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CHAPTER II.

FROM ISAIAH TO THE FALL OF JERUSALEM.

701-587 b.c.

At first sight, the circumstances of Judah in the last ten years of the seventh century present a strong resemblance to her fortunes in the last ten years of the eighth. The empire of the world, to which she belongs, is again divided between Egypt and a Mesopotamian power. Syria is again the field of their doubtful battle, and the question, to which of the two shall homage be paid, still forms the politics of all her states. Judah still vacillates, intrigues and draws down on herself the wrath of the North by her treaties with Egypt. Again there is a great prophet and statesman, whose concern is righteousness, who exposes both the immorality of his people and the folly of their politics, and who summons the evil from the North as God's scourge upon Israel: Isaiah has been succeeded by Jeremiah. And, as if to complete the analogy, the nation has once more passed through a puritan reformation. Josiah has, even more thoroughly than Hezekiah, effected the disestablishment of idols.

Beneath this circumstantial resemblance, however, there is one fundamental difference. The strength of Isaiah's preaching was bent, especially during the closing years of the century, to establish the inviolableness of Jerusalem. Against the threats of the Assyrian27 siege, and in spite of his own more formidable conscience of his people's corruption, Isaiah persisted that Zion should not be taken, and that the people, though cut down to their roots, should remain planted in the land,—the stock of an imperial nation in the latter days. This prophecy was vindicated by the marvellous relief of Jerusalem on the apparent eve of her capture in 701. But its echoes had not yet died away, when Jeremiah to his generation delivered the very opposite message. Round him the popular prophets babbled by rote Isaiah's ancient assurances about Zion. Their soft, monotonous repetitions lapped pleasantly upon the immovable self-confidence of the people. But Jeremiah called down the storm. Even while prosperity seemed to give him the lie, he predicted the speedy ruin of Temple and City, and summoned Judah's enemies against her in the name of the God, on whose former word she relied for peace. The contrast between the two great prophets grows most dramatic in their conduct during the respective sieges, of which each was the central figure. Isaiah, alone steadfast in a city of despair, defying the taunts of the heathen, rekindling within the dispirited defenders, whom the enemy sought to bribe to desertion, the passions of patriotism and religion, proclaiming always, as with the voice of a trumpet, that Zion must stand inviolate; Jeremiah, on the contrary, declaring the futility of resistance, counselling each citizen to save his own life from the ruin of the state, in treaty with the enemy, and even arrested as a deserter,—these two contrasting figures and attitudes gather up the difference which the century had wrought in the fortunes of the City of God. And so, while in 701 Jerusalem triumphed in the Lord by the sudden raising of the Assyrian siege, three years28 after the next century was out she twice succumbed to the Assyrian's successor, and nine years later was totally destroyed.

What is the reason of this difference, which a century sufficed to work? Why was the sacredness of Judah's shrine not as much an article of Jeremiah's as of Isaiah's creed,—as much an element of Divine providence in 600 as in 700 b.c.? This is not a very hard question to answer, if we keep in our regard two things—firstly, the moral condition of the people, and, secondly, the necessities of the spiritual religion, which was identified for the time with their fortunes.

The Israel, which was delivered into captivity at the word of Jeremiah, was a people at once more hardened and more exhausted than the Israel, which, in spite of its sin, Isaiah's efforts had succeeded in preserving upon its own land. A century had come and gone of further grace and opportunity, but the grace had been resisted, the opportunity abused, and the people stood more guilty and more wilful than ever before God. Even clearer, however, than the deserts of the people was the need of their religion. That local and temporary victory—after all, only the relief of a mountain fortress and a tribal shrine—with which Isaiah had identified the will and honour of Almighty God, could not be the climax of the history of a spiritual religion. It was impossible for Monotheism to rest on so narrow and material a security as that. The faith, which was to overcome the world, could not be satisfied with a merely national triumph. The time must arrive—were it only by the ordinary progress of the years and unhastened by human guilt—for faith and piety to be weaned from the forms of an earthly temple, however sacred; for the individual—after all, the real29 unit of religion—to be rendered independent of the community and cast upon his God alone; and for this people, to whom the oracles of the living God had been entrusted, to be led out from the selfish pride of guarding these for their own honour—to be led out, were it through the breaches of their hitherto inviolate walls, and amid the smoke of all that was most sacred to them, so that in level contact with mankind they might learn to communicate their glorious trust. Therefore, while the Exile was undoubtedly the penance, which an often-spared but ever more obdurate people had to pay for their accumulated sins, it was also for the meek and the pure-hearted in Israel a step upwards even from the faith and the results of Isaiah—perhaps the most effectual step which Israel's religion ever took. Schultz has finely said: "The proper Tragedy of History—doom required by long-gathering guilt, and launched upon a generation which for itself is really turning towards good—is most strikingly consummated in the Exile." Yes: but this is only half the truth. The accomplishment of the moral tragedy is really but one incident in a religious epic—the development of a spiritual faith. Long-delaying Nemesis overtakes at last the sinners, but the shock of the blows, which beat the guilty nation into captivity, releases their religion from its material bonds. Israel on the way to Exile is on the way to become Israel after the Spirit.

