Thursday, 28 June 2012

Jeremiah's Message to the Exiles

In the year 3327 - eleven years before the Destruction of the (first) Beis Hamikdosh - Nebuchadnezzar, the mighty King of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem with a huge army. King Jehoiachin, who had ascended the throne of Judea only 100 days earlier, now surrendered, in order to avoid the destruction of the Holy City.
Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive, together with his mother and other members of the royal family. He also rounded up leading figures in the land of Judea, including many scholars and elders, and led them all to Babylon. Altogether some 10,000 captives were taken in this First Exile to Babylon. In addition, the Babylonian king ransacked the royal treasury as well as that of the Beis Hamikdosh and took the spoils with him.
Before returning to his country, Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah, the uncle of the deposed king and youngest son of the late King Josiah, on the throne of Judea, after taking an oath of loyalty to his Babylonian overlord.
The new king, however, had no intention of remaining the obedient servant of his Babylonian master, and secretly looked for a way of throwing off the Babylonian yoke. With his chief officers and leaders of his army gone, and the country greatly impoverished, Zedekiah knew that he could not achieve independence without outside help. He turned to Egypt for help, since the ever growing power of Babylon was a threat to Egypt too. And he looked around for help also from neighboring kingdoms. The only real and sure help that was his for the asking - the help of G-d, the king recklessly ignored.
In those critical times, as for many years earlier, the great prophet Jeremiah of Anathoth, the Town of Kohanim, was the G-d-sent messenger to warn the people of the mortal danger hanging over their heads. He did not cease calling on the king and the people to mend their ways and return to G-d. Only wholehearted repentance and a complete break with the way of idolatry, injustice and immorality, could save the people from doom, he preached. Jeremiah tried to convince the king that it was useless to depend on false hopes of freeing himself from the Babylonian yoke with the help of Egypt. The prophet sternly warned him, in G-d's Name, to follow a peaceful path with the mighty Babylonian, who was G-d's rod to punish the Jewish people if they persisted in their faithlessness.
If the memory of the destruction and exile of the Northern Kingdom of the Ten Tribes by King Shalmanesser of Assyria more than a century earlier (in 3205) had faded, the fall of Jehoiachin and First Babylonian captivity should have shaken up the people and the king to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. But his words fell on deaf ears. The king and the people were more inclined to listen to the false, self-appointed "prophets," who misled them by their predictions of glorious days ahead. These false prophets made them believe that the rise of Babylon's power was only temporary, and that in a couple of years it would break down. The people were inclined to follow the false prophets because this did not call for them to alter their way of living and begin to live the holy and moral life which G-d's Torah and Mitzvos demanded.
There were false prophets not only in Jerusalem, but also among the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon with Jechoniah. These prophets, too, deceived the exiles with false predictions that their exile would soon be over, as the subjugated kingdoms in the Babylonian empire would rebel and topple their overlord. Like their counterparts in Jerusalem, they agitated against the "Prophet of Doom," Jeremiah, and his tragic prophecies.
Jeremiah, on his part appealed ever more strongly to the Jews, urging them not to be misled by the false prophets. He also kept in touch with the exiles in Babylon, encouraging them to hold on to their Jewish faith. Indeed, having been driven from their land and forced to live among non-Jews in a foreign land, it was more important than ever that they should keep faith with G-d and the Torah, till the time of salvation, when G-d would return them to their land.
Jeremiah Dons a Yoke
King Zedekiah concealed his hopes and intentions so well that Nebuchadnezzar never suspected him of any disloyalty. Indeed, in the fourth year of Zedekiah's reign, Nebuchadnezzar elevated him to the highest rank among his vassals, placing him at the head of five neighboring kings, namely, those of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon.
This new development raised Zedekiah's hopes to form an alliance against the mighty Babylonian king. When the said five kings sent personal envoys to pay their respects to Zedekiah, he saw an opportunity to persuade them to join him in an open rebellion against their common enemy.
However, Jeremiah had received a prophetic message from G-d to forestall this reckless adventure. He was instructed by G-d to prepare wooden bars with reins - like yokes used to harness a pair of oxen, and to place one on his neck, while handing the others over to the royal messengers to take to their masters. These yokes, and the Divine message that went with them, were to impress upon the five kings as well as on Zedekiah that it was G-d, the Creator and Master of the world, who decreed their submission to the king of Babylon until such time as it pleased G-d, and that it would be useless to go against G-d's Will. Jeremiah duly and fearlessly delivered the yokes with the following Divine message:
"So said the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel... I have made the earth, and the peoples and beasts on it, by My great power and outstretched arm, and I give it to whom I see fit. And now I have given all these lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, who is My servant... And all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son's son, until, also, the time of his land will come to an end... Therefore, the nation and kingdom which will not serve him, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and will not put their neck under his yoke - that nation will I punish, says the L-rd, with the sword, and with famine, and with pestilence, until I have destroyed them by his hand. Therefore, do not listen to your false prophets, or to your diviners, nor dreamers, nor enchanters, or to your sorcerers that tell you not to serve the king of Babylon... But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him, those will I let remain still in their own land, says the L-rd, and they shall till it, and dwell therein... Jeremiah 27:4-11).


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