ISHMAEL and his ten men were attempting to herd a group of their Jewish countrymen to the land of the Ammonites. The captives had been forced to walk only a few miles when Johanan, a friend of the murdered governor of Judah, began to catch up with the mounted assassins and their prisoners.
Men Request God's Counsel
Ishmael realized that he would surely be overtaken by Johanan and his superior number of charging men. He suddenly decided to give up his captives and large supply of food and make a dash for safety. Without even taking time for any instructions to his men, he spurred his horse into a frantic gallop to the east. Seeing their leader leaving, the other ten attempted to follow. Eight of them escaped Johanan's onslaught. The other two were left lifeless on the ground as the rescued captives were escorted back to Mizpah by Johanan and his men. Meanwhile, Ishmael and his eight remaining murderers rode on, eventually to report to King Baalis that the leadership of Judah had been destroyed. There was a growing concern among the Jews over what would happen when Nebuchadnezzar learned that his puppet governor and several Babylonian representatives had been murdered. Johanan, especially, was worried. "The king of Babylon will be so angry that he is likely to send his army to wipe out what little is left of Judah," Johanan told his men. "We wouldn't be safe in our own country. It might be wise for us to get out of Judah while there's still time." "But where is there to go?" asked one. "To Egypt!" was Johanan's surprising answer. "The king there would probably help any he considers as being at odds with the Babylonians. Surely the Babylonians wouldn't go so far as to try to war against a powerful nation merely to avenge a few deaths." Johanan's suggestion was spread swiftly among the Jews. But some of them, including Johanan, belatedly decided that it would be wise to try to find out what God's will was in the matter. To do this, they went to Jeremiah. The prophet had left Mizpah with the Jews because he wished to stay with the remnant of his people, and especially with King Zedekiah's daughters, who were his special charge. Jeremiah didn't think the time had come that they should leave their country. "We can't decide whether to stay here and risk being killed by the Babylonians or give up our land and go to Egypt," they explained to the prophet. "We would be pleased if you would ask God what we should do." "My God is your God," Jeremiah told them. "I will pray to Him. Whenever and whatever He answers, I'll report it to you." "We will do whatever our God says," they promised Jeremiah. "We are anxious to obey His will." Most of the Jews expected to hear from the prophet almost right away, but it was ten days before he sent word for them to assemble for an answer. (Jeremiah 42:1-7.)
But Speedily Reject It
"Hear what our God has revealed!" the prophet called out to them. "He wants you to know that you should stay in your land. You who have homes in Mizpah should return there without fear of the Babylonians, whom God won't allow to harm you. Because you have looked to God for guidance, He will not punish you as most of your countrymen are being punished. As long as you remain in Judah, your numbers will increase and there will be plenty to live on. On the other hand, if you ignore God's advice and refuse His help by insisting on going to Egypt, you won't find safety there. Neither will you find enough to eat to keep you alive. If you aren't slaughtered by the sword or if you don't starve to death, you will die in Egypt by horrible diseases. You may leave here if you choose, but be warned that those who insist on going to Egypt will never return!" (Jeremiah 42:8-22.) To learn that they could have God's protection without having to leave their homes and their nation should have been good news to the Jews. Their reaction, however, was anything but joyful. There was only an awkward silence. Most of them appeared uncomfortable. Some even scowled with obvious irritation. "You should happily welcome God's promise to take care of you as long as you stay here in your country," the prophet continued. "It's easy to see that you aren't pleased. That's no surprise to me. You promised to go by what God directed, but you never intended to do so unless He approved of what you still plan to do, which is to go to Egypt. Idle curiosity was your only reason to ask me to contact God for you. And regardless of God's warning, you still believe that if you go to Egypt, you can come back any time you choose. That will be quite an accomplishment after you are corpses." These were antagonizing words to the people, especially to Johanan, who had suggested that they go to Egypt, and to a man named Azariah, who was the one who had originally suggested the idea to Johanan. These two, followed by a group of leading men under them, strode up to Jeremiah. "Why do you talk to us this way?" they loudly demanded. "God surely wouldn't forbid us to go to Egypt, yet you declare that He did! Isn't it a fact that your friend Baruch, who secretly wishes the Babylonians to destroy us, talked you into lying to us in this matter?" "You are the ones who speak an untruth," Jeremiah contended. "Baruch, my secretary, has proved his loyalty to Judah by helping me declare God's warnings to our people." "You and Baruch have been friendly with the Babylonians, and that's proof of why you don't fear them!" Azariah muttered. "We're only wasting time talking!" someone shouted. "Let's get started so that we can reach Egypt before the Babylonians get here!" There was much to be done, but before dawn the Jews were on their way, walking beside their burros or trudging under their own loads. As Jeremiah and Baruch stood gloomily watching the long line move by, Johanan and Azariah walked up to them. "Aren't you taking any belongings with you?" Johanan asked them. "We're not going," Jeremiah replied. "God has warned us to stay out of Egypt, and we intend to obey." "And we don't intend to leave you behind!" Azariah snapped. "If you're important to God, surely He'll spare you wherever you are. And as long as you're with us, we can look forward to protection for all. I'll send some men with you to help you pick up your belongings." Regardless of their firm intentions, the two had no choice but to join the exodus.
