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The Bible Story
Volume 6, Chapters 140-149
The Sundial of Ahaz
IN SPITE of the Prophet Isaiah's declaration that no harm would be done to Jerusalem by the Assyrians, there was tension and fear among some of the citizens. (II Chronicles 32:9-10, 18-20; II Kings 19:32-34.)
It was a dark night, and thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers were out there where they couldn't be watched. The people of the city could only guess what the Assyrians were doing or preparing to do. Jewish records say this night was the evening of the Passover Festival, in the first spring month of the year.
A Fantastic Promise!
"Not one arrow shall be shot against Jerusalem from an Assyrian bow."
That bit of prophecy from Isaiah's encouraging message kept running through Hezekiah's mind. Before dawn he arose and went up to one of the wall towers to see what the enemy would be doing when daylight came.
With the first gray light there was an odd but relieving discovery. There were no Assyrian soldiers in sight around the city. All that could be seen, when the sun rose, were many rows of pitched tents and some horses and chariots in the distant campsite.
"Perhaps it's a trick to try to draw some of our troops outside the wall," an officer observed. "All of them couldn't be sleeping this late."
The apparent absence of men in the vast Assyrian camp was a real puzzle. One guess was that the enemy troops were hiding in their tents.
Suddenly another army came into view in the southwest. Their banners soon proved them to be Assyrian. They marched into the quiet camp and a few of their number were seen to go scurrying about. Then they quickly reassembled and speedily departed northward. But still no one came out of the tents. Was this all some sort of trick?
"We have to learn what's going on, and the only way is to go out there and find out," Hezekiah told his officers. "But I don't want anyone ordered to go to the enemy camp to investigate. The fairest way would be to call for a few volunteers."
So many bold soldiers were curious about the Assyrians that there were far more volunteers than the number needed for the scout patrol outside Jerusalem's walls. Hezekiah and his officers, as well as many others on the wall top, watched the eager volunteers intently as they warily advanced toward the mass of tents.
The intrepid little band of investigators reached the enemy camp safely and cautiously approached the nearest tent. On peering inside, they saw only a pile of army blankets. A closer look, however, revealed dead Assyrian soldiers sprawled under the blankets!
The next few minutes were almost beyond the belief of the soldiers of Judah. They rushed from tent to tent to find corpses in every shelter. Tens of thousands of Assyrian soldiers had apparently died in their sleep of some mysterious cause! The whole besieging army was dead. This explained why Sennacherib and his other army had so suddenly departed northward.
When news of the death of the enemy was taken to Jerusalem, Hezekiah and the people were as dumbfounded as they were relieved. God had passed over His people and had punished the Assyrians just as He had done in Egypt under Moses on the first Passover.
A part of the army was sent out to seize anything of value left behind by the Assyrians. Later that day thousands of soldiers of Judah buried and counted the corpses, whose number came to one hundred and eighty-five thousand. (II Kings 19:35.)
A Pagan's Dilemma
There was celebrating in Judah the next day, especially in Jerusalem. There was more than just music, dancing and feasting. The temple porch was packed with people who came that day, the 15th of the month, for the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, commemorating deliverance out of Egypt. Now they added praises to God and gave thanks for the great and mysterious miracle that had kept the Assyrians from Jerusalem. Probably there wasn't anyone more thankful than the king, who felt as though his nation had suddenly been freed from a deadly noose.
While the people returned to their farms and regular occupations and started repairing cities and towns damaged by the invaders, King Sennacherib and his other army moved on to Assyria without delay. Many months before, the arrogant Assyrian ruler had swept ruthlessly westward from his nation to the Great Sea and then southward to Egypt, cutting a wide path of conquests by virtue of the vast size of his army. To return to Nineveh with only a fraction of his fighting force was one of the most humiliating things that could happen to this profane and boastful man. But he couldn't stay away to avoid his disgraceful situation and yet continue to share the kingship. There were others who were anxious and ready to replace him. He was on the verge of regretting the statements he had made about the Creator. The strange annihilation of one of his two armies was something he couldn't help but connect with the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, after he returned to his capital he continued for years to worship in the shrine of the pagan god Nisroch, whom he regularly asked for help in holding the conquests he had made. As the years passed this didn't look very hopeful unless he could continually muster and train new armies, even though he had left many men in these cities and nations to try to keep them subject. (II Kings 19:36.)
If Sennacherib expected swift and powerful results because of his prayers and sacrifices to Nisroch, there was, of course, only disappointment. Nearly 29 years passed.
"Why is it that my god never performs any miracles for me?" he one day asked his advisors. "There are many reports that the God of Judah has done and still does great things for His people. Is there some secret way of really gaining the help of a god? If there is, I want to know!"
The scowling king accented his demand with a loud blow of his fist on the arm of his chair. There was a strained silence until one of the advisors hesitantly spoke up.
The Tables Are Turned
"You have spoken of something difficult to discuss, sire," the man began. "Have you not heard how the Syrians, Moabites and certain other people make their most effective appeals to their gods?"
"I'll ask the questions," Sennacherib shouted impatiently. "Just tell me what you're talking about."
"I'm referring to the sacrificing of human beings," the advisor replied uneasily, "especially a firstborn son."
"Of course I've heard of that," the king snapped. "Do the people of Judah follow that custom?" "I know of no recent instance," was the answer. "But there is a legend that hundreds of years ago a HEBREW patriarch by the name of Abraham was commanded by God to kill his firstborn son and burn him on an altar. The legend goes that Abraham started to carry out his God's will, but at the last moment was prevented from causing his son's death. However, he had proved his willingness to obey his God. And God was so pleased that He not only rewarded Abraham, but also promised protection and prosperity to Abraham's descendants." (Genesis 22.)
The scriptural record of what happened to Sennacherib at that time is limited. Other records, though less dependable, tell about the Assyrian king's plan to gain help from his god Nisroch by going to greater extremes than those of the Syrians and Moabites. He was particularly impressed by the story of Abraham, even though Abraham hadn't been required to carry out God's original instructions. Sennacherib reasoned that if a god could be pleased by the sacrifice of a son, that god would be doubly pleased by the sacrilege of two sons.
The two sons he had in mind were Adrammelech and Sharezer, both of whom he was aware were strongly ambitious to succeed him as ruler of Assyria. He believed that if he could win Nisroch's favor, he would be given the power and success he needed to reestablish himself as what he had long claimed to be the greatest king in the world.
To carry out his diabolical plan, Sennacherib needed the help of trusted servants, at least one of whom turned out to be trustworthy to his sons instead of to him. When the sons heard what the king intended to do, they reversed matters by hiding in the pagan temple and slaying their father while he was bowed before the image of Nisroch. (II Kings 19:37; II Chronicles 32:21.)
With the king disposed of, it could have been a matter of which son would dispose of the other to gain the throne. But neither was to become a ruler. Even though their crime had been committed in secret, they were so strongly suspected that they realized it would mean death to remain in Nineveh or even anywhere in Assyria. They managed to slip out of the city and escape to Armenia, a nation to the north in whose land were the mountains on which Noah's ark came to rest after the flooding of the earth. (Genesis 8:4.)
The throne of Assyria was immediately taken over by a third son of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, who inherited his father's ability for arrogant boasting. Eventually he referred to himself as powerful, heroic, gigantic, colossal and the king of kings of Egypt, where his army won a major battle.
When news of Sennacherib's death reached the surrounding nations, the people of Judah and many in other countries felt that the God of Israel had caused the Assyrian king to die disgracefully before a pagan idol because of his insulting the true God, his attacks on Judah and his deceitfulness and threats. This resulted in increasing respect for Judah's God.
Meanwhile, we return to another part of the story 29 years before. Just when Hezekiah was at the peak of his power and usefulness and when Judah was reeling from Sennacherib's invasion, the king's health began to wane. The wearing pressures of months and years were taking their toll. Hezekiah's illness became so serious that he was soon confined to bed. Fearing that his life could be near its end, the king sent to the prophet Isaiah for help.
"There is nothing I can do for you," the prophet told the king, "except advise you to wind up all personal and state affairs that need your attention, especially those having to do with choosing your successor. God has purposed to take your life very soon."
Even though he realized that he was facing death, Hezekiah was shocked and dismayed to learn that God was going to let him die, obviously without answering a prayer from the prophet. On further thought, he realized that even the prayers of a man very close to God, such as Isaiah, couldn't always be expected to alter the purpose of the Creator of the universe.
Perhaps God had told Isaiah that his exhortation would be useless in this matter of when the king was to die. The situation didn't lessen Hezekiah's esteem for the value of prayer. He knew this was the time to do his own intense petitioning, regardless of the presence of his attendants and Isaiah. Twisting around so that he could hide his face toward the head of his bed, which was against a wall, he silently but fervently called on God.
"I beseech you not to take my life now," Hezekiah prayed. "Except for the times I have made foolish blunders, you know I have kept your laws. You promised long lives to the kings of Judah who would be obedient. If I have been useful until now, would I not continue to be useful over more years? Let me continue to be of service to you and your people. Extend my life long enough for me to bring a son into the world to take my place. Don't let the grave swallow me. From there how can I praise you or lead your people? At least don't take me until I can be sure that the Assyrians won't return to trouble our nation!" (II Kings 20:1-3.)
Hearing muffled sobs coming from the king's bed, Isaiah sadly turned and quietly left the room, whispering for the attendants to do the same for a while. As he passed through one of the palace court gardens on his way out, a clear voice came to him.
A Promise and a Miracle
"Go back to the king, Isaiah. Tell him that I have heard the prayer that he has just uttered, and that I am aware of the causes of his tears.
Tell him that I shall heal him. Three days from now he will be able to walk to the temple and give thanks. (II Kings 20:5.) I shall add fifteen more years to his life. Hezekiah soon shall have the son he desires and time to carry out plans for the nation's continued prosperity. During the rest of his life I shall continue to protect Jerusalem for my own sake and that of my servant David. These blessings shall come to Hezekiah because of his obedience."
When Hezekiah heard Isaiah's surprising news, he was overjoyed. At the same time it was difficult for him to fully believe that God had so suddenly dropped His intention to take his life.
"You have given me great hope," he told the prophet, "but how can I be certain that I shall be healed in three days and be able to go to the temple? Is there any kind of unusual sign by which you can prove these things?"
Isaiah pondered for a few moments, then pointed through a window to an object in the adjoining court.
"There is the massive sundial of your father, Ahaz," the prophet observed. "The shadow cast by its gnomon on its steps clearly indicates the time of day. If God will promptly move that shadow backward or forward by ten steps, will you believe you will be healed? It's up to you to decide which way the shadow should be moved."
"It wouldn't be a great thing for the shadow to go forward supernaturally as it did when my father died," Hezekiah replied. "I'll believe I'll be healed if the shadow moves BACKWARD ten steps, which would be an even greater miracle."
In spite of the pain caused by inflammation in his body, especially when he moved, the king asked his attendants to prop him up so that he could distinctly see the shadow cast by the sundial pole across one of the steps that indicated the hours. After Hezekiah was fairly comfortable, Isaiah gestured for silence. (II Kings 20:8-11; II Chronicles 32:24.)
"I implore you, God of Israel," the prophet spoke out, "to set back the sundial shadow ten steps, so that the king of Judah shall witness your intent to heal him!"
Hezekiah, Isaiah and the attendants watched the heavens in intense fascination as the sundial shadow began to move BACKWARD!
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The Decline of Judah
AILING King Hezekiah was speechless to see the shadow of his giant sundial gnomon moving BACKWARD at a rapid rate. Whether or not the king realized it, it required a most awesome situation to cause such an unusual sight -- a sudden reversal in the earth's direction of rotation! But it was no more difficult for God to alter the earth's rotation temporarily than for a pilot to stop a modern jet that travels hundreds of miles per hour. The surface of the earth travels about 1000 miles an hour around its axis. So it need not have taken more than several minutes to slow down the earth, reverse rotation and then start it going again as before.
A miracle is a supernatural occurrence having to do with God temporarily suspending or canceling certain of His physical laws. In addition He often uses natural means which people don't always understand.
In any event, Hezekiah was shown exciting proof that God would heal him, and he was very grateful. Whatever means God used to do the healing, He first wanted the poisons out of the king's body. Isaiah instructed servants to apply a special fig poultice to the most painful and swollen area of the inflammation, so that the accumulated toxins would be drawn out. True to the prophet's prophecy, Hezekiah was so improved by the third day that he had the strength to go to the temple to thank God for His help and the promise of fifteen more years of life. (II Kings 20:1-11; II Chronicles 32:24; Isaiah 38.)
Royal Visitors From Babylon
Judah continued recovering from the Assyrian assault. Prosperity increased. Believing that his nation faced a trouble-free future as long as idolatry was kept down, Hezekiah began to amass treasures. Every valuable gift that came to him from men of other lands added to the collection. Besides, he sent men afar to acquire objects of gold, silver and rare stones. They obtained costly spices, precious ointments and many unique items of unusual value. (II Chronicles 32:27.)
Among the worthy presents the king received was one from Baladan [Merodach-baladan], ruler of Babylon, a city-state in the country of Babylonia, south of Assyria. Babylon had been a province of Assyria for several years, and long before Sennacherib's disastrous army loss in Judah, Baladan moved without success to free Babylon from Assyria. Having heard of the unusual powers of Judah's God, as well of Judah's growing wealth and power, Baladan was anxious to establish friendly relations with Hezekiah. It was his desire to use that friendship, however, for personal advantage.
To impress the king of Judah, Baladan sent his gift by ambassadors instead of by regular messengers. These men also brought a letter for Hezekiah, who was as surprised at its contents as he was at the arrival of the men from distant Babylon, the ancient city near which men once tried to reach the sky by building a high tower. (Genesis 11.)
King Baladan wrote that the bearers of the gift were men of high rank and that he knew the officials of Judah would treat them accordingly. He mentioned the mysterious destruction of Sennacherib's troops in Judah and Hezekiah's miraculous recovery from what was regarded as a fatal illness.
Baladan wrote that he would like to know more about the powerful God of Judah, the growing prosperity of the nation and Hezekiah's treasures. Before the letter ended, there was a strong suggestion that Judah and Babylon should plan to unite against Assyria if that nation should threaten either of them again.
Hezekiah should have been suspicious of these overly curious ambassadors, but he wasn't. He was pleased by this attention from another king, even though Baladan's kingdom was small. Hoping to enhance his prestige and gain the favor of a ruler who later might prove to be of value to him, he showed the alert Babylonians all his personal treasures, special costly army equipment and the wealth of the temple. Gullible Hezekiah even took them on a tour of the nation to let them see the outstanding farms, ranches, quarries, mines and other features of the land. (Isaiah 39:1-2; II Kings 20:12-13.)
Days later, when the Babylonians left, there was little they didn't know about Judah's economy and manpower. Shortly after their departure, Isaiah came to talk to the king.
"At the risk of your considering me overly curious," the prophet told Hezekiah, "I would like to know the identity of your recent guests."
