a young man of perhaps twenty summers, entered. “My master,” the youth began, his head bowed in respect, “the overseers of the city of Opis have requested that you come and inspect the repairs to the fortifications there, which have recently been completed. When will it be your pleasure to grant their request?”

The old man sighed. It never ends, he thought—the round of tours, inspections, appearances. Necessary, though, and part of the trust placed upon him by the emperor. His elbow to the table, Daniel cradled his forehead in his outstretched hand as he pondered the most propitious time for an excursion up to the city between the Tigris and the Diala.

It was the month of Nisan. Since the year had just turned, the sun had not yet reached its full power—the spring days were not so unbearably hot as to make travel a misery for his old bones. “Why should I not leave today, when the sun has passed its zenith?” he asked. “The city is quiet, the people content; is there any reason Babylon could not spare my presence for the overland trek to Opis?” He looked up at his young assistant, awaiting his answer.

The secretary tapped his chin thoughtfully for several moments, staring into the middle distance. “I can think of no reason,” he concluded, finally. “Will my master wish me to make the arrangements?”

Daniel nodded. “See to it.”

Quietly the boy left.

THE WALLS OF OPIS loomed ahead. Daniel, swaying back and forth in his silk-hung palanquin, peered out at the approaching city. Allowing the drape to fall again into place, he leaned back into the cushions on which he rested, sighing wearily. It was a hard two-day’s foot journey from Babylon to Opis, and despite the relative ease of the sedan, his age protested such dislocation.walls

Since nearing Opis and the Tigris, Daniel had felt a vague sense of impending astonishment, as if the shadow of some hovering wonder fell faintly upon the corner of his mind. Far from being alarmed by such a premonition, Daniel found himself queerly annoyed. He was too old and tired for such dire activity, wasn’t he? This late in life, he thought, could a man not fade quietly and peacefully into the void without any more bother from the unseen realms? Sternly he quenched such feelings and tried his best to ignore the vague muttering at the threshold of his consciousness.

As they neared the river, he identified the sound of water slapping the hull of a boat, and the clatter of oars in their locks. Then his men stepped onto the barge to cross the river into Opis.

The inspection of the fortifications proceeded smoothly, with the usual round of banquets and receptions in honor of the emperor’s arch-satrap. Daniel endured such fêtes, eating as little of the rich food as decency would allow. He would smile at the proper times and nod when such was called for. As usual, all was in order. Opis was being governed in an orderly and sedate manner by her overseers, and Cyrus’s ordinances were well-maintained.

Daniel noted with mild displeasure that the temples still asserted their dominance over lending and much of the trade of the city—as was true in much of Chaldea and Akkad. One day, he knew, the god-houses would not be able to sate their ever-increasing appetite for lands and herds taken in pledge, nor to justify their widening rates of usury. When the people were burdened beyond their ability to continue, they would seek redress—either rising up themselves, as did the northern kingdoms in the ancient days of Solomon, or by alliance with a new king, whose conquest might be expected to bring relief. But such problems would not arise in his day, Daniel thought. It would be for those who came after him to solve such difficulties.

On the second day after his arrival, he went for a tour of the canals surrounding the walls of the city. These had recently been drained, the bitumen-and-tile linings patched and replaced where needed. A group of the city’s engineers walked about as Daniel’s men carried his sedan chair, pointing out this or that feature of the elaborate system that provided drainage, defense, and water for the city.

Suddenly a hush fell over the company like an invisible, awesome cloud. The engineers and officials with Daniel stared at one another with fear-starkened eyes. An irresistible, unreasoning trembling took them; without knowing why, they fled in heart-pounding panic from the unseen, inaudible source of their inexplicable fright.

Daniel scarcely noticed the frenzied flight of the others. His eyes were fixed with avid consternation on the piercing, exigent visage of his Guide, who stood before him in a manifestation whose power pinioned Daniel, body and soul, to the spot where he stood.

The brilliance the divine messenger had exuded in the lions’ den was only a shadow compared to the appalling, beautiful, terrifying radiance in which the Guide now showed himself. It was as if he had worn a shroud in the den, but now stood unveiled before Daniel, allowing the full, potent glare of heaven’s majesty to pour from him in a voiceless paean of victory.

He was clad in the habit of a Levitic priest. The heartbreaking purity of his white linen robe and the breathtaking radiance of his gold belt were the soul-wrenching realities symbolized only feebly by the garments of the Judean priesthood. His body glowed through his clothing—or perhaps, Daniel thought as he looked, his clothing and his body were somehow one, as if what seemed to be robes and belt were in fact the visible portrayal of his vital, holy essence. The gleam was like the luminous glow of a polished gem. From his eyes, the white-hot flame of righteousness burned forth, and his legs and arms had the burnished, unyielding appearance of forged bronze. His voice was the war cry of a battle-host.

“Daniel! You who are highly esteemed—listen carefully to what I will tell you today! Stand up! I have been sent to you!”vision

As the Guide’s words struck his consciousness like molten hammer blows, Daniel realized he had fallen face down on the ground. He felt something like a huge hand clasping him about the waist, raising him to his knees with a touch as gentle as a mother’s smile, as strong as the rays of the summer sun.

Daniel leaned upon his cane and levered himself to his feet, where he stood swaying with awe. His face was blanched, his eyes wide and unblinking as he listened to the pealing voice of the angel, speaking words of comfort, of explanation—of revelation.

There was a pause, and Daniel understood that a reply was expected of him. Alas! His tongue was cleaving to the roof of his dry mouth, and his parched throat could not even begin to form words. As well might he be expected to leap over the walls of Opis as to parley with this majestic, dreadful messenger.

Then a touch came—a calming, healing touch, unlocking the hasp of dread that sealed his lips.

“I … I am overcome with anguish because of this vision,” Daniel stammered, “and I am helpless. How can your servant talk with you? My strength has fled, and I can scarcely draw breath!”

Again came the bracing, soothing touch. Daniel felt vitality and serenity coursing together through his being—a warm tide of comfort buoyed him, bore him up.

“Do not be afraid, O man highly esteemed! Peace!” he commanded. And it was so. “Be strong now; be strong.”

No more had the words left the angel’s lips than Daniel’s trembling ceased, the palsied shaking of his limbs steadied. His wonder unabated by his newfound composure, Daniel said in gratitude, “Speak, my lord, since you have given me strength.”

And the angel spoke.

He told of the coming of three kings, and of a fourth who would surpass the rest in grandeur. He told of a king of the Greeks whose power would be irresistible, whose kingdom, while great in glory and extensive in domain, would not survive his own mortality. He told of the four kings who would divide that empire among them, of the wars and conflicts between them and their descendants—a dizzying, bloody exchange of invasions and battles, of alliances made and broken. He told of threat and danger to the Beautiful Land, and a time of desolation.

And then the messenger spoke of a final, unimaginable deliverance.

Daniel’s breath caught in his throat as the Guide told of the awakening of hosts who slept in the dust of the earth, of a great rising up, a vast partitioning that would take place before the Judge of all the earth.

He felt the salty tears of joy brimming in his eyes. At last! The word whose echo he had heard so faintly, so very long ago! It had not been a fantasy nor a wishful dream. It was real! The darkness of Sheol was not the final lot of the Lord’s faithful ones! Oh, Mishael! he thought. If only you, too, could have seen this day—and Azariah, and old Caleb, and

He caught himself up short. What was he thinking? Of course they would see this day! Had not the angel just said that those who slept would one day be awakened? Might not they, even now, be awaiting the summons, the glad rush of quickening that would draw them forth from the embrace of the earth, gleaming in newness like the very hosts of heaven? A spontaneous cry of joy escaped his lips; he felt his insides quivering with elation.

And then two other shining ones were there, bracketing the Tigris with the radiance of their presence. With huge voices that inspired awe they asked, “How long until these things come to pass?”

Daniel’s Guide now appeared to hover in the midst of the waters of the river as he gave his answer. He swore an oath so potent that Daniel’s ears shuddered to hear it, invoking the Name of the One Who Lives. “It will be a time,” he said, “times, and half a time. When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed.”

It was far too much for Daniel. So much to see, to remember— his mind was overwhelmed with the grandeur, the sweep, the appalling totality. In the only words his mind could frame, he said, “My lord, what … what will be the … the outcome of all this?”

The angel’s eyes reached toward Daniel, and the flame in them dimmed to the soft, comforting glow of hearth-embers. “Go your way, Daniel,” he said in a voice redolent with comfort. “These words you have heard are closed up and sealed until the end-time. Many will become pure, but most will remain wicked. To the wicked, understanding will remain hidden, but to the wise, understanding shall come.

“As for you, Daniel: Endure until the end. You will rest; and then, at the end of the days, you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”

THEY FOUND HIM lying beside the canal in a crumpled heap. Swiftly he was carried to a chamber in the citadel. Physicians were summoned, incense and ointments were applied. Those who were with him when the terror came told of the torrent of dismay that had ambushed them from some unidentifiable source.

On the third day, to the great relief of all, the parchment-thin eyelids of the arch-satrap fluttered open. Recognition was in his eyes as he peered at them from his sickbed. A tiny smile lifted his cheeks, and the old, dry lips parted to speak.

“Where is my secretary?” Daniel whispered.

“Here, master,” answered the youth, coming forward to kneel beside the couch.

“Have you your writing materials?” Daniel asked, his voice a barely audible sigh.

Puzzled, the aide answered, “Yes, master, but … why do you ask?”

Shaking his head with a gentle smile, he said, “No questions. There isn’t time.” Again peering about at the anxious, hovering faces, he said to them hoarsely, “Leave us.”

With many a worried glance, the room emptied of all except the youth and his patron. When the door closed, Daniel turned to the boy. “Write what I tell you,” he murmured. The secretary turned to gather his equipment.

As the young man fetched his tablet, a sound from the outside fell upon Daniel’s ears.

Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

The cane of the beggar! Was his ancient summoner come at last to take him home? He half-raised his head, the better to hear.

“What is that sound?” he asked his aide.

The lad turned, a puzzled expression on his face. “What sound, master?”

“Ah, never mind,” whispered Daniel. “Let us begin.” He allowed his head to fall back upon the pillow.

Four visions, Daniel reflected. It was apt. Apt, also, that this fourth one should be the last, the completion. When its message had been recorded, he knew, the task for which Adonai had placed him on this earth would be ended.

As he remembered the words of the angel, the glorious hope burst again into vivid bloom in Daniel’s fading consciousness. Unlike the brief, evanescent whisper by the grave of Caleb, unlike the faint, tentative intimations of wishfulness, the Guide had shouted this final message in tones of overcoming jubilation: El Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One, who could save from flame and sword and beasts and the hands of kings and men, was able to deliver even from the cold clutches of the tomb. deathbedAdonai wished all men to know: Hope lay ever beyond.

The youth returned to his bedside. “Master,” asked the secretary, his eyes dark and wide with concern, “why the urgency?” A look of panic flared suddenly on the boy’s face. “Are … are you dying? … We … we should send immediately for the emperor!”

Again the smile, the calm shake of the head. “Tell Cyrus this: At last I have seen. I will rest … And then I will rise.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 29

ADAD-IBNI COULD HARDLY WAIT for morning’s first light. As soon as it was decent to do so, he rushed to the audience room of the emperor, demanding of the chamberlain to be admitted.

When Cyrus saw the sniveling face of the mage, a foul grin seeping across his features, he felt a cold shaft of apprehension lance through his chest. “What is it, lord mage, that brings you with such urgency to my chamber?” he asked, not knowing why he dreaded the answer.

A bubble of mirth rose to the top of Adad-ibni’s throat, but he sternly repressed it. Feigning as stern a face as he could, he said, “O King, may all your enemies perish! Only yesterday, did you not issue a decree concerning a ban on worship of any god or man but your imperial self?”

The knot of dread twisted tighter in the king’s gut. “Yes—what of it?”

“And did my lord the king not put this decree in writing, so that it cannot be amended or retracted?”

The sly old wizard was clearly enjoying this little charade, despite his feeble attempts to conceal the fact. Hating the sound of his own voice, Cyrus answered, “Yes.”

“Then my lord the king must know: Belteshazzar, called Daniel by his own people—one of the king’s three closest counselors!—was found in his room on the very evening of the decree of my lord the king, praying to his Hebrew god, in direct and flagrant defiance of the command of my lord the king.” Adad-ibni crossed his hands on his breast and bowed his head, less in respect than to hide the smirk of triumph which he could not keep from his lips.accuser

Cyrus was horrified. He leapt from his seat and strode to the kneeling mage, grasping the old bag of bones by the front of his robes and hauling him forcefully to his feet.

“Villain!” the king shouted. “You have twisted my words into a snare for my most trusted adviser! I should have you thrown to the beasts for creating such a treasonous trap!” As he spoke, Cyrus shook the seer back and forth, violently rattling the few teeth Adad-ibni had remaining in his head. Then the king allowed the mage to fall to the floor like a sack of kindling.

His head throbbing, his breathing heavy, Adad-ibni jabbered, “My lord … the king … must realize … the empire cannot … long endure … inconsistency on the part … of the king. Laws … must be upheld … ”

Cyrus realized, despite the white-hot fury of his rage, the truth behind the wretch’s words. Cursing Adad-ibni, cursing himself, cursing the words he had uttered that had unknowingly damned his most valued official, the king turned his head away. “You have done what you came to do,” he grated. “Now get out of my presence.” He did not turn until he had heard the sounds of the seer crawling out the door, closing it behind him.

Cyrus found Daniel in his rooms, lying face-down on a mat of woven straw beneath a westward-facing window. Realizing that his beloved counselor was in prayer, he sat quietly until the old man had finished and risen from his devotions. Turning about, Daniel saw the king, and began to make obeisance.

“No!” said Cyrus, going to Daniel and lifting him by the elbow. “You must not bow to me—not after what I have done to you.”

Daniel peered into the anguished face of his king for several long breaths. A wistful, faraway look came across his weathered features, and he almost smiled.

“My lord,” the old man said, “you must not fear for me. My God is able to save me, if He so wishes. And if not … ” Eyes downcast, he could say no more.

“He deceived me, Daniel!” cried Cyrus, in a voice thick with distress. “I thought it merely some silly ceremony, some meaningless placation of a few shaved-headed stargazers in Babylon. I had no idea … ” Groping about within the desolation of his soul, the king fell silent. At last he muttered, “I will revoke this misbegotten decree.”

Daniel laid a hand on Cyrus’s arm and stared pointedly into his eyes as he slowly shook his head. “My lord, another proverb of Solomon: ‘The lips of a king speak as an oracle, and his mouth should not betray justice.’ You cannot go back on your word, my king. It is not possible for such as you.”

“But where is the justice in this—this calamity?” Cyrus cried.

“An empire must be governed by law, my lord. Laws must be upheld by the king.”

Shuddering at the echo of the hated Adad-ibni’s words, Cyrus stood. “I will spend the day with my advisers,” he said. “If there is any path out of this morass, I will find it.” A single tear escaped the eye of Cyrus, tracing a shining path across his cheek and into the steel-gray thicket of his beard. “Daniel, my … my friend—I would never have intended—”

“I know,” assured Daniel. “You should go now. The matter lies in the hands of God.”

Looking long into the eyes of Daniel, Cyrus finally turned and left.

 

AS THE SUN’S DISC turned from yellow to orange with the approach of evening, Cyrus remained huddled with his counselors and advisers. All day they had debated the problem, coming repeatedly against the blind wall of the written decree. Once written, the word could not be changed. How Cyrus inwardly berated himself for the crude vanity that had caused him to formulate such a simple-minded premise!in council

A quiet knock sounded on the door of the chamber. They all looked up, and there stood Daniel. With a faded, fear-blanched expression on his face, he said, “My king … it is time.”

Looking helplessly around the group, Cyrus struggled to force words past the grief-blockage in his throat. “Very well,” he managed at last. “Summon the guards. We will go.”

Word had raced around the palace and citadel of Shushan: how the king’s wisest, most trusted counselor had disobeyed the edict; how the king, despite his aversion to doing so, would indeed enforce the law against one said to be very dear to him.

