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CHAPTER XXXVI

ZEDEKIAH, THE LAST KING OF JUDAH

b.c. 597-586

2 Kings xxiv. 18-xxv. 7

"Quand ce grand Dieu a choisi quelqu'un pour être l'instrument de ses desseins rien n'arrête le cours, où il enchaine, où il aveugle, où il dompte tout ce qui est capable de résistance."

Bossuet, Oraison funèbre de Henriette Marie.

When Jehoiachin was carried captive to Babylon, never to return, his uncle Mattaniah ("Jehovah's gift"), the third son of Josiah, was put by Nebuchadrezzar in his place. In solemn ratification of the new king's authority, the Babylonian conqueror sanctioned the change of his name to Zedekiah ("Jehovah's righteousness").812812   Comp. Jer. xxiii. 6: Jehovah-Tsidkenu. He was twenty-one at his accession, and he reigned eleven years.

"Behold," writes Ezekiel, "the King of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took the king thereof, and the princes thereof, and brought them to him to Babylon; and he took of the seed royal" (i.e., Zedekiah), "and made a covenant with him; he also brought him under an oath: and took away the mighty of the land, that the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his covenant it might stand."813813   Ezek. xvii. 12-14.

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Perhaps by this covenant Zechariah meant to emphasise the meaning of his name, and to show that he would reign in righteousness.

The prophet at the beginning of the chapter describes Nebuchadrezzar and Jehoiachin in "a riddle."

"A great eagle," he says, "with great wings and long pinions, full of feathers, which had divers colours, came unto Lebanon, and took the top of the cedar" (Jehoiachin): "he cropped off the topmost of the young twigs thereof, and carried it into a land of traffic; he set it in a city of merchants. He took also of the seed of the land" (Zedekiah), "and planted it in a fruitful soil; he placed it beside great waters, he set it as a willow tree. And it grew, and became a spreading vine of low stature, whose branches turned towards him, and the roots thereof were under him: so it became a vine, and brought forth branches, and shot forth sprigs."814814   Ezek. xvii. 1-6.

The words refer to the first three years of Zedekiah's reign, and they imply, consistently with the views of the prophets, that, if the weak king had been content with the lowly eminence to which God had called him, and if he had kept his oath and covenant with Babylon, all might yet have been well with him and his land. At first it seemed likely to be so; for Zedekiah wished to be faithful to Jehovah. He made a covenant with all the people to set free their Hebrew slaves. Alas! it was very shortlived. Self-sacrifice cost something, and the princes soon took back the discarded bondservants.815815   Jer. xxxiv. 8-11. What made this conduct the more shocking was that their covenant to obey the law had been made in the most solemn manner by "cutting a calf in twain, and passing between the severed halves."816816   Jer. xxxiv. 19. Comp. Gen. xv. 17. But the439 weak king was perfectly powerless in the hands of his tyrannous aristocracy.817817   This is strikingly shown by his piteous remark to them in Jer. xxxviii. 5.

The exiles in Babylon were now the best and most important section of the nation. Jeremiah compares them to good figs; while the remnant at Jerusalem were bad and withered. He and Ezekiel raised their voices, as in strophe and antistrophe, for the teaching alike of the exiles and of the remnant left at Jerusalem, for whom the exiles were bidden to entreat God in prayer. Zedekiah himself made at least one journey northward, either voluntarily or under summons, to renew his oath and reassure Nebuchadrezzar of his fidelity.818818   He first sent two of Jeremiah's friends, Elasah and Gemariah, the son of Shaphan. He was accompanied by Seraiah, the brother of Baruch, who was privately entrusted by Jeremiah with a prophecy of the fall of Babylon, which he was to fling into the midst of the Euphrates.819819   Some critics have doubted the authenticity of Jer. li., lii.

The last King of Judah seems to have been weak rather than wicked. He was a reed shaken by the wind. He yielded to the influence of the last person who argued with him; and he seems to have dreaded above all things the personal ridicule, danger, and opposition which it was his duty to have defied. Yet we cannot withhold from him our deep sympathy; for he was born in terrible times—to witness the death-throes of his country's agony, and to share in them. It was no longer a question of independence, but only of the choice of servitudes. Judah was like a silly and trembling sheep between two huge beasts of prey.820820   2 Chron. xxxvi. 14-21; Stanley, ii. 528; Milman, i. 394.

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Only thus can we account for the strange apostasies—"the abominations of the heathen"—with which he permitted the Temple to be polluted; and for the ill-treatment which he allowed to be inflicted on Jeremiah and other prophets, to whom in his heart he felt inclined to listen.

