Christian Churches of God
The Decline of Judah
(Edition 1.0 20090225-20090225)
After Hezekiah’s death the descendants of King David continued to rule over Judah. Josiah was the last king of that line to remain faithful to God before God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem. This paper has been adapted from chapters 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, Volume VI of The Bible Story by Basil Wolverton, published by Ambassador College Press.
The Decline of Judah
Meanwhile, we return to another part of the story twenty-nine years before. Just when Hezekiah was at the peak of his power and usefulness and when Judah was reeling from Sennacherib's invasion, the king's health began to wane.
The prophet Isaiah went to see him and said: "This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."
Hezekiah knew it was time to do his own intense petitioning to God. He turned his face to the wall and prayed: “Remember, O Lord, I beseech thee, how I walked before you faithfully and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight” (2Kgs. 20:1-3). Hezekiah wept bitterly. Apart from the fact that he was a young man, Hezekiah also had no son to continue his line.
Before Isaiah had gone too far, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back and say to Hezekiah the prince of my people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David: I have heard your prayer and I have seen your tears and I will heal you; on the third day you will go up to the Temple. I will add fifteen more years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hands of the king of Assyria”.
Then Isaiah said: “Prepare a poultice of figs and let them lay it on the boil, and he will recover” (vv. 4-7). God healed Hezekiah but that did not necessarily exclude the use of a physical remedy here.
Hezekiah said to Isaiah: "How can I be certain that I shall be healed in three days and be able to go to the temple?"
Isaiah said, “This is the sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: See the sun's shadow on the sundial; shall the shadow go forward 10 degrees, or shall it go back 10 degrees?"
"It wouldn't be a great thing for the shadow to go forward ten degrees”, Hezekiah said. “Rather have it go backwards ten degrees.”
So the prophet Isaiah called upon the Lord, and the Lord made the shadow go back the ten degrees it had gone down on the stairway of Ahaz (2Kgs. 20:8-11; 2Chr. 32:24; cf. also Isa. 38).
Royal Visitors from Babylon
Judah continued recovering from the Assyrian assault. Believing that his nation faced a trouble-free future as long as idolatry was kept down, Hezekiah began to amass great riches and honour. He made treasuries for his silver and gold and for his precious stones, spices, shields and all kinds of valuables. He also made buildings to store the grain, new wine and oil; and he made stalls for different kinds of cattle, and pens for the flocks. He also made cities for himself and had flocks and herds in abundance, for God had given him very great possessions (2Chr. 32:27).
At that time, Merodach-baladan, the son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift. Having heard of the unusual powers of Judah's God, as well as of Judah's growing wealth and power, Baladan was anxious to establish friendly relations with Hezekiah. It was his desire to use that friendship, however, for personal advantage.
Hezekiah should have been suspicious of these ambassadors, but he wasn't. He was pleased by this attention from another king, even though Baladan's kingdom was small. Hoping to enhance his prestige and gain the favour of a ruler who later might prove to be of value to him, he showed the Babylonians all his personal treasures, special costly army equipment and the wealth of the temple. There was nothing in his palace or kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them (Isa. 39:1-2; 2Kgs. 20:12-13).
When the Babylonians left, there was little they didn't know about Judah's economy and manpower. Shortly after their departure, Isaiah came to talk to the king.
"I would like to know the identity of your recent guests and where they came from?" the prophet said to Hezekiah.
Hezekiah replied: "They were special ambassadors from Babylon."
"What did they see in your palace?" Isaiah queried. "I showed them everything", the king answered (2Kgs. 20:14-15; Isa. 39:3-4).
Then Isaiah said to the king: “Remember this, because God has spoken it: There will come a time when an army will come from Babylon to seize all that is in this palace. The invaders will ransack the city, ruin the temple and plunder the land. They will herd our people to Babylon and surrounding nations, where they'll become slaves. Your descendants will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon!"
"If that's the way God says it will be, then it's certain to happen," Hezekiah said. "I am thankful that it won't happen in the peaceful years I have left" (2Kgs. 20:16-19; 2Chr. 32:31; Isa. 39:5-8).
