The year was 608 B.C. Medes and Chaldeans together had either taken, or were still besieging, Nineveh; and Pharaoh Necoh,(303) eager to win for Egypt a share of the crumbling Assyrian Empire, had started north with a great army. Marching by the coast he first took Gaza, and crossing by one of the usual passes from Sharon to Esdraelon,(304) found himself opposed near Megiddo by a Jewish force led by its king in person. The Chronicler tells us that Necoh sought to turn Josiah from his desperate venture: What have I to do with thee? I am come not against thee but against the House with which I am at war. God hath spoken to speed me; forbear from God who is with me, lest He destroy thee.(305) But Josiah persisted. The issue of so unequal a contest could not be doubtful. The Jewish army was routed and Josiah himself immediately slain.(306)
At first sight, the courage of Josiah and his small people in facing the full force of Egypt seems to deserve our admiration, as much as did the courage of King Albert and his nation in opposing the faithless invasion of Belgium by the Germans aiming at France. There was, however, a difference. Necoh was not invading Judah, but crossing Philistine territory and a Galilee which had long ceased to be Israel's. Some suppose that since the Assyrian hold upon Palestine relaxed, Josiah had gradually occupied all Samaria. If this be so, was he now stirred by a gallant sense of duty to assert Israel's ancient claim to Galilee as well? We cannot tell.(307) But what we may confidently assume is that, having fulfilled by thirteen years of honest reforms his own part of the terms of the Covenant, Josiah believed that he could surely count on the Divine fulfilment of the rest, and that some miracle would bring to a righteous king and people victory over the heathen, however more powerful the heathen might be. He was only thirty-nine years of age.
His servants carried his body from the field in a chariot to Jerusalem, bringing him back, as we may realise, to a people stricken with consternation. Their trust in the Temple was shaken -- they were not delivered!(308) In the circumstances they did their feeble best by raising to the vacant throne Josiah's son, Shallum, as Jehoahaz, the Lord hath taken hold. But the new name proved no omen of good. In three months Necoh had the youth in bonds at Riblah, in the land of Hamath, that he might not reign in Jerusalem, and afterwards took him to Egypt. Of this fresh sorrow Jeremiah sang as if it had drowned out the sorrow of Megiddo --
Weep not for the dead, XXII.10
Jehoahaz died in Egypt.
The next King, Jehoiakim, another of Josiah's sons, was set on the throne by Necoh, who also exacted a heavy tribute. What national disillusion! The hopes falsely kindled upon the letter of Deuteronomy lay quenched on Megiddo; and the faithful servant of the Covenant had, in spite of its promises as men would argue, been defeated and slain in the flower of his life. Judah had been released from the Assyrian yoke, only to fall into the hands of another tyrant, her new king his creature, and her people sorely burdened to pay him. The result was religious confusion. In at least a formal obedience to the deuteronomic laws of worship, the people of the land continued to resort to the Temple fasts and festivals.(309) But resenting the failure of their God to grant victory numbers relapsed into an idolatry as rank as that under Ahaz or Manasseh;(310) while others, more thoughtful but not less bewildered, conceived doubts of the worth of righteousness. And these tempers were embittered by the cruel selfishness of the new monarch and his reckless injustice. To the taxes required for the tribute to Egypt he added other exactions in order to meet his extravagance in enlarging and adorning his palace. The crime, with which Jeremiah charges him in the following lines, is one to which small kings in the East have often been tempted by their contact with civilisations richer than their own. On Judah Jehoiakim imposed the cruel corvee, which in our day Ismail Pasha imposed upon Egypt.
Woe to who builds his house by injustice, XXII.13 His storeys by wrong,
Josiah had enjoyed what was enough for him in sober, seemly parallel to his faithful discharge of duty; his son was luxurious, unscrupulous, bloody, and withal petty -- fussing with cedar, and cutting up the Prophet's roll piece by piece with a pen-knife! Jeremiah and Baruch's sarcastic notes on Jehoiakim find parallels in Victor Hugo's "Chatiments" of Napoleon III.: "l'infiniment petit, monstreux et feroce;" "Voici de l'or, viens pille et vole ... voici du sang, accours, viens boire, petit, petit!"
XXII.18. Therefore, thus saith the Lord of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, King of Judah.
Mourn him they shall not, "Woe brother!"