"That should be no secret to you," Hezekiah replied in a respectful tone, realizing that the prophet possibly knew about them even before they arrived. "They were special ambassadors from Babylon. Their king, Baladan, sent me a gift and a letter by them."
"What did this king have to say?" Isaiah asked. For answer, Hezekiah produced Baladan's letter, written in Hebrew. As the prophet read it he scowled a little and shook his head.
"Did you disclose anything to these men?" he queried. "I showed them everything they asked to see," the king hesitantly answered. "I have so much to be proud of here in Judah. Is it unwise for me to take pleasure in displaying to foreigners the good things God has allowed us to have?" (II Kings 20:14-15; Isaiah 39:3-4.)
Isaiah stood up and thoughtfully gazed out a window for a short time.
"Didn't it occur to you that what these Babylonians learned here could be used against Judah some day?" the prophet asked. "Haven't you considered what God thinks of your growing pride in your increased possessions?"
A surprised reaction welled up in the king toward the prophet for speaking to him so bluntly, but before words could come out, he had a sudden awareness of a vanity that had been growing in him without his recognizing it before.
"Perhaps I have been thinking about material things more than I should," Hezekiah admitted.
Result of Trusting Enemies
"That's more than possible," Isaiah remarked. "Obviously you were favorably impressed by the Babylonians, but God wants you to know that you should have no league with these pagan people. Those emissaries were allowed to test you, to see how you would react to their flattery and also to see how much of a display you would make of your possessions. Remember this, because God has spoken it: There will come a time when an army will come from Babylon to seize all that is in this palace. The invaders will ransack the city, ruin the temple and plunder the land. They'll herd our people to Babylon and surrounding nations, where they'll become slaves. Your descendants will become SPECIAL slaves -- keepers of the bedrooms of the king of Babylon!"
Hezekiah was stunned. For a few moments he paced about the room, occasionally glancing at Isaiah as though he wanted to question the prophet.
"If that's the way God says it will be, then it's certain to happen," Hezekiah finally remarked in a resigned tone. "I am thankful that it won't happen in the peaceful years I have left." (II Kings 20:16-19; II Chronicles 32:31; Isaiah 39:5-8.)
"I, too," Isaiah answered, "am thankful that these terrible things won't occur in your time."
After the prophet had gone, the full impact of his words reached Hezekiah's understanding. Isaiah wasn't talking only about an enemy victory from which Judah would recover. He was talking about the end of Judah as a nation!
In his years that remained, Hezekiah dedicated himself to the best interests of his country. He saw to it that large supplies of grain, wine and oil were maintained. He continued to promote farming and to increase the raising of sheep and cattle.
The greatest engineering project during Hezekiah's reign was the laborious cutting of a tunnel 1,177 feet through solid rock under Jerusalem. Through the tunnel water was conveyed from a spring outside the city to a large pool inside. Previous to the filling of the pool area, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had to get their water by lowering buckets forty feet into a well. (II Chronicles 32:27-30.)
Hezekiah's greatest accomplishment, of course, was the stopping of most idolatry in Judah and restoring proper worship at the temple.
The son Hezekiah had wanted when he was so ill was born to him three years after his recovery. Having been given fifteen more years of life, the king was succeeded by a boy only twelve years old. His name was Manasseh. (II Chronicles 32:32-33; II Kings 20:20-21; 21:1.)
In his last years and months, the king must have been painfully conscious of the approaching date of his death, although probably he didn't know the exact day. He died at the age of fifty-four, after about twenty-nine years as ruler of Judah. Hezekiah was buried in one of the main sepulchers reserved for the descendant kings of David.
A Swing to Religious License
Unfortunately for Judah, young Manasseh was guided and influenced by profane men who were in favor of returning to idolatry. It wasn't long before Hezekiah's headway against pagan religions in the nation was offset by a decline in the worship of God and a revival of permissiveness and an interest in neighboring religions.
As Manasseh grew older, there seemed to be no limit to the heathen practices he allowed and even promoted. At first he favored reestablishing private and public places for idol worship. Then he decreed that altars should be built throughout the nation for sacrificing to the god Baal, one of the chief pagan deities of the Canaanites. His next move was to prepare special shrines for worshipping the goddess Astarte, whose rituals were disgustingly lewd. These swift plunges into idolatry were more than enough to rouse the Creator's scourging anger. But Manasseh didn't stop there. He deliberately defied God by setting up these pagan altars, idols, images and obscene symbols in the holy temple!
Of course, God's priests were driven from the temple first. Then their quarters were changed into a chapel for the worship of stars and planets. Even Molech made a comeback in Judah when followers were invited to build places of worship in the Valley of the Dram or Tophet -- known in New Testament times as Gehenna.
The metal idol was heated to red-hot by fires built inside the belly.
To the thunderous accompaniment of drums, the parents placed their own babies into the glowing hands of the idol in worship of their horrid god. The purpose of the drums was to drown the agonizing screams of helpless infants, sacrificed by their very own parents.
How different from the worship of the Living Creator God who says that this kind of worship is so awful that he couldn't imagine the children of Israel ever doing it. (Jeremiah 32:35.)
Faith was replaced by superstition. Like vultures the wizards, witches, sorcerers, and mediums returned to feed on that superstition.
Convinced that worshipping and relying on Israel's God was foolish, Manasseh did more to turn his nation to idolatry than did the pagan nations God had destroyed. He was even worse than blasphemous King Ahab, because he required his people to worship the idols he brought to Judah. Those who were loyal to God and refused to have part in pagan religious rites were arrested and tortured. If they still refused, they were put to death. (II Kings 21:1-9; II Chronicles 33:1-9.)
Because of the misused power of one man, Jerusalem, the city of peace, became a city of despair, terror and death. Those who tried to obey God lived in constant fear of criminals and of Manasseh's soldiers. Those who became idolaters became debased and miserable.
Manasseh apparently began to doubt that Israel's God existed. Manasseh was one of the most foolish kings who ever lived for deliberately antagonizing his long-suffering Creator, who began to act by giving instructions to the prophets who were hiding in Judah.
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As KING Manasseh grew more powerful, he began to force the people to follow him more and more deeply into pagan practices. Because of his evil deeds, God began to act by sending His prophets with warnings for the people of Judah.
"Warn Manasseh and the people," God told them, "that because the king has stooped to abominations greater than those of surrounding nations of the past, whom I have destroyed, and has forced his subjects to do the same by torturing and murdering the faithful, I will bring terrible times on Judah. If people could hear what their fate will be, their ears would almost burn at listening to the fearful facts.
"As Samaria fell, so shall Jerusalem. I shall wipe out the city as one wipes out a dirty dish by turning it upside down and scooping out the leftovers. I shall forsake this nation. The inhabitants will fall into the hands of their enemies, to become slaves just as the people of Samaria and the northern tribes of national Israel went into captivity.
"Ever since I brought my people out of Egypt more then eight hundred years ago, they have troubled me and tried my patience. Their king has now become one of the basest offenders by conducting himself like an insane man. He won't be allowed to continue in his murderous manner much longer." (II Kings 21:10-16; II Chronicles 33:10.)
The prophets who received this message were Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk and Isaiah. And they wrote down God's warnings in their books which are now part of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. At great personal risk, these men managed to make public what God had told them. When reports reached Manasseh, he laughed derisively, but the more he thought about these men having the boldness to give him warnings, supposedly from the God he loathed, the more irritated he became.
"The doomsday dolts are at it again!" he scoffed. "I want them brought here to explain just how their God plans to stop me from doing what I please!"
Some, if not all, of the prophets were arrested at this time. Scriptural and secular references indicate that the elderly Isaiah was one of them. Tradition says that because Manasseh was angered by Isaiah's loyalty to God and his warnings, he had the prophet sawn in two. These religious persecutions are described in the New Testament "faith chapter," Hebrews 11, especially verses 36 to 38.
It was an unusual thing, even in ancient times, for a nation to be surprised by large enemy forces that had already penetrated its borders. There were generally spies and frontier lookouts on duty to pass back information even on small bands of strangers.
But because God willed it, this early warning system failed to work for Judah shortly after Isaiah's horrible death. The people of Judah had a sudden, sickening awareness that Assyrian troops were moving swiftly through the land. The sentries on Jerusalem's walls knew nothing of what was happening till they saw the enemy soldiers swarming toward the city's main gate. (II Chronicles 33:11.)
"Your king is our prisoner!" an Assyrian officer called out when the invaders were just beyond an arrow's range of the walls. "If you want him back, open the gates and send your citizens out to us! If you send soldiers, your king will die right here!"
Leaders of Judah under Manasseh were shocked when they saw that their king was indeed a prisoner of the Assyrians. Obviously he had been captured while on a trip outside Jerusalem. The leaders of Judah decided to send out a few hundred citizens in exchange for Manasseh.
The unfortunate ones, mainly women and children, were roughly herded outside through gates that were briefly opened, then slammed shut before enemy troops could try to force an entrance. Those thrust out of their city immediately became captives of the Assyrians, who expressed their anger at the small number of citizens given them.
King Manasseh in Captivity
"More! More!" roared the invaders. "Isn't your king's life worth more than this paltry few?"
The officers of Judah had no choice but to quickly force more people out through a gate opened only a minute or so. Again, as before, soldiers of Judah remained inside where they could be more effective in the defense of the city. Again the Assyrians pounced on their prey and bellowed for more. This convinced those in authority in Jerusalem that the Assyrians had no intention of releasing Manasseh. They refused to send out any more people.
Having taken other captives from other undefended areas of Judah, and not wishing to carry on a long siege of well-defended Jerusalem, the Assyrians departed with their prisoners. They didn't take Manasseh's life as they had threatened. Instead they took him with them, forcing him to walk in heavy loops of clanking chains. This cruel man who had challenged his Creator could scarcely believe that he was in the hands of his enemies. It was much easier for him to believe almost two months and hundreds of long miles later when he was led disgracefully through the streets of the city of Babylon. (II Chronicles 33:9-11.)
"Can this actually be the mighty king of Judah? He lacks the apparel of one of royalty. He doesn't even have the bearing and dignity of a ruler!"
The contemptuous speaker was Esarhaddon, king of Assyria and son of the murdered Sennacherib. The setting was his palace in Babylon, the city-state he had forced back under Assyrian domination. Manasseh, weighted down with his metal fetters, could only stare back with undisguised hatred as his conqueror belittled him before the Assyrian notables who were present.
"This man must learn that Judah shall at last become a vassal nation," Esarhaddon continued arrogantly. "Obviously he isn't yet convinced. Put him in the lower dungeon, and keep him there until he surrenders his nation!"
Thus started months of miserable confinement for Manasseh, who didn't believe that he would long remain in prison because his many pagan gods would come to his rescue. As the weeks went by, Manasseh exhorted these false gods and goddesses one by one to deliver him from the Assyrians. Stunned because nothing occurred in his favor, Manasseh began to doubt the powers of the gods to whom he had been faithful for years. Doubting the powers of these false deities, he began to wonder if it could be possible that the God his father had worshipped could possibly exist and have the tremendous power that was claimed in ancient Israelite records.
Manasseh Finally Repents
Miserable and desperate, the king of Judah finally concluded that it might be worth the effort to pray to the God of Israel for help.
There was no response. But there was a strange awareness that belief in pagan gods was a futile and foolish pursuit. With this start toward wisdom, and through continued fervent prayer to God, Manasseh was encouraged by a growing assurance that he was at last beginning to contact the one real Supreme Power. From then on he began to strongly regret all the things he had done to lead Judah back into idolatry which his father, Hezekiah, had worked to remove from the nation.
Regret turned into genuine repentance, which God always recognizes. Manasseh's repentance was so intense and genuine that God caused the king of Assyria to change his plans about Judah and Manasseh.
God always blesses ANYONE who sincerely repents. Manasseh's repentance (II Chronicles 33:12-13) was one of the most profound in all the Bible. The record of it serves to show that our God is so filled with compassion that He will honor the sincere repentance of anyone, no matter how black his deeds have been. Surely no king of Israel or Judah ever provoked God's wrath more with his blatant idolatry even to the point of bringing an idol into God's very own temple. II Kings 21 chronicles the record of his rotten deeds. Only the unregenerate Ahab could begin to rival Manasseh in wickedness. (II Kings 21:3.) Yet our God is so brimful of mercy that He honored even Ahab's humility even though he never really repented. (I Kings 21:29.)
God will forgive any person who makes a full surrender to Him without any reservations -- no matter how terrible, or how many, have been his sins. God will forgive them all. (Matthew 12:31.)
The Apostle Paul himself said that BEFORE conversion he was "a blasphemer and a persecutor, and injurious." He actually counted himself the "chief of sinners." Yet he obtained mercy, that in him first Jesus Christ "might shew forth ALL LONG-SUFFERING, FOR A PATTERN to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting." (I Timothy 1:13-16.)
God made sure that His Word was replete with examples of the real repentance of grievous sinners. So no one should ever say, "My sins are so bad that God couldn't possibly forgive me." And no matter how you may feel about your personal sins, that same merciful God stands ready TO FORGIVE YOU upon genuine repentance. (Psalm 86:5.)
Manasseh Released From Captivity
"This stubborn king of Judah will never willingly surrender his nation to us," Esarhaddon told his officers and leaders. "Even if he did, his people would put up a resistance I can't afford. It would be wiser to send Manasseh back to Jerusalem. His nation would then become a stronger buffer state between us and our troublesome Egyptian enemies. At the same time, we can always demand tribute from these Israelites, and one we can continue to exact. Is this not better than paying many Assyrian lives to overcome Judah? The nation can be of greater benefit to us if it remains strong and productive."
Naturally there was no evident opposition to the king's wish, although there must have been military men present who were disappointed to learn that their commander had decided not to wage a mad, bloody war on the kingdom of Judah.
Shortly after Esarhaddon's statement, a prison attendant came to free the astonished king of Judah from his dismal cell and escort him to comfortable quarters where he could bathe and be dressed in fine apparel. Servants were present to wait on him, but at his first moment of privacy Manasseh threw himself on the floor and poured out thanks to God for this startling miracle of release from a dark dungeon. He was more surprised and thankful when he learned that he was about to be escorted by Assyrian soldiers back to Jerusalem. (II Chronicles 33:12-13.)
There was much celebrating in Judah -- and especially in the capital -- when Manasseh returned to his kingship. At the same time there was surprise and gloom among the king's former ranking favorites when they learned of the great change in their leader.
"He keeps talking about the 'God of Israel' instead of our gods," an officer remarked concernedly to others. "Something must have happened to his mind while he was in prison!" "There is no doubt of it," another agreed. "I heard that he intends to try to restrain the people from worshipping any god except the God his father worshipped. That will take some doing, because not many people will want to be tied down to observing the harsh laws of the old God of Israel."
The Struggle to Change
Unhappily for many, that was exactly what Manasseh set out to do. He removed the pagan images from the temple, cleaned and repaired the altar, reinstated Levite priests to reestablish offerings to God and began a systematic movement to comb out idols and pagan altars from all of Judah. At the same time he sent out a royal decree that the God of Israel was the only deity to be worshipped in the nation.
