The History of Judah
We must remember that Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, and that he lived some time around 1700BC. Not only was Judah a son of Jacob, but he received a special blessing at his father’s death:
“You, Judah, shall your brothers praise–your hand on the neck of your enemies; the sons of your father shall bow down to you…The scepter shall never depart from Judah.” (Gen 49:8-12)
Just as we learned that Sem received Noah’s blessing, and Abraham the blessing of God, so too we see Judah receiving the blessing of Jacob. Jacob said that his sons would all be servants of Judah, but this is a strange blessing. Why would a father suggest that one of his sons should rule over others? What might Jacob have seen or known that would lead him to envision his sons divided and to see one ruling over the rest? Whatever the truth is behind this blessing, one thing is certain: God takes seriously the relationships between children and their parents and a father’s blessing (or curse) can determine what lies ahead in the life of a child.
Judah, then was blessed to rule over the other tribes of Israel and we should expect to see that blessing work itself out in history–and we do. Ultimately, when the first king Saul, a son of Benjamin, sins and has the kingdom torn away from him, God raises up His chosen one: David, of the tribe of Judah. Thus, the scepter is placed into the hand of Judah as Jacob said it would be.
King David ruled famously, as we know, and left the kingdom in excellent shape for his wise son Solomon. Solomon, after bringing God great glory by his wisdom, disobeyed God and received the punishment he deserved. Nevertheless, the scepter did not depart from Judah.
Solomon’s son Rehoboam ruled after his death (about 920 BC) and was followed by a line of kings in Judah. It is not our goal here to learn about these kings, but we should be familiar with three of them.
I. King Hezekiah ( 715-686BC )
Hezekiah was king in Judah after the northern kingdom was overtaken by Assyria. Judah faced the same threats that Israel did, but they enjoyed a God-fearing leader in Hezekiah. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent his army to terrorize the people of Judah and threaten them with complete destruction. Hezekiah comforted the people with faithful words and encouraged them to trust in God’s protection.
The leaders of the army stood at the gate of the city and warned the men of Judah:
“Hearken not to Hezekiah, who deceives you, saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Have any of the gods of the nations delivered their land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Who are they among all the gods of the nations that have delivered their country out of my hand, that the Lord may deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”
(2 Kings 18)
When his servants brought Hezekiah the news of this warning, Hezekiah did not look to Egypt for help as Hoshea did in the northern kingdom. Scripture tells us that Hezekiah tore his clothes in sorrow and went to the temple to pray. As Hezekiah prayed, his servants went to the great prophet, Isaiah, who had a message from God for the king:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Be not afraid for the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of the Assyrians have blasphemed me. Behold I will send a spirit upon him, and he shall hear a message, and shall return into his own country, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own country.” (2 Kings 19)
After receiving this letter from Isaiah, Hezekiah spread it out before God and made this wonderful prayer, which you should read aloud, thoughtfully:
“O Lord God of Israel, who sittest upon the cherubims, thou alone art the God of all the kings of the earth: thou madest heaven and earth: Incline thy ear, and hear: open, O Lord, thy eyes and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, who hath sent to upbraid unto us the living God. Of a truth, O Lord, the kings of the Assyrians have destroyed nations, and the lands of them all. And they have cast their gods into the fire: for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands, of wood and stone, and they destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord, the only God.”
What chance is there that such a king would ever be allowed by God to suffer harm? We see in Hezekiah, like David, the model for what kind of leaders the world needs: men who do not fear the enemies of God’s kingdom and who do not rely on sin to fight against sin, but who trust in God. In the northern kingdom, the king ran to Egypt for help, trusting in Pharaoh’s army to save him. In the southern kingdom, Hezekiah sat in the temple praying. The northern kingdom was destroyed and the southern kingdom was saved. Can we live with such faith? If so, God will be glorified and we will change the world for good.
II. King Manasseh ( 686-642BC )
After reading about Hezekiah, we might imagine the kingdom of Judah to be filled with peace and joy. However, we know from our timeline that another captivity is coming and this time it involves Judah. What could have happened to bring down this happy kingdom?
When good Hezekiah died, he left a 12 year-old son to rule in his place, named Manasseh. Manasseh was extremely wicked and, unfortunately, was allowed by God to rule for 55 years. All the good that Hezekiah did was undone by his son. Many kings before came into power with the land filled with sin and idolatry and they were punished for not rooting it out. However, Manasseh took over a nation that had been purified by his father and set the evil up himself.
Manasseh’s sin led to the fall of Judah. As the evil king filled the land with violence and idolatry, God spoke, saying:
“Because Manasseh, king of Judah, hath done these most wicked abominations, beyond all that the Amorites did before him, and hath made Judah also to sin with his filthy doings: Therefore thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will bring on evils upon Jerusalem and Judah: that whosoever shall hear of them, both his ears shall tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the weight of the house of Achab: and I will efface Jerusalem, as writings tables are wont to be effaced, and I will erase and turn it, and draw the pencil often over the face thereof. And I will leave the remnants of my inheritance, and will deliver them into the hands of their enemies: and they shall become a prey, and a spoil to all their enemies.”
