The World of Jeremiah

E. Leslie Carlson  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 4 - Fall 1961

The historical background of the world of Jeremiah really began when the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel began to lose their independence. As Assyria increased in power and began her campaigns for the dominance of the Fertile Crescent,[1]The nations beginning wiht Egypt going east and north to the Arabian desert, embracing Asia Minor and the Mesopotamian Valley, including Elam and Media to the Persian Gulf. the small nations of the West Land, called the Hatti Land by the Assyrians, lived in constant fear.

The kings of Assyria, in their desire for world conquest, looked to the West Land with its rich resources, especially Egypt, with a covetous eye. The Hebrews, divided into two separate nations could not hope to endure. The only time when there was freedom from fear was when there were weak rulers in Assyria. During these times of peace there was temporary prosperity, but instead of turning back to Yahweh, Israel remained unfaithful. Judah most of the time repented and returned to Yahweh.

Prosperity brought Israel economic and political corruption, immoral social conditions, and religious decay. This also affected Judah, for later Micah, the prophet, accused Israel as the source of Judah’s sins. Yahweh was rejected by Israel and worshiped by Judah in a cold, formal ritual and not in sincerity and spirit. The prophet, Hosea and Amos voiced their warnings that Yahweh’s hand would be upon them in judgment. Assyria would soon return in greater force and viciousness.

In 745 B.C. Tiglath-pileser III, King of Assyria, also known as Pul, ascended the throne of Assyria. Under his aggressive leadership Assyrian power became evident. After conquering the nations that would menace his borders, he turned his eyes westward.

Mistakes of past rulers, particularly their methods of ruling loosely so that revolt was always a threat, must be avoided. Pul was concerned not merely in getting tribute but to make these nations an integral part of his empire as vassal states. In order to cement and solidify his empire, as well as make it secure against revolt, he devised the deportation policy. By this method he would deport the leading citizens and others helpful in causing trouble to another part of his domains. Then, he would repopulate the newly conquered or an offending rebellious vassal state with people from another province. He felt that these exiled or displaced peoples would cause little or no trouble. The stage was being set for the exile of Israel and later of Judah, since this policy was adopted by Neo-Babylonia.

After the death of Jeroboam II, Israel became a seething hotbed of political unrest with a succession of ambitious military leaders and their sons as rulers.

Meanwhile, in Judah, Ahaz (735-715), was made king. This young ruler, in spite of the influence and council of Isaiah, the prophet-statesman, forsook Yahweh and “walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.” He participated in their heathen worship, even sacrificing his son in fire. Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel, failing to get his cooperation in their plan of revolt against Tiglath-pileser III, marched against Jerusalem to force Ahaz to unite with them or to depose him in favor of a Syrian, Ben-tabeel. Rezin also had taken over the seaport of Judah at Elath at the head of the Gulf of Akaba. Ahaz, in spite of the council of Isaiah to trust Yahweh for help, sent messengers with a large gift of silver and gold to Tiglath-pileser III, pleading for his aid. This was the cue for Tiglath-pileser III to invoke the strategy that no doubt he had already planned for re-conquest of this lost territory. He acted quickly and forced the rebelling nations to become Assyrian provinces or else pay heavy tribute.

Though Judah did not materially suffer by Ahaz’ cowardly homage to Tiglath-pileser III, she lost her independence and became a vassal state under heavy tribute. Morally and religiously she became worse in that she was forced to accept outwardly, at least, the state religion of Assyria. Ahaz had a new altar made according to the ”fashion of-the altar and the pattern of it, according to all the workmanship thereof” (2 Kings 16:10) before ‘which he had worshipped in Damascus (in his visit to confer with Tiglath-pileser III). The great altar of Yahweh was thus made secondary in importance, although its ritual continued to be observed. This sad and humiliating condition Judah had to endure until the death of Ahaz in 715.

During this time matters grew worse in Israel as Hoshea had to endure being a vassal. He, no doubt, with his leaders secretly planned a revolt when conditions would justify it. This opportunity came with the death of Tiglath-pileser III. However his son, Shalmanezer V (727-722) was able to put down all the revolts of the subject peoples. Samaria was besieged and, though Shalmanezer V was deposed, his successor Sargon II brought the siege to a successful end late in 722 or early 721.

