Judges 8; Acts 12; Jeremiah 21; Mark 7
JERUSALEM BECAME A VASSAL TO Babylon from 605 B.C. on, after Babylon defeated Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish. Jerusalem revolted and was defeated in 597, when most of the royal family, along with the nobility, the wealthy, and the skilled craftsmen were transported to Egypt, leaving behind Zedekiah as caretaker monarch. Zedekiah was an uncle of the young King Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile. Despite God’s strong warnings through Jeremiah that Israel should not rebel again against the Babylonians, the Jerusalem authorities preferred to listen to the false prophets. When Judah rebelled, Babylon’s retaliation was implacable. Nebuchadnezzar’s troops destroyed Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which was finally destroyed in 587.
The prophecy of Jeremiah 21 takes place under Zedekiah, when the Babylonian troops are gathering for the final siege, probably 589 or 588. The Pashhur whom Zedekiah sends to consult Jeremiah is not the Pashhur introduced in 20:1. Massive destruction threatens, just as Jeremiah has been predicting for more than three decades. Desperate, Zedekiah consults with anyone he can, including Jeremiah, hungry for the slenderest thread of hope. Will the Lord perhaps do great miracles again, as he did in the past—at the time of the Exodus, for instance, or when the Assyrians were turned back during the reign of Hezekiah—and spare Jerusalem? God’s answer through Jeremiah is in three parts:
First, far from sparing the city, God is determined to destroy it (21:3-7). He will fight on the side of the Babylonians. “I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath” (21:5). Zedekiah and his entourage will not be spared.
Second, it follows that the only wise course is to surrender. Under the well-understood terms of siege warfare, the city that defended itself against a siege could expect no mercy. Those who surrendered might be enslaved or otherwise sent into exile, but at least their lives would be spared. These are the two ways that God sets forth (21:8-10): the way of life and the way of death. This choice is not exactly like other “two ways” choices in Scripture (e.g., Deut. 30:15, 19; Matt. 7:13-14), but it is like them in distinguishing between obedience and disobedience and their respective consequences.
Third, like so many of God’s promises of judgment, there is a way out—provided there is an immediate return to the social justice and personal righteousness at the heart of the Mosaic covenant (21:11-14). Without swift reformation, however, the little nation is doomed. And tragically, of reformation there is none—not the last time when somber warnings go unheeded.