We’ve been talking about interpreting symbols and signs – semiotics – in the book of Jeremiah; and, while this angle leads us through the book looking at some of the prophetic signs Jeremiah gave as warnings to the people of Judah, it also allows us to look at the “signs of the times” in the text. It allows us to see the world through Jeremiah’s eyes, to have his perspective on the changes in government and the trends and habits of the people.
Looking at the signs of the time in Jeremiah also permits us to look at the signs of our time. We begin to open our eyes to the trends of our entertainment and to the habits of our conversations and economics; and we are left to wonder about how history will remember us, and how we may want to alter that memory.
Growing up, my favorite movies were the ones with epic battle scenes. Movies like Star Wars, Ben Hur, and Top Gun were always a kind of anesthetic to the monotony of rain and cartoons, and I can remember looking forwards to acting out the famous confrontations in my bathrobe with some friends and a spent paper towel tube.
But I never got enthused about the epic battles in the bible – there just always seemed to be no glamour or glory in their descriptions, and whatever heroes were mentioned never really stayed around long enough to get the girl or make a sequel. In fact, the national upheavals and the battle scenes in the bible read less like history and more like html, making little sense and having less relevance to just about everyone.
So, when we read about the earth-shaking battles in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that toppled Judean kings like dominoes, we have to contextualize the significance of those battles and force ourselves to realize how epic they truly were.
SYMBOL: Star of David
The Star of David is a symbol for good leadership in Israel [and Judah]. It reminds people of King David and his orientation towards God of worship and thanksgiving, repentance and justice. The Star represents the standard that all the Hebrew people would have had in their minds for what a good king was – how prosperous the nation was, how famous the nation was, whether or not God was pleased with the nation, etc…
And it is a standard no one met after Josiah died.
Josiah was killed in the Battle of Megiddo in 609BC. Having allied Judah with Babylon against the all-powerful Assyrian Empire [who had enslaved the Northern Kingdom of Israel], Josiah rode out against the reserve forces of the Assyrians who were en route to rescue their masters. Pharoah Necho II led these forces and it was his archers who killed Josiah during the battle and his forces who overcome Judah on the battlefield.
Josiah’s son Jehaohaz took his place as king and ruled only for three years before also being defeated by Necho and being carried off to Egypt as a prisoner. During those three years Jehoahaz undid all of the reforms of his father and returned the nation of Judah back into apostasy [worshipping Molech by offering child sacrifices and temple prostitution]. It was a time of incredible heartache for the prophet Jeremiah, who had devoted his life to the redemption of Judah in the eyes of God and who had found an ally in King Josiah. When Josiah died, so did Jeremiah’s last hopes for a holy Judean state.
Jehoiakim succeeded Jehoahaz as king, a puppet placed on the throne by Necho after the Egyptians sacked Jerusalem, and it was his infamous intolerance that led to the destruction of the original copies of Jeremiah’s writings and prophecies. Jehoiakim demanded the prophecies be read to him and was angered by their tone of religious intolerance so he ordered them destroyed.
In 601 Jehoiakim turns coat against Judah’s former ally, Babylon, and fights alongside Egypt and the very Pharoah who had murdered both his father Josiah and, by this time, his brother Jehoahaz. Egypt defeats Babylon at the Battle of Migdol, but Babylon regroups and destorys Jerusalem in 597 BC in an act of vengeance. During that seige, Jehoiakim – whose name means “YHWH throws” – is bound up into a little ball and catapulted over the walls of the city as a peace offering to the invading armies.
Nebuchadnezzar allowed most of the Judeans to stay in Jerusalem, marching only a small contingent off into exile in Babylon so that Judah could rebuild.
If we remember these three kings, Josiah and Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, we must remember how they were judged; they were judged according to the standard of King David. King David epitomized good government and a right heart before God, and it does seem like the national history of Judah always puts those two things together. We never hear of a good king who forsook YHWH, nor of a righteous king who governed poorly.
And that ought to leave us with some questions. For example, is goodness perhaps more than an intellectual or moral abstraction? Is it, perhaps, also a human quality that reflects the qualities of our creator? Or, maybe we ought to ask ourselves what standard we are using to appraise government? Where do our affections and allegiances lie?
To be fair, I really don’t just see this as a political piece, but as a piece that may reveal to every attentive person how we govern our individual lives and whom we honor in the process.