After the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, Satan and his followers did not return to Hell, but remained on earth, the fallen angels becoming the evil gods of various idolatrous nations and Satan engaging in every kind of evildoing which he knew would vex the Powers of Heaven. All the time he was troubled by the thought of the heavenly foe who he had been told would one day appear on earth to crush him and his rebel angels.
Now John had come out of the wilderness, proclaiming his mission, and among those who came to him to be baptized was one who was deemed the son of Joseph of Nazareth. John recognized in the obscure carpenter’s son the one “mightier than he” whose coming he was to proclaim, and this fact was further made clear to the multitude and the observant Satan by the opening of the Heavens and the descent therefrom on Christ’s head of the Dove, while a voice was heard declaring, “This is my beloved Son.”
Satan, enraged, fled to the council of the fiends to announce to them the presence on earth of their long-dreaded enemy. He was empowered by them to attempt his overthrow, and they were the more confident because of his success with Adam and Eve.
Satan’s purpose was known to the Eternal Father, who smiled to see him unwittingly fulfilling the plan so long foreordained for his destruction.
After his baptism, the Father had sent his Son into the wilderness to gain strength for his struggle with Sin and Death, and there Satan, in the guise of an old, poorly clad rustic, found him. Although the Son of God had wandered through the rock-bound, pathless desert, among wild beasts, without food for forty days, he had no fear, believing that some impulse from above had guided him thither before he should go out among men to do his divinely appointed task.
Then, when hunger came upon him as he wandered, thinking of past events and those to come, he met the aged man and was addressed by him.
“Sir, how came you hither, where none who ventures alone escapes alive? I ask because you look not unlike the man I lately saw baptized by John and declared the Son of God.”
“I need no guide,” replied the Son. “The Power who brought me here will bring me forth.”
“Not otherwise than by miracle. Here we subsist only upon dry roots and must often endure parching thirst. If thou art indeed the Son of God, save thyself and relieve us wretched people by changing these stones to bread.”
“Men live not by bread alone,” replied the Son, “but by the word of God. Moses in the Mount was without food and drink for forty days. Elijah also wandered fasting in the wilderness. Thou knowest who I am as I know who thou art; why shouldest thou suggest distrust to me?”
“‘Tis true that I am that unfortunate spirit who fell from Heaven, but I have been permitted to roam around the earth and have not been altogether excluded from Heaven. God allowed me to test Job and prove his worth and to draw Ahab into fraud. Though I have lost much of my original brightness I can still admire all that is illustrious and good. The sons of men should not regard me as an enemy, for I have oft given them aid by oracles, dreams, and portents. My loss was not through them, so their restoration does not grieve me; only that fallen man will be restored and not I.”
“Thou deservest to grieve, tissue of lies that thou art!” exclaimed our Savior. “Thou boastest of being released from Hell and permitted to come into Heaven. No joy hast thou there! Thy own malice moved thee to torture Job. Brag not of thy lies, thy oracles for men. Henceforth oracles are dumb, since God has sent his living oracle into the world to teach the truth.”
Satan, though angry, still dissembled.
“Accuse me, reprove me, if thou wilt. Fallen as I am, I still love to hear the truth fall from thy lips.”
Unmoved by his false words the Savior of men declared that he neither forbade nor invited his presence, and Satan, bowing low, disappeared as night fell over the desert.
In the mean time, those at Bethabara who had rejoiced at the declaration of John and had talked with the Messiah, were deeply grieved to find him gone and with him their hope of deliverance. His mother, too, was troubled at his absence, but comforted herself with the thought of his former absences, afterwards explained.
Satan, hastening from the desert, sought his troop of evil spirits to warn them that his undertaking was no easy one, and to summon them to his assistance.
Night fell on the Son of God, still fasting, wondering what would be the end. In sleep he was visited by dreams of Elijah, raven-fed, and of the same prophet fed by the angel in the desert, and as he dreamed that he ate with them, the lark’s song awoke him and he wandered into a pleasant grove. As he viewed it, charmed by its beauty, a man appeared before him, no rustic this time, but one attired in the apparel of city or court.
“I have returned, wondering that thou still remainest here, hungering. Hagar once wandered here; the children of Israel, and the Prophet, but all these were fed by the hand of Heaven. Thou alone art forgotten and goest tormented by hunger.”
Though the Son of God declared that he had no need to eat, Satan invited his attention to a table, set under a spreading tree. Upon it was heaped every known delicacy; by it waited youths handsome as Ganymede, and among the trees tripped naiads and nymphs of Diana, with fruits and flowers. Exquisite music was heard, and the perfumes of Araby filled the air.