Most of the surprised people obeyed by simply sacrificing to God at the places where they had formerly sacrificed to idols. This was a step in the right direction, but God expected sacrifices to be made only at His temple in Jerusalem. Manasseh soon learned that turning a whole nation from paganism to the only true God would be a long and next-to-impossible undertaking.
Meanwhile, he expanded the size of Jerusalem and strengthened and heightened a large part of Jerusalem's walls. He then appointed capable and trusted officers to take charge of Judah's other walled cities, which were subject to possible attack from Egypt or Philistia, and to probable attack from Assyria if the regular tribute to that nation failed to be paid on time. (II Chronicles 33:14-17.)
Manasseh didn't live to see his nation receive the protection and prosperity that would have resulted from the people turning wholeheartedly to God. He was entombed in a family burial place on his own property instead of being buried with most of the kings of Judah. In his time Manasseh caused great trouble in his nation, but he was the only idolatrous king who sought to make such an extreme change for the better in his way of living.
At Manasseh's death his son, Amon, immediately became king of Judah at the age of twenty-two. (II Kings 21:17-18; II Chronicles 33:1820.)
Again it was the old story -- a new, young king going just the opposite of his father's intentions. Amon followed almost exactly the example of his father Manasseh's first years of reign. He even managed to recover many of the hidden carved images his father had caused to be made, and set them up again to be worshipped. Judah was again steered back into perilous, mad idolatry.
Bible Story Book Index
Josiah's Crusade Against Idolatry
AFTER King Manasseh had repented, he started leading Judah back to the worship of God. But he died before he completed the gigantic task of reforming the nation. His son and successor, Amon, did not follow the good example of Manasseh's later years, but followed, instead, the bad example of his earlier years.
Idolatry Breeds Violence
Historians have pointed out, with good reason, that most of the successors of idolatrous Israelite kings had very short periods of rulership. So it was with Amon, whose servants plotted against him and murdered him by the time he had ruled only two years. The people of Judah, however, were so angry because of their leader's assassination that they succeeded in finding all those connected with the act and put them to death. (II Kings 21:19-26; II Chronicles 33:21-25.)
By this time, Amon had been buried close to his father in the family burial place near the royal palace.
Josiah's Crusade Against Idolatry
Although only eight years old, Amon's son Josiah was the next ruler of Judah. Even though he was first guided by his advisors with various beliefs and ambitions, by the time he was about sixteen he had a growing desire to really follow the ways of his ancestor David, whose accomplishments greatly interested him.
By the time he was twenty years old, Josiah began to rid his kingdom of idols by outlawing the presence of pagan altars and images. At the same time he sent out crews of men to tear down and destroy any objects connected with idolatry. They went throughout Judah and even into the land from which most of Israel had been removed. The last use of heathen altars, just before they were wrecked, was for burning the bones of the profane priests. Their bones were found buried near the altars at which they had officiated when sacrifices had been made to idols. (II Kings 22:1-2; II Chronicles 34:1-7.)
During the years those changes were being made, proper activities were restored at the temple, which again required repairing because of rough usage while careless and rowdy idol worshippers held their profane ceremonies there. Worshippers of God came from far and near, even from the tribes of Israel; and they brought offerings. At last there was a considerable collection of silver at the temple given as offerings by God's worshippers. When Josiah was about twenty-six, he ordered officials to use the silver to buy new timber and stone and to pay the wages of carpenters, builders and masons for mending the worn and broken parts of the temple. (II Kings 22:3-7; II Chronicles 34:8-13.)
Meanwhile, Hilkiah the high priest excitedly reported to his friend Shaphan, the king's secretary, that he had found the Book of the Law in the temple. (II Kings 22:8; II Chronicles 34:14-15.)
This Law on the original scroll of sheepskin, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament, had for a long time been at the side of the ark. (Deuteronomy 31:2426.) And Jehoshaphat in his time had copies made for the teaching of the Law all over the nation. (II Chronicles 17:7-9.) Later, during some time when the temple was overrun by idol-worshippers, most copies of the Law were destroyed. This official temple master copy was missed by the destroyers, probably because some astute and faithful priest concealed it rather than have it destroyed by those who wanted to do away with God's laws.
When Shaphan, Hilkiah and others presented the ancient but well-preserved sheepskin scroll to the king, his excitement was no less than that of Hilkiah. Josiah was so interested that he immediately asked that Shaphan read some original scriptures aloud, so that they might know what God requires of men and nations. (II Kings 22:9-10; II Chronicles 34:16-18.)
The Laws of Peace
Shaphan read aloud certain chapters from the book of Deuteronomy -- that part having to do with God's promises of blessings for obedience and the curses that would follow disobedience. (Deuteronomy 28.) Josiah became so perturbed that he violently tore his robe. In those times that was an action that indicated great distress. (II Kings 22:11; II Chronicles 34:19.)
"According to what you just read, as Moses wrote it," Josiah exclaimed, "this nation is overdue for a terrible time of God's wrath! I want you to go at once and inquire of God if anything special can be done to cause God to be merciful to us!"
"There is a true prophetess here in the city by the name of Huldah," Hilkiah said in a desperate tone.
"Seek her out," Josiah ordered. "Ask her what will happen and what we should do."
Hilkiah, Shaphan and three other men of rank left right away to find the prophetess Huldah, to whom God had given special ability to understand some of His intentions. (II Kings 22:12-14; II Chronicles 34:20-22.)
God must have previously given Huldah understanding for Josiah's benefit, because she had an immediate answer for her visitors.
"Tell the man who sent you that God will indeed bring deep misery to the people of Judah because of their turning to false gods," Huldah said. "God's warnings, like His promises, never fail. There is nothing that can be done now to alter God's plans. But He wants the king of Judah to know that he, Josiah, won't go through the soon-coming time of curses and desolation for his nation. Because Josiah has repented and has faithfully worked to turn his people back to the right way, he will be mercifully taken to his grave and will be spared the evil to come." (II Kings 22:15-20; II Chronicles 34:23-28.)
When Josiah learned what Huldah had to say, he was disappointed that his people would not COMPLETELY repent. As a result there wasn't much he could do to prevent God's wrath from eventually falling on Judah. Nevertheless, the king determined to make the most of the time he had left. He called for the people -- especially the leaders -- to meet with him at the temple to hear a reading from the Book of the Law. He hoped that all who heard would be sobered and anxious to seek God. After the reading, probably by Hilkiah the high priest, Josiah stood up before the crowd.
The People Follow Josiah
"God of Israel, we have heard your laws read just as you gave them to your servant Moses," the king called out in prayer. "We know that your laws are just and good, and that only by living by them can we be happy, healthy, prosperous and safe. We realize now, more than ever, that disobedience toward you will surely result in misery, sickness, poverty and trouble. We would like to declare to you that it is our desire and intention, with your help, to put aside ways that aren't good for us or pleasing to you, and wholeheartedly live by your rules only!"
A loud murmur of approval came from the people and their leaders. (II Kings 23:1-3.)
"We can get off to a good start by seeking out and destroying all idolatrous things that still remain in Judah," Josiah told the people. "I daresay there yet remain even in the temple articles that have to do with idolatry. I request the high priest and those under him to look closely again for such things. If any are found, let them be removed at once from the temple!"
Obviously someone had been careless in this matter. Many pots, bowls and other equipment used in pagan ceremonies in the temple were hastily rounded up and carried out. Later they were tossed into a huge fire outside the city. The ashes of wooden objects and the fragments of metal things were taken to be dumped at the site of the city of Bethel. This place had been an important seat of activities for God's servants, but later became defiled by pagan priests who claimed they represented God.
Josiah doggedly set out to remove every vestige of idolatry from Judah and even part of the land of Israel north to Samaria. Hiding pagan priests were found and punished. The dwellings of those who had been pagan temple prostitutes, both male and female, were burned or torn down. (II Kings 23:4-20; II Chronicles 34:29-33.)
At Bethel, Josiah's men even dug up the remains of heathen priests and burned them on the altar there, thus carrying out the prophecy made three hundred and fifty years before, when God inspired one of his servants to declare that one day a man named Josiah would burn the bones of the pagan priests on that altar. (I Kings 13:1-3, 26-32.) However, the bones of the true prophet who had spoken this weren't touched. (II Kings 23:17-18.)
God's Purpose Stands
After these things had been accomplished, the time came for the Passover, which many observed with special fervor because of Josiah's success against idolatry. Josiah had worked diligently to wipe out idolatry and sorcery from his nation and from territory of the Israelite tribes to the north. He fervently hoped God would spare his country from the curses the people bring on themselves when they forsake the God of Israel for pagan gods and demons. (II Chronicles 34:1-7.)
Josiah also knew that God would be pleased because the Book of the Law had been found and much of it read to the people. To add to all this, the king saw to it that the Passover that year was observed with unusual solemnity and great ceremony. Many thousands of animals were sacrificed, thirty-three thousand of which Josiah contributed from his flocks and herds. (II Kings 23:1-28; II Chronicles 34:8-33; 35:1-19.)
But the king's good works didn't alter God's intention to punish the nation because of their turning from Him. (II Kings 23:21-27.) Sometime later Josiah was one morning informed by an excited officer: "Thousands of Egyptian troops are pouring into our land!"
Josiah's Political Dilemma
The king's hopes for continued protection for Judah were dependent on his being careful not to endanger his life. But Josiah, and the nation, got smug and careless. Josiah's hopes were almost wiped out when he learned that an Egyptian army with thousands of troops and cavalry and hundreds of chariots was moving along the coastal area of western Judah. (II Chronicles 35:20.) This, Josiah reasoned, was the beginning of God's punishment of Judah, come in the form of a mighty fighting force that could devastate the whole nation in less than a week. However, the next report to reach the king gave him some comfort.
"The Egyptians are continuing northward on the plains by the sea. No troops or chariots have turned inland."
Though relieved at the news, Josiah remained perturbed because a foreign army was on his soil. He wanted an explanation, as soon as possible, for its being there. Even before he could send emissaries to the Egyptians, representatives came from none less than Necho, the Egyptian king, who was with his army.
The spokesmen told Josiah: "Our King Necho wants to assure you and your people that there is no reason for concern, because we have no intention of war or any harm to your people or their possessions. We wish only to pass harmlessly through your land on the way to Carchemish on the Euphrates river. Our king intends to free that city from the king of Babylon, who has no right to it.
"Our king trusts that you will have no desire to interfere with his plans. Otherwise, Judah shall surely suffer heavily, inasmuch as God has told him that we should go against the Chaldeans at Carchemish. Any who interfere with God's will shall surely be dealt with in a terribly harsh manner!" (II Chronicles 35:21.)
"So be it," Josiah said after the Egyptians had departed. "Let them kill each other off. I don't intend to become embroiled in a war, though not because of being threatened by some pagan who claims to speak for God. If the Egyptians win, we'll no longer be vassals to the Chaldeans. Their victory over the Assyrians didn't rightfully mean that we should switch allegiance to the king of Babylon."
"If the Egyptians don't win, we'll suffer for it" an officer reminded the king. "As long as we are vassals to the Chaldeans, we will be expected to serve as a buffer between Babylonia and Egypt. If we fail to confront the Egyptians, we'll probably pay a higher price in lives if the Chaldeans demand an accounting from us."
Josiah Picks a Fight
"But the latest report is that the Egyptians have already passed through Judah and are moving along the plain of Sharon," Josiah pointed out. "How could we possibly overtake them?"
"There's still time," the officer explained. "Probably they'll be turning eastward at the valley of Jezreel to take the highway to Damascus for the benefit of their chariots. We could rush an army northward past Samaria and intercept them after they've changed directions!"
Josiah acted at once, though with mixed feelings. (II Chronicles 35:22.) He didn't want to start a battle, but neither did he want reprisals from Babylon for standing idly by.
The two armies came within sight of each other in the valley of Megiddo, near where the most terrible battle in the history of man will take place in the lifetime of many now reading these words (Revelation 11:14-19; 16:15-17.)
"I went to the trouble of warning that stubborn king of Judah," Necho muttered angrily to his officers when he saw the approaching army. "Perhaps we can save time and effort by first removing him from the scene. Instruct the archers to close in at a reasonable distance from these Jews' chariots. Tell them to watch carefully for the royal chariot and make certain that their arrows reach both passenger and driver."
The Egyptians supposed that the king of Judah would be easily distinguishable in a special chariot, but Josiah had considered that, and came into battle in an ordinary cavalry chariot. During the first careful pass the two forces made at each other, the Egyptian archers couldn't find what they were looking for. They finally discharged clouds of arrows at all the chariots of Judah. One of those arrows landed, as if by chance, deep in Josiah's body.
"Put me in another chariot and get me out of here before the Egyptians discover they have wounded me," Josiah muttered weakly. (II Chronicles 35:23.)
The king was quickly transferred to another chariot and carried back to Jerusalem, where he soon died. (II Kings 23:29.) Perhaps the king of Egypt was a long time learning that one of his archers had fatally wounded the king of Judah. There was a sudden retreat of the army of Judah, and that was what mainly mattered to the Egyptians, whatever the cause. Having shoved the army of Judah aside, Necho moved on unhindered toward the northeast.
Because Josiah was so greatly respected and because his death foreshadowed the death of the nation, there was great mourning upon his death, even by many who didn't care for his staunch stand against idolatry. Asked to speak at the king's funeral was the young prophet Jeremiah. He was a friend of Ahikam, an intimate of Josiah and son of Josiah's confidential secretary Shaphan. (Jeremiah 26:24; II Kings 22:812; II Chronicles 34:20-21.) Jeremiah delivered a most unusual eulogy because of Josiah's accomplishments for God. His observations were later set to music and sung and played for centuries to come on special occasions. (II Chronicles 35:24-25; Lamentations.)
Josiah was buried in one of the sepulchers of the kings of Judah. He was the last king of that nation who followed God, and God promised he would die without having to go through the misery that was to come to Judah. Although Josiah died of a battle wound, the nation was at peace, and he died in a peaceful state of mind far from the battlefield. (II Kings 23:30; II Chronicles 35:26-27.)
Bible Story Book Index
Jeremiah Warns Judah
ACCORDING to Josiah's wish, his grandson, then eight years old, was to succeed him. But he was removed from any opportunity to reign after ten days' time. Neither did Josiah's eldest son, Eliakim, succeed his father because the people of Judah believed he would regard the king of Egypt as their master. Instead, they put Eliakim's younger half-brother Jehoahaz on the throne.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians were not victorious over the Babylonian king as they had hoped to be.
The Chaldeans pursued the Egyptians southwestward for hundreds of miles. Later, with the Chaldeans on their way back home, Necho had freedom to demand of Jerusalem that Eliakim should be made king. Jehoahaz was therefore king only three months because King Necho of Egypt considered Judah his vassal nation and thought only he should have the right to decide who should be made king. As a gesture to prove that his will should be carried out in every respect, the king of Egypt decreed that from then on Eliakim should be known as Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim continued to rule Judah for the next eleven years, even though he wasn't the choice of the people who followed God. During those years, there was an unhappy return to idolatry and a constant heavy tribute, mostly in gold and silver, to the king of Egypt.
A Reluctant Prophet
As for Jehoahaz, he was taken by the Egyptians to their country, where he died. (II Kings 23:31-34; II Chronicles 36:1-4.)
As a result of allowing his nation to fall back into idolatry, Jehoiakim had his share of troubles. One of his sources of worry was the prophet Jeremiah, who had been around in Josiah's time, but who because of his youth didn't earn much respect until he had spoken at Josiah's funeral.
Jeremiah was probably only in his late teens when God first contacted him, telling him that long before he was born God had chosen him to be a prophet to warn many nations of their wrong ways and what would come to pass unless they turned to observing God's laws.
"But how can I speak to nations?" Jeremiah asked. "I would have to talk to kings, and kings wouldn't listen to me because I am only a boy."
"You shall grow in wisdom," God told him. "Besides, I shall tell you what to say in every situation. You are not to fear anyone, regardless of his rank or his fierce or scornful expressions. I won't allow harm to come to you."
Obviously in a vision, Jeremiah felt his lips being touched by God's hand.
"This day I have put words in your mouth," the Creator said. "I am setting you over the nations and kingdoms with the power to root out and destroy, but I shall also give you the power to plant and build."
This meant that Jeremiah was to do far more than warn Judah and other nations of calamities to come. God would also reveal, through Jeremiah, where the captive and scattered House of Israel would again be started as nations, eventually, in other parts of the world. (Jeremiah 1:1-19.)
In time, with the passing of generations, many Israelites forgot their identity. Migrating among other nations, ever-increasing numbers came to regard themselves as Gentiles. Most of them, as this is written still do. Through Jeremiah and others of God's servants who would be born much later, the Creator planned that the Israelites of the ten-tribed House of Israel would eventually recognize themselves and no longer be lost, and would remember the commission their ancient ancestors had been given and the covenant between their people and God.
Jeremiah spent his early years in the priests' town of Anathoth, only a few miles north of Jerusalem. Because of being bothered by people who despised and troubled him, he moved to Jerusalem. There he could be lost in the nonreligious capital crowd instead of being conspicuous in a small ministerial town where many priests were growing lukewarm and didn't like to have a zealous prophet around. Jeremiah became respected in Jerusalem after having much to say at Josiah's funeral and having already gained the friendship of some of the more upright men of King Josiah's acquaintance.
Jeremiah's first major trouble during Jehoiakim's reign came about when he was told by God to go to the temple and warn all who came there that unless they would live by God's laws, God would cause Jerusalem to become as ravaged as the ancient town of Shiloh, the town where the tabernacle was set up when Israel first came into the land of Canaan. (Joshua 18: 1; Psalm 78:60; Jeremiah 26:6.) Shiloh had been destroyed by the Philistines hundreds of years before Jeremiah's time. (I Samuel 4:10-12.)
"God has told me that unless the people of Judah repent of their evil ways and wholeheartedly return to obeying Him, this city will soon become a place that will be spoken of only with scorn, ridicule and contempt!" Jeremiah shouted to the crowds who came to the temple to try to make themselves right with God by making token offerings and pausing for what would appear to be periods of prayer or religious reflection.
Who Believes a Prophet?
This was too much for many in authority who had long tired of what they called "Jeremiah's prophecies of doom." Self-styled prophets of God and many of the people, and even priests at the temple, joined in seizing Jeremiah and accusing him before the multitude.
"You have uttered curses against Jerusalem and the temple of God!" they shouted angrily. "For this reason you deserve to die!"
When the king's counsellors heard about Jeremiah being held by the priests and others, they immediately arranged for a quick trial. (Jeremiah 26:1-10.)
"Why should we delay what should be done by holding an unnecessary trial?" Jeremiah's accusers heatedly asked. "It's plainly evident what he has done and what the penalty should be!"
"Why should any of you speak against God?" Jeremiah asked in his own defense. "It was God who sent me to the temple to warn of trouble to come. Why not obey God and thus avoid the evil things that will otherwise come to you? Do what you will with me, but if you kill me you will bring greater calamity on yourselves and the people of Jerusalem because of unjust treatment of one of God's chosen servants."
There was a noisy babble of voices as the priests and their supporters derided Jeremiah's remarks. Some were still demanding the prophet's life. Hastily the princes and the king's counsellors conferred with the representatives of the people, the chiefs of the clans.
"We can't agree with you that this man should be punished by death because of prophesying," the king's counsellors and the princes told the prophets and the priests. Then certain respected older men reminded the crowd: "Other prophets have made dire predictions and they weren't executed for their remarks. Why should Jeremiah be the exception? When King Hezekiah heeded the warning of the prophet Micah, and called on God, remember how God spared Hezekiah and the nation? Wouldn't it be wise for us to do as Hezekiah did?" The most influential man speaking for Jeremiah was Ahikam, the son of Shaphan who was a friend of Hilkiah, Jeremiah's father. (Jeremiah 26:11-19, 24.) Reluctantly the envious priests and self-appointed prophets bowed to the will of the counsellors, and Jeremiah was released.
At the same time a prophet named Urijah had publicly declared essentially the same things Jeremiah had stated. He, too, was being sought to be punished by death for making gloomy remarks about what would happen to Jerusalem and the temple. Having heard that Jeremiah had been arrested, and that he would share Jeremiah's fate, Urijah lacked faith that God would protect him, and managed to escape from Jerusalem and reach Egypt, where he succeeded in hiding for a time. Jehoiakim, king of Judah, was so angered that a prophet he disliked should evade a trial that he sent men to Egypt to ask King Necho to find Urijah and turn him over to the emissaries from Judah. Necho cooperated. Urijah was found, given over to the men of Judah, and slain as soon as he was brought back to Jerusalem. If he had joined Jeremiah to face his accusers, probably his life would have been spared. (Jeremiah 26:20-23.)
In those days King Jehoiakim heavily taxed his people to enable him to pay the high tribute demanded regularly by the king of Egypt. (II Kings 23:31-35.) Meanwhile, Jeremiah continued his warnings. Some people considered him a traitor to his country because he spoke of Babylon as a greater power than Egypt, and therefore a greater menace to Judah. This greatly irritated the king, who owed his office to the ruler of Egypt, whom the Jews were expected to look up to as the most powerful of rulers.
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim's reign, God told Jeremiah that he should write down all the warnings He had given Jeremiah to speak to the public and declare them all again at one time to the people at the temple. Jeremiah dictated them to his secretary, a man named Baruch, who wrote them on a heavy scroll.
"Perhaps when people hear at one time all of the calamity I plan to bring on them, they will be sobered," God observed to Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 36:1-3.)
God didn't require that Jeremiah should be the one to again warn the people at the temple. The prophet was relieved. He knew that the scheming priests and false prophets, especially those from Anathoth, his home town, would seek his life if he appeared again at the temple. (Jeremiah 11:21.) God had told Jeremiah not to fear anyone, but he had been staying out of sight, knowing it would be unwise to deliberately go about and tempt his enemies.
A Crisis Approaches
"If I again proclaim all that is on your scroll," Jeremiah told his secretary, "the priests and prophets will again try to have me killed. You they probably would ignore just because you aren't me. Be my spokesman. Go to the temple on the special fast day that has been set for a few days from now, and read aloud all you have written. On such a solemn day some might repent and be spared from the misery God is going to bring on Judah."
Baruch was at first uneasy at carrying out the prophet's wishes, but he complied without complaining. He faced a large audience on the day when people were fasting because they believed that might appease God and cause Him to protect them from their enemies. Many concerned people listened attentively, but there was no way for Baruch to determine how much they were affected.
One young man, Michaiah, a grandson of Shaphan, who had been King Josiah's secretary, and was friendly toward Jeremiah, was greatly impressed. He ran to the king's house, where there was a meeting of Judah's princes and counsellors of Jehoiakim. Michaiah excitedly told them about the terrible things Baruch had said would come on the nation.
Bible Story Book Index
Jehoiakim Buys Trouble
AT THE TEMPLE young Michaiah heard Baruch read the scroll that he had written for Jeremiah. In it were dire warnings of trouble to fall on Judah just as had already fallen on Israel. Michaiah, grandson of the Levite prince Shaphan, who had been King Josiah's secretary and was friendly toward Jeremiah, ran to the palace and reported what he had heard. His audience was the assembled princes, that is, the chiefs from the tribes of Judah and Levi who had been chosen as the king's counselors. They were impressed.
"Right or wrong, this man is risking death and deserves an honorable hearing," one of the princes spoke out. "He should come here to read his scroll to us so we can hear all he had to say."
The princes agreed. Baruch was brought to them to read his scroll. They were so alarmed at what he read that they took the scroll and told Baruch to leave at once.
"Get back to Jeremiah and tell him to hide himself or get out of Jerusalem," they warned Baruch. "And go with him. The king may be very angry when he hears what you have written from the prophet's mouth!" They knew the false prophets and some priests would be angered by Baruch's reading all of Jeremiah's warning prophecies to the people at the temple. (Jeremiah 36:1-19.)
Scroll of Jeremiah Burned
While Baruch hurried back to Jeremiah, the officials went to the king, hoping they could persuade him to prevent Jeremiah's enemies from seizing the prophet, whom most of them believed was a spokesman from God. On their way, they left Baruch's scroll in the office of Elishama, the king's secretary.
"This Jeremiah is too intent upon upsetting my people!" Jehoiakim muttered angrily after he heard what his visitors had to say. "I want that scroll brought here and read to me! Then I'll decide what to do, and I don't want any of you men trying to talk me into helping this troublemaker!"
A little later one of Jehoiakim's men started reading aloud from the scroll. The king sat glumly on a couch by a blazing open hearth fire, necessary to offset the chill of a winter day. The princes stood uncomfortably about, waiting to see how the king would react to what he was hearing.
The reader had gone through only three or four columns of Jeremiah's dreadful warnings when Jehoiakim sprang up and snatched the scroll from the surprised aide. With his other hand the king grabbed up the scribe's razor from a nearby table and angrily cut the scroll to throw it into the fire. Then three of the startled princes tried in vain to persuade the king not to burn the scroll.
"You could be burning the very words of God!" one of the three remonstrated.
The king wouldn't listen. "I said no!" he scowled. "This dismal thing deserves to be burned!"
The whole scroll was burned. (Jeremiah 36:20-25.) The three officials who were concerned about the scroll were Elnathan the son of Achbor and Gemariah the son of Shaphan (Achbor and Shaphan were conscientious officials whom good King Josiah had sent to confer with the prophetess Huldah -- Jeremiah 36:12, 25; II Kings 22:12-14) and Delaiah the son of Shemaiah, who was probably the same Shemaiah who had contributed many cattle to Josiah's great Passover sixteen years earlier. (II Chronicles 35:9.) These men illustrate the importance of good parental example and training.
Disappointed, all the princes departed. Then Jehoiakim sent three of his officers to arrest Jeremiah and Baruch. But the two were nowhere to be found. God had caused them to be warned through the princes and had provided a secret place for hiding. (Jeremiah 36:26.)
While more and more men futilely searched for the prophet and his secretary, the king paced impatiently back and forth past the ashes of the scroll. By then he was more troubled than angry. He had heard read a prediction that the Babylonians (Chaldeans) would soon attack Jerusalem. This was the startling statement that had caused him to slash and burn the parchment.
Jeremiah and Baruch didn't waste their time while in hiding. At God's command they began to prepare another scroll. This one contained more details and added predictions, including one that had to do with Jehoiakim.
"Because the king of Judah has followed idolatry and has spurned my warnings, he shall soon become a victim of the Babylonians," God told Jeremiah. "Later, he shall come to a shameful death. For him there will be no royal burial. His body shall lie outside the walls to be covered by frost at night and bloated by festering heat in the daytime. I shall also punish his descendants, his servants and all the people of Judah who have refused to listen to me." (Jeremiah 36:27-32.)
For a long time the prophet and his secretary managed to remain concealed from the king's police. When the added prophecy concerning his death eventually reached Jehoiakim, he was angrier than ever and sent his men even outside of Jerusalem to seek for Jeremiah and Baruch.
God had said it would happen. So it occurred one day that part of the army of Babylon, commanded by one of King Nebuchadnezzar's generals, set out for Judah.
When Jehoiakim heard that troops, chariots and cavalry were pouring across the Jordan River in the region of Jericho, he became undignifiedly excited.
"Send every man to his station on the wall fortifications!" he shakily ordered his officers. "These pagan impostors can perhaps overrun other cities of Judah, but don't let them take Jerusalem!"
Jehoiakim didn't attempt any defense of the towns, villages and farms in the path of the approaching enemy. He feared that Judah's army would be defeated, leaving Jerusalem without enough soldiers to fully man the gates and walls.
From the vantage point of the walls, the king and his men could see the Babylonians long before they arrived. As they spread out around the city, it appeared that their numbers were less than had been reported crossing the Jordan.
"This is their whole army?" Jehoiakim asked. "Surely not, sir," one of the officers answered. "Most of it is probably still in Babylon. And there could be many thousands of them concealed behind the hills off to the north."
Just as Jehoiakim was thinking that his army could probably defeat the Babylonians who were within sight, a group of enemy officers rode up perilously close to the archer-lined wall in which were the main gates.
"We bring a message from the mighty King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon!" one of them yelled in Hebrew. "Our king has ordered us to deliver it directly to Jehoiakim, your king! Either open the gates immediately to let us in or send out your king with any and all he wishes to accompany him!"
"Our king has nothing to discuss with invaders!" a Jewish spokesman shouted back from the wall a few minutes later.
"By that you are admitting your king is a coward who is a king over a nation of cowards!" the Babylonian bellowed back.
"We should have gone out to meet these dogs before they reached Judah!" Jehoiakim angrily muttered to his officers.
To Jehoiakim's growing frustration, the Babylonian continued his insults. Even people of the city who were out of range of his voice learned what he was saying almost as soon as he said it.
"Call my best warriors to accompany me!" the king of Judah growled wrathfully. "I'll show my people that I have a few words to say to these heathen!"
"Your words will CERTAINLY be few if you do that!" an officer warned him. "Surely you aren't about to fall for their scheme to get the gates open or capture you!"
"Just do as I tell you!" Jehoiakim snapped, glaring. "I'll go out only a short way. If they dare approach, my archers and lancers will bury them in spears and arrows!"
In spite of reminders from other officers that Jerusalem might be lost if the gates were opened, Jehoiakim was intent on having his way. To the gratification and surprise of the enemy, the main gates of Jerusalem swung inward. Out rode Jehoiakim on a handsome charger, surrounded closely by soldiers bristling with bows, spears and swords. The moment they were outside the wall, the gates slammed shut behind them and the huge bars thudded into place.
Instantly Jehoiakim experienced a frantic feeling of being cut off from safety. He was more aware of it when he heard the swiftly increasing sound of horses' hoofs. Suddenly all was confusion as he was knocked off his mount when his men, grouped too closely around him, wildly struggled for room in which to wield their weapons on the Babylonian cavalrymen who rushed them.
As the king of Judah regained his senses, he gradually realized that he was among strangers. There were voices babbling in a language he couldn't understand, and the painful pressure of chains around his wrists, ankles and neck. Smirking, unfriendly faces were poised over him.
"You are fortunate to be alive -- perhaps," one of the faces told him in Hebrew. "Some of the soldiers with you were killed by your own archers and spearmen on the wall. Some of my men lost their lives too, but you owe your life to my men who managed to bring you to this tent."
"Don't assume that I'm thankful to be your prisoner," Jehoiakim muttered bitterly. "Whatever it is that you require of Judah can be discussed after I'm freed from these chains and returned safely inside Jerusalem. Otherwise, my city will disgorge a horde of fighting men who will wipe you out!"
"I can't believe that," the Babylonian general answered, while his officers grinned knowingly. "While you were unconscious, we threatened to kill you unless Jerusalem's gates were opened to us. There was no response. Those chains will remain on you during our trip back to Babylon. There you can explain to our king why you've been paying tribute to a lesser nation like Egypt instead of to Babylon. You'll have about two months and hundreds of miles to think up some good answers."
That night the misery from his chains convinced Jehoiakim that he wouldn't be able to bear weeks of such discomfort. Next morning he asked for a chance to talk to the Babylonian commander, who received him coldly. (II Chronicles 36:5-6.)
"If you're here to waste my time asking for some favor, forget it," the Babylonian advised.
False Peace Purchased
"I'm here to suggest that we exchange favors," the king said. "If you will release me to return safely inside Jerusalem, I will give you any tribute for as long as you demand it."
"In that event, there would be no more tribute to Egypt," the commander finally replied. "You would have to swear full allegiance to Babylon!"
This Jehoiakim eagerly did, but his eagerness faded when the commander stated what Babylon would require as a regular tribute. The king doubted that he would be able to meet such heavy demands for very long, but he promised to comply because his life was at stake.
"You have made your solemn commitments," the commander reminded Jehoiakim. "Be warned now that if you fail in this matter, my king will come to Judah to exact payment in the form of ravaged cities and many Jewish lives! I shall carry out our first part of the agreement by freeing you of your shackles."
At a signal from their commander, Jehoiakim's guards cut his chains. As they rattled to the floor, the king felt that he could breathe freely for the first time in many hours.
"And now for our next part of the agreement," the Babylonian continued. "That is to depart from your land and allow you to return inside your city. That we shall do as soon as you arrange to get together the first tribute payment and have it delivered to us here where our tents are pitched."
Jehoiakim was stunned. He had believed that Judah would deliver the first payment by caravan some days later. Getting the required items together on such short notice was impossible.
"Why do you look so startled?" the Babylonian inquired, grinning slightly because of Jehoiakim's obvious misery. "Aren't you prepared to deliver it?"
"Not right now. It would take several days to obtain some of the items from scattered towns and farms," Jehoiakim explained.
"Then for this time we'll overlook things such as cattle and sheep and foodstuffs and take the total amount in gold, silver and brass. Surely you can easily obtain those items in your great city."
"Let me return there safely, and I'll see that the required amount is brought out to you." Jehoiakim said shakily, knowing that he was in for much more trouble if the commander wouldn't agree.
"If it isn't here by noon, my men will spread over your land and we'll take it for ourselves by the sword!" the commander warned, motioning for his prisoner to leave.
Tremendously relieved, but smarting under the indignity of having to hike, unescorted, back to Jerusalem's gates, Jehoiakim was further humiliated when he had to go to some length to identify himself to guards before thousands of his people on the walls. Once he was safely inside, there was cheering and applause because of his return. But the people showed little enthusiasm when Jehoiakim told them of his problem.
Bible Story Book Index
Tyrannized By Babylon
THERE was loud cheering when the Babylonians released King Jehoiakim and allowed him to re-enter Jerusalem. It would have been much louder and more enthusiastic if Jehoiakim had been more
popular with his subjects and his soldiers, many of whom didn't have much respect or admiration for him. Right away he called together his officers and advisers. They all congratulated him on his return, but few of them appeared overjoyed. Nor did they show much enthusiasm when he told them of his problem.
The Temple Looted
"I want this thing done right now, even if you have to strip the temple of its valuable utensils!" Jehoiakim roared, suddenly angered by the situation. "Then I intend to find out who is responsible for the decision that I should die by the hands of the enemy while everyone else remained safely here!"
Long before noon the valuables from the temple were borne out to the Babylonians, who would have been foolish to try to charge through the gates while they were open. Shortly after the tribute was delivered, the triumphant invaders took down their tents and moved away to the north. (II Chronicles 36:5-7; Daniel 1:1-2.)
To all appearances it looked as though Judah -- and Jehoiakim -- had come through another crisis. But there was greater trouble and misery ahead, as the prophet Jeremiah was still foretelling.
Jehoiakim was busy for months trying to weed out from his government those in high offices who opposed him. At the same time he tried to convince his people that he had done his part in saving Judah from the Babylonians, and that from then on it was their responsibility, if they wanted to remain free, to contribute willingly all that was asked of them.
Two years dragged by, during which there were disturbing reports that the king of Egypt was furious when he learned that Jehoiakim had disavowed Egypt and had declared loyalty to Babylon. There were also rumors that the Egyptians were mustering and training an army superior to any they had raised before. These things gave heavy concern to Jehoiakim, whose weakened nation lay in a perilous location between the two great competing powers. And because they had forsaken God for idols, God was not helping Jehoiakim and his people. (Jeremiah 22:1-19.)
During those two years, and for quite a while afterward, Jeremiah remained concealed, except to reliable friends. Several old family friends had repeatedly befriended Jeremiah -- Delaiah the son of Shemaiah, Elnathan the son of Achbor, and several sons and grandsons of Shaphan the Scribe. (II Kings 22:8-13; Jeremiah 26:24; 29:1-3; 36:11-13, 25.) The king's police no longer sought Jeremiah with their former fervor, although if any had come face to face with the prophet, they would have arrested him.
When it was about time to start equipping the caravans for bearing the third year's tribute to Babylon, Jehoiakim realized that he would have to make a decision. If he continued the heavy payments, he would be making even more enemies in Judah. He would also be running the risk of attack from the Egyptians, to whom he preferred to give allegiance. But if he withheld the promised tribute to the Babylonians, he could expect the threatened ravaging of his nation.
Jehoiakim decided to withhold the payment. He hoped that he could make a reconciliation with Egypt before the Babylonians would bother to send an army to collect their dues. Mostly he hoped that his overlords would consider the trip too costly, and give it up.
Time passed. Babylon and Egypt were so busy sparring with each other for supremacy that neither bothered to invade Judah for a while. There was no word from Babylon, and no report from Jewish spies in the Euphrates River region that any great number of Babylonian troops had been seen moving west. The king of Judah happily began to think that he had made the right move.
Then the unexpected happened. Fierce bands of well-armed Syrians, Moabites and Ammonites, mounted on fine steeds, began to make surprise night attacks on Judah's towns and villages. Murder and looting grew by leaps and bounds. These attackers were too fast and wily to be captured. Almost overnight much of Judah fell into the power of the savage invaders, whose numbers increased steadily. (II Kings 24:1-4.)
One morning, guards on Jerusalem's walls were startled to see, with the first light, a large number of mounted soldiers at a safe distance from the gate. They were being joined by many other horsemen who resembled the raiding Syrians, Moabites and Ammonites.
"Look at those cavalrymen they're joining!" a guard exclaimed. "They're holding the flag of Babylon!"
The large Babylonian cavalry force was joined by many Syrian, Moabite and Ammonite troops. Except for the Babylonians, these were the soldiers who had been terrorizing people in many small towns and villages in Judah. The Jews learned later that these soldiers had been hired by Babylonians, and had gradually left their homeland in such small bands that they weren't at first considered a menace. Collectively, they comprised a sizeable threat even to Jerusalem. Although they had no catapults or battering rams, there were enough of them to bottle up the city. (II Kings 24:1-4.)
A Desperate Plight
The sight of the invaders struck fear into Jehoiakim. This was Nebuchadnezzar's stark answer to Jehoiakim's unwise decision to hold back tribute. Now he would have to pay dearly for it. The only possible way out was to rush troops against the invaders at the risk of losing the city.
"We have urgent business with your king!" a Babylonian officer bellowed in Hebrew. "Send him out to us -- NOW! Otherwise, we'll rip through every unprotected village and farm that hasn't already felt our swords!"
In the special wall lookout with his officers, Jehoiakim heard and shuddered.
"If they do as they threaten, at least we'll get them away from here," Jehoiakim observed unfeelingly.
Most of his officers -- the ones who had relatives and property elsewhere in Judah -- openly glared at him.
"After they're out of sight, we could send troops after them," a leading officer suggested.
"No!" Jehoiakim snapped. "I don't want any trouble with the Babylonians!"
"No trouble?" the staff officer inquired incredulously. "We've had nothing but trouble with them for weeks!"
"You know what I mean," the king answered irritably. "I don't want to antagonize them. I don't even want the gates closed against them. Go see that they're opened so that our visitors, however warlike, won't consider Jerusalem an armed fort that has to be besieged. I'll be in my quarters in the event our visitors insist on coming inside to make their demands."
As Jehoiakim walked shakily out of the lookout, his officers stared at him as though he had suddenly gone mad. Nevertheless, the king's orders were carried out. The gates were opened to the Babylonians, who soon took advantage of this surprising opportunity to get inside the city.
"Before we go in, be sure that the gates are securely fixed to remain wide open," the Babylonian commander instructed his men. "We can't risk any part of us being trapped."
The King's Ignoble End
A small number of the invaders cautiously rode inside, while hundreds of cavalrymen swarmed close to the gates, ready to dash inside in the event of any resistance. The first thing the Babylonian commander and his picked men intended to do was to seize the king of Judah and hold him prisoner under threat of death as an example of what would happen to anyone who failed to pay tribute to the Babylonians.
But Jehoiakim, who had now realized that Jeremiah was right about it being wise to cooperate with the Babylonians, was so frightened that he hid himself. Only a few hours later he was discovered.
The Babylonian commander was so irked by the time and trouble used in ferreting out the king that he had Jehoiakim tossed from one of the highest parts of the wall. They then dragged his broken body outside the gates like a dead beast without allowing a funeral to be held, much less a royal interment.
"Let no one move or bury that carcass!" the Babylonian commander shouted to his men.
For several warm days and cold nights the body of the king of Judah lay outside Jerusalem, just as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted. (Jeremiah 22:1-19; 36:27-31.) There were those in Judah who wanted to give their king a royal burial, but the invaders didn't allow Jehoiakim's body to be touched except by insects, animals and vultures. Thus ended, at age thirty-six, the life of a king who chose to ignore God and live according to his cruel, selfish and pagan desires. (II Kings 24:5-6; II Chronicles 36:5-8.)
This was far from the end of trouble from the Babylonians, who didn't feel that matters could be settled simply by a king's death. Many Jewish nobles and men of high rank and ability were also put to death. More than three thousand others were taken captive and forced to march to Babylon, hundreds of miles distant. (Jeremiah 52:24-28.) The stronger ones were made to help carry valuable items plundered from the temple. Among the prisoners was a young man by the name of Ezekiel.
Jehoiachin, eighteen-year old son of the late king, was immediately made the next ruler of Judah. The Babylonians impressed the young new king with the necessity of his regarding them as absolute conquerors of Judah, and himself completely subject to the will of the king of Babylon.
In spite of the circumstances, Jehoiachin followed in his father's idolatrous ways and showed only disdain for Jeremiah's warnings and advice. To make matters worse, he showed little inclination to bow to the Babylonians, whose commander was so incensed that he seriously considered doing away with the young king of Judah. To add to his troubles, Nebuchadnezzar began to fear that Jehoiachin might feel so strongly about his father's death that he would lead his nation in a serious revolt against the Babylonians.
A Woebegone Young King
Much to the surprise of Jehoiachin, the Babylonians descended upon Jerusalem again and demanded its surrender. Jehoiachin, hoping to avoid bloodshed, had the gates opened and led his mother and his officials out in surrender. But the Babylonians were not in a kindhearted mood. They quickly rounded up and chained about ten thousand of the men of influence, priests, leading craftsmen and best soldiers of Judah.
Jehoiachin's main cause of surprise was that he, his mother, government dignitaries and his close friends were added to those thousands.
Oblivious to wails of complaint and shouts for mercy, enemy soldiers herded the captives outside the city. Stunned at this sudden, dismaying turn of events, the young king dropped his youthful dignity and loudly demanded to talk to the Babylonian commander, who eventually rode to him on his richly outfitted mount.
"When I was seized and put in chains, I was so surprised that I was speechless!" Jehoiachin shouted indignantly, struggling to hide his fear. "The least you can do, failing to show due respect for a king, is explain what you intend to do with us."
"We didn't explain because we wanted to spare your being perturbed if you knew the facts," the Babylonian grinned. "Like your father, you have failed to show the cooperation we expected. You've been king for three months and ten days, yet you've made no move to make the tribute payments your father withheld from us. Our patience is at an end. The matter will be resolved by taking you and these people of yours to our land, where we intend to put all of you to good use. Besides, we'll take a fair amount of your valuables."
Jehoiachin stared in unbelief. Finally he managed to express himself.
"The king of Egypt will avenge this inhuman treatment!" was the only thing he could think to say to try to impress the commander.
"The king of Babylon would welcome the king of Egypt to try it," the commander smiled. "If your father hadn't relied on Egypt, but on Babylon instead, he would be safe on the throne of Judah right now, and we wouldn't be here to take tribute from you."
Jehoiachin continued staring, finally finding his voice for the second time.
"You mentioned taking valuables," he said. "How can you take valuables from us when you have already bled us dry of such things?"
"There are still some items of great worth in your God's temple," was the reply. "We won't leave here empty-handed."
What the unhappy Jehoiachin didn't know was that many bundles of loot from the temple were already being packaged, to be tossed over the wall and picked up by soldiers surrounding the city. Much of this loot included gold stripped from the walls of the temple.
Unwilling to talk any more with the frantic young king, the Babylonian commander turned his horse about and rode off, shouting orders to his men in their native tongue. Guards passed among the prisoners, removing the heavy chains so that they could carry items they were forced to bear.
The outlook of tramping over hundreds of miles of rough and barren ground was a bleak one for Jehoiachin and his people, but there was nothing to do now but comply. Even with proper leadership and arms, the Jews wouldn't have dared move against the Babylonians and their well-armed, superior numbers.
Only a fraction of the invaders were needed to take the Jews east. The others, including most of the Babylonians, stayed in their camps close to Jerusalem, where they still had unfinished business. It was to direct the Jews in deciding what man would be the next king. The Babylonians insisted that it should be Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle.
"You will make him your king right away," the Babylonian commander told the Jews. "If there is any delay, we shall take more of you to Babylon. And because your new king will be controlled by us, we shall start by changing his name. From now on he is to be known as Zedekiah." (II Kings 24:8-13; II Chronicles 36:9-10; Ezekiel 1:1-3.)
The dignitaries of Jerusalem and the representatives from other areas solemnly and obediently carried out the ceremonies of making Zedekiah king. The Babylonians were satisfied, having investigated Zedekiah's political beliefs, and having been informed that he wasn't in favor of any trade or diplomatic ties with Egypt.
Zedekiah was fully aware why the Babylonians had chosen him to be the next ruler of Judah. Actually he wasn't so much against allying with Egypt as the Babylonians had been informed, but in the weeks while the invaders still stayed around, he was very careful to give them the impression that he would faithfully please his master in all matters.
Convinced that Judah would turn out to be a profitable vassal nation under Zedekiah's rule, the Babylonians and their allies disappeared a8 abruptly as they had appeared many weeks previously.
With the enemy obviously gone, people began moving in and out of Jerusalem again. At last it was possible to learn the extent of loss of people and property to the invaders. At least eight thousand men and about two thousand women and children had been taken captive. Seven thousand of the men were husky young soldiers who could be used at hard labor. A thousand were skilled workers in many crafts, especially smiths, so they couldn't make more armaments for Judah. The Babylonians had purposely chosen these capable men to deprive Judah of leadership in order to better please King Nebuchadnezzar. (II Kings 24:14-17; Jeremiah 29:1-2.)
Soon a few neighboring nations, including Egypt, heard what had happened to Judah. Their leaders were quite concerned that Judah's army hadn't been used effectively. They sent representatives to Jerusalem to try to convince Zedekiah that their nations intended to stand fast against Babylon, and that if Judah would join them, the combined forces of the western nations could successfully hold out against any attacks by Babylon.
Jeremiah's Warning Ignored
Despite what had occurred in his country, Zedekiah began to seriously consider what these men had to say. It was so difficult for him to come to a decision that he sent for his prophets to ask their advice. He knew about Jeremiah, but because he continued in idolatry practiced by the kings preceding him, he didn't want anything to do with a prophet of God.
"Egypt is growing in strength," the false prophets reminded their king. "So are the other nearby nations. It would be wiser to be friendly with neighboring nations than try to please one so distant."
Jeremiah was perturbed when he heard how the king's prophets had advised him, and how Zedekiah had decided to stop sending tribute to Babylon. He sent a message to the king, telling him that his prophets were wrong, and that it would be a fatal move for Judah to break the agreement with the Babylonians. (Jeremiah 27:1-22.) The king's prophets were naturally angered at Jeremiah's warning to Zedekiah, even though Jeremiah was ignored. One of them, Hananiah, publicly declared at the temple that God had spoken to him there, assuring him that Babylon had passed the peak of power, would rapidly weaken from then on, and within two years wouldn't have enough strength to ward off nations that attacked. Hananiah furthermore contended that God had told him that Jehoiachin and all the Jewish prisoners would be returned to Judah, along with all the treasures that had been taken from the temple. (Jeremiah 28:1-4.)
"Under these circumstances, what foolishness it would be to continue sending our much-needed wealth to a pagan nation hundreds of miles away!" Hananiah shouted to the crowd. "If Jeremiah, who calls himself a prophet, wants to be a subject of King Nebuchadnezzar, we'll not prevent him from walking to Babylon!"
Now that Jehoiakim was dead and Jehoiachin taken captive, Jeremiah was again free to come and go as he wished. God had instructed him to make wooden yokes, or collars, symbolical of servitude, to send to the heads of the nations which wished to rebel against Babylon. They were to be reminders that they were going to remain as vassals to Babylon or be punished by God through the Babylonians. Jeremiah was told to wear one of the collars as a reminder to everyone who saw him. (Jeremiah 27:2.)
Jeremiah was in the temple when Hananiah made his speech. In spite of his being the object of laughter caused by the false prophet's snide closing remark, he walked up to speak to Hananiah.
"I wish you were right. It would be good if our people could return and the temple properties were restored. A prophet will prove to be a true one if he teaches what is in Scripture and if he warns of an event, and the event comes to pass at the given time. I say that Babylon won't fall for many years, but will in fact once again take Jerusalem. As for our people who have been taken away, they shall remain slaves for many more years!" (Jeremiah 28:5-9, 13, 14.)
Hananiah glared at Jeremiah, then reached out to vigorously yank the wooden collar from the prophet's neck and smash it on the floor.
"Nebuchadnezzar's yoke of bondage on all nations will be broken like that within two years!" he called out to the crowd as Jeremiah walked away.
At another time when Hananiah was at the temple trying to convince more people that God had revealed the future to him, Jeremiah stood up and accused him of lying. He declared that God would punish him by taking his life within a year. Hananiah made a great display of indignation to try to hide his embarrassment and fright. Within less than two months Hananiah was dead. Many people, including the king, were sobered by this event. (Jeremiah 28:1, 10-17.)
Nevertheless, Zedekiah persisted in turning against Babylon and in continuing in idolatry. Meanwhile, Jeremiah faithfully kept on informing the people of dire warnings from God. He also wrote letters to the Jewish captives in Babylonia, encouraging them to keep up family life and bring up children for a time when liberation would come. (Jeremiah 29:1-14.) Among the captives who were happy to hear from Jeremiah was Ezekiel, later chosen by God as one of the great prophetic writers.
The beginning of the end started for Judah with a paralyzing report to Zedekiah that a massive army was crossing the Jordan above the Dead Sea with King Nebuchadnezzar as commander! (Jeremiah 39:1.)
Bible Story Book Index
Seige -- Warning -- Defiance --Grief!
KING ZEDEKIAH of Judah trembled with a fear he had never known before when he heard that a mighty Babylonian army was approaching his nation. About all he could do, outside of barking out a few frantic commands, was to regret his unwise decision to rebel against the king of Babylon and to curse all who had influenced him to make it. (II Kings 24:20; 25:1; II Chronicles 36:9-13.)
The people of Jerusalem were fearfully amazed at the numbers of troops and cavalry that moved in around the city. There were also many chariots and a few formidably huge catapults and battering rams on wheels. All this proved that Nebuchadnezzar intended to make every effort and use every means to take the capital. If he should succeed, it would mean a quick end to the whole nation.
Days passed and there was no attack. There was only a strong voice from the Babylonian camp, occasionally exhorting the Jews to open the gates and come out peaceably to save themselves or eventually die from lack of food.
Lack of food, however, wasn't a matter of great concern to the Jews. There were vast stores of foodstuffs in the city -- enough to last for months. And as long as the enemy remained unaware of the source of their underground water supply, there would be no problem there.
Days added up to weeks, and weeks turned into months. From time to time the Babylonians tried to get their hooks and rope ladders fastened to the wall tops under cover of darkness, but showers of arrows, spears and rocks always wiped out the would-be intruders.
The enemy also tried using the battering rams, but those who manned them died by Jewish weapons before the rams could reach the gates. To try to even the score, the invaders hurled boulders over the walls with their catapults. But this was done only with a heavy loss of men, because the catapults had to be moved within the Jews' arrow range. Otherwise, the boulders merely smashed ineffectively low against the walls.
As the tempo of these exchanges was stepped up over the months, it became alarmingly obvious to the Jews that their food supply was diminishing much faster than they had thought it would. In the first place, they hadn't believed that the Babylonians would stay so long.
The enemy needed food and water, too, but it was available simply by raiding nearby farms and villages. Outside of unforeseen circumstances, it was possible for the Babylonians to stay for years. Comfortable in his huge, elaborately furnished tent, Nebuchadnezzar had no intention of moving until the Jews were starved into submission.
Now that food finally had to be severely rationed, Jeremiah made another appeal to Zedekiah to save himself and his people by going out and surrendering to Nebuchadnezzar.
"God has told me that if you do this thing," Jeremiah wrote to the king, "the Babylonians will spare our lives. But if you wait until they have to force their way in, there will be much bloodshed because you have broken your promise to the Babylonians and are refusing even to ask for mercy." (Jeremiah 21:8-14.)
Of course this angered Zedekiah, even though he was almost convinced that the prophet was right. There were moments when he was on the verge of taking Jeremiah's advice.
To add to the miseries of Jerusalem's inhabitants, a contagious sickness developed. As usual, the poorer people and refugees living in squalid conditions suffered most, though few of any class escaped the weakening illness. Even Zedekiah suffered because of his profound personal troubles.
"Whoever failed to lay in a larger supply of my favorite wines isn't going unpunished!" he warned complainingly.
Is the Siege Lifted?
Conditions rapidly became more serious. Soldiers were given the largest rations, but the limited amount of food wasn't sufficient to keep them fit. The immediate future appeared so dismal that many people began to repent of their wrong ways and to try to make up for them at the last moment. One matter that especially reached the Jewish conscience was the over-holding of servants. One of God's laws was that bondservants should have their freedom after six years of service. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15.) Many masters had held their servants well past the release time, even though Zedekiah had made a public reminder that they should be given their freedom in the seventh year, which was in progress at that time. Almost overnight there was much relinquishing of servants, who were given the legally required money, valuables and property to get them started on their own just when their futures appeared impossible.
With the city on the brink of disaster, God once again instructed Jeremiah to warn Zedekiah of what would soon happen. This time the prophet was to give the warning in person. The king was surprised that Jeremiah had the courage to come to his palace and trouble him with more disturbing pronouncements.
"God has sent me to you with more reminders of what is about to occur," Jeremiah began. "He wants you to be convinced that because of our national sins, the Babylonians will succeed in entering and burning this city and slaughtering many. You shall attempt to escape, but you shall be captured and taken by King Nebuchadnezzar, who shall send you to Babylon to die. Perhaps you will be relieved to learn that you shall be afforded an honorable and ceremonious funeral -- in Babylon. It would be wise to consider these things. There is still time to save many lives by surrendering to the Babylonians." (Jeremiah 34:1-7.)
If Zedekiah hadn't had a deep secret fear of God he preferred to conceal, he might have signaled his guards to seize the prophet. Instead, he motioned them to escort Jeremiah safely from the palace.
Things became so intolerable in Jerusalem that many were considering joining together to force open the gates and rush out to the besiegers. This would probably have been at least attempted had it not been for a puzzling turn of events. One morning it was noted that there was a great stir in the Babylonian camps. Tents came down. Within a short while troops, cavalry and chariots were moving off to the south! (Jeremiah 37:5.)
The Jews couldn't believe their eyes. Or ears, because the huge army created quite a clatter as it departed. Greatly perplexed, weakly jubilant but very suspicious, they reasoned that this might be a ruse to lure them out in search of food, and that the enemy might suddenly return to slaughter any who left the city. Hours passed. Finally bands of Jewish soldiers ventured out to hurry to nearby farms and villages to try to find food. One might imagine that there would be a mass rush to get out of Jerusalem, but most were afraid to leave and many were too ill or too weak.
The End of Repentance
The sudden change of events caused some changes in Zedekiah's attitude. The miserable, subdued feeling that had been growing on him almost fell away. He was relieved to be able to more freely believe that Jeremiah's gloomy prophecies weren't necessarily going to take place.
There were other changes in the attitudes of some other people in Jerusalem. Now that it appeared that the crisis had passed, most of those who had freed their servants rounded them up and put them back at their menial work. Besides, they took back the money, valuables and property they had given them at a time when it appeared that these things might not have any future value to the givers. (Jeremiah 34:8-11.)
There had been much praying and repenting taking place in Jerusalem in recent days, but now much of this came to a halt with those who assumed that the city was again free and that food would soon be available.
Everyone was intensely curious about what had caused the Babylonians to leave and where they had gone. Zedekiah was anxious to know the answers. He sent scouts to follow the plain path of the moving army. The scouts' failure to return was evidence that the invaders didn't wish to allow themselves to be followed. Though the king's belief in Jeremiah had been shaken, he was certain that the prophet would know more about what was going on than anyone else.
"I want you to go to Jeremiah and tell him that I would like him to pray for the safety of Jerusalem and the people," Zedekiah instructed two men of high rank and reputation. "When he learns that I'm asking for his help, he might give encouraging information without your having to ask, whereas if you question him, he'll likely say nothing or start giving nothing but horrible predictions." (Jeremiah 37:1-3.)
"I am surprised that our king has sent you to ask me to pray for Jerusalem," Jeremiah told Zedekiah's representatives after they announced the reason for their call. "My prayers wouldn't be very effective while the people of Jerusalem and the king prefer not to do things God's way.
"What Zedekiah really wants right now is to learn where the Babylonians have gone and if they're coming back. He would also be pleased to hear that I have been wrong in my predictions. I have not been wrong. Everything I have mentioned will come to pass.
"The Babylonians have gone to meet the Egyptian army, which set out days ago for Jerusalem with the intention of driving off the besiegers. Even now the two armies are confronting each other. The Egyptians shall flee back to their nation, and the Babylonians shall return at once to again surround Jerusalem.
"This time they'll enter and burn the city. God has told me that even if Judah's soldiers should severely wound every enemy soldier, He would still see to it that the Babylonians would miraculously rise up and carry out the divine intention that Jerusalem should be destroyed!" (Jeremiah 37:4-10.)
Zedekiah was surprised, troubled and angered when he heard what Jeremiah had to say. He had no trouble believing that the Babylonians had gone to meet the Egyptians in battle, but he wanted to doubt that the Egyptians would be defeated.
In those few days of respite from the besiegers, there was heavy traffic through Jerusalem's gates, even though most of the inhabitants feared to-venture out. Those who came and went were mostly those searching desperately for food. Only a small amount was brought in, because the enemy had already scoured nearby regions for it.
Jeremiah was among those headed out of the city. He had important business to take care of in a small town close by. He would have preferred to go there and stay, inasmuch as he believed there would be greater safety there than in Jerusalem, but he didn't plan to leave his friends and Baruch his secretary. As he approached the gates, an officer stepped out to block his way.
"I know you are Jeremiah," the officer said. "I also know that you are deserting to the Babylonians. You're probably going to them right now with some kind of information!"
"Not at all," Jeremiah calmly explained. "I am on my way to the town of Anathoth to take care of some personal business."
"Sure you are!" the officer exclaimed mockingly. "That personal business is with the enemy, but I'm going to spoil your plan. Come with me!"
With a sharp sword pointing toward his ribs, the prophet didn't have much choice of directions in which to go. In a few minutes he realized that he was being taken to the king's palace.
"I think I know you," Jeremiah observed as he strode briskly along in front of his captor. "Aren't you Irijah, a grandson of one of the king's prophets, Hananiah?"
"I am," the officer replied with a grim grin. "I'm sure you remember predicting my grandfather's death. Obviously, you begged your God to bring this about so that you could gain the king's trust. Now I'm going to even the score by turning you in as a traitor to Judah, caught in the act of sneaking off to the enemy!"
In a courtroom in the royal palace, Jeremiah was taken before some of the princes of Judah, who were angry with him because he was advocating that Judah should surrender to Babylon instead of relying on Egypt. They displayed their feelings by taking turns viciously slapping him in the face. Irijah stood by, greatly enjoying the cruel performance. Finally he walked into the milling group and seized the prophet.
"This man is ill!" he quipped. "He needs a long rest. I know just the place for him. It's in the home of Jonathan the court secretary next door -- in the dungeon!" (Jeremiah 37:11-15.)
Jeremiah was jailed there. It was a cold, dank, rodent-infested cell with barely enough light to see by, and only in the daytime. The prophet endured the misery of this filthy place until the king heard what had happened to him, which was several days later. Zedekiah was irked because this thing had been done without his knowledge. The possibility that Jeremiah's God would be angered worried him. A short while later the prophet was enjoying warmth and food in the king's private quarters.
"This doesn't mean that I'm releasing you from prison," the king said. "It could depend on what you have to tell me. Has your God had anything more to tell about the Babylonians?"
"He has," Jeremiah replied, thankfully masticating one of the few bits of food before him.
"Then tell me, man!" Zedekiah impatiently commanded, hoping that there might be some encouraging predictions for a change.
"God told me again that the Babylonians shall surely capture you!"
Zedekiah clapped his hands to his head and frowned at Jeremiah, who stood up and faced him.
"What great offense have I committed against you or anyone in Judah that I should be imprisoned?" the prophet asked. "Was it wrong of me to stand against your lying prophets, who insisted that Nebuchadnezzar would never come against Judah? Because I have tried to help Judah by proclaiming God's warnings, why should I die in the filth of the dungeon below the house of Jonathan the court scribe? I've not asked for any favors before, my king, but now I'm entreating you to spare me from being sent back to a place where a human being can't live very long!"
Jeremiah was risking stirring up the king's ire by what Zedekiah might consider complaint and criticism, but the prophet knew that it would probably be his only opportunity to speak out on his own behalf. The king said nothing for a few moments. Than he called to a guard.
"Take this man back to prison!" he instructed. The guard motioned curtly to Jeremiah, whose hopes for a few more days of life sank with the king's orders.
"Don't return him to the dungeon where he was," Zedekiah added, "Put him in the main prison in a cell adjoining the jail court so he can have a daily walk. And tell the jailer that I want this man to receive clean water and a piece of bread every day as long as it is available." (Jeremiah 37:16-21.)
Although Jeremiah was very grateful for the better cell with more light, as well as more hope for living, it was still miserable to be cooped up.
>From Terrible to Worse
As Zedekiah expected, the princes of Judah who had hoped for Jeremiah's slow death in the dungeon were quite irritated on learning what the king had done. They came to him to complain that the prophet's continued statements about a Babylonian victory were spoiling the Jewish soldiers' will to fight.
"This man is a valuable tool of the enemy," they told the king. "As long as he is alive, whether in or out of prison, he'll have an undermining effect on the morale of our army. But once it becomes known that he no longer lives, the soldiers will conclude that his God didn't care enough about his rantings to back them up by sparing his life. A dead prophet doesn't have much influence."
Zedekiah had enough worries without being at odds with his counsellors, the princes. He wanted to spare Jeremiah because he secretly feared God, but at the same time he wanted to avoid trouble by not offending the princes.
"I am not convinced that Jeremiah deserves death," Zedekiah told the princes, "but I am weary of this conflict you are having with him. Whatever you do now I won't oppose. It's up to you if you want his blood on your heads."
Only a little later Jeremiah saw his jailer approaching, presumably to bring his daily ration of bread and water. But instead of passing food to his inmate, he unchained the door bar, pulled the heavy door back and motioned to Jeremiah to step out. Another man appeared carrying a coil of rope. Jeremiah walked along between them, as he was ordered, through several dismal passages and down some stone steps. They stopped at last in a dingy stone room with a wide, dark hole in the floor. It was so dark in the hole that Jeremiah couldn't see anything but blackness in it. With no word of explanation, the men tied the rope around Jeremiah's chest and pushed him into the dark hole. Little by little he was lowered into the gloom. Suddenly he felt the chill of cold mud oozing up around his feet and legs. The rope slackened, allowing him to sink gradually into the slimy mire! (Jeremiah 38:1-6.)
Bible Story Book Index
Ordeal By Seige
FORCIBLY LOWERED into the deep mire of a dungeon pit in the prison at Jerusalem, Jeremiah could feel himself gradually sinking. The more he struggled, the deeper he sank. His shouts for help were futile. (Jeremiah 38:1-6.) Now that his eyes had become adjusted to the gloom, he could see that the men who had brought him there, at the orders of the princes, had departed and left him helpless in a stinking cesspool.
A Noble Ethiopian
One of King Zedekiah's trusted attendants, an Ethiopian by the name of Ebed-melech, happened to learn what had happened to Jeremiah through men who were discussing the prophet's plight and were greatly amused by it. This black man was one of the king's favorite officials because he was alert, intelligent, conscientious and had proved himself trustworthy. Being a fervent follower of God, he was shocked that God's servant should be treated so cruelly. He hurried and reported the incident to his master, even though he realized that the king, an idolater, might not wish to be bothered by the matter.
"Those responsible have done an evil thing that could cause more misery to fall on Jerusalem," Ebed-melech respectfully suggested to Zedekiah. "There is no more bread left to keep Jeremiah from starving, but unless he is rescued soon, he could die in a much shorter time by smothering in the mire of the cesspool!"
Although Zedekiah had told the princes that he wouldn't interfere with their depraved treatment of Jeremiah, he was so angered by the way they were trying to cause the prophet's death that he decided to step in again to save him.
"Do what you can to rescue that man and bring him back to the cell where he was," the king instructed that trusted aide. "Just don't try anything by yourself. I'll give you thirty palace guards to help protect you from any trouble you run into."
The first thing Ebed-melech did was obtain ropes and an armful of old rags. When he and the thirty men arrived at the pit, they let the ends of the ropes down to Jeremiah and tried to pull the prophet up. But he had sunk up to his shoulders, and pulling him created a suction that held him so firmly that the pressure under his arms was quite painful. The Ethiopian had expected this difficulty. Tossing the rags to Jeremiah, he called down to him to stuff them between his arms and the ropes, so that the men could pull harder without hurting him too seriously.
After the prisoner was lifted to freedom from the miry trap, Ebedmelech saw to it that he had an opportunity to bathe and put on clean clothes before being taken back to his cell. He also managed to bring him a little food. (Jeremiah 38:7-13.)
Following a rest, the prophet was surprised to be taken to a room in the temple, where Zedekiah was waiting to talk privately with him.
"You've told me before what you believe will take place here soon," the king said. "Now I'm asking you to tell me again, including anything that's new or anything you've withheld, and what I should do."
"I've angered you many times by what I've said," Jeremiah observed, shaking his head. "If I say anymore, how do I know but what you'll become so angry that you'll have me beheaded? As for advice, you won't accept any from me."
Zedekiah's Half-Strong Promise
Zedekiah wanted to be thought of as strong and a doer of good. But he had refused to repent and he was afraid of his political advisers. He glanced quickly around to make sure that he and Jeremiah were alone, then moved a step closer to the prophet.
"I swear that no matter what you have to say, I will not put you to death," the king earnestly declared. "Neither will I turn you over to anyone who seeks your life. May God end mine if there is no truth in what I say."
Zedekiah's sincerity was evident to Jeremiah, who decided to give the king a complete account of what would soon happen.
"What I have to say isn't anything I've made up," the prophet explained. "This is what the one and only God has revealed to me. To begin, King Nebuchadnezzar is no longer in Judah. He and part of his army have gone to the city of Riblah in Syria. The whole Babylonian army has defeated the Egyptians, who have fled back to their country. The victors haven't pursued them because they are anxious to return here and continue the siege of Jerusalem.
"You would be wise to go out and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar's generals. If you do, you will save your life and the lives of many others, and the city won't be burned. If you don't, the enemy will break down the walls, pour into Jerusalem and set fire to it. Many people will be slaughtered. Many will be captured -- including you and your family!"
"Months ago I turned against the Babylonians," Zedekiah said after a period of thought. "Now if I suddenly surrender, and have to join my countrymen who are already prisoners in Babylonia, they will never cease mocking me." (Jeremiah 38:14-19.)
"If you surrender, that won't happen," the prophet pointed out. "It could happen if you are captured, but I doubt the Babylonians would let you live that long. I implore you, sir, to bury your pride and save yourself and your people! If you refuse, you will be mocked by the women of your harem, who will seek safety by willingly turning themselves over to Babylonian officers. The children you have had by these women will become slaves to the enemy!" (Jeremiah 38:20-23.)
Zedekiah swallowed nervously, still afraid to trust God, although he wanted to help God's prophet. He glanced cautiously about, then stared earnestly at the prophet.
"Don't tell anyone else what you have told me today," he warned. "Keep silent about these things, and I'll keep my promise that you won't die by my order or at the order of the princes. If they ask you if you talked to me, and tell you that they'll see that you live if you tell them what we talked about, tell them that you wanted me to spare your life, and I promised that you wouldn't be taken back to that dungeon under Jonathan's house."
Evil Princes Outsmarted
At a gesture by the king, Jeremiah's guards, waiting at a respectful distance, approached and escorted the prophet back to his cell. It wasn't long before he was visited by the princes, who had been informed of his meeting with Zedekiah, and who hoped to learn if he had made any kind of contact with the Babylonians through Jeremiah.
"Tell us about the conversation you had with the king at the temple, and we'll do what we can to see that you are freed from this place," one of them told Jeremiah.
"I told the king that I don't deserve to be put back in a dungeon where it isn't possible to keep on living," Jeremiah answered. "He assured me that I wouldn't die by his hand or yours."
This reply didn't tell the prophet's visitors much, but it caused them to confer among themselves.
"The king must have a good reason for sticking up so staunchly for this fellow," one of them remarked.
"Whatever it is," another said, "I don't think this miserable prophet has the ability to be a spy for the Babylonians or a secret messenger for the king -- especially as long as he's behind bars. Let's leave him where he is and, for the present, forget about him."
Jeremiah drew a breath of relief as he watched his visitors stride away. (Jeremiah 38:24-28.)
Just as the prophet had told Zedekiah, most of the mighty Babylonian army soon returned to Jerusalem, whose inhabitants fearfully realized that they were woefully unprepared for another siege -- even a short one. Food had been difficult to obtain. There was never enough to stock for the future. In spite of the many days the siege had been lifted, many people were on the verge of starvation. Besides, sickness was still taking its toll.
Frenzy and dismay settled on the inhabitants. Even while the enemy was still miles away, excited men slammed the gates shut and barred and reinforced them with huge props. Anyone who happened to be on the outside was cut off from returning.
"Let no one in from now on!" was the order. "They could be Babylonian spies or soldiers disguised as Jewish food deliverymen or even as our troops!"
As for the king, he knew that he didn't have long to make up his mind what to do, though probably his decision would be simply determined by what he wanted to do, regardless of the consequences. For the time being, he was busily conferring with his officers who were frantically organizing their soldiers for defense.
The Ethiopian Honored
Again the Babylonians spread out around the city, pitching tents at a safe distance. They built corrals for their horses and for the livestock they had taken on their way back from their victorious encounter with the Egyptians. It was obvious that they were determined to take up where they had left off, and were prepared to stay for a longer period than the city could hold out.
When Jeremiah heard of the return of the enemy, he managed to get word to Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, to come to his cell. The black man came at once, wondering if the prophet needed his help again, but he received a more pleasant surprise.
"I have some good news for you from God," Jeremiah told him. "He has asked me to inform you that because you have put your trust in Him and have obeyed His laws, there is no need for you to fear the Babylonians. You won't be wounded or killed by them." (Jeremiah 39:15-18.)
Thankful for this encouraging information, Ebed-melech went back to his duties, one of the few people in Jerusalem who could harbor any hope under the fearful threat of the Babylonians.
Within only a few days many of the city's inhabitants were so desperate for food that they were forced to consume animals that weren't meant for man to eat. Horses, donkeys, cats, dogs and even rats and mice became common fare. When these items were exhausted and the final stages of starvation set in, a few people secretly resorted to the horrible, grisly pursuit of cannibalism. Possibly these miserable humans would have preferred to give themselves up to the Babylonians, but no one was allowed outside the walls. The misery and death could have been prevented if one man, the king, had walked through the gates and given himself up to the besiegers. (Jeremiah 21:1-10; 32:23-24; 38:17.)
While matters were worsening inside the city, things were changing on the outside. Using teams of chariot horses, the Babylonians brought load after load of soil as close to the wall as they could safely come under cover of their own shielding. As the days passed, the loads of soil grew into rising mounds that eventually became as high as the walls they faced.
Under cover of careful but difficult shielding, the invaders dumped much more soil over the mounds on the wall side, thus extending the mounds closer and closer to the walls. Fortifications were built atop some of the higher mounds so that it was possible for Babylonian soldiers to face Jewish wall guards at the same height, and well within range of spears and arrows. Huge catapults were pushed up other mounds, making it possible for boulders to be easily hurled to the wall tops and even beyond.
Final Phase of Siege
After some months of struggling under the lethal handicap of soaring spears, hissing arrows and catapulted hot boulders, the Babylonians managed to finish the fortified mounds that were part of their plan of attack. Early one morning the Jews on the wall tops were startled to see that the mounds were fully manned. More ominous was the sight of battering rams on wheels, soon surrounded by burly troops with especially wide shields.
The Babylonians had obviously been prepared to attack with the first sufficient light of day. The shrill blowing of horns and loud shouting caused much excitement and stir among the men on the walls. They didn't know exactly what to expect, but when they saw the huge battering rams rapidly advancing toward the walls, they realized that this wasn't going to be a matter of simply killing off one Babylonian ram crew after another.
Jewish archers and spearmen swarmed to the wall edge to discharge their weapons down on the troops rushing forward with the weighty rams, only to find themselves the targets of spears and arrows from the nearby Babylonian fortifications. After their one fusillade, which wasn't very effective against the wide, horizontally held shields of the enemy ram crews, the Jewish archers and spearmen were forced to dodge for shelter.
To add to their peril, Babylonian catapults bombarded the wall tops with smashing boulders, some of them nearly red hot. The conflict had hardly begun, but it was obvious that the Jews were going to have a difficult struggle in defending their capital.
The long, heavy rams, pushed by the running Babylonians, slammed noisily against the walls, cracking the stone and mortar. As quickly as possible the crews dragged their mammoth weapons back out of spear and arrow range, where fresh crews took over and aimed the rams into the cracked areas. This time, sizeable chunks of stone fell away under the crashing blows of the iron noses of the log shaped hammers. The walls were being pierced!
It was yet a long way through the walls, but the encouraged invaders kept the rams in action. With each thunderous blow, more of the stones cracked and fell away, constantly enlarging the openings. This limited success cost many Babylonian lives. Comrades on the mound fortifications weren't able to entirely prevent the Jews from hurling or shooting their share of missiles.
Killed and wounded on both sides were immediately dragged off and replaced, inasmuch as there was only limited space for soldiers, and neither side could afford to lessen its efforts. The frantic struggle was made grimmer by screams and groans of men in pain, the hissing of arrows and boulders, the thuds of spears against wood, stone and flesh, the pounding of the rams, the shouts of excited officers and the general clatter of this unusual kind of battle.
The frantic pace had to lessen when twilight came, and stop completely when darkness set in. This was to the advantage of both sides. They could rest and prepare to continue the battle next morning. Neither side could gain much of an advantage during darkness.
