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.)