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Jeremiah — The Fall of Jerusalem (i)

2019.04.19 17:25 MarleyEngvall Jeremiah — The Fall of Jerusalem (i)

by John Lord, LL.D. JEREMIAH is a study to those who would know the history of the latter days of the Jewish mon- archy, before it finally succumbed to the Babylonian conqueror. He was a sad and isolated man, who uttered his prophetic warnings to a perverse and scorn- ful generation; persecuted because he was truthful, yet not entirely neglected or disregarded, since he was consulted in great national dangers by the monarchs with whom he was contemporary. So important were his utterances, it is matter of great satisfaction that they were committed to writing, for the benefit of future generations,——not of Jews only, but of the Gentiles,——on account of the fundamental truths con- tained in them. Next to Isaiah, Jeremiah was the most prominent of the prophets who were commis- sioned to declare the will and judgments of Jehovah on a degenerate and backsliding people. He was a preacher of Righteousness, as well as a prophet of impending woes. As a reformer he was unsuccessful, since the Hebrew nation was incorrigibly joined to its idols. His public career extended over a period of forty years. He was neither popular with the people, nor a favorite of kings and princes; the nation was against him and the times were against him. He ex- asperated alike the priests, the nobles, and the popu- lace by his rebukes. As a prophet he had no honor in his native place. He uniformly opposed the cur- rent of popular prejudices, and denounced every form of selfishness and superstition; but all his protests and rebukes were in vain. There were very few to encourage him or comfort him. Like Noah, he was alone amidst universal derision and scorn, so that he was sad beyond measure, more filled with grief than with indignation. Jeremiah was not bold and stern, like Elijah, but retiring, plaintive, mournful, tender. As he surveyed the downward descent of Judah, which nothing appar- ently could arrest, he exclaimed: "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the daughter of my people!" Is it possible for language to express a deeper despondency, or a more tender grief? Pathos and unselfishness are blended with his despair. It is not for himself that he is overwhelmed with gloom, but for the sins of the people. It is because the people would not hear, would not consider, and would persist in their folly and wickedness, that grief pierces his soul. He weeps for them, as Christ wept over Je- rusalem. Yet at times he is stung into bitter impre- cations, he becomes fierce and impatient; and then again he rises over the gloom which envelops him, in the conviction that there will be a new covenant between God and man, after the punishment for sin shall have been inflicted. But his prevailing feelings are grief and despair, since he has no hopes of national reform. So he predicts woes and calamities at no dis- tant day, which are to be so overwhelming that his soul is crushed in the anticipation of them. He can- not laugh, he cannot rejoice, he cannot sing, he can- not eat and drink like other men. He seeks solitude; he longs for the desert; he abstains from marriage, he is ascetic in all his ways; he sits alone and keeps silence, and communes only with his God; and when forced into the streets and courts of the city, it is only with the faint hope that he may find an honest man. No persons command his respect save the Ara- bian Rechabites, who have the austere habits of the wilderness, like those early Syrian monks. Yet his gloom is different from their: they seek to avert divine wrath for their own sins; he sees this wrath about to descend for the sins of others, and overwhelm the whole nation in misery and shame. Jeremiah was born in the little ecclesiastical town of Anathoth, about three miles from Jerusalem, and was the son of a priest. We do not know the exact year of his birth, but he was a very young man when he received his divine commission as a prophet, about six hundred and twenty-seven years before Christ. Josiah had then been on the throne of Judah twelve years. The kingdom was apparently prosperous, and was unmolested by external enemies. For seventy- five years Assyria had given but little trouble, and Egypt was occupied with the siege of Ashdod, which had been going on for twenty-nine years, so strong was that Philistine city. But in the absence of ex- ternal dangers corruption, following wealth, was mak- ing fearful strides among the people, and impiety was nearly universal. Every one was bent on pleasure or gain, and prophet and priest were worldly and deceit- ful. From the time when Jeremiah was first called to the prophetic office until the fall of Jerusalem there was an unbroken series of national misfortunes, gradu- ally darkening into utter ruin and exile. He may have shrunk from the perils and mortifications which attended him for forty years, as his nature was sen- sitive and tender; but during this long ministry he was incessant in his labors, lifting up his