As the party of guards, the condemned man, and the emperor himself exited the arched entryway of the citadel that led to the beast pens, a large, hushed crowd awaited. They lined the causeway much like onlookers at a funeral procession.

It was an odd, pathetic entourage. The aged satrap Daniel, hobbling feebly along, leaned heavily on his smooth-worn cane while his other hand gripped the shoulder of Cyrus. His face was ashen, starched with fear. The emperor’s visage was only slightly less pallid than Daniel’s—like that of a man about to amputate his own hand with a dull knife. Between the guards they walked, the very representation of hopelessness.

With sympathetic sorrow for the strange twist of fate that had embroiled the unwilling king and his confidant, all who saw the sight were driven to pity. All, that is, except Adad-ibni. The wizened seer exulted at the dour, despairing cast of Belteshazzar’s features, congratulating himself for the subtlety of his plan. At last the hated Jew would be utterly defeated, his flesh and bones ripped asunder, his name disgraced and completely forgotten. Standing at the back of the crowd, he could not withhold a gratified chuckle—a sound as out of place among the silent crowd as a birthing-cry in a tomb. Even the Chaldeans with the mage looked at him askance, wishing he could better contain himself.

The setting sun was disappearing behind a low bank of clouds on the horizon when the group reached the barred gateway to the wild beasts’ compound. Cyrus had the stockade constructed as a holding place for his menagerie—animals he had collected on his journeys of conquest, and those brought to him as gifts by tributary delegations. The wildlife of the Aryan central plateau was represented here: the ostriches and the wild cattle and donkeys that roamed the wide, arid plains of the Kermani and Parthian satrapies; elephants brought from the low country along the Indus River; dromedaries, Bactrian camels, gazelles, and pea fowl—a vast profusion of animal life assembled here in homage to Cyrus, the Great King.

And lions. The lank, tawny beasts were locked into a secure enclosure of stone and iron and were fed huge, dripping haunches of meat passed through the barred walls of their den on long, pointed poles. In the fading light, as the party of men approached the den, the deep rumbling of the great cats could be heard as they worried the bones and scraps left from their last feeding.

The imperial gamekeeper fumbled with the keys on his belt, seeking the one that would open the lock securing the gate to the lair. The emperor gripped the shoulder of Daniel, gazing with wounded eyes at the aghast face of the old man.

“May your God save you, my friend,” he whispered. Daniel, mute with dread, only nodded. Then the gate was unlocked. When the old man had shuffled wretchedly inside the dark entryway, the gate was secured behind him. “Let a stone be brought and placed before the gate,” ordered Cyrus. “And let a guard be posted outside the compound, so that no one—not even your king—may enter during the night and free Daniel.”

The stone was rolled into place; hot wax was dripped onto the corner where it contacted the wall, and the signets of authority affixed. As Cyrus pressed his ring into the soft tallow, he felt he was driving a dagger into the heart of the innocent man trapped inside.

All official procedures observed, Cyrus wheeled about in remorse and revulsion, half-running from the place, his guards struggling to keep pace with him.

As he strode toward his palace, Cyrus reflected on the true reason for the stone before the gate: It was not to prevent rescue, but that he might not hear Daniel’s tortured shrieks. Hating himself more with each step, he fled to his private chamber.

“I will see no one this night,” he ordered the chamberlain. “No meat, no drink, no women—no one. I wish to be alone. See to it.” The chamberlain nodded, fastening the door behind him and deploying the guards to ensure the king’s wishes.

Cyrus went inside, pausing in the dark solitude of his room. After a moment’s reflection he paced to a window—a westward-facing window. Kneeling, gazing toward the darkening line of the horizon, he groped within himself for a way to begin. What was the name Daniel used? “Most High God,” he managed finally, “I, Cyrus the king … I—I beg You … spare Daniel’s life … ”

 

DANIEL HEARD THE GATE LATCH click into place behind him, heard the gravel crunching beneath the stone as it was rolled across the entry. Peering into the darkness, he saw the baleful yellow orbs of the lions’ eyes reflecting the low light that entered through the open-air run at the end of their enclosure. His bowels turned liquid in a rush of terror. He smelled the rank, acrid odor of the beasts, heard the huge, hoarse sound of their panting. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he could make out eight or ten shaggy forms ranging about the enclosure in various attitudes—some reclining, some standing, some sitting on their haunches. All were staring at him with the same brutish interest, the same dispassionate, predatory evaluation.

Their nostrils flared as they tested his scent. He knew they could smell his fear—he could smell it himself. He could hear the breath gasping in and out of his lungs, could feel his frenzied heart battering in his chest like a frightened bird in a wicker basket. As his eyes widened in horror, one of the beasts —a large male—rose lazily to its feet and padded toward him, its great pink tongue licking along its chops. Daniel staggered backward against the bars of the gate, closing his eyes. His neck tingled in terrified thedenanticipation of the pounce, the hot breath, the swift clamp of the fanged jaws …

A burst of light inside his chest announced the arrival of a presence more terrifying, more immediate and imperative, than ten thousand lions. The brightness inside him forced his unwilling eyes open, compelled him to view the appalling glory of the one who now stood between him and the lion—which now lay meekly on its belly, its ears tucked close, its eyes averted from the shining one, just as a cub avoids the gaze of a lord of the pride.

Much like the lions, Daniel fell to the ground, overcome with awe. “My Lord!” he whispered.

“No!” said the angel in a voice like sunlight and the clash of armies. “Do not worship me! I am the servant of El Shaddai—as you name Him—who has sent me to watch over you this night, and deliver you from the mouths of the beasts.”

The Guide! It was the same voice that had called to him in the visions! Could this be—? But, no! He felt the gravel of the den beneath his hands, smelled the sour, musky reek of the lions. This was no dream.

And then the Guide spoke again.

“Daniel, your prayers have been heard. Adonai… ”—the shimmering one bowed his head in respect when he spoke the word—“has given heed to your many petitions and your faithfulness. Because of your fidelity, all the peoples and lands of the domain of Cyrus will hear of the name of Him Who Is.” Again the lowered head, suggesting the reverence for Adonai that must be the habit and joy of heaven.

Daniel marveled within himself. Could this be the calling, the purpose for which he was detained from the repatriation of Judah? That he, such an unworthy vessel as he felt himself to be, should be the means to extend the honor of the Most High—it was too wonderful to contemplate!

Almost simultaneous with the astonishment came the old shame, the gnawing sense of unworthiness. He again relived the accusing memory of a self-serving lie, the ignominy of cowardly bleating where confident boldness would have better served. Shivering in the holy glare of the messenger’s otherworldly radiance, he felt naked, contemptible, unclean.protect

“Daniel!” said the Guide in a voice of velvet and thunder, “do you not remember your own words?”

Daniel tried to look into the angel’s face, but could not, because of the brightness. With downcast eyes, he asked, “What words are those, my Guide?”

“The words you offered to the Most High as you lay on your couch in Babylon: ‘We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy … ’”

Daniel gasped, hearing the words of his petition in the mouth of this blazing messenger of heaven.

“Not because of your merit has He heard you, son of Jacob,” the angel continued, “but because of the boundless reaches of His grace, and because it pleases Him to do so. In the same way, He sent me to your friends in the furnace of Nebuchadrezzar— not for their own sakes, but because He purposed it in His will to be thus. It is not your unworthiness, but His absolute worth that pertains. You are the instrument of His will, O Daniel, not its essence. He alone is to be praised in all things.”

Daniel felt hot tears spilling like the oil of Aaron down his cheeks. With his breath coming in great, white draughts of relief and awe, he whispered, “Glory to Adonai!”

“Glory and honor to Him,” echoed the angel, head bowed. “And now, Daniel, you must rest. You will need strength for the moment of your witness.”

A great, comfortable drowsiness, like an old, familiar cloak on a cool night, settled warmly about his shoulders. Slumping down against the wall of the lions’ den, he felt as peaceful as if he had been upon his own couch. As his mind drifted toward sleep, his last thought was, Even one such as I … Then the grateful darkness took him.

 

CYRUS, LEANING WEARILY against the windowsill, lifted his head from his forearm. Impending dawn was the merest gray suggestion in the starlit dome of the sky. His eyes were two burning, chafed, sleepless sores—as if he had, during the night, trudged through one of the howling sandstorms of the Aryan steppes.

He had indeed passed through a storm during the dark, silent watches—a storm within his soul. Like a blind man seeking a twisted path through a copse of briars, he had stumbled after Daniel’s God. Many the promises he made, many the vows he swore to an unknown entity, seeking to vouchsafe the safety of his beloved counselor. And despite his strict attempts at piety, despite the dogged solemnity with which he had approached the unfamiliar presence, he was met again and again with the same impression: He worrieddid not suffice. For the first time in his life of ambition and conquest, Cyrus knew the midnight isolation of helplessness. The answer, the remedy, lay completely beyond his power—as distant as the dimming stars from the depths of the sea. It was a shattering ordeal for the horse-king, this brutal encounter with the limits of his capacity. How humbling it was to be so utterly ineffectual in a circumstance where he wished desperately to avail.

As the faintest blush of pink rose in the cheeks of the day, he rose from his vigil. Without washing his face, without changing the rumpled, disheveled garments of his night watch, he strode to the door of his chamber.

“We go to the menagerie,” he snapped, pacing briskly down the hall. The guards came rapidly alongside, rubbing their tired eyes in the dim half-light of broadening morning.

“Page!” the king called to a boy dozing against the wall of the corridor. “Go to the gamekeeper and summon him, with all speed, to the lions’ den.” The boy scrambled to his feet and dashed away.

 

A PONDEROUS SCRAPING SOUND intruded upon Daniel’s slumber. He stirred and sat up, the echo of the Guide’s last words still reverberating faintly in the chambers of his soul: Glory and honor to Him … strength for the moment of your witness

Stretching, his gaze fell upon the still-sleeping forms of the lions, their fanged mouths agape, the deep, slow breaths hushing heavily in and out of their chests. In a strange twist of emotions, he felt himself somehow akin to the beasts that had been intended as his destroyers. Had they not bowed together, in reverence to a common superior?

Then the key rattled in the lock of the gate, and a voice was calling his name.

“Daniel! Daniel! Has your God, whom you serve faithfully, been able to save you from the mouths of the beasts?”theking

The king.

“O, my king, may you live forever!” Daniel called, glancing back toward the lions. Oddly, the animals had not stirred from their languorous inertia, despite the commotion at the gate. “My God sent His angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions … ”

As the lock slid back, Cyrus gripped the bars of the gate and threw them wide open, heedless of the beasts inside. Those with him gasped and shrank back from the dark opening that might at any moment pour forth angry, wild lions. But the only being to emerge from the cavern was the rickety old figure of Daniel, shuffling into the morning light, shading his eyes with a wrinkled hand.

“They have not hurt me,” the satrap was saying, “because I was found innocent in His sight … ”

As Daniel stepped clear of the entryway, the nervous gamekeeper shut and secured the gate.

“Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O my king,” Daniel finished quietly.

Cyrus grasped Daniel in an embrace of gratitude and relief. Then he turned to a man standing behind his left shoulder, one whom Daniel recognized as the imperial physician. “Examine him,” Cyrus ordered. “For every wound this faithful man bears, I will exact treble retribution from his persecutors.”

Over Daniel’s protests, the physician carefully inspected his person. When he had satisfied himself of Daniel’s condition, he turned to the king. “He is whole,” the physician stated in a calm, professional voice. “There is no mark on him.”

“Very well,” said Cyrus, his eyes flashing a hazardous amber. A hot torrent of rage gushed into the place where his anxiety had been. “Guards, you will find the men who have accused Daniel—especially their leader, the Chaldean mage Adad-ibni.” His voice dropping into a perilous growl, he continued, “You will bind them, and bring them to me in the throne hall. I will order the chamberlain to assemble the court … ”

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 28

CYRUS FINGERED HIS BEARD, staring thoughtfully at Daniel. “So … you are saying I should bring the satraps of Armenia and Cappadocia here, to Shushan, and force them to speak to one another in my presence until they have settled their differences over their common border?”

The aged Hebrew nodded. “Many generations ago, a king of my people said this: ‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.’ It would seem to be rather too late for preventing a dispute—better to have the disagreement occur here, under your eyes and control, than out in the provinces, where matters might progress in a less constructive fashion.”

Cyrus nodded pensively, looking away, then glanced back at Daniel, smiling. “This wise king of yours—has he many such pithy sayings as the one you have just quoted?”

Daniel smiled. “Yes, my king. His name was Solomon, and it is said the Queen of the South once came and sat at his feet to hear the words he spoke.” Daniel’s wrinkled face darkened as he muttered, looking away, “A pity he did not learn to heed his own advice … ”

“What do you mean?” asked Cyrus.

Daniel sighed. “The beginning of Solomon’s days was better than the ending. In his latter life he forgot the fear of the Lord and forgot to teach his sons after him. Those days began the ending of our nation … ” Daniel’s voice wandered off into the past like a candle flame flickering down a dark street.thinking

Cyrus remembered the words of Gobhruz—now dead these three moons past—about the beginnings of kingdoms, the transitory nature of dynasties. He sorely missed the counsel of the taciturn Mede. His passing was something the old horseman seemed to decide for himself—as if, now that the cultured and ancient cities of the plains were conquered, Gobhruz felt he was no longer needed. Cyrus had wept openly at the funeral of his oldest and most trusted friend.

Perhaps that was why the emperor had taken such an immediate liking to the wizened Hebrew who sat before him. He sensed in Daniel the same durable wisdom, the same unclouded, dispassionate view of the well-mannered facades of court life, as those he had come to value so highly in Gobhruz.

“How I wish my son Kanbujiya could sit at your feet, Daniel,” Cyrus said finally. “I have sent the wisest teachers of the realm to his court in Parsagard, but I believe they fall short of the wisdom in that gray old head of yours.”

Daniel shrugged, a bit embarrassed at such lavish praise. “Solomon has also said, ‘Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”’

Cyrus threw back his head and laughed. He was still chuckling when a slave entered, carrying a bowl of sweetmeats and dried fruits.

Daniel rose to leave. “No! Stay!” said Cyrus, waving the satrap back to his seat. “Take meat with me—I want to question you further about this Solomon of yours.”

Daniel bowed in acquiescence, lowering himself stiffly to his chair. The slave proffered the painted ceramic bowl, and Daniel took a handful of raisins and a few dried figs. These days, he reflected ruefully, his ancient bowels craved fruit above all else.

“Tell me then, my good friend,” began Cyrus, leaning on one elbow as he dropped almonds into his mouth. “What was the transgression of this wise king Solomon, that your God should be at such pains to punish his progeny?”

Daniel paused long before answering. “He forgot the ways of the Lord, my king,” he replied finally. “His heart was turned to other gods and away from the worship of the Most High God.”

“I see,” mused the king, toying with the stone of a date. “This Most High you refer to—He sounds much like Ahura Mazda, the chief god of Persia. Are they the same?”

Again Daniel thought long and carefully before responding. “He is the One Lord, the Most High, the King of Heaven.”

Cyrus saw the discomfort, heard the hesitancy in Daniel’s voice as he worded his enigmatic, oblique response. The king shifted on his cushion, considering a way to alter the tone of the conversation. “Zarathushtra, a long-dead prophet of Ahura Mazda, has spoken of a Day of Reckoning,” he remarked lightly, “when all men living and in the grave shall stand before the Wise Lord to receive reward or punishment. Does your Hebrew God say anything of this?”

Again he saw he had unwittingly broached a subject to which Daniel could not make easy rejoinder. The older man seemed to huddle within himself, as if at odds with his own opinions. After interminable rumination, he said quietly, “Another king of our people—the father of Solomon, in fact—once sang, ‘My heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because You will not abandon me to Sheol, nor will You let Your holy one see decay … ’” After another pause, Daniel continued: “This king also said, ‘Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord without wavering … ’” Daniel’s voice halted, and his eyes found those of Cyrus. “And yet, the king who uttered these words died and was buried. His tomb lies among the ruins of Jerusalem.”

The satrap’s words framed a plea, a plaintive riddle that admitted of no solution, as if even Daniel were at a loss to resolve the paradox presented by this unjustified confidence of a dead king.