What these abominations were we read with amazement in the eighth chapter of Ezekiel. The prophet is carried in vision to Jerusalem, and there he sees the Asherah—"the image which provoketh to jealousy"—which had so often been erected and destroyed and re-erected. Then through a secret door he sees creeping things, and abominable beasts, and the idol-blocks of the House of Israel portrayed upon the wall, while several elders of Israel stood before them and adored, with censers in their hands—among whom he must specially have grieved to see Jaazaneiah, the son of Shaphan,821821   Shaphan's other sons, Gemariah, Ahikam, Elasah, and his grandson Gedaliah, were friends of Jeremiah. flattering himself, as did his followers, that in that dark chamber Jehovah saw them not. Next at the northern gate he sees Zion's daughters weeping for Tammuz, or Adonis. Once more, in the inner court of the Temple, between the porch and the altar, he sees about twenty-five men with their backs to the altar, and their faces to the east; and they worshipped the sun towards the east; and, lo! they put the vine branch to their nose.822822   Ezek. viii. 17. The allusion seems to be to a custom like that of the Parsees, who hold a branch of tamarisk or pomegranate twigs (called barsom) before their mouths when they adore the sacred fire. Strabo, xv. 732; Spiegel, Zendavesta, ii., p. lxviii; Eran. Alterthumsk., iii. 571 (Orelli, ad loc.). Lightfoot explains it, "add fuel to their wrath." Were not these crimes sufficient to evoke the wrath of Jehovah, and to alienate His ear from prayers offered by such polluted worshippers? Egypt, Assyria, Syria, Chaldæa,441 all contributed their idolatrous elements to the detestable syncretism; and the king and the priests ignored, permitted, or connived at it.823823   Ezek. xvi. 15-34. This must surely be answered for. How could it have been otherwise? The king and the priests were the official guardians of the Temple, and these aberrations could not have gone on without their cognisance. There was another party of sheer formalists, headed by men like the priest Pashur, who thought to make talismans of rites and shibboleths, but had no sincerity of heart-religion.824824   Jer. vii. 4, 21-28, viii. 8, xxiii. 31-33, xxxi. 33, 34. To these, too, Jeremiah was utterly opposed. In his opinion Josiah's reformation had failed. Neither Ark, nor Temple, nor sacrifice were anything in the world to him in comparison with true religion. All the prophets with scarcely one exception are anti-ritualists; but none more decidedly so than the prophet-priest. His name is associated in tradition with the hiding of the Ark, and a belief in its ultimate restoration; yet to Jeremiah, apart from the moral and spiritual truths of which it was the material symbol, the Ark was no better than a wooden chest. His message from Jehovah is, "I will give you pastors according to My heart, ... and they shall say no more, 'The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord': neither shall it come to mind; neither shall they remember it; neither shall they miss it; neither shall it be made any more."825825   Jer. iii. 15, 16.

Doom followed the guilt and folly of king, priests, and people. If political wisdom were insufficient to show Zedekiah that the necessities of the case were an indication of God's will, he had the warnings of the prophets constantly ringing in his ears, and the assurance442 that he must remain faithful to Nebuchadrezzar. But he was in fear of his own princes and courtiers. A combined embassy reached him from the kings of Edom, Ammon, Moab, Tyre and Sidon, urging him to join in a league against Babylon.826826   Jer. xxvii. 3. This embassy was supported by a powerful party in Jerusalem. Their solicitations were rendered more plausible by the recent accession (b.c. 590) of the young and vigorous Pharaoh Hophrah—the Apries of Herodotus827827   Herod., ii. 161.—to the throne of Egypt, and by the recrudescence of that incurable disease of Hebrew politics, a confidence in the idle promises of Egypt to supply the confederacy with men and horses.828828   Psammis, the son of Necho, only reigned six years; Hophrah (b.c. 594) was his son. In vain did Jeremiah and Ezekiel uplift their warning voices. The blind confidence of the king and of the nobles was sustained by the flattering visions and promises of false prophets, prominent among whom was a certain Hananiah, the son of Azur, of Gibeon, "the prophet."829829   The LXX. calls him "the false prophet." To indicate the futility of the contemplated rebellion, Jeremiah had made "throngs and poles" with yokes, and had sent them to the kings, whose embassy had reached Jerusalem, with a message of the most emphatic distinctness, that Nebuchadrezzar was God's appointed servant, and that they must serve him till God's own appointed time. If they obeyed this intimation, they would be left undisturbed in their own lands; if they disobeyed it, they would be scourged into absolute submission by the sword, the famine, and the pestilence. Jeremiah delivered the same oracle to his own king.830830   Jer. xxvii. 1-8, 12-18. On vv. 16-22 see the LXX.

