Troublemakers

Reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not a quick or easy task. The original temple that was built by king Solomon took seven years to construct (1 Kings 7:38). Ezra recorded that construction of the second temple was started in 536 B.C., but not completed until 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). The primary reason for the delay was the harassment the builders received from troublemakers living in the area surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra stated, “Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellers against them to frustrate the purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:4-5). The phrases “weakened the hands of the people” and “troubled them in building” may also be translated as discouraged them and made them afraid to build (ESV). The idea being that the people were unproductive because of the harassment they received.

At the very least, the builders of the temple were distracted by the troublemakers that wanted to join with them in their effort (Ezra 4:2). One of the tactics used against the temple builders was what we might refer to today as tattle telling. A report was sent to king Darius, the successor to Cyrus king of Persia, indicating that the people that had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon were trying to rebuild their temple. They said, “Be it known to the king that we went into the province of Judea, to the house of the great God, which is builded with great stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goeth fast on, and prospereth in their hands…and yet it is not finished” (Ezra 5:8,16). The troublemakers went on to say that they were told by the leaders in Jerusalem that Cyrus had made a decree to build the house of God and they wanted the records to be searched to find out if that was actually true (Ezra 5:13,17). Fortunately, king Darius ordered a search of the records and Cyrus’ decree was found (Ezra 6:3).

In spite of the corroboration of their story, the leaders of Jerusalem continued to face opposition for another fifty plus years. After king Darius was replaced by king Ahasurerus in 486 B.C., another letter was sent with an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7). Then, sometime during the reign of king Artaxerxes (465 B.C. – 424 B.C), a final attempt was made to stop the work in Jerusalem. The letter to Artaxerxes went to greater lengths by suggesting that a plot to overthrow his kingdom was in progress (Ezra 4:11-16). As a result of their intervention, Artaxeres I ordered that the Jews stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3) until around 445 B.C. when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem and successful rebuilt the walls in fifty two days.

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The mark

In his divine judgment of the city of Jerusalem, God demonstrated his ability to exercise self-control, in spite of fierce emotions that caused him to destroy everything, including his holy temple. Before he undertook the action to kill everyone within the city walls, God ordered a mark to be placed on the forehead of every person who shared his disgust with the situation. Calling forth the seven guardian angels that protected his people, God gave instructions to set apart those who were faithful to him. It says in Ezekiel 9:4, “And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.”

The seventh angel, who was clothed in linen, carried a writer’s inkhorn with which he was to place the mark (Ezekiel 9:2). Although it is not specified exactly what type of mark was made, the Hebrew word translated mark in Ezekiel 9:4, tav or taw, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, specifies a signature. The signature may have only been represented by an X, but the implication was that the mark was a sign of ownership that was imprinted on the forehead. A similar marking is found in the book of Revelation where it says of the Antichrist, “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive the mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:16-17).

God’s judgment of Jerusalem was in many ways the foreshadowing of God’s final judgment of everyone on earth. It says in Revelation 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.” It is possible that the mark placed on the foreheads of those in Jerusalem at the time of the city’s destruction was linked to Christ and was the equivalent of receiving salvation. The remarkable thing about receiving the mark was the only  requirement was to sign or groan, as if in despair (Ezekiel 9:4).

Ezekiel’s visions of God allowed him to see beforehand the outcome of God’s judgment of Jerusalem. In spite of his lenient excusal of anyone that cried out in despair, it appeared that none would survive. After the order was given to slay everyone that did not have the mark, Ezekiel exclaimed, “And it came to pass, while they were slaying them, and I was left, that I fell upon my face, and cried, and said, Ah Lord GOD, wilt thou destroy all the residue of Israel in thy pouring out of thy fury upon Jerusalem?” (Ezekiel 9:8). God’s reply to Ezekiel’s question suggested there were none who believed and were willing to cry out to him for help. “Then he said unto me, The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceeding great, and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverseness: for they say, The LORD hath forsaken the earth, and the LORD seeth not” (Ezekiel 9:9).

Divine influence

The explanation Ezekiel received for God’s punishment of his children was that they were to serve as a warning to the nations around them. God said, “So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment unto the nations round about thee, when I shall execute judgments on thee in my anger and in fury and in furious rebukes. I the LORD have spoken it” (Ezekiel 5:15).

God intended to judge the nations surrounding Israel, but first he set an example by punishing the nation of Judah and more specifically Jerusalem because he said, “they have refused my judgments and my statutes, they have not walked in them” (Ezekiel 5:6). According to God, the people of Jerusalem had acted more wickedly than the nations around them by defiling his temple (Ezekiel 5:11) and would be reduced to cannibalism as a sign of their depravity (Ezekiel 5:10).