Isaiah wasn't talking only about an enemy victory from which Judah would recover. He was talking about the end of Judah as a nation!
In his years that remained, Hezekiah dedicated himself to the best interests of his country. He saw to it that large supplies of grain, wine and oil were maintained. He continued to promote farming and to increase the raising of sheep and cattle.
The greatest engineering project during Hezekiah's reign was blocking the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channelling the water down to Jerusalem (2Chr. 32:27-30). Hezekiah's greatest accomplishment, of course, was the stopping of most idolatry in Judah and restoring proper worship at the Temple.
Having been given fifteen more years of life, King Hezekiah died at the age of fifty-four, after about twenty-nine years as ruler of Judah. Hezekiah was buried in one of the main sepulchres reserved for the descendant kings of David. He was succeeded by his son who was only twelve years old. His name was Manasseh (2Chr. 32:32-33; 2Kgs. 20:20-21; 21:1).
Unfortunately for Judah, young Manasseh was guided and influenced by profane men who were in favour of returning to idolatry. It wasn't long before Hezekiah's headway against pagan religions in the nation was offset by a decline in the worship of God and a revival of permissiveness and an interest in neighbouring religions.
As Manasseh grew older, there seemed to be no limit to the heathen practices he allowed and even promoted. At first he favoured re-establishing private and public places for idol worship. Then he decreed that altars should be built throughout the nation for sacrificing to the god Baal, one of the chief pagan deities of the Canaanites. His next move was to prepare special shrines for worshipping the goddess Astarte, whose rituals were disgustingly lewd. These swift plunges into idolatry were more than enough to rouse the Creator's anger.
However, Manasseh didn't stop there. He deliberately defied God by setting up these pagan altars, idols, images and obscene symbols in the holy Temple! Faith was replaced by superstition, and the wizards, witches, sorcerers, and mediums returned to feed on that superstition.
Convinced that worshipping and relying on Israel's God was foolish, Manasseh did more to turn his nation to idolatry than did the pagan nations God had destroyed. He was even worse than blasphemous King Ahab, because he required his people to worship the idols he brought to Judah (2Kgs. 21:1-9; 2Chr. 33:1-9).
Because of the misused power of one man, Jerusalem, the city of peace, became a city of despair, terror and death. Those who tried to obey God lived in constant fear of criminals and of Manasseh's soldiers. Those who became idolaters became debased and miserable.
Manasseh apparently began to doubt that Israel's God existed. He was one of the most foolish kings that ever lived for deliberately antagonizing his long-suffering Creator, who began to act by giving instructions to the prophets who were hiding in Judah.
"Warn Manasseh and the people," God told them, "that because the king has stooped to abominations greater than those of surrounding nations of the past, whom I have destroyed, and has forced his subjects to do the same by torturing and murdering the faithful, I will bring terrible times on Judah. If people could hear what their fate will be, their ears would almost burn at listening to the fearful facts.
"As Samaria fell, so shall Jerusalem. I shall wipe out the city as one wipes out a dirty dish by turning it upside down and scooping out the leftovers. I shall forsake this nation. The inhabitants will fall into the hands of their enemies, to become slaves just as the people of Samaria and the northern tribes of national Israel went into captivity.
"Ever since I brought my people out of Egypt more then eight hundred years ago, they have troubled me and tried my patience. Their king has now become one of the basest offenders by conducting himself like an insane man. He won't be allowed to continue in his murderous manner much longer" (2Kgs. 21:10-16).
The prophets who received this message were Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk and Isaiah, who wrote down God's warnings in their books. These writings are now part of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. At great personal risk, these men managed to make public what God had told them. When reports reached Manasseh, he laughed, but the more he thought about these men having the boldness to give him warnings, supposedly from the God he loathed, the more irritated he became.
Some, if not all, of the prophets were arrested at this time. Scriptural and secular references indicate that the elderly Isaiah was one of them. Tradition says that because Manasseh was angered by Isaiah's loyalty to God and his warnings, he had the prophet sawn in two. These religious persecutions are described in the New Testament "faith chapter", Hebrews 11, especially verses 36 to 38.
