The fall of Jerusalem was a tragic event made even worse by the knowledge that it could have been avoided—or at least softened once it was inevitable—by simply listening and responding to God’s persistent warnings. Listening to God means living without regrets.
The Tragic Fall of Jerusalem
Tragedy has been defined as the difference between what could have been and what actually happened. When you think about this definition of tragedy, it certainly applies to the nation of Judah and its last king—Zedekiah.
You can’t help but think of what could have been if he and his people had only listened to God’s repeated warnings through the prophet Jeremiah. But what could have been was not what happened—what actually happened, then, was indeed a tragedy.
Now as we come to the closing days of Judah, described here in Jeremiah 37–39, three different scenes are presented.
In this first scene, we see a king who refuses to listen. Zedekiah was the son of Josiah, Judah’s last godly king, but Zedekiah is nothing like his father. Just imagine these words being written on your tombstone:
Neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet. (Jeremiah 37:2)
The king’s attitude is, “I’m not going to listen to the word of God.” Now despite that attitude, Zedekiah sends a message over to Jeremiah in verse 3, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” In other words, “I’m not going to listen to God, but I hope God will listen to me.”
I have had many people throughout my years of ministry who want nothing of God’s Word; but when they get into a jam, they want God to pay attention to them. God isn’t a fire alarm; He’s not waiting around for your emergency call so He can show up.
Now we know historically that the Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem to starve the people into surrendering. Zedekiah had already asked Egypt to help him against the Babylonians. So, when the Babylonians leave Jerusalem to confront the Egyptians, this is the moment when Zedekiah asks Jeremiah to pray. The king is hoping the Egyptians will defeat the Babylonians, so he is saying, “Jeremiah, you need to pray that God will make this happen.”
By the way, I am using the term Babylonians, even though the biblical text sometimes refers to them as Chaldeans. Babylonians is the more general term for them. The Chaldeans lived in southern Babylonia. They rose to power and established a dynasty of rulers over the Babylonian Empire; so, Chaldean became a synonym for Babylonian.
Now Jeremiah sends a reply back to King Zedekiah, and it is not what the king wanted to hear:
“Pharaoh’s army that came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city. They shall capture it and burn it with fire.” (verses 7-8)
The Egyptians will be of no help. They are going to retreat to Egypt, and the Chaldeans will come back and burn Jerusalem to the ground.
Now a second scene develops here with the prophet of God who is now despised. During this time when the Babylonians have withdrawn to fight Egypt, Jeremiah decides to go back to his hometown of Anathoth.
He gets only as far as one of Jerusalem’s gates, where, verse 13 tells us, “A sentry . . . seized Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘You are deserting to the Chaldeans.’”
But Jeremiah has no intention of deserting—his ministry is to the people of Judah. Note verses 14-15:
Jeremiah said, “It is a lie; I am not deserting to the Chaldeans.” But [the sentry] would not listen to him, and seized Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. And the officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him.
It is interesting to me that King Zedekiah then secretly asks Jeremiah if there is any word from the Lord. What a coward this king is. He knows Jeremiah is a genuine prophet of God, but he will not defend him. Instead, he hopes for some good news from the prophet. Jeremiah responds in verse 17, “You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon.”
Jeremiah is just not going to stop telling the truth. The other political leaders demand that the king put Jeremiah to death (Jeremiah 38:4). This coward of a king leaves the decision to them, and they put Jeremiah into a cistern, or pit, full of mud and leave him there to starve to death.
King Zedekiah is like so many religious and political leaders of our day. Rather than take a stand for the truth, they back down and go along with the crowd. They refuse to defend those they know are speaking the truth.
Zedekiah is a weak man, driven by fear. He is afraid of the Babylonians; he is afraid of his political officials; he is afraid of his poll numbers dropping among the population in Jerusalem; and he is superstitiously afraid of God. Frankly, he is afraid to stand on his own two feet—and to stand for the truth. You could say, his feet are firmly planted in mid-air.
Now in all this drama there is one man in Zedekiah’s royal court who is thinking straight. His name is Ebed-melech, and he asks the king to allow him to rescue Jeremiah. The king agrees, and Ebed-melech pulls Jeremiah from that muddy pit and puts him in a safer holding cell.
And here again, this hypocrite of a king secretly sends for Jeremiah, asking him for another word from God.
Jeremiah responds in verse 17:
“If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live.”
Of course, refusing to surrender will bring the opposite result—Jerusalem will be burned and the king’s family will be put to death. Zedekiah’s only response is to tell Jeremiah not to tell the officials of this conversation. He does not heed Jeremiah’s warning. And with that final refusal, tragedy is just around the corner.
Remember at the outset of our study, we defined tragedy as the difference between what could have happened and what does happen. We can only imagine what could have happened if Zedekiah had only listened.
Chapter 39 brings us to the final and tragic scene, when the day of judgment finally arrives. Like a history textbook, the Bible describes Jerusalem’s fall in a rather straightforward manner. Yet it is easy to imagine the horror of this event.
The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem lasts about eighteen months before the walls are breached. In verse 4 we’re told, “Zedekiah . . . fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden through the gate.” He and those with him are captured, and Zedekiah’s sons are killed, along with other political leaders. In fact, the very last thing Zedekiah sees is the execution of his sons. Following that, verse 7 records that the Babylonians “put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains to take him to Babylon.”
As for Jerusalem, the walls are broken down, and the city is set on fire; many of the remaining Jewish survivors are taken away as captives to Babylon. Only the poor people in the land of Judah are left behind.
Verses 12-14 inform us that Jeremiah is delivered from his prison cell and treated well by the Babylonians, who recognize him as a true prophet of God.
Beloved, you cannot help but think what could have been if only they had listened to the word of God and turned to the Lord in obedience. Let’s learn from this history lesson; let’s make sure we are going to live today without regrets. Let’s obey the Lord so that our lives do not become a tragedy but a triumph as we walk with the Lord today.