Famed Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison in the 1800s for subversive political activities. Later, writing about his experiences, he talked about some of his fellow prisoners’ utter lack of remorse for their terrible behavior. “In the course of several years, I never saw a sign of repentance among these people; not a trace of despondent brooding over their crimes, and the majority of them inwardly considered themselves absolutely in the right.”—Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 95.
Dostoevsky could have been talking about, with the exception of Josiah, the five kings who ruled Judah during the ministry of Jeremiah. One after another, these men seemed totally unrepentant for their actions, even as it became clearer and clearer that their actions were bringing the calamities that the Lord, through Jeremiah, had warned would come.
It had never been God’s intention to give Israel a king; by the end of this week’s lesson, we will better understand why. We’ll understand, too, the severe pressure that poor Jeremiah faced during much of his unappreciated ministry.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 17.
Josiah was the sixteenth king to rule in the Southern Kingdom; his reign spanned 640–609 b.c. He became king at the age of eight, after more than half a century of moral and spiritual decline under his father (Amon) and grandfather (Manasseh), two of the most evil kings in Judah. Josiah’s reign lasted for 31 years. Unlike his ancestors, however, Josiah “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:2), despite an environment that worked against him.
“Born of a wicked king, beset with temptations to follow in his father’s steps, and with few counselors to encourage him in the right way, Josiah nevertheless was true to the God of Israel. Warned by the errors of past generations, he chose to do right, instead of descending to the low level of sin and degradation to which his father and his grandfather had fallen. He ‘turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.’ As one who was to occupy a position of trust, he resolved to obey the instruction that had been given for the guidance of Israel’s rulers, and his obedience made it possible for God to use him as a vessel unto honor.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 384.
Josiah’s reform consisted of two main components: First, it was getting rid, as much as possible, of anything and everything that smacked of idolatry. That is, he worked to remove the evil practices that had arisen in the nation.
But that was only the first step. An absence of evil or wrong practices doesn’t automatically mean that good will follow. Second, after hearing the Book of the Law read to him, the king made a covenant before the Lord “to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book” (2 Chron. 34:31).
Jehoahaz (also known as Shallum) was 23 years old when he succeeded his father, Josiah, on the throne. His reign lasted only three months. Pharaoh replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim, because Jehoahaz was not favorable toward Egyptian politics. Jehoahaz was taken to Egypt, and there he died. (See 2 Chron. 36:4, 2 Kings 23:31– 34.)
Jehoiakim reigned 609–598 b.c. When Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, Jehoiakim was taken to Babylon along with vessels from the temple. During the time of Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, Jeremiah warned the people that these kings were leading the nation down a wrong path.
The Lord, speaking through Jeremiah, had very sharp words for this corrupt and covetous ruler. Jehoiakim was an oppressive and greedy king who imposed heavy taxes in Judah (see 2 Kings 23:35) in order to pay the Egyptians. Worse, using forced labor, he had elaborate construction done on his own palace, in defiance of the Torah, which was clear about paying people for their work: “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning” (Lev. 19:13). Also, unlike Josiah, his father, Jehoiakim permitted pagan rites to flourish again in Judah.
Jeremiah 22:16 is a powerful text. In the context of comparing the corrupt Jehoiakim to his father, Josiah, the Lord said to him: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” (NIV). In other words, the true knowledge of God comes from how one treats those who are in need; it comes when we step out of ourselves to benefit those who can really do nothing for us in return. We see here, again, as we see all through the Bible, the Lord’s concern for the poor and the helpless, as well as the obligation we have to help those who cannot help themselves.
The nineteenth king of Judah was Jehoiachin, son of Jehoiakim. He reigned on David’s throne for barely three and a half months. In 598 b.c. Nebuchadnezzar brought his forces to Jerusalem and seized the 18-year-old king with his mother, his wives, and many other royal captives. In 561 b.c., in the thirty-seventh year of his captivity, Jehoiachin was given mercy by Evil-Merodach, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor. He was granted the right to dine with the king of Babylon, and he could wear his kingly robes. (See 2 Kings 25:27–30, Jer. 52:31–34.) His sons were also in Babylon with him, yet Jeremiah’s prophecy said they would have to give up the throne of David.
