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Kings and Prophets 3: The Babylonian Crisis

1 Introduction

2 Ezekiel’s Warnings

3 Jeremiah and Judah’s Last Kings

4 Books of the Twelve

Study Guide


Anathoth, Baruch, Complaints of Jeremiah, Exile, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Hananiah, Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim, Jeremiah, Josiah, Josiah's reform, Nahum, Nebuchadrezzar, New covenant, Throne-chariot, Zadok, Zedekiah, Zephaniah

Blake's Ezekiel

William Blake's Ezekiel

Ezekiel was one of the last classical prophets of Israel. He interpreted the Babylonian crisis to Jewish refugees in exile. This sketch, based on a drawing by William Blake, depicts a benumbed Ezekiel who was instructed by Yhwh not to mourn the death of his wife (see Ezekiel 24:15-27).

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on William Blake's The Death of Ezekiel's Wife, c. 1785-90, pen and india ink (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art), catalog no 14a.


The Babylonian period, technically referred to by historians as the neo-Babylonian period, extended from around 630 to 539 BCE (see Table 11.1). The Babylonians of this period are also referred to as Chaldeans. Nabopolassar spread Babylonian influence westward, eventually displacing Assyrian power. Babylonian power continued to grow until 605 when Nebuchadrezzar decisively established Babylonian

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TABLE 11.1 Kings and Prophets of the Babylonian Period

Kings of Judah

Kings of Babylon

Hebrew Prophets
Manasseh, 687–642    
Amon, 642–640   Zephaniah, circa 640–622
Josiah, 640–609 Nabopolassar, 626–605 Nahum, circa 620
    Jeremiah, circa 627–562
Jehoahaz, 609 Nebuchadrezzar (also spelled Nebuchadnezzar), 605–562 Habakkuk, circa 608–598
Jehoiakim, 609–598    
Jehoiachin, 598    
Zedekiah, 597–587   Ezekiel, circa 593–571
Gedaliah, 587–582   Obadiah, circa 587
  Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach), 562–560  
  Neriglissar, 560–556  
Nabonidus, 556–539
Second Isaiah, circa 546–538

supremacy at the battle of Carchemish (see Figure 11.1). In 587 the Babylonians destroyed Judah and Jerusalem. In 539 Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and incorporated its territory into his empire.

The prophets of the Babylonian period deal with the international crisis. The major issues surfacing in these books are the guilt of Judah, which was the reason God was punishing them, and the role of foreign powers in working out that punishment. There is about a fifty-year gap between the prophets of the Assyrian period, Isaiah of Jerusalem being the last, and the cluster of prophecy in the Babylonian period. Prophets of this period include Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk (see Figure 11.2).

1.1 Second Kings 21–25: A Summary

The remaining chapters of 2 Kings provide only a very sketchy account of this critical period in biblical history. One chapter is devoted to the reigns of Manassesh and Amon; two chapters to Josiah, focusing on finding the book of the law and his reforms; and two chapters on the last four kings of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem.

1.1.1 Josiah’s Reform

King Manasseh’s son Amon reigned in Judah only two years and was then assassinated by opponents within his own court circle. The Judean royal administration was in serious disarray. Amon was followed by Josiah. Second only to David, Josiah, who reigned from 640 to 609 BCE, was judged a very good king. By his time, the Assyrian empire had declined drastically, and the neo-Babylonian empire had not yet ascended. This provided Josiah with the opportunity to reextend the Davidic kingdom northward.

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Babylonian Empire and Biblical Prophets Map

FIGURE 11.1 The Babylonian Empire and Biblical Prophets

No longer under Assyrian vassalage, Josiah was free to rid Jerusalem of non-Yahwistic cult installations, which were symbols of foreign domination. In 622, the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah authorized the temple restored to Yahwistic purposes after its disgraceful neglect under Manasseh and Amon. This was not just a return to traditional religion, with its associations of all-Israel tribal unity; it was also a sign of political self-determination.

During the process of temple renovation, Hilkiah the high priest (see Figure 11.3) found what appeared to be an ancient document that he called “the book of the Torah.” Hilkiah gave it to Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, who in turn read it to the king.

The king was extremely distraught when he heard words that seemed to portend doom for the nation because of their departure from the Mosaic covenant. The prophet Huldah interpreted the book to Josiah and the court. She comforted him with the prophecy that he himself would not see the demise of the nation because he had responded appropriately and had repented.

Josiah was inspired to make further reforms throughout Judah and the territory to the north that Judah controlled. The various religious shrines to Baal, Asherah, astral deities, and numerous other affronts to Yhwh were all torn down. He decreed that from then on worship could take place only in Jerusalem. Furthermore,

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TABLE 11.2 Lives and Times of the Babylonian Period


Josiah began to reign as king of Judah
? Zephaniah’s condemnation of Judah
627 Jeremiah began his ministry
622 Josiah initiated religious and political reform (the Deuteronomic reform)
? Nahum’s condemnation of Nineveh
612 Destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria
609 Josiah died at Megiddo
  Jehoahaz (Shallum) made king; lasted three months
  Jehoiakim installed king of Judah by the Egyptians
  Jeremiah delivered his temple sermon
605 Battle of Carchemish: Babylonia asserted its power over Egypt
  Jeremiah’s scroll read before Jehoiakim, burned by Jehoiakim
598 Nebuchadrezzar laid siege to Jerusalem
  Jehoiakim died
  Jehoiachin made king
  First deportation of Judeans to Babylonia, including Jehoiachin and Ezekiel
  Zedekiah installed king of Judah by Babylonians
  Jeremiah confronted Hananiah, who broke the ox yoke
? Habakkuk challenges Yhwh’s moral purpose
593 Ezekiel’s commission in the throne-chariot vision
588 Jeremiah imprisoned
587 Destruction of Jerusalem
  Second deportation of Judeans to Babylonia
  Gedaliah appointed governor of Judea
582 Gedaliah assassinated
  Jeremiah traveled to Egypt
  Third deportation of Judeans to Babylonia
571 Last dated message of Ezekiel
Jeremiah died in Egypt

the Passover was celebrated for the first time since the period of the judges, another affirmation of the Mosaic and tribal traditions.

The description of the reforms of Josiah inspired by the “book of the Torah,” especially the elimination of all worship centers except Jerusalem, and the reference to the document as “the book of the law” (compare Deuteronomy 29:21, 30:10, 31:26) makes its identification with Deuteronomy seem certain. Deuteronomy is so closely associated with the reforms of Josiah that most authorities today grant that at least the core of the book received its final shape out of that historical context (see RTOT Chapter 5).

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Babylonian Era Prophets

FIGURE 11.2 Time Line: The Babylonian Era Prophets

It must have come as a terrible shock, then, given his piety and devotion to Yhwh, that Josiah was killed in battle while attempting to stop the advance of the Egyptian army. Slain near Megiddo by Pharaoh Neco in 609, this supremely devout Davidic king seems to have fed an accumulating mythology about that place Megiddo. Mount Megiddo is har megiddo in Hebrew, from which the term Armageddon is derived. In apocalyptic thought, Armageddon will be the site of the last great battle between the forces of good and evil. But fortunes will be reversed

Hilkiah Seal

FIGURE 11.3 Hilkiah Seal

This stamp seal identified Hilkiah, the high priest of Jerusalem, as the owner of the document to which it was attached. This is undoubtedly the same Hilkiah who found the book of the law and brought it to the attention of Josiah, which initiated a Yahwistic reform of Israel’s religion (see 2 Kings 22). The stamp is on a ring, and when pressed into a clay lump on a document, it would seal its authenticity. This seal reads, “Belonging to Hanan, son of Hilqiyahu the priest.”

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on a photograph in J. Elayi, ‘‘Name of Deuteronomy’s Author Found on Seal Ring,’’ Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 1987).

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in those last days, and according to the mythology of this last great confrontation, good will triumph absolutely over evil.