In Saragon’s records he reports that 27,290 persons and much booty were taken. The people were deported into exile “unto Assyria and placed in Halah and in Harbor by the river of Gozan and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6). The remainder of the people were permitted to stay, ruled by an appointed governor, and the tribute “of the former king” was imposed. The end of Israel had come, and, with the cream of her population deported and her territory under alien rule, she lost her independence, never to regain it.

In Judah, Hezekiah succeeded his father, Ahaz, and immediately faced a dark and insecure future. However, he had a successful reign due to his trust in Yahweh and the influence and encouragement of the trusted prophet-statesman, Isaiah. At the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign he instituted a religious reform abolishing the high places, destroying the brazen serpent which was worshipped and the heathen altars of Assyrian state religion. Both Micah and Isaiah preached against the social, political, economic, and religious sins of the people, especially of the leaders. These sins were prevalent not only in the capital cities of Israel and Judah but in surrounding smaller towns. It was a time of increasing wickedness, and judgment was pending.

When Sennacherib of Assyria succeeded his father’s throne (Sargon II) he was greeted by rebellions from every direction. Hezekiah was encouraged by the Babylonians; who had gained freedom under Merodach-baladan. Pharaoh Shabako joined his neighbors, who included Moab, Edom, Phoenicia, and some of the Philistine cities. With such omens of success Hezekiah refused to pay further tribute and prepared for war. He became a true leader and waited for the coming of Sennacherib. Padi, the King of Ekron, remained loyal to Assyria, but his people sent him to Hezekiah, and to prison. Sennacherib, having Babylonia temporarily subdued, came with his strong, well-trained, and well-equipped army. Tyre fell, never to be a great nation with voluminous trade again. All the nations except Egypt, Judah, and the Philistine cities were quick to bring their tribute and pledge loyalty. The Egyptians, coming to the help of the Philistine cities, were defeated at Eltekeh (near Ekron). These cities were captured with great slaughter as at Lachish, and their leaders executed or deported.

Forty-six fortified cities of Judah were taken and their citizens deported. Jerusalem was besieged, but Hezekiah, encouraged by Isaiah, did not surrender. Settlement was made by payment of increased tribute and other gifts, including some of Hezekiah’s daughters. Sennacherib was forced to return home due to disaster in his army. A plague evidently so weakened his army that he could not enter Egypt. He later came to a tragic end. As he was worshiping at the shrine of his god in Nineveh, he was murdered by two of his sons. He was succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon.

This young ruler instituted a new policy of administration and control. He appeased the Babylonians by rebuilding their city and declaring himself ruler of Babylon. He had to reconquer the West Land, and in his second campaign he invaded Egypt. Memphis, the capital, was captured, and Pharaoh Tirhaka fled to Ethiopia. Egypt finally became an Assyrian province.

Esarhaddon was succeeded in 669 by his son Asshurbaninpal (669-633). In the first part of his reign he was forced to put down two consecutive rebellions in Egypt. In the second campaign in 633 he destroyed Thebes. Phoenicia was subdued. Tyre, which had held out against Assyria for years, fell. Asshurbanipal erred in appointing his brother viceroy of Babylon. He became unfaithful and led in a rebellion which Asshurbanipal put down with extreme cruelty. His brother, realizing the fate that awaited him, withdrew to his palace and made it his funeral pyre.

In the West Land Asshurbanipal made several campaigns, especially against the Arabs east of Canaan. Egypt, however, could not be kept in control. When Pharaoh Necho and his son Psammetichus I had been permitted to return from their exile in Nineveh, they did not remain loyal. After Psammetichus had become Pharaoh, though yet a vassal of Assyria, he gradually increased his power until most of Egypt was under his authority. About 665 he felt powerful enough, with the encouragement and aid of Lydia, to withhold tribute and to declare himself independent. Asshurbanipal, busy with other important situations in the east and north, could not take proper measures to stop him.

On the eastern border the Medes, an Indo-Aryan race from Russia immigrating southward, had been held back by cruel measures and were always a threat. In the north another similar race, the Cimmerians were pressing at the northern borders. Following them were the Scythians, coming in waves from the mountains of Armenia across Asia Minor into Syria and Palestine, following the coast to the Egyptian border. Here they were checked by Pharaoh Psammetichus who induced them with gifts to return to their own land. This menace that Jeremiah (chaps. 5-6) had feared would overrun Judah stayed to the west along the coastal road. Assyria tried to hold back these three groups of brigands by vicious measures and thus incurred their hatred. But, as they came they occupied valuable territory, the loss of which crippled Assyria. The Scythians by their raids troubled her for twenty-eight years ere they returned to their habitat in the mountains of eastern Asia Minor. The Medes were forced to keep to the east of Assyria, occupying western Iran.

