Who was Zedekiah?
Zedekiah was the last king of Judah, uncle and successor of Jehoiachin; reigned 11 years, from 597 to 586, and was carried captive to Babylon.
I. Sources for His Reign and Time.
Neither of the accounts in 2 Kings 24:18 through 25:7 and 2 Chronicles 36:11-21 refers, as is the usual custom, to state annals; these ran out with the reign of Jehoiakim. The history in 2 Kings is purely scribal and historianic in tone; 2 Chronicles, especially as it goes on to the captivity, is more fervid and homiletic. Both have a common prophetic origin; and indeed Jeremiah 52, which is put as an appendix to the book of his prophecy, tells the story of the reign and subsequent events, much as does 2 Kings, but in somewhat fuller detail.
Two prophets are watching with keen eyes the progress of this reign, both with the poignant sense that the end of the Judean state is imminent: Jeremiah in Jerusalem and Ezekiel, one of the captives in the deportation with Jehoiachin, in Babylon. Dates are supplied with the prophecies of both: Jeremiah's numbered from the beginning of the reign and not consecutive; Ezekiel's numbered from the beginning of the first captivity, and so coinciding with Jeremiah's. From these dated prophecies the principal ideas are to be formed of the real inwardness of the time and the character of the administration.
The prophetic passages identifiable with this reign, counted by its years, are: Jeremiah 24:1-10 , after the deportation of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) - the inferior classes left with Zedekiah (compare Ezekiel 11:15 ; Ezekiel 17:12-14 ); Jer 27 through 29, beginning of reign - false hopes of return of captives and futile diplomacies with neighboring nations; Jeremiah 51:59 , Jeremiah 51:4 year - Z edekiah's visit to Babylon; Ezek 4 through 7, 5th year - symbolic prophecies of the coming end of Judah; Ezek 8 through 12, 6th year - quasi-clairvoyant view of the idolatrous corruptions in Jerusalem; Ezekiel 17:11-21 , same year - Z edekiah's treacherous intrigues with Egypt; Ezekiel 21:18-23 , Ezekiel 21:7 year - Nebuchadnezzar casting a divination to determine his invasion of Judah; Jeremiah 21:1-14 , undated but soon after - deputation from the king to the prophet inquiring Yahweh's purpose; Jeremiah 34:1-7 , undated - the prophet's word to the king while Nebuchadnezzar's invasion is still among the cities of the land; Ezekiel 24:1 , Ezekiel 24:2 , Ezekiel 24:9 year - telepathic awareness of the beginning of the siege, synchronistic with Jeremiah 39:1-10 ; 2 Kings 25:1-7 ; Jer 37; 38, undated, but soon after - prophecies connected with the temporary raising of the siege and the false faith of the ruling classes; Jer 32, 10th year - Jeremiah's redemption of his Anathoth property in the midst of siege, and the good presage of the act; Jer 39, 11th year - annalistic account of the breaching of the city wall and the flight and eventual fate of the king. A year and a half later Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:21 , Ezekiel 33:22 ) hears the news from a fugitive.
II. The Administration of the Last King of Judah.
1. The Situation:
When Nebuchadnezzar took away Jehoiachin, and with him all the men of weight and character (see under JEHOIACHIN ), his object was plain: to leave a people so broken in resources and spirit that they would not be moved to rebellion (see Ezekiel 17:14 ). But this measure of his effected a segmentation of the nation which the prophets immediately recognized as virtually separating out their spiritual "remnant" to go to Babylon, while the worldly and inferior grades remained in Jerusalem.
These are sharply distinguished from each other by Jeremiah in his parable of the Figs (Jeremiah 24:1-10 ), published soon after the first deportation. The people that were left were probably of the same sort that Zephaniah described a few years before, those who had "settled on their lees" (Zephaniah 1:12 ), a godless and inert element in religion and state. Their religious disposition is portrayed by Ezekiel in Zedekiah's 6th year, in his clairvoyant vision of the uncouth temple rites, as it were a cesspool of idolatry, maintained under the pretext that Yahweh had forsaken the land (see Ezek 8). Clearly these were not of the prophetic stamp. It was over such an inferior grade of people that Zedekiah was appointed to a thankless and tragic reign.
2. The Parvenu Temper:
For a people so raw and inexperienced in administration the prophets recognized one clear duty: to keep the oath which they had given to Nebuchadnezzar (see Ezekiel 17:14-16 ). But they acted like men intoxicated with new power; their accession to property and unwonted position turned their heads. Soon after the beginning of the reign we find Jeremiah giving emphatic warning both to his nation and the ambassadors of neighboring nations against a rebellious coalition (Jeremiah 27 mistakenly dated in the 4th year of Jehoiakim; compare Jeremiah 27:3 , Jeremiah 27:12 ); he has also an encounter with prophets who, in contradiction of his consistent message, predict the speedy restoration of Jehoiachin and the temple vessels. The king's visit to Babylon (Jeremiah 51:59 ) was probably made to clear himself of complicity in treasonable plots. Their evil genius, Egypt, however, is busy with the too headstrong upstart rulers; and about the middle of the reign Zedekiah breaks his covenant with his over-lord and, relying on Egypt, embarks on rebellion. The prophetic view of this movement is, that it is a moral outrage; it is breaking a sworn word (Ezekiel 17:15-19 ), and thus falsifying the truth of Yahweh.
This act of rebellion against the king of Babylon was not the only despite done to "Yahweh's oath." Its immediate effect, of course, was to precipitate the invasion of the Chaldean forces, apparently from Riblah on the Orontes, where for several years Nebuchadnezzar had his headquarters. Ezekiel has a striking description of his approach, halting to determine by arrow divination whether to proceed against Judah or Ammon (Ezekiel 21:18-23 ). Before laying siege to Jerusalem, however, he seems to have spent some time reducing outlying fortresses (compare Jeremiah 34:1-7 ); and during the suspense of this time the king sent a deputation to Jeremiah to inquire whether Yahweh would not do "according to all his wondrous works," evidently hoping for some such miraculous deliverance as had taken place in the time of Sennacherib (Jeremiah 21:1 ff).