1.1.2 Fall of Jerusalem

The Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the onrushing Babylonians in 612. Jehoahaz, Josiah’s successor, was on the throne only three months before the Egyptians removed him. The combined forces of Egypt and Assyria that met the Babylonian army at Carchemish in 605 failed to check this rising power. Essentially from then on, Judah became a vassal state to Babylonia; for a reconstruction of the complex politics of this dispersion and the international political vise that squeezed Judah to death, see Malamat (1999).

Jehoiakim (609–598) followed Jehoahaz on the throne. But what political course should he take? Internal Judean political discussion debated the wisest course of action. Some advisers were Davidic loyalists who were completely invested in Zion–David theology. They believed in the inviolability of Jerusalem and the eternity of the Davidic throne. The survival of Judah and the Davidic house during the Assyrian crisis seemed to support their faith, especially Hezekiah’s survival after Sennacherib’s invasion and siege of Jerusalem. But other voices argued that the ethical demands of the Mosaic covenant trumped the Davidic covenant and that Judah’s history of covenant breaking demanded the punishment of God. The worst was yet to come, they said. The prophet Jeremiah was of the latter opinion and continually argued that the king should not expect Yhwh to intervene and make Babylon magically go away.

Jehoiakim staked his political future and that of Judah on the power of the Davidic covenant. He decided that Judah should assert its independence from Babylon, so he withheld tribute from Nebuchadrezzar (605–562), the great Babylonian empire builder. As a result, Nebuchadrezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, which was no match for such an attack. Jehoiakim was assassinated sometime during the onslaught, and Jehoiachin replaced him. Hapless Jehoiachin was on the throne only three months, and then the city fell. Inevitably, he was held responsible and was carted off in the first deportation of Judeans to Babylon along with other Jerusalemite notables and officials. The temple treasury was taken as well.

The Babylonian overlords installed Zedekiah (598–587) as king of Jerusalem on the understanding that he would be loyal to them. But soon he too became emboldened by the Davidic promises and looked to reassert Judean independence. Both Jeremiah in Jerusalem and the prophet Ezekiel, who was taken to Babylon in the first deportation, argued that this would not be the best course of action. Jeremiah acted out the domination of Babylon by wearing an ox yoke on his shoulders. Ezekiel tied himself to the ground to signify a long captivity. But both of these prophets were ignored.

Eventually, Zedekiah rebelled and this compelled Nebuchadrezzar to return to Jerusalem to reimpose Judean vassalage. Jerusalem was besieged for eighteen months, and many people perished when the city fell. Those who survived were removed to Babylon in the second deportation. Thus, the exile of Judeans into Babylon continued, resulting in a term of captivity that would last until 539 when Cyrus of Persia decreed their release. At this time of moral and religious crisis, Yhwh’s prophets continued to speak. Some just tried to understand

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why it happened. For example, the prophet Habakkuk wrestled with the moral enigma of how a righteous God could use a wicked people, the Babylonians, to attack his chosen people. Jeremiah latched onto the old traditions and reshaped them into a new covenant, affirming that Yhwh would rebuild a relationship with his people.

Especially traumatic was the total destruction of the temple. The focus and core of Judah’s religious devotion, the first temple of Solomon, now lay in ruins. This temple had symbolized the presence of Yhwh in their midst. Now their deity too was gone, no longer able to dwell among them. The book of Lamentations (see RTOT Chapter 15) is a collection of sorrowful poems marking the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. But in an effort to inspire hope, Ezekiel envisions a time when the temple would be rebuilt and Jerusalem would once again be the dwelling place of Yhwh (see RTOT Chapter 12).

Gedaliah was appointed governor of what became the province of Judea. But Jerusalem was in such a shambles that he administered the province from Mizpah north of Jerusalem (see Zorn, 1997). A sorry state, or province, it was. Only the least capable elements of the population were left in Judah. All those who had not been killed in the final conflagration of Jerusalem—the priesthood, members of the royal court, tradesmen, and craftsmen—had been taken to Babylon where they began a new life. The book of Kings ends on a note of guarded optimism. Jehoiachin, Judah’s Davidic king in exile, was freed from prison around 560 after thirty-seven years of captivity. He was treated with respect by Evil-Merodach, king of Babylon, known in Babylonian records as Amel-marduk (562–560). Babylonian historical tablets attest his presence (see ANET, 308); they document the payment of oil and barley rations to Yaukin (Jehoiachin) king of Iahudu (Judah).

For the faith of God’s people, the most important point was that the Davidic line of Judah had not disappeared. There was still hope for the future of the state. Thus, the Deuteronomistic History ends negatively and positively. Judah had been destroyed, but Yhwh’s community and its Davidic leader survived, suggesting it might one day rediscover its former greatness through the Davidic messianic line.

1.2 Reading Guide

The following passages manifest key components of history and prophecy in the Babylonian period:


• 2 Kings 22–23: the “Deuteronomic” reform of Josiah

• 2 Kings 24–25: Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon destroys Judah and Jerusalem

• Ezekiel 1–5: Ezekiel’s famous vision of Yahweh’s throne-chariot and his theatrical depiction of the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem

• Jeremiah 1: Jeremiah’s call experience and the visions that signaled what his mission would be

• Jeremiah 11:18–12:6: Jeremiah’s first complaint

• Jeremiah 26–31: the record of Jeremiah’s efforts to persuade the royal court to stop resisting the Babylonians, including his temple sermon, his confrontation with the prophet Hananiah, his letter to the exiles, and his articulation of a new covenant

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Ezekiel was taken to Babylonia in 598 BCE in the first major deportation of Judeans to the land of their conquerors. He lived among the Judean refugees who had been relocated to Tel-aviv, a town in southern Babylonia on the Chebar irrigation canal. It appears that he was taken in that early deportation because he was a priest. In all, almost 5000 Judeans were taken to Babylonia in that early displacement. Those taken were the leaders of the community, including royalty, scribes, counselors, craftsmen, and religious leaders. He stayed in Babylonia for his entire career, being a prophet there until at least 571. He could not perform the traditional priestly functions in exile, which back in Jerusalem would have included offering sacrifices of atonement and guarding the holiness of the temple and community. Still, his priestly vocation shaped his perspective on virtually everything, including continued religious obligations and relations to Yhwh in exile.

Ezekiel and Jeremiah were contemporaries. Both were prophets immediately before and after the destruction of Jerusalem, and both assumed essentially the same task: to convince their audience (Jeremiah among the Judeans in Jerusalem and Ezekiel among the Judean refugees in Babylon) not to delude themselves. Yhwh indeed would punish them for their iniquities, and Jerusalem would fall. Ezekiel’s writings mainly fall into two parts. There are at least three major issues that interweave the book of Ezekiel, surfacing in various ways.

First, Ezekiel gives considerable attention to the continued presence of God among his people, along with the reasons for God’s withdrawal and conditions under which he would reappear. Second, Ezekiel probes the issue of moral responsibility for the religious and political failures of Judah. Third, though getting less attention than the preceding two, Ezekiel examines the nature and legitimacy of religious and political leadership in Judah and in the restored community. Be alert to these issues as we examine the book of Ezekiel. Chapters 1–24 contain Ezekiel’s visions and pronouncements dating between 593 (the date of his inaugural experience of the divine presence) and the fall of Jerusalem in 587. Much of the material is written in the first person as Ezekiel’s autobiographical recollections; phrases such as “As I looked” and “He said to me” and “The word of Yhwh came to me” frame the accounts. We treat Ezekiel 25–48 in RTOT Chapter 12.

The goal of his words is to impress everyone with the inevitability of coming judgment. The first attacks of Babylon did not seem to have the intended effect of sobering the people and inspiring repentance. In the analysis of Yhwh and the prophet, the people still did not get it. This explains why the first half of the book is dominated by Yhwh’s frustration and expressions of anger:

“My anger will find completion, and I will vent my fury on them. And they will know that I, Yhwh, have spoken out of my jealousy for them, when my fury finds completion on them: ‘I will make you a desolation and an object of derision among the nations that surround you and among those who see you as they pass by.’” (5:13–14)

Yhwh, it seems, is in a rage. Yet it is just because he cares about them so much and is jealous for their attention that he will vent his anger on them.