voice in the court of the Temple, in the palace of the king, in prison, in private houses, in the country around Jerusalem. The burden of his utterances was a denun- ciation of idolatry, and a lamentation over its conse- quences. "My people, saith Jehovah, have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out for themselves underground cisterns, full of rents, that can hold no water. . . . Behold, O Judah! thou shalt be brought to shame by the new alliance with Egypt, as thou wast in the past by thy old alliance with Assyria." In this denunciation by the prophet we see that he mingled in political affairs, and opposed the alliance which Judah made with Egypt, which ever proved a broken reed. Egypt was a vain support against the new power that was rising on the Euphrates, carry- ing all before it, even to the destruction of Nineveh, and was threatening Damascus and Tyre as well as Jerusalem. The power which Judah had now to fear was Babylon, not Assyria. If any alliance was to be formed, it was better to conciliate Babylon than Egypt. Roused by the earnest eloquence of Jeremiah, and of those of the group of earnest followers of Jehovah who stood with him,——Huldah the prophetess, Shal- lum her husband, keeper of the royal wardrobe, Hil- kiah the hill-priest, and Shaphan the scribe, or sec- retary,——the youthful king Josiah, in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he was himself but twenty- six years old, set about reforms, which the nobles and priests bitterly opposed. Idolatry had been the fashionable religion for nearly seventy years, and the Law was nearly forgotten. The corruption of the priesthood and of the great body of the prophets kept pace with the degeneracy of the people. The Temple was dilapidated, and its gold and bronze decorations had been despoiled. The king undertook a thorough repair of the great Sanctuary, and during its progress a discovery was made by the high-priest Hilkiah of a copy of the Law, hidden amid the rubbish of one of the cells or chambers of the Temple. It is generally supposed to have been the Book of Deuter- onomy. When it was lost, and how, it is not easy to ascertain,——probably during the reign of some one of the idolatrous kings. It seems to have been entirely forgotten,——a proof of the general apostasy of the nation. But the discovery of the book was hailed by Josiah as a very important event; and its effect was to give a renewed impetus to his reforms, and a renewed study of patriarchal history. He forthwith assembled the leading men of the nation,——prophets, priests, Levites, nobles, and heads of tribes. He read to them the details of the ancient covenant, and sol- emnly declared his purpose to keep the command- ments and statutes of Jehovah as laid down in the precious book. The assembled elders and priests gave their eager concurrence to the act of the king, and Judah once more, outwardly at least, became the people of God. Nor can it be questioned that the renewed study of the Law, as brought about by Josiah, produced a great influence on the future of he Hebrew nation, espe- cially in the renunciation of idolatry. Yet this reform, great as it was, did not prevent the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the leading people among the Hebrews to the land of the Chaldeans, whence Abraham their great progenitor had emigrated. Josiah, who was thoroughly aroused by "the words of the book," and its denunciations of the wrath of Jehovah upon the people if they should forsake his ways, in spite of the secret opposition of the nobles and priest, zealously pursued the work of reform. The "high places," on which were heathen altars, were levelled with the ground; the images of the God were overthrown; the Temple was purified, and the abominations which had disgraced it were re- moved. His reforms extended even to the scattered population of Samaria whom the Assyrians had spared, and all the buildings connected with the worship of Baal and Ashtaroth at Bethel were destroyed. Their very stones were broken in pieces, under the eyes of Josiah himself. The skeletons of the pagan priests were dragged from their burial places and burned. An elaborate celebration of the feast of Passover followed soon after the discovery of the copy of the Law, whether confined to Deuteronomy or including other additional writings ascribed to Moses, we know not. This great Passover was the leading internal event of the reign of Josiah. Having "taken away all the abominations out of all the countries that be- longed to the children of Israel," even as the earlier keepers of te Law cleansed their premises, especially of all remains of leaven,——the symbol of corruption,—— the king commanded a celebration of the feast of de- liverance. Priests and Levite were sent throughout the country to instruct people in the preparations demanded for the Passover. The sacred ark, hidden during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon, was restored to its old place in the Temple, where it remained until the Temple was destroyed. On the approach of the festival, which was to be held