Safety During a Nation’s Destruction
IT ALWAYS seems safer to go along with public opinion. This is especially so in a time of crisis, when a nation struggling for its life. History proves that those who have followed and preached God’s Word have, especially in critical times, been called “calamity howlers,” haters of everyone. The reason is that God’s Word condemns this system of things, declaring it to be the enemy of God and due for destruction. The historian Tacitus writes of Nero’s persecution of Christians in the first century: “An immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing [Rome], but of hatred against mankind.”*
But what is the really safe course? The prophet Jeremiah provides a case in point. In his forty years of prophesying he never said what people wanted to hear about Jerusalem but what God commanded him to say. He denounced the God-dishonoring course of action of Jerusalem and its rulers and spoke of Jerusalem’s destruction as being near at hand. Even when Jerusalem was in its direst straits he kept on preaching. Was Jeremiah wise? Would it not have been safer to be quiet and go along with things, waiting to see the outcome?
Things were progressing fast toward a climax in Jerusalem. Fear and anxiety prevailed. The ninth year of King Zedekiah was an important year, a partial sabbath year, in which the land was to lie uncultivated. (Lev. 25:1-10) It provided Zedekiah’s last opportunity to let the God-given land get its required rest, but there is no record in the Bible that he and the priests obeyed. Now Jehovah himself would enforce the land’s sabbaths.—Lev. 26:2, 31-35.
Already Judah’s sins had caused God to permit Babylon to make Judah a vassal kingdom. Later, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had put Zedekiah under oath in the name of Jehovah, but in this year of 609 B.C.E. he broke his oath and rebelled. Jehovah informed Ezekiel, 500 miles away in Babylonia, of his anger at this:
“He [Zedekiah] finally rebelled against [Nebuchadnezzar] in sending his messengers to Egypt, for it to give him horses and a multitudinous people. . . . he has despised an oath in breaking a covenant, . . .
“Therefore . . . he will certainly be caught in my hunting net; and I will bring him to Babylon and put myself on judgment with him there respecting his unfaithfulness with which he acted against me. And as regards all the fugitives of his in all his bands, by the sword they will fall, and the ones left remaining will be spread abroad even to every wind.”—Ezek. 17:15-21.
Because of Zedekiah’s covenant-breaking course, King Nebuchadnezzar marched toward Jerusalem. At a fork in the road he superstitiously employed Babylonian divination to determine whether to attack Jerusalem first or to go to the siege of another rebellious city, Rabbah of Ammon. Would Jerusalem escape? By no means. Jehovah had said that Jerusalem must be the first to drink the cup of the wine of God’s rage at the hand of her God whom she had rejected. So Jehovah maneuvered the Babylonish divination, and Nebuchadnezzar took the fork of the road that branched toward Jerusalem.—Ezek. 21:14-24.
GENTILE GOVERNMENTS TO RULE UNTIL SHILOH COMES
Now an important prophecy was directed by Ezekiel in Babylonia toward Zedekiah:
“And as for you, O deadly wounded, wicked chieftain of Israel, whose day has come in the time of the error of the end, this is what the Lord Jehovah has said, ‘Remove the turban, and lift off the crown. This will not be the same. Put on high even what is low, and bring low even the high one. A ruin, a ruin, a ruin I shall make it. As for this also, it will certainly become no one’s until he comes who has the legal right, and I must give it to him.’”—Ezek. 21:25-27.
Jehovah had made a covenant with David that kings of his line would sit upon “Jehovah’s throne” in an everlasting kingdom. (2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Chron. 29:23) But now active rule of the house of David in the city of Jerusalem would cease. It had been the highest kingdom, in the sense of being the miniature representation of God’s kingdom on earth. It had been like a roadblock to the Gentile rulers who sought world domination. Now the Gentile powers, which had been treated as low, were to be raised high and Gentile domination would come for a time with no interference on the part of any miniature kingdom of Jehovah God. This certainly did not mean, however, that God had broken or changed his covenant with King David for an everlasting kingdom or that the scepter was to turn aside from the tribe of Judah.
God gave assurance when he said: “It will certainly become no one’s until he comes who has the legal right, and I must give it to him.” This meant that active rulership on “Jehovah’s throne” would be held for a time in abeyance, with no one of the line of David occupying it until Shiloh, which name means “The One Whose It Is,” would come and take up the kingdom. This event would spell the end of those Gentile times of world domination.
Ezekiel in Babylonia was kept informed by Jehovah God of the movements of King Nebuchadnezzar as Jehovah’s executional officer. Ezekiel writes: “And the word of Jehovah continued to occur to me in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, saying: . . . ‘The king of Babylon has thrown himself against Jerusalem on this selfsame day. And compose a proverbial saying . . . and you must say . . . “This is what the Lord Jehovah has said: . . . ‘Woe to the city of deeds of bloodshed!’”’”—Ezek. 24:1-6.