Hezekiah had managed to keep Jerusalem safe and unharmed from Sennacherib. However, he died in 687-686, about 100 years before the final capture of Jerusalem. He was succeeded by his son Manasseh, who completely reversed the internal policies of his father. Manasseh remained loyal to Assyria during his long reign, except for one misstep. The high places, altars, and other shrines which his father had destroyed were rebuilt. He embraced the heathen state religion of Assyria even as Ahaz his grandfather, had done. He crowned his contempt for Yahweh by the erection of an idol in the Temple in Jerusalem. These were unhappy days religiously for the true prophets and worshippers of Yahweh. Tradition holds that Isaiah was martyred during Manasseh’s reign. Because of his rebellion against Yahweh, judgment and punishment were prophesied against him and Judah.

Manasseh was evidently suspected of disloyalty to Assyria and taken captive to Babylon, where Esarhaddon was rebuilding the city. Here he repented of his misdeeds, humbling himself before Yahweh. Esarhaddon forgave him of his suspected disloyalty, and he was restored to his throne in Jerusalem. Upon his return to Jerusalem he took away the high places, altars, and “the strange gods” (2 Chron. 34:11 ff.). The worship of Yahweh and the temple services were restored. He proved his loyalty to Assyria and is listed by Asshurbanipal, Esarhaddon’s successor, among the kings that assisted him in his campaign against Egypt.

Sometime near the end of Manasseh’s reign, in the village of Anathoth, about two and one-half miles northeast of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was born. It is interesting to note that in the beginning of Manasseh’s reign, Judah’s greatest prophet, Isaiah was martyred and that, near the close of his reign its second great prophet, Jeremiah, was born. The world into which he was born had been and was one of turmoil and strife between the nations. Great rulers, really dictators in the modern sense of the word, sought to control the world. Disloyalty and rejection of Yahweh proved the undoing of both Israel and Judah. They were small but very important actors on the stage of history. With the coming of Jeremiah, the last chapter of Judah’s existence as a kingdom begins. In his lifetime he would witness the fall of Nineveh and of his own nation’s capital, Jerusalem.

Manasseh was succeeded by his son Amon (642-640), who reigned two years. He reverted to the first ways of his father religiously. This led to his assassination, but the government remained stable, the conspirators were captured and executed, and the line of David continued. His son, Josiah, at the tender age of eight years, perhaps under a regency of’ his mother, began his long reign. In the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah answered the call to be Yahweh’s prophet for fateful days (Jer. 1:2). He had been chosen before his birth by Yahweh but now was called into active service. He had no great vision in his call as did Isaiah or Ezekiel. Without such vision he answered the call, for he was old enough to know both national and world conditions. This was vision and urge enough.

He was evidently, along with Hilkiah, the high priest, responsible for Josiah’s faith and fervor for the worship of Yahweh. In the twelfth year he began the destruction of idolatrous worship. Later, in the eighteenth year of his reign, he ordered the repair of the Temple. During this repair work, a copy of the Law was found, the reading of which led to the revival and consecration of priests and people to the service of Yahweh. This book of the Law, also called the book of the covenant, was read to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, great and small, and a covenant was made which both king and people swore to observe. This resulted in the “putting away” of false prophets, priests, and wizards, as well as the destruction of the places and material used in the heathen worship which Josiah’s father had fostered. The great feasts, such as the Passover, were again observed.

Asshurbanipal of Assyria was succeeded by two sons consecutively, Asshur-etil-ilani (633?-629?) and Sin-shar-ishkin (629?-612). Little is known of the reign of the first son, except that he perhaps came to a violent death. But, in the reign of the second son, important events occurred that led to the fall of Assyria. In 626, Nabopolassar, a Chaldean and a descendant of’ Merodach-baladan, persistent leader for independence, became viceroy. In 625 he seized control and declared Babylon an independent nation by proclaiming himself king of Accad. In 616 he felt powerful enough to march north and take two adjoining provinces belonging to Assyria. The combined armies of Egypt and Assyria, according to the chronicle of Nabopolassar, forced him to retreat. It is interesting to note that the Egyptians and the Assyrians were allies before the fall of Nineveh. These Egyptians were perhaps only a token force, for it was not until 609 that Pharaoh came in force to help save what was left of Assyria.

