Tuesday, June 06, 2017

WHY I WROTE THE LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF JUDAH

A kingdom's fall is dramatic whether in fiction or in history. For those of us who read The Bible, few kingdoms' falls outweigh that of Judah to the Babylonian Empire, as described in II Kings, II Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There, the House of David, of which Jesus Christ appeared as heir in the New Testament, had held power for centuries while worship of the LORD went on in Solomon's Temple.

The kingdom had been living on borrowed time since the reign of Manasseh, who'd given himself up to idolatrous worship of foreign gods — worship including ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice — when his young grandson Josiah took the Throne of David. No one could have expected much of an eight-year-old of apostate ancestry, yet he became a pleasant surprise for Judah as he restored it to the worship of the LORD under Moses' law.

Josiah was young when he took the throne, and young when he died. What would have become of Judah had he lived a full life, we'll never know. He died because, unwisely for a small nation's king, he chose to play a game of empires. Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and had brutally invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, was swiftly decaying, its fate a plaything between the resurgent empire of Egypt to Judah's south and the resurgent empire of Babylon to Judah's north. Perhaps because of a bad decision by his great-grandfather Hezekiah, another godly king who played a game of empire, Josiah chose to back Babylon and went to war against Egypt. He may've been David's heir, but Egypt was no Goliath to fall to a weaker opponent. Josiah was fatally wounded in action, and his kingdom became an Egyptian puppet-state.

Things might still have gone well for Judah had Josiah's heirs not fallen away from his reform of Judah's faith and practice. Sadly, his first successor, his son Jehoahaz, chosen by Judah's people to replace him on the throne, got little chance to show the world who he was or what he could do, as the victorious pharaoh of Egypt took him into exile and replaced him with a puppet, his brother Eliakim, whom the pharaoh gave the regnal name Jehoiakim.

Jehoiakim was loyal to Egypt as long as a strong pharaoh was on its throne, but switched his loyalty to Babylon when its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, showed up around Jerusalem with a strong army. Switching sides whenever someone stronger showed up became a theme of the House of David in its decline. To make things worse, Jehoiakim bankrupted Judah by taxing it heavily, first to pay tribute to Egypt and then to build an impressive palace for himself. Jehoiakim also burned a book of the Bible — the first draft of the Book of Jeremiah, which the prophet had to dictate again from memory. Jehoiakim was no more faithful to Babylon than he'd been to Egypt or to God: after three years of serving Bablyon, he tried to switch sides back to Egypt. When his diplomatic maneuvering went awry, he was taken prisoner by Babylon and died in exile.

Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) took the throne for three months while Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem for the first time. Like Jehoahaz, Jeconiah never got a chance to show what he could do; like Jehoiakim, he ended his days in Babylonian exile. Unlike his father, he was honored in Babylon and became head of an advisory council of captured kings.

Borrowing a page from the pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar put onto Judah's throne a puppet, Jeconiah's uncle Mattaniah, who received the regnal name Zedekiah. The Bible paints Zedekiah as a man of consummate wickedness, but, if you read the accounts of his actions closely, you'll likely see him as a man of consummate weakness. Trapped between Babylon and Egypt as his father, brothers, and nephew had been, Zedekiah repeated all of their mistakes and made new ones of his own. A weather-vane turning in every breeze, he sought endless ways out of his dilemma: listening to false prophets and at times even to a true one, freeing slaves and then re-enslaving them, being a loyal subject of Babylon and then betraying it for the weak reed of Egypt, and asking advice from everyone and taking it from no one. Is it any wonder that his reign led to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the destruction of David's palace and of Solomon's temple, and the exile of the Jews to what's now Iraq for seventy years? God could hardly have sent a harsher judgment on Judah than letting it be ruled by Zedekiah.

The Bible's accounts of Jerusalem's fall have a sad coda. As Nebuchadnezzar was willing to give the remaining Jews of Judah limited self-government under his sovereignty, he appointed a Judean court official, Gedaliah, as governor of a newly made Babylonian province. With Jeremiah's help, Gediliah was on course to revive Judah as a Babylonian protectorate when foreign intrigue, an internal traitor, and his own blind pride conspired to assassinate him. The surviving Jews, fearing Babylonian reprisals for the governor's death, headed off to Egypt for sanctuary. They dragged there Jeremiah, mourning that his people had returned to the land from which Moses had freed that people's ancestors from slavery.

I've given you a brief history of the last years of the kingdom of Judah as background for why I've chosen to write about that period. It combines several themes that have fascinated me as a writer: the nature of prophecy, political intrigue, and the fall of a once flourishing civilization. That period holds the fate of objects of mystery and wonder: Solomon's temple and the Ark of the Covenant. That period is relevant to today, when small states in the Middle East maneuver in a game of great powers. One of those small states is Israel…

Above all, that period raises questions still relevant today. How should we behave in a world where great powers act seemingly without regard for, or even in defiance of, God's law? How relevant is that law to Jews and Christians today? What should we do when patriotism to our nation conflicts with service to our God? Does the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians hold lessons from history that we do ill to forget?

The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah deals with its period of history chronologically and completely. I've dealt with Jeremiah as prophet in greater detail in Parables before Jesus. I'm currently writing a book of devotionals based on Jeremiah's teachings — a book that I plan to publish in December of this year. In the end, I hope to use all that I've learned about this history to write a novelization of Jeremiah's life — the life of a compelling man in dangerous times.

You can read the opening sections of The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah by clicking on Look inside.

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