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The warning was rendered unavailing by the conduct of Hananiah. He prophesied that within two full years God would break the yoke of the King of Babylon; and that the captive Jeconiah, and the nobles, and the vessels of the House of the Lord would be brought back. Jeremiah, by way of an acted parable, had worn round his neck one of his own yokes. Hananiah, in the Temple, snatched it off, broke it to pieces, and said, "So will I break the yoke of Nebuchadrezzar from the neck of all nations within the space of two full years."831831   Here (Jer. xxviii. 11, and in xxxiv. 1, xxxix. 5) the name is written "Nebuchadnezzar"; everywhere else in Jeremiah it is "Nebuchadrezzar."

We can imagine the delight, the applause, the enthusiasm with which the assembled people listened to these bold predictions. Hananiah argued with them, to speak, in shorthand, for he appealed to their desires and to their prejudices. It is always the tendency of nations to say to their prophets, "Say not unto us hard things: speak smooth things; prophesy deceits."

Against Hananiah personally there seems to have been no charge, except that in listening to the lying spirit of his own desires he could not hear the true message of God. But he did not stand alone.832832   Part of his dispute with Jeremiah turned on the recovery or non-recovery of the Temple vessels. Zedekiah is said to have given a set of silver vessels to replace the old ones (Baruch i. 8). Among the children of the captivity, his promises were echoed by two downright false prophets, Ahab and Zedekiah, the son of Maaseiah, who prophesied lies in God's name. They were men of evil life, and a fearful fate overtook them. Their words against Babylon came to the ears of Nebuchadrezzar, and they were "roasted in the fire," so that the horror of their end passed into444 a proverb and a curse.833833   Jer. xxix. 21-23. Truly God fed these false prophets with wormwood, and gave them poisonous water to drink.834834   Jer. xxiii. 9-32.

After the action of Hananiah, Jeremiah went home stricken and ashamed: apparently he never again uttered a public discourse in the Temple. It took him by surprise; and he was for the moment, perhaps, daunted by the plausive echo of the multitude to the lying prophet. But when he got home the answer of Jehovah came: "Go and tell Hananiah, Thou hast broken the yokes of wood; but thou hast made for them yokes of iron. I have put a yoke of iron on the necks of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadrezzar. Hear now, Hananiah, The Lord hath not sent thee: thou makest this people to trust in a lie. Behold, this year thou shalt die, because thou hast spoken revolt against the Lord. What hath the chaff to do with the wheat? saith the Lord."835835   Jer. xxviii. 13-16, xxiii. 28.

Two months after Hananiah lay dead, and men's minds were filled with fear. They saw that God's word was indeed as a fire to burn, and as a hammer to dash in pieces.836836   Jer. xxiii. 29. But meanwhile Zedekiah had been over-persuaded to take the course which the true prophets had forbidden. Misled by the false prophets and mincing prophetesses whom Ezekiel denounced,837837   Ezek. xiii. 1-23. who daubed men's walls with whitened plaster, he had sent an embassy to Pharaoh Hophrah, asking for an army of infantry and cavalry to support his rebellion from Assyria.838838   Ezek. xvii. 25. In the eyes of Jeremiah and Ezekiel the crime did not only consist in defying the exhortations of those whom Zedekiah knew to be Jehovah's445 accredited messengers. In mitigation of this offence he might have pleaded the extreme difficulty of discriminating the truth amid the ceaseless babble of false pretenders.839839   Josephus rightly attributes the unfortunate career of Zedekiah to the weakness with which he listened to evil counsellors, and to the insolent multitude. But, on the other hand, he had broken the solemn oath which he had taken to Nebuchadrezzar in the name of God, and the sacred covenant which he seems to have twice ratified with him.840840   2 Chron. xxxvi. 13; Jer. lii. 3. This it was which raised the indignation of the faithful, and led Ezekiel to prophesy:—

"Shall he prosper?
Shall he escape that doeth such things?
Or shall he break the covenant and be believed?
'As I live,' saith the Lord God, 'surely in the place where the king dwelleth that made him king,
Whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke,
Even with him in the midst of Babylon, shall he die.'"841841   Ezek. xvii. 15, 16, 18, 19.

Sad close for a dynasty which had now lasted for nearly five centuries!

As for Pharaoh, he too was an eagle, as Nebuchadrezzar was—a great eagle with great wings and many feathers, but not so great. The trailing vine of Judah bent her roots towards him, but it should wither in the furrows when the east wind touched it.842842   Ezek. xvii. 7-10.