“Why not sit and eat?” continued Satan. “These foods are not forbidden, and all these gentle ministers are ready to do thee homage.”
“What hast thou to do with my hunger?” demanded Jesus. “Should I receive as a gift from thee what I myself could command if I so desired? I too could bring a table here, and swift-winged angels to attend me. Thy gifts are but guiles.”
“I am forever suspected,” responded Satan, as the table vanished. “Hunger cannot move thee, set on high designs. But what canst thou, a lowly carpenter’s son, accomplish without aid? Where wilt thou find authority, where followers? First get riches; hearken to me, for fortune is in my hand. Wealth will win, while virtue, valor, and wisdom sit and wait in vain.”
“Yet what can wealth do without these?” replied Jesus patiently. “How can it gain dominion, and keep it when gained? Gideon, Jephtha, David, and among the heathen (for I am not ignorant of history) Quinctius, Fabricius, Curius, Regulus, all these have risen from the depths and achieved the highest deeds. Then, why may not I accomplish as much, even more, without wealth, which but cumbers the wise man, and slackens virtue, rather than prompts it to worthy deeds? Suppose I reject both riches and realms? Not because the regal diadem is a wreath of thorns and he who wears it bears each man’s burden, for the king’s chief praise is the manner in which he bears this burden for the public. But he who rules himself is greater than a king, and he who cannot do this should not aspire to royal power. But it is surely more kingly to lead nations blinded by error into the light of God’s truth. This dominion is over the nobler part of man. And it has ever been thought greater and nobler to give a kingdom and to lay down authority than to assume it. Therefore thy riches are needless both in themselves, and to gain a kingdom which would better be missed than gained.”
Satan, though for a moment struck dumb by this answer to his arguments, soon collected himself and suggested that while the Savior knew so well what was best to know, say, and do, that if known he would be regarded as an oracle, still he did wrong to despise glory and deprive earth of his great deeds, citing as examples of more active spirits accomplishing much when younger than he, the young Alexander, Scipio, Pompey, and Caesar. But the Savior replied that the glory which consisted of the approval of the rabble was only to be despised. The true glory was that of the man who dared to be truly good, who though little known on earth, was famous in Heaven. Such men did not lay waste fields, sack, pillage, and slay, but by deeds of peace won the approval of the Father. Such was Job, oft tempted by Satan; such was Socrates, who suffered unjust death for teaching truth. And the Son of God had come upon earth not to win glory for himself as vain men do, but for Him who sent him.
“Thy Father does not despise glory,” sneered Satan. “He demands it from his angels, from men, even from us, his foes.”
“With reason,” answered the Son, “since he created all things, though not for glory. And what slighter recompense could he expect from men who could return nothing else?”
Satan, remembering his own ambition and his fall, was silent for a moment, and then spoke to remind the Savior that he was born to the throne of David, but that it must be wrested from the Roman by force of arms. It was his duty to do this and save his people from oppression.
“All things in due time,” replied the Savior. “If the Writ tells of my sufferings, my tribulations, of violence done unto me, it also tells of my reign without end. I can wait. He who suffers best, can do best; he who obeys first, reigns best; and why shouldest thou be so anxious to hasten my rule when it means thy destruction?”
“When hope is gone, what is there left to fear? My punishment will come whether thou reign or no. I could hope that thy reign would stand between me and the anger of thy Father. And if I haste to the worst that can be, why shouldest thou go so slowly to the best? Perhaps thou fearest the dangerous enterprise, thou who, pent up in Galilean towns, hast seen so little.”
So saying, he took the Son up into a high mountain at the foot of which stretched a vast plain. Two rivers watered the fertile land. The hills were covered with flocks; vast cities could be seen, and here and there, so wide was the land, a barren desert. Then the Tempter pointed out the vast cities of Assyria, Nineveh, Babylon, Persepolis, Bactra, and the vast host of the Parthian king, even then marching against the Scythians. As they watched the great host of mailed warriors, accompanied by chariots, elephants, archers, engineers, Satan pursued his argument. Suppose the Son should take possession of his kingdom; how should he hope to keep it in peace between two such powerful enemies as the Parthians and the Romans? It would be better to conquer first the nearest, the Parthians, and this could be done with Satan’s help. In doing this he would not only be able to occupy his throne but would deliver the offspring of the Ten Tribes of Israel, who, scattered among the Medes, still served as slaves.
But the Savior, in response, only questioned Satan as to why he had suddenly become so solicitous for the salvation of the Tribes when he himself had once tempted David to number Israel and had thus brought pestilence upon them. And as to the Ten Tribes, they had brought their punishment upon themselves, and must serve the enemy and their idols until the Father should see fit to release them.