In 615 Nabopolassar tried again, this time going as far north as the old capital city of Ashur, but he was unsuccessful in his effort to capture it. The next year (614) the Medes failed to take Nineveh but were able to capture Ashur. Nabopolassar rushed to aid the Medes but came too late, for Ashur had already fallen. It seems that at this time an alliance was made between the Medes and the Babylonians. In 612 the allied forces, after a three-month siege, assaulted and destroyed Nineveh. If tradition is correct, King Sin­shar-ishkin perished in the flames of his burning palace.

Remnants of the Assyrian army under the new king Asshur-uballit II retreated westward to Haran, which became the new capital. They remained there until 610 when the Babylonians and their allies captured Haran. The Babylonian army retreated to the Euphrates River and combined with their Egyptian allies on the west. In the meanwhile, Pharaoh Necho II had succeeded his father Psammetichus I. The Egyptian force sent by his father to help Assyria was not strong enough to stem the tide. So, Necho II, with a large army, marched north to command the situation at Carchemish on the west bank of the Euphrates. But at the pass of Megiddo in Palestine he was confronted by Josiah of Judah and his army. Josiah had broken off the shackles of Assyria and did not want to be subjected again to them or the Egyptians. He evidently knew Necho’s ambition, so he sought to hold back Necho and his army. This Necho brushed aside, leaving Josiah among the dead.

Necho continued his march northward and joined forces with the Assyrians under Asshur-uballit II and the small Egyptian force at Carchemish. In the spring of 609 the allied Egyptian-Assyrian army crossed the Euphrates and attacked Haran which was held by a Babylonin garrison. Nabopolassar went to the aid of his forces. The outcome is not certain, but Nabopolassar returned to Babylon. The Medes took as their share of Assyria, Nineveh, Assyria proper, the provinces in the northwest and north and the Iranian and Armenian mountain country extending into eastern Asia Minor. Babylonia claimed the rest of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. But most of Syria and Palestine were yet to be occupied, for Necho and Asshur-uballit still had to be reckoned with.

The allied forces of Egypt and Assyria moved back to Carchemish. In 605 the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar, heir of Nabopolassar, marched to Carchemish and met the allied forces under Necho. A fierce battle ensued, as seen by evidence of fighting in the ruins of the houses of Carchemish. Necho and his forces were defeated. Nebuchadnezzar did not follow up his success, for he received word that his ailing father had died. So, he returned at once to secure his throne. He then remained in and near Babylon for several years.

In Judah, Jehoahaz succeeded his father, King Josiah, and was ruler only three months before he was taken by force to Riblah, Necho’s headquarters. Necho evidently did not trust him, assessed a large tribute on Judah, and placed Eliakim, another son of Josiah, as king. He took the name Jehoiakim. Jehoahaz was taken to Egypt and there died. He, like his brother, did not follow religiously in the footsteps of his great father, Josiah. Because of his sin of rejecting Yahweh, his reckless spending of needed government funds in building a new magnificent palace, and his utter unconcern for his subjects, Jeremiah preached scathing sermons against him. All that had been gained by Josiah’s reform movement was lost.

In 604 Nebuchadnezzar, having matters under control at home, set out to take over the rest of what he considered his spoils of victory over Assyria. He struck hard; overcoming resistance, he invaded the Philistine plain, destroying Ashkelon and deporting the best of its citizens. Jehoiakim quickly transferred his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar. Judah, thus, was still a vassal state but under another ruler. Jehoiakim was an unwilling subject, feeling that independence could be better achieved by being allied to Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar came again in 601 and fought with Pharaoh Necho near the Egyptian frontier. It was a hard fought battle and both armies sustained great losses. Nebuchadnezzar returned home without success to recuperate his forces.