Warnings in Egypt
Journeying southwest past the south tip of Philistia and across the Shur desert in the upper part of the Sinai peninsula, the Jews came to the Egyptian city of Tahpanhes, about fifty miles east of the east mouth of the Nile River. There they stayed for a time, awaiting permission to go farther into the nation, which they weren't allowed to do unless and until they could prove they weren't enemies. (Jeremiah 43:1-7.) While in Tahpanhes, where Egyptian workmen were building a summer house for the king, Jeremiah was told to again remind the Jews that being in Egypt would give them no safety. God instructed the prophet how to explain it to his countrymen. There was a brick kiln only a few yards from the nearly finished building. Choosing a time when many of the leading Jews were grouped together gazing at the new structure, and when workmen weren't present, Jeremiah and Baruch carried several heavy stones to the kiln and placed them in the clay. "God wants me to tell you," Jeremiah explained, "that these same stones will soon be used on this very spot in building a foundation for a throne room for King Nebuchadnezzar." (Jeremiah 43:8-13.) "How ridiculous!" scoffed Azariah. "What would the king of Babylon be doing with a throne room in Egypt? Pharaoh wouldn't allow it to be built anywhere here, and certainly not right next to a house of his!" "Pharaoh won't have anything to say about it because the Babylonians are going to invade this nation," Jeremiah patiently continued. "They will kill many Egyptians. Many more will starve. Part of them will die of disease. Others will be taken captive. The Babylonians will burn the temples of the Egyptian idols, as well as the gods of wood. The idols will be smashed, and their gold taken to Babylon. Egypt's wealth will all be taken. Nebuchadnezzar will accomplish this as easily as a shepherd puts on his coat. The Egyptians won't have the strength to stop him. When he leaves at the time he chooses, he will have broken their will to fight.'' "I'm not convinced that you're right about coming here to Egypt," Johanan said in a low voice to Azariah. "If Jeremiah is a true prophet of God, we aren't going to have much of a future."
By this time part of the Babylonian army and its special captives, still in chains, had long since reached the city of Riblah in Syria, where King Nebuchadnezzar had temporarily retired after personally leading his army against Egypt and Judah. There, more than two hundred miles northeast of Jerusalem, Zedekiah, most of his family and officers were brought before Nebuchadnezzar, who eyed them critically. (Jeremiah 39:4-5 ) "That is Zedekiah, king of Judah," an aide informed the Babylonian king as guards brought Zedekiah out of the crowd of captives. For long, awkward moments Nebuchadnezzar stared at Zedekiah, who stood in discomfort and humiliation, which he now expected to be followed by death. "Months ago I decided that you would pay with your life because of breaking your sworn allegiance to me," Nebuchadnezzar addressed Zedekiah. "Now that I see you, I'm going to change that decision and spare your life." Zedekiah's hopes soared on hearing this, but before long he had reason to harbor much more hatred and fear of the Babylonian ruler. At a word from Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah and his sons were separated from the other captives and led outside to an enclosure. "My king suggests that you carefully watch what is about to happen here," a Babylonian officer told Zedekiah. "It is the last event you will see." The former king was puzzled by this ominous statement. Then, almost before he could realize what was going on, his sons were lined up and slaughtered by Babylonian soldiers. Even while Zedekiah stood gasping in horror, he was bound tightly to a post and his eyes brutally seared out by a hot iron. Not long after this shocking event, Nebuchadnezzar started back to Babylon, about five hundred miles to the southeast. Zedekiah and the other captives, bound and guarded, had to make the long, rough trip by foot far behind the triumphant Babylonian king. As soon as they arrived at Babylon, Zedekiah was imprisoned, where he later died. (Jeremiah 39:6-8.)
