The Last King of Judea

The last king of Judea was an essentially righteous man caught in the vice of almost irresistible forces unleashed by earlier generations. Although the destruction came in his day, he gained a measure of spiritual and even physical redemption before he died many years later.

The last king of Judea was Zedekiah. In a different age, they would have written a book about him called, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Even though he did things that were wrong (II Kings 24:19), he was a very idealistic, moral and ultimately righteous person. Nevertheless, in his reign the destruction of the Temple occurred. He himself suffered terrible tragedies and hideous indignities.

It would have made more sense that these things should have happened to someone like King Manasseh during his reign. Manasseh put an idol in the Temple, murdered his grandfather — the prophet Isaiah — undid the entire Jewish school system painstakingly set up by his father, and much more. Even though at the end of his life he repented a little the picture of him that emerges is that of a monster. If the Temple was going to get destroyed it would have been more understandable if it happened in a generation like Manasseh’s.

Nevertheless, God showed him, and other evil kings, especial patience. The truth is that a good leader is always held to a higher standard. If the person was good, then God demanded more, so to speak. If he was not good, then he was usually shown patience, which is not to say that there were no consequences. There are always consequences. Nevertheless, perhaps that goes toward helping explain somewhat the terrible tragedy that befell Zedekiah and his generation.

Sins of Omission

The Talmud describes Zedekiah’s main sin. It was not idolatry, murder or adultery – the classic sins that the Talmud describes as the cause for the destruction of the First Temple. Rather it was that he had the ability to protest evil and improve the people of his generation in meaningful ways, but failed to do so. Whether he did not do it because he felt his protests would be useless or that the moment was not propitious or any other of a thousand reasons is not clear. Zedekiah was guilty of sins of omission rather than ones of commission. He failed to act when he could have.

Because of his failure, the moral base of the Jewish people drifted further and further from its center. For instance, not only did many people abandon the commandment of circumcision but even some priests who served in the Temple did so.[1] It was like having unreligious “rabbis.” The Temple service had become so second nature to them that they did it even though they did not necessarily believe the principles behind it all.

Zedekiah could have protested such behavior, but did not.

The Vow

The previous Judean king, Jehoiachin, had been taken into captivity by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. That event took place eleven years before the destruction of the Temple. Nebuchadnezzar not only took the king, but 10,000 people, including leading sages, prophets and community workers.

Zedekiah was uncle of very unrighteous Jeoiachin and son of the righteous king Josiah. Nebuchadnezzar allowed Zedekiah to take the throne under the condition that he not rebel against him. Translated, that meant that the kingdom of Judea was effectively finished as an independent country. The Judean people could stay on the land, manage their affairs and keep the Temple running, but they had to pay taxes, swear allegiance to the king of Babylon and, worst of all, do whatever the Babylonians said when it came to foreign policy. Nevertheless, the agreement did allow for the retention of the Temple and the continuation of Jewish life in Jerusalem and Judea.

Zedekiah not only accepted his terms, albeit under duress, but took a vow not to rebel. Nebuchadnezzar was well-acquainted with Jewish customs and knew that Jews were loathe to break a vow taken with God’s name. He even had him take the vow in the Temple holding a corner of the altar or, according to another opinion, holding a Torah scroll.

The Rebellion

Satisfied, Nebuchadnezzar withdrew and went home the next day.

It did take long, however, for Zedekiah to rebel. The Talmud explains that Zedekiah consulted with the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Jewish sages, and found a legal loophole to break his vow. Later, Nebuchadnezzar would find out about it and take his revenge on the Sanhedrin.

The prophet Jeremiah was vehemently against these machinations. However, he was virtually powerless. Zedekiah had freed him from the dungeon that Jehoiakim had placed him in. This was an especially righteous act because he knew that Jeremiah was not about to stay quiet. He was going tell king and countryman alike that the end was imminent. It took great courage to free him, but the righteous Zedekiah did so. And, indeed, over the final eleven years Jeremiah preached against Zedekiah’s governmental policies.

As we explained, Jeremiah’s belief was that the Jewish people should take a very low profile and wait it out with Nebuchadnezzar. Even if the end was inevitable they should not rebel. In truth, Jeremiah, as well as the people, knew that prophecies portending evil were never final. The general rule with prophecies of a negative nature is that they can be retracted by the sincerest of repentance. Only prophecies for good are irreversible. Consequently, even until the very end Jeremiah held out hope that his worst prophecies could be averted. That is why he continued encouraging people to come to their senses.

