Vol. 8, No. 9
Copyright © James B. Jordan 1996
Countdown to Exile
I. Political Conservatives Versus the Christian Right
by James B. Jordan
Our purpose in this study is to lay out the chronology and history of the Kingdom of Judah from the reign of King Josiah to the completion of the exile of the Jews under Nebuchadnezzar, with particular attention to the events recorded in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The Empire of Assyria
Assyria dominated the ancient world in the centuries before the exile of Judah. The great Assyrian warrior Tiglath-Pileser III ruled from 745-727 BC. When he turned westward to conquer the region of Palestine, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Northern Israel formed a coalition against him. Evidently they sought to enlist Ahaz ("He Upholds," probably from Yeho-Ahaz, "Yahweh Upholds"), King of Judah, but Ahaz refused. Rezin and Pekah invaded Judah, and against the advice of Isaiah, Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser for help, sending him a large gift. Tiglath-Pileser immediately responded, conquering Syria and Israel, and making Judah a vassal state (2 Kings 15:29; 16:5-9; Isaiah 7; 2 Chronicles 28). Ahaz was required to introduce some Assyrian religious practices into Judah, and he was not particularly averse to doing so (2 Kings 16:10-18). Meanwhile, Northern Israel rebelled against Assyria, and in 722/1 BC Tiglath-Pileser’s successors sacked and destroyed Samaria (2 Kings 17).
Notice the position of the people of Judah. They were both religiously and nationalistically disposed to oppose Assyria. Thus, the political conservatives and the religious conservatives could and did join hands against the internationalists and idolaters. The former wanted political freedom, while the latter wanted idolatry extirpated. This union, which we see today in the United States, eventually caused the destruction of Judah.
Hezekiah (Hizqi-Yah, "Yah’s Strength") apparently ruled with his father Ahaz beginning in 725 BC, and reigned until 696 BC. He instituted religious reforms, assisted by Isaiah. Hezekiah, doubtless encouraged by unrest all over the Assyrian empire, refused tribute to Assyria (2 Kings 18:3-7; 2 Chronicles 29-31). Crown Prince Sennacherib undertook to settle matters, while his father Sargon II was on the throne. In Hezekiah’s 14th year, Sennacherib invested Jerusalem, but was destroyed by God. Thereafter, Hezekiah was regarded as a king in his own right by the other nations (2 Kings 18:1319:37; Isaiah 36-37; 2 Chronicles 32:23).
After Hezekiah’s death, his son Manasseh (M’nashsheh, "Causing to Forget") once again played the role of willing vassal of Assyria. Politically, he had little choice: Assyria was at her height, and even conquered Egypt during this period. Manasseh, however, was happy to promote pagan religion in the land (2 Kings 21:1-17; 2 Chronicles 33:1-10). Toward the end of his reign, however, he seems to have joined in a rebellion against Assyria, which started in 652 BC with a revolt by the older brother of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. This brother, Shamash-shumukin, was governor of Babylon. Ashurbanipal subdued his brother in 648 BC and evidently moved west to put down a rebellion among the Arabs. It is likely that it was at this time that Manasseh was taken to Nineveh as a captive. When Manasseh returned to Judah, he sought the Lord, and for the last five or so years of his reign began a series of reforms (2 Chronicles 33:11-19).
O. Palmer Robertson suggests that the most likely time for the prophecies of Nahum ("Comforter") is in these last years of Manasseh, or possibly in the early years of Josiah. [Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990).] He points out that in Nahum’s book, Assyria has already conquered Egypt (Nahum 3:8), and that Assyria is still in full strength, which means no later than the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC, the 12th year of Josiah (Nahum 1:12). Since Nahum has little to say about the sins of Judah, Judah may have been in a period of reform; though possibly it is because Nahum is preaching against Assyria, which had apostatized from her conversion under Jonah ("Dove"). In fact, since Manasseh’s successor, Amon, was pro-Assyrian, Nahum might have prophesied during his reign as an indirect condemnation of Judah. At any rate, Nahum comes during this period.
Manasseh’s son, Amon ("Amen" or "Faithful"; or possibly "Workman," or "Foster Child"), followed in his father’s earlier footsteps. He reigned for only two years. So wicked was he that the members of his official cabinet put him to death, after which "the people of the land" made his son Josiah (Yoshi-Yah, "Yah Supports" or "Yah’s Support") king in his stead (2 Kings 21:18-24; 2 Chronicles 33:21-25). Robertson calls attention to evidence that "the people of the land" may have been "a privileged social and political class or an aristocratic institution of landowners which was active on the legal and military level and which had political influence" (p. 8). We shall encounter them again.