The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but he would not listen. Therefore, Assyrian troops moved through the land and took Manasseh with hooks and tied him with fetters and brought him to Babylon (2Chr. 33:10-11).
Miserable and desperate, the king of Judah finally concluded that it might be worth the effort to pray to the God of Israel for help. God heard his prayer and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God (2Chr. 33:12-13).
Manasseh's repentance was one of the most profound in the Bible. The record of it serves to show that our God is so filled with compassion that He will honour the sincere repentance of anyone, no matter how black his deeds have been. Surely no king of Israel or Judah ever provoked God's wrath more with his blatant idolatry even to the point of bringing an idol into God's very own Temple. 2Kings 21 records his rotten deeds. Only King Ahab could begin to rival Manasseh in wickedness (2Kgs. 21:3). Yet our God is so full of mercy that He honoured even Ahab's humility, although he never really repented (1Kgs. 21:29).
We can be comforted by the knowledge that God will forgive any person who makes a full surrender to Him without any reservations – no matter how terrible, or how many, have been his/her sins. God will forgive them all (Mat. 12:31).
The Apostle Paul himself said that before conversion he was "a blasphemer and a persecutor, and injurious". He actually counted himself the "chief of sinners". Yet he obtained mercy, that in him, as the first, Jesus Christ "might show his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1Tim. 1:13-16).
God made sure that His Word was replete with examples of the real repentance of grievous sinners. Therefore, no one should ever say, "My sins are so bad that God couldn't possibly forgive me." No matter how we may feel about our personal sins, that same merciful God stands ready to forgive us upon genuine repentance (Ps. 86:5).
Manasseh set out to remove the pagan images from the Temple, cleaned and repaired the altar, reinstated Levite priests to re-establish offerings to God and began a systematic movement to comb out idols and pagan altars from all of Judah. At the same time he sent out a royal decree that the God of Israel was the only deity to be worshipped in the nation.
Most of the people obeyed by simply sacrificing to God at the places where they had formerly sacrificed to idols. This was a step in the right direction, but God expected sacrifices to be made only at His Temple in Jerusalem. Manasseh soon learned that turning a whole nation from paganism to the only True God would be a long and next-to-impossible undertaking.
Meanwhile, he expanded the size of Jerusalem and strengthened and heightened a large part of Jerusalem's walls. He then appointed capable and trusted officers to take charge of Judah's other walled cities, which were subject to possible attack from Egypt or Philistia, and to probable attack from Assyria if the regular tribute to that nation failed to be paid on time (2Chr. 33:14-17).
Manasseh didn't live to see his nation receive the protection and prosperity that would have resulted from the people turning wholeheartedly to God. He was entombed in a family burial place on his own property instead of being buried with most of the kings of Judah. In his time Manasseh caused great trouble in his nation, but he was the only idolatrous king who sought to make such an extreme change for the better in his way of living.
At Manasseh's death, his son, Amon, immediately became king of Judah at the age of twenty-two (2Kgs. 21:17-18; 2Chr. 33:18-20).
Again it was the old story – a new, young king going just the opposite of his father's intentions. Amon followed almost exactly the example of his father Manasseh's first years of reign. He even managed to recover many of the hidden carved images his father had caused to be made, and set them up again to be worshipped. Judah was again steered back into perilous, mad idolatry.
Historians have pointed out, with good reason, that most of the successors of idolatrous Israelite kings had very short periods of rulership. So it was with Amon, whose servants plotted against him and murdered him by the time he had ruled only two years. The people of Judah, however, were so angry because of their leader's assassination that they succeeded in finding all those connected with the act and put them to death (2Kgs. 21:19-26; 2Chr. 33:21-25).
By this time, Amon had been buried close to his father in the family burial place near the royal palace.
Although only eight years old, Amon's son Josiah became the next ruler of Judah. Even though he was at first guided by his advisors with various beliefs and ambitions, by the time he was about sixteen he had a growing desire to really follow the ways of his ancestor David, whose accomplishments greatly interested him.