A FALSE IDEA AS TO THE SAFE COURSE
Ignoring Jehovah’s command through Jeremiah to go out and surrender to the king of Babylon, to save the city from destruction, Zedekiah and his princes thought to do something less than that and yet gain Jehovah’s favor by carrying out a part of his law that they had long neglected. That was the law to set Hebrew servants free on the seventh year, after six years of servitude. So they made a covenant with the people over a sacrificial victim and proclaimed liberty to their Hebrew servants.—Jer. 34:8-10; Deut. 15:12-18.
But the hypocrisy of these leaders of Jerusalem manifested itself when news came that an Egyptian army under Pharaoh (Apries, or Hophra) was on the way to assist Judah. (Jer. 37:5, 7) Nebuchadnezzar was forced to take care of this threat and marched away, giving relief to Jerusalem. The wicked rulers of Jerusalem took confidence at this and showed their complete disregard for God, also for their covenant with the people. They felt so safe that they broke their covenant granting servants liberty and brought them back into servitude again. (Jer. 34:11-16) This made Jehovah God indignant. To be true to Jehovah and to his responsibility toward the people, whose lives were in danger, Jeremiah had to declare publicly God’s sentence on these powerful men in Jerusalem:
“You yourselves have not obeyed me in keeping on proclaiming liberty each one to his brother and each one to his companion. Here I am proclaiming to you a liberty, . . . to the sword, to the pestilence and to the famine, . . . And I will give the men sidestepping my covenant, . . . namely, the princes of Judah and the princes of Jerusalem, the court officials and the priests and all the people of the land who went passing between the pieces of the calf [in confirming their covenant]—yes, I will give them into the hand of their enemies . . . and their dead bodies must become food for the flying creatures of the heavens and for the beasts of the earth. And Zedekiah the king of Judah and his princes I shall give into the hand of . . . the military forces of the king of Babylon who are withdrawing from against you men.”
How would this be? Jehovah explained how:
“Here I am commanding, . . . and I shall certainly bring [the Babylonians] back to this city, and they must fight against it and capture it and burn it with fire; and the cities of Judah I shall make a desolate waste without an inhabitant.”—Jer. 34:17-22.
Through these conditions how did Jeremiah fare? For a while he was free to go in and out among the people. ‘Perhaps,’ thought King Zedekiah, ‘I might get on the good side of God,’ as he sent representatives to Jeremiah to ask him to pray to Jehovah to reverse His announced purpose. But Jeremiah replied with a message from Jehovah that dashed Zedekiah’s hopes to the ground and put Jeremiah in greater danger from Jerusalem’s rulers:
“Look! The military force of Pharaoh that is coming forth to you people for the purpose of assistance will have to go back to their land, Egypt. And the Chaldeans will certainly come back and fight against this city and capture it and burn it with fire. . . . Do not deceive your souls, saying, ‘The Chaldeans will without fail go away from against us,’ because they will not go away. For if you men had struck down all the military force of the Chaldeans who are fighting you and there remained over among them men pierced through, they would each one in his tent rise up and actually burn this city with fire.”—Jer. 37:3-10; 44:30.
So, when Jeremiah wanted to make a visit to his home territory in Benjamin, an officer grabbed Jeremiah, saying: “It is to the Chaldeans that you are falling away!” Jeremiah denied: “It is false! I am not falling away to the Chaldeans.” But the princes struck Jeremiah, fettered him and put him in detention in Jerusalem under very bad conditions, in “the house of the cistern.”—Jer. 37:11-16.
In the meantime, just as Jeremiah had faithfully said, the Babylonian forces turned the Egyptian forces back toward Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar returned to resume the siege of Jerusalem. Jerusalem must drink first the cup of the wine of Jehovah’s rage; Egypt, later.—Ezek. 30:20, 21.
GOD FEEDS, PROTECTS HIS SERVANT
King Zedekiah even yet sought a change of Jehovah’s mind, but Jeremiah did not water down Jehovah’s message. He replied: “Into the hand of the king of Babylon you will be given!” In the face of all this we see Jehovah God’s protection and care for his servant Jeremiah even in the midst of bitter enemies, for at Jeremiah’s request Zedekiah had Jeremiah transferred to the Courtyard of the Guard. “And there was a giving of a round loaf of bread to him daily from the street of the bakers, until all the bread was exhausted from the city.”—Jer. 37:17-21.
Under custody Jeremiah evidently had the opportunity to talk to the people, and he gave them Jehovah’s advice to go out in self-surrender to the Chaldeans to save their lives, for the city would certainly fall. The princes complained that Jeremiah was breaking down the morale of the besieged people. King Zedekiah weakly surrendered him into their hands. He would not protect God’s prophet if it jeopardized him. “And they proceeded to take Jeremiah and throw him into the cistern of Malchijah the son of the king, . . . Now in the cistern there was no water, but mire; and Jeremiah began to sink down into the mire.” He could not preach down there, the princes thought!