The Walls Breached!
It was almost impossible for Jewish officers to tell how much damage had been done to the walls. They couldn't look down and determine the size or depth of the gouged-out holes, although several soldiers on the wall top claimed that the rams' metal noses had appeared to penetrate several yards during the last attacks.
When Zedekiah heard this report, he was gripped with fear. For a time he considered a personal surrender to the enemy as soon as morning came. Then he reasoned that it would be the same as suicide to expose himself during a continued battle, and decided that the wisest course would be to gather his family together, if worst came to worst, and try to escape from the city by a secret exit known only to a few.
At dawn the attack and defense were resumed with greater fury. For a while the Babylonians greatly deepened the breaches in the walls. Progress was later slowed when some of the ram trucks began to fall apart from rough usage. Some of them had to be withdrawn. Others were put to work in teams, so that the deepening breaches would become wider. One of the rams was finally applied to a gate. The unshatterable hardwood proved to be tougher than stone. However, when bolts and iron straps started to shake loose, the attackers decided to continue.
That afternoon, despite their reverses, the Babylonians completely broke through the wall at one point. About the same time, the battered gate began to fall loose. The invaders kept up the hammering because they wanted the openings to be wide enough to admit several men at once. They knew that if they tried to enter single file, the Jews could easily pick them off.
The King Deserts
When Zedekiah learned that the enemy was about to try to get troops into the city, he excitedly ordered some officials, attendants and servants to prepare to accompany certain members of his family in swift departure. All his wives and children weren't included because there were some with whom he didn't care to be burdened. The more in the party, the less chances of escape there would be.
Accompanied by picked guards, the king and the chosen part of his family rushed to a secret passage which took them under the north wall of the city. It emerged in a bouldery area uncomfortably close to a part of the line of Babylonians encircling Jerusalem. Darkness was coming on, making it possible for the escapers to quietly move from boulder to boulder until all reached a ravine out of sight of the enemy. Just then the sound of many voices welled up from the city, indicating that the invaders were inside and clashing with the defenders. (II Kings 25:1-4; Jeremiah 29:1-4.)
For a few moments the king paused to listen to the frenzied sounds of battle, then turned on his intended way to safety in Egypt. He was resigned to the painful loss of his nation and city, but he exulted in having escaped from the enemy. Terror would have replaced exultation if he could have known what would happen in the next few hours.
Bible Story Book Index
Judah Falls Apart
KING ZEDEKIAH of Judah escaped from Jerusalem just before the Babylonians broke into the city. The king and part of his immediate family, accompanied by a remnant of his army, hurried on through the darkness on their intended way to safety in Egypt. (II Kings 25:1-4.)
Zedekiah's Flight Ends
"We can't go on walking like this," Zedekiah complained to an aide. "We need animals to ride on, especially for the women and small children."
"I'm sorry, sir, but it would be most unwise to allow anyone to see us," the troubled aide explained, "for if we tried to obtain horses or donkeys from anyone living around here we would be seen. If we leave as much as one small clue to show the direction which we have escaped, we would be inviting the enemy to swiftly overtake us."
The king didn't like to be corrected in this manner, though he knew the aide was right. There was no choice but to move on through the darkness as quickly and quietly as possible.
Back in Jerusalem, the Babylonians streamed through the breach in the wall and through the broken gate in such numbers that most of the would-be defenders fled and hid themselves wherever they could. They were ferreted out and slain, though not without casualties to the invaders, who blundered into ambushes. Even the temple was searched, where only priests, their helpers and a small crowd of fearful worshippers were found. Zedekiah's palace had already been overrun. Of course the king and his royal guard weren't found there. This was disappointing to the Babylonians, whose search then became doubly intense. Every building, room, passage, corridor and stairway they could find was combed.
"We've searched even down in the prison dungeons," an officer soon reported to one of Nebuchadnezzar's generals.
"My guess is that the king of Judah and part of his army have somehow escaped from the city," one general told another.
"If that's so, it had to be through some underground means," another officer observed. "We'll have to keep looking till we locate it and find this Zedekiah. It would be better for us never to return to Nebuchadnezzar than to do so without the king of Judah!"
The Babylonian general had guessed well. Someone -- probably a servant -- had earlier informed frantic Jewish soldiers of the secret entrance to the underground passage by which the king's entourage had already departed. The soldiers had hurried through it, scattering in all directions when they reached the open. Meanwhile, the invaders were unable to find anyone, even through threats of lingering tortures, who knew anything about the passage. All who knew its location had already used it.
It was almost daybreak when some Babylonian soldiers finally stumbled across the entrance. On finding how far the passage extended, it was clear how the escapers had managed to elude the human ring around the city.
The faint light of dawn plainly showed many footprints leading off confusingly in all directions. However, expert trackers soon discovered a profusion of tracks left by a group that had obviously stayed together. A Babylonian cavalry squadron raced off to follow the distinct trail.
A few miles ahead of them to the east, Zedekiah and his group still plodded along. With daylight, the king was relieved to learn that they had already trudged all the way to the plains of Jericho. He intended that they should cross the Jordan and swing around to the right on a curve toward Egypt.
Suddenly there were shouts of alarm from several who pointed excitedly to the west. Zedekiah and the others turned to see the mounts of a few hundred cavalrymen pounding down the road. Within minutes the king of Judah and his company were captives of the Babylonians!
The Babylonian officers were elated when Zedekiah was brought before them.
"You've caused us much trouble in finding YOU but we couldn't give up, because our king is anxious to meet you," one of the generals remarked, grinning heartlessly. "In fact, he is so anxious to meet you that we will break camp and personally escort you to Riblah in Syria, where he presently is staying.
In the meantime enemy troops were rounding up the inhabitants. The healthier and more capable ones became captives. The elderly, weak, sick and those incapable of any trade, craft or profession were simply ignored. (Jeremiah 39:9-10.) Even prison inmates were checked over. Those who were at least capable of manual labor were freed from prison in Judah to become prisoners of Babylonia. The prophet Jeremiah was among them.
All able captives were put in chains and herded to the city of Ramah, a few miles north of Jerusalem. While this was taking place, other enemy troops were moving about in other cities, capturing thousands more Jews and moving them to Ramah also. This was to be the starting point of the march for the combined captives of all Judah. From there, long lines of thousands would go on the miserable march to Babylonia. (II Chronicles 36:11-21.)
While this was being arranged by the Babylonians, Nebuzar-adan, captain of the guard, was informed that Jeremiah was among the prisoners. Because the prophet was favorably regarded by Babylonian leaders for his trying to convince his countrymen that they should regard Babylonia as their master, Nebuzar-adan was perturbed.
"Release him at once and bring him to my tent!" he ordered. "He should never have been taken prisoner!"
Jeremiah's Wise Decision
A little later an aide appeared with Jeremiah, now free from his chains.
"We didn't intend that this should happen to you," Nebuzar-adan explained in a conciliatory tone. "King Nebuchadnezzar and many of us realize that through you, your God warned your people what would happen unless they followed your God's instructions. Now it's happening. You aren't to be taken along with the others, although you are free to accompany your countrymen to Babylon if that's your wish. For you there will be no chains and no labor. After you arrive at Babylon, I'll see to it that you will be well taken care of. On the other hand, if you prefer to stay in Judah, so be it."
For a moment Jeremiah was tempted to say he would go to Babylon. There he would have his needs supplied. If he remained in Judah, it would be a struggle to find enough to eat. Besides, his own people could continue to treat him as a bothersome eccentric. But thinking his position through made it plain to him that his place was in his own nation. There God might still have some use for him.
"It would please God if I stayed," the prophet announced. "That's good," Nebuzar-adan grinned. "You can go just as soon as I have some food prepared for you to take. And here's something to partly pay for the trouble we've caused you."
The prophet blinked at the gold pieces Nebuzar-adan pressed into his hand. No reward was expected or necessary. He expressed his gratitude to the captain, and greater gratitude to God when he arrived at a lonely spot southeast of Ramah.
"One more thing," Nebuzar-adan added. "To replace King Zedekiah, we have chosen a man to govern Judah we can depend upon. His name is -- is -- "
"Gedaliah," Jeremiah smoothly interrupted. "Why, yes!" Nebuzar-adan said, surprised. "No announcement has been made of his appointment. How did you know?"
"God tells me many things," the prophet smiled. "I believe you are indeed the prophet of a powerful God," the captain observed. "As such, with the welfare of your nation at heart, you should probably be close to the seat of government. Gedaliah's administration will be from Mizpah instead of Jerusalem." (Jeremiah 39:11-14; 40:1-6.)
Jeremiah was pleased with Gedaliah's appointment because he was a grandson of Shaphan, whose family had repeatedly befriended Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 26:24; 36:11, 25.)
The Babylonian soldiers and their allies now turned north toward Syria, taking with them Zedekiah, his family and some foremost army officers and leaders of Judah.
Turmoil and Intrigue
Meanwhile, the scattered remnant of the army of Judah that had escaped from Jerusalem gathered at Mizpah to find out if Gedaliah wished to reorganize the military force. Mizpah also became crowded with Jews who had fled to nearby nations when the Babylonians came. Having heard that the invaders had left, they returned to their nation and came to the new seat of government to inquire about the status of their country.
Gedaliah proclaimed to all that they should make a special effort to produce from the land as much as possible to try to make up for what the enemy had taken.
"We must also work diligently to prepare for the time when the Babylonians will return to take tribute," Gedaliah told them. "We are a captive nation, and we are bound to give the conquerors whatever they demand." (Jeremiah 40:7-12.)
Shortly after Gedaliah's advice to the people, several military leaders came to Gedaliah to inform him that they had heard that Ishmael, a man they all knew who was of royal stock in Judah (Jeremiah 41:1 and I Chronicles 2:41), had returned from the land of the Ammonites. He had fled there for safety when the Babylonians had come.
"We have learned that Ishmael is bitter and envious because you have been appointed governor by the Babylonians," the captains told Gedaliah. "We overheard some workers who knew that Baalis, king of the Ammonites, has talked Ishmael into taking your office."
"That's ridiculous!" Gedaliah exclaimed, after several moments of staring skeptically at his informers. "I can't believe Ishmael would try to do that. Besides, HOW could he do it?"
"He has promised Baalis that he'll murder you!" was the startling reply.
"If this is supposed to be a joke, I fail to appreciate it," Gedaliah frowned. "I suggest that you refrain from eavesdropping on your harvest hands, who obviously have used you to start an evil rumor."
The men's faces fell as Gedaliah strode away. Because they were concerned for the governor's life, it was disappointing not to be believed. One of the men, Johanan, later came alone to see Gedaliah, and asked to speak privately to him.
"If you're here to apologize for that accusation made earlier, it isn't necessary," Gedaliah said. "Ishmael is the one who deserves the apology."
"I came back to make an important suggestion," Johanan said, ignoring the governor's remark. "Conditions are bad enough in Judah without allowing them to become worse. People are looking to you for leadership. If something should happen to you, what remains of our nation will probably fall apart."
"Are you talking about Ishmael again?" Gedaliah asked sternly.
"Let me dispose of him before he disposes of you!" Johanan earnestly urged. "No one except the two of us will know anything about it! I'll be doing Judah a favor!"
"How can you be so wrong about someone?" Gedaliah angrily asked. "If anything happens to Ishmael, I'll hold you responsible and deal with you accordingly!"
Johanan gave up and left, realizing that there was little he could do to prevent any trouble from Ishmael. (Jeremiah 40:13-16.)
About two months after the Babylonians had departed, Gedaliah invited Ishmael to a state dinner. He believed that if this man felt any envy toward him, this friendly gesture would probably dispel any ill feelings. Other guests included several Jewish leaders under Gedaliah, military men and the few Babylonians who had stayed as representatives of Nebuchadnezzar. The governor had assumed that Ishmael would bring an acquaintance or two. He was surprised when he showed up with ten burly, grim-faced men who were referred to only as close friends.
After all were seated and served, Gedaliah was pleased to note Ishmael's sociability. The governor thought how unfortunate it would have been to have believed and acted on the negative reports about Ishmael.
Suddenly Ishmael and his ten men leaped up, whipped short swords from under their clothing and swiftly attacked every other man in the room. In a very brief moment Gedaliah and his guests -- except the murderous eleven -- were dead or dying. (Jeremiah 41:1-3.)
Ishmael's next move was to prevent all servants from fleeing from the building simply by cutting them down. For two days the assassins held the governor's house without outsiders knowing what had happened. Then it was reported that a group of eighty men from the territory of Israel wished to confer with Gedaliah.
"They want to burn incense at the temple ruins to show their sorrow because of the state of affairs," Ishmael was told. "They've shaved their beards, torn their clothes and slashed themselves."
"Then it's only a group of religious fanatics," Ishmael observed. "But we'll have to get rid of them. We can take care of them as soon as they're inside."
Ishmael walked out of the building to see the men solemnly approaching, heads down, as though they were in a funeral march. He assumed the same gait. He even managed to effect tears, to pretend that he was deeply moved and sympathized with their interests.
"We are here to ask permission to go to the site of the burned temple, that we may make our offerings there," one of the men told Ishmael.
"As spokesman for the governor, I can tell you that you will be welcome there," Ishmael said in a hushed, solemn tone. "But first why not come into the house? You must be thirsty after your walk."
The moment the visitors were inside, the fiendish eleven charged at them with swords poised. When the terrified men realized what was happening, those who weren't immediately attacked fell on their knees and begged to be spared.
"We have great quantities of precious food hidden underground!" they wailed. "There's a fortune in oil, honey, wheat and barley! It's all yours if you let us go free!"
By this time seventy were dead or dying. Ishmael decided to spare ten of them, at least temporarily, for turning over their food to him. First the corpses had to be hidden. This was no great problem, inasmuch as they were added to the other victims who had been dropped into a nearby pit that had been made as a water reservoir more than three hundred and forty years previously.
Help at Last?
Ishmael's bloody accomplishments caused him to become even madder and more daring. He and his men ventured into the streets of Mizpah to seize people and hold them in Gedaliah's house. Faced with death unless they cooperated, certain male captives agreed to join Ishmael in his insane cause. His purpose was to stamp out the frail government of Judah and seize the inhabitants of Mizpah to sell them as slaves to the king of the Ammonites. Before long almost all in the little city were bound together in small groups. They could walk but had little use of their arms. Ishmael and his men worked swiftly, knowing that Jews from nearby regions would probably band together to resist as soon as they heard what was happening.
Fortunately, the news reached Johanan, a friend of murdered Gedaliah, who wasn't in Mizpah. He quickly gathered and armed men to rush in pursuit of the bloody kidnappers, who by then were desperately herding their captives northward toward the road to Ammonite territory.
Not far from the city of Gibeon, about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem, the captives were overjoyed to see Johanan and his men hurrying toward them. Ishmael, however, didn't share their sudden hope. (Jeremiah 41:4-13.)
"Get them moving faster!" he roared at his men. "Beat them with the flat sides of your swords! We can't let anyone stop us now!"
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