In the year 3327 - eleven years before the Destruction of the (first) Beis Hamikdosh - Nebuchadnezzar, the mighty King of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem with a huge army. King Jehoiachin, who had ascended the throne of Judea only 100 days earlier, now surrendered, in order to avoid the destruction of the Holy City.
Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive, together with his mother and other members of the royal family. He also rounded up leading figures in the land of Judea, including many scholars and elders, and led them all to Babylon. Altogether some 10,000 captives were taken in this First Exile to Babylon. In addition, the Babylonian king ransacked the royal treasury as well as that of the Beis Hamikdosh and took the spoils with him.
Before returning to his country, Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah, the uncle of the deposed king and youngest son of the late King Josiah, on the throne of Judea, after taking an oath of loyalty to his Babylonian overlord.
The new king, however, had no intention of remaining the obedient servant of his Babylonian master, and secretly looked for a way of throwing off the Babylonian yoke. With his chief officers and leaders of his army gone, and the country greatly impoverished, Zedekiah knew that he could not achieve independence without outside help. He turned to Egypt for help, since the ever growing power of Babylon was a threat to Egypt too. And he looked around for help also from neighboring kingdoms. The only real and sure help that was his for the asking - the help of G‑d, the king recklessly ignored.
In those critical times, as for many years earlier, the great prophet Jeremiah of Anathoth, the Town of Kohanim, was the G‑d-sent messenger to warn the people of the mortal danger hanging over their heads. He did not cease calling on the king and the people to mend their ways and return to G‑d. Only wholehearted repentance and a complete break with the way of idolatry, injustice and immorality, could save the people from doom, he preached. Jeremiah tried to convince the king that it was useless to depend on false hopes of freeing himself from the Babylonian yoke with the help of Egypt. The prophet sternly warned him, in G‑d's Name, to follow a peaceful path with the mighty Babylonian, who was G‑d's rod to punish the Jewish people if they persisted in their faithlessness.
If the memory of the destruction and exile of the Northern Kingdom of the Ten Tribes by King Shalmanesser of Assyria more than a century earlier (in 3205) had faded, the fall of Jehoiachin and First Babylonian captivity should have shaken up the people and the king to heed the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. But his words fell on deaf ears. The king and the people were more inclined to listen to the false, self-appointed "prophets," who misled them by their predictions of glorious days ahead. These false prophets made them believe that the rise of Babylon's power was only temporary, and that in a couple of years it would break down. The people were inclined to follow the false prophets because this did not call for them to alter their way of living and begin to live the holy and moral life which G‑d's Torah and Mitzvos demanded.
There were false prophets not only in Jerusalem, but also among the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon with Jechoniah. These prophets, too, deceived the exiles with false predictions that their exile would soon be over, as the subjugated kingdoms in the Babylonian empire would rebel and topple their overlord. Like their counterparts in Jerusalem, they agitated against the "Prophet of Doom," Jeremiah, and his tragic prophecies.
Jeremiah, on his part appealed ever more strongly to the Jews, urging them not to be misled by the false prophets. He also kept in touch with the exiles in Babylon, encouraging them to hold on to their Jewish faith. Indeed, having been driven from their land and forced to live among non-Jews in a foreign land, it was more important than ever that they should keep faith with G‑d and the Torah, till the time of salvation, when G‑d would return them to their land.
Jeremiah Dons a Yoke
King Zedekiah concealed his hopes and intentions so well that Nebuchadnezzar never suspected him of any disloyalty. Indeed, in the fourth year of Zedekiah's reign, Nebuchadnezzar elevated him to the highest rank among his vassals, placing him at the head of five neighboring kings, namely, those of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon.
This new development raised Zedekiah's hopes to form an alliance against the mighty Babylonian king. When the said five kings sent personal envoys to pay their respects to Zedekiah, he saw an opportunity to persuade them to join him in an open rebellion against their common enemy.
However, Jeremiah had received a prophetic message from G‑d to forestall this reckless adventure. He was instructed by G‑d to prepare wooden bars with reins - like yokes used to harness a pair of oxen, and to place one on his neck, while handing the others over to the royal messengers to take to their masters. These yokes, and the Divine message that went with them, were to impress upon the five kings as well as on Zedekiah, that it was G‑d, the Creator and Master of the world, who decreed their submission to the king of Babylon until such time as it pleased G‑d, and that it would be useless to go against G‑d's Will. Jeremiah duly and fearlessly delivered the yokes with the following Divine message:
"So said the L-rd of Hosts, the G‑d of Israel... I have made the earth, and the peoples and beasts on it, by My great power and outstretched arm, and I give it to whom I see fit. And now I have given all these lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, who is My servant... And all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son's son, until, also, the time of his land will come to an end... Therefore, the nation and kingdom which will not serve him, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and will not put their neck under his yoke - that nation will I punish, says the L-rd, with the sword, and with famine, and with pestilence, until I have destroyed them by his hand. Therefore, do not listen to your false prophets, nor to your diviners, nor dreamers, nor enchanters, nor to your sorcerers, that tell you not to serve the king of Babylon... But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him, those will I let remain still in their own land, says the L-rd, and they shall till it, and dwell therein... Jeremiah 27:4-11).
