Jeremiah had a message for Judah’s final King (Zedekiah) in chapter 21. In this 22nd chapter there are messages for his three predecessors, Jehoahaz, Jehoiachim and Jehoiachin. King Josiah was the father of Zedekiah, Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim and the grand father of Jehoiachin. Josiah became king when he was just 8 years old and the bible describes him thus: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.’ What an excellent epitaph! Sadly his three sons and grandson all ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord.’ The story of chapter 22 is the end of the line for these evil kings.
Each of the successive kings after Josiah realised that Judah was somewhat at the mercy of the surrounding superpowers of Egypt and Babylon. Rather then relying on the Lord for security they did deals with Egypt and Babylon and eventually were crushed by the Babylonians. You can read more about this turbulent period in Israel’s history in 2 Kings 23 to 25.
God’s dealings with Israel were governed by a series of covenants he made with the nation. The key covenant was made with Abraham but subsequent covenants were made in the time of Moses. Once the nation was settled in the land, an important covenant was made with King David. The promise made to David was threefold; firstly David’s ‘house’ (his family line of descent) would be established forever, secondly, David’s kingdom would be established forever, and finally David’s throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). It is against these marvellous irrevocable promises that this sad chapter of Jeremiah is set against.
1. How to rule
I often watch the daily political programme on the BBC at lunchtime. It’s slightly more informed and less gladiatorial than Question time. What I note is that there are often discussions about Government policy and it seems that the all the country’s problems could be solved if only the government would spend more money – no one seems to care that current rates of expenditure can only be maintained by adding to our country’s debt that currently stands at £1,780,000,000,000 pounds (£1.78 trillion). Most politicians speak of people’s right to a good standard of living, their right to be treated fairly, their right to the best health care that money can buy, their right to education and so it goes on. Jeremiah speaks in a different era but nonetheless provides some insight into the responsibilities of both the subjects of a kingdom and more importantly the responsibilities of the governing authority. He was instructed to go the king’s palace and proclaim: ‘Hear the word of the Lord to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne – you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. 3This is what the Lord says: do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’ Note that the instruction was for the king, his officials and all of the people who passed through the gates. The instruction seems to speak less of rights and more of responsibilities. Responsibilities to do what is just and right, to rescue those who are under the yoke of oppression and to ‘do no wrong or violence’ to those who are less able to look after themselves; the fatherless, the foreigner and the widow. This seems like good advice to this day. For Israel, since they were in a covenant relationship with God, there were specific benefits in complying with these principles of justice and righteousness: ‘For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people.’ Notice the reference to David’s throne for the second (of three) times in this chapter: Jeremiah had something specific to say about David’s throne and God’s promises regarding it. The rewards for doing what is just and right is characterised by power and freedom. However, there would be consequences, dire consequences, for kings who failed to obey: ‘5 But if you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.’ The warning could hardly be clearer!
In verses 6 to 10, Jeremiah speaks as though the judgment was now inevitable. Cedar wood featured prominently in the building of Jerusalem’s palaces. King David spoke of living in a ‘house of cedar.’ King Solomon spent 13 years building himself a palace of which the roof was of cedar and the walls were lined with cedar wood, it was known as the ‘Palace of the Forest of Lebanon.’ Lebanon and Gilead were noted for forests of cedar. What Jeremiah had to say would surely cause great consternation in the palace: ‘6 For this is what the Lord says about the palace of the king of Judah: Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a wasteland, like towns not inhabited. 7 I will send destroyers against you, each man with his weapons, and they will cut up your fine cedar beams and throw them into the fire.’ The palace would be destroyed. The reasons would be evident even to the surrounding pagan nations. When they wondered at the destruction they would say it is ‘because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and have worshipped and served other gods.’
After the righteous reign of Josiah, four wicked kings would reign. The final king, Zedekiah was the subject of chapter 21, the three kings who reigned between Jeremiah and Zedekiah are the subject of the rest of chapter 22.
You will note form the chart that Jehoahaz reigned immediately after Josiah, he was Josiah’s fourth son and was also known as Shallum. His reign lasted just 3 months. The Egyptian army were on the move, headed north to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians. In 609 BC, King Josiah was killed in an attempt to prevent the Egyptians heading northward. The people appointed Jehoahaz as their new king, perhaps because of his anti-Egyptian politics. It was the Egyptians who deposed and exiled him after just three months on the throne. Jehoahaz ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (2 Kings 23:32).
Of Jehoahaz, the Lord said through Jeremiah ‘10 Do not weep for the dead king or mourn his loss; rather, weep bitterly for him who is exiled, because he will never return nor see his native land again.’ The people had mourned the death of Josiah, in fact Jeremiah had composed a lament for this king. But now, the people were now to weep for Jehoahaz who would never see his homeland again. ‘He will never return. 12 He will die in the place where they have led him captive; he will not see this land again.’ Jehoahaz did not listen to the warnings of Jeremiah, nor did he follow the example of his father Josiah.