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2.1 Throne-Chariot Vision (1–3)

The first chapter of the book is a description of Ezekiel’s visionary encounter with God in Babylonia. This apprehension of God functioned as Ezekiel’s commission into his prophetic role. It occurred in 593 when Ezekiel was in Babylonia with fellow refugees, who had been taken there in 598. This is the beginning of what Ezekiel saw:

Now, as I looked I saw a stormy wind come from the north, a huge cloud with fire flashing and shining around it, and in the middle of it something like amber, in the middle of the fire. And in the middle of it was the likeness of four animals. This is their appearance: they had the likeness of a human. (1:4 –5)

We note the following: The language of these verses, indeed the entire vision account, is highly descriptive, and the syntax is difficult. What is in the middle of what? How are the elements related? It is not at all clear. What we get are mostly impressions and images. Ezekiel saw a storm approaching from the north, it glowed from the inside, and strange hybrid creatures were in the middle of it. If nothing else, what becomes clear is that Ezekiel experienced a theophany, an experience of being in the presence of God. Although the language and the combination of images here are especially creative, it is clear that we are in the conceptual realm of the storm, cloud, and fire theophany, we notice in the divine–human encounters of Moses (Exodus 24), Elijah (1 Kings 19), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), and elsewhere (see Psalm 18).

Ezekiel’s description of the theophany takes up an entire chapter. It becomes apparent that each of the four creatures had four faces (human, lion, ox, and eagle) and four wings (see Figure 11.4). The creatures with their wings appear to be hybrid angels, no doubt somehow related to the Divine Council of Yhwh and sometimes called the cherubim. Wheels attached to these creatures gave the “storm” its means of locomotion. Stretched out over the wings of these creatures was a “dome”—the same term that designated the “expanse” created on the second day, according to the Genesis 1 Priestly account of creation. Then Ezekiel saw a figure seated above the dome.

Above the dome over their heads I saw a sapphire-colored throne-like thing. Seated on this throne-like thing was something like a human. And I saw

Winged Creatures

FIGURE 11.4 Winged Creatures

>Winged spirits were common in Mesopotamian art. Such figures may have inspired the cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision: “They were of human form . . . each had four wings” (Ezekiel 1:5–6).

Source: Relief of two winged men from Carchemish, ninth century BCE (Ankara, Turkey: Museum of Anatolian Civilizations). Photo by Barry Bandstra, April 1998

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something like amber with fire in the middle of it from its midsection up. From its midsection down I saw something like fire, and it was shining all around. Like a rainbow on a rainy day, so was the sheen around it. It had an appearance similar to the glory of Yhwh. I saw it and fell on my face. And I heard a voice speaking. (1:26–28)

You can sense that Ezekiel is struggling to articulate exactly what it is he saw. He gropes to describe something he had never seen before. Repeatedly he says, “I saw something like . . . .” His uncertain descriptions perhaps reflect his incredulity in seeing what he finally realized he was seeing. It dawned on him that he was seeing some form of God himself on the throne.

Note that Ezekiel does not claim to see Yhwh directly but only his “glory.” The glory of deity is evidence of its presence, an aura of sorts, an apparition. This is priestly language (no surprise because Ezekiel was a priest), used often to describe the presence of God. Among other things, “the glory of Yhwh” recalls the descriptions of God’s appearance to the Israelites in the wilderness. The same phrase is used of Yhwh’s presence taking up residence in the wilderness tabernacle, as told in Exodus 40.

Taking the vision as a whole, Ezekiel seems to be describing a notion of great significance. In the vision, Yhwh was seen traveling on a mobile throne, perhaps a version of the ark of the covenant, borne by special cherubs of the Divine Council. Normally thought to be permanently housed in the holiest room of the Jerusalem temple, now Yhwh on his throne was migratory. In other words, Yhwh was not restricted to the territory of Judah but could travel abroad, even so far from home that he could be with his people in exile.

Ezekiel’s vision of Yhwh on a throne-chariot presented the refugees in Babylon with a brand new idea. Yhwh is not stuck in a building in Jerusalem. He has wheels and can be anywhere—even in “godless” Babylon. The deity’s basic character presumably stays the same, but the way that the deity is apprehended changes through time. Ezekiel was instrumental in prompting Israel to conceive of the deity in new ways. History has a way of forcing each generation to reconceptualize and reformulate the character and relevance of its patron god, often in response to serious national crisis—a process that continues to this day.

The throne-chariot vision came to have a mystical quality about it in a later Jewish context. A form of mysticism, called merkavah mysticism (after the Hebrew word for chariot), developed in medieval Judaism. The vision was considered so powerful that underage men were not allowed to read the account of it. A more radical interpretation of the vision appeared in the once widely popular (but really quite wacky) book by Erich von Däniken titled Chariots of the Gods (1968). In the chapter “Was God an Astronaut?” he suggests that Ezekiel saw an extraterrestrial vehicle, an “unidentified flying object” (UFO). From out of this vehicle, travelers from outer space gave Ezekiel “advice and directions for law and order, as well as hints for creating a proper civilization.”

Yhwh came to Babylonia in his throne-chariot (not his spaceship) to commission Ezekiel to be a prophetic voice to the Judean refugees and a watchman to the house of Israel. The metaphor used of his vocation is that of a sentinel standing on a tower, seeing the evidence of coming disaster and conveying God’s warning to the people so they could prepare for trouble.

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To equip him for his prophetic role, Yhwh handed Ezekiel a scroll on which were written words of woe. He ate the scroll, which curiously was sweet as honey, rather than sour as expected. Having internalized the divine word, he was sent to deliver the message—never mind whether the people heeded the warning or not (that was not Ezekiel’s responsibility). The experience of commissioning and the message he was to bring were so traumatic that Ezekiel was overwhelmed, unable to speak for seven days.

Although imaginative in its handling of the details, Ezekiel’s commissioning contains many of the standard elements of other prophetic call narratives. The most common elements are being in the presence of the high god in his throne room, seeing the deity in the form of fire or brilliant light, and equipping the prophet’s mouth to convey the word of Yhwh. A prophet was essentially a messenger who received words directly from his god and then delivered them to the target audience.

2.2 Symbolic Acts 1 (4–7)

The burden of Ezekiel’s prophetic career from 593 until 587 was to convince the Babylonian refugees that God was punishing them for their wickedness through their deportations and their living in exile and that, instead of getting better, things were going to get worse.

Ezekiel not only spoke words of warning but also acted them out. He made a clay model of the city of Jerusalem and played out the coming siege of the city. Then he laid on the ground, first on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40 days, to symbolize the captivity of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, respectively. While on the ground, he ate only small amounts of food to simulate siege rations.

Then he shaved his head with a sword and disposed of the hair in ways that symbolized the fate of Jerusalem after its fall. One-third he burned, one-third he struck with the sword, and one-third he scattered to the wind. A wisp of hair he stitched up in the hem of his garment to symbolize the small remnant that would survive. Lastly, Ezekiel faced in the direction of Palestine and announced the coming destruction of the kingdom of Judah and specifically its religious installations because they promoted the worship of pagan fertility goddesses.

These signs have provoked considerable scholarly discussion. Some experts take the bizarre nature of these acts as an indication that Ezekiel was psychologically disturbed and have tried to define his psychosis. Others observe that we are not told how his audience reacted, suggesting that he never really performed these acts, and that they are merely literary in character. Still others stress the symbolic nature of these acts.

2.3 Vision of a Corrupt Temple (8–11)

Before Ezekiel was deported to Babylon, he was a priest in Jerusalem. This meant that he was thoroughly familiar with the rituals and procedures of temple service. This familiarity is evident in his visions, many of which center on the temple. A priestly orientation also meant he was profoundly shaped by the experience of serving in the presence of Yhwh in the temple. Priests referred to the divine presence by the phrase “the glory of Yhwh.” It was believed that Yhwh’s presence in Jerusalem bestowed favor on the city and its people. It seems that proximity to the divine presence dominated Ezekiel’s experience.