Then he looked up, above Cyrus’s head and away into a place hidden from other eyes. “Once I thought there might be … something else,” he breathed, his vision clouded with longing. “But,” he finished, lowering his face and rubbing his eyes with his fingertips, “it was not shown to me. I know not … ”

Cyrus was oddly moved by the groping ache in Daniel’s gaze, by the catches in his voice as he spoke of what he had half-seen. “May your God reveal to you the things you desire to see, Daniel,” he whispered.

Daniel smiled ruefully. “Perhaps my desire is not what it pleases the Lord to reveal,” he said. “Another proverb of Solomon is this: ‘All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart … ’”

GRINNING TO HIMSELF, Adad-ibni waited in the anteroom outside the king’s council chamber. The plan would work— he felt it in his bones. And this time there would be no second chances, no opportunity for Belteshazzar to evade the snare laid for him.

The door to the chamber swung open, and the mage and those accompanying him entered and bowed before Cyrus. The emperor dismissed the counselors with whom he had been conferring, looking up in curiosity at the delegation that now knelt before him. At their forefront was an ancient, shriveled man dressed in the robes and with the shaven head of the Babylonian astrologers. Out of habit, Cyrus glanced at his bodyguards to make certain they carefully observed the movements of this unexpected group of petitioners. One couldn’t be too careful.

“O King, may you live forever,” the seer was hissing in a dry, time-worn voice. “I am Adad-ibni, faithful chief mage of the emperor’s city of Babylon. I have given my life to the study of the signs of sky, earth, fire, and water. These servants of my king’s”—the old man indicated the uncomfortable-looking knot of men that had entered with him—“and I have come to the king to tell him of a dire portent which your humble servant has divined in the movements of the stars of heaven.” The mage crossed his hands on his breast and bowed his head toward Cyrus.

“Well—what is it?” asked the emperor impatiently. Something about this wizard’s manner and intonation grated upon him; he could not specify the source of his irritation, but a voice at the back of his mind whispered caution.counsel

Adad-ibni smiled beatifically. “My king must know that the conjunction of Marduk and Ishtar, while normally most propitious, has this time occurred within the sphere governed by Nergal.” He paused significantly, to allow this vital fact to impress his audience. Unfortunately, its importance was completely obscure to his listeners.

“What of it?” snapped Cyrus, quickly growing weary of this sniveling, wrinkle-pated lizard.

“The meaning is this, my king,” hurried Adad-ibni, swallowing his annoyance at the king’ s obtuse manner. “The next cycle of the moon is one of some danger to your imperial person. Precautions should be taken.”

Cyrus’s nostrils flared in irritation. “The loyalty of my people and my bodyguards’ vigilance are my precautions, lord mage,” he sniffed. ‘1 do not think it necessary to employ the incantations of wizards to protect myself.”

“Doubtless the loyalty of most of my king’ s people is beyond question,” glided Adad-ibni, “but I have made a life of study upon these matters, and the portents do not equivocate. There is danger during this moon. Those of us here are unanimous in our conclusions, as well as in our concern for the welfare of the empire. Surely my king will not be angry at his servants for being solicitous of his benefit?” Again the crossed hands, the infuriatingly subservient bow.

Cyrus stood up from his place at the council table and paced to a nearby window. Sighing, he recollected words of Gobhruz: of the Mede’ s refusal to become embroiled in the matters of the gods. By far the best policy, reflected Cyrus. Sometimes he became so confused by the myriad customs and practices of the multitude of deities reverenced by his diverse people that he hardly knew in which direction to bow in which city, or what things were repugnant to whom on what days. It was a wearisome nuisance, all this to-do with gods and demons—good for little, he had decided, except providing employment for tiresome pedants such as this Adad-ibni. Of all the religious practitioners he had encountered in his travels, only two had made much sense to Cyrus: the guardian of the flame at the mountain shrine of Ahura Mazda … and Daniel. Again he saw in Daniel’s haunted eyes the soul-bleeding longing for his mysterious, nameless God …

Ah, well, he thought. I have always insisted that the religious proclivities of my people be protected. Perhaps it is best to let these benighted conjurers of Babylon do as they think they must. What harm can come of it? He wheeled about. “Very well, Adad-ibni. What do your signs tell you ought to be done?”

Breathing a quiet sigh of relief, the mage said through his missing teeth, “My king is truly wise in his judgments! Now then—let the king decree as follows: For the next cycle of the moon, no man shall pray or bow down to any god or man except my lord Cyrus. As the regent of the gods on earth, this will ensure the absolute safety of my lord Cyrus and the order of his realm. Any man who refuses the terms of this decree should be punished for his disloyalty by being thrown to the lions.”

Cyrus stiffened. Was this truly necessary?

“Furthermore, my lord Cyrus,” oozed Adad-ibni, “the decree should be put in writing, and announced throughout the satrapies of Medea and Persia … ” —a crafty gleam came into the seer’s eye—“and most definitely here, in Shushan.” After all, thought the mage with evil glee, is not this where the hated Belteshazzar resides—here in the very house of the king? “Yes, in writing, O king, according to the ordinances of the empire, so that it cannot be altered by any man.” Crossed hands and the pious bowing of his head indicated that Adad-ibni had concluded his bizarre prescription for the safety of the empire.

Cyrus shook his head, staring in disbelief at the captain of his bodyguard. The soldier made a slight shrug. Cyrus, wishing to be instantly rid of the aggravating presence of this reptilian stargazer, said in a tone dripping with exasperation, “Very well. Send in a scribe.” A bodyguard hastened from the room to obey.

Adad-ibni, his old heart rattling in triumph, allowed himself a secret sneer.

“O LORD GOD, place Your blessing on those who are in Judah,” Daniel prayed, kneeling beside his western window, his face resting on his clenched hands. “And speed the building of Your Temple, that Your Name may again be adored in Jerusalem. Protect Your people, and preserve them alive, according to Your steadfast love and Your abundant promises … ” Grunting at the stiffness in his knees, he rose from the straw mat by the window and rearranged his robes. For a moment he gazed out his window toward the west, then turned to go back to his duties.closeup

Shuffling down the corridor to his audience room, he heard the cry of the herald. “Give ear! Give ear! A proclamation from our Lord the King, Cyrus the Achaemenean, Ruler of Lands! Give ear! Give ear!” Hurrying to the Great Hall, from whence the call issued, Daniel arrived with others like himself who hastened to hear the latest edict of the emperor.

Standing in the midst of the vast hall, the herald, flanked by two officers of the imperial guard, held a parchment from which he read. Daniel could see, dangling from the bottom of the script, the winged-circle seal of Cyrus’s own signet.

“The King, Cyrus the Achaemenean, the Great Lord, has caused to be written this day a proclamation for all the lands of the Medes and Persians. This word is written and may not be altered, according to the ordinances of Cyrus the King—may he live forever!

“For the next cycle of the moon, no man in Medea or Persia may pray or bend the knee to any god or man except Cyrus himself, the bounteous earthly regent of the gods. No man may make petition to any except Cyrus, nor may he sacrifice or do reverence to any idol or deity except Cyrus, the Great King. Any man who fails to comply with the gracious command of Cyrus the King shall be cast among the lions for his disloyalty. Let all his faithful and devoted subjects hear this decree, and obey!”cyrusdecree

Daniel’s heart froze. How could this be? Why should the king—who was not, as Daniel knew in his inmost heart, in need of such vain pride-stoking—make such pointless, frivolous use of the authority granted to him by the Lord of heaven? Daniel’s mind fled down the corridors of memory, back to a day long ago, when he had stood alone and panicked in his chamber on Adad street, frantically pondering the dilemma imposed on him by another such decree of a now-dead monarch.

Pulling away from the anxious memory of a time before, his eyes roved across the hall, among the muttering, departing ranks of nobles and courtiers.

Adad-ibni!

The mage stood in the shadows across the way, grinning at Daniel with a wicked, knowing look. Daniel’s mind flashed back once again: this time to a council chamber in Babylon, and the leering, calculating visage of a much younger but no less hateful Adad-ibni—smirking as he related his “vision” of the necessity for a loyalty-oath to Nebuchadrezzar, of a golden image on the plain of Dura, and of a furnace …

With a sinking certainty Daniel realized that the seer—his ancient, unsought enemy—had engineered this disastrous proclamation, just as he had masterminded the ceremony on the Dura plain, to avenge himself on Daniel for whatever supposed injury had originally engendered such rancid malice. Daniel turned to go. Across the huge chamber he could hear the fiendish sound of the mage’s chattering laugh.

For the remainder of Daniel’s day, the figures and tallies on the documents in front of him were a blurred succession of meaningless scratches. Over and over again his mind returned with a dreadful insistence to the lethal shape of his quandary. For a third time in his life his feet were tangled in a trap not of his own making. The first time he had surrendered abjectly to the voice of panic. He had lied to save his own life, allowing his friends to face the danger without him. The second time, in the matter of Nebuchadrezzar’s madness, he had spoken the words of God, but the fist of fear had choked them from his throat in a graceless, debasing babble of unnerved hysteria.

What would be his response this time? He had lived his life by now, it was true; often the fatigue of dragging about his worn-out body was almost more than he could endure. And yet … the dark, yawning void of Sheol was terrifying to contemplate. And when he was gone, what would remain to remind the earth he had existed? He had no offspring, no sons to say qaddish over his remains. And there was the horrifying way he would die: the hot, fetid breath of the lions, the terrible sharpness of their teeth, the rending pain of their claws! To be torn limb from limb, screaming in agony, watching with terror-widened eyes as the growling beasts ripped at one’s living flesh …

By the end of the day he knew what he must do. The appointed time came, and he rose from his place, dismissing his assistants. Panting with trepidation, now and again leaning upon the walls of the corridors, he made his way toward his suite.

Entering his rooms, he made directly for the woven mat beside his western window. He fell to his knees, clenching his hands in a white-knuckled grip. Resting his forehead on his fists, he prayed:

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,

for in You my soul takes refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings

until the disaster has passed …

I am in the midst of lions;

I lie among ravenous beasts:

men whose teeth are spears and arrows,

whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens—

praying

Daniel heard the door to his rooms creak open. He knew, without looking, who stole inside his suite—and why they had come. He did not so much as glance upward from his mat, but continued in a louder voice the ancient miktam of David:

They spread a net for my feet—

I was bowed down in distress.

They dug a pit in my path, but

they have fallen into it themselves …

I will praise You, O Lord, among the nations;

I will sing of You among the peoples,

for Great is Your love, reaching to the heavens;

Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;

let Your glory be over all the earth.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 27

FROM ALL THE FAR-FLUNG territories, from the four corners of the world, they came—armed caravans and ranks of liveried footmen, troops mounted upon richly caparisoned horses and bravely bedecked chariots. In silken palanquins and beneath gold-tasseled canopies they came: all the high and mighty lords, officials and advisers of Cyrus answering the call of ingathering. With every scrap of splendor they could muster, they descended to the plain beside the Ulai River, to the terraced battlements and high-walled citadels of Shushan, capital of the Persian Empire.caravan

Making the journey were erudite Chaldeans, aristocratic Medes, gold-adorned Lydians, swarthy Scythians, skin-clad Bactrians, fair-skinned Ionians, and the dark, quiet dwellers by the Indus. All the myriad tongues and tribes in the empire were represented. All answered the summons of the Aryan conqueror, the people’s king from the mountains of Persis who had bound them together into the greatest single realm the world had yet known. They gathered here in Shushan of Elam to hear the word of Cyrus the Persian, heir of Achaemenes, the Great King, King of Lands, Ruler of the World from the snowbound passes of the Hindu Kush to the warm, sparkling tides of the Great Sea in the west.

Daniel, swaying back and forth in his sedan chair, studied with interest the paving stones of the roadway leading toward the gates of Shushan. So, he thought—this is the royal highway Cyrus has begun. At its completion the road was to connect the central regions of the empire with its western terminus at Sardis. The highway would cover some twenty-score leagues, traversing the hot plains of Medea and the craggy mountains of Cappadocia and Anatolia. An ambitious project, Daniel mused. And yet he had learned, in the year of his association with this king, not to scoff at his designs, however unlikely they seemed at the time. The envoys from every nation under the sun, now winding their way to Shushan in obedience to this road-building king, were eloquent testimony to the danger of underestimating Cyrus’s vigor and determination.

ONE HUNDRED TWENTY satraps and viziers, along with all their chief advisers, counselors, and functionaries, were now gathered in the huge central courtyard of the imperial palace in Shushan, awaiting the arrival of their monarch. Pacing back and forth in a chamber just off the courtyard, Cyrus nervously rehearsed his intentions for this crucial audience, the men who would be the mainstay of his dominion over the huge, daunting diversity under his rule.

In all the satrapies, his method of organization was the same: The satrap was the administrator, the governor; he was directly answerable to the emperor. Further, the treasurer and commander of the garrison in each capital were carefully selected by Cyrus himself for their unquestioned loyalty. They, too, answered directly to him, not to the satrap. In this way the governance, the purse strings, and the military force of each satrapy rested directly in his hands. Thus he would discourage an ambitious satrap from becoming too independent in his stewardship of the land.

Beyond this, Cyrus planned yet another level of organization. He would this day, in the presence of all the primary officials of the realm, appoint three men who would stand between the emperor and the provinces—the “eyes of the king,” he called them. These super-administrators would be given extraordinary powers and would have their own agents, informers, and messenger networks. They would oversee the satraps, the garrison commanders, and the treasurers to ensure Cyrus that his wishes and best interests were being served throughout his empire. Their word and judgments would be in every respect more weighty and far-reaching than those of the governors and satraps, and of only slightly less import than those of the king himself.

For this reason he had summoned the assembly in the courtyard. He would announce, before them all, the three men who would be his eyes and ears throughout his vast dominion. No one could doubt that the three he called would have the absolute backing of the King of Lands and have at their disposal, with regard to the oversight of the satrapies, all the authority he himself might bring to bear. Confirming to himself once more the wisdom of his plan, he turned to the chamberlain. “Have the heralds announce my entry.”

Throughout the spacious plaza, the nobles of Cyrus’s empire fell to their faces as the trumpets hailed his entrance. Pacing slowly beneath the canopy carried by four brilliantly liveried slaves, he approached the ceremonial seat, its high back emblazoned with the royal seal of Achaemenes: a man—symbolizing the king—seated on the circle of the world, guarded on either side by two winged, lion-bodied cherubim. Above the trio hovered the representation of Ahura Mazda, seated on a winged throne.symbol

With regal deliberation Cyrus seated himself on the throne as the chamberlain cried, “Behold your king: Cyrus, heir of Achaemenes, King of Lands. May he live forever!” At this signal the nobles rose slowly, dusting their robes and rearranging their clothing. When all was again still in the courtyard, Cyrus spoke in a voice that carried clearly to each listening ear.

“I, Cyrus the King, have called and appointed each of you here. I have summoned you to my service that the peoples and lands under my protection might be well served … ”

Adad-ibni, in his place with the Chaldean delegation, listened only sketchily to the words of his lord. Most of his attention was focused ahead to where the hated Belteshazzar sat in his sedan chair at the forefront of the nobles of Babylon. How it rankled him to see this Jew, the bane of his existence, in the preeminent position! How did he do it? the mage wondered. This wretch wormed his way into the closest confidences of every king, every ruler in power. It was the more infuriating for its inexplicability.

If it were not worth his life to do so, he might have refused to attend this convocation, thus avoiding the despised sight of the maddeningly indestructible Hebrew—a constant, chafing reminder that he was Adad-ibni’s superior.

“Therefore it has pleased me,” Cyrus was announcing, “to appoint and affix three men, superior in wisdom and of proven loyalty, as my ambassadors extraordinary to all the realm—to see and act in all manner with my express authority, for the greater benefit of the kingdom. They shall be answerable only to the king, and shall have power to act on my behalf in any satrapy, any territory, any precinct of our vast empire.”

A greater stillness had enveloped the throng in the courtyard. The three persons named by the king would indeed be forces to be reckoned with. Surreptitiously, all the nobles began cutting their eyes about at each other. Who showed some hint, some gleam of self-satisfaction? Who gave any evidence that he knew his name was about to fall from the lips of his sire? Who in the next moments would be exalted above all in the empire, save the king himself? What shifts in allegiance would take place? Who would find himself in closer proximity to the emperor, perhaps by virtue of enjoying the good graces of one whose name was yet to be announced? Rapid, silent calculation buzzed about beneath the skulls of the emperor’s listeners as each judged his chances, or those of a friend—or an enemy.

