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.)