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In a vision dated to 592, Ezekiel was transported back to the temple in Jerusalem where he witnessed a variety of unholy activities. The religious leaders of Jerusalem were secretly worshipping foreign gods in the temple compound. Women, for example, were observed crying out to Tammuz, a Babylonian fertility deity. Such activities were an outrage to Yhwh. In consequence, he got up to leave the temple of his residence. Ezekiel’s description of Yhwh’s departure uses the throne-chariot imagery of chapter 1. “The glory of Yhwh” mounted the cherub-powered vehicle. In stages Yhwh exited the temple compound, stopping at certain points, including the threshold of the temple and the east gate of the courtyard, as if reluctant to leave. Hovering over Jerusalem a while, then over the Mount of Olives east of the city, finally Yhwh disappeared.

Symbolically, the people had driven away Yhwh by their corrupt practices. He would no longer be there to protect them, and without his protection, they could be taken into captivity unimpeded. This analysis was a direct challenge to the David–Zion theology that dominated the political climate. Ezekiel brought his priestly perspective to the issue and argued that because Jerusalem was impure and polluted, Yhwh could no longer be there. But in principle, Yhwh would not forsake Jerusalem. He would be away only until the city and temple were resanctified for his return and fit for his presence again.

This is the message that Ezekiel brought to the exiles: Jerusalem would fall as punishment from Yhwh. Remember that Ezekiel foresaw this years before it actually happened. He was speaking in 592 and Jerusalem did not fall until 587. But with his preview of the coming destruction, Ezekiel did not leave God’s people without hope. Ezekiel assured his audience that Yhwh would not abandon them forever (see the account of Ezekiel’s later visions in RTOT Chapter 12). Instead, later he would gather them from among the nations of their exile and reaffirm his covenant with them once they have had a change of heart.

“I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit inside them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my directives, and my laws they will obey and do them. They will be my people and I will become Elohim to them.” (11:19–20)

In Hebrew anthropology, the heart was not the seat of emotions, but it was the center of the will and the seat of rationality. A new heart and spirit, which Ezekiel cites here and elsewhere, indicates a new clarity of insight and a new willingness to abide by the covenant. In words reminiscent of Jeremiah’s new covenant (31:31–34), this talk of a new spirit and a transformed heart voices the hope that the people will undergo a spiritual transformation. Although the heart of the people would change, inspiring new devotion to keeping the covenant, the original intent of the Mosaic covenant remained the same: “They will be my people and I will be their Elohim.

As a whole, Chapters 8–11 describe how false worship drove away the glory of Yhwh. The theme of this section comes full circle by the end of the book of Ezekiel in an elaborate program of temple restoration, Chapters 40–48. Specifically in Chapter 43, Ezekiel describes how true worship would bring the glory of Yhwh back to Jerusalem.

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2.4 Symbolic Acts 2 (12–24)

Ezekiel took symbolic actions and drew numerous word pictures in an attempt to convince his compatriots that Jerusalem would fall and that they should not hold out for an early return from exile. To further symbolize the imminent fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel packed his bags, dug through the city wall in the middle of the night, and hurried away as if to escape (Chapter 12). In another image, Jerusalem is compared to a vine that no longer produces fruit, such that its branches are good only for firewood (Chapter 15). The imagery of the vine is also used by Isaiah (5:1–7) and Jeremiah (2:21) to stand for Israel, and it also became a symbol for the New Testament church (John 15:1–11).

Chapter 16 contains an extended allegory of the history of Jerusalem. The main figure in the allegory is Jerusalem in the guise of a female who turns out to be an unfaithful wife to Yhwh Elohim. The allegory is developed in great detail. Jerusalem is first described as the daughter of an Amorite father and a Hittite mother. Abandoned by her parents, she was adopted by Yhwh, who cared for her and made her beautiful. But then she used her god-given advantages to entice and seduce foreigners. Yhwh Elohim in turn used those foreigners to punish his wife. Ultimately, he did not disown her but restored her to full status as wife in covenant with God. The allegory of Oholah and Oholibah in Chapter 23 likewise describes the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah in terms of women wed to Yhwh. The literary comparison of Israel to a bride or wife is a common prophetic device in biblical literature. It was also used by Hosea (Chapters 1–3) and Jeremiah (Chapter 2). The rabbis interpreted the relationship of the lovers in the Song of Songs as an extended allegory of Yahweh’s relationship to Israel. In Christian theology, the church is the symbolic bride of Christ.

Ezekiel used extended metaphors of eagles, trees, and vines to depict the uprooting of Judah and its kings in Chapter 17. In Chapter, 18 Ezekiel addressed the issue of individual responsibility and blame. It seems Judeans were seeking to disown responsibility for the current state of affairs. They blamed their troubles with the Babylonians and the weakness of Judah on the sins of their fathers. The following proverb was widely quoted by the people to justify this analysis:

The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. (18:2)

Jeremiah also cited this proverb (see Jeremiah 31:27–30). Both he and Ezekiel denied the continuing validity and applicability of this proverb and instead asserted that Yhwh knows each person individually. All people would be judged on the basis of their own actions. Each person should know that they get what they deserve. On the positive side, if they repent they can be delivered:

“Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, each person according to his ways (my Lord Yhwh’s word). Turn and repent of all your offenses, and do not let them be a stumbling block leading to iniquity. Toss away from you all your offenses by which you offend, and make for yourselves a new heart and new spirit. Why die, house of Israel?! I do not relish the death of the dead (my Lord Yhwh’s word). Repent and live!” (18:30–32)

Many commentators argue that here in Ezekiel we have some of the first evidence of individual moral accountability as opposed to a purely corporate notion

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of responsibility. Some argue that this is the first clear affirmation of individualism in Israelite thought though others caution that this may be reading too much into it. Joyce (1989) argues that Ezekiel was not affirming individual responsibility but was only declaring that each generation makes its own moral choices and is not bound by either the sins or the merits of the preceding generation. In this view, Ezekiel in effect cuts the moral link between generations. On the one hand, the past shortcomings of the parents do not predetermine that the children must be punished. On the other hand, the current generation can no longer use the preceding generation for an excuse; each has to stand on its own two moral feet.

Whatever the precise intent, it does seem that Ezekiel is telling his generation to put aside their self-pity and their fatalistic thinking and take responsibility for change. If they would do this and stop feeling sorry for themselves, then there would be reason to hope. In the absence of the temple, cult, and priesthood to make them right with God, Ezekiel is urging the people to take charge of their own relationship with God by right action and personal spiritual initiative. Ezekiel and Jeremiah seem then to be laying the groundwork for individuals to have a personal relationship with their God—a new moment in biblical religion that achieves full voice in the Psalms of lament and thanksgiving, which form the core of Hebrew piety in the second-temple period (see RTOT Chapter 13).

Ezekiel continued to preach that ample opportunity for restoration would be given if only the people would acknowledge their complicity and repent. But throughout this entire section, he was invariably pessimistic about Israel’s interest in repenting. Ezekiel failed to see any good in Israel at all and viewed the people as base, ungrateful, and unfaithful.

After oracles and images assuring his audience of coming disaster, this section ends with its most powerful statement yet (Chapter 24). Ezekiel’s dearly beloved wife died, and this understandably plunged him into deepest grief. But by Yhwh’s instructions, he did not shed a tear or give any sign of mourning. His stoicism stood as a symbol of his God’s own resolve because presumably Yhwh was determined not to be overcome by sentiment such that he would change his mind and forgo the punishment. Ezekiel did not speak another word, and by implication, Yhwh himself would be silent until after Jerusalem had fallen.


Jeremiah, more so than any other Hebrew prophet, emerges from the text with a personality. Whereas the other prophets are known almost solely through their messages, Jeremiah’s character and personality come out in his book through autobiography. In the past called “the weeping prophet,” he passionately expressed his own feelings and laid bare his inner spiritual life. These features make the book of Jeremiah unique among the prophets.

The book of Jeremiah spans about a fifty-year period, from the end of the 600s to the mid-500s BCE (see Figure 11.5). The general historical situation taking us up to the beginning of the book of Jeremiah is as follows.