Jeremiah pleaded with King Zedekiah and the people not to be misled by the false prophets. He appeared everywhere with his yoke on his neck, tirelessly repeating G‑d's message that their only salvation lay in obedience to G‑d's Will. It was G‑d's Will that they patiently bear the yoke of Babylonian rule which, however humiliating, left them free to serve G‑d. Indeed, the sooner they returned to G‑d and took upon themselves the "yoke" of His Torah and Mitzvos, the sooner they would free themselves from the Babylonian yoke.
Jeremiah and the False Prophet Hananiah
It was the same year, in the fifth month (Av) that Jeremiah appeared in the Beis Hamikdosh. He was met by Hananiah the son of Azzur, a self styled prophet from Gibeon, who declared in the presence of Jeremiah and all the Kohanim and the people:
"Thus said the L-rd of Hosts, the G‑d of Israel: 'I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years I will bring back into this place all the vessels of G‑d's house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried them to Babylon. And I will bring back to this place Jechoniah, the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah...' "
Jeremiah promptly replied, "Amen! May the L-rd do so... but only that prophet whose word comes true shall be known that G‑d has truly sent him."
Then Hananiah brazenly grabbed the yoke from Jeremiah's neck and broke it, saying, "Thus says the L-rd: just so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within the space of two full years!"
With a troubled spirit Jeremiah went his way. It pained him to think that at such a critical time, when the fate of the Jewish people hung in the balance, there should be false prophets among them, and, worse still, that there were many Jews who allowed themselves to be misled and deceived by them.
Then the word of G‑d came to Jeremiah, ordering him to go to Hananiah and tell him: "Thus said G‑d: You have broken bars of wood, but you shall make for them bars of iron... Hear now, Hananiah, G‑d has not sent you, but you have made the people trust in a lie. Therefore... I will cast you from the face of the earth; this year you shall die, because you taught rebellion against G‑d." Hananiah died the same year, in the seventh month (Ch. 28).
Jeremiah's Letter to the Exiles
Though Zedekiah turned a deaf ear to the warnings and pleadings of the Prophet Jeremiah, and secretly plotted against Nebuchadnezzar, he still pretended to be loyal to the Babylonian king. Little did he know that his policy would lead to the inevitable fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh seven years later.
On his part, Jeremiah, while still trying to save his people from the destruction against which he warned them, knew that the survival of the Jewish people would depend on the surviving remnants, the captives and exiles that were driven from the Land of Israel to a land not theirs, among nations not of their kind. Other nations - more numerous and more powerful than the tiny nation of Israel - once they were conquered and exiled from their land, soon disappeared without a trace; they assimilated and were completely absorbed by their conquerors. This was not to happen to the Jewish people. It was vitally important that the Jewish exiles should know that they had to carry on and preserve their way of life and Jewish identity even after the loss of their homeland, and while living as a small minority among the nations of the world. And so, when Zedekiah sent two emissaries to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah sent with them a letter addressed to the Jewish elders and captives, with a Divine message that was to serve as a guideline for Jewish survival. It read, in parts, as follows:
"Thus said the L-rd of Hosts, the G‑d of Israel, unto all the exiles whom I have exiled from Jerusalem unto Babylon: Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply, and do not diminish. And seek the peace of the city in which I caused you to be exiled, and pray unto G‑d for it; for in its peace you shall have peace...
After warning again not to be misled by false prophets and dreamers, Jeremiah tells them that, to be sure, the exile is a temporary one, but nevertheless long enough to settle down to a normal life, with complete trust in G‑d that He will redeem the remnants of His people and return them to their homeland. Jeremiah even pinpointed the length of the Babylonian Exile:
"For thus says the L-rd: After the completion of seventy years in Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word toward you to return you to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think about you, says G‑d; thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and hope. (In the meantime) you shall call upon Me, and walk in My way, and pray unto Me, and I will hear you. And if you seek Me, you will find Me, if you search for Me with all your heart... And I will bring back your captivity, and will gather you from all nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, says G‑d; and I will bring you back into the place from which I have exiled you... (Jer. ch. 29)."
Jeremiah's message made a tremendous impression upon the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It breathed new life into them, and encouraged them, for they knew exactly what they had to do. Thus, seventy years after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh by Nebuchadnezzar, the community of the faithful who returned from Exile, rebuilt the Beis Hamikdosh and Jerusalem, exactly as Jeremiah had prophesied.
Although Jeremiah's letter was addressed primarily to the exiles in Babylon, it was a clear and lasting message for Jews at all times, including the time of the present long Exile, since the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdosh nearly two thousand years ago. Throughout this longest and darkest exile, Jews dispersed among the nations of the world have lived, as we still do, by the words of this Divine message of Jeremiah and by the prophecies of our other Divine prophets, and we are certain that G‑d will keep His promise and send us His true redeemer, our righteous Moshiach, who will gather our exiles and lead us to Jerusalem, and rebuild the (third) Beis Hamikdosh, in a world that will finally recognize the supreme Heavenly kingdom on earth, under the guidance of the Chosen People, the People of the Torah.