“In the western reaches of the kingdom,” rang the voice of the king, “I appoint Lysidias, of Sardis in Lydia … ” The purple-robed Lydian, in a display of extreme self-control, kept his face impassive. But inside, the release of pent-up tension caused his heart to clamor within his ribs like a mad beast.

“In the east, I now call Hushtaspa, of Kermani … ” The Persian, of a kindred clan to that of Cyrus, did not appear surprised by the announcement, nor did he seem overly gratified. The vast, empty lands of the east—comprising the arid plateaus of the Aryan homeland, the desolate country of the Bactrians, and the Hindi frontier—were not generally considered a particularly rewarding post. There were constant incursions by the steppe-peoples from the north and scant rich country to support an opulent lifestyle. It was a necessary post, little more.

“And in the center, the heartland of the empire, I name Daniel—Belteshazzar, of Babylon … ”

Daniel, seated in his chair, allowed his cane to fall from suddenly numb fingers. He bowed his head. “Lord God,” he prayed silently, “please … I don’t want this—I’m too old.”bowedhead

Even as the words formed in his mind, he had another impression: To this he was called. He might not refuse the summons, for One greater than Cyrus had so ordained. With a sigh he leaned over and retrieved his crutch.

Adad-ibni’s face went slack with horror. Surely his ears had deceived him! Surely the name the king pronounced was not that of the cursed Jew! But no—those around the sedan chair now evidenced attitudes of greater respect, a more profound deference to the gnarled old fool! The seer wanted to tear his robe, to gash his cheeks and wail aloud—but instead he stood quietly in impotent rage, his vitals burning with the fervor of his hatred that had grown all the stronger and more cankerous in his old age, after the long years in which he had honed the futile blade of his envy.

THE CONGREGATION GATHERED atop the crest of the hill, surrounded by the debris of a ruined city. Although tears flowed freely on many faces, they were not all tears of sadness nor despair. Rivulets of joy coursed down many cheeks—mingled with grief-spawned tears for some, perhaps most. They rejoiced at a homecoming to a place most had never seen, and wept at the absence of many who should have come. They sang songs of celebration at the return to their ancient and holy homeland, and moaned dirges of heartache for the derelict condition of the sacred city. Such was the tangle of emotions known by those who had made the long journey: these exiles of Babylon, now come back to the despoiled, burned, weed-grown object of their longing—Mount Zion in Judah.

Earlier in the day a group of elders and heads of clans had gathered atop Mount Moriah. At the feet of Jozadak and the other priests they had heaped silver, gold, and bolts of purest white linen. Jozadak, as he stacked a portion of the gold and silver given to him by the dying Egibi, felt grateful tears overwhelming his eyes. As he watched the bringing of the gifts devoted to the Temple’s rebuilding, he remembered his oath to his employer, and quoted softly to himself:

O Lord, the God who saves me,

day and night I cry out before You;

turn Your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of trouble

and my life draws near the grave …

Evening fell. As the returnees drifted toward their tents and makeshift shelters built against the night’s chill, one old man remained in the ruined city. Like a lost soul, he drifted among the broken walls, the weed-choked places that had once been bustling courtyards and marketplaces. As if searching for something lost among the fragments of the city’s destruction, Hananiah wandered along the broken, dust-drifted streets that had once been so full of life. For a full generation now, the only sounds these alleys and avenues had heard was the occasional bleating of strayed goats or the yip of hunting jackals.

The shuffling elder hummed softly as he ambled aimlessly along the pathways of his dim youth. Now and again a word or half a phrase would pass his lips, the only outward evidence of the music that flowed, full and lush and enthralling, within his mind:

By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion …

“Mishael, do you remember when we used to play here, when we were children?” he spoke aloud, though no other person was present. He had momentarily halted his wandering and was gazing out across a courtyard paved with cracked, upthrust stones and rimmed by a smashed wall. In his mind, two laughing boys raced across the expanse. He blinked, and the image was gone. He turned to go.brokenwall

He has set His foundation on the holy mountain;

the Lord loves the gates of Zion

more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are said of you, O city of God …

Leaning against the place where the Ephraim Gate had been, he recalled a day when he and Azariah had stood atop the wall that once rose here, their eyes huge and glistening with distress as they watched the entourage of Nebuchadrezzar’s envoy riding into the city. Scant days later, they would find themselves marching away to a future that loomed before them as threatening and implacable as the shrouded gates of Sheol. Terrified boys would look in misery over their shoulders, striving through tear-shimmering eyes to catch a last glimpse of their mothers and fathers, to fix in their fright-shackled minds a last memory of the blessed gates of the doomed, glorious City of the Name.

With new tears rolling down his leathery cheeks, he staggered away from the jagged, broken, impotent columns of the gate.

You have rejected us, O God, and burst forth upon us;

You have been angry—now restore us!

You have shaken the land and torn it open;

mend its fractures, for it is quaking …

The streets leading to the Temple mount were choked with crumbling debris. By the time Hananiah reached the scattered bones of what was once the New Gate, the moon was halfway up the star-scattered, velvet night sky. He thought of the festival days, the high days of the Lord, the days when celebrants came with songs of joy to the crest of Moriah:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

Where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth …

The Lord will watch over your coming and going,

both now and forevermore …

How long? he wondered. How long before the throngs of worshipers could again make that mirthful ascent to the beautiful gates of the Lord’s house? Would he live long enough to see again the clouds of smoke, to smell the rich, soul-fattening scent of the freewill offerings roasting on the altar?

Once he and Daniel had stood here, their tiny hands enfolded in those of their fathers; with the nobility of Judah they had watched the priests, clad in their dazzling white garments—the very image of the purity and majesty of El Elyon—performing their duties with a solemn delight that throbbed like a heartbeat throughout the great courtyard of the Temple.

“Daniel, my friend, my brother … I am here again, at last,” he mumbled aloud. “I have come to the ruined center of all that we were, and I have brought my memory of you here with me … ” He clenched his fist to his chest, as if reassuring himself of the location of a secreted treasure.

He thought of the piercing bliss of the homecoming, of the ecstasy of again standing on the soil of Zion—an ecstasy mixed with jagged shards of anguish: anguish for those left behind, for the many who had died before seeing this day; anguish for the awful reality, its horror dimmed scarcely a whit by the passage of three-score and ten years of the dreadful, holy wrath that had burned against this city.

The duality, the essential melding of profound pain and profound joy, moved mightily within Hananiah at this moment —as if the sleeping spirit of Mishael stirred within him, strove through his living hands and lips to utter that which was denied those in Sheol. As if Daniel, still far away in the land beyond the Two Rivers, now reached out to link souls with him. As if Azariah roused from his slumber amid the tombs of Babylon to join in a final hymn of homecoming.sadoldman

A song formed within his mind, a song woven of all that he was and all that he knew, all that he had kept and all that he had lost—the sum of the losses and keepings which had brought him surely to this very instant in time. The indissoluble union of loss and gain—of losing in order to gain—crystallized within his wondering spirit, clothed itself with bone and sinew. As if summoned by his need, by the gaping vacancies and choking passions in his heart, melody and words looped together within his mind.

When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion,

we were like men who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us,

and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like streams in the Negev.

Those who sow in tears

will reap with songs of joy.

He who goes out weeping,

carrying seeds to sow,

Will return with songs of joy,

carrying sheaves with him …

A shaft of rapture held him in breathless wonder. He sat down on a broken wall stone. Tomorrow, he knew, would be soon enough to seek pen and parchment—he would not likely forget the words, etched as they were in the fabric of his soul. Again he breathed, in a voice hollow with awe, “The Lord has done great things for us … ”

“I TELL YOU, he has bewitched the king!” Adad-ibni’s eyes were yellow with fury, and flecks of spittle spattered from his trembling lips, thinned with age and anger. “If we don’t act, Belteshazzar will hold absolute power over our fates! Do you relish such a prospect?”

His mad stare dared them to disagree. Slowly the other mages and counselors seated in the darkened chamber shook their heads. One of them hesitantly opened his mouth to speak. “Lord Adad-ibni … I have lived all my life in Babylon, in the imperial court. And I have never known Lord Belteshazzar to seek vengeance on anyone. Indeed I have scarcely known anyone who had ill to speak of him. How then can you say—”

“But don’t you see?” interjected the wrinkled mage, the words hissing insistently between his missing teeth. “The very absence you mentioned—that is the mark of his cunning!” Several brows at the table curdled in confusion. Slapping the table in impatience, the gnarled mage pointed a crooked finger at the one who had just spoken. ‘“You—Lord Shatak! You are under-satrap in Babylon, are you not?”

The noble, blinking in surprise at the mage’s vehemence, nodded.

“And how long have you been in the court of Babylon?”

Shatak calculated silently. “Almost two-score years and ten. But what—”

“And in all that time,” Adad-ibni pressed, “how many kings has Belteshazzar served?”

“Cyrus,” mused the satrap, “and before him, Nabu-Naid; there was Nergal-Sharezer, and before him, Awil-Marduk, and the first, Nebuchadrezzar.”

“Don’t forget Labashi-Marduk,” put in one of the others.

“Oh, yes,” amended Shatak, ‘I always forget him—such a short time … ”

“Six!” shouted Adad-ibni, a mad grin of triumph stretching across his gap-toothed face. “Six kings—all but one now dead! Don’t you see the implication?”

The others stared dumbly at the animated face of the aged seer.

“Fools!” spat the old man. “Are you all meek, trusting children? Belteshazzar has outlived six kings and the coming of Cyrus unscathed because he is so crafty, so subtle in his maneuvering, that no one can detect him!”

“Old man, you are crazy!” laughed Shatak. “Just because Belteshazzar has survived your spite these many years does not indicate that he is anything other than what he seems to be: an honest, intelligent, diligent man. You have spent too many years mumbling over star charts. Your eyes see signs that don’t exist.” Chuckling in derision, Shatak got up from the table and walked toward the door. Turning about at the entryway, he said, “The hour is late, and I have better things to do this night than listen to the hateful prattlings of a skin-headed old stargazer.” Casting a final glance about the room, he left.

Adad-ibni was apoplectic. Trembling with rage, he stared death at the one who had just departed. He shook a knobby fist at madthe closing door. “I am still chief mage of Babylon,” he hissed. “I know the ways of the mighty ones, and of the demons in their lairs. He who does not heed my words is an ass.” His livid gaze swung toward those who remained in the chamber with him. “I tell you: Belteshazzar will soon be the mightiest man in the empire. Do any others of you here question the vision of the First Seer of Babylon?”

The nobles looked from one to another. No one was willing to contradict the furious mage—who, after all, seemed deadly sure of the truth of his allegations. And indeed, he was a very learned man, whose business it was to read portents and omens invisible to common men. One after another, they slowly shook their heads. They would not impede Adad-ibni in his dark design.

“Very well, then,” the mage crackled. “This is what must be done … ”

Secretly, one of the mage’s listeners made the sign against the evil eye.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 26

THE SHRILL BLAST of the trumpets brought a sudden halt to the raucous babble in the bustling courtyard. Egibi’s oldest son, leaning against the doorway of the counting house, broke off the conversation he had been having with Jozadak, his father’s chief overseer. Along with everyone else in the crowded street, the banker and his gray-bearded employee craned their necks to see the imperial herald as he cried aloud whatever pronouncement Cyrus had composed for him.

“Cyrus, the Great King, the King of Lands, has made a proclamation and has put it in writing, so that it cannot be changed!” The fellow shouted his message, holding above his head a clay cylinder imprinted with the winged circle of the Persian monarch. “This word shall be announced throughout all the realm of Cyrus, to all the lands and nations which know his just and gracious rule!

“This is what Cyrus, king of Persia, Medea, Lydia, and Babylon, says:

“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem in Judah. For any of His people among you—may their God be with them. And let them go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.

“And the people of any place where Hebrew survivors may now be living are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”

proclamationSlowly the din of the marketplace returned, most of the buyers and sellers exchanging quizzical remarks and queries about the place referred to in the emperor’s edict. Few had ever heard of Jerusalem or Judah. Within a few moments, amid shrugs and shakings of the head, the odd announcement was forgotten. Urgent matters of commerce superseded useless speculation about the king’s intent concerning this unknown place.

Bel-Adan, the son of Egibi, turned to ask Jozadak what he knew of these strange goings-on, but halted before he could speak, his eyes widening in surprise. Tears were streaming down the face of the older man, as over and over again Jozadak whispered, in a voice choked with joy, a single Hebrew phrase.

“Hallelu-Yah!”

BEFORE THE SUN SET that day, breathless word came to the leaders of the Hebrew community in Babylon of the miraculous proclamation of Cyrus. Before the next shabbat, the message had reached the Jews of Opis, Sippar, and Nippur. Not since the legendary days of the Departure from Egypt had such a scurrying, joyful bustle been seen. In every Hebrew household the discussion was of which families would make the return journey to Judah and which would not, what to take and how much, how to dispose of things that could not be taken, and all the myriad intricacies accompanying the mass relocation of an extensive population.

In the house on Adad Street it was a bittersweet time. Joel, oldest son of Azariah and Ephratah, had decided to remain behind in Babylon to care for the ailing Ephratah. His sister Milcah and her husband—a fine, vigorous Hebrew of Benjamite stock—would join those repatriating Judah, as would their younger brother, yet unmarried. Many were the quiet conversations, many the memories of things past and the conjectures on things to come. The air was full of plans, hopes, and dreams—and of the wistful sorrow of parting. Their days were a transient mix of joy, sadness, and apprehension.

THE DAY CAME when Ezra, Jozadak, his son Yeshua, and a large band of Levites and priests gathered in the courtyard of the imperial palace, their faces those of men about to see a cherished dream become reality. Presently a line of porters headed by Mithredath, chief steward of the imperial treasury at Babylon, came into view, each porter bearing one or more sturdy wooden casks. Under the watchful eye of Mithredath, the servants carefully placed the casks on the ground at the feet of the eagerly waiting Hebrews.

Slowly, reverently, Jozadak lifted the lid on the nearest cask. Glowing softly within were ten of the solid gold dishes forged in the days of Solomon—consecrated for use in the Lord’s Temple. A gasp of awe escaped his lips as he beheld these, some of the most ancient and holy artifacts of his people. The other containers held the silver and gold dishes, tongs, and other utensils of the Temple pillaged during the fall of Jerusalem. After a generation they were at last returned to the hands of those who knew their proper employment. The Levites looked at one another, unable to put their emotions into words.golddish

Jozadak and his son returned to the house of Egibi with hearts full almost to bursting. As they entered the main room, Jozadak was startled to see old Egibi himself, frail and near death, lying on his couch just outside the door to his private rooms. Everyone in the counting house—indeed, every merchant in the banking district—knew this illness would be his last. Since its onset Egibi had scarcely been glimpsed outside the sanctuary of his rooms. And it was better so, for on the recent rare occasions when he had come to the areas where business was conducted, the entire establishment became subdued, cast under the pall of its owner’s looming death. Even now the normally bustling main room of Egibi and Sons was as quiet and somber as a gathering beside a crypt. Each scribe and errand boy paused in his routes, arrested by the cold ambience of finality wafting outward from the bed of the master of the house.

Weakly, Egibi gestured toward Jozadak, beckoning him. Jozadak whispered to his son, “Go along, Yeshua. I will attend our patron.” Needing no other urging, Yeshua hurried away, anxious to leave the vicinity so overshadowed by impending death. Not quite knowing what to expect, Jozadak approached the berth where Egibi lay.

When Jozadak had reached the side of his employer, Egibi signaled limply to the four servants attending his bier. Carefully they raised the couch and carried the sick man toward his rooms. Not knowing what else to do, Jozadak followed. When the servants had gently placed Egibi’s couch on the floor in his chamber, the ill banker dismissed them with a waggle of his fingers. They left, and Egibi whispered throatily to Jozadak, “Close the door.” Jozadak closed and secured the· door, stepping quietly back to his employer’s side.

