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Ben Hur (written by Lew Wallace) is recognized as a classic. I read an excerpt from the book in Literature class during high school but never actually got around to reading the whole thing. I picked the book up from our church library a few months ago and decided to give it a try – and from the first chapter, I was hooked! I love studying culture (especially Jewish culture, because it helps us understand what the Bible meant to the people to whom it was written), and I love deep thinking. This book offers many cultural tidbits (and seems to be fairly accurate, although I did spot a few errors) and definitely stretches the mind. There are so many profound quotes in this book that I’d love to share with you, but as you probably don’t have all day to read this post, I’ll try to just intersperse a few throughout the rest of my thoughts on the book. I happen to love unique, well-spoken theological quotes, but don’t worry – this book is a story that happens to be embellished with theology; it’s not solely a theological treatise.
“If I were called upon to symbolize God and man in the simplest form, I would draw a straight line and a circle; and of the line I would say, ‘This is God, for he alone moves forever straightforward,’ and of the circle, ‘This is man – such is his progress.’ I do not mean that there is no difference between the careers of nations; no two are alike. The difference, however, is not, as some say, in the extent of the circle they describe or the space of earth they cover, but in the sphere of their movement, the highest being nearest God.” (Ben Hur, pg. 87)
Yes, the book is a little deep, but it’s so interesting. Ben Hur follows the life of a young Jewish man, the son of a prominent merchant. This fictional young man is a contemporary of Christ, and his life takes many twists and turns that lead him from riches to rags, from a mansion to a rower’s bench of a slave galley, from the arena, to the desert, to Calvary. Imprisonment, chariot races, revenge, and love – through it all, Judah ben Hur has to decide for himself what to do with the Messiah.
And isn’t that the question we all have to answer for ourselves?
“As the mind is made intelligent, the capacity of the soul for pure enjoyment is proportionally increased. Well, therefore, if it be saved! If lost, however, alas that it ever had cultivation! its [sic] capacity for enjoyment in the one case is the measure of its capacity to suffer in the other. Wherefore repentance must be something more than mere remorse for sins; it comprehends a change of nature befitting heaven.” (Ben Hur, pg. 320)
I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the depth of this book. And there is so much detail involved! Ben Hur’s struggles are all of ours; he is an easy character to sympathize with, and I see my own journey in his.
“Riches take wings, comforts vanish, hope withers away, but love stays with us. Love is God.” (Ben Hur, pg. 321)
While some of the plot does strike me as a little fanciful (really, what are the chances of a roof tile changing the course of someone’s life?), this is a fictional book, and there had to be some sort of catalyst to create a plotline. Lew Wallace gets credit for originality. Overall, the book is very well-written and captivating. It’s informative, yet entertaining, and the basic question presented is universal: “Who is the Messiah to you?”
“He is never alone who is where God is – and God is everywhere.” (Ben Hur, pg. 355)
The only thing I would really have a problem with in the book is the way Lew Wallace effeminizes Jesus in certain scenes. While Jesus was a meek and gentle man, He was also a man of intense passion! How do I know this? Well, He was a Jewish rabbi, which kind of gives it away, but if you want concrete evidence, think of whom He was compared to. Elijah. Elijah was the epitome of a man of passion to the Jewish mind. After all, he ran about 37 miles up and down a mountain in one day carrying out God’s orders (read the story of his altercation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and do a little geographic research if you doubt). If Jesus was being mistaken for a returned Elijah, He was obviously not a timid, effeminate man. And then there’s the whole deal of His outright challenges to the Sadducees and their corrupt temple system that made them hopping mad…but that’s another story for another day. We often have a skewed view of Jesus, and unfortunately Lew Wallace paints that inaccurate picture in his otherwise-accurate book.
And don’t get me started on the references to Jesus’ having long hair. He was a Nazarene, not a Nazarite. Get it right, folks. Long hair on a man was not the practice of the day, as our Bible story books would have us believe. In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 11, portraying Jesus with long hair is actually pretty offensive.
Despite these inaccurate portrayals of Jesus, Ben Hur is a wonderful book that is well worth a read. And just because there are just so many awesome quotations in this book, here are a bunch of my favorites. Anyone else out there just love a good quote?
