DECLINE AND FALL
Josiah's son, Jehoahaz, was placed on the throne, but after only three months he was removed by pharaoh Neco and taken to Egypt, where he died; his brother Jehoiakim was made king and paid a heavy tribute to Egypt (2 Kgs. 23: 31–5 ).
It is in the reign of Josiah and his successors that the activity of the prophet Jeremiah of Anathoth is set (Jer. 1: 1–3 ). He warned his people of the threat from a foe from the north. This foe was to be the means whereby divine judgement would be brought about upon Judah (for example, Jer. 1: 13–16 ). The identity of this foe is not made clear; it was the Babylonians who were to capture Judah and Jerusalem but it is objected that their threat had not begun to be real in the early years of Jeremiah. (The fact that Babylon was east rather than north of Judah would not have been a problem since the Babylonian armies would have had to travel around the Fertile Crescent and therefore have approached from a northerly direction.) Another suggestion is that the Scythians or some other group from the north was campaigning in the area. But it is possible that the descriptions in Jeremiah are deliberately imprecise and reflect the fact that when trouble came upon Israel and Judah it often came from the north. Passages such as Jeremiah 4: 13–17 show the enemy getting ever closer, as news of their approach is heard in Dan, then in the hill country of Ephraim, and then in Jerusalem itself (see also Jer. 8: 16 ). Other geographical statements are used to illustrate the prophet's teaching. Jeremiah contrasts the permanency of the snows of Lebanon and Sirion (probably Hermon) with the inconstancy and disobedience of the people of Judah (Jer. 18: 14–15 ). Although to God the house of the king of Judah was like Gilead or the summit of Lebanon (places known for their fertile vegetation), it would become like a desert or an uninhabited city (Jer. 22: 6 ). Jeremiah is said to have declared that because of Judah's unfaithfulness, Jerusalem would suffer the same fate as Shiloh (Jer. 7: 12–14 ). When Jeremiah was brought to trial for such statements, it was recalled that Micah had made similar pronouncements and not been put to death (Jer. 26: 16–19 ) so Jeremiah was spared. But not so the prophet Uriah from Kiriath‐jearim, who was pursued as far as Egypt, brought back to Judah, and put to death by King Jehoiakim (Jer. 26: 20–3 ).
The threat of Babylon became a very real one for Judah (for fuller details, see ‘The Babylonian Empire’ ). Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin, the former perhaps having been removed by his own people in the hope of receiving less severe treatment at the hands of Babylon. But on 16 March 597 (the date is so precise because of details in his own chronicles) Nebuchadrezzar (Nebuchadnezzar) captured Jerusalem, took Jehoiachin and other leading citizens into exile, and placed Zedekiah on the throne. Jeremiah is recorded as having advised not only Zedekiah but the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon to submit to Babylon (Jer. 27: 1–15 ). But sedition continued, perhaps in part fomented by news of unrest in Babylon. This was the context of Jeremiah's famous letter to the exiles (Jer. 29 ). In 589, the Babylonians again marched against Judah. Jeremiah is reported to have warned Zedekiah that defeat for Jerusalem was inevitable at a time when all the remaining fortified cities of Judah apart from Lachish and Azekah had fallen (Jer. 34: 1–7 ). A moment shortly after this is envisaged in one of the inscribed potsherds (ostraca) found in the excavations at Lachish, known as the Lachish Letters. The letter indicates that the senders are watching for fire‐signals from Lachish because they can no longer see Azekah, the implication being that the latter city had just fallen.
In 586 the city of Jerusalem was captured and burnt, Zedekiah was taken and blinded, and a second group of deportees was taken into exile. Gedaliah (significantly not a member of the royal family—the Davidic dynasty was at an end) was made governor over those who remained in Judah (2 Kgs. 25: 1–22 ). Jeremiah, who had been taken to Ramah with other captives, was freed and chose to remain in Judah with Gedaliah (Jer. 40: 1–6 ). But Gedaliah was murdered at Mizpah, his headquarters, by Ishmael (who was of the royal family) apparently at the instigation of the Ammonite king Baalis (2 Kgs. 25: 22–6; Jer. 40: 14; 41: 1–3 ). A certain Johanan sought to take reprisals near the great pool at Gibeon, but Ishmael managed to escape to Ammon (Jer. 41: 11–15 ). Johanan and his associates decided to flee to Egypt, against Jeremiah's advice, taking Jeremiah with them (Jer. 41: 17–43: 7 ). Jeremiah 52: 30 mentions a third deportation of exiles to Babylon, and it is possible that this was a reprisal for the murder of Gedaliah.