Israel (the northern kingdom) had disappeared as an independent state, and its territory was now subject to Assyria. Only Judah remained intact of the twelve tribes. Assyrian power and its sphere of influence had shrunk by the mid-600s. Having previously been dominated by the Assyrians, Judah now enjoyed a bit of independence.

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Timeline Book of Jeremiah

FIGURE 11.5 Time Line: Book of Jeremiah

By 628 under Josiah, Judah was politically free and economically prosperous and had even begun expanding northward into formerly Israelite territory.

There was no longer any external pressure on Judah to pay allegiance to Assyrian deities as was the case under Manasseh earlier in the century. Taking the opportunity that political independence afforded, Josiah pressed for a return to indigenous Israelite religious practices and beliefs—namely, Yahwism. The prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah supported Josiah in his efforts to reform the institutionalized religion that was officially endorsed by the king. This began in earnest in 622.

The book of Jeremiah was composed out of a variety of material coming from a variety of sources. Some of it is datable, but much of it is not, and that which is datable does not necessarily follow in chronological sequence. Table 11.3 enables us to construct a life sequence of the prophet. These episodes and messages are organized chronologically and treated next under headings related to the kings of Judah at the time of their happening.

TABLE 11.3 Datable Passages of Jeremiah


Jeremiah and prophecy

609 Jeremiah's temple sermon 7, 26
605 Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah's scroll 36

Jeremiah predicts a seventy-year captivity 25

Jeremiah's oracle against Egypt 46:2-12
597 Jeremiah beaten and put in prison 37
594 Jeremiah versus Hananiah; Jeremiah wears a yoke symbolizing Babylonian captivity 27
588 Jeremiah put in a cistern in Jerusalem 38
587 Jeremiah's new covenant "Book of Consolation" 30-31

Jeremiah buys a field in Anatoth 32

Nebuchadrezzar besieges then destroys Jerusalem 39
582 Ishmael assassinates Gedaliah 41
Jeremiah lives in Egypt

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3.1 During Josiah’s Reign (640–609 BCE)

Jeremiah began his prophetic activity during the reign of Josiah. The early years of Josiah’s reign were a time of prosperity and political independence. In the evaluation of the Deuteronomic school, represented by the books of Kings, Josiah was a fine and faithful king.

Jeremiah became a prophet in 627 and continued through those years immediately preceding Josiah’s reform movement. After the reform initiative in 622, there are no words from Jeremiah for about a decade (perhaps Jeremiah felt Josiah had succeeded in doing what was necessary). He resumed his prophetic ministry after the death of Josiah.

The Jeremiah of the early years, which fall into the period from his call to 622, is represented by Chapters 1–6. They have a lot in common with Amos and Micah. Like Amos, Jeremiah was concerned about social injustice and considered worship to be secondary to a lifestyle attending to righteousness. Like Hosea, he personified Israel as an unfaithful wife (Chapter 2) and longed for the days of the Exodus and the wilderness experience when Israel was thrown totally on the grace of God.

3.1.1 Commission (1)

The book of Jeremiah begins with a Deuteronomic-style introduction that places Jeremiah within the context of Judah’s history:

The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. To him the word of Yhwh came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, beginning in the thirteenth year of his reign. It also came in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, specifically until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. (1:13)

From this editorial introduction we learn that Jeremiah belonged to a priestly family from Anathoth in Benjamin. This is significant because it reveals one source of his antipathy to the Jerusalem priestly establishment. Admittedly, we are dealing with a chain of evidence here, but this is how it goes.

When Solomon made his choice of priests back in the 900s, he authorized Zadok as the legitimate family of priests and banished Abiathar to Anathoth. Zadok was chosen over Abiathar because Zadok had backed Solomon to be king while Abiathar had backed Adonijah (see 1 Kings 2:26–27). Because Anathoth was a very small village and Jeremiah was a priest, it is reasonable to assume that Jeremiah was part of the Abiathar lineage. Although he was a priest, Jeremiah would have been denied the privilege of serving at the Jerusalem temple for obvious reasons. All of this makes some sense of the negative stand that Jeremiah took against the official temple in Jerusalem and the monarchy that had exiled his family. And this begins to explain why he was treated as an outsider. That he got any kind of hearing at all in the temple and royal court is remarkable.

The editorial introduction further tells us that Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah, all kings of Judah, right up until the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. The only major disputed point in this introduction is the intent of verse 2, which states that the word of Yhwh came to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign. Does this mean that this is the year Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, the year 627, or is this the year he was born? The question

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arises because the call narrative, which we examine next, suggests that Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry even before he was born.

Other prophets provide some accounting of how they concluded that God had called them to be prophets. Isaiah did it in his Divine Council vision account (Isaiah 6). Amos did it in a roundabout way in dialogue with Amaziah (Amos 7). Jeremiah did it too, and it was logically placed at the beginning of the book:

The word of Yhwh came to me: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart—made you a prophet to the nations.” I replied: “But Yhwh Elohim, I do not know how to speak. I am only a youngster.” Yhwh replied: “Do not say ‘I am only a youngster’— to all I send you, you must go, and what I command you, you must speak. Do not be afraid of them. I will be with you delivering you”—says Yhwh. Then Yhwh extended his hand and touched my mouth. Yhwh said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. Today I have set you above nations and above kingdoms: to uproot and to break down, to destroy and to overturn, to build and to plant.” (1:4–10)

Of whom does this remind you? An alert student of the Hebrew Bible would probably say Moses. Jeremiah expressed the same reluctance as Moses to becoming a prophet. Jeremiah expressed the same kind of excuses as Moses, claiming a lack of qualifications. Jeremiah’s hesitation concerned the same problem—his mouth, as did Moses’s. And in both cases, Yhwh met the “mouth” objection: in Moses’s case by providing Aaron as his “mouthpiece” and in Jeremiah’s by placing the words right on his lips.

Of special importance in Jeremiah’s call narrative is the articulation of his mission. It is repeated throughout the book. He will break kingdoms apart and plant kingdoms. It implies that as a prophet, an authorized speaker of the message of Yhwh, he has the ability to destroy and to build. These extremes of destroying and building are another way of saying that this prophet’s mission involved both judgment and renewal. In this mission, he had the protection of God. As we will see, he came to depend on that protection and at times felt disillusioned when his enemies managed to get to him.

If we survey Chapter 1 to its end, we find that Yhwh gave Jeremiah two signs to confirm his calling. In somewhat the same vein as Amos’s visions, there are visual puns. First, Yhwh showed Jeremiah an almond tree, in Hebrew a shaqed. This became the occasion for Yhwh to say to Jeremiah, “I am watching—shoqed—over my word to see that it happens.” Then Jeremiah saw a boiling cauldron tipping away from the north toward the south. Yhwh said, “Out of the north trouble is brewing.” This is a foreshadowing of the political problems that lay ahead from the north, the direction from which Mesopotamian foes typically reached Palestine (see Figure 11.6).

3.2 During Jehoiakim’s Reign (609–598 BCE)

Josiah died in battle at Megiddo fighting Pharaoh Neco. He was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz, also called Shallum. Jehoahaz lasted only three months and was then deported to Egypt where he died. Jehoiakim succeeded his brother, Jehoahaz, and ruled until 598. Jeremiah was active throughout his reign. Primarily, he denounced the king and the people for their idolatry and injustice. Many of the prophecies of Chapters 7–19, 25–26, and 35–36 are dated to this period. Perhaps Jeremiah’s most notorious denunciation speech comes in Chapter 7.

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Enemy from the North

FIGURE 11.6 Enemy from the North

Apart from Egypt, Israel’s imperial enemies, Assyria and Babylonia, typically came out of the north even though geographically they lay east of Palestine. The natural barrier of the desert east of Transjordan forced armies to travel down the coastal road systems to get to Palestine.

