Bible Commentary: 2 Kings 24:10-20a and Related

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2 Kings 24:10-20a and Related

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The Second Babylonian Deportation and the Reign of Zedekiah

Nebuchadnezzar returns to Jerusalem "at the turn of the year" (2 Chronicles 36:10), near the spring equinox, "in the eighth year of his reign" (2 Kings 24:12)—that is, in March of 597 B.C. (his first year according to Jewish reckoning being September 605-September 604 B.C.). Jeconiah's time as king of Judah is up.

"After replacing his father on the throne of David, Jehoiachin [Jeconiah] evidently maintained an anti-Babylonian posture that immediately brought Nebuchadnezzar's stern reaction. After only three months in power Jehoiachin found his city surrounded by the Babylonian hosts and he quickly capitulated. This time the royal family was deported along with other leading citizens including Ezekiel the prophet. The cream of Judah's military force and her most skillful craftsmen also had to abandon their land and homes to go into exile. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar helped himself once more to the temple treasures and carried them back to Babylon as a sign of his complete success" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 452).

The Babylonians were prolific recorders of their accomplishments. Among some 300 cuneiform tablets unearthed near modern Baghdad, one Babylonian chronicle was found paralleling the biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar's sacking of Jerusalem and capture of its monarch in 2 Kings 24:10-17.

"Here is the Babylonian version: 'Year 7 {of Nebuchadnezzar [according to Babylonian reckoning]}. In the month of Kislev {December 598}, the king of Babylonia mobilized his troops and marched to the west [showing that he began his assault as soon as Jeconiah assumed the throne]. He encamped against the city of Judah {Jerusalem}, and on the second of Adar {March 16, 597}, he captured the city and seized {its} king. A king of his choice he appointed there; he to{ok} its heavy tribute and carried it off to Babylon.

"The corroboration of the biblical text by the records of Israel's ancient foe is unmistakable, and a bit ironic," writes U.S. News & World Report religion writer Jeffery Sheler. "Until a century ago, it was commonly claimed by skeptics in the biblical academy that Nebuchadnezzar had never existed—that he was yet another of the Bible's legendary figures invented for propaganda purposes. But then the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey, excavating in Iraq beginning in 1899, came upon the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's magnificent palace complex, the famed temple of Marduk, and the remains of the Ishtar gate [now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin]—as well as numerous inscriptions, statues, and stelae from the ancient Babylonian empire. At once, Nebuchadnezzar ceased to be a fictional foil in a supposed Hebrew mythology; archaeology had affirmed him as a true historical figure. And now the royal records of this ancient enemy of the Israelites are adding testimony to the accuracy of the Bible as it relates this important chapter of Israel's history. This reversal once again shows the capacity of archaeology to turn the skeptical suppositions of biblical scholarship upside down" (Is the Bible True?, 1999, p. 137).

Returning to the scriptural account, it is clear that Nebuchadnezzar's invasion is a devastating blow to the nation. While the first deportation of Jews to Babylon, which included Daniel and his friends, was quite small, this one is major—involving a substantial portion of Jerusalem. The Babylonian emperor, we are told, takes all but the poor captive (2 Kings 24:14; compare Jeremiah 27:20; Jeremiah 29:2). "This method of eliminating leaders and leaving the peasant population to pay taxes to the kingdom was learned from the Assyrians and was designed to reduce the likelihood of rebellion" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 2). The beginning of 2 Kings 24:20 sums up this episode and all that would soon transpire: "It was because of the LORD's anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence" (NIV).

Nebuchadnezzar removes Jeconiah and his mother from power and places Josiah's remaining son Mattaniah—Jeconiah's uncle—on the throne, renaming him Zedekiah as a demonstration of the emperor's supremacy. As with Necho's replacement of Jehoahaz with Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar keeps the Jewish kingship within the royal family of David rather than introducing a new dynasty. This was a smart move on both occasions, as the people would not have accepted a non-Davidic ruler and it maintained the façade of Jewish self-rule, which helped to prevent uprising. More importantly, of course, God's overseeing direction in keeping His promise to David was certainly a factor.

Mattaniah's new name Zedekiah meant "Yahweh Is Righteousness." Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary says, "This being a purely Hebrew name, it seems that [Nebuchadnezzar] allowed the puppet king to choose his own name, which was confirmed" (note on 2 Kings 24:17). If that's so, it's interesting to recall that Jeremiah had prophesied that, after Jeconiah (Jeremiah 22:24-30), a "Branch of righteousness" would come from David's house to save Judah (Jeremiah 23:5-6) called "Yahweh Our Righteousness" (see verse 6). Could it be that Mattaniah, probably with the help of advisers, intentionally chose a name meaning something very close to that? In other words, might Mattaniah have co-opted Jeremiah's prophecy to set himself up as a messianic figure to inspire popular support? It is certainly a possibility.