“‘Thou has been very good to me, O God,’ he said. ‘Give me, I pray thee, to see the Saviour again, and worship him, and thy servant will be ready to go in peace.’
“The words, the manner, the singular personality of the simple prayer, touched Ben-Hur with a sensation new and abiding. God never seemed so actual and so near by; it was as if he were there bending over them or sitting at their side – a Friend whose favors were to be had by the most unceremonious asking – a Father to whom all his children were alike in love – Father, not more of the Jew than of the Gentile – the universal Father, who needed no intermediates, no rabbis, no priests, no teachers. The idea that such a God might send mankind a Saviour instead of a king appeared to Ben-Hur in a light not merely new, but so plain that he could almost discern both the greater want of such a gift and its greater consistency with the nature of such a Deity.” (Ben Hur, pg. 360)
“In a word, he [God] organized us for this life, and imposed its conditions; and they are such guaranty to me that, trustful as a little child, I leave to him the organization of my Soul, and every arrangement for the life after death. I know he loves me.” (Ben Hur, pg. 362)
“From that then advance to the final inquiry, what are threescore and ten years on earth to all eternity with God?” (Ben Hur, pg. 362)
“Everything animate has a mind measurable by its wants….By the sign as I see it, God meant to make us know ourselves created for another and a better life, such being in fact the greatest need of our nature. But alas! into what a habit the nations have fallen! They live for the day, as if the present were the all in all, and go about saying, ‘There is no to-morrow after death; or if there be, since we know nothing about it be it a care unto itself.’ So when Death calls them, ‘Come,’ they may not enter into enjoyment of the glorious after-life because of their unfitness. That is to say, the ultimate happiness of man was everlasting life in the society of God….So much are men given to this lower earthly life! So nearly have they forgotten that other which is to come!” (Ben Hur, pg. 363)
“But help yourself to the truth….Consider next that the after-life has become so obscured as to justify calling it a lost life. If you find it, rejoice, O son of Hur – rejoice as I do, though in beggary of words. For then, besides the great gift which is to be saved to us, you will have found the need of a Saviour so infinitely greater than the need of a king; and he we are going to meet will not longer hold place in your hope a warrior with a sword or a monarch with a crown.
“A practical question presents itself – How shall we know him at sight? If you continue in your belief as to his character – that he is to be a king as Herod was – of course you will keep on until you meet a man clothed in purple and with a scepter. On the other hand, he I look for will be one poor, humble, undistinguished – a man in appearance as other men; and the sign by which I will know him will be never so simple. He will offer to show me and all mankind the way to the eternal life; the beautiful pure Life of the Soul.” (Ben Hur, page 364)
“There was music, music everywhere, and all the time; so the man could not but be happy.” (Ben Hur, pg. 371)
Speaking of Jesus: “The features, it should be further said, were ruled by a certain expression which, as the viewer chose, might with equal correctness have been called the effect of intelligence, love, pity, or sorrow; though, in better speech, it was a blending of them all – a look easy to fancy as the mark of a sinless soul doomed to the sight and understanding of the utter sinfulness of those among whom it was passing; yet withal no one could have observed the face with a thought of weakness in the man; so, at least, would not they who know that the qualities mentioned – love, sorrow, pity – are the results of a consciousness of strength to bear suffering oftener than strength to do: such has been the might of martyrs and devotees and the myriads written down in saintly calendars. And such, indeed was the air of this one.” (Ben Hur, pg. 377)
“I did not mean you to tell him so, father. I was concerned for him alone – for his happiness, not mine. Because I have dared love him, I shall keep myself worthy of his respect.” (Ben Hur, pg. 383)
“In this happiness, O my children, let us not be ungrateful. Let us begin life anew by acknowledgement of him to whom we are all so indebted.” (Ben Hur, pg. 404)
“He persisted as men do yet every day in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if we measured ourselves by the Christ!” (Ben Hur, pg. 404)
“‘This death may not be averted. The man has been travelling towards it with full knowledge from the day he began his mission: it is imposed by a will higher than his; whose but the Lord’s! If he is consenting, if he goes to it voluntarily, what shall another do?’…A dread seized him. It was possible his scheming, and labor, and expenditure of treasure might have been but blasphemous contention with God.” (Ben Hur, pg. 425)
As you can tell, Lew Wallace is a master of thought and pen. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the thoughts it provoked.
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