In a final symbolic act, Ezekiel was instructed to shave his head and beard (Ezekiel 5:1). Afterward, he was told, “Thou shalt burn with fire a third part in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled, and thou shalt take a third part, and smite about it with a knife: and a third part shalt thou scatter to the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them” (Ezekiel 5:2). These gestures signified the ways God’s people would be destroyed: famine, being killed in combat, and being scattered abroad.

The harsh treatment God’s people received was due to their continuous rebellion over a period of more than 400 years. Rather than give up on them completely, God wanted to show them they would not escape judgment if they refused to repent. God’s judgment of the nation of Judah was actually a one-time event that was never to be repeated (Ezekiel 5:9). The outcome would be a strong turning to a new course of action by God. He said, “Thus shall mine anger be accomplished, and I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted” (Ezekiel 5:13).

The Hebrew word translated comforted, nacham (naw – kham´) means to sigh or to be sorry. Nacham is also associated with repentance. “Comfort is derived from ‘com’ (with) and ‘fort’ (strength). Hence, when one repents, he exerts strength to change, to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action” (5162). God’s judgment of his people marked the end of his effort to get them to obey his laws. From that point forward, God would deal with his people as sinners that could only be saved by grace; through his divine influence upon their hearts.

The remnant

Throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, the concept of a remnant was used to signify God’s intent to preserve mankind in spite of his sin nature or tendency to abandon God and seek after the pleasures of this world. The first example of a remnant was Noah and his family whom God saved from the flood that destroyed all life on earth. When God determined to destroy the nation of Judah, he said, “Yet will I leave a remnant, that ye may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, when ye shall be scattered through the countries” (Ezekiel 6:8).

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. For three years, king Jehoiakim had been paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar, but “then he turned and rebelled against him” (2 Kings 24:1). As a result of Jehoiakim’s actions, God began to destroy the nation of Judah (2 Kings 24:2). Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Judah in 597 B.C. resulted in the majority of people recognized as the remnant that God intended to preserve being taken into captivity in Babylon. Among the captives was king Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim who “went out to the king of Babylon, he, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers” (2 Kings 24:12).

The number of captives taken to Babylon was reported to be 10,000 in 2 Kings 24:14, but Jeremiah’s report suggested there were only about 3,000 survivors from the initial group taken into captivity (Jeremiah 52:28). The total number of persons in the remnant of the nation of Judah was reported to be 4,600 (Jeremiah 52:30). Regardless of the actual number, it could be said that the remnant of Judah was so small that it could easily have been absorbed into the Babylonian culture and disappeared as a separate people group. It was only because God intentionally chose to preserve them that the remnant of Judah remained independent and were faithful to their identity as God’s chosen people.

Compassion

Unfortunately, it’s true that we sometimes don’t cry out to God until it’s too late. The destruction of God’s temple in Jerusalem had a devastating effect on his people. For those people that believed it was necessary for them to worship God in his temple, they saw the destruction of the temple as the end of their relationship with God. At the very least, the temple was a place for God’s people to gather together. It was a representation of the community of believers being united as one. Without the temple, there was no way for believers to connect with each other.

Psalm 74 was written some time after the Babylonians destroyed everything in Jerusalem, including the temple that was built by king Solomon. The Psalmist prayed that God would come to the aid of his people and pleaded with him to “remember thy congregation, which thou has purchased of old, the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, where in thou hast dwelt” (Psalm 74:2).

In Psalm 74:2, the Psalmist’s reference to “thy congregation” meant the people that had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. The Psalmist was reminding God of the work he had done to bring the nation of Israel into existence. The Psalmist was disturbed because it looked like all God had done was ruined and his enemies had succeeded in destroying God’s kingdom. He said, “Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set their ensigns for signs” (Psalm 74:4).

What the Psalmist was implying was that God’s people no longer belonged to him. Because Nebuchadnezzar had taken the captives of Jerusalem to Babylon, it seemed as if they were no longer citizens of God’s kingdom, but God promised to visit or look after them until the time when he would return them to the Promised Land (Jeremiah 27:22).

Psalm 79 opens with a description of the wasteland that Jerusalem had become after the Babylonians destroyed it. It says in Psalm 79:1-5:

O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them. We are become a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to them that are round about us. How long, LORD? wilt thou be angry for ever?

It is likely Psalm 79 was written at the same time or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. The Psalmist requested that God would show compassion to his people and declared, “for they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place. O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us” (Psalm 79:8).

The Hebrew term translated as tender mercies, “racham expresses a deep and tender feeling of compassion, such as is aroused by the sight of weakness or suffering in those who are dear to us or in need  of help (7356). At the time the citizens of Jerusalem were taken into captivity, they didn’t know if they were going to live or die. The  Psalmist asked that God would “preserve thou those that are appointed to die” (Psalm 79:11).