With these principles to guide us, let us now, for a little, thread our way through the crowded details of the decline and fall of the Jewish state.

Isaiah's own age had foreboded the necessity of exile for Judah. There was the great precedent of Samaria, and Judah's sin was not less than her sister's. When the authorities at Jerusalem wished to put Jeremiah to30 death for the heresy of predicting the ruin of the sacred city, it was pointed out in his defence that a similar prediction had been made by Micah, the contemporary of Isaiah. And how much had happened since then! The triumph of Jehovah in 701, the stronger faith and purer practice, which had followed as long as Hezekiah reigned, gave way to an idolatrous reaction under his successor Manasseh. This reaction, while it increased the guilt of the people, by no means diminished their religious fear. They carried into it the conscience of their former puritanism—diseased, we might say delirious, but not dead. Men felt their sin and feared Heaven's wrath, and rushed headlong into the gross and fanatic exercises of idolatry, in order to wipe away the one and avert the other. It availed nothing. After an absence of thirty years the Assyrian arms returned in full strength, and Manasseh himself was carried captive across the Euphrates. But penitence revived, and for a time it appeared as if it were to be at last valid for salvation. Israel made huge strides towards their ideal life of a good conscience and outward prosperity. Josiah, the pious, came to the throne. The Book of the Law was discovered in 621, and king and people rallied to its summons with the utmost loyalty. All the nation stood to the covenant. The single sanctuary was vindicated, the high places destroyed, the land purged of idols. There were no great military triumphs, but Assyria, so long the accepted scourge of God, gave signs of breaking up; and we can feel the vigour and self-confidence, induced by years of prosperity, in Josiah's ambition to extend his borders, and especially in his daring assault upon Necho of Egypt at Megiddo, when Necho passed north to the invasion of Assyria. Altogether, it was a people31 that imagined itself righteous, and counted upon a righteous God. In such days who could dream of exile?

But in 608 the ideal was shivered. Israel was threshed at Megiddo, and Josiah, the king after God's own heart, was slain on the field. And then happened, what happened at other times in Israel's history when disillusion of this kind came down. The nation fell asunder into the elements of which it was ever so strange a composition. The masses, whose conscience did not rise beyond the mere performance of the Law, nor their view of God higher than that of a Patron of the state, bound by His covenant to reward with material success the loyalty of His clients, were disappointed with the results of their service and of His providence. Being a new generation from Manasseh's time, they thought to give the strange gods another turn. The idols were brought back, and after the discredit which righteousness received at Megiddo, it would appear that social injustice and crime of many kinds dared to be very bold. Jehoahaz, who reigned for three months after Josiah, and Jehoiakim, who succeeded him, were idolaters. The loftier few, like Jeremiah, had never been deceived by the people's outward allegiance to the Temple or the Law, nor considered it valid either to atone for the past or now to fulfil the holy demands of Jehovah; and were confirmed by the disaster at Megiddo, and the consequent reaction to idolatry, in the stern and hopeless views of the people which they had always entertained. They kept reiterating a speedy captivity. Between these parties stood the formal successors of earlier prophets, so much the slaves of tradition that they had neither conscience for their people's sins nor understanding of the world32 around them, but could only affirm in the strength of ancient oracles that Zion should not be destroyed. Strange is it to see how this party, building upon the promises of Jehovah through a prophet like Isaiah, should be taken advantage of by the idolaters, but scouted by Jehovah's own servants. Thus they mingle and conflict. Who indeed can distinguish all the elements of so ancient and so rich a life, as they chase, overtake and wrestle with each other, hurrying down the rapids to the final cataract? Let us leave them for a moment, while we mark the catastrophe itself. They will be more easily distinguished in the calm below.

