722 – 586 B. C. Part 1
The kingdom of Judah survived the northern kingdom (Israel) by about 140 years, but this period was far from being trouble free. During those years of solitary existence, Judah was subject to the yoke of three foreign powers: Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon.
Assyrian Domination (722 – 609 B. C.)
The fall of the northern kingdom did not quench Assyria’s thirst for greater dominion. And although Judah was saved from such a fate by King Ahaz’s submissive alliance with Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7), there was considerable unrest among most of the subject kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean world. The winds of rebellion were in the air. In 712 B. C., the Ethiopian pharaoh, Shabaku, revolted against Assyrian domination. According to the inscriptions of Sargon II, Judah, Edom, and Moab were involved in this revolt but quickly surrendered. Most of Assyria’s wrath was vented upon Ashdod, which became an Assyrian province. As the territorial borders of the Assyrian Empire reached the River of Egypt at the Wadi el-‘Arish, there remained little hope for an independent Judah.
Judah’s King Hezekiah reversed the policy of submission to Assyria introduced by Ahaz and prepared for rebellion by extending Judah’s border to the west and strengthening fortifications in Jerusalem. He also ordered the preparation of a tunnel to carry water from the Gihon Spring to Jerusalem. But it was not until after the death of Sargon, who had by then captured Samaria, that Hezekiah joined in full-fledged revolt against Assyria.
Sennarhcerib succeeded Sargon II in 705 B. C., and after putting down rebellion in the eastern regions of Assyria, led his warriors against Philistia and Judah in 701 B. C. According to Assyrian annals, he was able to subjugate Philistia and capture forty-six cities of Judah. While Sennacherib was besieging Lachish, Hezekiah submitted to Assyria and met his demand for tribute. Still not satisfied, Sennacherib sent Rabshakeh, his royal emissary, to demand the full surrender of the city. Sennacherib boasted of Hezekiah, “Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.”
At the eleventh hour of the siege, God miraculously intervened for Judah, and “the angel of the Lord” killed 185,000 Assyrian warriors during the night. Sennacherib retreated and was later slain at Nineveh by his sons while worshiping in the temple of his god, Nisroch.
The expansion of Assyria reached its height during the first half of the seventh century B. C. Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s son and successor, conquered Lower Egypt in 669 B. C., and his son Ashurbanipal conquered Upper Egypt (Thebes) in 663 B. C. These conquests gave the Assyrians control of the Fertile Crescent and all the territory from Upper Egypt to the Persian Gulf. During those days, Judah continued its existence as a vassal kingdom under Assyrian authority.
This period of Assyrian domination is noted for two periods of apostasy and two periods of religious reform in Judah. The idolatry under Ahaz was followed by reform during Hezekiah’s reign. Later, the apostasy under Manasseh and Amon was followed by sweeping reforms under Josiah. The prophets ministering in Judah during this period included Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah all of whom called for repentance and warned of coming judgment on Judah and Jerusalem.
Egyptian Domination (609 – 605 B. C.)
Despite the sweeping territorial expanse under its control, the Assyrians began to experience a decline of power toward the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign. First, Egypt managed to overthrow the Assyrians’ yoke and expel their garrisons by about 650 B. C., under the leadership of Psammethicus I. Then, in 626 B. C., the city of Babylon was led in revolt by Nabopolassar, who then began a destructive campaign against Assyria. The combined Babylonian and Medes armies captured Nineveh in 612 B. C. – The judgment and destruction of Nineveh had been predicted by the prophet Nahum earlier. After Assyria’s last stronghold, Harran, fell to Babylonia shortly thereafter, the once-mighty Assyrian Empire ceased to exist.
King Josiah, Judah’s greatest religious reformer, took advantage of Assyria’s decline to extend his influence north into territories that had been Assyrian provinces. Not only did he initiate reform in Judah and Jerusalem, he took steps to eradicate idolatry from “the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon, and as far as Naphtali”. Yet, as Judah began to flourish again after the years of submission to Assyria, the rulers of two other nations – Babylonia and Egypt – began to weigh the advantages of ruling Palestine. Egypt was the first to have this opportunity.
While Assyria’s power was gradually weakening, Pharaoh Necho in Egypt felt threatened by the rapid rise of the aggressive new power, Babylonia. In order to equalize the balance of power and keep the Babylonians in their place, the pharaoh went to the aid of Ashuruballit of Assyria, who made an ill-fated effort to recapture Harran in 609 B. C. King Josiah assumed that any one who was a friend of Assyria was an enemy of Judah, and he led his army to Megiddo and lost his life in an attempt to stop the enemy’s advance. In this way, he was spared from witnessing the deterioration and ultimate destruction of Judah.
Upon Josiah’s death, his second son Jehoahaz was made king, but his evil reign only lasted for three months. When Pharaoh Necho returned from his campaign against Babylon, Jehoahaz was deposed and Josiah’s oldest son Eliakim was installed as a puppet king over Judah. Necho collected tribute and changed his name to Jehoiakim. This was often done to demonstrate a king’s authority over a lesser ruler.
Egypt maintained control over Palestine and Syria from 609 until 605 B. C., when the Babylonians defeated Necho’s army at Carchemish and Hamath. Babylonia had become the new world power, and Nebuchadnezzar moved quickly to take possession of his newly won territory.
Babylonian Domination (605 – 586 B. C.)
The Babylonian Empire wrested control of most of the territory previously held by Assyria. In Judah, Nebuchadnezzar handled the situation by marching on Jerusalem and capturing the city. Jehoiakim was allowed to remain on the throne, but vessels from the temple and specially selected members of the nobility were taken captive to Babylon. This was the first of a series of deportations experienced by the Judeans under Babylonian rule and included Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
The second deportation took place in 597 B. C. during the rule of Jehoiachin, who reigned only three months before Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar. The king and his family were captured and exiled, the treasuries of the temple and palace were pillaged, and ten thousand Judeans, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 24: 1 1 – 1 6).
In place of Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar set Zedekiah on the throne, changing his name from Mattaniah to highlight the fact that the king of Judah was a Babylonian vassal. After a period of submission, a strong anti-Babylonian group in Jerusalem encouraged revolt. A coalition with Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Phoenicia was formed. Against the warnings of Jeremiah, Judah then rebelled against Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar marched west to quell the uprising and captured most of the fortified cities in the Judean hill country and Shephelah. In December of 588 B. C., Nebuchadnezzar once again laid siege to Jerusalem. Zedekiah attempted to flee, but was captured near Jericho and taken to Nebuchadnezzar’s headquarters in Riblah. There he was punished, in accordance with Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the faithless kings of Judah in Jeremiah 22. The walls of Jerusalem were breached several months later and the city, including the temple, was looted and burned. All the surviving residents of Jerusalem, except for the very poorest in the land were deported to Babylon.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the third deportation, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, a Judean, to govern Judah as a Babylonian province. From his residence and administrative center at Mizpah, Gedaliah followed the counsel of Jeremiah and encouraged the populace remaining in Judah to submit to Babylonian authority. However, he was slain by the opposition forces of Ishmael, after which the Judean rebels kidnapped Jeremiah and fled to Egypt. Shadows fell over Jerusalem as the people of Judah entered their period of Babylonian exile.
The hill country of Judah was crucial to the defense and control of Judah and was the transitional zone that was known as the Shephelah. The name means ‘lowland’ in Hebrew and was used in a geographical sense to describe a specific region in the territory of Judah in Joshua 15: 33 – 47. In the next text, we will cover this region in depth and a map of it will be given.