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3.2.1 The Temple Sermon (7 and 26)

Worship in the form of daily sacrifices was central to Israel’s religious life. A good deal of the Torah defines the proper forms of religious devotion. This includes the prescribed rituals and festivals, the authorized personnel, and the implements used in worship. Much of Samuel, Kings, and especially Chronicles deals with defining and justifying notions of formal religion by illustrating them with examples drawn out of the history of Israel and Judah. Most of this history was used to legitimize Jerusalem and Mount Zion as the center of true religion focused on Yhwh alone.

Jeremiah was one of the few prophetic voices that challenged the doctrine of Zion theology. In his temple address, as recorded in Chapter 7, he opposed the belief that the temple on Mount Zion automatically protected Jerusalem. From the parallel passage in Jeremiah 26, we learn that the sermon was given in 609 at the beginning of Jehoiakim’s reign. Jeremiah delivered these words in the temple courtyard:

Hear the word of Yhwh, all you people of Judah who enter these gates to worship Yhwh. Thus says Yhwh of Hosts, the Elohim of Israel: “Reform your ways and your activity, and then I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words—This is the temple of Yhwh, the temple of Yhwh, the temple of Yhwh. But if you reform your ways and your activity, genuinely act justly with each other, do not oppress the resident-alien, the orphan or the widow, shed innocent blood here, or go after other gods (which can only hurt you), then I will let you live in this place, here in the land that I gave your parents in perpetuity a long time ago. Right now you are putting your faith in misleading words (This is the temple of Yhwh!) but to no avail. Would you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, go after other elohim you do not know and then come and stand before me in this temple, the one called by my name, and say ‘We are safe’— only to keep on doing these travesties?! Has this house, the one called by my name, become a den of thieves in your opinion? Right now it appears that way to me,” says Yhwh. “Then go now to my place that was once in Shiloh. That’s where I first housed my name. See what I did to it as a result of the wickedness of my people Israel. Now, because you have done these things,” says Yhwh (and though I spoke to you persistently you would not listen, when I called you, you would not answer), “therefore I will do to the house now identified with me—the one in which you trust, the place I gave to you and to your ancestors—just what I did to Shiloh. I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out your cousins, all the descendants of Ephraim.” (7:1–15)

It is rather easy to see why Jeremiah was not welcomed with a kiss and a warm hug after that speech. He roundly condemned the Judean people for putting their faith in the temple. But why?

Two reasons. First, Jeremiah claimed that the people were immoral, and given their immoral behavior, nothing could save them, not even their sacred temple. Second, it seems the people viewed the temple almost superstitiously. They thought that the temple conferred automatic security. Official Jerusalemite theology claimed that Yhwh lived in the temple, and as long as he was there, nothing tragic could ever affect Judah. Historical precedent backed them up in this belief as when Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem in 701. At that time, Yhwh miraculously delivered the city, no doubt, they thought, because he lived there.

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But Jeremiah brings up other historical precedent. He refers to the sanctuary city Shiloh of the judges’ period. Under Eli and Samuel, it was the location of Yhwh’s sanctuary. Despite its unsurpassed importance at that time, it was unceremoniously destroyed—probably by the Philistines though we do not know all the details.

Jeremiah countered that genuine security can come only from their faith in Yhwh. They must commit themselves to him, and their faith had to be actualized in moral living and undivided loyalty. This is none other than the Mosaic prescription. In fact, the very vocabulary of the Decalogue is evident here, especially in verse 9.

As was indicated in both the call narrative and the temple address, Jeremiah was thoroughly shaped by the Mosaic tradition. He has northern roots, perhaps Elohist connections—notice his reference to “the Elohim of Israel” in verse 3 and his reference to the descendants of Ephraim in verse 15. And the terminology of the sanctuary as “the place where my name dwells” sounds very Deuteronomic—that theological voice originating in the north.

Jeremiah was a dissenting voice in the “den of thieves,” the temple courtyard, the heart of the Jerusalem establishment. He pitted the Mosaic tradition against the dogma of Davidic–Zion theology. And he stirred up quite a reaction. Although we do not hear any of it in Chapter 7, we get a full report in Chapter 26, which provides a narrative account of the temple sermon, adding interesting contextual details and the surrounding circumstances. Jeremiah’s message is given only in summary, but the reaction to it is given in rich detail. When the priests and prophets heard Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Jerusalem temple, they pressed the king’s government to execute him. After all, he had opposed everything they stood for. They considered it treason.

Jehoiakim’s bureaucracy would have put him to death were it not for judicial precedent. In a prior age, Micah (the same one as in the Book of the Twelve by that name; see RTOT Chapter 10) proclaimed destructive judgment on Jerusalem just as Jeremiah was now doing. Back then, Hezekiah declined to execute him. The people took Micah seriously and repented, and Jerusalem was delivered. More on the negative side, another case was cited, this one of a certain prophet named Uriah who was not so fortunate because he was executed by Jehoiakim. So we learn that the threat to Micah and Jeremiah was real.

This encounter between Jeremiah and the Judean establishment reveals two political and theological traditions in conflict. Both provided a way of reading God’s relationship with his people and his work in history. One way, the Sinai–Moses track, stressed the people’s covenant obligation. The other, the Zion–David track, stressed Yhwh’s commitment to Judah. This conflict of theologies would surface again.

The temple sermon raises two important theological questions that deserve consideration. First, Jeremiah argues that only if the people practiced personal and corporate morality would God allow them to dwell in Palestine. But is such a perspective politically realistic? What is the relationship between moral behavior, of individuals and nations, and political destiny? It would seem that international political forces—in this case, the Babylonians—controlled Judah’s destiny. The assertion that Jeremiah and other prophets would make is this: Yhwh controls the destinies of all nations, including Babylonia.

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Second, Jeremiah seems to come down hard on temple rituals and sacrificial practices. What were Jeremiah’s deepest attitudes toward formal worship practices? Were such activities entirely useless? Did he issue a broad condemnation of religious ritual or a conditional one? If conditional, under what circumstances is worship acceptable? Both questions—the relation of morality and destiny, and the role of worship—raise enduring issues in biblical theology.

3.2.2 Reading the Scroll (36)

Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was barred from entering the temple–palace compound after that temple sermon. But there was plenty that he still wanted to say to the king and his council. Jeremiah directed his companion and secretary Baruch to take dictation. Interestingly, clay bullae, which are stamps attesting a document’s authenticity, have been found with the name Baruch on them, thus documenting the presence of Jeremiah’s scribe in Jerusalem (see Shanks, 1987). Writing on a scroll with pen and ink, Baruch recorded Jeremiah’s call to repent and his warning of Babylonian danger. The year was 605, the same year that the Babylonians bested the Egyptians in battle at Carchemish north of Palestine.

Baruch first read the scroll to a receptive audience in the temple area. They took the message seriously but advised him not to deliver it to the king personally. Fearing reprisals and persecution, Baruch and Jeremiah went into hiding while others approached Jehoiakim and read him the scroll. Jehoiakim was in his winter palace at the time. As the scroll was read a few columns at a time, the king stripped the columns off the scroll with a knife and burned them in the brazier he used to keep himself warm. In this way, he and his associates demonstrated their contempt for Jeremiah. Obviously, they did not find themselves moved to repentance by his message.

After Jeremiah heard what Jehoiakim had done with the scroll, he proceeded to dictate another one to which even more messages were added. But this one he did not deliver to the king. Many scholars see this series of events as a piece of evidence for the construction of the book of Jeremiah. Perhaps it is even the point of transition from an oral to a written form of the prophet’s message. We can assume that this second scroll became the core of the book of Jeremiah as we have it today.

3.3 During Zedekiah’s Reign (598–587 BCE)

Jehoiakim died just three months before Jerusalem succumbed to the Babylonian siege. In his stead, Jehoiachin was placed on the throne. After Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon subdued Jerusalem in 598, he deported many of its citizens to Babylonia, including Jehoiachin. Zedekiah replaced Jehoiachin and ruled with the support of Nebuchadrezzar. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem and continued to prophesy after Jehoiachin and the others were deported to Babylon. The words of Chapters 24, 27–29, 32–34, and 37–39 come from the time of Zedekiah’s reign.