The Reign of Josiah
Josiah’s first year began in the seventh month (Tishri) of 639 BC, which month begins the last quarter of the year (that is, the way we measure years today, from January to December). The months or days immediately preceding were his "accession year," properly the second year of Amon. Josiah was only eight years old when he began to reign, and possibly still eight at the commencement of his first official year. Since "the people of the land" put him in office, they probably ran the country while he was a child (2 Kings 22:1).
When Josiah was only 13 or 14 years old, he was married at least twice, to Zebidah ("Endowed") and to Hamutal ("Dew’s Kin"). This was in the sixth year of his reign. His sons Johanan (Yoh-Hanan, John, "Yah Is Gracious") and Jehoiakim (Yeho-Yakim, "Yahweh Establishes," also called El-Yakim, "God Establishes") were born that year, Jehoiakim to Zebidah, and Johanan probably to Hamutal. A third son, Jehoahaz (Yeho-Ahaz, "Yahweh Upholds"), was born to Hamutal in Josiah’s eighth year of rule. See 2 Kings 23:31 & 36 and 1 Chronicles 3:15. Thus, at this early age Josiah was involved in a forbidden polygamous marriage relationship, from which he could not extricate himself, and to two women who may not have been sympathetic to his later reforms. It is certain that his two sons did not follow in his footsteps, and this is a good indication of why they did not. (Johanan evidently preceded Josiah in death; otherwise, he would have stood in line to succeed him, yet nothing is said about him except for the genealogical notice in 1 Chronicles 3:15.)
(Note, polygamy is forbidden by implication in Genesis 2:24, for if you cleave to one wife you will have not time for another; and in the Law in Leviticus 18:18. It is expressly forbidden to kings in Deuteronomy 17:17. Yet, once a second marriage has been entered, it must be endured. If you chop your arm off, that is a sin, but you don’t get a new arm. If you commit bigamy or polygamy, that is a sin, but you don’t get to put aside your extra wives. Josiah’s marriages were arranged for him before he set his heart to seek the Lord, and before the book of the Law was recovered. On his part, thus, it was a sin of inadvertency; to wit, he was led astray by his elders.)
In the eighth year of his reign, Josiah began to "seek Yahweh." He was probably 16 at the time of this religious quickening. Not yet 20, and therefore not yet old enough to exercise power as a citizen, let alone as a ruler, he bided his time until he was of age (2 Chronicles 34:3; see Numbers 1:3).
At the age of 20, Josiah began his holy war. Under the nose of Assyria, and doubtless backed by both the political conservatives (anti-internationalists) and religious anti-idolaters, he purged Jerusalem and Judah of idols and of the high places where Yahweh was sinfully worshipped with sacrifices in defiance of God’s law. Then he embarked on a conquest of what had been Northern Israel, and purged it of idols as well (2 Chronicles 34:3-7). Josiah burned up the idols, ground them to powder, and scattered them. These are the actions of holy war. He burned them up as Jericho had been burned, symbolically reconquering the holy land.
It is important to note that Josiah re-unified the nation of Israel. This is not generally realized. Nebuchadnezzar did not simply conquer Southern Judah, but he took the whole land that David and Solomon had once ruled, and which Josiah had re-unified. Thus, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel often speak of the Kingdom of Judah as "Israel," for after Josiah, the Kingdom of Judah ruled the entire land.
The following year, at the end of 627 or in 626 BC, Jeremiah (Yi-Remiyah, from Yahweh-Ramah, "Yah Is On High") was called as a prophet (Jeremiah 1:2). Jeremiah was but a young man at the time; the word he uses for "youth" indicates a man under 20 years of age (Jeremiah 1:6). Josiah was only 21 years old. Here we see that God gave Josiah a man of roughly his age, and with his same heart, to help him. We know that Jeremiah prophesied throughout this time (Jeremiah 3:6; 25:3; 36:2), and as we shall see, some of the content of those sermons is woven into Jeremiah 1-20.
Josiah’s purge of the Temple and the land was completed by his 18th year, and in that year he ordered that the Temple be repaired. This order must have been given at the beginning of the regnal year, in the 7th month (October, 622 BC), because by the following spring (1st month; April, 621 BC), Passover was celebrated in the restored Temple (2 Kings 22:4; 23:23).