By the time he was twenty years old, Josiah began to rid his kingdom of idols by outlawing the presence of pagan altars and images. At the same time he sent out crews of men to tear down and destroy any objects connected with idolatry. They went throughout Judah and even into the land from which most of Israel had been removed. The last use of heathen altars, just before they were wrecked, was for burning the bones of the profane priests. Their bones were found buried near the altars at which they had officiated when sacrifices had been made to idols (2Kgs. 22:1-2; 2Chr. 34:1-7).
During the years those changes were being made, proper activities were restored at the Temple, which again required repairing because of rough usage while careless and rowdy idol worshippers held their profane ceremonies there. Worshippers of God came from far and near, even from the tribes of Israel; and they brought offerings. At last there was a considerable collection of silver at the temple given as offerings by God's worshippers.
When Josiah was about twenty-six, he ordered officials to use the silver to buy new timber and stone and to pay the wages of carpenters, builders and masons for mending the worn and broken parts of the temple (2Kgs. 22:3-7; 2Chr. 34:8-13).
Meanwhile, Hilkiah the high priest excitedly reported to his friend Shaphan, the king's secretary, that he had found the Book of the Law in the Temple (2Kgs. 22:8; 2Chr. 34:14-15).
This Law comprising the first five books of the Old Testament had for a long time been at the side of the Ark (Deut. 31:24-26). And Jehoshaphat in his time had copies made for the teaching of the Law all over the nation (2Chr. 17:7-9). Later, during some time when the temple was overrun by idol-worshippers, most copies of the Law were destroyed. However, perhaps some faithful priest concealed it rather than have it destroyed by those who wanted to do away with God's Laws.
Then Shaphan informed the king that Hilkiah had given him the Book of the Law, and Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. Josiah became so perturbed that he tore his robe. In those times that was an action that indicated great distress (2Kgs. 22:9-11; 2Chr. 34:16-19).
Josiah gave orders to Hilkiah, Shaphan and the others there to inquire of the Lord about what was written in the book that was found. Josiah said, "The Lord’s anger burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book".
Hilkiah, Shaphan and three other men of rank left right away to find the prophetess Huldah, to whom God had given special ability to understand some of His intentions (2Kgs. 22:12-14; 2Chr. 34:20-22). God must have previously given Huldah understanding for Josiah's benefit, because she had an immediate answer for her visitors.
"Tell the man who sent you that God will indeed bring deep misery to the people of Judah because of their turning to false gods," Huldah said. "God's warnings, like His promises, never fail. There is nothing that can be done now to alter God's plans. He wants the king of Judah to know that he, Josiah, won't go through the soon-coming time of curses and desolation for his nation. Because Josiah has repented and has faithfully worked to turn his people back to the right way, he will be mercifully taken to his grave and will be spared the evil to come" (2Kgs. 22:15-20; 2Chr. 34:23-28).
When Josiah learned what Huldah had to say, he was disappointed that his people would not completely repent. As a result, there wasn't much he could do to prevent God's wrath from eventually falling on Judah. Nevertheless, the king determined to make the most of the time he had left. He called for the people of Judah and Jerusalem – especially the leaders – to meet with him at the temple to hear a reading from the Book of the Law. He hoped that all who heard would be sobered and anxious to seek God.
After the reading, Josiah stood up before the crowd and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – to keep the commandments, regulations and decrees with all his heart, so confirming the words of the covenant written in the Book of the Law. A murmur of approval came from the people and their leaders and they pledged themselves to the covenant (2Kgs. 23:1-3).
The king then ordered the high priest and those under him to remove all the idolatrous articles from the temple. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron Valley and took the ashes to Bethal. This place had been an important seat of activities for God's servants, but later became defiled by pagan priests who claimed they represented God. He did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah.
Josiah then set out to remove every vestige of idolatry from Judah and even part of the land of Israel north to Samaria. Pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah were found and punished. The dwellings of those who had been pagan temple prostitutes, both male and female, were burned or torn down (2Kgs. 23:4-20; 2Chr. 34:29-33).