One of the most famous verses in the Bible is this: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ ” (Jer. 29:11, NIV). Here, of course, we have the immediate context: that of the Lord speaking through Jeremiah to the captives of Judah who had seen their lives completely uprooted by their Babylonian conquerors. Yet, even then, no matter how bad their situation seemed, the Lord wanted them to know that He still loved them and had only their good in mind. No doubt, considering the horrific circumstances, they must have welcomed such promising and hopeful words. Thus, even amid all dire warnings and threats, the people were still given the promise of “a future and hope.” How crucial it must have been for them, especially at that time, to have such assurance!
Zedekiah (also known as Mattaniah) took the throne at the age of 21, placed there by Nebuchadnezzar as a puppet king. Unfortunately, as the texts say, he hadn’t learned many lessons from what had gone before with previous kings, and as a result he brought even greater ruin to the nation.
2 Chronicles 36:14 states something very profound, a point that in many ways went to the heart of their apostasy. Amid the list of all the evil done under the reign of Zedekiah, it is said that Judah was following “all the abominations of the nations” (NKJV).
There they were, hundreds of years after the Exodus, hundreds of years as the covenant people who were to be a light and a beacon to the nations (Deut. 4:5–8), and yet they were still so caught up in the prevailing culture, so caught up in the cultural and religious environment of their neighbors, that they were doing “all the abominations” of the pagans.
Might there be a message there for us?
The Lord had made it clear on numerous occasions that the nation was to submit to the rule of Babylon, that this conquest was punishment for their iniquity. Zedekiah, however, refused to listen, and he formed a military alliance against Nebuchadnezzar. The nation relied heavily on the hope of an Egyptian military victory. But Nebuchadnezzar was victorious over Pharaoh’s army in 597 b.c. This defeat permanently sealed the fate of Jerusalem and the nation. Despite so many opportunities to repent, to reform, to be revived, Judah refused.
Everything that God had warned them would happen to them is exactly what happened. However much they didn’t want to believe the warnings, they certainly did believe them after they all came to pass. Who hasn’t, even on a personal level, experienced something similar? We’re warned by the Lord not to do something or else this will happen, but we do it anyway and, sure enough, what we were told would happen happens.
From a human perspective, all seemed lost: their nation lay in ruins, their temple was destroyed, their rulers were exiled and held captive, and the city of Jerusalem was a pile of stones. The Jewish nation and the Jewish people should have at that time disappeared from history, as had so many other nations that had undergone what they just had.
The Lord, though, had other plans, and in the verses above (and in many others) He gave them the hope that all was not lost but that a remnant would return and through them the promises would be fulfilled. That is, amid all the warnings of doom and destruction, the prophets also gave the people their only hope.
“The dark years of destruction and death marking the end of the kingdom of Judah would have brought despair to the stoutest heart had it not been for the encouragements in the prophetic utterances of God’s messengers. Through Jeremiah in Jerusalem, through Daniel in the court of Babylon, through Ezekiel on the banks of the Chebar, the Lord in mercy made clear His eternal purpose and gave assurance of His willingness to fulfill to His chosen people the promises recorded in the writings of Moses. That which He had said He would do for those who should prove true to Him, He would surely bring to pass. ‘The word of God . . . liveth and abideth forever.’ 1 Peter 1:23.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 464.
Further Thought: “In the closing years of Judah’s apostasy the exhortations of the prophets were seemingly of but little avail; and as the armies of the Chaldeans came for the third and last time to besiege Jerusalem, hope fled from every heart. Jeremiah predicted utter ruin; and it was because of his insistence on surrender that he had finally been thrown into prison. But God left not to hopeless despair the faithful remnant who were still in the city. Even while Jeremiah was kept under close surveillance by those who scorned his messages, there came to him fresh revelations concerning Heaven’s willingness to forgive and to save, which have been an unfailing source of comfort to the church of God from that day to this.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 466.
Look at the phrase, “Heaven’s willingness to forgive and to save.” Think about all the ways that we have been shown “Heaven’s willingness” to forgive and save. After all, the Cross alone should tell us about this willingness. We have the Word of God, which reveals to us the plan of salvation. We have been given the Spirit of Prophecy, a wonderful gift. What are other ways we have been shown “Heaven’s willingness to forgive and to save”?
The Last Five Kings of Israel