But the people had difficulty accepting him as the true king, much less anything beyond that. "Though 'he reigned in Jerusalem,' the fact that seals have been discovered with the inscription 'Eliakim steward of Yaukin [Jehoiachin or Jeconiah]' indicates that, at the least, his nephew Jehoiakin continued to wield influence as a recognized possessor, even if an absentee one, of royal property and, at the most, that Zedekiah may have ruled to some extent as a regent for his exiled predecessor" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on 2 Chronicles 36:11).

"Though Zedekiah, Jehoiachin's uncle and Josiah's son, was left as puppet ruler of Judah, it is clear that the Jewish people regarded Jehoiachin as the true scion of David until the day of his death. He never returned to Jerusalem, it is true, but after long years as a political prisoner in Babylon he was placed on a government pension and apparently was treated more as an honored guest of Babylon than as her prisoner (2 Kings 25:27-30). It must have seemed to the exilic Jewish community that the time would surely come when Jehoiachin would lead them back triumphantly to Jerusalem and restore the former glory of the house of David" (Merrill, p. 452). Yet this was utterly foolish, considering that God had banned Jeconiah and his descendants from inheriting David's throne (Jeremiah 22:24-30).

In any event, Zedekiah was "king de facto of whatever was left of Judah in 597" (Merrill, p. 452). Indeed, he was more than that, for God's decree against Jeconiah made Zedekiah the legitimate successor of David despite what the people thought or desired. Yet the stubborn and faithless Zedekiah does not heed God, propagating 11 more years of wicked rule. "Evil like his brothers, he paid no attention to the admonishings of Jeremiah the prophet to accept Babylonian suzerainty as the will of God [as we will see in upcoming readings]. Rather, he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, thus inviting sure and swift disaster. The date of this rebellion cannot be determined" (Merrill, p. 452)—but it was sometime between 593 and 588 B.C., as we will see. The Jewish king's rebellion is utter defiance, not merely against the Babylonian king, but also against God and His prophet (2 Chronicles 36:12)—doubly so since Zedekiah took an oath in God's name that he would not rebel against Babylon (verse 13).

This all spells disaster for the king—and for the Jewish nation. The end would come soon.

The Two Baskets of Figs

God had a plan in allowing some of the Jews to go into exile while allowing others to remain in Jerusalem. To make clear to Jeremiah and others what He was doing, God gave the prophet a vision of two baskets of figs (Jeremiah 24), one filled with good, ripe figs and the other with foul, rotten ones.

Through the image of the good figs, God explained to Jeremiah that He was providing a place of refuge for those who would later be able to return to Him with a right heart. As we'll later read, the exiles were given the opportunity to prosper in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7). At the time of the second deportation, Daniel had already been in Babylonian exile for eight years and was by now entrusted with enormous responsibility in the empire. No doubt he was able to wield considerable influence with regard to the Jewish exiles—including their treatment, settlement, employment, education, etc. An important lesson for us here is that God doesn't just act impulsively, but plans for the future—in this case placing Daniel in Babylon first and promoting him to a position of high authority ahead of the arrival of the remaining exiles.

The bad figs represented those such as Zedekiah and the other leaders of Judah who were rebellious and stubborn. Left behind in Jerusalem (or in Egypt), they would ultimately be destroyed. Concerning those who "dwell in the land of Egypt" (Jeremiah 24:8) there is some debate. The Expositor's Bible Commentary contends: "To understand them as those involved in the events of chapters 43 and 44 [when a sizable remnant of Judah later flees to Egypt following Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.] is to leap too far ahead in the narrative of the book" (note on Jeremiah 24:8). Yet the statement could certainly mean this, as it was a prophecy. However, there are other possibilities.

Expositor's continues: "A number of scholars suggest that those living in Egypt were Jews who were deported with Jehoahaz to Egypt by Pharaoh Neco (cf. 2 Kings 23:31-34). Others suggest that they were emigrants who were opposed to the Babylonian domination of Judah or fled to Egypt at the first approach of Nebuchadnezzar. Another proposal is that they were fugitives from Judah who went to Egypt during various wars. Since details are lacking, it is impossible to rule out those probabilities. Archeological research does, however, reveal that those who remained in Egypt set up a rival temple later on" (same note). Perhaps God intended all of these groups.

Jeremiah 24 concludes with a warning of the ominous cycle of sword, famine and pestilence also mentioned elsewhere (verse 10; see Jeremiah 14:12; Jeremiah 27:8, 13; Jeremiah 29:17-18; 1 Kings 8:33-39; Ezekiel 14:21; compare Revelation 6:3-8). Indeed, tying in directly with this chapter, Jeremiah 29:18 says, "Behold, I will send on them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten, they are so bad."