After exiling Jehoahaz, the Egyptians installed Josiah’s second son, Jehoiakim as king.
Jehoiakim’s reign lasted 11 years. He was the second son of Josiah and like his younger brother Jehoahaz he ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (2 Kings 23:37). As we shall see in later chapters of Jeremiah, Jehoiakim opposed Jeremiah and his message more than any of the other kings. Money and power can be a corrupting influence on people, both in politics and industry. Commentators have noted that the Old testament recognises oppression in several forms: 1. exploitation of the socially weak (such as widows and fatherless – verse 3), 2. exploitation of the economically weak (such as those who have borrowed money or are heavily taxed), 3. exploitation of the ethnically weak (such as ethnic minorities or ‘the foreigner’ – verse 3), 4. royal excess and abuse of power (such as with king Jehoiakim) and Judicial corruption (see for example Amos 5: 13).
Jehoiakim abused his power by exploiting workers as he built a magnificent palace: ‘13 ‘Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.’ Jeremiah asks sarcastically: ‘Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?’ The contrast of Jehoiakim with his father Josiah is striking: ‘Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.’ Jehoiakim had no interest in doing what was right, his actions were characterised by dishonest gain, oppression and extortion (verse 17). We are easily beguiled by wealth, Jehoiakim seemed to think that his status was enhanced by the construction of an impressive palace, but this palace built on dishonest gain, oppression and the shedding of innocent blood (verse 17) would be utterly destroyed. Jehoiakim had a multiplicity of opportunities to respond to God’s message through Jeremiah but he would not listen (verse 21). Rather than being remembered as a great king who built an impressive palace, Jehoiakim would end his days in disgrace: ‘He will have the burial of a donkey – dragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem’ (verse 19). Doubtless as Jehoiakim listened to the warnings of Jeremiah he would look at his impressive buildings and smile to himself that he was secure, but Jeremiah had a stark warning: ‘You who live in “Lebanon,” who are nestled in cedar buildings, how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain like that of a woman in labour!’ (Verse 23). The warning is there for us all. In what do we place our ultimate trust?
Jehoiachin was the grandson of Josiah and reigned for just three months. Once again he ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father had done’ (2 Kings 24:9). His father was of course Jehoiakim (see chart). The Lord’s message to Jehoiachin was uncompromising: ‘even if you, Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off’ (verse 24). The signet ring was a symbol of power and authority and was used by ancient rulers to imprint the name of the ruler on official documents. The Lord would remove Jehoiachin from power and deliver him into the hands of the Babylonians. He would never return. Jeremiah prophesied in colourful poetry: ‘Is this man Jehoiachin a despised, broken pot, an object no one wants? Why will he and his children be hurled out, cast into a land they do not know?’ (verse 28).
You will remember that Jeremiah’s message seemed to change from warnings that included the option to repent and avoid invasion in the first 19 chapters of the book to an inevitable invasion that could be mitigated by surrender. As we saw in chapter 21, Zedekiah both refused to repent and refused to surrender. The result was that he had to watch his young boys being killed before his eyes were gouged out by the pitiless Babylonians. Whilst Jehoiachin did evil in the eyes of the Lord he did in fact listen to Jeremiah’s warnings. The year was about 598 BC and the city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians and the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. We read in 2 Kings 24 that Jehoiachin did in fact follow Jeremiah’s instruction and did surrender the Nebuchadnezzar. Jehoiachin’s end state is recorded in 2 Kings 25. He never did return to Jerusalem, but after 27 years in prison in Babylon he was released and the Babylonian King at the time (Awel-Marduk) ‘gave him a seat of honour higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived’ (2Kings 25). I suspect that as he reflected on his life, Jehoiachin was glad that he had followed the instruction of Jeremiah to surrender but I wonder too if he wished he had done what was right and had honoured God in his life and in his short reign.
Sin has consequences. These final kings of Judah paid a high price for their wilful and deliberate worship of idols and repeated refusal to listen to the Lord. Chapter 22 ends on a troubling note. Of Jehoiachin we read: ‘Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule any more in Judah.’ This is a story for another time, but if this final king in the line was to be recorded childless how could God’s promise to King David ever be realised? (recall God’s threefold promise of a kingdom, a house and a throne which would be established forever). It seems that through the wickedness of these kings God’s plan was wrecked. No more kings in David’s line. Space and time will not permit a full answer to this dilemma but we have the principles to cope with this apparent difficulty. Faith is simply believing what God as said, neither more nor less. If God says it we can be sure that it is true. This particular dilemma would be resolved without any need to bend or alter God’s word – but that’s another story!*
*For more on the resolution of the problem that Jehoiachin’s sin caused and God’s resolution see: The Genealogy of the Messiah. A Fruchtenbaum