The prophet gives his uniform answer, that the city must fall; advising the house of David also to "execute justice and righteousness." Setting about this counsel as if they would bribe Yahweh's favor, the king then entered into an agreement with his people to free all their Hebrew bond-slaves ( Jeremiah 34:8-10 ), and sent back a deputation to the prophet entreating his intercession (Jeremiah 37:3 ), as if, having bribed Yahweh, they might work some kind of a charm on the divine will. Nebuchadnezzar had meanwhile invested the city; but just then the Egyptian army approached to aid Judah, and the Babylonian king raised the siege long enough to drive the Egyptians back to their own land; at which, judging that Yahweh had interfered as of old, the people caused their slaves to return to their bondage (Jeremiah 34:11 ).
This treachery called forth a trenchant prophecy from Jeremiah, predicting not only the speedy return of the Chaldean army (Jeremiah 37:6-10 ), but the captivity of the king and the destruction of the city (Jeremiah 34:17-22 ). It was during this temporary cessation of the siege that Jeremiah, attempting to go to Anathoth to redeem his family property, was seized on the pretext of deserting to the enemy, and put in prison (Jeremiah 37:11-15 ).
4. Character of the King:
During the siege, which was soon resumed, Zedekiah's character, on its good and bad sides, was revealed through his frequent contact with the prophet Jeremiah. The latter was a prisoner most of the time; and the indignities which he suffered, and which the king heedlessly allowed, show how the prophet's word and office had fallen in respect (compare the treatment he received, Jeremiah 26:16-19 with Jeremiah 37:15 ; Jeremiah 38:6 ). The king, however, was not arrogant and heartless like his brother Jehoiakim; he was weak and without consistent principles; besides, he was rather helpless and timid in the hands of his headstrong officials (compare Jeremiah 38:5 , Jeremiah 38:24-26 ).
His regard for the word of prophecy was rather superstitious than religious: while the prophet's message and counsel were uniformly consistent, he could not bring himself to follow the will of Yahweh, and seemed to think that Yahweh could somehow be persuaded to change his plans (see Jeremiah 37:17 ; Jeremiah 38:14-16 ). His position was an exceedingly difficult one; but even so, he had not the firmness, the wisdom, the consistency for it.
In his siege of the city Nebuchadnezzar depended mainly on starving it into surrender; and we cannot withhold a measure of admiration for a body of defenders who, in spite of the steadily decreasing food supply and the ravages of pestilence, held the city for a year and a half.
5. His Fate:
During this time Jeremiah's counsel was well known: the counsel of surrender, and the promise that so they could save their lives (Jeremiah 21:9 ; Jeremiah 38:2 ). It was for this, indeed, that he was imprisoned, on the plea that he "weakened the hands" of the defenders; and it was due to the mercy of a foreign slave that he did not suffer death (Jeremiah 38:7-9 ). At length in the 11th year of Zedekiah's reign, just as the supply of food in the city was exhausted, the Chaldean army effected a breach in the wall, and the king of Babylon with his high officials came in and sat in the middle gate. Zedekiah and his men of war, seeing this, fled by night, taking the ill-advised route by the road to Jericho; were pursued and captured in the plains of the Jordan; and Zedekiah was brought before the king of Babylon at Riblah.
After putting to death Zedekiah's sons and the nobles of Judah before his eyes, the king of Babylon then put out the eyes of Zedekiah and carried him captive to Babylon, where, it is uncertain how long after, he died. Jeremiah had prophesied that he would die in peace and have a state mourning (Jeremiah 34:4 , Jeremiah 34:5 ); Ezekiel's prophecy of his doom is enigmatic: "I will bring him to Babylon to the land of the Chaldeans; yet shall he not see it, though he shall die there" (Ezekiel 12:13 ).
6. Doom of the Nation:
The cruelly devised humiliation of the king was only an episode in the tragic doom of the city and nation. Nebuchadnezzar was not minded to leave so stubborn and treacherous a fortress on his path of conquest toward Egypt. A month after the event at Riblah his deputy, Nebuzaradan, entered upon the reduction of the city: burning the temple and all the principal houses, breaking down the walls, carrying away the temple treasures still unpillaged, including the bronze work which was broken into scrap metal, and deporting the people who were left after the desperate resistance and those who had voluntarily surrendered. The religious and state officials were taken to Riblah and put to death. "So," the historian concludes, "Judah was carried away captive out of his land" (Jeremiah 52:27 ). This was in 586 BC.
This, however, was only the political date of the Babylonian exile, the retributive limit for those leavings of Israel who for 11 years had played an insincere game of administration and failed. The prophetic date, from which Ezekiel reckons the years of exile, and from which the prophetic eye is kept on the fortunes and character of the people who are to be redeemed, was 597 BC, when Jehoiachin's long imprisonment began and when the flower of Israel, transplanted to a foreign home, began its term of submission to the word and will of Yahweh. It was this saving element in Israel who still had a recognized king and a promised future. By both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Zedekiah was regarded not as Yahweh's anointed but as the one whom Nebuchadnezzar "had made king" (Jeremiah 37:1 ; Ezekiel 17:16 ), "the king that sitteth upon the throne of David" (Jeremiah 29:16 ). The real last king of Judah was Jehoiachin; Ezekiel's title for Zedekiah is "prince" (Ezekiel 12:10 ).
IBSE (in the public domain) with minor edits.