For long moments Egibi said nothing, peering up into the face of his oldest and most trusted employee. Jozadak could hear the tattered sound of the air rattling in and out of Egibi’s lungs. The skin of the dying old man’s face, once so taut with the pudgy evidence of his prosperity, now lay in pallid folds along his jowls and beneath the darkening caves in which his eyes crouched. Those eyes, still keen despite the fading of the light behind them, gripped Jozadak’s face with an almost palpable pressure. At last, with an effort painful to watch, Egibi gathered breath to speak.

“You are going back with the others,” he rasped.

Jozadak confirmed the statement with a silent nod.

“Why?” It was a single word, but the expression on Egibi’s face was eloquent with layers of meaning. Have I not been good to you? the face asked. What can there be in Judah for one who has lived all his life in Babylon? Who will help my sons maintain this trade I have spent my life nurturing? And just perhaps, Jozadak thought, there was a trace of wonderment in the sallow visage of Egibi—a haunted musing: Is there a god truly worth all this bother, all this upheaval? As the shadows of death lengthened on his horizons, could Egibi be listening to some faint echo from the forgotten past of his Israelite ancestry?

As gently as he could, Jozadak tried to clarify. “Honored patron, though my body was given birth in this land between the Two Rivers, my soul was born in Judah, atop the hill of Zion. I can no more forget Jerusalem, though I have never seen her, than I could forget the name of my father. I am of the line of Aaron, my master Egibi. Do you know what that means?”

The confused squint of Egibi showed he did not. Inwardly Jozadak sighed for the impoverishment of this man’s heritage. When Sargon of Nineveh had carried his forebears to this place he had robbed Egibi of something—robbed him so completely he had never noticed its lack.

Quietly Jozadak explained. “I am of the priestly caste of Israel. It is my role, and that of my son Yeshua after me, to minister in the House of Adonai—in Jerusalem.” Merely saying the words, Jozadak felt a thrill ripple along his spine. For a moment, his eyes glazed over in wonderment. Soon! he thought.

Then Egibi was tugging at his sleeve. “Once, in this very room,” the dying man wheezed, “you spoke to me of the god of Israel.”

Jozadak winced, remembering the awkwardness of that evening so many years ago.

“I have remembered that conversation,” gasped Egibi, “and the heat of your words.”

For many heartbeats, the only sound in the room was the labored breathing of Egibi. Finally, he gathered himself for another attempt at speech. Feebly aiming a trembling finger at a brass-bound wooden box in the corner of the room, he breathed, “Open it.”

Puzzled, Jozadak went to the box and raised its cover. Inside were stacks of silver strips. To Jozadak’s practiced eye, the sum appeared to be on the order of forty mana, if not a full talent. Replacing the cover he returned to his master’s bedside, his brow furled in bafflement.

“Beneath the talent of silver,” said Egibi, his voice thin and dry as old parchment, “there is another—of gold.”

Jozadak nodded, but he still failed to comprehend.

“Take it,” sighed Egibi in a breath-starved whisper, “and use it … as you see fit.” Exhausted, the banker fell back on his couch, fighting for air.

Jozadak felt his face stiffening in shock. A talent of gold and one of silver! More wealth than he could imagine—being placed in his hands!

“My patron!” he whispered in a voice swollen with astonishment. “Are … are you certain? What will your sons—”

With a curt movement of his hand, Egibi cut short his overseer’s question. Gathering his breath, he said, silver“My sons need not be concerned in this. I have but few sunrises left, but such as remain to me, I will use as I see fit.” Glaring imperiously at Jozadak, he sucked feebly at the air before finishing: “This is yet the house of Egibi!”

Abashed and overwhelmed, Jozadak lowered his head, his chest heaving with a storm of emotions whirling too fast to be named. When he managed to regain his voice, he said, “Very well, my master. I will do as you say. And … ” For several moments, he tried to find a way to squeeze the words in his mind past the constriction in his throat. “And, honored patron, I pledge to you—” Again he struggled with the surge of feelings which now forced burning tears from the corners of his eyes. “I pledge to you that I will say a qaddish for you, atop the holy hill of Zion.” Completely overcome at last, Jozadak grasped the cold, limp hand of his patron, bringing it to his lips in a kiss of gratitude.

Something like a smile bloomed faintly across the parched cheeks of Jacob-Egibi, dying merchant of Babylon.

DANIEL HEARD THE SHUFFLING STEPS behind him, and turned around. It was Hananiah. As soon as he saw his old friend, he knew what he would say.

“Will you not come?” the aged musician asked, his eyes dark pools of concern.

Daniel sighed, looking away. Slowly he shook his head. “I cannot, my old friend.”

The silence was as long and compelling as a shared lifetime. “Why?” queried Hananiah, finally.

Daniel glanced at the other man, then limped over to a chair, groaning as he lowered himself carefully into it. “Come, sit,” he beckoned, gesturing toward a seat adjacent to his. “My old knees are too stiff for getting up and down from cushions, Hananiah. As you can see, I now prefer higher seating. Less stylish perhaps, but easier on old men like us, eh?”

Hananiah slowly seated himself, his eyes never leaving the face of his friend. Daniel swallowed, then peered into the familiar, time-worn face of Hananiah. “I am too old and tired—”

“We are the same age,” interrupted Hananiah curtly. “Since we buried Mishael two years ago, you and I are the only ones left who made the long journey of exile. Will you not complete the circle with me, back to Jerusalem?”

It was the longest speech Daniel had heard Hananiah make in many years. It was a measure of the tremendous sentiment between the two men that he was so voluble. Daniel felt the tendrils of confusion and apprehension reaching from Hananiah’s soul toward his own, groping for understanding, for reassurance. He felt them twine securely about his heart, evoking and intensifying the poignant pangs of leave-taking that were his constant companions in these days of parting.

His throat aching with emotion, he said, “I cannot, Hananiah. I am too deeply embedded in this place.” A pain-filled chuckle escaped him. “It seems that I have, at last, become a creature of Babylon.”

The wounded, puzzled expression on Hananiah’ s face twisted the knife of sadness piercing his friend’s heart. “Oh, my brother,” Daniel cried, his voice breaking on the edge of his grief. “How many the times I have stared out that western window yonder and longed for Judah as a lost child longs for its mother! twooldmenEach day Jerusalem has been a prayer on my lips, an ache in my breast! And now—now that the Eternal has taken up Jacob in the palm of His hand to bring him back to the land of promise—He has shown me that I must remain behind.”

A gulf, a vacuum as hushed as darkness, yawned within the quiet places of their souls as the two old friends helplessly pondered this enigmatic tragedy that was all but lost in the festive preparations for Israel’s homecoming. That one who desired so much to depart must remain behind …

From the quiet musician came a single word: “Why?”

Daniel massaged his eyes with the tips of his fingers, then shook his head, looking away. “I cannot say, old friend. Something He desires of me, some task yet remaining … ” He groped for more words, a more fitting explanation, but his hands gestured mutely in the air.

The two old men sat staring at the void that soon would gape between their spirits: the impending parting—their final parting. So many leagues, so many years they had shared …

“Daniel, I must go. I have waited for this day … ”

“Of course you must!” Daniel asserted. “Of all people I need the least explanation of your motives. You must go back.

“And I will ask this of you, Hananiah,” said Daniel, after another pause. “When you arrive at Zion … when you see the sun rise over the hills of Benjamin … will you think of me? Will you say my name there, atop the mountain of the Lord? Will you again bring the name of Daniel before the Lord there, in the place where His name dwells? Will you do this for me?”

The two aged men exchanged a long, liquid look brimming with all the pain, joy, grief, fear, and quiet understanding of two long lifetimes of brotherly love. A lambent tear trembled in the eye of Hananiah, then broke, spilling raggedly down his cheek, becoming lost in the labyrinth of wrinkles on his face. His fingers quivered, striking the invisible strings of a nonexistent harp—as he plucked from the chords of their hearts a haunting melody, pregnant with fathomless sorrow. He nodded at Daniel. There was no more to be said.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 25

THE MARTIAL ANNOUNCEMENT of the trumpets was lost in the huge roar of acclamation that rose, as if of a single immense throat, from the vast crowds thronging the walls of Aibur Shabu.

From between the massive, dragon-emblazoned columns of the Ishtar Gate—as if the strength of Babylon herself had somehow given him new birth—rode Cyrus the conqueror astride a jet-black Nisayan charger. He was surrounded on all sides by the bristling hedge of his bodyguards’ lances.

As he rode through the deafening wall of adoration, Cyrus fancied the mob’s exuberance was not entirely feigned. He had correctly interpreted the currents of mistrust and hostility engendered by Nabu-Naid’s misguided policies and the coarse harshness of his son. As in Ecbatana, he was looked upon as a deliverer, a people’s king, a remedy to the oppressive hand of a tyrant. And he knew, with the instinct of a performer, how to draw their even greater admiration for this, his latest conquest. Before this day was over, he would be enthroned not only in the Great Hall of Babylon, but also in the hearts and minds of her citizens.cyrusHorse

The cortege moved slowly along the Processional Way, showered with the praises of Babylon. As he drew near the huge archway of Esagila, Cyrus reined his steed to a halt and dismounted. The throngs quieted, watching attentively as their new monarch, now leaving behind the diligent phalanx of his bodyguards, walked into the huge plaza of the House of Marduk. In the center of the courtyard a company of priests awaited the coming of Cyrus. At the forefront stood the chief priest of Marduk, who watched anxiously as the solitary, commanding figure strode purposefully toward him.

Cyrus reached the priests and received their obeisance. In a loud voice, he said, “I greet Marduk, the great lord, who has brought me safely and peacefully within the walls of this city. It is my wish that all men know of my reverence for the gods, and I hereby order the immediate return of the holy ones to the cities and temples that are their proper residing places. Let it be done!”

He turned on his heel, striding back the way he had come. He heard the gratified sighs of the priests at his back. Permitting himself a tiny smile, he continued toward his waiting bodyguard.

LATER THAT DAY Cyrus entered the throne room, as the waiting courtiers fell to their faces. With measured tread he paced toward the Dragon Throne, carefully eyeing the facade behind the dais. His Aryan sense of proportion was gratified by the four stylized palm trees and by the striking contrast between the deep blue of the glazed-brick background and the bright reds and yellows of the trees themselves. He seated himself upon the throne, resting his palms upon the cool gold of its carved dragons’ heads. His amber gaze imperiously roved the vast chamber as his subjects quietly rose from their obeisance.

By ones and twos they came, the nobility and other leaders of Babylonian society. Merchants, generals, landowners, shaven-headed representatives of the god-houses—all making the quiet pilgrimage of devotion to their new lord. Quietly they whispered the formulas of homage as they knelt before the Dragon Throne. Gravely Cyrus received them, nodding his mute benediction upon each of them in turn.

Adad-ibni, as chief seer, was responsible for producing the chronicle of Cyrus’s conquest in accordance with the approved signs and portents. He was acutely conscious of the importance of this first interview with the new emperor, and he felt his palms sweating as he approached the dais, his head lowered in respect. When he reached the edge of the platform he knelt, holding before him a clay tablet covered with script in the Old Babylonian language, used in court since the days of Nebuchadrezzar.

“My lord Cyrus, please accept the humble labor of your servant Adad-ibni, chief of his majesty’s seers, soothsayers, and mages,” came the wrinkled voice of the black-robed old man. “As my lord Cyrus knows, his coming was foretold by the mighty gods themselves, writ large in the skies for all to see. Your humble servant has made a history of these omens and foreshadowings, and he now offers these to the mighty Cyrus, for his reading, approval, or amendment.”

Cyrus stared down at the shaven, parchment-like scalp of the venerable mage. Is this a veiled insult? he wondered. Did the Chaldeans, so prideful of their ancient learning, attempt to tweak him subtly for the illiteracy of his Parsi heritage? He looked up at Gobhruz, standing near his right shoulder. The commander returned his gaze stoically, as if to say, “You have sought the kingship of this place. How will you respond?” The gray beard of his mentor twitched, but he offered not a word, not a gesture.

“Bring me the tablet,” he commanded, and an aide jerked forward to place the proffered document in the king’ s outstretched hand.

Cyrus made a show of scanning the tablet, his mind furiously churning to find a way past this dilemma. The request had been couched most eloquently by the old man; he had not seen any previous hint that the Chaldean nobility or priesthood wished him anything other than the utmost respect. Yet his pride bridled at openly displaying the disadvantages of his semi-nomadic legacy. He was ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever known! How could he admit, in this renowned seat of age-old knowledge, that he could not read even the Aramaic spoken by all his vassal lands, much less this archaic language of dead Chaldean kings?

The notion of such an indignity was so repugnant to him that in desperation he decided upon a brazen bluff. Handing the tablet to the aide, he indicated that it should be passed back to Adad-ibni. Without looking up, the chief seer accepted the tablet and bowed himself backward from the dais, returning to the silent, deferential ranks of the courtiers.

In a ringing voice, Babylon’s new ruler said, “This writing pleases us. Be it known to all that I, Cyrus, the Great King, the king of lands, monarch of Sumer and Akkad, and the One ascribed as Darius the King of Medea and Persia, say this: The word of the Medes and Persians, which shall henceforth govern this place and all places that lie under our beneficent rule, shall not be broken, nor may they be changed. Once written, the word of the Medes and Persians shall stand forever. So let it be babylonScrolldone.”

Carefully Cyrus studied the manner and bearing of the Chaldean courtiers. They had received the bold proclamation in awed silence; no glimmer of anything other than submissive acceptance showed in their faces or attitudes. Good, he thought. They shall see that I respect the written word as much as any trained scholar. A look of calm satisfaction spread across his features—until his eyes found the face of Gobhruz.

The old Mede would not look at him. Eyes averted, his air was one of mute reproach to the presumption and dissimulation of his king. Invisible to all but himself and Gobhruz, a trace of the satisfaction left Cyrus’s features. Chastened, he turned his attention toward another nobleman who now approached the dais mumbling, as had the many preceding him, the contrite litany of subservience to the great King Cyrus.

“BUT WHEN THE SEVENTY YEARS are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever. I will bring upon that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands … ”

Daniel laid aside the scroll, a deep sigh surging upward from his roiled soul. For the first time in many years the sad, noble face of Jeremiah rose up before him. How amazing it was to contemplate: Though his body had lain in an anonymous crypt in Egypt for scores of years, that great, troubled man of God still spoke to Daniel’s spirit, just as surely as he had spoken on that Syrian night so many lifetimes ago! Daniel gently stroked the scroll of the prophet’s words, as if by doing so he stroked the beard of the long-departed man who had striven to bring comfort to a frightened boy.

And how surely the sweeping scythe of God reaped the very harvest foretold by Jeremiah during the days of Daniel’s youth! The downfall of the nations opposing Nebuchadrezzar, the ruin of Zion … And then, the fall of the lineage of Nebuchadrezzar—indeed, of the entire Semitic hierarchy! The rise of the Persian nation, and its great king, Cyrus. All shown to Jeremiah so long ago.

But the words that haunted Daniel, that summoned the heartsick, nameless storms in his soul, were the last ones he had read:

I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands …

Who could stand before the righteousness of the Almighty? With a melancholy certainty, Daniel knew the uncleanness of his own heart, the craven desire for self-preservation, the words withheld that should have been spoken, the passivity when action should have been taken, the secret enjoyment of the power and prestige of his rank.

And he knew his experience was not unique. Ezra, Shemaiah, and others of the elders and teachers of the Hebrews had discussed this painful subject with him at length. All felt the disquiet—sometimes vague, sometimes as pointed as a red-hot dagger—of the immeasurable chasm between the fitful glimmerings in the soul of a man—even a good man—and the white-hot, unapproachable purity of Adonai Elohim.

How then was it possible that this God, this utterly blameless Presence, could tolerate the proven faithlessness, the wearily redundant disobedience of this people Israel? Why should He rebuild Jerusalem and bring them back from the myriad places to which He had scattered them, if they were so powerless to maintain His standards? Why should it be any different this time?

A deep, soul-wrenching moan tore at the moorings of his spirit. Daniel fell face-down on the floor of his room. His arm reached beseechingly toward his window, through which the burnished light of the setting sun cast its fading glory—reaching west, toward Jerusalem. Crying aloud, the words crowded past his lips in a surge of shame.

