Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, by Julius Wellhausen, , at sacred-texts.com
Josiah lived for thirteen years after the accomplishment of his great work. It was a happy period of external and internal prosperity. The nation possessed the covenant, and kept it. It seemed as if the conditions had been attained on which, according to the prophets, the continuance of the theocracy depended; if their threatenings against Israel had been fulfilled, so now was Judah proving itself the heir of their promises. Already in Deuteronomy is the "extension of the frontier" taken into consideration, and Josiah actually put his hand to the task of seeking the attainment of this end.
Jehovah and Israel, religion and patriotism, once more went hand in hand. Jeremiah alone did not suffer himself to be misled by the general feeling. He was a second Amos, upon a higher platform—but, unlike his predecessor, a prophet by profession; his history, like
[paragraph continues] Isaiah's, is practically the history of his time. In the work of introducing Deuteronomy he had taken an active part, and throughout his life he showed his zeal against unlawful altars and against the adoration of wood and stone (Asheras and pillars). But he was by no means satisfied with the efforts of the reformation that had been effected; nothing appeared to him more sinful or more silly than the false confidence produced by it in Jehovah and in the inviolability of His one true temple. This confidence he maintained to be delusive; Judah was not a whit better than Israel had been, Jerusalem would be destroyed one day like the temple of Shiloh. The external improvements on which the people of Judah prided themselves he held to leave this severe judgment unaffected; what was needed was a quite different sort of change, a change of heart, not very easy positively to define.
An opportunity for showing his opposition presented itself to the prophet at the juncture when King Josiah had fallen at Megiddo in the battle with Pharaoh Necho (608), and when the people were seeking safety and protection by cleaving to Jehovah and His holy temple. At the instance of the priests and the prophets he had almost expiated with his blood the blasphemies he had uttered against the popular belief; but he did not suffer himself to be driven from his course. Even when the times had grown quiet again, he persisted, at the risk of his life and under universal reproach and ridicule, in his work as a prophet of evil. Moments of despair sometimes came to him; but that he had correctly estimated the true value of the great conversion of the nation was speedily proved by the facts. Although Deuteronomy was not formally abolished under Jehoiakim, who as the vassal of Egypt ascended the throne of his father Josiah, nevertheless it ceased to have practical weight, the battle of Megiddo having shown that in spite of the covenant with Jehovah the possibilities of non-success in war remained the same as before. Jehoiakim tended to return to the ways of Manasseh, not only as regarded idolatry, but also in his contempt for law and the private rights of his subjects;—the two things seem to stand in connection.
The course of events at last brought upon the theocracy the visible ruin which Jeremiah had been so long expecting. After the Egyptians had, with comparative ease, subjugated Syria at the time when the Medes and Chaldæans were busied with the siege of Nineveh, Nebuchadnezzar,
that task accomplished, came upon them from Babylon and routed them on the Euphrates near Carchemish (605-4). The people of Judah rejoiced at the fall of Nineveh, and also at the result of Carchemish; but they were soon undeceived when the prospect began to open on them of simply exchanging the Egyptian for the Chaldæan yoke. The power of the Chaldæans had been quite unsuspected, and now it was found that in them the Assyrians had suddenly returned to life. Jeremiah was the only man who gained any credit by these events. His much ridiculed "enemy out of the north," of whom he had of old been wont to speak so much, now began to be talked of with respect, although his name was no longer "the Scythian" but "the Babylonian." It was an epoch,—the close of an account which balanced in his favour. Therefore it was that precisely at this moment he received the Divine command to commit to writing that which for twenty-three years he had been preaching, and which, ever pronounced impossible, had now showed itself so close at hand.
After the victory of Carchemish the Chaldæans drove Pharaoh out of Syria, and also compelled the submission of Jehoiakim (c. 602). For three years he continued to pay his tribute, and then he withheld it; a mad passion for liberty, kindled by religious fanaticism, had begun to rage with portentous power amongst the influential classes, the grandees, the priests, and the prophets. Nebuchadnezzar satisfied himself in the first instance with raising against Judah several of the smaller nationalities around, especially the Edomites; not till 597 did he appear in person before Jerusalem. The town was compelled to yield; the more important citizens were carried into exile, amongst them the young king Jechoniah, son of Jehoiakim, who had died in the interval; Zedekiah ben Josiah was made king in his stead over the remnant left behind. The patriotic fanaticism that had led to the revolt was not broken even by this blow. Within four years afterwards new plans of liberation began to be again set on foot; but on this occasion the influence of Jeremiah proved strong enough to avert the danger. But when a definite prospect of help from Pharaoh Hophra (Apries) presented itself in 589, the craving for independence proved quite irrepressible. Revolt was declared; and in a very short time the Chaldæan army, with Nebuchadnezzar at its head, lay before Jerusalem. For a while everything seemed to move prosperously; the Egyptians came to the rescue, and the Chaldæans were compelled to raise the
siege in order to cope with them. At this there was great joy in Jerusalem; but Jeremiah continued to express his gloomy views. The event proved that he was right; the Egyptians were repulsed and the siege resumed. The city was bent on obstinate resistance; in vain did Jeremiah, at continual risk of his life, endeavour to bring it to reason. The king, who agreed with the prophet, did not venture to assert his opinion against the dominant terrorism. The town in these circumstances was at last taken by storm, and along with the temple, reduced to ruins. Cruel vengeance was taken on the king and grandees, and the pacification of the country was ensured by another and larger deportation of the inhabitants to Babylon. Thus terminated in 586 the kingdom of Judah.
The prophets had been the spiritual destroyers of the old Israel. In old times the nation had been the ideal of religion in actual realisation; the prophets confronted the nation with an ideal to which it did not correspond. Then to bridge over this interval the abstract ideal was framed into a law, and to this law the nation was to be conformed. The attempt had very important consequences, inasmuch as Jehovah continued to be a living power in the law, when He was no longer realised as present in the nation; but that was not what the prophets had meant to effect. What they were unconsciously labouring towards was that religious individualism which had its historical source in the national downfall, and manifested itself not exclusively within the prophetical sphere. With such men as Amos and Hosea the moral personality based upon an inner conviction burst through the limits of mere nationality; their mistake was in supposing that they could make their way of thinking the basis of a national life. Jeremiah saw through the mistake; the true Israel was narrowed to himself. Of the truth of his conviction he never had a moment's doubt; he knew that Jehovah was on his side, that on Him depended the eternal future. But, instead of the nation, the heart and the individual conviction were to him the subject of religion. On the ruins of Jerusalem he gazed into the future filled with joyful hope, sure of this that Jehovah would one day pardon past sin and renew the relation which had been broken off-though on the basis of another covenant than that laid down in Deuteronomy. "I will put my law upon their heart, and write it on their mind; none shall say to his neighbour, Know the Lord, for all shall have that knowledge within them."