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Jeremiah: Historical Background Part Five

Even as it must have seemed that Judah was fated to lie helpless under the Assyrian heel for all time to come, a change of fortune was being prepared for her which would, far sooner no doubt than any in Jerusalem would have dared to predict, make her once more a free country. The period of Assyria’s greatest expansion was also the beginning of her decline and fall. The first cracks, indeed, in the Empire’s massive structure might have been detected by a careful observer about the time that Jeremiah was born.


The truth is that Assyria was overextended. Unceasing wars had begun to exhaust her strength, and she was experiencing increasing difficulty in imposing her will on subject peoples, almost none of whom had anything but hate for her, and this at the very time when she found herself threatened from it beyond her frontiers as perhaps never before in her history. This last threat lay in various peoples to the North and East. Chief among these were the Medes, a people who had been settled in western Iran since the ninth century, and against whom Assyrian kings had repeatedly campaigned, but who could no longer be controlled and were rapidly becoming a potential menace.

In addition, hordes of barbarians, who had in the late eighth century begun to pour down from far away, were by now established along Assyria’s northern border.

Esarhaddon, who understood the threat that these people posed, had sought to protect himself by finding allies. Asshurbanapal fought in Asia minor but, though he was victorious on every occasion and successfully defended his borders, the menace was by no means removed.

With in the Empire, too, there was much unrest, as a result of which Asshurbanapal found himself, in serious trouble. Egypt, so recently invaded and conquered could not, as it turned out, be held. Egypt began gradually expanding her power until she was a united nation under a new King. Then, as soon as he felt strong enough, he withheld tribute and seceded from the Empire. Asshurbanapal apparently could do nothing to prevent it.

In Babylonia, meanwhile, where Asshurbanapal’s brother Shamash-shum-ukin ruled as Deputy King, unrest was chronic, as it had been for generations. In 652 this exploded into a general rebellion that nearly tore Assyria asunder. The leader was Shamash-shum-ukin himself, who had the support of the Chaldean population of the area and was aided by the kingdom of Elam to the East, as well as by various people of the Iranian highlands. Disaffection spread into Israel and Syria, no doubt at the instigation of the new Egyptian king, Psammeticus, and perhaps of other enemies of Assyria as well.

Menashe, who was probably no more loyal to Assyria then he had to be, was either actively involved or so affected as to fall under grave suspicion; this is, at least, a plausible explanation of the notice in II Chronicles 33:11 to the effect that he was on one occasion hauled before the Assyrian king in chains, but then shown clemency and restored to his throne. It was at about this time, too, that Arab tribes of the Syrian Desert, taking advantage of Assyria’s preoccupation elsewhere, poured into Edom, Moab, and other lands of Eastern Israel and Syria, spreading destruction everywhere. This was a catastrophe from which Moab, at least, seems never fully to have recovered (Isaiah 15–16, and Jeremiah 48).

Asshurbanapal was able to master the situation, though only after a bitter struggle which left the Empire badly shaken. In 648, after a two-year siege, his forces stormed a Babylon and ended the rebellion there. A few years later he marched against Elam , took the capital and brought the state to an end. Meanwhile, he took bitter vengeance on the Arab tribes and reasserted his authority in Israel, resettling people deported from Babylonia and Elam in Samaria and elsewhere (Ezra 4:9).

Reconquest of Egypt, however, was by this time out of the question, and it is unlikely that Asshurbanapal even considered attempting it; and this was a setback, for it meant that the Egyptians, no longer seriously threatened, were free to resume their historic role of intervention in the affairs of the entire area.

Yet, in spite of this, thanks to Asshurbanapal’s energetic efforts, the Empire had been held essentially intact, and so it remained as long as he lived.

Asshurbanapal lived until 627. In Judah, meanwhile, his vassal Menashe had died and been succeeded by his son Amon, who apparently continued his father’s policy. This king was soon assassinated (II Kings 21:19-26) by certain of his palace family, presumably high officials. The authors of this plot represented elements committed to independence at any price, who had hoped to buy their action to force a change in the national policy. Apparently, however, the general feeling was that the time was not ripe for such a step, for we are told that and assembly of leading citizens had the assassins summarily executed, and Amon’s young son Yoshiyahu made King in his stead. This Yoshiyahu, who was eight years old when he was placed on the throne, was just coming of age when Asshurbanapal died and Assyria’s collapse began. It was under him that Judah became at last a free country.

Babylon took advantage of the turmoil to make herself free. In 626 after various preliminary engagements, Nabopolassar dealt the Assyrians a decisive defeat outside Babylon and, in the following month, took the throne there.

This stage was set for Yoshiyahu and his great reformation.

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