At Bethel, Josiah's men even dug up the remains of heathen priests and burned them on the altar there, thus carrying out the prophecy made three hundred and fifty years before, when God inspired one of his servants to declare that one day a man named Josiah would burn the bones of the pagan priests on that altar (1Kgs.13:1-3, 26-32). However, the bones of the true prophet who had spoken this weren't touched (2Kgs. 23:17-18).
After these things had been accomplished, the time came for the Passover, which many observed with special fervour because of Josiah's success against idolatry. Josiah had worked diligently to wipe out idolatry and sorcery from his nation and from the territory of the Israelite tribes to the north. He fervently hoped God would spare his country from the curses the people bring on themselves when they forsake the God of Israel for pagan gods and demons (2Chr. 34:1-7).
Josiah also knew that God would be pleased because the Book of the Law had been found and read to the people. To add to all this, the king saw to it that the Passover that year was observed with unusual solemnity and great ceremony. Many thousands of animals were sacrificed, thirty-three thousand of which Josiah contributed from his flocks and herds (2Kgs. 23:1-28; 2Chr. 34:8-33; 35:1-19).
However, the king's good works didn't alter God's intention to punish the nation because of their turning from Him. The Lord said, “I will remove Judah from my presence as I removed Israel. And I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple about which I said, ‘There shall my name be’” (2Kgs. 23:26-28).
After Josiah had put the temple in order, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish. Josiah went out to meet him (2Chr. 35:20-21). However, Neco sent messengers to Josiah to say he had no fight with the king of Judah and he did not want any interference in what he was going to do. Inasmuch as God had told Neco to go against the Chaldeans at Carchemish, any who interfered with God's will would be destroyed.
Josiah would not listen to what Neco had said at God’s command, and disguised himself and went to fight him at Megiddo. Egyptian archers shot King Josiah and he told his officers to take him away. The king was quickly transferred to another chariot and carried back to Jerusalem, where he soon died (2Kgs. 23:29; 2Chr. 35:22-24).
Because Josiah was so greatly respected, and because his death foreshadowed the death of the nation, there was great mourning upon his death, even by many who didn't care for his staunch stand against idolatry.
Asked to speak at the king's funeral was the young prophet Jeremiah. He was a friend of Ahikam, the son of Josiah's secretary Shaphan (Jer. 26:24; 2Kgs. 22:8-12; 2Chr. 34:20-21). Jeremiah delivered a most unusual eulogy because of Josiah's accomplishments for God. His observations were later set to music and sung and played for centuries to come on special occasions (2Chr. 35:24-25; Lamentations).
Josiah was buried with the kings of Judah. He was the last king of that nation who followed God, and God promised he would die without having to go through the misery that was to come to Judah. Although Josiah died of a battle wound, the nation was at peace, and he died in a peaceful state of mind far from the battlefield. The people of Judah then made Jehoahaz king in Jerusalem, in place of his father (2Kgs. 23:30; 2Chr. 35:26-27).
Later, Judah was under Egyptian nomination for a period of time. So King Neco had freedom to demand of Jerusalem that Eliakim should be made king. Jehoahaz was therefore king for only three months because Neco of Egypt considered Judah his vassal nation and thought only he should have the right to decide who should be made king.
Jehoahaz did evil in the eyes of the Lord just as his fathers had done. Neco put him in chains and took him off to Egypt and he died there (2Kgs. 23:31-35; 2Chr. 36:2-4)
As a gesture to prove that his will would be carried out in every respect, the king of Egypt decreed that from then on Eliakim should be known as Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim continued to rule Judah for the next eleven years, even though he wasn't the choice of the people who followed God. During those years, there was an unhappy return to idolatry and a constant heavy tribute, mostly in gold and silver, to the king of Egypt.
As a result of allowing his nation to fall back into idolatry, Jehoiakim had his share of troubles. One of his sources of worry was the prophet Jeremiah, who had been around in Josiah's time but, because of his youth, didn't earn much respect until he had spoken at Josiah's funeral.
We will continue in this series of Bible stories with the paper Jeremiah Warns Judah (No. CB151).