Zedekiah, who reigned from 597 B.C. to 586 B.C. , has the distinction of being the last king of Judah. In actual fact, the kingdom of Judah had pretty well come to the end of the road before Zedekiah became king, because Jerusalem had already fallen to the Babylonians. The previous king, Jehoiachin, who had reigned for only 3 months, had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and had been taken off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar as a prisoner. In place of Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah (who was Jehoiachin’s uncle). In other words, Zedekiah was not the ruler of an independent kingdom, but a vassal of the king of Babylon, or as we might say today, a puppet.
Zedekiah, however, was not content to remain a vassal, and rebelled against Babylonian rule. The rebellion was not successful, and Zedekiah ended his days in a Babylonian prison.
The story is told in II Kings 24:11-25:7 – but several interesting details of the politics of Zedekiah’s reign which are not mentioned in II Kings are recorded in the book of Jeremiah.
One of the most interesting and important incidents is recorded in Jeremiah 38:
“Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. He will escape with his life; he will live.’ And this is what the LORD says: ‘This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’ ” Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.”
Basically, Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was under siege by the Babylonian army, and God had told Jeremiah that Jerusalem was not going to hold out. If people wanted to stay alive, they needed to flee the city and surrender to the Babylonians. However, Zedekiah and the leadership of Judah were not prepared to accept this and were fighting on.
In the circumstances, the message from God that Jeremiah was proclaiming to the people didn’t go down at all well with Judah’s political leadership. They felt that Jeremiah was undermining the war effort – i.e. government policy – and that to undermine government policy during war was such a serious offence that Jeremiah should be put to death. As far as they were concerned, he was seeking the ruin of the people of the city instead of their good.
The truth, of course, was the opposite. Government policy was, in fact, bringing ruin on the people – and Jeremiah was pointing that out, and telling people how to survive.
Alas, no government appreciates that.
As for the accusation that he was discouraging the soldiers defending the city – well, it was true enough. But since that battle was not winnable, and continuing with it would be disastrous for everyone in the city, the best thing for the troops to do would have been to ignore their leaders and surrender. It wasn’t even as if there was anything honourable about the war. Zedekiah was Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal; in rebelling he had broken his word – which is a seriously dishonourable thing to do.
2600 years later, it is clear that human nature doesn’t change – and nor to the ways of kings and rulers. Those in government still tend to believe that to oppose their policies is to oppose the good of the nation and its people – and that is particularly true in times of war, when opposition to government policy is often seen as unpatriotic, disloyal, and even treacherous.
Just under a hundred years ago, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party was imprisoned for a speech he made in which he criticised American participation in World War I. While he did not explicitly call for people to refuse to be conscripted, he did praise those who had obstructed conscription, and was thus convicted of violating the Espionage Act, on the grounds that he had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and military recruitment. (The Act, of course, covered more than just espionage.) The American President, Woodrow Wilson, described Debs as “a traitor to his country.”
It is interesting to compare what Debs did to what Jeremiah did. In saying “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live,” Jeremiah was effectively suggesting that soldiers should stop fighting and surrender to the enemy – which seems far more radical than what Debs was saying. If Woodrow Wilson thought that Debs was a traitor, it’s hardly surprising that the political leaders of Jerusalem thought that Jeremiah ought to die.
The truth, of course, is that governments are not perfect. Every government makes mistakes, no matter how good its intentions are. And many governments do things which are not just mistaken, but immoral and even wicked. And yet the truth is that many rulers tend to remain so convinced that their policies and actions are what their country (and the world) needs, that they regard those who oppose these policies as actively trying to hurt the country and its people. Such is human pride.