Hey guys, so reading the Old Testament can be really hard, partly because the authors of the Old Testament largely assume that you are already familiar with a lot of the historical context surrounding the stuff they’re writing about. In a past episode, we talked about some of the historical contexts of the book of Isaiah. Today, I want to do the same thing with the book of Jeremiah. Having this background information will be super helpful as you read Jeremiah, but also as you read 1 Nephi in the Book of Mormon since Lehi and his family lived in Jerusalem at the same time as Jeremiah. Let’s jump in.
Alright, so in the episode we did about the historical context of Isaiah, we talked about the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the mighty Assyrian empire, and we talked about the southern kingdom of Judah’s subsequent struggles with Assyria as well. Assyria’s siege against the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, failed spectacularly in 701 BC, but despite that failure, Judah remained under the thumb of Assyria as a vassal kingdom.
But as the years passed, a significant rival to Assyria emerged: The Babylonians. The Babylonians had also been a vassal of Assyria for some time and had repeatedly tried to gain their independence. Around 626 BC, they succeeded. They then teamed up with an ancient Iranian people called the Medes and marched on Assyria. As Assyria’s power shrunk, their grip on Judah loosened, allowing the righteous King, Josiah, to expand the kingdom and enact some needed religious reforms. It’s during Josiah’s reign that the prophet Jeremiah comes onto the scene.
In 609 BC, Egypt moved north towards Carchemish to help their Assyrian allies in their war against Babylon. King Josiah of Judah wanted to stop that from happening and met the Egyptians in battle at Megiddo. Josiah was killed in the battle. The Judean people replaced him with his son, Jehoahaz, who ruled for about 3 months before the Egyptians rolled in and replaced him with a puppet king — another one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim. The Assyrian Empire did fall to Babylon, but Judah ended up just being under new management as a vassal of Egypt.
In 605 BC, Babylon successfully drove the Egyptians out of the area, and around 604 BC, Judah became a vassal of Babylon. A few years later, Jehoiakim revolted against Babylon. Jehoiakim died and was replaced by his son, Jehoiachin. He ruled for just a few months before Babylon came rolling in in 597 BC to depose him. Babylon replaced him with yet another puppet king: another one of Josiah’s sons, named Mattaniah, also known by his royal name: Zedekiah.
It’s during the first year of Zedekiah’s formal reign that most Latter-day Saints believe that Lehi began his ministry in Jerusalem — prophesying, like Jeremiah, that Babylon was going to come back and destroy the city if the people did not repent. The people did not believe Lehi or Jeremiah, probably due to at least a few reasons:
- Jerusalem had been miraculously saved from Assyrian destruction only 100 years prior. Thus, the people were confident that despite their constant vassalage, God would protect their holy city.
- Jerusalem had just faced Babylon’s wrath. Thousands had already been taken captive into Babylon, and a puppet king, Zedekiah, had been put on the throne. When Lehi started preaching, many citizens may have thought that the worst-case scenario had already played out. And…
- Jeremiah points out that there were apparently many false prophets in Jerusalem preaching that the people could be at peace and that no evil would come upon them.
But, the worst was yet to come. In 587 BC, Zedekiah revolted against King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and Babylon promptly laid siege to the city. Nebuchadnezzar crushed Jerusalem. He destroyed the city and carried all but the lowest class captive back to Babylon. Zedekiah tried to escape Jerusalem, but the Babylonians caught up with him in the plains of Jericho. 2 Kings 25 records that “[the Babylonians] killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon.” Of course, the Book of Mormon records that one of Zedekiah’s sons did successfully escape. His name was Mulek.
The Babylonians found Jeremiah still in prison. They released him and did not force him into captivity. He ended up staying behind with the new governor of Judah, Gedaliah, in Mizpah, just north of the then-uninhabitable Jerusalem. That is until Gedaliah is assassinated. “After Gedaliah was assassinated, Jeremiah was taken against his will to Egypt by some of the Jews who feared reprisal from the Babylonians. Even in Egypt, he continued to rebuke his fellow exiles. Jeremiah probably died about 570 BCE. According to a tradition that is preserved in extrabiblical sources, he was stoned to death by his exasperated fellow countrymen in Egypt.”
Now, at some point before Jerusalem fell, Lehi and his group left Jerusalem. We don’t have an exact date for that departure. Lehi’s son, Nephi, gives us some chronological markers in the Book of Mormon, but there’s still some debate on the year those markers point to. For example, Nephi says that Jeremiah was imprisoned around the time they left, but Jeremiah was imprisoned multiple times, so we just don’t know for sure. From what I’ve seen, most informed Latter-day Saints believe they left around 587 BC, some say 597 BC, and some even say as early as 605 BC.
Anyway, the captive Jews remained in Babylon until the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians in 539 BC. The Persian king, Cyrus, then allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. We’ll hopefully talk more about the captivity itself another time.
But that’s kind of the geo-political situation we’re looking at in the time of Jeremiah and Lehi. There’s a lot going on, but I hope this context is helpful to you as you read Jeremiah and 1 Nephi. Check out the YouTube description if you want to learn more, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “How Did the Almighty Assyrian Empire Fall?” via The Collector: https://bit.ly/3dZX3zp
- “The History Leading Up to the Destruction of Judah” via TheTorah.com: https://bit.ly/3Eoa5BV
- “Jeremiah: Hebrew Prophet,” via the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3CoWfgQ
- “Judah, Kingdom of,” via Jewish Encyclopedia: https://bit.ly/3SNaQbm
- For various additional sources (in addition to those included here) about the potential date of Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem, please see the footnotes in “When Did Lehi Leave Jerusalem?” via Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3y5UPFP
- In favor of Lehi leaving in 605 BC: “Dating the Departure of Lehi from Jerusalem,” by Jeffrey Chadwick (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3riHKoE
- In favor of Lehi leaving in 597/597 BC: “Book of Mormon Event Structure: The Ancient Near East,” by Robert F. Smith (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3Ck90tg
- In favor of Lehi leaving in 587 BC: “The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar,” by Randall P. Spackman (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3SpRCZv
- “Has An Artifact That Relates to the Book of Mormon Been Found?” via Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3dTBErU
- “Has the Seal of Mulek Been Found?” by Jeffrey Chadwick (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3UVR27x