Has the anticipation been killing you? We have been reading and studying Jeremiah forever it seems. For decades he has been saying the Babylonians are coming to destroy the city! While we shouldn’t relish the shedding of blood, we have been waiting a long time for this. Like waiting for the Messiah’s First Advent or end of the world, waiting for the destruction of Jerusalem has apocalyptic implications—at least for the Jews. Finally, Jeremiah’s position is vindicated; finally his prophecies are fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar’s army finally sacks the city.
Rather than a detailed report of blood and gore, the scribe decides to tell the fate of three figures: Zedekiah, Jeremiah, and Ebed-Melech. Zedekiah represents the wicked either killed or brought under Babylonian rule. Jeremiah represents the righteous Jews who are preserved by the Lord. Ebed-Melech represents all Gentiles whose great faith provides protection from divine wrath. The text is not so much a description of the battle, a lament for the loss of the temple, or a tally of the dead or captured; instead, it is the story of how the sacking of Jerusalem affected three men. It is amazing how carefully the Lord orchestrates the perfect ending for each of these three characters amidst the utter chaos of an apocalyptic event. Notice the Lord’s attention to detail!
Jeremiah 29:2 in the eleventh year, in the fourth month… the city was broken up
The siege lasted 18 months. The Babylonian forces were clearly superior but Jerusalem was protected by large walls and fanatic Jews. The combination was able to keep the army at bay for quite some time. It appears that Nebuchadnezzar was elsewhere at the time of the breach—in Riblah, where he would later meet captured Zedekiah.
“The besieging armies systematically broke down the walls of Jerusalem, and Nebuchadnezzar’s captain eventually ‘burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire’ (2 Kgs. 25:9; see also Jer. 52:13). Babylon thus earned undying opprobrium for having razed the nearly four-centuries-old Temple of God and leaving it in ruins.
“Excavations in the City of David and in today’s Jewish Quarter attest to the destruction in the 587-586 B.C. siege of Jerusalem: many arrowheads, a destroyed four-room house, a burnt room, and clay bullae (letter seals or stamps) baked hard by a great conflagration that swept over the whole city…
“As late as 1962 the most widely used textbook on biblical archaeology lamented that ‘from Jerusalem no archaeological evidence of the Babylonian destruction has been recovered.’ The excavations of Kathleen Kenyon and Yigal Shiloh make such a statement no longer true. There is now considerable physical evidence of the fulfillment of Lehi’s and Jeremiah’s prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem.” (David B. Galbraith, D. Kelly Ogden, Andrew C. Skinner, Jerusalem: The Eternal City [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1996], 108-109)
In many different ways, the Lord saved the righteous. Some He preserved as captives in Babylon (i.e. Daniel and Ezekiel); others he commanded to leave before the destruction came (Lehi and Nephi); while still others remained to the end, yet were still preserved from the sword (Jeremiah, Ebed-Melch, Mulek). Nephi lamented the fate of the rest, “For behold I have workings in the spirit, which doth weary me even that all my joints are weak, for those who are at Jerusalem; for had not the Lord been merciful, to show unto me concerning them, even as he had prophets of old, I should have perished also” (1 Ne. 19:20).
Jeremiah 39:3 the princes of the king of Babylon came in, and sat in the middle gate
A walled city is basically a fortress. There is no entrance or exit but by the gate. During war, the gates were closed and heavily guarded. Only friendly forces would be let in. For the Babylonian nobles to sit in the middle gate was a slap in the face. An intentional affront, the bravado of the gesture announced, “We have control of your city now! We will decide who comes and goes. We will rule this city as we wish.”
Like the rest of the tragedy, Jeremiah had warned them it would happen, “I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north, saith the Lord; and they shall come, and they shall set every one his throne at the entering of the gates of Jerusalem” (Jer. 1:15).