“O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands: We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You … ”

The sun sank on a purple and gold cushion into the west, and still Daniel poured out the groanings of his soul before the Lord. Against all hope, against all the contrary tide of his own unworthiness, Daniel pleaded mightily with the God of his people, begging earnestly for a fate he knew with all surety was better than they—or he—deserved.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant. For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary … ”

He thought of the emptying of the temples of Uruk, of Nippur and Opis, and of the deep resentment the foolish proclamation of Nabu-Naid had engendered. How much more terrible, how much greater the anguish spawned by the desolation of Zion! And that was done not by the edict of an addled old king, but by the severe, burning hand of the True God Himself —as if the stench of His people was so great that He must unremittingly cancel all evidence of His habitation with them, even to the extent of ravaging the house of His own Name!

A black wail of misery gushed from between Daniel’s lips, as his prayer continued. “Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your Name. We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy.”

agedDanielDrained of words, emptied almost of thought itself, he concluded with a plea the more impassioned for its directness. “O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your Name.”

Almost insensible with grief and exhaustion, he buried his face in his arms, still prostrate on the floor of his suite. As he drifted toward a black chasm of unconsciousness, a diamond-hard spear point of light stabbed into his aching brain. And for a third time he felt the terrifying, onrushing precursor of the Eternal’s presence within his mind.

Again the ringing, thundering voice of the Guide called his name, in tones as huge and frightening as eternity. He spoke to Daniel of the rebuilding of a city, of the passage of ages and seasons, of the wickedness of kings and the coming of an Anointed One. The brilliant hues of the Almighty’s grand tapestry absorbed him, drew him helpless into its dazzling vortex. It swirled about him with wonders beyond understanding, visions beyond retelling. Finally it ebbed away from him, casting him ashore on the familiar shoals of his own overburdened senses.

And then Daniel slept.

HE AWOKE with the early light of dawn tracing its pink hues along the walls of the palace. Looking down, he realized he had fallen asleep fully clothed. He lay half on his couch, half on the carpeted floor beside. Rising, he winced at the stiffness of his old joints, made the more severe by the awkward position in which he had lain. As he sleepily rubbed the back of his neck, a knock came upon his door.

A page entered, holding out a message cylinder sealed with the winged-circle impression of Cyrus’s royal signet. Taking the cylinder, he scanned the Aramaic script and heard the ominous muttering of fate at the back of his skull. The emperor wished to see him. Today. Alone.

CYRUS PEERED into the highly polished brass mirror on the wall of the chamber. Though his thick, straight locks still retained much of the robust, sandy-brown shade of his youth, the white filaments of age proliferated more and more. Only to be expected, he realized, in a man who had passed three-score years.

And yet his vigor was unabated. He still felt able to ride and to wield the lance and scimitar as well as ever. Why might he not continue to rule for many years over this vast kingdom he had forged?

Behind him came the sound of shuffling feet and the tap of a cane. He wheeled about to see a stooped, white-bearded old man enter and make obeisance—as best his feeble knees would allow.

“My king, I am Daniel, who is called Belteshazzar,” the old fellow was saying. “I have answered the summons of the king.”

“Ah, yes,” replied Cyrus, taking his seat on a nearby cushion. “Please rise, Vizier Belteshazzar—or do you prefer your native name?”

Visibly pleased at being asked, the old man answered, “Daniel, my king. It is the name my father gave me, and it gives me much pleasure to hear it spoken aloud.”

Cyrus smiled in an open, boyish way. “Very well then, Daniel. You must be curious as to why I have called you here alone.”

The dark, watery eyes of the old man blinked, but he made no other reply.

“A king is but a man, Daniel,” began Cyrus. “He sees only what is visible to a man. Yet his eyes and ears must be all about. He must be able to hear the words of his people, even those that remain unspoken. And he must see what will happen in the future, as well as what is happening in the present.” Remembering the words spoken so long ago by another counselor, Cyrus mused, “A king, if he is to remain a king, must be ever attentive to those he governs. When he ceases to be so, he ceases to be a king. He may remain in power, may continue to exercise authority by force of arms—but he is no longer a king.”

Daniel, gazing down the long corridor of his memory, nodded to himself. Then Cyrus was again speaking.

“A king must be a student of men, Daniel. I have examined many men under many different circumstances. Even in this court of Babylon I have closely observed the nuances of expression, the subtle outward suggestions of what some might wish to conceal. I know there are many within these ancient walls, Daniel, whose words and professions of loyalty mask motives that have little to do with allegiance to me.”

Now Daniel stared directly into the probing eyes of this perceptive, engaging conqueror.

“I have heard men speak of you, Daniel,” the king was saying. “It is said you have a wisdom beyond that of ordinary men. If this is true, I will have need of your counsel.”

Daniel bowed his head in respect. “My king has but to command, and his humble servant obeys.”

Cyrus studied the downcast face of Daniel for ten long breaths. In some ways this old fellow reminded him of Gobhruz, his lifelong servant, friend, and mentor. He found himself wishing to strike a deeper chord of familiarity with this venerable veteran of the Babylonian court. “My father gave me a name, too, Daniel,” said the king with a smile, changing his tone to a lighter, more intimate timbre in an effort to establish some bond with Daniel beyond that of king and courtier. “Do you want to know what it is?”

A premonition of inevitability turned a page within Daniel’s mind. His nostrils flared with the fragrance of the Eternal. Silently he nodded.

“In these parts they say ‘Cyrus,’ but in Aryan my name is ‘Kurash,”’ the king said. “In the language of the Persians, it means ‘Shepherd.’ That is what a king ought to be, Daniel. Not a butcher who terrorizes the herd, but a shepherd who guides his—” He stopped, frozen in mid-thought by the entranced expression on the face of Daniel, whose mouth opened to speak.

“ … who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited … ”

The old man was half-whispering words in some strange tongue, intoning in awe an incantation summoned from some memory too powerful to be suppressed. As Cyrus listened in curious confusion, Daniel went on:

“ … who says of Kurus, ‘He is My shepherd, and will accomplish all that I please … ’”

Now Daniel was staring at him with eyes glittering with import, with the suggestion—or perhaps the realization—of some momentous purpose. For some reason beyond conscious decision, Cyrus asked, “Those words you said just now—neither Aramaic nor Chaldean. What language were they?”

“I spoke Hebrew, my king—the tongue of my people.”

“You are not Chaldean? Your appearance is similar to that of the rest—”

Daniel shook his head. His white, bushy eyebrows protruded toward the king, his intense gaze honing his words like carefully chosen weapons. “No, my king. I am a Hebrew. Like the men of Chaldea, we are children of Shem, but scores of ages ago our clans diverged. Our most ancient father Abraham was called out of this country to go to the land promised him by the Most High.”

Suddenly, unaccountably, Cyrus felt less like a king examining a vizier and more like an infantryman who sought to pass some hitherto-unknown muster. With the disconcerting sense that his next words were expected, perhaps ordained, he asked another question.

“Why, then, are your people here, Daniel? And how did you, a foreigner, come to be in the high councils of the kings of Babylon?”

Daniel smiled. His head cocked as if he were listening to another voice, he waited long before replying. Finally he said, “The Almighty One, the God of heaven, caused us to be brought here from our own land because of our disobedience. It is He who has placed me within the halls of the kings of this place.” His eyes drilled into the very core of Cyrus’s being as he concluded, “And it is He who has brought you here, O my king, to accomplish the further unfolding of His will.”

For ten heartbeats, then twenty, the eyes of the king and those of the old man were frozen in a stare as inexorable as the tides of time. Cyrus found himself remembering the face of the holy man at the mountain shrine—remembering his words about a calling and a purpose, and his restless, beyond-seeking vision. The gaze that now gripped him was like that of the priest of Ahura Mazda, only more potent—as if what Diravanya sought so relentlessly had been found at last by this man who now spoke to him …dragonThrone

With a start Cyrus pulled his eyes away, striving to regain control of his emotions and the conversation. “Many gods have brought me to this day, Daniel,” he said, his words ringing false, even to his own ears. “Already the priests of Marduk have commissioned a stone tablet celebrating the Sun Lord’s sponsorship of my victory.” He pressed on: “And in every temple in Chaldea my name will be associated with the triumphs of the local deity.” Willing his face to remain impassive, he stared coolly at the old man. “Now you are telling me that your god is the next in this long line.”

Daniel shook his head, still smiling his enigmatic smile. Patiently, as if teaching a child, the vizier said, “My king does not understand. The astrologers and seers come to him with portents and omens reinterpreted in the light of what is already known.” Leaning forward on his cane, Daniel’s next words came in a whisper as focused and brilliant as the light in the eye of a god. “The words I quoted were written by a prophet of my people—almost eight-score years ago.”

The king’s mind reeled. Eight-score years! Was it possible? How could a man so long dead, living in a land neither Cyrus nor his fathers had ever seen, ascribe him service to a god whose name, even now, he knew not? The expression on Daniel’s face, the incontrovertible aura of holiness emanating from his every feature, told Cyrus more surely than the endorsement of a hundred witnesses that the words spoken by the aged vizier were dependable.

Cyrus’s next words were spoken quietly, without inflection, as if in that intimate striving of visions he and his servant had changed places, reversed roles—as if he, and not Daniel, must now attend to the wishes of the King.

“What, then, does your God require of me?”

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 24

BY THE TIME Daniel and the page arrived at Esagila, most of the places at the banquet tables were vacant. An apprehensive pall hung over the place like the echo of a mourner’s wail. With deliberate steps, Daniel approached the dais where Belshazzar huddled in dejected confusion. A small knot of priests and astrologers were gathered about him.

As Daniel paced toward the platform, his eyes swept across the legend charred indelibly into the wall. Four words. A heaven-sent motto whose meaning, even now, budded within his mind like a harbinger of fate.

Stepping onto the dais, his eyes took in the scene: the careless clutter left in the wake of the carousers; the sullen, motionless images of the city-gods; the nervous, untoward expressions on the faces of the facesmages and seers. Even Adad-ibni was here; like Daniel, he had been summoned hastily by the panic-stricken Belshazzar. As his eyes glided over the visage of the chief mage, Daniel noted the sullen resentment that festered in the eyes of Adad-ibni like an old wound.

Then his glance fell upon the upturned cup lying in a puddle of spilled wine atop the table where Belshazzar and his wives had sat. A surge of anger rippled outward from his stunned heart, bringing a flush of heat to his cheeks. Though he had never seen it during his childhood in Jerusalem, he knew the style and design of the jeweled gold chalice. Like the other Hebrews of Babylon, he had grieved over the reports of Nebuchadrezzar’s sacking of the Temple, his pillaging of the sacred utensils from the Holy Place. And now Belshazzar had brought the cup and its mates to this place of abomination, using that which was dedicated to the Holiness of Israel to drink a polluted toast to the images of Marduk, Ishtar, and Nergal!

As if hearing from a distance, Daniel realized that the crown prince had spoken to him. Reluctantly, striving to veil the righteous indignation in his eyes, Daniel pulled his vision away from the spoiled Temple utensils, and made a grudging salute to Belshazzar.

“I have heard,” the prince was saying in a nervous voice, “that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, Belteshazzar; that you have insight and wisdom. These”—he gestured vaguely toward the mages and astrologers huddled nearby—“could not read the writing that appeared on the wall. Can you?”kingface

Adad-ibni ground his teeth in impotent rage. Again! Once more he must stand idly by while this foreigner garnered the glory! The dull fires of lifelong resentment burned acridly in his stooped old frame as he listened on.

Daniel had made no reply to the prince’s anxious request. Still he stood, staring from the words on the wall to the chalice on the table, his jaw tensing and relaxing as if he would not willingly answer Belshazzar.

The prince, discomfited even more by Belteshazzar’s reticence, moved a half-step closer to the old Hebrew, his voice rising to a strident pitch of desperation. “If you can read this writing, Hebrew, I shall reward you richly! I shall give you … ”—he cast about within himself for an adequate enticement—“a gold chain! And … and a purple robe!”

Still Daniel made no answer.

“I will make you the third ruler in the kingdom!” Belshazzar crowed in despair. “I must know what this message means!”

Adad-ibni could not believe his ears. Third ruler in the kingdom! Was the prince mad?

Daniel’s fingers reached out as if to caress the toppled gold cup, then pulled back. As his stature lengthened and stiffened, his eyes shifted to Belshazzar’s face. A force burned outward from Daniel, a radiant aura of holy power that at this moment gave him absolute command of every ear and eye in the room.

“You may keep your gifts,” he said with quiet vehemence, “and reward someone else. But I shall read the writing for you, Prince Belshazzar, and give you the meaning.

“El Elyon, the Most High, gave Nebuchadrezzar, your master, sovereignty and greatness and splendor. Because of the regency given to him, peoples from every land and tongue learned to fear him. He held the power of life and death over them, the power to make great and the power to abase.” Daniel leaned toward Belshazzar then, so close to the prince’s breast that none could have prevented him from plunging a dagger into the heart of the heir to Nabu-Naid. But such was the power of his presence that even the prince’s bodyguards could do no more than listen, mouths agape, to the steely words of the aged counselor.

“But when Nebuchadrezzar grew haughty,” Daniel was saying, the last word spoken like a lash, “he was deposed from his throne. The great and powerful Nebuchadrezzar”—Daniel’ s tone signified that the one he now addressed could never dream of being the equal of the long-dead emperor—“then squatted among the weeds like a brute beast. He ate fodder like an ass and the dew of heaven soaked his beard, handwritinguntil he learned to fear the Most High who is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, and who makes and breaks kings as He pleases.” The next words came in a near whisper that seemed to crackle throughout the whole courtyard of Esagila. “And you, Belshazzar, have learned nothing from the example of your betters! You have set your face against the Lord of heaven!”

Daniel seized one of the defiled goblets from the table, shaking it in his fist as he continued. “You have taken these cups that were consecrated to the service of the Most High, and have drunk wine from them to the honor of these deaf, dumb, and insensible images of silver and gold and bronze!”

The priests standing nearby looked stricken, but were as powerless as the others to interrupt the adamant old man.

“You have allowed your wives and concubines to defile that which was holy to the Lord,” Daniel continued, “and you have not known Him who holds the very threads of your life in His hands. This is why He has made this inscription—for you.”

At the awful intimacy implied by Daniel’s words, the crown prince staggered backward a half-pace. Daniel glared at him for two breaths, then turned his face upward, toward the giant letters above their heads.

“The first two words are these,” he pronounced, in a voice that rang out like a warrior’s cry. “Mene, mene.” Turning a dour eye upon the quaking prince, he said, “This means that God has counted out the days of your reign like the minas of silver in the hands of the bankers, and He has declared your debt due and payable.

Tekel,” Daniel went on, “means that you have been weighed on the balances of God’s justice—and your measure is faulty.”

Parsin,” Daniel finished, as Belshazzar gasped like a wounded man, reaching limply for the shoulders of his bodyguards, “means that your kingdom is no longer yours, but is parceled out to the Persians. Your time is finished—theirs has begun.”prophet

GOBHRUZ RODE NORTH at a swift walk along the Street of Nabu. With each step his mount took, clumps of moist river mud fell from its fetlocks to be trod upon by the company of foot-soldiers who paced quickly behind their commander. They had forded the muddy canal and passed along the riverbed, entering the city beside the Borsip Gate. Thus far, they were unchallenged.

The commander glanced up to his right. Above his head he could see the silhouettes of his men against the stars, marching rapidly along the tops of the walls. Their mission was to secure, as efficiently and quietly as possible, the command posts and fortifications situated at intervals along the broad surrounding ramparts.

He turned west onto a broad thoroughfare, then north again between the corridor walls of Aibur Shabu. Unlike in the days of Nebuchadrezzar, the Processional Way was dark now, its torches extinguished at the beginning of the second watch of the night. Only the razor-thin crescent of the moon and a shining riot of stars lit the broad avenue along which he and his handpicked troops patrolled, their every sense wound to a taut-string pitch of readiness.