The result of Zedekiah's alliance with Egypt was the intermission of his yearly tribute to Assyria; and at last, in the ninth year of Zedekiah, Nebuchadrezzar was aroused to put down this Palestinian revolt, supported as it was by the vague magnificence of Egypt.446 Jeremiah had said, "Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, is but a noise [or desolation]: he hath passed the time appointed."843843   Jer. xlvi. 17.

This was about the year 589. In 598 Nebuchadrezzar had carried Jehoachin into captivity, and ever since then some of his forces had been engaged in the vain effort to capture Tyre, which still, after a ten years' siege, drew its supplies from the sea, and remained impregnable on her island rock. He did not choose to raise this long-continued siege by diverting the troops to beleaguer so strong a fortress as Jerusalem, and therefore he came in person from Babylon.

In Ezek. xxi. 20-24 we have a singular and vivid glimpse of his march. On his way he came to a spot where two roads branched off before him. One led to Rabbath, the capital of Ammon, on the east of Jordan; the other to Jerusalem, on the west. Which road should he take? Personally, it was a matter of indifference; so he threw the burden of responsibility upon his gods by leaving the decision to the result of belomancy.844844   Another form of belomancy is still commonly practised among the Arabs. Three arrows are placed in a vessel: on one of them is written, "My God permits me"; on another, "My God forbids me"; the third is blank. They are then shaken, and the decision is guided by the one which falls out first. Comp. Homer, Iliad, iii. 316; Speaker's Commentary, ad loc. Taking in his hand a sheaf of brightened arrows, he held them upright, and decided to take the route indicated by the fall of the greater number of arrows. He confirmed his uncertainty by consulting teraphim, and by hepatoscopy—i.e., by examining the liver of slain victims. Rabbath and the Ammonites were not to be spared, but it was upon the covenant-breaking king and city that the first vengeance was447 to fall.845845   Ezek. xxi. 28-32. And this is what the prophet has to say to Zedekiah:—

"And thou, O deadly-wounded wicked one, the prince of Israel, whose day is come in the time of the iniquity of the end; thus saith the Lord God, 'Remove the mitre, and take off the crown. This shall be not thus. Exalt the low, and abase that which is high. An overthrow, overthrow, overthrow, will I make it: this also shall be no more, until He come whose right it is: and I will give it Him."846846   An allusion to the restoration of Jeconiah or his descendants, and to the far-off Messiah, meek and lowly.

So (b.c. 587) Jerusalem was delivered over to siege, even as Ezekiel had sketched upon a tile.847847   Ezek. iv. 1-3. It was to be assailed in the old Assyrian manner—as we see it represented in the British Museum bas-relief, where Sennacherib is portrayed in the act of besieging Lachish—with forts, mounds, and battering-rams; and Ezekiel had also been bidden to put up an iron plate between him and his pictured city, to represent the mantelet from behind which the archers shot.

In this dread crisis Zedekiah sent Zephaniah, the son of Maaseiah, the priest, and Jehucal, to Jeremiah, entreating his prayers for the city,848848   Jer. xxxvii. 3. for he had not yet been put in prison. Doubtless he prayed, and at first it looked as if deliverance would come. Pharaoh Hophrah put in motion the Egyptian army with its Carian mercenaries and Soudanese negroes, and Nebuchadrezzar was sufficiently alarmed to raise the siege and go to meet the Egyptians. The hopes of the people probably rose high, though multitudes seized448 the opportunity to fly to the mountains.849849   Ezek. vii. 16. The circumstances closely resembled those under which Sennacherib had raised the siege of Jerusalem to go to meet Tirhakah the Ethiopian; and perhaps there were some, and the king among them, who looked that such a wonder might be vouchsafed to him through the prayers of Jeremiah as had been vouchsafed to Hezekiah through the prayers of Isaiah. Not for a moment did Jeremiah encourage these vain hopes. To Zephaniah, as to an earlier deputation from the king, when he sent Pashur with him to inquire of the prophet, Jeremiah returned a remorseless answer. It is too late. Pharaoh shall be defeated; even if the Chaldæan army were smitten, its wounded soldiers would suffice to besiege and burn Jerusalem, and take into captivity the miserable inhabitants after they had suffered the worst horrors of a besieged city.850850   Jer. xxi. 1-10, xxxvii. 1-17. Josephus says that Pharaoh was defeated (Antt., X. vii. 3). Jeremiah merely says that he and his army returned to their own land.


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