3.3.1 False Prophecy (27–28)

The Babylonian kingdom of Nebuchadrezzar seemed vulnerable after a revolt broke out within his army in 594. This led many Judeans to think that their subservience to the Babylonians might be near its end. Yhwh sent Jeremiah to Jerusalem to discourage such optimism. To reinforce his message, he put an ox harness on his

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shoulders and declared that the yoke of Babylon would endure for a long while to come. He denounced the prophets who suggested otherwise:

“Do not listen to the talk of the prophets who say to you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they are prophesying a lie to you. I have not sent them,” says Yhwh; “rather, they are prophesying falsely in my name.” (27:14–15)

Jeremiah was obviously not the only voice giving counsel in Jerusalem. Other prophets offered advice to Zedekiah and the royal court, including a prophet named Hananiah. When he saw Jeremiah wearing the yoke bar, he grabbed it off his back and cracked it in half. He prophesied that within two years Yhwh of Hosts would break the yoke of Babylon and Jehoiachin, along with all the stolen temple implements, would return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah said he wished it would be so but maintained that the end of Babylonian domination was not yet at hand.

The book does not record the reaction of the witnesses to the confrontation that took place in the temple courtyard, but we can assume that they must have been puzzled. Both prophets spoke in the name of Yhwh of Hosts, and both sounded like real prophets. We can be sure that the people wanted to believe Hananiah; he had the more attractive message. But whom should they believe? Jeremiah claimed that history favors the doomsayer—that is, himself—rather than the optimist:

The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and disease against many nations and powerful kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace—only if the word of that prophet comes to pass will it be clear that Yhwh has sent that prophet. (28:8–9)

Jeremiah was saying that if a prophet tells you what you want to hear, presume that he is not telling the truth. Only declare him to be a true prophet if events prove him true. Otherwise, believe the worst and you probably will not be disappointed.

3.3.2 Letter to the Exiles (29)

The Judean refugees living in Babylonia were easy prey to the same false optimism as the citizenry in Jerusalem. Jeremiah was determined to debunk their illusions as he had tried to do with the Jerusalemites. He sent a letter to the Jewish leadership in Babylonia telling them not to expect a speedy return to Judea. Instead, he said, build permanent homes in Babylonia, raise families, and get on with the business of life. He even said the refugees should promote the prosperity and peace of Babylonia, the kingdom of their oppression. Outrageous! If anything was treasonous, this was.

Yet he was not all gloom and doom. Jeremiah had the prophetic foresight and faith to know that Yhwh would eventually reestablish his people in the land of ancestral promise. But he had his own timetable;

“When seventy years in Babylon are finished I will come to you and fulfill my promise to bring you back to this place. I know the future I have in store for you,” says Yhwh, “plans for prosperity and not for disaster, plans to give you a future and hope.” (29:10–11)

Although the immediate future would entail the destruction of Jerusalem, there was always the “to build and to plant” of Jeremiah’s message (see 1:10). Yet, it would not happen in the lifetime of the refugees. The seventy years that Jeremiah

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mentions is the typical lifespan of an Israelite (compare the “three score and ten years” of Psalm 90:10). Only after a lifetime of exile, presumably the passing of a generation, might the Judeans expect to return to their homeland.

3.3.3 New Covenant (30–33)

Although remembered mostly for his message of doom, Jeremiah’s full mission, as defined at his calling, also included this restoration after destruction: “to uproot and to break down, to destroy and to overturn, to build and to plant.” Sometimes called his “Book of Consolation,” Chapters 30–31 contain Jeremiah’s message of building and planting. This expression of Jeremiah’s faith comes in the form of prophetic poetry. These chapters are undated, and scholars’ opinions vary. Certain portions seem to echo the early chapters of Jeremiah, which date to the first years of his prophetic activity, but the overriding theme of restoration and rebuilding may suggest a setting immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was instructed to write down the divine message as a testimony of their return:

“For see, in the coming days (Yhwh’s word) I will restore the restoration of my people Israel and Judah,” said Yhwh, “and I will bring about their restoration to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they will possess it.” (30:3)

Here, and in the remainder of these chapters, Jeremiah affirms the basics of the faith, including possession of the land of Palestine and the unity of Judah and Israel. Jeremiah is rightly famous for articulating this faith in terms of a renewed or new covenant with Yhwh. Jeremiah 31:31–34 builds on the old covenant and adds new features:

“See, in the coming days (Yhwh’s word) I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers when I took them by their hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—my covenant which they broke, though I was their lord (Yhwh’s word). Rather, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days (Yhwh’s word): I will put my Torah inside them, I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his companion or a man his brother, ‘Know Yhwh!’ All of them will know me, from the least to the greatest of them (Yhwh’s word). I will forgive their faults, and their sins I will never remember.” (31:31–34)

In this remarkable passage, Jeremiah affirms the continuity of the Mosaic formulation of covenant; the allusion to the Exodus is clear. The essential content of this new covenant will remain the same: the union of Yhwh and his people. But the newness lies in the way the covenant will be internalized: Yhwh will put his Torah inside them by writing it on their hearts. Furthermore, in the future, God will overlook breaches of covenant as he did not do in the past. Jeremiah is laying the groundwork for a restoration not just of Israel’s homeland and institutions but of the Israelites’ fundamental relationship to God.

During the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 or early 587 (see Figure 11.7), Jeremiah had the opportunity to purchase some ancestral property in his hometown of Anathoth. With the Babylonians in control of the entire area, it would have seemed foolish for any Judean to lay out good shekels to buy land. Yet that is exactly what Jeremiah did. His cousin Hanamel, from whom he bought

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Lachish Letter

FIGURE 11.7 Lachish Letter

A collection of letters written on potsherds was found in a burn layer at Lachish. They date to 587 BCE and contain correspondence between Lachish, a military outpost west of Jerusalem, and headquarters. They give details of the last days and hours of Lachish. According to Jeremiah 34:7, besides Jerusalem only Lachish and Azekah held out against the Babylonians. All three, of course, ultimately fell.

Source: Graphic of Lachish Letter III by Barry Bandstra based on H. Torczyner, Lachish I (Tell ed Duweir): The Lachish Letters (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1938).

it, must have thought Jeremiah an idiot. But by this act Jeremiah was literally putting his money where his mouth was, affirming his deepest faith that Yhwh would not abandon his people or forever remove them from their Promised Land.

3.3.4 Jeremiah’s Complaints

A distinctive feature of the book of Jeremiah is a set of autobiographical passages that provides insight into the prophet’s inner feelings about God and his calling. Called the “Confessions of Jeremiah” by some authorities, they are really laments, or complaints, that Jeremiah addressed to God (see Table 11.4). These passages have similarities to the individual complaint psalms of the Psalter, called laments or complaints (see RTOT Chapter 13). The complaints of Jeremiah are found scattered throughout Chapters 11–20. In them he expressed his feelings of frustration in being a prophet. He claimed that his enemies within Judean political and prophetic circles seemed always to get the upper hand. He accused God of abandoning him even though he had been promised divine support.

TABLE 11.4 Jeremiah’s Complaints



1 11:18-12:6 As target of an assassination plot, he felt led to the slaughter
2 15:10-21 Was cursed by everyone, though he had given no offense
3 17:14-18 Yhwh, do not terrorize me
4 18:18-23 Yhwh, destroy those who plotted against my life
5 20:7-13 Delivering Yhwh's words turned people against him
Cursed the day of his birth

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The complaint in 20:7–13 is especially direct in its criticism of God:

“Yhwh, you have seduced me, and I fell for it, you have overpowered me, and you have won. I have become a perpetual laughable clown, everybody mocks me. Whenever I speak up and cry out I feel compelled to shout, ‘Bloody murder!’” (20:7–8)

The language here is rather bold. Jeremiah goes so far as to say that God “seduced” him, in effect raped him. Not only are his political opponents his enemies, even God seems so at times.

The reasons for Jeremiah’s disillusionment are apparent. Jeremiah experienced mistreatment at the hands of the Jerusalem establishment. He was opposed by priests and prophets, as we saw in Chapter 26. At various other times, he was punished by royal officials when he seemed to be advocating the demise of the Judean monarchy. Pashur, a priest, beat Jeremiah and put him in stocks overnight after he heard Jeremiah preach the submission of Judah (20:1–6).