His task was to secure the citadel. They had awaited the dead of the second night watch before entering the city by the newly opened paths created by the draining of the river. Babylon would awaken with the dawn to find her new masters in control of every fortification, every street, every rooftop—or so ran the plan. As many Babylonian commanders as possible had been bought or otherwise neutralized, but conquest was inherently an inexact science. Thus far no opposition had been encountered, but Gobhruz did not imagine this state of affairs could last.

They came abreast of the walls of the huge Esagila complex. As they neared the silent gateway of the temple, Gobhruz’ s vanguard sighted an armed band hurrying toward them along the intersecting Avenue of Marduk. Gobhruz’s fist went to his sword, then relaxed as his men signaled; the approaching patrol was their own, having entered the city by the Marduk Gate.

The combined forces swept along the broad street. Crossing the Zababa Bridge before the gates of the palace, Gobhruz counted a mere handful of guards standing sentry. These few, seeing all too clearly the futility of their position, threw down their arms and prostrated themselves before the eerily silent armed horde that poured into the courtyard fronting the gate.

His archers standing guard with arrows notched against an ambush from behind or above, Gobhruz watched impatiently as his troops went to work on the sealed gates of the palace. Sinews straining, the men pried and grunted, driving wedges into the crack between the two halves of the massive ironbound doors. They made noisy, splintering progress—and still no sentry challenged, no defender impeded their efforts. For all the outward evidence, they might have been forcing their way into a house of tombs entrysafeguarded only by the restless spirits of the dead. When at last the soldiers won through the final barricade, the huge portals swung open upon a courtyard huge, imposing—and empty.

Gobhruz pointed to three lieutenants. “Each of you take a hundred men apiece. Search the palace and citadel for—” Hearing the noise of a shod foot against pavement, the commander glanced above him. He could see the shadowy figures of men moving along the tops of the barricades. Softly one of them called out—in Parsi. He gaped in wonderment. Could his men have already encircled the entire length of the city’s walls? Had there been no Chaldeans on guard? He sent a runner to summon one of the men to him.

“No, my lord,” panted the infantryman softly, when he had clambered down into the courtyard where the amazed Gobhruz waited. “We saw no one, heard nothing. It was … ” The fellow’s brow wrinkled in thought as he searched for the words. “It was as if the hand of a god went before us. Time and again we came upon the guard stations along the walls, only to find them abandoned, with weapons and armor lying on the floor. Something has happened to them—all of them.” The eyes of the men standing nearby rolled white, staring about in superstitious dread at the vast, empty courtyard.

“Steady, lads,” growled a grizzled old sergeant in their midst. “If the gods want to wipe out Chaldeans for us, why not let them?”

Nervous laughter stuttered from the throats of the men as Gobhruz smiled grudgingly at the well-timed joke. He turned to the lieutenants he had chosen earlier. “Off with you, then. Look sharp!”

The three companies of men moved off in different directions, each disappearing into a separate corridor of the palace. Gobhruz watched them go, rubbing his beard in wary bemusement. Could it really be this easy?

DANIEL PACED BACK AND FORTH in his chamber, as sleepless as if it were midday. As he turned beside his couch, he again spied the robe of purple linen, the heavy gold chain lying atop it.

He snorted with disgust. After he had arrived back at his suite from Esagila, a timid knock had come at his door. A messenger from Belshazzar entered, meekly bearing the bribe of the crown prince. As if the word of the Almighty might be averted by paltry gifts! Shaking his head, the aged vizier resumed his pensive pacing.

He heard the scuffling of booted feet outside his door. Going silently to the portal, he laid his ear upon its planking, listening carefully as a seemingly interminable succession of footsteps scooted past in the corridor without. He heard whispered voices speaking in the exotic tongue of the western mountains. So! The Persians were in the very palace! His heart pounded with the enormity of the realization. Again the ominous tolling of the words on Esagila’ s wall resounded within his mind. Only four words—and the world was changed.

FROM THE RICH FURNISHINGS, the lavish murals, and the decorative cast of the wall lamps, the lieutenant knew his patrol was in the wing of the palace where the imperial family resided. Nervously he loosened his sword in its sheath, for he fully expected to be met around the next corner by a company of bodyguards. The torches borne aloft by the men behind him cast black, wavering shadows at his feet as they moved along the darkened corridors.

Ahead was a large portal, the door sheathed in tooled bronze and the surrounding wall inset with gaudily colored glazed bricks. Gods and cherubim festooned the archway in which the door was set, presumably affording divine protection to whomever sheltered within. The lieutenant reasoned that this was the emperor’s private suite. His mouth dry with apprehension, he scanned the corridors on either side, stretching mazelike into the darkness beyond the torches’ flickering light. Nothing. Only the same eerie emptiness and silence through which they had moved since entering this huge, puzzling city.

Drawing a deep breath, he stepped aside, nodding to the four burly men bearing the battering ram. The four men lunged forward, the ram striking the door with a fearfully loud crash. Again and again they dashed the thick pile against the door, until at last the hinges gave way, groaning as the battering ram’s blows drove them from their sockets in the walls. The door caved inward, falling forward into the room with a resounding crash.

The soldiers spilled into the chamber, swords drawn. The lieutenant bolted forward behind his men, as they searched the folds of the silken hangings and plunged behind the tapestries, searching out a foe that did not appear.

“Sir!” one of the men shouted. “Come here!”

The lieutenant followed the sound of the voice, finding the infantryman standing beside a gold-sheathed mahogany couch. On it lay an old man—or the dried-out husk of what had once been an old man. His eyes gaped glassily in death, while his tomb-pale hands gripped a golden scepter; it was as if, even in dying, Nabu-Naid could not willingly surrender what he once had seized.

BELSHAZZAR HEARD THE TREAD of many feet outside his door.cyrus

Where are my sentries? The villains have deserted—everyone has deserted!

Panting with fear, he picked up a sword in clammy, nerveless fingers. He heard the strange voices, the fearful gabble of Persian words that announced his impending doom. He did not want to die! Why had the gods turned against him?

“Father!” he shrilled as the ram clanged against his door. “This is your doing! Your stupidity has brought this upon me!”

The ram smashed through into the room, and the door fell inward with a crash that raised a cloud of masonry dust. With a shriek of madness, the prince rushed forward toward the black hole that had opened into the corridor. He saw the dark, shadowed faces of the invaders, and the points of their arrows aimed at him. There was a screaming, crimson flash of pain. Then nothing.

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

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Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 23

“THEY’RE DOING WHAT?” Belshazzar cried, incredulous. A wild burst of hope careened about within his breast, his face flushed—for once—with other than beer or wine.

The courtier bowed even lower. “They have halted their march toward the city and are engaged in the construction of some sort of earthworks near the Depression of Eshunna.”

Belshazzar, struggling to contain the bubbling enthusiasm that was threatening to breach his control, pondered frantically the unimaginable reasons for the stalling of Cyrus’s advance. Did the fool think that Belshazzar would sally out of Babylon to engage him on the plains by Eshunna? What possible reason could he have for building fortifications in such wide-open, indefensible terrain?

For so long Belshazzar had felt the impending arrival of the Persian host as a constant, overhanging shadow upon his every thought. The coming of Cyrus was certain, imminent. And until this moment he had seen no alternative course—given the manifestly uncertain disposition of the general populace—other than to prepare for a long siege. Within Babylon he could maintain a strict, enforceable control. He had hoped the virtual impossibility of overrunning Babylon, coupled with the need to maintain a large army to enforce the siege, would debilitate the Persian, allowing opportunities for cracks to develop in the control of his far-flung satrapies. This would buy Belshazzar the commodity he most craved—time.entry1

And now, this! Was it possible that the invincible Cyrus was capable of miscalculation? That he would waste his resources and dissipate the energies of his men in constructing unneeded fortifications?

“See that the developments in the Persian camp are observed closely,” ordered the prince. “In a few days I will hold my banquet. Then we shall see what may be done about Cyrus and his earthworks.”

THOUSANDS OF TORCHES illumined the great central plaza of Esagila, making the courtyard almost as bright as day. Though row upon row of banquet tables groaned under the weight of the richest meats and cheeses, and though the wine of Syria flowed like water in the courtyard of Marduk’s house, the god’s priests were nowhere in sight. Instead, Belshazzar and scores of representatives of the noble houses of Babylon laughed and cavorted, guarded on all sides by dour-faced bodyguards.

The prince had gone far beyond the bounds of decency in the misbegotten ordinance of his festival. It was less a banquet than a debauchery, a carousal. Temple prostitutes, their perfumed limbs tantalizingly visible beneath the gauzy fabric of their gowns, sauntered among the rows of revelers. Belshazzar had even brought his wives to Esagila, to sit in plain view of other men, eating and drinking like common feastharlots! Despite the tight-lipped disapproval of the priests, the event had been carried forward; no matter how huge their disdain of Belshazzar and his crude tastes, the priests were little able to avoid the spectacle in the plaza, as long as the palace guard’s armed and menacing presence prevented interference.

As if the impious frolicking were not disgraceful enough, the prince had ordered the gods to be brought out of their guarded chambers within the citadel and had them set up all about the courtyard of Esagila—divine witnesses to his folly! All about the perimeter of the plaza the regal images looked on. Full-hipped Ishtar watched as her laughing female servitors pandered to the drunken, lustful nobles. Ninurtu gazed on in grim disapproval at the uncustomary merriment. Shamash, Adad, Belit-Nina, even Lord Marduk himself—all were silent observers of the crown prince’s vulgarity.

The high priest heard the echoes of the orgy, his lip curling in disgust. Though he had walked to the side of the temple complex farthest away from the revolting scene in the courtyard, still the noise of the hated feast carried to his ears. He walked along the river wall in the darkness; below him was the Euphrates.

A foul odor wafted to his nostrils from the darkness at the base of the wall. Puzzled, he paused and peered downward. The moon was full, giving sufficient light for him to see—and to gasp.

The river was vanishing! The smell that had attracted his notice was spawned by hundreds of dead and dying fish, stranded in the strangling air by the retreating waters of their home. The slow, broad stream of the Euphrates was now no more than a stone’s toss wide!

His face froze in apprehension: Surely this was the anger of the gods, the manifest consequence of Belshazzar’s folly! Chest pounding in urgency, he began to run back toward the temple. If the wrath of Marduk rained down on Belshazzar, they might all perish in its fury. He must gather the priests and singers. It was time to pray.

KURASH NODDED in satisfaction. The operation had worked exactly as he had envisioned. Three days ago, the canal connecting the Euphrates with the Depression of Eshunna had been completed. He had signaled the workers to strike down the bulkhead restraining the river waters from the newly built ditch. The brown Euphrates shunted eagerly into its new pathway, coiling quickly toward the bottom of the ancient, dry lakebed.

With the lowering of the river’s level, a whole host of gates into Babylon would be created. Outside the city walls his men, stationed in the darkness beside the canals and along the banks of the Euphrates, would be able to walk easily into Babylon. The river that had nourished her for so many generations would be the means of her undoing, the pathway of her conqueror.

“Gobhruz,” he murmured to the armed and mounted Mede whose charger stood quietly beside his own, “I shall allow you to be the first to enter the city. Since you despise the effects of too much civilization, you shall have opportunity to decide which of its edifices will stand and which will fall.”

The old man grunted and looked away. “Foolishness,” he muttered. “I will do nothing that my king does not command. This is your city, not mine.”

Kurash grinned in the darkness.

“MORE WINE!” bellowed Belshazzar, his arm twined about the waist of a dark-eyed temple courtesan. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. This banquet, which he had originally imagined as a massive insult to his feeble father, had taken on for him the air of a pre-victory celebration. After all, was not Cyrus at this very moment squatting at Eshunna, unaware of the absurdity of his position? Anything is possible, thought Belshazzar, guzzling another cup of the rare Syrian wine he had ordered for the evening. In his gorged, wine-fogged imagination, he had persuaded himself there might yet be hope. And none of the revelers who reeled from table to table in the courtyard of Esagila did anything to dispel his notion.

Lurching unsteadily to his feet, Belshazzar called for a fanfare from the nearby trumpeters. The brassy flourish produced a pause in the noisy gamboling among the tables. Bleary, sated faces turned expectantly toward the dais. Framed by the two huge glazed-brick dragons on the wall behind him, Belshazzar held up his arms for silence.revels

“My lords, who have gathered here for this, my feast day,” he shouted, “look about you! Salute the gods, who bless you this night with their mighty benediction!”

A drunken cheer rippled across the courtyard, as Belshazzar seated himself unsteadily. Quickly the rowdy revelry began anew.

Looking about in confusion, the prince queried a nearby page, “Where is the god of that western province—Judah, is it? What image signifies his presence?”

The page shook his head in consternation.

“Have you failed to carry out my orders, you wretch?” bellowed the prince. The courtesan in Belshazzar’s embrace tittered with amusement. “Find me the god of Judah,” the prince went on, “or I will gut you on this very table!” Nearby, one of his wives blanched at hearing such a threat. The slave took to his heels, the raucous laughter of the prince chasing him past the gate of the courtyard.

Soon the boy came racing back, his arms laden with cups and goblets of gold, inlaid with precious gems. Spilling them upon the table before prostrating himself at the feet of the prince, the runner panted, “My lord, these are all I could find that belonged to Judah. A scribe in the citadel vault told me these utensils were sacred to the god of that place—I know no more!”

“Sacred, eh?” mused Belshazzar groggily, hefting one of the gold flagons. “Well then, I suppose these will have to do … ”

CAUTIOUSLY THE MAN looked about him to make certain he was not followed. Satisfied, he sidled along the wall of the house on Adad Street, slipping like a shadow into the entryway. The gatekeeper studied him carefully, then nodded and allowed him to pass into the central courtyard.

From the doorway to the main room, the flickering light of a single tallow lamp shone. The man followed the light across the packed earth of the courtyard, peering around the comer of the portal.

Around the low table in the center of the room sat Ezra, Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Jozadak, and several other leaders of the Hebrew community. Each brow furled in concern, they huddled in a low-voiced conference while Ephratah, the widow of Azariah, looked on from a corner. Their faces lifted to acknowledge the latecomer. Ezra rose from his place at the head of the table, opening his arms to greet the one who had just arrived.

“Daniel! Thank you for coming! You know of the reason for this gathering?”

The old man nodded, his eyes silently greeting each of them, lingering a moment longer on the face of his friend’s widow. Then he hurried to the table as the others shuffled about to make room.

“My brothers,” Daniel said in a low voice, “matters at the palace have become fearfully grave. The emperor does not leave his chamber—no one, not even among his body-servants, has seen him for the past two days. The crown prince is beyond the reach of sensible men. He follows some course of his own choosing, hearing only what he wishes to hear, seeing only such things as his drink-befogged vision allows. No one in the palace or citadel seeks anything but his own way—there is no authority. Belshazzar yet controls the palace guard, but many of the generals—though they would deny it with their mouths —have made secret peace with the Persians.” Aiming a significant look at each of them in turn, Daniel concluded, “The days of the royal house of Chaldea are drawing to a close, my brothers. We have arrived at a time of great change.”

“Did you notice the river when you came here?” asked Sheshbazzar.

Daniel nodded. “The Persian is cunning. Let us pray he is also benevolent.”

“One king or another, it makes little difference,” observed Jozadak darkly. “No matter how clever Cyrus may be, still he is an infidel, an unbeliever. How can his coming improve our lot?”

“The Lord says, ‘I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity,”’ quoted Zerubbabel softly, peering intently at Jozadak’s scowling face, ‘“and will rebuild them as they were before … ’” Cutting his eyes toward Sheshbazzar, he continued, “‘David will never fail to have a man to stand before Me … ’”

Sheshbazzar—who traced his lineage to the royal house of Judah—ducked his head, an upsurge of emotion forcing tears from his eyes.

“The prophet Jeremiah also said this,” mused Daniel after a moment’s pause:

Babylon will be captured;

Bel will be put to shame,

Marduk filled with terror …

A nation from the north will attack her

and lay waste her land.

No one will live in it;

both men and animals will flee away …

The men fell silent, each contemplating the momentous events swirling about them and wondering whether the morrow would bring deliverance—or disaster.