Such a prophet to such a king must have been intolerable, and through the following years Jeremiah was pursued by the royal hatred. There were other and more poisonous enemies. We have found him, from the first, steadily seeing through, and stoutly denouncing the great religious orders -- the priests, natural believers in the Temple, with a belief, since Deuteronomy came into their hands, more dogmatic and arrogant than ever; and the professional prophets with their shallow optimism that all was well for Judah, and that her God could never bring upon her the doom which Jeremiah threatened in His Name. Not He! was their answer to him. These two classes were in conspiracy, deluding themselves and the people; in their trust upon the letter of the Law, they had no sense, as he told them, of The Living God.(313) Roused by his scorn they watched for an occasion to convict and destroy him.(314)
This he bravely gave by making, in obedience to God's call, public prediction of the ruin of the Temple. It is uncertain whether Jeremiah did so only once, as many think who read in Chs. VII and XXVI reports of the same address, or whether, as I am inclined to believe, the former chapter reports an address delivered under Josiah, and the latter the repetition of its substance in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim.(315) However this be, Ch. XXVI alone relates the consequences of his outspoken courage. It represents the priests and the prophets as quoting his sentence upon the Temple in absolute terms; though both reports, in the form in which they have reached us, render his own delivery of it as conditional upon the nation's refusal to repent and to better their ways.(316) This, of course, was ever their way; they were ready distorters.
XXVI.1. In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, came this word from the Lord.2. Thus saith the Lord, Stand in the court of the Lord's House and speak unto all Judah, all who come in to worship in the Lord's House, all the words that I have charged thee to speak to them; keep back not a word.3. Peradventure they will hearken and turn every man from his evil way, and I shall relent of the evil which I am purposing to do to them because of the evil of their doings.4. And thou shalt say, Thus saith the Lord: If ye will not obey Me to walk in My Law, which I have set before you,  to hearken to the words of My servants, the prophets whom I am sending to you, rising early and sending -- but ye have not hearkened --  then shall I render this House like Shiloh and this City a thing to be cursed of all nations of the earth.7. And the priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the House of the Lord.8. And it was, when Jeremiah finished speaking all that the Lord had charged him to speak to all the people, that the priests and the prophets(317) laid hold on him saying, Thou shalt surely die! 9. Because thou hast prophesied in the Name of the Lord saying, As Shiloh this House shall be, and this City shall be laid waste without a dweller. And all the people were gathered to Jeremiah in the House of the Lord.10. When the princes of Judah heard of these things they came up from the king's house to the House of the Lord and took their seats in the opening of the New Gate of the Lord's House.(318) 11. Then said the priests and the prophets to the princes and to all the people -- Sentence of death for this man! For he hath prophesied against this City as ye have heard with your ears.12. And Jeremiah said to the princes and to all the people, The Lord hath sent me to prophesy against this House and against this City all the words which ye have heard.13. So now better your ways and your doings, and hearken to the Voice of the Lord, that the Lord may relent of the evil which He hath spoken against you.14. But as for me, here am I in your hand! Do to me as is good and right in your eyes.15. Only know for sure that if ye put me to death ye will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves, and upon this City and upon her inhabitants; for in truth the Lord did send me unto you to speak in your ears all these words.16. And the princes and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, Not for this man be sentence of death, because in the Name of the Lord our God hath he spoken to us.17. Then arose some of the elders of the land and said to all the assembly of the people.18. There was Micaiah the Morasthite in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and he said to all the people of Judah, Thus saith the Lord: Sion like a field shall be ploughed, And Jerusalem be heaps, And the mount of the House a mound of the jungle.19. Did Hezekiah and all Judah put him to death? Did they not fear the Lord and soothe the Lord's face, and the Lord relented of the evil He had uttered against them. Yet we are about to do a great wrong upon our own lives.
Several of its features lift this story to a place among the most impressive in the Old Testament. The priests and prophets on the one side and the princes on the other both use the phrase, that Jeremiah spoke in the Name of the Lord. But the former quote it ironically, or in indignation at the Prophet's claim, while the princes are obviously impressed by his sincerity and apparently their impression is shared by the people. There could be no firmer measure of the pitch of personal power to which Jeremiah has at last braced himself.
The promise of his Call is fulfilled. Sceptical, fluid and shrinking as he is by nature, he stands for this hour at least, a strong wall and a fortress, by his clear conscience, his simple courage, and his full surrender to whatever be in store for him. How bravely he refuses to conciliate them! -- I am in your hand, do to me as is right in your eyes.
Again, there is proof of a popular tradition and conscience in Israel more sound than those of the religious authorities of the nation. The people remembered what their priests and prophets forgot or ignored, and through their elders gave utterance to it on the side of justice. In agreement with them were the princes, the lay leaders of the nation. To ecclesiastics of every age and race this is a lesson, to give heed to "the common sense" and to the public instinct for justice. And on that day in Jerusalem these were called forth by the ability of the people, commoners and nobles alike, to recognise a real Prophet, an authentic Speaker-for-God at once when they heard him.