One especially notable incident happened right before the fall of Jerusalem, as told in Chapter 38. When he tried to leave Jerusalem during the siege of 588 to travel to his home tribe of Benjamin on legitimate business, he was arrested and then accused of treason and inciting desertion. Court officials tried to silence him by dropping him into a cistern. It would have been full of water had Jerusalem not been under siege. Fortunately for Jeremiah, only muck happened to be in the pit. A friend at court pleaded his case with Zedekiah, who finally allowed him to be lifted out.

These incidents indicate how Jeremiah suffered the consequences for his unpopular views. Although we have these examples of rough treatment, we cannot definitively connect his complaints with any specific one of them or attach them to any identifiable period in his life. They could be general reflections on his prophetic calling or undated but specific reactions to personal experiences. Only one of the complaints seems to be tied by editorial arrangement to a specific incident. The placement of Chapter 20 implies that the complaint of 20:7–18 is a response to the physical beating that Jeremiah took from Pashur in the temple.

Despite their general lack of context, the complaints of Jeremiah are theologically significant, even remarkable. They are amazing for the open and honest way that they express Jeremiah’s feelings of alienation from not only fellow citizens but also Yhwh. The frankness of Jeremiah in not hiding his feeling of betrayal from God, but facing God directly, is to be appreciated for its courage.


The books of the Book of the Twelve, or the Minor Prophets, span the time from the Assyrian period on into the postexilic period of Judean restoration. Three books fall within the purview of the Babylonian period: Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk.

4.1 Zephaniah

Zephaniah was a Judean prophet, possibly himself descended from the Davidic line, who was active during the reign of Josiah. His condemnation of the kinds of religious practices that were eliminated by the Josiah reformation in 622 suggests that he prophesied before that time, somewhere between 640 and 622.

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Typical of most other Judean prophets, Zephaniah’s words cover these three main topics: condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem for religious sins, condemnation of foreign nations (including Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, and Assyria), and promises of salvation for God’s people. Zephaniah follows the lead of Amos (see Amos 5:18–20) and proclaims that the day of Yhwh is coming. But it will be a sad day for God’s people and not a day on which they would see victory:

The great day of Yhwh is near, near and fast getting closer. The sound of the day of Yhwh is harsh. On it the warrior screams. A day of wrath will be that day: a day of trouble and anguish, a day of ruin and waste, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and thick darkness. (1:14 –15)

The people will see clouds and fire, effects that in the past signaled the protective presence of God, but this time God would be active to punish them. The day of Yhwh notion as found in Amos 5:18–20, Isaiah 2:6–22, and Zephaniah 1:14–2:3 is a prophetic expression signaling the impending destruction of God’s own people. Some scholars trace the idea back to the conquest and holy war tradition of God’s appearing in victory (see von Rad 1991). At that time, of course, Israel was the recipient of the triumphs of Yahweh. The Day of Yahweh is the prototype of the judgment day of apocalypticism. A final battle between good and evil will mark the end of history. The cosmic scale of this day is evident in Zechariah 14 and Joel 2 (see RTOT Chapter 12).

4.2 Nahum

The book of Nahum is one thing only: an oracle denouncing Nineveh, the once glorious capital city of the Assyrian domain. The book looks forward to the destruction of this city, which epitomized everything the Judeans hated about the Assyrians. Because the city was not destroyed until 612, the book that places its destruction in the future must have been written before that time. Some authorities place it as early as 650, others just before the actual destruction of the city.

Nahum vividly depicts the battle of Nineveh in all its confusion and gore. The prophet seems eager to gloat—no wonder, after the decades of Assyrian tyranny and oppression under which Israel and Judah suffered. The basic theme of Nahum is this: Yhwh punishes any nation—in this case, Assyria—that has exploited his people and treated them cruelly. Israel’s enemies are Yhwh’s enemies, and Yhwh is God supreme, even more powerful than the mightiest empire.

4.3 Habakkuk

The prophet Habakkuk was active in Judah during the first part of the Babylonian crisis, from around 608 to 598. Virtually nothing is known about the prophet himself. The book consists of two units. The first unit, Chapters 1–2, is a dialogue between Habakkuk and Yhwh. The second unit, Chapter 3, is a hymn, much in the style of hymns in the book of Psalms, which anticipates the victory march of Yhwh who would vindicate his people.

The first unit is remarkable for the frankness with which it probes the morality and righteousness of Yhwh’s handling of history. Habakkuk questions how Yhwh could use the evil Babylonians to punish his own covenant people, who presumably are not as bad as that nasty Nebuchadrezzar. The investigation of the

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morality of these actions is referred to by the term theodicy, which means “justice of God.” Habakkuk put it this way:

Your eyes are too clean to countenance evil. You are not able to put up with wrongdoing. Why, then, do you put up with treacherous people, and are silent when the wicked devour those more righteous than they? (1:14)

Yhwh replied:

Write down the vision, make it legible on clay tablets so that anyone in a hurry can read it. For this vision is for a time yet to come. It deals with the end and will not deceive. If it seems to be delayed, just wait for it. It will definitely come, it will not be late. Now the proud, his life is not virtuous. But the righteous, by his faithfulness will he have life. (2:2–4)

Although there are translation problems in verse 4, in essence Yhwh’s answer seems to be this: “Be patient, Habakkuk. This is the way I planned it. The proud—that is, the Babylonians—will meet their end eventually and in the not too distant future. The righteous—that is, the Judeans—will survive if only they remain faithful to God.” The prophecy of Habakkuk affirms the sovereignty of Yhwh and promises that in the end the wicked would be punished and the righteous vindicated.



1. Ezekiel. Where and when was Ezekiel a prophet? What visions did he record, and what symbolic actions did he take? What was the overall message of his activity before the destruction of Jerusalem?

2. Throne-chariot. Describe the throne-chariot of Yhwh that Ezekiel saw and explain its symbolism and significance to Jews living in Babylonian exile?

3. Jeremiah. What were the main phases of Jeremiah’s career in relation to the history of Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem?

4. Jeremiah’s complaints. What were Jeremiah’s complains, and what insight do they give into the personal relationship of the prophet with Yhwh?


1. New covenant. In propounding his new covenant, Jeremiah stresses that God would forgive the Israelites their sins and renew his relationship with them. What do you think that Jeremiah meant by forgiveness? Would God forget what the people had done, or would he simply disregard it? What would the people have to do, if anything, to get this forgiveness?

2. Complaints. Jeremiah’s autobiographical complaints contain frank indictments of God and the way that he treated Jeremiah. Study these complaints. Do you think that Jeremiah had the right to call God into question? Did God actually mislead Jeremiah at any point? Was God at fault in any way, as Jeremiah claimed? Can God be at fault? Should Jeremiah have been so frank and forthright with God?

3. Prophetic politics. Given the activities and messages of the prophets of this period and the abuse that they took, how would you describe and then define the role of biblical prophets within the affairs of the state in ancient times?

4. Today’s prophets. The activities of the biblical prophets of the Babylonian period are played out against the background of and in full engagement with both Judean domestic politics and foreign affairs. Given their immersion in the public affairs in their day, what professions today might be analogous to that of the biblical prophets of the Babylonian period? Put another way, who today would you identify as a prophet on the order of an Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, or Habakkuk?

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5. God in world affairs. Is world history really the arena where deity expresses pleasure and displeasure with nations? Some prophets, especially Nahum and Habakkuk, argued that Israel was “better” than this or that foreign nation. Habakkuk was upset that Judah was suffering at the hands of the Babylonians when Judah was more righteous than the Babylonians. Is there a divine national ranking system whereby we can say that one nation is better than another in God’s eyes? Is there such as thing as a corporate morality that can be judged by God, independently of personal morality?


William L. Holladay has established himself as a leading authority on Jeremiah. His two-volume commentary in the Hermeneia series, designed for specialists, has been distilled into an accessible monograph, Jeremiah: A Fresh Reading (1990).