When does the Bible indicate that the nation of Judah began serving the king of Babylon?
In Jeremiah chapter 25, we are told of the eventuality that was to befall the inhabitants of Judah: "The word that occurred to Jeremiah . . . concerning all the people of Judah and concerning all the inhabitants of Jerusalem . . . all this land must become a devastated place, an object of astonishment, and these nations will have to serve the king of Babylon seventy years." (Jeremiah 1a, 2, 11)
Critics have attempted to show that this servitude to the king of Babylon, mentioned in verse 11, began to be fulfilled long before Jerusalem's destruction. Some of them reason that the nation of Judah began serving the king of Babylon when they became a vassal to Babylon, while others believe that it commenced with the initial exile.
Is there anything wrong with these views? Isn't it quite reasonable to conclude that Judah's servitude to Babylon commenced when they became a vassal to Babylon?
Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Jehoiakim became a tributary king to Babylon in his eighth year:
Josephus' testimony is consistent with the Biblical record, which shows that Jehoiakim became a tributary king to Nebuchadnezzar for a period of three years, after which he rebelled, resulting in his being given into "the hand of Nebuchadnezzar" in Jehoiakim's eleventh year. Secular chronologists place Jehoiakim's eighth regnal year in 601/600 B.C.E. (see Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Jack Finegan, Princeton, 1964, p. 203), thus accounting for an interval of only sixty-two to sixty-four, and not seventy, years.
Similarly, the first recorded exile occurred ten years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, and would therefore account for only fifty-eight years according to accepted secular chronology. Because of this, some have tried to advance the theory that an earlier exile occurred in the third year of Jehoiakim (due to a misunderstanding of Daniel 1:1), despite the fact that this too comes up short, allowing for, at most, anywhere from sixty-six to sixty-eight years. (See Appendix to Chapter 14, "Let Your Kingdom Come," pp. 186-9 for further details.) Nevertheless, any such exile prior to that which occurred at the time of Jerusalem's destruction, when "Judah went into exile from off its soil" (2 Kings 25:8-21), would involve only the servitude of the specific individuals taken captive, and not the nation of Judah.
Clearly, neither Judah's vassalage nor the initial exile satisfy a full seventy years of servitude for the nation of Judah to Babylon. In light of this, is it possible that the seventy years of servitude simply referred to the subservient position that other nations would occupy during the period of Babylonian world domination (from 609 B.C.E. to 539 B.C.E., according to secular chronology)?
No, for the Bible clearly shows that the seventy years were to be years of devastation for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah (Jeremiah 25:1a, 2, 11; Daniel 9:2). While some critics argue that Jeremiah 25:11 only refers to seventy years of servitude, Daniel 9:2 confirms that the prophecy also entailed seventy years of devastation for the land of Judah. Second Chronicles 36:20, 21 further shows that it was the composite effect of exiling the remaining ones who "came to be servants to [Nebuchadnezzar]" and the resulting devastation and desolation of the land of Judah that began to fulfill the prophecy concerning the seventy years. In no way did Babylon's dominant position alone satisfy these requirements.
Furthermore, Ezra 1:1 and 2 Chronicles 36:22 show that "Jehovah's word from the mouth of Jeremiah" had not yet been accomplished by the first regnal year of Cyrus, that is, after Babylon had already fallen to the Persians:
This verse establishes that the Persian conquest of Babylon was not the determining factor in fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy, disproving the theory that the seventy years simply referred to the period of Babylonian world domination.
How, then, are we to understand Jeremiah 27:6 which, in the New World Translation and numerous other translations, seems to indicate that at the "beginning of the kingdom of Jehoiakim" (Jeremiah 27:1) Jehovah had already made the nations and the wild beasts servants to Nebuchadnezzar?
While Jeremiah 27:6 shows that "these nations" had been made subject to Nebuchadnezzar by divine authority, nevertheless, Jeremiah 28:14 shows that even by the time of the "kingdom of Zedekiah" (Jeremiah 28:1), some eleven years later, the actual servitude was still seen as a future event:
The nations that were "given into [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand" were given a choice of either willingly submitting, or alternatively, being brought under subjection forcibly. (Jeremiah 27:12-14) However, until such time that this occurred, it could not rightly be said that they were serving the king of Babylon.
As a case in point, all creation is subject to its Creator, Jehovah. However, one who claims to be serving Jehovah is not actually serving him if he is not doing according to His will. Thus, at Jeremiah 27:11, Jehovah could rightly extend favor toward any nation that would bring their necks "under the yoke of the king of Babylon and actually serve him."
Even in the minds of the false prophets of Zedekiah's day, it was clear that the inhabitants of Judah were not yet bound by servitude to Babylon:
So, how exactly was Zedekiah to bring his neck "under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him"? The answer is found at Jeremiah 38:17, 18:
Jeremiah 15:2 explains what this voluntary "going out" would require:
As long as Jehoiakim, and later, Zedekiah, refused to "go out to the princes of the king of Babylon," the nation of Judah could not be said to be serving the king of Babylon. Furthermore, Jeremiah 1:1-3 tells us that the prophetic warnings continued right down to the "eleventh year of Zedekiah . . . until Jerusalem went into exile in the fifth month."
A prophecy recorded 900 years earlier makes it clear that Jehovah's intention from the start was that the nation of Judah would be absent from their homeland during the prophesied period of servitude, whether they chose to submit peaceably or had to be removed forcibly:
Jeremiah 25:11 outlines the events comprising the prophecy of the seventy years: "And  all this land must become a devastated place, an object of astonishment and  these nations will have to serve the king of Babylon seventy years." This verse makes it clear that the seventy years of Judah's servitude as a nation were to begin at the time of, or immediately following, the devastation of Jerusalem, but not before. The servitude and the devastation of the land were to last seventy years, which is precisely why Daniel could accurately refer to "the devastations of Jerusalem, [namely], seventy years." (Daniel 9:2)
In the next article, it is shown that the devastation of the land could not have occurred prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, and in line with this, neither could the servitude. It is also demonstrated that Jeremiah's prophecy had not yet begun to be fulfilled by the "fourth year of Jehoiakim" (Jeremiah 25:1), since Jeremiah 25:11 indicates that the land would become a devastated place, indicating a future fulfillment. Thus, Judah's servitude to Babylon was also reserved for future fulfillment, and for a certainty then, did not begin in Jehoiakim's third year, as suggested by some. (See also Jeremiah 36:9, 29 which indicates that Nebuchadnezzar had not yet come up against Jerusalem even by the fifth year of Jehoiakim.)
Despite the initial exile of "Jeconiah [Jehoiachin] the son of Jehoiakim . . . together with all the nobles of Judah and Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 27:20) some ten years earlier, Jeremiah evidently realized that it was not until the "eleventh year of Zedekiah" that "Jerusalem went into exile." This is strongly corroborated by the testimony at 2 Kings 25:8, 21, which shows that the nation of Judah did not go "into exile from off its soil" until after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar:
Second Chronicles 36:19-21 adds:
It wasn't until the last of the inhabitants of Judah "came to be servants to him" that the nation of Judah could be said to be serving the king of Babylon. This same verse proves beyond a doubt that the inhabitants of Judah were not serving the king of Babylon prior to his nineteenth year, since it was only after they were taken captive that they "came to be servants to him." And, as the above-quoted verse establishes, it was also at this time that the desolation of the land commenced.
H.W.F. Saggs, in his book The Greatness That Was Babylon, helps put things in perspective, showing that prior to Jerusalem's destruction Judah was only indirectly subject to Babylon:
Yes, the Bible is very clear as to when the seventy-year period of servitude commenced. It could not have begun until the crown of Zedekiah was removed, completely abolishing the Judean kingship with "no one sitting on the throne of David." (Jeremiah 36:30) Following the removal of Zedekiah's crown, and after those remaining (who were under the governorship of Gedaliah) fled for fear of the Chaldeans (2 Kings 25:22-26) in the seventh month, the entire nation of Judah fell under direct servitude to the king of Babylon, no longer possessing its own king as intermediary, as had previously been the case with Judah's tributary submission to Babylon (and to other nations prior to this).
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