God’s compassion toward his people was evident in his repeated warnings to them that destruction was coming. Even though Jeremiah made it clear that all who surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar would be kept alive (Jeremiah 15:11), the people didn’t believe him, and as a result, many were slain when Nebuchadnezzar’s army entered and destroyed Jerusalem (Psalm 79:3). Ultimately, the Psalmist’s prayer was answered because God did prevent the nation of Judah from being destroyed permanently and he did preserve the remnant or congregation of his people that were taken into captivity.

Zedekiah’s escape

King Nebuchadnezzar’s attack of Jerusalem lasted from the ninth year and tenth month of Zedekiah’s reign over Judah until the eleventh year and fourth month, on the ninth day of that month. The exact date of the fall of Jerusalem is known to be July 18, 586 B.C. During the nineteen month siege upon his country, king Zedekiah pretended to believe Jerusalem would survive Nebuchadnezzar’s attack, but in reality, Zedekiah knew the end was coming.

When Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, all his princes, and all his army came against Jerusalem, and sat in the middle gate, a strategic vantage point for invaders; it says in Jeremiah 39:4: “And it came to pass, that when Zedekiah the king of Judah saw them, and all the men of war, then he fled, and went forth out of the city by night, by the way of the king’s garden, by the gate betwixt two walls: and he went out the way of the plain.” Zedekiah took with him all his princes and men of war and left the people of Jerusalem defenseless (Jeremiah 52:7-10).

Zedekiah’s plan of escape went against the counsel he received from Jeremiah. The LORD told Jeremiah, “And Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him mouth to mouth, and his eyes shall behold his eyes” (Jeremiah 32:4). The Chaldean army overtook Zedekiah in the plans of Jericho and brought him to Nebuchadnezzar’s military headquarters (Jeremiah 39:5).

Zedekiah was appointed king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C. after the first wave of captives was taken to Babylon (2 Kings 24:14, 17). Initially, Zedekiah did what Nebuchadnezzar wanted him to , but later Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon and sought assistance from the king of Egypt because Nebuchadnezzar “made him swear by God” that he would remain faithful to their agreement (2 Chronicles 36:13). It says of Zedekiah in 2 Chronicles 36:13 that “he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the LORD God of Israel.”

When Zedekiah stood before Nebuchadnezzar after he had been captured, Zedekiah was treated as a traitor. It says in Jeremiah 39:6-8, “Then the king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah in Riblah before his eyes: also the king of Babylon slew all the nobles of Judah. Moreover he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with chains to carry him to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burnt the king’s  house, and the houses of the people with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s barbaric treatment of Zedekiah was a type of psychological torture that was intended to cause him pain and anguish. Most likely, Zedekiah suffered from nightmares and perhaps depression as a result of seeing his family slaughtered before his eyes. The practice of putting out someone’s eyes after he has witnessed a personal tragedy suggests that Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless disciplinarian that controlled others to the point that no one dared cross him. Zedekiah was foolish to think he could escape from Nebuchadnezzar’s army and paid dearly for his rebellion against the king of Babylon.

A reliable source

The false prophets that assured the people of Judah there was no threat of war with the Babylonians made it difficult for Jeremiah to convince them God was about to destroy their nation. King Zedekiah in particular made a mockery of Jeremiah’s preaching. The king’s bad influence on the people showed evidence that the nation of Judah was beyond hope. It says of king Zedekiah in Jeremiah 37:2, “But neither he, nor his servants, nor the people of the land, did hearken unto the word of the LORD, which he spake by the prophet Jeremiah.” The Hebrew word hearken, shama means to hear with one’s heart. The king of Judah and his people were spiritually cut-off and no longer responsive to the Holy Spirit.

Jeremiah’s situation was becoming dangerous because he refused to lie to the people. It says in Jeremiah 37:11-12, “And it came to pass, that when the army of the Chaldeans was broken up from Jerusalem for fear of Pharaoh’s army, then Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin, to separate himself thence in the midst of the people.” Because he left the city, Jeremiah was accused of deserting and was beaten and put in prison. While Jeremiah was in prison, king Zedekiah came to him secretly and asked him, “Is there any word from the LORD?” (Jeremiah 37:17). Even though Zedekiah didn’t believe Jeremiah’s message, meaning he didn’t act according to what Jeremiah said, the king still wanted to know what was going to happen.

Jeremiah taunted Zedekiah by asking the question, “Where are now your prophets which prophesied unto you, saying, The king of Babylon shall not come against you, nor against this land?” (Jeremiah 37:19). In spite of his lack of faith, king Zedekiah knew Jeremiah was speaking the truth. His own fear over and distrust of what he was being told made the king seek a reliable source of information. In order to ensure Jeremiah would remain available to him, Zedekiah placed him in a safe location. It says in Jeremiah 37:21, “Then Zedekiah the king commanded that they should commit Jeremiah into the court of the prison and that they should give him daily a piece of bread out of the bakers’ street, until all the bread in the city were spent. Thus Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.”