A BAND OF JUGGLERS dazzled the crowd in Esagila’s plaza. The bright-colored tunics of the performers shimmered in the torchlight as they tossed painted sticks, torches, sharply glittering knives, and even—to the uproarious delight of all but the unfortunate victims—drinking cups filched from the lips of the celebrants. With consummate skill they caused the objects to hurtle through the air from hand to hand. As the jugglers exited to the enthusiastic salutation of the feasters, a conjurer leapt upon the dais and began drawing feathers from the sleeves of his robe and brilliantly dyed silken scarves from behind the ears of Belshazzar’s surprised and delighted wives. A skillful illusionist, the fellow awed the throng with his dexterity. Tossing fistfuls of powder on a nearby brazier, he produced bursts of colored smoke and flame, to the appreciative applause of the prince and his courtiers. To the clamorous accompaniment of the musicians at the foot of the dais, the performer deftly entranced the gathering, proceeding apace to more and more dazzling feats, to greater and more enthralling pyrotechnic stunts.

As the magician’s display drew to its frenzied climax, a finger of flame lanced from nowhere toward the wall above Belshazzar’s head, leaving a burning, smoking tracery of letter-like markings in the glazed bricks. The awed throng broke into loud, riotous applause, plainly astonished, even in the dregs of their wine-steeped merrymaking, at the astounding skill with which this last breathtaking illusion had been accomplished.seeing

Belshazzar, cheering with the rest, looked at the face of the conjurer—and froze. The magician, staring white-faced at the fire-chiseled characters in the wall above him, was quaking with fright. Even to the drunken prince, the fellow did not display the attitude of one who had successfully executed a stunning sleight-of-hand. Rather, he appeared as one who stared into the shimmering, fearful terrain of the Unknown. When the magician turned tail and fled the dais like a whipped dog, Belshazzar felt the chilled breath of fright stinging his nostrils.

Slowly a sobering realization began to dawn among the banquet tables: The glowing letters on the wall of Esagila’ s courtyard had not been produced by the conjurer. As they saw Belshazzar stagger upward from his place, yelping in helpless panic, they began to murmur among themselves. A party of armed guards raced pell-mell from the dais toward the dwelling halls of the priests. Staring about in superstitious dread at the encircling figures of the gods, the now subdued mob pondered the enigma etched in flame upon the huge wall. And the cold, clammy fist of fear slowly tightened its grip about the throats of the revelers of Babylon.

“LET US BIDE, THEN, my brothers,” Ezra was saying. “Perhaps the wind at the backs of the Persians comes from the Eternal. It may be that Cyrus comes at this precise time to accomplish the purpose of Adonai … ”

Daniel, listening carefully to the words of the priest, suddenly remembered a shabbat meeting in a palm grove, and how the gold of the sunset splashed upon the robes of this man as he read from the scroll of Isaiah. With a breathtaking rush of clarity, he relived the scene, hearing once more Ezra’s reading:

I am the Lord, who has made all things …

who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited,”

who says of Kurus, “He is My shepherd … “

Cyrus!liberation

Daniel felt his heart slamming against his ribs. He knew the clarion-call, no less awesome for its familiarity, of El Shaddai. Again the summons had come. As he stiffened, listening with the ears of his soul to the cascading, torrential muster of the Almighty, a small moan of awe escaped his lips. The others stared at him, their eyes widening in alarm.

At that moment, a runner dashed breathlessly into the room, followed by the protesting gatekeeper. Ephratah lurched to her feet, staring an unspoken question at the intruder.

“I tried to stop him, mistress,” apologized the hapless doorman, “but he threw me aside. He says he has come—”

“Lord Belteshazzar!” the herald panted, falling beside the still-seated Daniel and clutching at his robes. “You must come at once to Esagila! The crown prince has summoned you—his wife has said you are the only one who can help!”prophet

The others stared in gaping wonder from the messenger to Daniel. After a frozen moment, Daniel rose, an expression of dire purpose on his craggy, wrinkled face.

His eyes shining with a calm, brilliant urgency, he nodded at the runner. “Take me to the prince, boy. There are things that must be said.”

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow–Chapter 21

THE SMALL KNOT of priests and astrologers stood just within the Marduk Gate of Esagila, arguing heatedly among themselves while worshipers and temple functionaries scurried busily in and out of the temple complex.

”Well, at least the Festival can be kept this year,” insisted a shaven-headed star-watcher, “and that, I say, is all to the good.”

“Oh, certainly,” scoffed another. ”But only when the prince-regent bawls loudly enough to his addle-brained father about the coming of the Persians does Nabu-Naid finally see fit to return to the throne he usurped. He scurries back inside the walls of Babylon, loudly proclaiming his loyalty to Marduk, as if this miraculous change of heart might spark the forgiveness of the Great Lord—or his priests.” The priest spat loudly onto the pavement, barely missing a beggar who sat in the gate. “That is for the emperor—”marduk

The discussion broke off suddenly when a squadron of soldiers paced by. After an uncomfortable pause, the murmuring counsel resumed. “Marduk is not swayed by such double-tongued devotion as the usurper gives. Festival or no, I say the winds of change are blowing in the land—and the sooner the better.”

The gaggle of robed priests and scholars moved deeper into the temple courtyard, the debate continuing with cautious vehemence and frequent guarded glances over shoulders. As they moved out of earshot, the beggar rose, dusted himself off, and limped away toward a narrow alley between two mud-brick buildings.

Making certain he was unobserved, the beggar dodged quickly into the dark, vacant recess. Swiftly he pulled a scrap of parchment out of his clothing, making a series of deft marks with the burnt end of a twig. Tucking the missive securely beneath his tattered robe, he sauntered back into the thoroughfare, glancing at the angle of the sun. Mid-morning, he observed. Not long until he met his Persian contact by the Gate of Sin. He would have much to tell.

EGIBI STARED round the chamber at his sons. “So then: How many loans have we out to members of the royal court or to the royal family itself?”

The four sons looked at each other, their brows wrinkled in puzzlement. Clearly they had no inkling of what their father intended by such a question. Gradually their eyes returned to the face of their sire; they were plainly at a loss to answer the unexpected query.

“You don’t know.” Egibi shifted impatiently on his tapestried cushion, shaking his head in vexation. So old and crippled was he that he rarely left this apartment now, yet he still knew more of the outside world than did his four able-bodied sons. He sometimes despaired of teaching them anything.

”Well, then, tell me this: What is our rate of collateral coverage on silver loaned to the nobility—especially the military commanders? Have you any idea?”

The sons, confused and slightly piqued by the patriarch’s accusative tone, kept their eyes stonily fixed downward. Does he think we’re children? they wondered. Does he suppose his is the only mind capable of running the business of Egibi and Sons?

“My sons,” the old man wheezed finally, when the hostile hush had lasted long enough, “I do not seek to anger you. But have any of you thought what might happen when the Persians come to Babylon?”

The oldest yanked his eyes upward, a startled expression on his face. Smiling with his eyes, Egibi nodded. “Yes, Bel-Adan, at last you begin to see.”

Bel-Adan’s three brothers slowly began rubbing their beards, a look of comprehension gradually dawning on their sullen faces. “When kingdoms change,” Egibi was saying, “it is well to look carefully to your affairs. Laws that may protect you today could cease to exist tomorrow. A prudent lender never willingly accepts risks which cannot be assessed.”

“Perhaps we should order a current reckoning of the accounts,” drawled the oldest son, ruminatively.

“Yes … and if I’m not mistaken, Lord Nabu-iddina is a trifle tardy with the payment of his debt,” mused another. “1 should look into the matter … ”

Their father nodded appreciatively. “Caution, my sons,” he agreed. “In times of change, caution should be an amulet about cuneiformyour necks.”

A discreet knock sounded at the door, and a young man of perhaps twenty summers entered the room. Face lowered in submission, he said, “My father wishes to know if he should allow the doors to be opened. The sun is above the walls of the city.”

Glancing from Egibi back to the youth, Bel-Adan replied, “Yes, boy. Tell him to permit them to enter.” Glancing a final time at his father, Bel-Adan concluded, “We are almost finished here.”

The son of Jozadak bowed, and closed the door as quietly as he had opened it.

“Very well, my sons,” said Egibi, eyeing them all around. “It is time to earn our bread for another day.”

NABU-NAID FIDGETED NERVOUSLY with the fringe of the silk tapestry. He stared out the window, in the direction of the Sky-Garden of Nebuchadrezzar, then glanced back toward the still, black-robed figure seated on the low stool in the comer of the room. “Is this the best succor you can bring?” the old king asked, his mouth set in a petulant scowl.

Adad-ibni shrugged, his face a wrinkled, inscrutable mask. “My king, I do not create the omens,” he said. “I only read them.” The mage smirked inwardly. In the years he had spent in Teima, Nabu-Naid had become less a presence than the absence of one; now back in Babylon, he was almost an irrelevancy.

Belshazzar, the prince-regent, was the reality, the ironhanded, mean-spirited commander of the people’s obedience, if not of their wills.

The pathetic old man in front of him might be king, and his return to the capital might allow the observance of the long-slighted New Year Festival, but Adad-ibni knew the mood of Esagila and the murmurings of the merchants along the quays of the Karum. In his long absence from Babylon, Nabu-Naid may have achieved his aim of tweaking the beards of the powerful priests of Esagila, but he had not weakened Marduk’s hold on the soul of the empire.

Furthermore, reflected the seer, though Belshazzar clutched the military—and thus, the city—in talons of steel, the hearts and minds of the populace were rapidly slipping through the fingers of the cruel, brutish prince, just as they had for his doddering old father. The process having clearly begun, Adad-ibni did not need his star-charts to tell him the days of Nabu-Naid’s house were numbered.

Nabu-Naid tasted, smelled the half-shrouded contempt of the wizard. ‘“Fetch a tablet, you,” he snapped, balling his fists uselessly at his sides. “I wish to make a proclamation in connection with the New Year Festival.”

Impassively, Adad-ibni slouched over to a low table on which rested a moist clay tablet and a stylus. Retrieving the supplies, he waited, his hand poised, to record the words of the fading king.

“This command will be carved on slabs of basalt and taken by royal courier to the major cities of our domain,” began Nabu-Naid. “It will be announced within the walls of Nippur, Borsip, Sippar, Uruk … ” He listed the major municipalities of the river-lands, as the mage dutifully copied them all down. ‘“The proclamation herein stated shall be announced before the waning of the moon,” continued the king. “Immediate compliance with our imperial and holy orders shall be expected.”

Nabu-Naid paused, taking several deep breaths. Since his return, and his reluctant realization of the state of affairs within the walls of his city, he had contemplated this drastic step. Such a thing had never been done, nor even attempted. But he saw no other way to stem the growing tide of the people’s ingratitude and disaffection. Now was the time for his final gambit. He resumed speaking with a firmness he did not feel.

“The gods, the holy ones themselves, shall be brought out of their houses in the temples. Ishtar, Adad, Belit-nina, Nabu—all of them shall come to Babylon, to the shelter of the strong arm of Marduk, Lord and King of All. There, with their lord and under his protection, they shall celebrate the Festival of the New Year … ”festival

Adad-ibni dropped the stylus from his nerveless fingers. His face was a stiff, stark mask of unbelief. Could this muddled old man actually mean what he was saying? Did he truly intend to take the gods hostage?

“You have stopped writing, lord mage,” noted the king, a sly, mad leer stealing slowly across his wizened face. “Are you unable to hear my words adequately?” Knowing he had gained the upper hand in the struggle of wills, for the moment at least, Nabu-Naid intended to press his advantage to the breaking point.

‘“My king, I … Surely you do not intend—”

“If this proclamation is not read aloud in these cities within the time of the moon’s waning,” growled the king, “the imperial guards shall have orders for your head.” A canine grimace parted the lips of the desperate king as he glared at the anxious astrologer. Adad-ibni lowered his head and began to write in jittery, swift strokes.

“I trust, of course,” said the king, his voice smeared with self-satisfaction, “that you shall in your final draft add some suitable language about omens, portents, and so forth?”

“Yes, my king,” mumbled Adad-ibni, miserably.

ONCE MORE Daniel prostrated himself toward the open window—the westward-facing window. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe,” he prayed, “who hast preserved Thy people … ” Thinking again of the final words of Azariah, he concluded, “And return us, O sovereign Lord, to Jerusalem, in accordance with Thy steadfast love.” Rising, he watched as the molten rim of the sun dipped below the western horizon, the sky ablaze with the gold-blue-purple heraldry of evening. A knock came on his door. Without turning his head, he called, “Come in, friends. I am here.”

Mishael, old and fat and puffing with the exertion of hauling his bulk about, plodded heavily into the room, followed closely by lean, ascetic Hananiah. The two old men greeted their friend, who now motioned toward the low table surrounded by linen cushions. “Will you eat? I have plenty.”

Hananiah silently shook his head, while Mishael said in his wheezy, high voice, “Well, since it’s such a long walk over to this side of the city … ” Selecting a handful of dates from the wooden bowl on the table, the wattle-necked eunuch settled himself across several cushions.

Daniel plucked pensively at the leathery hide of a pomegranate. “What do the Levites make of the coming of the Persians?” he asked, carefully watching the faces of his comrades. Mishael shrugged, reaching for another handful of dates.

“Opinion seems to be mixed. Some see Cyrus as the righteous judgment of Adonai upon the wickedness of this place—-they seem to think it will be tom to the ground, as Jeremiah predicted. I don’t know if they have asked themselves what their lot would be in such a circumstance.”

Hananiah shot a dour glance at the eunuch then looked away, shaking his head at such flippancy.

“Others,” continued Mishael, “seem to care little one way or another. They keep their noses in the scrolls and rarely come out except on the day of Shabbat, to lecture the congregations. That, and they wait to be told to return to Judah. If they have an opinion on anything else, it is difficult to tell.” Mishael wiped his fingers on his robe.

Daniel looked outside, where purpling shadows fell across the streets and houses of the Old City. In his study that day, he had read from the scrolls of Ezekiel. All evening the taut, severe visage of the prophet had hovered before him. Just before his guests arrived, he had read these words:

This is what the sovereign Lord says: “I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land … ”

But when? For so many years he and the other faithful Hebrews of Babylon had been posing this same question—to themselves and to the Eternal—and always the answer seemed to be, “Not yet.” Now the world was in flux. And would it matter? Would the Persian conqueror, at last, be the catalyst, the fulfilling agent for the word God had announced through His tortured, persecuted servants, the prophets? Daniel wanted to believe this, and yet … So many alterations had taken place already; so many kings, so many visions in the night—and still the people of God were here, trapped in Chaldea like oxen mired in a swamp. Could the rumblings from the north be the harbingers of impending change? He hardly dared allow himself to hope.praying

THE MOON was a quarter-sized crescent in the spangled sky above Babylon. It was the second watch of the night, a time when most, if not all, of the city’s denizens should have been in bed.

But in the central dwelling house of Esagila, a lamp burned in the center of a large table. Gathered about the smooth-polished surface of the oak table was a hushed, grim council of the topmost echelons of Marduk’s priesthood. The flickering lamplight made bobbing shadows on the ceiling of the chamber, casting into eerie, shifting relief the creases on foreheads and faces. The men listened to the reading of a parchment held by their master, the High Priest.

“And because of my great reverence for the Lord Marduk,” the message continued, “I am deeply distressed by the sacrilegious acts of your so-called king. I know that the Sun Lord has summoned me from my mountain home to right the injustices done to His people by the cruel oppressor, Nabu-Naid. As my pledge toward this end, please accept this small offering as a token of my devotion.”

The senior priest paused significantly, hefting from the floor beside him a camel-hide bag. As he placed it firmly on the table, the bright rattling of much silver could be plainly heard. The shaven-headed priest peered at each of his colleagues in turn. “Can we doubt, in the face of such generosity, that Marduk has touched the soul of this one who comes at such a troubled time?”

He let the parchment slip from his fingers, to fall upon the table. It was sealed, the priests could clearly see, with the winged-circle symbol of Cyrus the Persian.cyrus

This chapter is from the novel Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by Thom Lemmons. The entire novel is now available for your smart phone, tablet, or other e-reading device at HomingPigeonPublishing.com. Please visit the site to purchase this book and also for more information on other books by Thom Lemmons.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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