When we began this survey of Jeremiah’s writings, we noted that he was referred to as “the Weeping Prophet” for of a couple of reasons. First, Jeremiah’s message from God was not a popular one. In fact, it was so unpopular that on more than one occasion Jeremiah’s life was put in jeopardy on account of it. His message was not accepted by anyone who heard it.
The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you see?” “I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north,” I answered. The Lord said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the Lord. “Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah. I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me,in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made. (Jeremiah 1:13-16 | NIV84)
Nobody wanted to hear this, especially during years of relative prosperity. Add to that the many false prophets who were running around preaching the exact opposite and it’s no wonder Jeremiah wept! But there was another, very pathetic reason for the weeping: he loved his people and he didn’t want to see his beloved Jerusalem fall and his people hauled off and held in exile.
It’s sobering when we realize how oblivious the Jews were to their own spiritual condition and the consequences of their stubborn sin. Even following a great revival, the people continued to think they could renege on the covenant they had with Jehovah. They lived as though His Word meant nothing at all. It was a rude awakening when the citizens of Judah realized the wrath of God was about to hit in full force.
What happened to Judah (and Israel) is part of the historical record of that part of the world. But what happened to the God’s people should serve as a warning to all nations and individuals. No nation and no person can ignore God for long, and as blessed as a nation has been, if it continually turns its back on God, it will face dire consequences.
The fall of Jerusalem
So in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They camped outside the city and built siege works all around it. The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat. (Jeremiah 52:4-6 | NIV84)
There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death. (Jeremiah 52:10-11 | NIV84)
The material contained in Jeremiah 52 is so important, it is found in 2 King 25:18 – 25:30. This shows just how important these events are in Hebrew history. What happened to Judah was the greatest catastrophe to ever befall any nation in Old Testament times. Yet, apparently once was not enough. A similar event took place in 70 AD, also in Jerusalem, at the hands of the Romans. The simple fact is this: the destruction of Jerusalem vindicated the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah’s predictions – and in fact those of many prophets before him – did come to pass.
Already Nebuchadnezzar had swept into Judah and taken off many captives, exiling them in Babylon. At least there, these pesky Jews were kept under control. Not so back in the homeland. By 589 BC, Zedekiah, bowing to public pressure, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and in 588 BC Jerusalem was placed under siege. The rest of Judah was completely occupied by Babylonian troops.
Jeremiah bitterly predicted that the city would be destroyed if the rebellion continued and the only hope of survival lay in surrendering to Nebuchadnezzar and co-operating with him. Here’s what he told the people –
Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; he will escape with his life. (Jeremiah 21:9 | NIV84)
Naturally, patriotic Jews viewed this statement as treasonous. This coupled with a brief respite from the violence of Nebuchadnezzar and his armies caused the people to resent Jeremiah even more. A very similar thing had happened before during Sennacherib’s time, when another siege was lifted permanently. Surely, the people assumed, this would happen again. It didn’t. Jeremiah made sure the people understood this, and they hated him even more!
The prophet, taking a bit of a break during this brief time of peace, decided to take a trip back to Benjamin to look after some property he owned there. He was grabbed by some members of the army and accused of deserting to the Babylonians. Could things get any worse for the prophet of God? Well, yes, actually, because after denying the charges vigorously, Jeremiah was thrown into prison. According to some sources, it wasn’t just a prison but a dungeon, with no light, no water, and no food. Had it not been for Zedekiah’s timely, if not misguided, intervention, our faithful prophet might have died there.
Zedekiah the king was a conflicted man. He didn’t have much for God, but he didn’t care much for the Babylonians either and, not wanting to take any chances, had Jeremiah brought to him on the down low, so as not to anger the nationalists.
Then King Zedekiah sent for him and had him brought to the palace, where he asked him privately, “Is there any word from the Lord?” “Yes,” Jeremiah replied, “you will be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 37:17 | NIV84)
In one form or another, Jeremiah remained incarcerated for the duration of the siege. Just like the apostle Paul, this Old Testament prophet kept up preaching God’s Word of immanent disaster. And yet, in spite of what was about to happen, Jeremiah did an unusual thing: he arranged for the purchase of some land in his home town. It was a leap of faith; an indication that even though the immediate future looked bleak, at some point in the future Judah would be Jewish once again.
“Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’“I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. (Jeremiah 32:8-9 | NIV84)
“In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’ (Jeremiah 32:13-15 | NIV84)
Nebuzaradan, the captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s elite troops, took even more captives and in 587 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, it’s walls broken down, many buildings razed to the ground, and the glorious Temple, center of the Jewish faith, was completely destroyed. Zedekiah attempted to run but was caught and before his eyes were gouged out, he witnessed the execution of his children. There is a very high price to pay for not paying attention to the Word of the Lord. Zedekiah learned this, as did most of the citizens of Judah. All the work and accomplishments of David, Solomon, and a godly generation almost vanished during an evening of violence, fire, and bloodshed.
Life in exile
After two deportations (one more would take place), Judah lost much of its population. In Babylon, the exiles clung to their faith like they hadn’t in generations. While in exile, the Jewish faith was further developed and organized. Meanwhile, back in Judah, those Jews who hadn’t been put in exile continued to live as best they could and the form of Jewish faith practiced there soon became more superstitious in nature.
After the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar took care of Jeremiah –
Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks.” So Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard, Nebushazban a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officers of the king of Babylon sent and had Jeremiah taken out of the courtyard of the guard. They turned him over to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, to take him back to his home. So he remained among his own people. (Jeremiah 39:11-14 | NIV84)
While there, the prophet continued to minister to his people in the form letters; he sent letters to the exiles living in Babylon. Here’s an sample of what he wrote to them –
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 | NIV84)
The interesting thing in that paragraph is the revelation that it wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar who carried the Jews into exile, it was the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel! There is no better example of God’s sovereignty than that!
Just like God was with His people during their desert wanderings after their exodus from Egypt, so He was with them in the Babylonian exile. In both instances, He was punishing them, yet He never left them. Jeremiah’s letter contains some of the most beautiful, comforting verses anywhere in the Bible, including these –
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:13-14 | NIV84)
And they did seek the Lord. And 70 years later, the Jews returned home. But they never returned en mass, with many Jews choosing to remain in Babylon, or as it was becoming, the Persian Empire. Those who did return, though, found “strangers” living in their land, practicing an odd form of Judaism. Those “strangers” were in reality descendants of those left in Judah after the deportations to Babylon two generations earlier! There was some animosity between them and the returning exiles, and the exiles had a difficult time rebuilding Jerusalem, as detailed in the Old Testament historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
What of all the Jews who remained in Babylon? There were huge and important communities living and prospering in Babylon that actually helped in rebuilding Jerusalem and Judah by sending financial support to those engaged in those efforts. Even after the Temple was rebuilt and the walls around Jerusalem restored, these large Jewish communities throughout the Babylonian and Persian Empires persisted throughout the Old and New Testament era and beyond. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, these Jewish communities became the centers of Jewish life and culture for over a thousand years.
The Babylonian exile was more than just an “event” in Hebrew history. It wasn’t just a hiatus in the life of Judaism. It was, in fact, a vital stage in the development of not only Judaism, but also in that of Christianity and, unfortunately, Islam. The Babylonian exile may be viewed as the beginning of the Diaspora (Greek for “dispersion”). The Diaspora is a name given to Jewish communities living outside of Judah and Israel, and it continues to this very day, over 2,500 years after Nebchadnezzar’s time. Viewing the Babylonian exile through the long lense of God’s involvement in history, we realize that, far from a terrible thing, it was actually fortuitous. Jewish theology and doctrine were further developed and firmed up and stored for all time. Nebuchadnezzar was used by God to judge His people, yes, but thanks to God’s sovereignty, we have preserved for us divine beliefs and practices that otherwise may not have survived the reckless and haphazard treatment treatment at the hands of God’s own people. God’s sovereignty is an amazing thing!