It was from the North that Jeremiah summoned the vengeance of God upon Judah. In his earlier threats he might have meant the Scythians; but by 605, when Nebuchadrezzar, Nabopolassar of Babylon's son, the rising general of the age, defeated Pharaoh at Carchemish, all men accepted Jeremiah's nomination for this successor of Assyria in the lordship of Western Asia. From Carchemish Nebuchadrezzar overran Syria. Jehoiakim paid tribute to him, and Judah at last felt the grip of the hand that was to drag her into exile. Jehoiakim attempted to throw it off in 602; but, after harassing him for four years by means of some allies, Nebuchadrezzar took his capital, executed him, suffered Jehoiachin, his successor, to reign only three months, took Jerusalem a second time, and carried off to Babylon the first great portion of the people. This was in 598, only ten years from the death of Josiah, and twenty-one from the discovery of the Book of the Law.

The exact numbers of this first captivity of the Jews it is impossible to determine. The annalist sets the soldiers at seven thousand, the smiths and craftsmen33 at one thousand; so that, making allowance for other classes whom he mentions, the grown men must alone have been over ten thousand;1616   The figure actually mentioned in 2 Kings xxiv. 14, but, as Stade points out (Geschichte, p. 680), vv. 14, 15 interrupt the narrative, and may have been intruded here from the account of the later captivity. but how many women went, and how many children—the most important factor for the period of the Exile with which we have to deal—it is impossible to estimate. The total number of persons can scarcely have been less than twenty-five thousand. More important, however, than their number was the quality of these exiles, and this we can easily appreciate. The royal family and the court were taken, a large number of influential persons, the mighty men of the land, or what must have been nearly all the fighting men, with the necessary artificers; priests also went, Ezekiel among them, and probably representatives of other classes not mentioned by the annalist. That this was the virtue and flower of the nation is proved by a double witness. Not only did the citizens, for the remaining ten years of Jerusalem's life, look to these exiles for her deliverance, but Jeremiah himself counted them the sound half of Israel—a basket of good figs, as he expressed it, beside a basket of bad ones. They were at least under discipline, but the remnant of Jerusalem persisted in the wilfulness of the past.

For although Jeremiah remained in the city, and the house of David and a considerable population, and although Jeremiah himself held a higher position in public esteem since the vindication of his word by the events of 598, yet he could not be blind to the unchanged character of the people, and the thorough doom which their last respite had only more evidently34 proved to be inevitable. Gangs of false prophets, both at home and among the exiles, might predict a speedy return. All the Jewish ability of intrigue, with the lavish promises of Egypt and frequent embassies from other nations, might work for the overthrow of Babylon. But Jeremiah and Ezekiel knew better. Across the distance which now separated them they chanted, as it were in antiphon, the alternate strophes of Judah's dirge. Jeremiah bade the exiles not to remember Zion, but "let them settle down," he said, "into the life of the land they are in, building houses, planting gardens, and begetting children, and seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto Jehovah for it, for in the peace thereof ye shall have peace—the Exile shall last seventy years." And as Jeremiah in Zion blessed Babylon, so Ezekiel in Babylon cursed Zion, thundering back that Jerusalem must be utterly wasted through siege and famine, pestilence and captivity. There is no rush of hope through Ezekiel. His expectations are all distant. He lives either in memory or in cold fancy. His pictures of restoration are too elaborate to mean speedy fulfilment. They are the work of a man with time on his hands; one does not build so colossally for to-morrow. Thus reinforced from abroad, Jeremiah proclaimed Nebuchadrezzar as the servant of Jehovah, and summoned him to work Jehovah's doom upon the city. The predicted blockade came in the ninth year of Zedekiah. The false hopes which still sustained the people, their trust in Egypt, the arrival of an Egyptian army in result of their intrigue, as well as all their piteous bravery, only afforded time for the fulfilment of the terrible details of their penalty. For nearly eighteen months the siege closed in—months of famine35 and pestilence, of faction and quarrel and falling away to the enemy. Then Jerusalem broke up. The besiegers gained the northern suburb and stormed the middle gate. Zedekiah and the army burst their lines only to be captured on an aimless flight at Jericho. A few weeks more, and a forlorn defence by civilians of the interior parts of the city was at last overwhelmed. The exasperated besiegers gave her up to fire—the house of Jehovah, the king's house, and every great house—and tore to the stones the stout walls that resisted the conflagration. As the city was levelled, so the citizens were dispersed. A great number—and among them the king's family—were put to death. The king himself was blinded, and, along with a host of his subjects, impossible for us to estimate, and with all the temple furniture, was carried to Babylon. A few peasants were left to cultivate the land; a few superior personages—perhaps such as, with Jeremiah, had favoured the Babylonians, and Jeremiah was among them—were left at Mizpah under a Jewish viceroy. It was a poor apparition of a state; but, as if the very ghost of Israel must be chased from the land, even this small community was broken up, and almost every one of its members fled to Egypt. The Exile was complete.


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