Were there any others who thought it was the safe course to listen to Jehovah’s word and follow it, even though extreme nationalism and hatred for Jeremiah’s preaching activity now prevailed in Jerusalem? Yes, and such a one God used as an instrument to save faithful Jeremiah out of the mire. This was Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, one of the king’s eunuchs. He had heard of Jeremiah’s plight and had gone to the king and said: “O my lord the king, these men have done bad in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have thrown into the cistern, so that he will die where he is because of the famine. For there is no bread any more in the city.” At the king’s orders Ebed-melech brought thirty men and equipment and hoisted Jeremiah out. “And Jeremiah continued to dwell in the Courtyard of the Guard.”—Jer. 38:1-13.
For taking this action in behalf of Jeremiah, was Ebed-melech risking his life? Yes. But he knew that Jeremiah was truly Jehovah’s prophet. Ebed-melech’s action condemned the rulers of Jerusalem for their unbelief in Jehovah. Jehovah was not unmindful of Ebed-melech. Hear his words of comfort to him: “Here I am bringing true my words upon this city for calamity and not for good, and they will certainly happen before you in that day. And I will deliver you in that day, . . . For I shall without fail furnish you an escape, and by the sword you will not fall; and you will certainly come to have your soul as a spoil, because you have trusted in me.”—Jer. 39:15-18.
Zedekiah still had opportunity to surrender to the Babylonians and save his household and prevent the burning of Jerusalem. He even went to Jeremiah secretly and was given assurance to this effect. But he feared man. He feared reprisal from those who disagreed with that action. He looked in the wrong direction for safety. He was thereby led into a deadly snare.—Jer. 38:14-28.
As the siege of Jerusalem continued for nearly a year and a half, the people in Jerusalem were in terrible distress indeed. There was no bread for the people. (2 Ki. 25:1-3) Mothers were eating their own babies. (Lam. 2:19, 20) Would Jeremiah’s course now show up to be the wise course of action? Would he survive the siege?
At last, in the month Tammuz, the Babylonians made a breach in the wall and entered and took possession of the Middle Gate. It was too late now for King Zedekiah to surrender. He fled by night, but was overtaken in the desert plains of Jericho near the Jordan River and taken to Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah in Hamath. There the king of Babylon slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons before his eyes, and killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he blinded Zedekiah and took him in fetters to Babylon, where he died. (Jer. 39:2-8) Just as Ezekiel had foretold, he came to Babylon, but did not see it—Ezek. 12:12, 13.
As for Jeremiah, the fall of Jerusalem served for his liberation. The Babylonians had heard about his preaching. They treated him kindly. The chief of the Babylonian bodyguard, named Nebuzar-adan, brought him out of the Courtyard of the Guard. (Jer. 39:13, 14) Jeremiah got mixed in with the Jews who were being carried captive to Babylon but the chief of the bodyguard saw him and said to him: “Now, look! I have let you loose today from the handcuffs that were upon your hands. If it is good in your eyes to come with me to Babylon, come, and I shall keep my eye upon you. But if it is bad in your eyes to come with me to Babylon, refrain. See! The entire land is before you. To wherever it is good and right in your eyes to go, go there.”—Jer. 40:1-4.
While Jeremiah hesitated, the chief of the bodyguard told him to go back and live under Gedaliah, whom the king of Babylon had commissioned over the cities of Judah, living wherever he wanted to. Then he gave Jeremiah a food allowance and a gift and let him go. Accordingly, Jeremiah went to Gedaliah at Mizpah, and resided there until later developments, to be discussed in this magazine’s next issue.—Jer. 40:5, 6.
WE CAN TAKE THE SAFE COURSE
So, in Jerusalem’s dark hour, it looked as if Jeremiah, in a besieged and starving city, and a prisoner therein at that, in disfavor with the ruling elements, would never be able to survive. But by maintaining firmness in his dedication to Jehovah, even though his preaching condemned the rulers of the land and foretold destruction for Jerusalem itself, he actually took the course of safety.
We can learn a lesson from this. Jehovah’s anointed witnesses proclaim destruction upon this system of things because of its being influenced by Babylonish false religion and for turning away in disobedience from Jehovah God. They have thereby experienced what Jesus foretold at Matthew 24:9: “You will be objects of hatred by all the nations.” To them, many of whom are even now in prison and suffering persecution in many lands, the experience of Jeremiah gives assurance that they will escape the condemnation of this world and that as a group they will survive the destruction of this system of things. Ebed-melech, who befriended Jeremiah because he recognized him as a prophet of Jehovah, was spared with Jeremiah. Those today who come alongside God’s servants in faithful dedication and activity will receive Jehovah’s favor and protection just as surely as did Ebed-melech, according to the rule stated by Jesus Christ himself: “He that receives a prophet because he is a prophet will get a prophet’s reward, . . . And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water to drink because he is a disciple, I tell you truly, he will by no means lose his reward.”—Matt. 10:41, 42.
Anyone dwelling in the secret place of the Most High will procure himself lodging under the very shadow of the Almighty One.—Ps. 91:1.
Tacitus’ Annals, Book 15, par. 44 (translated by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb).