The Siege of Jerusalem: Why did God punish the Israelites so harshly?

Timeline of Events

(Years are BC)

640-609Reign of Josiah (2 Ki 22:1-23:30, 2 Chr 34-35)
609Reign of Jehoahaz (3 months) (2 Ki 23:30-34, 2 Chr 36:1-4)
609-597Reign of Jehoiakim (2 Ki 23:34-24:6, 2 Chr 36:5-8)
605First attack of Nebuchadnezzar on Jerusalem (2 Ki 24:1-2)
597Reign of Jehoiachin (3 months) (2 Ki 24:8-17, 25:27-30, 2 Chr 36:9-10)
597Second attack of Nebuchadnezzar on Jerusalem (2 Ki 24:8-17)
597-586Reign of Zedekiah (2 Ki 24:17-25:7, 2 Chr 36:10-20)
586Third attack on Jerusalem; Jerusalem destroyed (2 Ki 25:1-21)

Punishment of Judah

The people of Judah knew what God wanted them to do, for Josiah rediscovered the Book of the Law in 622 (2 Ki 22:3-10) and read it to the people of Jerusalem (2 Ki 23:1-3). Josiah's grandfather Manasseh and great-grandfather Hezekiah were also aware of God's commands (2 Chr 33:10-16, 2 Ki 18:1-6). Furthermore, the Israelites were repeatedly warned about their wrongdoing. Jeremiah warned them for 23 years (Jer 25:2-3) and other prophets warned them as well (Jer 25:4-7, 7:25-26). However, the response of Judah's kings to these warnings was to persecute and kill the messengers (Jer 26:20-23, 20:1-2, 38:1-9).

The Israelites had committed many wrongs, including:

In fact, during the reign of Manasseh, Judah did more evil than the nations God had punished with destruction (2 Ki 21:9), and the following generations were even more wicked (Jer 16:10-12). Even so, God promised to not destroy them completely (Jer 4:27, 5:18) and to restore them once the punishment was finished (32:36-44). Furthermore, if the people had repented and changed their ways, they would have avoided punishment (26:2-3, 5:1, 7:3-7, 18:7-8).

Those who weren't as deserving of punishment were spared death and sent into exile instead (24:5-7). Individuals who performed righteous acts were given special protection, including Jeremiah (15:20-21), Baruch (36:8-10, 45) and Ebed-Melech (38:6-13, 39:16-18).

The Siege of Jerusalem

One of the passages people find most troubling is Jeremiah 19:9: "I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives." This did occur during the siege of Jerusalem (Lam 4:10).

The warning was originally given to the elders and priests in Jerusalem (Jer 19:1-2), those who should have been the most responsive to God's words and who should have led the people to repentance. Jeremiah later informed King Zedekiah that he could end the siege and spare Jerusalem by surrendering to the Babylonians, which is what God wanted him to do (38:17-23). Also, the people of Jerusalem themselves were repeatedly told that they could save their lives at any time by surrendering (21:8-9, 27:16-17, 38:1-2).

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