The period that preceded the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple was of the most tumultuous in our nation’s history. It was a time of quick, decisive change, as the nation shifted from a period of morass and idol worship under the wicked Menashe to an era of widespread repentance inspired by his grandson Josiah. However, even the great prophet Jeremiah could not keep the people and their leaders on the proper path. Just a few years after Josiah’s untimely death, the embattled prophet would watch helplessly as the magnificent Temple burned at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces.
Of the six rulers who reigned following Menashe’s death, the greatest was his grandson Josiah, son of Amoz. Like his great grandfather Hezekiah, Josiah made tremendous strides in uprooting pagan behavior in Judah, almost managing to undo the destructive inroads of his grandfather Menashe.
Towards the end of Josiah’s reign, the Babylonians emerged as the world’s next power. For centuries, an ongoing struggle had raged in the Fertile Crescent between the Assyrians, who dwelled in the north, and the Babylonians in the south. The latter finally gained the upper hand, with some assistance from the Medes. Two years later, the Medes sacked and looted the once powerful Assyrian city of Nineveh.
At the same time, we find of a rising force to the south of Judah, the Twenty-sixth Egyptian Dynasty. Earlier, the Assyrians had formed an alliance with Egypt in the hope of strengthening their position against invading Babylonian and Mede armies. In the year 445 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II marched a large Egyptian force through Israel in an attempt to reach Assyria and assist his ally in battle. Josiah tried to stop him but was killed.
The Egyptians arrived at Carchemish in northwest Syria where the Assyrians joined them. The Babylonian Chronicle informs us that the two armies marched on the Babylonian city Harran. Nebuchadnezzar, son of king Nabopolassar, led the Babylonians, and achieved a decisive Babylonian victory. As the Egyptian army returned home, Necho marched his armies back through Judah, setting up a puppet king Jehoakim, who had displayed loyalty to Egypt. Necho then imposed a heavy tax on Judah, which the Jewish vassal king passed on to the people.
In 442 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, now entitled Babylonian king, campaigned throughout most of Philistia and Judah, destroying every city in his path. Despite the Babylonian triumph at Carchemish, Jehoakim continued to remain in alliance with Egypt. That proved to be a costly error. Despite several pleas for help, the Egyptians never responded. Jehoakim surrendered to Babylon in 441 BCE, sparing Jerusalem for the time being.
This submission would prove short lived. Two years later, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Egypt proper. During this campaign both sides incurred heavy losses. Nebuchadnezzar retreated empty handed. Encouraged by this defeat, Jehoakim rebelled, again joining with the Egyptians.
The Exile of Jehoachin
In response to Jehoakim’s defiance, Nevudachdnezzar marched on Jerusalem in Jehoakim’s fourth year.
“(He took with him) some of the vessels of the house of God … (and) certain of the children of Israel, and of the royal seed, and of the nobles, youths in whom was no blemish, but fair to look on, and skilful in all wisdom, and skilful in knowledge, and discerning in thought, and such as had ability to stand in the king's palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:1–4)
These youths would later become some of the most prominent advisors to Babylonian kings and to leaders of Babylonian Jewry. The best known include Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
Seven years later, the Babylonians returned to the area and again marched on Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, Jehoakim died. His eighteen-year-old son Jehoachin was raised to the throne in his place. Three months later Jehoachin wisely surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, thus temporarily saving Judah from destruction. He was exiled together with members of the royal family, other heads of state, the Judean military, and many artisans. In all, out of an estimated total population of over one million, approximately 10,000 people, exclusive of artisans, were exiled. (II Kings 24:14) This event is known as Galus Jehoachin, or the Exile of Jehoachin. The Babylonians left the farmers and poorer classes behind to tend to the fields and maintain a local population in Judah.
Though the cream of the Jewish crop had already been exiled from Judah, the majority of Jews remained in their homeland following Jehoachin’s surrender. Most of these Jews, known as the am ha’aretz, were uneducated and inexperienced in political affairs. They lacked the leadership skills necessary to guide the Jewish people through this next delicate phase in their history.
The last king of the Jewish people before the final exile was Zedekiah. He began his puppet reign as a Babylonian vassal when he was only 21 years old. Zedekiah was a weak king with limited experience and poor advisors. Zealous princes in Judah together with other national leaders persuaded him to join forces in rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. They used two arguments to support their recommendation. First, they claimed that the Babylonians would not bother with their small uprising. In addition, they argued that even if the Babylonians did march on Judah, the powerful Egyptians would intercede on the Jews’ behalf in order keep the former out of their immediate region. By acquiescing to their arguments, Zedekiah acted in open opposition to the prophet Jeremiah’s advice. He even went so far as to persecute the prophet for having spoken against his agenda.
Zedekiah’s decision proved catastrophic. Nebuchadnezzar arrived shortly thereafter and laid siege to Jerusalem yet again. For a while it appeared that his gamble would pay off, as the Egyptian army came to the city’s defense and put a temporary end to the barricade. However, once the Egyptian army left, the Babylonians returned to resume their siege of Jerusalem. It lasted for two years, until all supplies were exhausted in the city. On the 9th day of Tammuz, 423 BCE, the city walls were breached. A month later, on 9 Av, the destruction of the Temple began.
For breaking his oath of allegiance, Zedekiah was forced to witness the death of his sons before he himself was blinded and exiled to Babylon. Other leading officials were likewise put to death. All but the poorest were sent into exile. The kingdom of Judah was thereby terminated.
The story of Jeremiah is one of intense personal and national pain. He never married, having been instructed by God not to build a family of his own, in light of the impending destruction. His energies were rather focused on persuading the Jewish people to repent, an exercise in which he was painfully unsuccessful.
Jeremiah first began to prophesize in the years following the reign of Menashe and his idolatrous inroads. He continued to do so for the rest of his life, cajoling the people to seek atonement. His later years coincided with the rise of Babylonia as a world power and its extended exile of the Jewish people. His messages are clearly marked with a conviction that Judah was under God’s judgment and that Babylon was His appointed messenger to exile the Jews.
His message stressed spiritual and moral improvement, not military prowess or political savvy. Jeremiah said that only repentance could save the people from destruction. When his message went left unheeded, he realized that destruction was inevitable. He thus counseled submission to Babylon, opposing any talk of revolt.
Such talk, of course did little to enhance Jeremiah’s popularity amongst the Jewish people. Both the populace and the monarchs opposed him. He was later forbidden entrance to the Temple, and was even imprisoned. Throughout, Jeremiah displayed remarkable resilience and fortitude in his heavenly mission.
The people of his time grossly misunderstood his motives. He was perceived as a prophet of doom, who took pleasure in predicting pain and destruction. Of course, the exact opposite was true. Jeremiah wanted desperately for the Jews to heed his cry and to change their sinful ways. When his foreboding predictions did come to pass, he refused to indulge in personal vindication. Rather, he voluntarily escorted his exiled brethren as far as the Euphrates, and mourned their loss. Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations, which is read on the night of 9 Av.
A great historical irony is embodied in Jeremiah. His enemies met their terrible fate and have vanished from the scope of history. Jeremiah, as persecuted and denounced as he was during his lifetime, lives on in the hearts and prayers of the Jewish people.
Why Didn’t They Listen?
It is very difficult for readers with the benefit of hindsight to understand the people’s stubborn refusal to listen to the prophets. We, who continuously crave for clarity and certainty in our daily lives, would rush at the opportunity to hear the word of God directly from the prophet! So why didn’t they? Below is a partial list of explanations that have been have been offered to address this question.
- “How could He do this?” – During this entire time period, the world was divided into two theological camps. The overwhelming majority of the world was comprised of pagans. The Jews alone were monotheistic. Everyone knew that the Jews were different. How then, the Jews argued, could God destroy His own house and terminate His sole source of representation in this world?
- “God needs us!” – This point is similar to the previous one. In the relationship between God and His People, there exists an interesting paradox. On one hand, God is omnipotent, completely in control. He issues positive and negative commandments that we are expected to follow. Reward is given for those who adhere to his laws, punishment for those who do not. Yet, we know that “In the gathering of people is the king’s glory; but in the lack of people is the downfall of the prince.” (Proverbs 14:28) A king cannot function without a nation who is prepared to accept his rule. How then could God exile and seemingly dismiss the Jewish People? Where would that leave Him as King?
- “I’ll worry about it then” – As scary and real as the words of the prophets may have seemed, they never specified a particular year or era of actualization. Over 90 years had passed since the first prophetic words predicting the destruction were uttered, and all the while the Temple remained standing. The fact that punishment would arrive at some point was not sufficient to generate significant change.
The 9th of Av is the saddest day in Jewish history. On that day the spies that were sent to scout out the land of Israel came back with their negative reports. That generation was punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. The Babylonians (423 BCE), and the Romans (70 CE), respectively, destroyed our Temples on that date. The 9th of Av also represents the date by which the Jews of England were expelled (1296). By 9 Av 1492, Spanish Jewry was forced to choose between leaving Spain, convert or die. World War I, the prelude to the Holocaust, began on that date as well (1914).
What Was Lost – The Temple in Jerusalem
The Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world; people came from all over to behold it. Its builder, King Shlomo, went to great lengths to imbue God’s Resting Place with exceedingly high levels of beauty and grandeur.
The exterior of the edifice was made of the brightest white limestone blocks. Inside, it was filled with overlays of gold covering majestic walls of stone and imported cedar wood, and trimmings made from other rare and precious materials. The crown jewels of the Temple were, of course, the holy vessels that were used by the Priests as part of the service.
Paradoxically, the most important room in the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, contained almost nothing at all. The only item it held was the ark, with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments inside. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, would the High Priest enter this room and pray to God on Israel’s behalf. These tablets disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. During the Second Temple era, the Holy of Holies was entirely bare.
Of course, the primary attraction of the Temple was not its beauty but rather its unique place as a house of worship, sacrifice, and the Divine Presence. Normative Judaism meant living with the Divine Presence. Miracles occurred there daily and could be witnessed by anyone. God was with the Jewish people.
During the three annual pilgrimages of Passover, Shabuoth, and Succoth, Jews poured into Jerusalem from Israel and throughout the world. At these times they renewed old acquaintances and exchanged recent news. In Jerusalem, with the Temple as their backdrop, they unified as one single people with a common and strengthened spiritual purpose.
The scene in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur was something to behold. The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on this solemn day and perform the prescribed service, which included the uttering of God’s complete name. The entire nation waited anxiously, all the while imploring God for forgiveness.
Try now to envision the sight on the eve of Passover, with tents covering the mountain slopes, as each group prepares to offer and then roast the Passover sacrifice, in the general company of thousands of their coreligionists.
No less meaningful was the uplifting feeling that one would receive from the collective celebration of Succoth. Everywhere one turned, the festive atmosphere surrounded him. People were carrying the four species by day, and enjoying the acrobatic performances of the Simchas Beis Hasho’aivah at night, all the while surrounded by numerous others sitting in their Succoth.
It was this undeniable sense of spiritual connection, more so than even the beautiful, majestic Temple structure, which was lost. May God hear our prayers at this time of acute mourning and permit us to witness the building of the third and final Temple, speedily in our days.