Israel’s Agony and Glory
July 11th, 1971 @ 10:50 AM
ISRAEL’S AGONY AND GLORY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-11-71 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television, you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor, bringing the message entitled Israel’s Agony and Glory. I read first from the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a prophecy of our Lord Jesus:
And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out…
For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.
And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
And again, from the prophecy of our Lord in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
For I say unto You, ye shall not see Me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed—blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Israel’s agony and glory: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38], the agony. But someday, the glory: “I say unto you, There is coming a time when ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” [Matthew 23:39].
The prophecy of our Savior that the nation would be destroyed, and that Jerusalem would be plowed up, and that the stones of the temple would be made heaps [Matthew 24:2], that prophecy came true beginning in 66 AD [Matthew 27:32-50]. Our Lord was crucified about 33 AD, and these words were spoken just before His passion. In about thirty-three years later, these awesome words of our Savior concerning the destruction of the nation and of the Holy City and of the holy temple came in a furious way, in a burning, fiery way, to pass. In 66 AD, like a wildfire, there was rebellion from one part of the Roman province of Judea to the other; as the Scriptures would say, “from Dan to Beersheeba” the whole country was aflame.
The Roman government appointed Vespasian, general of the army, to take the legions and to quell that riotous rebellion. Vespasian began in Galilee and there conquered the army of the Jews under Josephus. Then, sweeping through the land, conquering it a piece at a time, he finally came to the last bastion in Jerusalem and besieged it. This is from 66 until 70 AD, four years.
While Vespasian was besieging Jerusalem, he was acclaimed emperor of the empire. So Vespasian returned to Rome to take the reins of the government of the then civilized world. And he left the siege in the care and under the direction of his son, Titus. And under Titus, the great battering rams of the Romans tore down the walls, tore down the temple, and plowed under the city, and took the people away captive. And Judah was scattered among the nations of the world.
When I went to the Roman Forum, the fence around it had been locked. It was in the late afternoon, early evening, and no one was allowed inside. I spoke to the gatekeeper and asked him if he would let me go through that gate and stand for just a moment under the Arch of Titus. He was kind and gracious, unlocked the gate, and I walked through and stood once again looking up at the great massive Arch of Titus, erected to him in honor of the victory he had won over the rebellion in Judea. As I stood with my back to the Roman Coliseum, just two or three blocks away, and then under the arch and memory of the victory of Titus, to my right, the great marble panel incised with the figure of Titus himself, crowned with laurel, in his chariot, driving his steeds, and his triumphant army preceding and following the general in his victory. The panel, on the left, a depiction of the misery and slavery of the Jewish people. In the center, held upon their shoulders as a trophy of the war, the seven-branched lampstand, the only contemporary likeness of it we have in history. And then beyond, on shoulders again, bearing up the table of showbread, and then the Jewish captives who graced the triumph of Titus.
Then, a few days later, looking at Masada—it rises precipitously, awesomely from the shores of the Dead Sea, seemingly several thousand feet, an awesome-looking fortress. In our country we would call it a little mesa, for after it rises up and up and up, the top is flat, possibly thirty, forty acres. There Herod the Great had built a tremendous citadel and fortress. And after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Eleazar and some of the Zealots in the war fled to Masada and there defied the power of the Roman government.
When I asked why should the legions of Rome besiege Masada for three solid years, from 70 until it was reduced in 73 AD, the answer was apparent. The Roman government had built that great arch in the Forum in recognition of the mighty triumph of General Titus, who later was the Roman Caesar. They had also struck a coin in the Roman Empire, celebrating the defeat of the Jews. A palm is a symbol of Judah, and, on that coin, the palm tree, and under it, a woman weeping, and the caption: Judaea kapta, “Judah is captive.”
It was therefore a galling insult to the might and power of the Roman empire that, after they had subjugated the land, taken captive the people, dispersed them over the provinces of the empire, had destroyed the capital city and the holy temple, that there should still be a citadel of unconquered resistance defying their power. So the Roman general Silva was appointed procurator of the province of Judea, and he was sent to reduce, finally and forever, the last bastion of resistance of the Jewish nation at Masada. Josephus, the historian of the Wars of the Jews, and of the Antiquities of the Jews, tells the story of the siege and the fall of that fortress of Masada:
Flavius Silva succeeded to the procuratorship; who, when he saw that all the rest of the country was subdued in the war, that there was only one stronghold in rebellion, got all of his army together and made an expedition against it. This fortress was called Masada, and it was one Eleazar, a dynamic man and commander of the Zealots, who had seized upon it.
Now the Roman general came and led his army against Eleazar, who held the fortress, Masada. And the Roman general first built a great wall around it, eleven feet high and three feet thick, that none of the besieged might escape.
Josephus then describes the fortress. “On each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind.” And I can bear record to that. It is so abysmally steep and precipitous and tall that when you look over, it brings terror to the mind.
Upon the top of this fortress, Jonathan the Maccabean had built a fortress and called it Masada. And King Herod built a wall around it and fortified it with thirty-eight towers, each of them fifty cubits high—something like eighty feet high.
So the Roman commander Silva built a wall on the outside roundabout, and found one place that would admit of the banks he was to raise. It was called the White Promontory. On the western side of Masada, the Roman general, with his captive slaves and his legions, raised a great high embankment and finally reached the top of the wall against which he could bring his great engines.
The machines that were now gotten ready were like to those that were first devised by Vespasian and afterwards by Titus for sieges. The tower of the engine was sixty cubits high, covered with plate. And out of those engines the Romans threw darts and stones so that those who fought from the walls had to retire and could not lift their heads above the works.
At the same time, Silva ordered that the great battering ram, which he had made to be brought thither, to be set against the wall. And, after difficulty, broke it down and overthrew it, so having built the great rampart up to the height of Masada and the great battering ram had broken through the wall.
The Zealots on the inside, and Eleazar, built a temporary wall, and this time not out of stone. But they made it soft and yielding—Josephus says. They put wood on this side and wood on this side and filled the middle with dirt so that when the engines were applied, the blows and the concussion shook the pile together and made it even more firm.
When Silva saw that the great engines were but compacting the wall and making it more resistant, he called his soldiers and ordered them to throw a great number of burning torches against it, and the flames spread and the rampart was burned. So the Romans, having now assistance from God, returned to their camp with joy and resolved to attack their enemies their next day.
Now Eleazar, the leader, set before the eyes of the nine hundred sixty who were there with him what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives if they got them in their power. And he consulted and spoke to them about their being slain.
As Eleazar spake, he said, “Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery. And after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually and preserve ourselves in freedom. Let us spare nothing but our provisions, which will be a testimonial when we are dead that we did not die because of the lack of necessities, but that according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.”
As Eleazar spake, some of the men fell into tears. And Eleazar, fixing his eyes intently on those that wept, he spake thus: “As for those that are already dead in the war, it is reasonable we should esteem them blessed, for they are dead in defending and not in betraying their liberty. But as to the multitude of those that are now under the Romans, who would not pity their condition, and who would not make haste to die before he would suffer the same miseries?”
“Some of them have been put upon the rack and tortured with fire and have died. Some have been half devoured by wild beasts and yet have been reserved alive to be devoured by them a second time in order to afford laughter and sport to their enemies. And such of those as us that are still alive to be looked on as the most miserable, who, being so desirous of death, cannot achieve it.”
“And where is now that great city Jerusalem, the metropolis of the nation, which was fortified by so many walls and powers and had so many thousands of men to fight for it? Where is this city that was believed to have God Himself inhabiting therein? It is now demolished to the very foundations.”
“Let us die before we become slaves under our enemies, and let us go out of the world together with our children and our wives in a state of freedom.”
Now as Eleazar was preceding in this exhortation, they made haste to do the work, for the husbands tenderly embraced their wives and took their children into their arms and gave the longest parting kisses to them with tears in their eyes. Nor was there at length any one of these men found that scrupled to act their part in this terrible execution, but every one of them dispatched his own family, miserable men whose distress forced them to slay their own wives and children with their own hands! They then chose ten men, by lot, out of them to slay all the rest, every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, threw his arms about them, then offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that sorrowful office.
And when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was first kill the other nine, and after, kill himself. So, in conclusion, the nine offered their necks to the executioner. And he who was the last of all took a view of all the other bodies, lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite dispatched.
And when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace and with a great force of his hand, ran his sword entirely through himself and fell down dead near his own family.
So these people died with the intention that they would not leave so much as one soul among them alive to be subject to the Romans.
“Now,” Josephus explains, “there was an ancient woman, and another with five children, who hid in a conduit.” Then, he gives the number of the slain: “Nine hundred sixty,” then continues:
Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning, when accordingly they put on their armor and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but saw nobody but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place and perfect silence.
So they made a great shout and blew the trumpet. And the women, hearing the noise, came out of the conduit and informed the Romans what had been done. And the Romans came within the palace and so met with the multitude of the slain, nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of so great resolution and the immovable contempt of death.
Israel’s agony: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38]. Nor has the story been different through the centuries that have followed, for in the Diaspora of the scattering of people among the nations, they have known bitter and cruel persecution and oppression. The word “ghetto” was invented for that area in a European city where the Jew was secluded, ostracized, by himself, couldn’t get out, lived in that place of contempt and misery, reared his children in it all the generations of his life: the ghetto.
Not long after this Second World War, I walked through the grounds of Dachau in Nazi Germany, located just outside Munich. Here was the gas chamber where the people were put to death. The next room had a concrete floor, moving, sinking toward a drain in the center. There they knocked out the teeth of their Jewish victims to retrieve what gold or silver fillings they might find. And the third chamber held a vast furnace, and there their bodies were burned in the fire.
Here, in this section of Dachau, the dogs were taught to rip human flesh with live specimens; there, the pistol range where they were taught to shoot running victims. Here, a tree with a branch like that, and the tree was dead; here they hanged their victims. Yonder were scientific experiments, one of which was, as the Hitler army began to prepare for the invasion of Russia, to find out the point at which a jacket would let a man freeze. All of these Jewish people, by the thousands and by the millions.
Out of the misery and heartache of the centuries of oppression arose that movement called Zionism, the hope in God of having a national homeland. And in the providence of the Lord, in a story I haven’t time to review, Israel came into existence in May, 1948. But since that day when the state was born in war, they have known nothing but cruel oppression and invasion and the threat of annihilation ever since.
Because of the haste to meet an appointment in Jerusalem, the car and the driver took me down skirting from Tiberius in Galilee to Jericho and so up to Jerusalem, skirting just on the Israeli side the western bank of the Jordan River. All up and down the road, time after time, we met patrol cars with Israeli soldiers and machine guns, small cannons. Gate after gate we passed.
All of the children who live in that valley, every night, sleep in a bunker. They’ve never known any other place but that bunker, a place in the ground covered over with heavy concrete and heavy rocks. And the farmers who plow in the field plow under armor, to protect them from the fire from across the river; Israel’s agony.
And around her are eighty million enemies, each one of them seemingly more vicious and more avowed and intent upon her destruction than the one before. How does a tiny people survive through the centuries, and now, seek to create a state of liberty and freedom for themselves? Israel’s agony.
But there is another part. All through the Word of God, as her agony is described and her desolation and her miseries and her sorrows, in no less glorious and prophetic words is the future glory of Israel set before us. And to me, because I believe the Bible—and to me, that future glory, its harbinger and its earnest, even though it’s but the size of a man’s hand, like the cloud that arose over the Mediterranean at the prayer of Elijah [1 Kings 18:43-44]; yet I see in what is happening today the pledge of God for the ultimate fulfillment of that glorious, supernal, celestial dream, when God shall come and Israel shall receive her Messiah and Prince and all of us shall dwell together in one kingdom, under one Lord, in universal peace [Isaiah 40:9-11]—the harbinger of it that I see now.
A Jew asked me yesterday, he said, “Tell me, how is it with the people? Do they live in fear and in cringing timidity, foreboding and dread? How is it? What is the spirit of the people?”
I said, “Sir, there’s not one of them but you would be proud to claim as your own. You’d never know there were enemies beyond the borders. You would never know that they faced war and annihilation. You would never know aught but that that nation has a tremendous and glorious future. Their spirit is one, they march as one, they work as one, they have terrible internal complications and divisions, but still, as a people, they face the future with infinite hope, assurance, and optimism.”