with unusual solemni- ties, great multitudes from all parts of Palestine assembled at Jerusalem, and three thousand bullocks and thirty thousand lambs were provided by the king for the seven days' feast which followed the Passover. The princes also added eight hundred oxen and seven thousand six hundred small cattle as a gift to priests and people. After the priests in their white robes, with bare feet and uncovered heads, and the Levites at their side according to the king's commandment had "killed the passover" and "sprinkled the blood from their hands," each Levite having first washed himself in the Temple laver, the part of the animal required for the burnt-offering was laid on the altar flames, and the remainder was cooked by the Levites for the people, either baked, roasted, or boiled. And this continued for seven days; during all the while the services of the Temple choir were conducted by the singers, chant- ing the psalms of David and Asaph. Such a Pass- over had not been held since the days of Samuel. No king, not even David or Solomon, had celebrated the festival on so grand a scale. The minutest detail of the requirements of the Law were attended to. The festival proclaimed the full restoration of the worship of Jehovah, and kindled enthusiasm for his service. So great was this event that Ezekiel dates the opening of his prophecies from it. "It seems probable that we have in the eighty-fifth psalm a relic of this great sol- emnity . . . . Its tone is sad amidst all the great public rejoicings; it bewails the stubborn ungodliness of the people as a whole." After the great Passover, which took place in the year 622, when Josiah was twenty-six years of age, little is said of the pious king, who reigned twelve years after this memorable event. One of the best, though not one of the wisest, kings of Judah, he did his best to eradicate every trace of idolatry; but the hearts of the people responded faintly to his efforts. Reform was only outward and superficial,——an illus- tration of the inability even of an absolute monarch to remove evils to which the people cling in their hearts. To the eyes of Jeremiah, there was no hope while the hearts of the people were unchanged. "Can the Ethipian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" he mournfully exclaims. "Much less can those who are accustomed to do evil learn to do well." He had no illusions; he saw the true state of affairs, and was not misled by mere outward and enforced reforms, which partook of the nature of re- ligious persecution, and irritated the people rather than led to a true religious life among them. There was nothing left to him but to declare woes and ap- proaching calamities, to which the people were in- sensible. They mocked and reviled him. His lofty position secured him a hearing, but he preached to stones. The people believed nothing but lies; many were indifferent and some were secretly hostile, and he must have been painfully disappointed in view of the incompleteness of his work through the secret opposition of popular leaders. Josiah was the most virtuous monarch of Judah. It was a great public misfortune that his life was cut short prematurely at the age of thirty-eight, and in consequence of his own imprudence. He undertook to oppose the encroachments of Necho II, king of Egypt, an able, warlike, and enterprising monarch, distinguished for his naval expeditions, whose ships doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and returned to Egypt in safety, after a three years' voyage. Necho was not so successful in digging a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, in which enterprise one hundred and twenty thousand men perished from hunger, fatigue, and disease. But his great aim was to extend his empire to the limits reached by Rameses II., the Sesostris of the Greeks. The great Assyrian empire was then breaking up, and Nineveh was about to fall before the Babylonians; so he seized the opportunity to invade Syria, a province of the Assyrian empire. He must of course pass through Palestine, the great highway between Egypt and the East. Josiah op- posed his enterprise, fearing that if the Egyptian king conquered Syria, he himself would become vassal of Egypt. Jeremiah earnestly endeavored to dissuade his sovereign from embarking in so doubtful a war; even Necho tried to convince him through his envoys that he made war on Nineveh, not on Jerusalem, in- voking——as most intensely earnest men did in those days of tremendous impulse——the sacred name of Deity as his authentication. Said he: "What have I to do wit thee, thou King of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war; for God commanded me to make haste. Forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not." But nothing could induce Josiah to give up his warlike enterprise. He had the piety of Saint Louis, and also his patriotic and chiv- alric heroism. He marched his forces to the plain of Esdraelon, the great battle field where Rameses II. had triumphed over the Hittites centuries before. The battle was fought at Megiddo. Although Jo- siah took the precaution to disguise himself, he was mortally wounded by the Egyptian archers, and was driven back in his splendid chariot toward Jerusalem, which he did not live to reach. The lamentations for this brave and pious monarch remind us of the universal grief of the Hebrew nation on the death of Samuel. He was buried in a tomb which he had prepared for himself, amid universal mourning. A funeral oration was composed by Jere- miah, or rather an elegy, afterward sung by the na- tion on the anniversary of the battle. Nor did the nation ever forget a king so virtuous in his life and so zealous for the Law. Long after the return from captivity the singers of Israel sang his praises, and popular veneration for him increased with the lapse of time; for in virtues and piety, and uninterrupted zeal for Jehovah, Josiah never had an equal among the kings of Judah. The services of this good king were long remem- bered. To him may be traced the unyielding devotion of the Jews, after the Captivity, for the rites an forms and ceremonies which are found in the books of the Law. The legalisms of the Scribes may be traced to him. He reigned but twelve years after his great reformation,——not long enough to root out the heath- enism which had prevailed unchecked for nearly sev- enty years. With him perished the hopes of the kingdom. After his death the decline was rapid. A great re- action set in, and faction was accompanied with vio- lence. The heathen party triumphed over the orthodox party. The passions which had been suppressed since the death of Manasseh burst out with all the frenzy and savage hatred which have ever marked the Jews in their religious contentions, and these were unrestrained by the four kings who succeeded Josiah. The people were devoured by religious animosities, and split up into hostile factions. Had the nation been united, it is pos- sible that later it might have successfully resisted the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah gave vent to his despairing sentiments, and held out no hope. When Elijah had appealed to the people to choose between Jehovah and Baal, he was successful, because they were then undecided and wavering in their belief, and it required only an evidence of superior power to bring them back to their allegiance. But when Jeremiah ap- peared, idolatry was the popular religion. It had be- come so firmly established by a succession of wicked kings, added to the universal degeneracy, that even Josiah could work but a temporary reform. Hence the voice of Jeremiah was drowned. Even the prophets of his day had become men of the world. They fawned on the rich and powerful whose favour they sought, and prophesied "smooth things" to them. They were the optimists of a decaying nation and a godless, pleasure-seeking generation. They were to Jerusalem what the Sophists were to Athens when De- mosthenes thundered his disregarded warnings. There were, indeed, a few prophets left who labored for the truth; but their words fell on listless ears. Nor could the priests arrest the ruin, for they were as corrupt as the people. The most learned among them were zeal- ous only for the letter of the law, and fostered among the people a hypocritical formalism. True religious life had departed; and the noble Jeremiah, the only great statesman as well as prophet who remained, saw his influence progressively declining, until at last he was utterly disregarded. Yet he maintained his dig- nity, a fearlessly declared his message. In the meantime the triumphant Necho, after the defeat and dispersion of Josiah's army, pursued his way toward Damascus, which he at once overpowered. From thence he invaded Assyria, and stripped Nineveh of its most fertile provinces. The capital itself was besieged by Nabopolassar and Cyaxares the Mede, and Necho was left for a time in possession of his newly- acquired dominion. Josiah was succeeded by his son Shallum, who as- suemed the crown under the name of Jehoaz, which event it seems gave umbrage to the king of Egypt. So he despatched an army to Jerusalem, which yielded at once, and King Jehoaz was sent as a captive to the banks of the Nile. His elder brother Eliakim was appointed king in his place, under the name of Jehoi- akim, who thus became the vassal of Necho. He was a young man of twenty-five, self-indulgent, proud, des- potic, and extravagant. There could be no more im- pressive comment on the infatuation and folly of the times than the embellishment of Jerusalem with palaces and public buildings, with the view to imitate the glory of Solomon. In everything the king differed from his father Josiah, especially in his treatment of Jeremiah, whom he would have killed. He headed the move- ment to restore paganism; altars were erected on every hill to heathen deities, so that there were more gods in Judah than there were towns. Even the sacred animals of Egypt were worshipped in the dark cham- bers beneath the Temple. In the most sacred places of the Temple itself idolatrous priests worshipped the rising sun, and the obscene rites of Phœnician idolatry were performed