Jehoiakim interpreted the battle as a defeat for the Babylonians and so he rebelled and refused to pay tribute. Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar enlisted and encouraged the Arameans, Moabites, and Ammorites to carry on guerilla war against Jehoiakim. It was not until late 598 that Nebuchadnezzar returned. It seems from Jeremiah 22:18-19 that Jehoiakim was assassinated, as the prophet had foretold. His son, Jehoiakin was enthroned. Jerusalem was besieged and no expected help came from Egypt. So, after a brief reign of only three months Jehoiakin surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, who took into captivity the king, his mother, his wives, officers, and ten thousand of the best citizens, with great booty, having despoiled the Temple and the palace of their gold and treasures.

Nebuchadnezzar put on the throne as a vassal a third son of Josiah, named Mattaniah, who took the name of Zedekiah. He was a weakling, vacillating, of little vision and no conviction. He was a coward, afraid of his nobles and the people. Jeremiah tried to help him but had no success. The nobles were the real rulers. With reduced territory, heavy tribute, and the best of the citizenship gone, hard times faced Zedekiah. He found it difficult to trust Yahweh, and yet he sought advice from Jeremiah. He was never fully accepted as king, for many hoped for the return of Jehoiakin. Rebellion in Babylon gave birth to a hope that Nebuchadnezzar would be deposed. Leaders in the West Land met in Jerusalem and made plans to rebel. Jeremiah preached against the revolt. The plan .seemed to have been dropped, for Zedekiah sent ambassadors to Babylon to assure Nebuchadnezzar of his loyalty.

In 589, no doubt encouraged by Pharaoh Psammethichus II and his son Hophra, the leaders of Judah, inspired by hope of freedom and committed in a secret plot with Egypt, openly rebelled and refused to pay tribute. Zedekiah had violated his oath to his liege lord. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in 588 with a large army. Jeremiah advised surrender and was persecuted for his stand. Zedekiah was unhappy and consulted more often with the prophet. The nobles seemed to be in command, and the king was afraid to do what Jeremiah advised.

The Egyptian allies, true to their promise, came to the relief of the beleaguered city. The siege was raised only long enough for Nebuchadnezzar and his forces to meet the oncoming Egyptians and drive them back inside their borders. Jeremiah, leaving to see about property in Anathoth, was arrested as a traitor and imprisoned. He still advised surrender (Jer. 37:6-10). The Babylonians returned and invested the city. Even the Edomites turned against their kinsmen and aided the enemy. Jerusalem held out for about a year.

In July, 587, the Babylonian army breached the walls arid poured in. Zedekiah with some soldiers escaped toward the Jordan River, but they were captured. The king was taken to Riblah and brought before Nebuchadnezzar. His sons were executed before him, and he was blinded. He, with the better part of the citizens, was deported to Babylon. Over sixty of the leaders were executed. Only the poor peasants were allowed to remain on their land. There were three deportations of citizens by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 52:28-30). After a month, Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, came and systematically destroyed the city with its great Temple, palaces, and fortifications. It had been thoroughly pillaged and the booty sent to Babylon. Judah fell to rise no more as an important free nation. There was a period of independence later when the Asmonaean dynasty ruled but it was of short duration.

As for Jeremiah, the captain of the guard gave him his choice either to go to Babylon or remain under the new governor, Gedaliah. He chose to remain. Gedaliah, a Judean, was appointed governor and established his capitol at Mispeh, about seven miles northwest of Jerusalem. Before he could effectively organize the remaining population he was murdered by Ishmael, who felt that the governor was not a patriot. Ishmael and his fellow conspirators escaped to Ammon. Johanan, perhaps a former officer, took charge of the people. For fear of reprisal from Nebuchadnezzar and despite the earnest warning of Jeremiah, they fled to Egypt to enter into exile there. This was the beginning of the Jewish population in that land. Here Jeremiah lived his remaining years combatting the false religion of “the Queen of Heaven” among the exiles.

But history did not stop because Judah fell. The Mediterranean world and the Near East have continued to this day to be a center of war and intrigue. The Medes combined with the Persians and sought world domination. This new nation of Medo-Persia fought and conquered its ally, Babylonia. World rule by Semites came to an end. In succession the Aryan nations of Persia, Greece, and Rome ruled the known world. In all this continued turmoil the people of Jeremiah’s race lived, suffered, and also prospered. From Jerusalem, the old capital, came forth a new world kingdom with a King of the line of David, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Branch was fulfilled in the eternal King of Righteousness (Jer. 33:15-16).

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