Judah thus received a message very similar to the one given to Israel before their destruction. Yet again, the public sins of one ruler bring evil consequences upon an entire kingdom.
III. King Josiah ( 640-609 BC )
Two years after the death of evil Manasseh, his grandson Josiah took the throne. The power of Assyria was at this time weakening and Josiah did all that he could to restore true worship in Judah–and save them from the dangers God had threatened. King Josiah washed Judah of the stains of idolatry and worked to restore the temple. As his men restored the temple, a great treasure was discovered. It was not gold or silver. What was found was the Law of Moses.
Now, we should be a bit confused to learn that the Law of Moses was found in Judah. After all, that it was found suggests that for some time it was lost. How could the law be lost! Not only were God’s commandments disobeyed during the reign of Manasseh, they weren’t even read. As in too many homes today, the Scriptures were collecting dust on a shelf.
Josiah, however, seeking to do God’s will and restore order in Judah, recovers God’s law and sets it back in its proper place. Nevertheless, the sin of Manasseh had too much influence in Judah and Josiah’s diligence could not save the kingdom from judgment. Shortly after the death of King Josiah, Egypt pressed in upon Israel and forced them to pay taxes to Pharaoh.
The Babylonian Captivity
In the East, Assyrian power had declined and a new kingdom was rising, with its center at Babylon (see map). Under the leadership of king Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians took control of Mesopotamia. In 612 BC, the Babylonians captured the Assyrian city Nineveh and established themselves as the rulers of the region.
After taking power, the Babylonians began to police the region and gather up what Assyria had lost. Pushing Egypt back out of Judah, the Babylonians demanded taxes from Judah, as Assyria had done earlier in Israel. The king Jehoiachin, not remembering what had happened to Israel, turned to Egypt for help and was invaded by the Babylonians.
When the Babylonians entered, they carried out all of the most powerful and wealthy people of the land and all of the treasures of the temple. After removing Jehoiachin from the throne, they set up Zedekiah in his place as a puppet that they could control the land.
However, if losing Jerusalem’s greatest men and treasures wasn’t bad enough, Zedekiah made the terrible decision to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar! Having had enough of the trouble in Judah, the royal army of Babylon swept into Judah and besieged the city.
During a siege, an enemy army surrounds a city and cuts of any access into or out of it. The city may have food and water stored for such an event, but if the enemy can maintain the siege for a long time, the city will begin to run out of supplies and then all sorts of evils occur. Men in the city are tempted to betray their people to save their lives as the foreign king makes constant offers of peace and prosperity to those who will do so. When the people begin to lose hope, they turn on each other and against their king. As famine sets in, people begin to panic and cannot think clearly. The prophet Jeremiah describes just how badly things are in such a time:
“Better for those who perish by the sword than for those who die of hunger, who waste away, as though pierced through, lacking the fruits of the field! The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children, To serve them as mourners’ food in the downfall of the daughter of my people.” (Lam. 4)
When the Babylonian army finally broke through the city’s wall, they hunted down Zedekiah and tortured him. All of his children were killed before his eyes, and then his eyes were cut out so that the last sight he would remember would be the suffering of his family. The Babylonians had no mercy this time through, but burned every building down to the ground–including Solomon’s temple. All that was left were the farmers and crops to be kept for the king.
Thus, both the northern and southern kingdoms lost everything. Having received a kingdom in perfect peace from David, their sins spoiled all and left them enslaved and suffering. There would be no more feasting, no more temple celebrations, no more songs of victory and blessing in Judah. The land was left behind in ruins. The Psalmist sang this sad song as the Jews were brought into the land of their captors:
“Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Zion: On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments. For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs. And they that carried us away, said: ‘Sing for us a hymn of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” (Psalm 137)
God called Abraham around 1900 BC and promised him that he would become a father of many nations. God led him and his sons through many dangers and into many blessings. God saved the sons of Abraham from famine by raising Joseph up to be governor of Egypt. After an evil turn of events, the Hebrews were forced into slavery. However, God raised up Moses and by miracles and wonders led the Hebrews out of Egypt. After bringing them into their own land, God raised up David, the greatest of kings, who gave the people not only a land of their own, but a kingdom filled with peace, wealth and true religion. However, after 1400 years of blessings and victories, this unthankful people threw it all away and returned in worse condition to the land God first called Abraham away from.
God promises to us every happiness if we simply obey His commands. We do not need to worry about what we shall eat, what we shall drink or what we shall wear for He knows we need these things and promises them to us. Anytime we seek our own will, God allows us to have it but He takes away from us every truly good thing. God is the giver of life, wisdom, happiness, love and peace and there is no way to obtain these things but from His hands. When will we learn to trust and obey? Can it be our generation? Let us pray for our happiness as Jesus taught us:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name. May thy kingdom come. May thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven…For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”