Jeremiah 39:5 the Chaldeans’ army… overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho: and… they brought him up to Nebuchadnezzar… to Riblah
And when the city was taken about midnight, and the enemy's generals were entered into the temple, and when Zedekiah was sensible of it, he took his wives, and his children, and his captains, and his friends, and with them fled out of the city, through the fortified ditch, and through the desert; and when certain of the deserters had informed the Babylonians of this, at break of day, they made haste to pursue after Zedekiah, and overtook him not far from Jericho, and encompassed him about. But for those friends and captains of Zedekiah who had fled out of the city with him, when they saw their enemies near them, they left him, and dispersed themselves, some one way, and some another, and every one resolved to save himself; so the enemy took Zedekiah alive, when he was deserted by all but a few, with his children and his wives, and brought him to the king. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, 8:2)
Zedekiah’s escape route to Jericho was fairly predictable. Jericho lies some 22 miles east of Jerusalem, but Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t close to the action. Rather, he was up in a town called Riblah, quite a ways to the north—even north of Damascus.
(Barry J. Beitzel, ed., Biblica: The Bible Atlas, [Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2006], 338)
Jeremiah 39:6-7 The king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah in Riblah before his eyes: also… he put out Zedekiah’s eyes
Do you feel sorry for Zedekiah? How awful would it be to watch your children get slaughtered because you had failed to follow the prophet’s advice? Death would be welcome after that. But Nebuchadnezzar had other plans. He put out his eyes so that the violent death of his sons was the last visual he would have. While it is impossible that such a memory could fade over time, the king made sure that it was the final visual memory of his own pathetic life.
Do you feel sorry for Zedekiah? Remember that he had been established as king by Nebuchadnezzar but rebelled against him. Remember that Zedekiah thought he could extricate himself from Babylonian influence by appealing to Egyptian military power when he should have been appealing to the God of Israel. Remember that he had been warned over and over again by Jeremiah. Remember that deep down he believed Jeremiah but the influence of the princes and priests were more important. He was like king Noah (Mosiah 17:11-13).
Do you feel sorry for Zedekiah? There is evidence that he had conflicting messages from different prophets. Jeremiah had prophesied that he would be carried captive to Babylon. News from Ezekiel was that he would never see Babylon. Which prophet should he believe? A twist of fate would prove both to be right. (see Jer 32:4-5; 34:3; Ezek. 12:13)
…so the enemy took Zedekiah alive, when he was deserted by all but a few, with his children and his wives, and brought him to the king. When he was come, Nebuchadnezzar began to call him a wicked wretch, and a covenant-breaker, and one that had forgotten his former words, when he promised to keep the country for him. He also reproached him for his ingratitude, that when he had received the kingdom from him, who had taken it from Jehoiachin, and given it to him, he had made use of the power he gave him against him that gave it; "but," said he, "God is great, who hated that conduct of thine, and hath brought thee under us." And when he had used these words to Zedekiah, he commanded his sons and his friends to be slain, while Zedekiah and the rest of the captains looked on; after which he put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him, and carried him to Babylon. And these things happened to him, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel had foretold to him, that he should be caught, and brought before the king of Babylon, and should speak to him face to face, and should see his eyes with his own eyes; and thus far did Jeremiah prophesy. But he was also made blind, and brought to Babylon, but did not see it, according to the prediction of Ezekiel. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, 8:2)
Jeremiah 39:8 the Chaldeans burned… the houses of the people, with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem
The similarities between the fate of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC and Titus in 70 AD are eerily similar. Jeremiah prophesied of the former; Josephus recorded the latter. Even though we are currently studying the Babylonian conquest, we can get a more detailed idea of what happened in the city from Josephus description of the Roman assault. The scenes were horrific in both instances.
Jeremiah told them the Babylonians would come quickly (Jer. 4:13), lay siege to the city (Jer. 5:10), spoil the land (Jer. 4:20). The inhabitants would die by sword, famine, or pestilence (14:12); those starving of famine would feed on their own children (19:9); once the walls were breached the inhabitants would be surrounded by the sword (6:25). The noble families of the north would sit in the gates of the city (1:15) while the destruction spread. Jews who fled the city they were torn in pieces (5:6) or slain with the sword (14:18). If they stayed, they would starve (14:18) or watch their friends die by the sword (20:4). Even worse, they could witness the young men and children being killed in the streets (9:21). The Babylonians would show no mercy in their cruelty (6:23); the people would die grievous deaths (16:4); the fathers and sons would be dashed one against another (13:14). The city will be burned (37:8) and the temple destroyed (27:19-22). There will be nobody to bury the dead; the slain will stretch from one end of the earth to the other (25:33), their carcases will be meat for the birds and beasts (7:33); Jerusalem will be made into heaps, a den of dragons (9:11).
