When Philip had finished his high work in Samaria, he received a Divine intimation that his services were required elsewhere. The message was, “Arise, and go towards the south, unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.” This last clause has perplexed inquiry until lately, and various fanciful interpretations have been offered. The difficulty arose from the fact, that although Gaza had been destroyed ninety-six years before Christ, by Alexander Jannaeus, it had subsequently been rebuilt, with other cities, by the Roman general, Gabinius, and was again laid in ruins thirty years after the present transaction. Thus it is not easy to see how it could well be “desert” at that time. To obviate this difficulty, it has been supposed that “the expression in the book of Acts, which might at first appear to imply that Gaza was then ‘desert,’ is more probably to be referred to the particular road from Jerusalem to Gaza on which the Evangelist was to find the eunuch, viz., the southern road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza through the ‘desert,’ a region without villages, as is the case at the present day.” Note: Robinson’s Researches, ii. 380. All this conjecture has been superseded by one of the most interesting practical discoveries of Dr. Keith in Palestine, that the site of old Gaza is at some distance from that of the later Gaza, and lies completely desert—buried in the sand; and by the citations from ancient authors, who make distinct mention of “new Gaza,” as distinguished from “desert Gaza.” Note: Evidence of Prophecy, p. 376, Ed. 36th, 1848. See, also, Daily Bible Illustrations, Evening Series, Twenty-Sixth Week—Thursday.
The object of this mission does not seem to have been disclosed to Philip, but he immediately departed, knowing that further light would be given him when it should be needed. On his way to the place indicated, or on his arrival there, his attention was attracted by a travelling chariot, in which sat a person who was reading as he rode. The dress and equipage of this person, as well as his attendance and escort, indicated the stranger to be a man of high rank and station. He was, in fact no other than “a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship.” We need not understand with the painters, that this great lord was a negro. Ethiopia was a term vaguely applied to any countries beyond the range of Southern Egypt and Africa, and even to Southern Arabia. Here we know that it designates the kingdom of Meroe in Upper Egypt, which Pliny informs us was governed by queens who all bore the name of Candace as a title of office. This is a curious and interesting, because incidental, corroboration of the statement of the sacred writer, while it at once points to the locality from which this great officer had come, and to which he was returning. It does not follow, from his being “a man of Ethiopia,” that he was a native Ethiopian, but simply that he was resident there, and came therefrom. If so, he was “a proselyte of righteousness,” as it was called, to the Jewish religion—easily accounted for by the fact that many Jews spread themselves from Egypt southward into Meroe and beyond, in which quarter Judaism had, indeed, made considerable progress. This fact may even suggest the probability at least, that the man was of Jewish descent; for, from their aptitude for affairs, especially money affairs, Jews often rose to high distinction in foreign courts—just as that at present in Moslem, and indeed in Christian countries, the court banker is often a Jew. What strengthens this probability is, that this personage appears to have been reading the scriptures in Hebrew—a qualification not possessed by foreign converts to Judaism. He might, indeed, have read the Scriptures in the Greek translation then current, and it is not altogether certain that he did not; but when it is said, “The place of the Scripture which he read,” etc., there seems in the original to be an allusion to a division of the Old Testament for public reading, which had been introduced into the Hebrew copies, but not into the Greek translation. Persons who were really eunuchs could not enter into the congregation of the Lord (Deu_23:1); and as, therefore, this personage had been at Jerusalem to worship, probably at one of the great festivals, the term is doubtless to be understood in its acquired sense, frequent in Scripture, in which it designates any great officer of state.
The probabilities seem, therefore, to be that this “man of Ethiopia” was a descendant of Abraham, who had risen to high employment in Meroe, and who on this occasion had indulged his pious zeal in the, to him, rare satisfaction of a pilgrimage to the holy city at one of the seasons of high festival.
Philip could see that the traveler was reading, but was not near enough to hear what he read. A divine impulse, however, directed him to draw nearer to the chariot, and then he heard that it was the famous passage respecting the sufferings of Christ, in the Isaiah 53, that he was reading. With us it is so adverse to cultivated habits, to read aloud to one’s self, that some commentators have imagined that there was a person in the chariot reading to the Ethiopian eunuch. But the text expressly and repeatedly states that he was himself reading; and that he gave a loud oral utterance to that which he read, is quite in accordance with the existing habits of the Orientals when reading privately for their own edification, and without any particular intention of being heard by others, though certainly without any dislike of being heard by any whom their voice may happen to reach. Mr. Jowett well describes this in his Christian Researches: “They usually go on reading aloud, with a kind of singing voice, moving their heads and bodies in tune, and making a monotonous cadence at regular intervals—thus giving emphasis, although not such emphasis as would please an English ear. Very often they seem to read without perceiving the sense; and to be pleased with themselves, because they can go through the mechanical art of reading in any way.”
With us a dusty foot traveler, like Philip, would scarcely think of accosting a grand lord riding by in his chariot, and pre-occupied in reading. But the customs of the East are different; and Philip was not regarded as guilty of any impertinence, when he freely asked the great man if he understood what he was then reading. On the contrary, the grandee, impressed by the earnestness of tone and manner with which Philip put the question, answered with a real interest and a touching simplicity which, together with the fact of his being thus engaged in reading the Scriptures while upon a journey, give us the most favorable impression of his character—“How call I, unless some man should guide me?” Then, perceiving from Philip’s responsive look to this candid confession and inquiry, that he was able to afford the guidance he desired, he begged him to come up into the chariot and sit with him. Having him there, the treasurer hastened to point out the passage that most perplexed him, and which was indeed that which Philip had heard him read—“He was led as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his month. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away; and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” Now, said the eunuch, laying his finger upon the place, “doth the prophet speak this of himself, or of some other man?” Then Philip proceeded to explain it. He showed him that it was a prophecy respecting the Messiah whom the Jews had expected so long; and that it applied exactly to Jesus of Nazareth, who, in the days of his humiliation, was grievously afflicted, but was eminently meek and patient under all. And so he went on preaching Christ crucified; and as the mystery of man’s redemption gradually opened to the astonished view of the eunuch, his heart was filled with holy rapture and gratitude, and he longed to enroll himself under the banner of that King whose realm was not of this world. From Philip’s discourse he had gathered that this was to be accomplished by the sign of baptism; and when, therefore, as they rode along, a stream of water was reached, he cried out with eagerness, “See, here is water! What doth hinder me to be baptized?” Philip answered, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.” On which the other, with solemn earnestness, declared, “I believe that Jesus Christ ,is the Son of God”—not only that Jesus was the Christ, a Messiah, but that he was the Son of God, and as such able to pardon sin, and mighty to subdue it. Philip being satisfied with this, the chariot was stayed, and the two went down together into the water, where the evangelist baptized his illustrious convert; and no sooner was this done, than the baptizer miraculously disappeared, and the eunuch saw him no more. But this tended to strengthen, rather than to weaken, the convert’s faith; and instead, therefore, of attempting to search for or follow the evangelist, he, perceiving it was the will of God that they should be separated, mounted his chariot, and “went on his way rejoicing”—rejoicing in the great light which had shone in upon his darkness—rejoicing in that sweet tranquillity of mind which the new knowledge of the gospel of Christ’s salvation could not fail to impart.
The conversion of a man of the eunuch’s high standing was probably attended by some signal results in the country to which he returned; and although history has left no record of such results, the great day of disclosures will doubtless make them known.