Jeremiah: Historical Background Part One
Jeremiah began his career as a prophet in the year 627 B.C.E. Since he was little more than a lad at the time, he must have been born around 645 or shortly before, the us toward the end of the long reign of Menashe.
At that time the little kingdom of Judah was a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, and had been for nearly 100 years. Let us begin by taking a brief look backward to see how this came about, and what it entailed, in order to set the stage and gain perspective.
When the empire built by David fell apart at the death of his son Solomon, there remained in its place the two rival states of Israel and Judah, the former in the North with with its capital ultimately at Samaria, the latter in the South with its capital at Jerusalem. Of these, Israel was by far the larger and wealthier, but both were, by modern standards at least, incredibly tiny. The two together were no larger than the state of Vermont.
These two lived side-by-side, now at war with one another, now in peaceful alliance, for almost exactly 200 years. Though they had fought with their neighbors repeatedly, and had one occasion been invaded and humiliated, and though their fortunes had not been unaffected by the occurrence of larger world affairs, they had, down to the middle of the eighth century, retained their status as independent kingdoms. The world situation was such as to permit this. One must realize that Israel’s entire history since her occupation of Canaan had until this time been spun out in a great power vacuum; it was one of those interludes in which no world Empire existed, neither in the Nile Valley, nor in Mesopotamia, nor elsewhere.
Assyria, it is true, had in the ninth century begun to show signs of resurgent power, and had on more than one occasion since her armies across the Euphrates into the West, taking tribute from the petty states there including Israel. But this had not been permanent conquest. The Syria had been too troubled by internal dissensions, to greatly threatened by powerful neighbors, to make her conquests stick; as a result, her history had been a succession of advances and retreats. It was such a period of retreat that allowed Israel and Judah, in the first half of the eighth century, to regain a measure of strength and prosperity unknown to either since Solomon. This, incidentally, was the situation to which the first of the classical prophets, Amos, addressed himself.
But soon after the eighth century had passed its midpoint, there took place a sudden and decisive change. Tiglat-pileser III ascended the Assyrian throne and inaugurated a new phase in that country’s history. A serious period of Empire had begun; from now on she would come to conquer, occupy, and rule.
As Tiglat-pilleser’s forces advanced into the West, subduing one by one the little kingdoms there, a coalition was formed to resist him, the leaders of which were Rezin, King of the Aramean state of Damascus, and Pekach ben Remaliah, who had usurped the throne in Israel. These kings try to get judo to join them. But Judah, apparently preferring to pursue an independent course, refused; whereupon the Confederates took steps to whip her into long. Soon after Achaz, the grandfather of Menashe, during whose reign Jeremiah was born, had succeeded to the throne in Jerusalem, coalition troops invaded Judah and closed in on the capital city, their intention being to depose Achaz and replacing with a creature of their own choosing. Achaz, feeling his position to be hopeless and terrified at what seemed to be in store for him, saw no course save to appeal to Tiglat-pileser for a period and this he did against the earnest warnings of Isaiah, sending and enormous tribute to the Great King and acknowledging his overlordship. With that, Judah became a dependency of the Assyrian Empire, and had remained so ever since.
It was a humiliating position, and not one that a proud people would be likely to accept willingly and without a fight. It is true Achaz’ policies saved Judah from the coalition which Tiglat-pileser crushed, ravaging Damascus and large portions of Israel, and incorporating the territory thus conquered as provinces of the Empire. It also enabled Judah to escape the fate that overtook Israel in 722 when, because of renewed rebellion, Tiglat-pileser’s successors, Shalmaneser V and Sargon II, invaded what was left of her territory, destroyed her capital city, Samaria, and ended her existence as a nation.
Yet the price of this safety thus bought was high, and the results scarcely happy. Judah was no longer a free country, but a pawn of a foreign power, obliged to accede to its wishes in all matters of state and to render to it a tribute which was not inconsiderable.
Achaz’ action in placing his country in this position was shortly resented, and must have seemed to many as clearly expressed by Isaiah both craven cowardice and a sinful lack of faith in God. All this, plus the enforced recognition of the serious gods in the Temple in Jerusalem (vassals in the ancient world were normally expected at least to tip their hats to their overlords gods), and the distressing religious and moral laxity attendant upon it, conspired to produce a groundswell of discontent. Not a few were ready to go to any extreme in order to force a change.