When Hezekiah was king over Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel was in its last days. The people of Judah had great opportunity to pay attention to the political chaos that was going about in the region, but it appears they did not pay as much attention as they should have (Jeremiah says a lot about this in the book ascribed to his name). While Israel was suffering internal decay and on the verge of complete collapse, Judah prospered. Their prosperity was associated with the Lord’s response to the kings that reigned. After Hezekiah died his son Manasseh brought a totally different kind of authority to the throne. Hezekiah was devoted to the Lord; Manasseh was anything but! At twelve years of age, it is not likely he started out that way, but was manipulated by those in positions of authority (after his father died). Judah struggled with the notion of whom to serve. Some, though few, were very loyal to the Lord; others, were loyal to the idol gods of the nation’s surrounding them. At this juncture, it became a matter of political expediency.
As the years unfolded the influence was too much. In 2 Kings 21 there is a listing of all that Manasseh was responsible:
- And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel.
- He rebuilt the high places
- He raised up altars for Baal,
- He made a wooden image
- He worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.
- He built altars in the house of the Lord
- He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD.
- He made his son pass through the fire,
- He practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft, and consulted spiritists and mediums.
- He set a carved image of Asherah in the house of the LORD,
- He had shed very much innocent blood.
- Manasseh seduced them to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel (in 2 Chronicles 33, the Scripture says that he made the inhabitants of Judah to err).
Manasseh had the reputation of being Judah’s longest serving king, but also the ignoble reputation of being Judah’s worst king. The Lord mentioned that because of Manasseh (23:26; 24:3) Judah and Jerusalem would be wiped clean off the land (1 Kings 21:13-14). Assyria comes and takes captive those of Jerusalem, Manasseh included. Manasseh, to his credit, learned a powerful lesson after having been taken into captivity (humiliated greatly). While there, he longs for the Lord, turns to Him, and changes his ways; the Lord is pleased and places him back in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 33:11-20). Unfortunately, Manasseh’s son (Amon) was lost, but on a more fortunate basis, his grandson (Josiah) was saved.
Josiah was not very old when he became king and it was about the middle of the 7th century B.C. and toward the end that he died (640-608 B.C.). Presumably, he did not make it to his fortieth year before he was killed in battle (2 Kings 22:1; 23:28-30). During the time of his leadership two great things occurred. First, the book of the Law of Moses was found (2 Kings 22:3; about 623-622 B.C.). When the king learned of this, he sent word to the prophetess (Huldah) to learn from the Lord. The Lord told the king that indeed the warnings of that which was read was forthcoming on Jerusalem. Second, Josiah was touched in his devotion to the Lord and began a restoration of the “old paths” (cf. Jeremiah 6:16).
In the “fertile crescent” area empires struggled for preeminence. During the days of Hezekiah it was Assyria and Egypt who struggled against one another (with the geographical land of Israel in the midst; an important trade route). About the time of Josiah Babylon was beginning to show its muscle while Assyria was on its decent; Egypt, however, was still a prominent military authority and as they saw that Assyria was in decline they set themselves to help Assyria against Babylon.
Even righteous kings can make poor decisions. This is what Josiah did in his political struggle with the nations surrounding him. After he was killed in battle (with Egypt; 23:29), no king after him had even an inkling of righteousness that Josiah and his great-grandfather Hezekiah had. The kings that followed were
- Jehoahaz (3 months),
- Eliakim (given the name Jehoiakim by Egypt; 11 years; about 608—597 B.C.),
- Jehoiachin (3 months, Babylonian captivity; 24:12-16),
- Zedekiah (also known as Mattaniah, 11 years; 597—586 B.C., goes into Babylonian captivity).
These were essentially “boy kings;” none of them were over age twenty-five when they became king, but more importantly, they had not the maturity of a man to lead (2 Kings 23:31—25). This back-drop of Judah’s history helps us to get an inkling of what Jeremiah was called to do by the Lord and the political and moral chaos in which he was to do his preaching.