Though embarrassed by the failure of his wiles, Satan could not yet yield. Turning to the western side of the mountain, he pointed out to the Savior a long, narrow plain, bordered on the south by the sea and protected from northern blasts by a mountain range. There, crowning the seven hills stood the imperial city adorned with porches, theatres, baths, aqueducts, and palaces. Satan pointed out the different objects of interest in splendid Rome, the Capitol, Mt. Palatine, crowned by the imperial palace, and the great gates, through which issued or entered a continuous stream of praetors, proconsuls, lictors, legions, embassies, on all the roads which led through the far-stretching empire, even to those of the Asian kings, and remote Britain. All the glory of the world, he argued, lay in Parthia and Rome, and Rome was greater. He who ruled her was indeed ruler of the world, and yet its present emperor was old, weak, lascivious, without heir, and lived at Capreae, his public cares entrusted to his favorite. How easily could the Son of God force from him the power and lift the yoke from his people!
But the splendor of the scene allured neither the eye nor the mind of the Son. The gluttonies, the gorgeous feasts, the hollow compliments and lies of the people did not attract him. His mission, he told his Tempter, was not yet to free that people, once just and frugal, now debased by their insatiable ambition. When the time came for him to sit on David’s throne, this with all other kingdoms of the earth would be shattered while his kingdom would be eternal.
“Though thou despisest my offers,” cried Satan, “thou knowest that I esteem them highly, and will not part with them for nought. This is the condition; Wilt thou fall down and worship me as thy superior lord?”
“It is written, thou accursed one,” responded the Savior in disdain, “that thou shouldst worship and serve the Lord thy God alone. Who gave thee the kingdoms of the earth if He did not? And what gratitude thou showest! Get thee behind me! Truly thou art Satan!”
Satan, abashed but not silenced, pointed southwest toward Athens. Since the Savior seemed to prefer a contemplative life, why should he not seek that seat of learning? All wisdom was not contained in Moses’ law and the writings of the prophets. Let him master the learning of the great Athenian teachers, philosophers and orators, and he would be a king within himself.
But the Savior assured Satan that, having received light from above, he knew how false and fallacious were the boasted philosophies of the Greeks. Their philosophers, ignorant of themselves and of God, and arrogating all glory to themselves and ascribing none to Him, were unable to impart wisdom to any one. From Hebrew psalm and hymn, and captive harps in Babylon, the Greeks derived their arts, and the results, the odious praises of their vicious gods, could not compare with the songs of Sion in praise of the Father. Their orators, too, were far below the Hebrew prophets. “Stay in the wilderness, then,” thundered Satan, wroth at this failure. “Since neither riches nor arms, nor power, nor yet the contemplative life please thee, it is for thee the fittest place! But the time will yet come when violence, stripes, and a cruel death will make thee long for me and my proffered power. Truly the stars promise thee a kingdom, but of what kind and when I cannot read.”
As he disappeared, darkness fell, and the Son of God, still hungry and cold, sought rest under a sheltering tree. But Satan watched near, and forbade rest. Thunder and lightning shook the Heavens; rain drenched the earth; the fury of the winds was loosed, and in their path the sturdiest trees were uprooted. Ghosts, furies, raved around the holy one, but, unshaken by fear, he endured all calmly, and came forth, as the bright sun shone upon the earth, to meet again the Prince of Darkness.
Enraged that the terrors of the night had had no effect upon his enemy, Satan cried out that he still doubted that the wanderer in the wilderness was the Son of God in the true sense, and would therefore try him another way.
So speaking, he caught him up and bore him through the air unto Jerusalem, and setting him on the highest pinnacle of the glorious Temple, said scornfully:—
“Stand there, if thou canst; I have placed thee highest in thy Father’s house. Now show if thou art indeed the Son of God. Cast thyself down, for it is written that He will command his angels concerning thee, so that they in their hands shall uplift thee.”
“It is also written,” said Jesus, “‘Tempt not the Lord thy God.'” And as he so spoke and stood, Satan, overcome with amazement, fell whence he had expected to see his conqueror fall, and, struck with dread and anguish at his certain defeat, fled to his rebel angels.
Straightway, a “fiery globe” of angels received the Son on their pinions, bore him from the pinnacle into a flowery vale, and there refreshed him with ambrosial food and water from the Fount of Life, while all around him the angelic choir sang his praises for the conquest of his enemy, and encouraged him to go forth on his work of saving mankind. Thence, rested and refreshed, he arose, and went, unobserved, home to his mother’s house.