Meanwhile, Assyria was beginning to fall apart. In 629, which was Josiah’s tenth year of rule, Ashurbanipal apparently made his son Sinsharishkun co-regent with him. Ashurbanipal was evidently killed in 627, opening the door to rebellions throughout the empire. Nabopolassar of Babylon took that city away from Assyria in 626, and was proclaimed King of Babylon on November 22, at the beginning of Josiah’s 14th year of reign. Thus, even as Josiah engaged in ecclesiastical reform, God acted to tear down the enemy idolatrous nation that had oppressed His people. We note that God did not move against Assyria until Josiah had first acted in faith to rid the land of idols, for Josiah began his campaign while Assyria was still powerful and dominant.
As soon as the Temple repair started in the autumn of 622 BC, a copy of the Law of God was found in the Temple. Josiah had it read to him, and realized that the nation was in deep trouble. He asked the priests to tell him what to do, and they consulted Huldah the prophetess. She said that the reform would not last, and that after Josiah died the nation would be judged by God (2 Kings 22:8-20). Liberal scholars insist that the book of the law that was found and read was Deuteronomy, which they foolishly say was written as this time. Doubtless, however, it was the whole of the five books of Moses, copies of which were preserved in the Temple. During the years of idolatry, most copies of the Law had been destroyed, but one copy remained to be found at this time. According to 2 Kings 23:2, Josiah read to the people the Book of the Covenant from the book that was found, and the Book of the Covenant is Exodus 20:2223:33 (see Exodus 24:3, 7). The fact that most of this Book is the social law of God, relating to how we treat our neighbors, is very important for the history that ensues.
While Josiah had been campaigning in Northern Israel, many idolatrous altars had either been rebuilt in Judah, or had not been torn down during his first campaign. Rightly frightened by God’s law, Josiah immediately completed the work of purging Judah and Israel of all the remnants of idolatry and iconolatry (Exodus 20:23-24; 22:18 & 20; 23:24 & 33; 2 Kings 23:4-20).
Unlike some former kings, who had removed only pagan idols but let the high places dedicated to Yahweh remain, Josiah removed them all. God had forbidden the offering of sacrifice and incense anywhere but the Tabernacle and Temple, making allowance only for the period between Eli and Solomon when the Temple ritual was not in operation (Exodus 20:24; 1 Kings 8:29; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 18:4 & 22). There was a popular religion in Israel, however, that rejected God’s law in this matter. They set up shrines on hills, and made images to represent Yahweh and His court, in defiance of the second commandment. They were exactly like Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Anglo Catholics today. Josiah destroyed these shrines as well, and this is why he was such a hero to the Protestant Reformers.
But did everyone accept these reforms? Not at all. Just as many in Europe did not accept the Protestant Reformation, we read that "the priests of the high places did not go up to the altar of Yahweh in Jerusalem, but they ate unleavened bread among their brothers" (2 Kings 23:9). They could no longer visibly offer animals and incense on the high places, but they could still defile God’s word by engaging in private ceremonies of unleavened bread on their own. Once Josiah died, these iconolaters were able to worm out of the woodwork (Jeremiah 17:1-4; Ezekiel 6; 20:27-44). Eventually, so did pure idolatry (Ezekiel 8).
2 Chronicles 35 describes the great Passover held by Josiah in the spring of his 18th year of reign (April, 621 BC). This is said to have been the greatest Passover ever celebrated since the days of Samuel (2 Chronicles 35:18). Samuel had renewed the nation and restored the covenant, but then the people apostatized and demanded a king like the kings of the nations. Similarly, Josiah renewed the nation and restored the covenant, but after his death the people went back into iconolatry and sin.
Robertson suggests that Zephaniah (Tsiphan-Yah, "Yah’s Hidden Treasure") prophesied in the period immediately after the book of the Law was discovered, perhaps during the 6 months between that discovery and the celebration of the Passover. Zephaniah prophesied in the days of Josiah before the fall of Assyria (Zephaniah 1:1; 2:13-15). His short book contains numerous quotations and allusions to Deuteronomy (Robertson, pp. 254ff.), thus indicating that the Law had been recovered by the time Zephaniah prophesied. At the same time, Zephaniah condemns the idolaters in Judah, which indicates that they were still practicing at that time. Thus, it is likely that his prophecy came during the six months of the final purge. Also, his prediction of the Day of the Lord and the joy of Jerusalem might be seen to have an initial fulfillment at the Great Passover.
