1. Introducing Nebuzaradan
I used to often walk past the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall in London. There are some statues along the front of the building, one of which is of Field Marshall Alanbrooke. At the time of the second world war, Field Marshall Alanbrooke had the title of CIGS: Chief of the Imperial General Staff – he was the head of the British Army. Nebuzaradan was the head of the Babylonian army and he took the title Commander of the Imperial Guard – perhaps he might have abbreviated his title to CIG had he lived in our times!
The Babylonians were God’s instrument of judgment on the wayward Judeans. Over centuries the people and the nation of Israel, despite their privileged position as God’s chosen people, had turned away from the Lord to worship foreign, false gods. They had been warned through the prophets to have a change of heart, but they refused. Now the city lay in ruins and its buildings were destroyed by fire. The man in charge of this destructive operation was Nebuzaradan.
The Babylonians had no tradition of worshipping the true God of the universe. Their gods were invented gods. The god they worshipped was Marduk. He was the god of the city of Babylon and the empire. He became known simply as ‘Lord’ or rather ‘Bel.’ It is believed that the Babylonians originally considered Marduk to be the god of thunderstorms, but later he was reckoned to be the Lord of the Heavens and Earth, as well as determining the destiny of kingdoms and men. Marduk was believed to have a son, Nabu. Nabu was worshiped by the Babylonians as the god of writing – the symbol assigned to him was of a stylus resting on a clay tablet. Nebuzaradan’s name comes from this god Nabu and it means ‘Nabu has given offspring.’
2. Nebuzaradan and Jeremiah
It was the king of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar who instructed Nebuzaradan to take care of Jeremiah. Nebuzaradan was instructed not to harm Jeremiah and to do whatever Jeremiah asked (See Jeremiah 39). Jeremiah was to be placed, under Nebuzaradan’s orders, into the care of Gedaliah – a man the Babylonians trusted and would appoint as the governor of Judea. It seems that in the confusion of the capture of Jerusalem that Jeremiah never did reach the house of Gedaliah, but somehow, he became mixed up with Judean captives: he found himself bound and in chains in the town of Ramah, a few miles north of Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan found Jeremiah (whether he was actively looking for him, or this was by good fortune is not known) and having released him, made a most remarkable statement, here’s what he said: ‘The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. 3 And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him (verses 2 and 3).’ This is a pagan army commander and he is basically preaching back to Jeremiah, what Jeremiah had been preaching about for the past 40 years! How could a foreign soldier, who has presided over the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of many Israelites have such insight and understanding?
The year in which the destruction of Jerusalem took place was 587 BC. To discover the source of Nebuzaradan’s insight we need to go back about 20 years. At that time, Judah was effectively a colony of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were however at war with the Babylonians. In 612 BC, the Babylonians attacked and destroyed the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul).
The Babylonians headed next for the city of Carchemish. A victory there over the Assyrians would be decisive in this war for supremacy over the entire region. The Egyptians, presumably fearing an overly powerful Babylon assembled their army to support the Assyrians. As they marched northwards, the godly Judean king Josiah engaged them in battle, but was defeated , it was the year 609 BC. In 606 BC the decisive battle took place at Carchemish. The Babylonians won that battle and Babylon thus reigned supreme in the region, over both the Assyrians and the Egyptians. Judah too was now under Babylonian control. It was in 605 BC that the first deportation of Judeans to Babylon took place. What the Babylonians wanted was the top young people of Judah to train and ultimately secure their future dominance in the region – it was a remarkably foresighted and strategic tactic: whilst Jerusalem would experience a brain drain, for Babylon it would be a brain gain! Among the exiles were four talented young men: Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah and Daniel. In Daniel 1, they were described thus: ‘4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.’ They were enrolled on a 3 year degree course to learn the language and literature of the Babylonians. One can imagine the sort of conversations that took place as they started their learning in Babylon, people would know that they were from Judah and would ask about their names. Why do you have a name Daniel? Daniel would reply that his name meant ‘God is my judge.’ The reply may have been tough to take – well he’s not much of a god is he, we control your country and we’re now your judge! Our God Marduk is clearly a much greater god than yours! Likewise, Hananiah (Jehovah has given), Mishael (who is what God is) and Azariah (Yahweh has helped) doubtless came under the same sort of questioning. The four young Judeans would have been mocked as being from a second-rate country with a second-rate god – compare and contrast with the Babylonians!
The education programme no doubt would put these young men’s faith in the God of Israel under extreme pressure. They were given new names, names that emphasised the greatness of the Babylonian gods: Daniel was given the name Belshazzar (Bel protect the king), Hananiah was given the name Shadrach (command of Aku: Aku was the god of the moon), for Mishael it was Meshach (who is what Aku is) and Azariah, Abednego (servant of Nebo: Nebo was the god of writing). The temptation to ‘go native’ and enjoy the privileges of being at the top institute of learning in the superpower of the day must have been near overwhelming. What would you do? These four young men decided that they would remain true to the God of Israel. The result was that God honoured their faithfulness; they were the stand-out students in their place of learning.