Many True Warnings
As God had repeatedly warned through prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others, Judah's idolatry resulted in a scattering of the people in almost the same way in which the Ten Tribes had been scattered about one hundred and thirty-three years previously. Rebellion against God had resulted in the shattering of both kingdoms, although Judah wasn't swallowed up and lost in surrounding nations as the Ten Tribes of Israel were. If these kingdoms had obeyed God, the people would have remained safe and prosperous in their own land. (Jeremiah 34.) Now the prisoners, slaves and outcasts learned that food and shelter were difficult to find. Meanwhile, the homes from which they had been driven were taken over by wild animals and their fields and orchards were choked with weeds and brush. While two kings of Judah — Jehoiachin and Zedekiah — languished in Babylonian prison cells, many Jews captured previously by the Babylonians were living as exiles in colonies along the Chebar River about two hundred miles north of Babylon. Among these exiles was a young man named Ezekiel. (Ezekiel 1:1-3.) He had a most unusual vision in which he was told by God to tell his people, who still followed idolatry, that they should give up the worship of false gods and turn to the only true God or suffer even greater miseries than they had gone through. Ezekiel obeyed, but few paid much attention to him. Along with his strong warnings from God, he made many predictions that paralleled some made by Jeremiah. He even foretold Zedekiah's attempted escape from the Babylonians at Jerusalem, and about his loss of sight and being brought to Babylon. (Ezekiel 12:10-13.) Even after Ezekiel's countrymen along the Chebar River heard that these things had come about just as Ezekiel said they would, most of them doubted that God had chosen him to be a prophet. This was as God told Ezekiel it would be. Nevertheless, because he was obedient and had a special concern for the exiles, the prophet faithfully continued to repeat God's warnings and prophecies to the people. So did Jeremiah. Before the fall of Jerusalem, he wrote letters to the people Ezekiel was with, encouraging them to keep up their family lives and look forward to a time when their children could return to their homeland after the Babylonians would fall from power. (Jeremiah 29:132.) Ezekiel predicted many things, including the victorious invasion of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 32:1-18) and the fate of the Jews who had gone there contrary to God's warning through Jeremiah. Meanwhile, Ezekiel married and established a home in one of the Jewish communities north of Babylon. Although the Jews generally ignored his prophecies and admonitions, they had unusual respect for him and often came to him for advice. In spite of their stubbornness in ignoring many of the warnings he passed on from God, they believed that God had endowed him with good judgment and the power to foresee the future.
Ezekiel was meant to be more than a prophet to the Jews. He kept the people informed and comforted, and he encouraged all who sought wisdom and tried to forsake their wrong ways. Many of them, naturally, failed to appreciate what he did for them for twenty-two years. Little did they guess that his writings, many of which were quite puzzling, would eventually be read all over the world for centuries and be interpreted in many different ways, mostly erroneous. One of the things Ezekiel wrote about had to do with the future of Israel after the Messiah's second coming to earth from heaven. (Ezekiel 36.) Another matter, among many others, was how people would be resurrected and what tomorrow's world would be like when David would again rule Israel and all the nations of the earth under the Messiah. (Ezekiel 37.) Inasmuch as both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were inspired by God, their prophecies agreed, proving that they were indeed the Creator's true servants. Among the subjects in which they both spoke was the prediction that God would certainly provide a successor to the throne Zedekiah had lost. God had already promised David that He would forever establish David's kingdom, but one might wonder how that would be accomplished after the murder of Zedekiah's sons and later the death of Zedekiah. At that time Jehoiachin, former king of Judah who had been taken captive by the Babylonians, was still alive but was spending his time in a Babylonian dungeon. He had sons who were of the royal line, but they were prisoners and none of them while in prison could become king of a nation that had ceased to exist. After its restoration, one of Jehoiachin's grandsons was made governor by the king of Persia, but he was never crowned king. There were indeed men of the royal line who were qualified to become king decades later at Jerusalem, but that didn't happen, because it wasn't according to God's plan. God had decreed that his line would never again sit in Judah on the throne of David. (Jeremiah 22:24-30.) Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel stated that the throne would be established elsewhere. (Jeremiah 21:11-12; Ezekiel 17:1-6, 22-24.) They also foretold the invasion of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar, to occur a few years after the fall of Jerusalem. By that time, the Jews were scattered throughout Egypt. As might be expected, many of them fell in with worshipping Egyptian idols. That danger was one of the reasons God had told them not to leave Judah. Jeremiah was still warning his people that if they continued in any kind of idolatry they would be killed or captured when Nebuchadnezzar would surely come to overrun Egypt. (Jeremiah 44:1-30.) Most of the Jews still believed that the prophet was somehow in league with the Babylonians, and didn't take him seriously. A few, including Baruch and the daughters of Zedekiah, regarded Jeremiah as God's spokesman and their leader and remained faithful to God. It was a fearful shock to those who disdained Jeremiah when they learned that the Babylonian army was indeed moving into Egypt!