The danger that Jeremiah faced and the source from which it sprang are revealed by the fate which befell another denouncer of the land in the Name of the Lord. Of him, the narrator uses a form of the verb to prophesy different from that which he uses of Jeremiah, thus guarding himself from expressing an opinion as to whether the man was a genuine prophet. This is a further tribute to the moral effect of Jeremiah's person and word.
XXVI.20. There was also a man who took upon him to prophesy in the Name of the Lord, Urijahu, son of Shemajahu, from Kiriath-jearim, and he prophesied(319) against this land, according to all the words of Jeremiah.21. And king Jehoiakim(320) and all the princes heard of his words and they sought(321) to put him to death; and Urijahu heard and fearing fled and went into Egypt.22. And the king sent men to Egypt.(322) 23. And they took forth Urijah thence and brought him to the king, and slew him with the sword, and cast his corpse into the graves of the sons of the people.24. But the hand of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, was with Jeremiah so as not to give him into the hand of the people to put him to death.
The one shall be taken and the other left! We are not told why, after the verdict of the princes and the people, Ahikam's intervention was needed. Yet the people were always fickle, and the king who is not mentioned in connection with Jeremiah's case, but as we see from Urijah's watched cruelly from the background, was not the man to be turned by a popular verdict from taking vengeance on the Prophet who had attacked him. Ahikam, however, had influence at court, and proved friendly to Jeremiah on other occasions.(323)
All this was in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim. Before we follow Jeremiah himself through the rest of that malignant and disastrous reign, during which the steadfastness that his personality had achieved was again to be shaken, we must understand the progress of the great events which directed his own conduct and gradually determined the fate of his people.
In 625 B.C. the successor of Asshurbanipal upon the tottering throne of Assyria had found himself compelled to acknowledge Nabopolassar the Chaldean as nominally viceroy, but virtually king, of Babylon.(324) The able chief of a vigorous race, Nabopolassar bided his time for a vaster sovereignty, and steadily this came to him. The Medes, twice baffled in their attempts on Nineveh,(325) made terms with him for a united assault on the Assyrian capital and for the division of its empire. To that assault Nineveh fell in 612 or 606,(326) and with her fall Assyria disappeared from among the Northern Powers. Whatever part of the derelict empire the Medes may have secured, Mesopotamia remained with the Chaldeans who doubtless claimed as well all its provinces south of the Euphrates. But, as we have seen, Necoh of Egypt had already overrun these and battle between him and the Chaldeans became imminent. Their armies met in 605-4 at Carchemish on The River. Necoh was defeated by Nebuchadrezzar, son of Nabopolassar, and driven south to his own land. Egypt had failed; and the northern caldrons, as Jeremiah from the first predicted, again boiled with the fate of Judah and her neighbours. The Foe, though no longer the Scythian of his early expectations, was still out of the North.
By 602, if not before, Nebuchadrezzar, having succeeded his father as King of Babylon, carried his power to the coasts of the Levant and the Egyptian border. Judah was his vassal, and for three years Jehoiakim paid him tribute, but then defaulted, probably because of promises from Egypt after the fashion of that restless power. As if not yet ready to invade Judah in force, Nebuchadrezzar let loose upon her, along with some of his own Chaldeans, troops of Moabites, Ammonites and Arameans. Soon afterwards Jehoiakim died and was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin, a youth of eighteen, who appears to have maintained his father's policy; for in 598, if not 597, Nebuchadrezzar came up against Jerusalem, which forthwith surrendered, and the king, his mother and wives, his courtiers and statesmen were carried into exile, with the craftsmen and smiths and all who were apt for war; none remained save the poorest of the people of the land.(327)
Throughout these convulsions of her world, this crisis in the history of Judah herself, Jeremiah remains the one constant, rational, and far-seeing power in the national life. But at what terrible cost to himself! His experience is a throng of tragic paradoxes. Faithful to his mission, every effort he makes to rouse his people to its meaning is baffled. His word is signally vindicated by the great events of the time, yet each of these but tears his heart the more as he feels it bringing nearer the ruin of his people. His word is confirmed, but he is shaken by doubts of himself, his utterance of which is in poignant contrast to his steadfast delivery of his messages of judgment. No prophet was at once more sure of his word and less sure of himself; none save Christ more sternly denounced his people or upon the edge of their doom more closely knit himself to them.
It is a staggering world, and the one man who has its secret is shaken to despair about himself. Yet the Word with which he is charged not only fulfils itself in event after event but holds its distracted prophet fast to the end of his abhorred task of proclaiming it.