Josephus described the same and more in the Roman siege of 70 AD. The Romans built up towers to scale the walls of the city (Wars of the Jews, Book V, 3:2-5; 11:4), they laid siege to the city causing a terrible famine (V; 12:3), causing some to chew on leather (VI; 3:3), or eat cow dung (V;13:7). One mother famously roasted her son (VI; 3:4) while the city was pillaged by robbers from within (V; 12:3). Those who fled the walls for safety were whipped, tortured, and crucified (V: 11:1); others who made it safely to a camp of Syrians were dissected alive for the gold they had swallowed for safe keeping (V; 13:4). When burying the dead became impossible, the corpses were thrown over the walls of the city to rot in the valleys below (V, 12:3). Once the walls were breached, the Roman soldiers found little resistance, killing those dying by famine until the lanes of the city ran with blood (VI; 8:5). They set fire to their houses (VI; 8:5) and to the temple (VI; 4:5-7) killing all until the very altar of the temple was surrounded by dead bodies whose blood rand down the steps of the holy house (VI; 4:6).
Jeremiah 39:11-14 concerning Jeremiah… Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm
These were orders which Nebuchadnezzar had given his captain long before the event. Even before the walls were breached, there was a specific plan for what to do with Jeremiah. The Lord’s doing for certain, Jeremiah gets to choose his own fate: he may be treated well as a captive in Babylon or remain with the poor of the land—a witness of the destruction of his people and their temple. Which one sounds better? Jeremiah chose to stay. As it would turn out, his prophetic powers would soon be needed again by those who would survive. They would come for his advice. In the meantime, he wrote the book of Lamentations, a mournful almost futile search for solace. There was little to do but lament, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!” (Lam. 1:1)
One great lesson is to see how the Lord protected his prophet. He didn’t prevent him from arrest; he didn’t immediately deliver him from the dungeon; he tested his fortitude until the task was complete. Then, the Lord took over. His “Liberty Jail” experience would not last forever (D&C 121-122). Unlike the adversary who never supports his children in the day of trouble (Alma 30:60), the Lord will never forsake us. He is not quick to forget those who have labored in his service. He is not blind to the trials of his servants who must remember, “It’s not easy, but it is worth it.” That was Jeremiah’s lesson.
Stand fast, ye Saints of God, hold on a little while longer, and the storm of life will be past, and you will be rewarded by that God whose servants you are, and who will duly appreciate all your toils and afflictions for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 185)
Jeremiah 39:16-18 Ebed-melech the Ethiopian… I will deliver thee in that day, saith the Lord
The last character the scribe chooses to mention is Ebed-melech, the king’s eunuch. He had been the instrument to get Jeremiah pulled up out of the mire (Jer. 38). Would there be a reward for him? Does the Lord pay attention to each life in the midst of apocalyptic chaos? Can he protect whom he will? Of course, and this is the case with the righteous Ethiopian. While the rest of the kings’ staff were executed in Riblah, Ebed-melech was preserved.
But the general of the Babylonian king now overthrew the city to the very foundations, and removed all the people, and took for prisoners the high priest Seraiah, and Zephaniah the priest that was next to him, and the rulers that guarded the temple, who were three in number, and the eunuch (not Ebed-melech) who was over the armed men, and seven friends of Zedekiah, and his scribe, and sixty other rulers; all which, together with the vessels which they had pillaged, he carried to the king of Babylon to Riblah, a city of Syria. So the king commanded the heads of the high priest and of the rulers to be cut off there; but he himself led all the captives and Zedekiah to Babylon. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, 8:5)