What happened next was to have a profound effect on the Babylonian elite. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. He knew instinctively that the dream was of great significance, but he could not figure out why. He called his advisors, those who had come through the great University of Babylon. What could his dream mean? “Tell us the dream, and we’ll tell you the meaning” they said. “No, you tell me the dream and then give the interpretation, then I’ll know that you really do understand the meaning!” The intellectuals of the day rightly protested, but the king just became all the more irritated with them – what was the point of all that education if they couldn’t discern such a simple thing! The king had had enough, if these expensively educated men couldn’t help, then they were to be put to death. The order was given, and the commander of the king’s guard began to round up those earmarked for death. What did Danial and his three friends do when they heard? They prayed! To cut a long story short (which you can read for yourself in Daniel 2) the dream and the interpretation was revealed to Daniel. The dream concerned the great kingdoms of the world, kingdoms that were characterised by 5 metals; gold, silver, bronze, iron and iron/clay. Babylon was the greatest kingdom of gold but eventually there would come lesser kingdoms until the kingdom of iron mixed with clay – at this point the god of heaven would utterly destroy these kingdoms and would set up a kingdom that would never be destroyed. How it must have thrilled Daniel to consider how God would prevail over the kingdoms of men! King Nebuchadnezzar was amazed and delighted in equal measure! “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.” This all came about because of the faithfulness of four young men!
The king may have been delighted, but others took note too. The intellectuals and advisors who were under a death sentence that they could do nothing to remove owed their lives to Daniel and his God. Where was Marduk and Nabo now? No doubt the soldiers sent to round up the wise men were equally impressed that a young guy from the provinces could impress the king and completely change his order of mass execution!
Why is this so important? These events and perhaps the blazing furnace event (recorded in Daniel 3) had taken place somewhere between 605 BC and the final fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. There was no doubt a huge interest in the first group of exiles and in their God. They were the talk of the town and one can imagine conversations in Babylon: if your God is so great, then why is Jerusalem about to fall into our hands? Why is Judea so weak, why does their great God not rescue and fight for them? No doubt Daniel and his three friends would explain about their sinfulness and their refusal to listen to the warnings of Jeremiah! And since Daniel’s discernment of the dream, suddenly the God of Israel was no longer held in such disdain!
It seems that in 586 when the Babylonian army finally broke through the walls of the city that they knew that their work was at least partly inspired by the great God who had revealed Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and interpretation. They knew that they were in effect God’s army of judgment! When the commander of the imperial guard, Nebuzaradan found Jeremiah in chains he declared with remarkable insight, “The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. 3 And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him (verses 2 and 3).” We are not told, but I would imagine that Jeremiah was surprised to hear these words spoken and perhaps he talked with Nebuzaradan and perhaps he heard of the remarkable effect of the faithfulness of your young men in a foreign and hostile environment! What a lesson for us! We used to sing a chorus at Sunday school, ‘Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm and dare to make it known!’
It seems that Nebuzaradan afforded Jeremiah the same sort of honour Daniel and friends had been given in Babylon. Jeremiah was probably known for his advice to the kings of Judah to surrender to the Babylonians but I think it was also recognised that his motivation for this came from his worship of the great God of Israel, the revealer of mysteries! As a result, Jeremiah was treated remarkably well. He was offered a place in Babylon as a guest of Nebuzaradan himself! He could do whatever he wanted. Nebuzaradan however had a specific suggestion. The king, Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Gedaliah as governor. Gedaliah was the son of Ahikam and the grandson of Shaphan. We’ve met the family before; they were godly men who had supported Jeremiah and his efforts to persuade the people. Shaphan had been the one who read out the book of the law to king Josiah after the book was found during the temple refurbishment (2 Kings 22). His son Ahikam supported Jeremiah when there was a real danger that he would be put to death (Jeremiah 26:24). Now it was the turn of his son Gedaliah to do a work for the Lord. I have no doubt that Gedaliah would have learned from both his father and grandfather. There is a lesson for us here is there not?
Isn’t it notable that the Babylonians found a godly man to be governor? They knew he would have been honest, trustworthy and reliable – unlike the previous kings of Judah the Babylonians had dealt with! Jeremiah took the hint from Nebuzaradan and did go to stay with Gedaliah. I’m sure that both Gedaliah and Jeremiah profited from one another’s support and encouragement. Gedaliah would need all the support he could get because there were wicked men who were about to oppose him as we shall see next time.