in private houses. The de- cline in morals kept pace with the decline of spir- itual religion. There was no vice which was not rampant throughout the land,——adultery, oppression of foreigners, venality in judges, falsehood, dishonesty in trade, usury, cruelty to debtors, robbery and murder, the loosing of the ties of kindred, general suspicion of neighbors,——all the crimes enumerated by the Apostle Paul among the Romans. Judah in reality had be- come an idolatrous nation like Tyre and Syria and Egypt, with only here and there a witness to the truth, like Jeremiah, the prophetess Huldah, and Baruch the scribe. This relapse into heathenism filled the soul of Jeremiah with grief and indignation, but gave to him a courage foreign to his timid and shrinking nature. In the presence of the king, the princes, and priests he was defiant, immovable, and fearless, uttering his solemn warnings from day to day with noble fidel- ity. All classes turned against him; the nobles were furious at his exposure of their license and robberies, the priests hated him for his denunciation of hypoc- risy, and the people for his gloomy prophecies that the Temple should be destroyed, Jerusalem reduced to ashes, and they themselves led into captivity. Not only were crime and idolatry rampant, but the death of Josiah was followed by droughts and famine. In vain were the prayers of Jeremiah to avert calamity. Jehovah replied to him: "Pray not for this people! Though they fast, I will not hear their cry; though they offer sacrifice I have no pleasure in them, but will consume them by the sword, by famine, and pestilence." Jeremiah piteously gives way to despair- ing lamentations. "Hast thou, O Lord, utterly rejected Judah? Is thy soul tired of Zion? Why hast thou smitten us so that there is no healing for us?" Jeho- vah replies: "If Moses and Samuel stood pleading before me, my should could not be toward this people. I appoint four destroyers,——the sword to slay, the dogs to tear and fight over the corpse, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field; for who will have pity on thee, O Jerusalem? Thou hast rejected me. I am weary of relenting. I will scatter them as with a broad winnowing shovel, as men scatter the chaff on the threshing-floor." Such, amid general depravity and derision, were some of the utterances of the prophet, during the reign of Jehoiakim. Among other evils which he denounced was the neglect of the Sabbath, so faithfully observed in earlier and better times. At the gates of the city he cried aloud against the general profanation of the sacred day, which instead of being a day of rest was the busiest day of the week, when the city was like a great fair and holiday. On this day the people of the neighboring villages brought for sale their figs and grapes and wine and vegetables; on this day the wine-presses were trodden in the country, and the harvest was carried to the threshing-floors. The preacher made himself especially odious for his re- buke for the violation of the Sabbath. "Com," said his enemies to the crowd, "let us lay a plot against him; let us smite him with the tongue by reporting his words to the king, and bearing false witness against him." On this renewed persecution the prophet does not as usual give way to lamentation, but hurls his maledictions. "O Jehovah! give thou their sons to hunger, deliver them to the sword; let their wives be made childless and widows; let their strong men be given over to death, and their young men be smitten with the sword." And to consummate, as it were, his threats of divine punishment so soon to be visited on the degenerate city Jeremiah is directed to buy an earthenware bottle, such as was used by the peasants to hold their drink- ing-water, and to summon the elders and priests of Jerusalem to the southwestern corner of the city, and to throw before their feet that bottle and shiver it in pieces, as a significant symbol of the approaching fall of the city, to be destroyed as utterly as the shattered jar. "And I will empty out in the dust, says Jehovah, the counsels of Judah and Jerusalem, as this water is now poured from the bottle. And I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those that seek their lives; and I will give their corpses for meat to the birds of heaven and the beasts of the earth; and I will make this city an astonishment and a scoffing. Every one that passes by it will be astonished and hiss at its misfortunes Even so will I shatter this people and this city, as this bottle, which cannot be made whole again, has been shattered." Nor was Jeremiah contented to utter these maledictions to the priests and elders; he made his way to the Temple, and taking his stand among the people, he reiterated, amid a storm of hisses, mockeries, and threats, what he had just declared to a smaller audience in reference to Jerusalem. 
from Beacon Lights of History, by John Lord, LL. D., Volume I, Part II: Jewish Heroes and Prophets, pp. 327 - 345 ©1883, 1888, by John Lord. ©1921, By Wm. H. Wise & Co., New York
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