From 2 Kings 24:18 we learn that Josiah’s son Zedekiah (Tsidqi-Yah, "Yah’s Justice," also called Mattaniah, Mattan-Yah, "Yah’s Gift") was born to his wife Hamutal in Josiah’s 21st year, 618 BC. The Bible tells us nothing about the rest of Josiah’s reign until the very end. But God was busy in the wider world tearing down Assyria. In Josiah’s 25th year (614 BC), the Medes conquered the ancient capital Asshur. Then, with Babylonia assisting, they conquered Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in 612 BC, and evidently King Sinsharishkun died at this time. The remnant of the Assyrian leaders fled to Haran, but were defeated by the allies in 610 BC, the 29th year of Josiah.
Although the Assyrians had conquered Egypt years earlier, they had allowed the Kings of Egypt to continue to rule. Egypt had thrown off Assyria’s yoke, but did not want a strong Babylon dominating Palestine. So, in the spring of 608 BC Pharaoh Neco II sent an army to help the Assyrian refugees retake Haran.
Josiah went out to stop Neco. We are not told why, but probably the Jewish conservatives persuaded him that Assyria must not be allowed to revive. Neco sent a message to Josiah telling him that this was not his affair, and to stay away, but Josiah ignored it. Josiah’s army was defeated and he was killed. The author of Chronicles, probably Ezra, comments that Neco’s warning came from the "mouth of God" (2 Chronicles 35:22).
Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim
Josiah’s son Jehoahaz became king. We are told that "the people of the land" made him king (2 Chronicles 36:1). He was younger than his brother Jehoiakim, whose mother was Zebidah. Possibly Hamutal was the first wife, and so her sons had prior claim. Or possibly the "people of the land" preferred Jehoahaz’s anti-Egyptian, anti-Assyrian politics to that of his evidently pro-Egyptian older brother. Since these people had favored Josiah and supported his anti-Assyrian program, Pharaoh Neco deposed Jehoahaz and put his older brother Jehoiakim on the throne. Jehoahaz ruled only three months, during the summer of 608 BC, the three months Neco was vainly trying to reconquer Haran for the Assyrian refugees. The book of Jeremiah records no prophecies from him uttered during the brief reign of Jehoahaz, and only one comment: that Jehoahaz (called Shallum, "Retribution") would die in Egypt, where Neco took him (Jeremiah 22:10-12). Nothing more is said about him.
Thus, in the fall of 608 BC Jehoiakim became king. He, like his brother Jehoahaz, was unfaithful to the Lord and helped reinstitute the idolatry that Josiah had purged. In the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in the second quarter of 605 BC, and in the summer conquered Jerusalem and deported Daniel and his friends to Babylon.
The first three years of Jehoiakim’s reign are the setting for the prophecy of Habakkuk (Habaqquq, "Embrace"). Robertson points out that in Habakkuk the Babylonians are still a small nation, but that they are shortly going to conquer Jerusalem, because of all the oppression and violence in the city (Robertson, pp. 34ff.). Thus, Habakkuk must come after Josiah, but before Nebuchadnezzar. He prophesied either in the short reign of Jehoahaz or in the initial years of Jehoiakim; more likely the latter, because the kinds of oppression and violence he describes would have only begun to rear their ugly heads in the three-months of Jehoahaz. Also, if he had prophesied in the reign of Jehoahaz, he would have predicted the coming of the Egyptians, not of the Babylonians.
We note that Habakkuk does not denounce idolatry but oppression (1:2-4). Evidently Josiah’s reforms had had the effect of linking Yahwism with Israelite nationalism in such a way that the nation was at this point proudly opposed to idolatry. They were confident that God was with them, that He was on their side, that they were His people, and that the Temple was His house. This was not a holy confidence but a bald presumption. Paying lipservice to their national god, the rich proceeded to oppress the poor, violating the Book of the Covenant, to which they had pledged allegiance when Josiah read it to them (Exodus 21:1-11; 22:21-27; 23:1-9). This was beginning to take place after the death of Josiah, and in Jeremiah we shall see that it came to characterize Israel.
The alliance of political nationalists and true believers during the reign of Josiah was understandable, but it did not produce lasting results. Ultimately, Josiah was seduced by the political programme. He did not recognize that Neco II’s warning to him was the "voice of God" to him. His untimely death at the age of 39 meant that the wicked were able to come back to power, the reform was halted, and the nation spiralled downward into destruction. The nationalistic conservatives were in control, and they rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar over and over until finally, with the blessings of Daniel and Jeremiah, Judah was destroyed and taken into captivity.
(to be continued)