The cardinal event was Nebuchadrezzar's victory over Necoh at Carchemish in 605 or 604 with its assurance of Babylonian, not Egyptian, supremacy throughout Western Asia. Such confirmation of the substance of Jeremiah's prophecies of the past twenty-three years was that Divine signal which flashed on him to reduce those prophecies to writing and have them recited to the people by Baruch. We have already followed the story in Ch. XXXVI of how this was done(328) and of the consequences -- the communication of the Roll to the princes and by them to the king, the king's burning of the Roll piece by piece as he heard it read, his order for the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch, their escape into hiding, and their preparation of a Second Roll containing all the words of the First with many others like them. We may now, in addition, note the following.
First there is the Divine Peradventure at the beginning of the story.(329) It may be, God says, that the people will hear and turn from their evil ways that I may forgive their iniquity -- a very significant perhaps when taken with the Parable of the Potter to which we are coming. Again, the king at least understands the evil predicted by Jeremiah to be the destruction of his land and people by the King of Babylon.(330) And again, though some of the princes encourage the Prophet's escape, and urge the king not to burn the Roll, none are shocked by the burning.(331) Evidently in 605-4 they were not so impressed with the divinity of Jeremiah's word as they had been in 608. Then they did not speak of telling the king; now they say that they must tell(332) him. Jehoiakim's malignant influence has grown, and Jeremiah discovers the inconstancy of the princes, even of some friendly to himself.
To the same decisive year, 605-4, the fourth of Jehoiakim, is referred an address by Jeremiah reported in XXV.1-11 (with perhaps 13a). This repeats the Prophet's charge that his people have refused -- now for three-and-twenty years -- to listen to his call for repentance and reaffirms the certainty, at last made clear by the Battle of Carchemish, that their deserved doom lies in the hands of a Northern Power, which shall waste their land and carry them into foreign servitude for seventy years. The suggestion that this address formed the conclusion of the Second Roll dictated by Jeremiah to Baruch is suitable to the contents of the address and becomes more probable if we take as genuine the words in 13a, Thus will I bring upon that land all My words which I have spoken against her, all that is written in this Book. But a curious question rises from the fact that we have two differing reports of the address.(333) Very significantly the shorter Greek Version contains neither the addition to the date, that was the first year of Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, nor the two statements that his was the Northern Power which would waste Judah and which she should serve for seventy years (verses 1, 9, 11, as also the similar reference in verse 12), all of which are inserted in the Hebrew text but not without a sign of their being later intrusions upon it.(334) And indeed it is inconceivable that the Greek translator could have omitted the four references to Nebuchadrezzar (including that in verse 12) had he found them in the Hebrew text from which he worked. Probably, therefore, Jeremiah did not include them in the first version of his address; and for this he had reason. His purpose in the address was to declare the fulfilment of the substance of all his previous prophesying, and this had been not that the Chaldeans, but that a northern power, would prove to be the executioner of God's judgment upon Judah. The references to Nebuchadrezzar were added, possibly by Jeremiah himself or by Baruch, as the Chaldean doom steadily drew nearer. The interesting thing is that the earlier version of the address survived and was used by the Greek translator.(335)
Verses 12-14, indicating the destruction of Babylon in her turn after seventy years, are, in whole or in part, generally taken as a post-exilic addition.(336) Omitting verse 14, the Greek inserts between 13 and 15 the Oracles on Foreign Nations, which the Hebrew postpones to Chs. XLVI. ff.(337) In the uncertain state of the text of 12-14 it is impossible to decide whether this was or was not the original position of those Oracles.
The rest of the chapter, verses 15-38, is so full of expansions and repetitions, which we may partly see from a comparison of it with the Greek, as well as of inconsistencies with some earlier Oracles by Jeremiah,(338) of traces of the later prophetic style and of echoes of other prophets, that many deny any part of the miscellany to be Jeremiah's own. Yet we must remember that his commission was not to Judah alone(339) but to the nations as well, against many of which XXV.15-38 is directed; and the figure of the Lord handing to the Prophet the cup of the wine of His wrath is not one which we have any reason to doubt to be Jeremiah's. Sifting, by help of the Greek, the Hebrew list of nations who are to drink of the cup, we get Judah and Egypt; Askalon, Gaza, Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod; Dedan, Tema, Buz, and their clipt neighbours in Arabia; all of whom were shaken in Jeremiah's day by the Chaldean terror. Indeed the reference to Ashdod suits the condition of that Philistine city in the Prophet's time better than its restored prosperity in the post-exilic age. The substance of verses 15-23 may therefore be reasonably left to Jeremiah. Verses 24-38 are more doubtful.(340)