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!"