The Bad Advice

Unfortunately, Zedekiah listened to his advisors rather than Jeremiah. They convinced him to break his vow and rebel against Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar came with his army and began the siege of Jerusalem. On the tenth day of the month of Tammuz in the year 586 BCE they breached the walls and on the ninth day of the month of Av, about a month later, they burned the Temple to the ground. The destruction was complete. The Temple was destroyed. The Jewish world was at a seeming end.

Zedekiah had built an escape tunnel. Although he was ostensibly certain of victory, and confident in his advisors, he had prepared the tunnel just in case they were wrong. When it became obvious that they had been wrong, he, his sons, his personal body guards, some of his army officers escaped through the tunnel.

At the exit, near Jericho 18 miles away from the entrance, the Babylonians had perchance seen a wild deer disappear into an opening. That led to the discovery of the escape tunnel. They then stationed an army contingent waiting nearby to see who if anyone would come out of it. When Zedekiah and his entourage emerged they were all captured.

They brought him before Nebuchadnezzar. Under good circumstances, the Babylonian tyrant was less than a magnanimous winner. The kings and generals of the defeated army were summarily executed. Here, however, he was more malevolent, because he felt personally betrayed by Zedekiah’s breaking of the oath.

“Kill me first,” he told the Babylonian tyrant, “because I do not want to see the death of my sons.” His sons said the same: they wanted to be killed first so that they should not have to see the death of their father.

Nebuchadnezzar killed the sons and then blinded Zedekiah (II Kings 25:7; Jeremiah 39:7). The last thing that the last Judean king ever saw with his eyes was the terrible, horrendous image of his sons getting executed.

That served yet as another confirmation of Jeremiah’s prophecy. He had said, “You will go to Babylon and in Babylon you will die. But your eyes will never see Babylon.”[2] Zedekiah had dismissed it. Now, when he came to Babylon blind he said, “Here I am in Babylon and the prophet was correct.”

Zedekiah’s Reputation Resurrected

The Jews of Babylon were forced to attend the triumph. As required, they attended the lavish event wearing white clothing, which were considered a sign of celebration. It was the type of clothing worn on a holiday.

Nevertheless, beneath their white clothes they wore black clothing, which what were the clothes worn by mourners.

That was not merely the description of their costumes, but how they felt. On the outside, they had to rejoice and act as good Babylonians. They had to wave the Babylonian flag, so to speak. On the inside, however, their hearts were breaking.

Although Zedekiah was imprisoned for many years his memory was never forgotten by his fellow exiles. One might think that the Jewish people would have resented him, because he and his policies were the means by which they were doomed. However, it was not so.

The Jews held that Zedekiah was a righteous person from the outset and did not blame him for what happened. They took it as the prophet said: it had to happen. “The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth are damaged (Ezekiel 18:2).” In other words, as part of their inheritance they were doomed. The sins were of Judea were such that there was no hope. Therefore, Zedekiah was not to be viewed as author of the destruction, but merely an actor in the play. It was not his actions that caused it.

Free At Last

Zedekiah experienced the triumph of outliving Nebuchadnezzar. Tradition teaches that Nebuchadnezzar died on the 25th day of the month of Adar, and on 26th, the very next day, Evil-Merodoch – who, according to various opinions, was his son, nephew or grandson — took office. He promptly removed the body of Nebuchadnezzar from his grave and dragged it through the streets. To further emphasize that he was the new emperor he cancelled all of Nebuchadnezzar’s decrees. Then on the 27th of Adar, he freed Jehoiachin and Zedekiah from prison.

According to tradition, however, Zedekiah died within the month of his release. He could not bear his suffering, but managed to stay alive long enough to outlive his tormentor.

Almost until our time, there were markers in Babylon (modern day Iraq), near the city of Baghdad, that claimed to be the tombs of the Judean kings who died there. Today, no traces of the graves exist – either because the Jews forgot their location or the Ottoman Turks eliminated them. Nevertheless, the tradition of visiting the graves was recorded as a custom in the Babylonian-Jewish community.

In either case, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah never returned to the Land of Israel. They were buried in the land of their captors. Although there would be kings in the Second Temple era, none would be from the line of David. That made Zedekiah the last king from the House of David. The next king from the House of David to sit on the throne will be the Messiah.

[1] Midrash, Lamentations Rabbah.

[2] Pesikta Rabbasi 26.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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