And to me, they have wrought a miracle that is a part of the fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures, for the land, when I first saw it, that was so desolate and desert and buried unto rocks and where the water gathered in swamps and malaria, disease, now it is becoming to look like the very garden of Eden itself. The rocks are gathered. The fields are being plowed. The orchards and the vineyards and the citrus groves are everywhere. The cities are growing. The people are working.
Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read: no one of these promises shall fail . . .
God hath cast the lot for them, and His hand hath divided them by line, and they shall possess the land for ever, from generation to generation shall they dwell therein.
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them.
The land shall welcome them, and it does. To my amazement, in Israel no small part of the people are farmers. “The land shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” [Isaiah 35:1]. This is a harbinger I think of what God purposes in human history, for them and for us; Israel’s agony and glory. But her greatest glory will not be in that area where we see the groves planted and the citrus fruit, golden harvest being reaped and the land like the garden of Eden. But the great golden future of the glory of Israel lies when someday they and we see and welcome our living Lord. “For I say unto you, Ye shall not see Me henceforth, till ye shall say—but someday ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” [Matthew 23:39].
There is coming a time when Israel, and when all of us who look in faith to Christ their Messiah and our Savior and Lord, will worship one King and follow one Savior and be one people in God. Could such a thing come to pass? Listen to the voice of the prophet and of the apostle. From the prophet Zechariah:
I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness…
In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadad Rimmon in the valley of Megiddon [Zechariah 12:10-11]—when Israel wept over the slaying of good King Josiah… [2 Chronicles 35:25].
And in that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness… [Zechariah 13:1].
And one shall say unto Him, What are these wounds in Thine hands? And He shall answer, These are the wounds which I received in the house of My friends [Zechariah 13:6].
And His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east… [Zechariah 14:4].
And the Lord God shall come with ten thousands of His saints… [Zechariah 14:5]
And it will come to pass that at evening time it shall be light… [Zechariah 14:7].
And the Lord shall be King over all the earth [Zechariah 14:9].
And from the apostle:
I would not have you without knowledge, my brethren, lest you be ignorant of this mustērion—secret in the heart of God—lest you be wise in your own conceits—as though God loved us and not them—blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in—but there is coming a time when that last plērōma, the “fullness,” has been reached.
Then all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
For this is My covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.
As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.
For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.
God never changes [Malachi 13:6; Hebrews 13:8], and the promises He made to those people yesterday are remembered before God’s mind today, and they will ultimately be fulfilled tomorrow. And in that glorious consummation of the age, we shall find our ultimate and final peace. For His name is not only called Wonderful; His name is not only called Counselor; His name is not only called The Everlasting Father; His name is not only called The Mighty God; but His name is also called The Prince of Peace [Isaiah 9:6].
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem [Psalm 122:6]. As long as there’s war there, there is war in the world. But, if there is peace in Jerusalem, there is peace in the world. And they who believe, as with us who believe, lift up our eyes to the coming of that Prince of Glory [Philippians 3:20]:
A day when no longer the war cry shall sever,
Nor the winding river run red,
We shall banish that anger forever
When we laurel the graves of the dead.
Unto the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day,
Love and tears for the Jew,
Tears and love for the pilgrims of the way.
[from “The Blue and the Gray, “Francis Miles Finch, 1867]
And there shall be one Lord, and one God, and one people, and one fold, and one Shepherd [John 10:16], and one world, undivided by strife and war, but together in the kingdom of God in light and life and glory and peace; Israel’s agony and glory.
We sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, you, a family you; a couple you; just one somebody you, to come forward today, “This day I give my heart to Christ” [Romans 10:8-13]. Or, “Today we have decided to come into the sweet fellowship of the church.” In the balcony round, to that last and farthest seat, make the decision now in your heart. And in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. You, on this lower floor, into the aisle, and down to the front, “Here I come, pastor; I’ve made the decision in my heart. I open my life to the blessing and the leadership and the Spirit of Christ, and I am coming today.” The family, the couple, or just you, on the first note of that first stanza, come, while we stand and while we sing.