EZEKIEL HAD JUST finished reading the section of torah for the day’s devotions. He reverently rewrapped the scroll, kissed it and replaced it in the wooden ark.
Turning to the small group gathered beside the canal, he spread his arms and intoned the Shema:
Hear, O Israel- the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart,
and with all thy mind …
The small congregation chanted in response the haunting anthem of Israel’s identity. Outside, the sun began to peek over the flat rim of the delta country of Chaldea.
When the hymn was concluded, Ezekiel nodded to Elasah, son of the revered scribe Shaphan and younger brother of Ahikam, signaling that it was time to read the letter he had brought from Jerusalem.
Forcibly stripped of the surroundings and habits of their native land, the exiles from Judah urgently banded together in this strange new country, drawing mutual support and cultural survival from their new fellowship. They had no more Temple, but they had each other in a way they never had before.
Elasah stood and unrolled the parchment. He briefly glanced at the assembly and announced, “These are the words of Jeremiah of Anathoth, the prophet in Jerusalem, concerning you, the exiles of Judah.” The listeners stirred. Jeremiah’s words were granted a retrospective deference here in Babylon that they did not enjoy in Judah.
Elasah began to read:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
“‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there, do not decrease.
‘“ And seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’
“Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you urge them to have. They speak lies to you in My name. I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord.
“The Lord says this: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future … ’
“You may say, ‘But the Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon, and they have said this and that.’ But this is what the Lord says about the king who now sits on the throne of David in Jerusalem, and about your countrymen who are still in Judah: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them, and I will make them like poor figs which are so bad they are inedible … For they have not listened to My words,’ says the Lord.”
“ALL MY BONES TREMBLE, and I am as a drunken man, because of the words of the Lord!” Jeremiah stood by the Benjamin Gate of the Temple, and tears coursed unheeded down his face as he spoke.
“My heart is broken within me!” he cried. “The land is filled with adulterers, and is cursed. The prophets follow evil and use their influence unjustly. Both prophet and priest are godless; ‘Even in My House I find their wickedness,’ says the Lord.
“Therefore their path will become slippery”—Jeremiah recalled a young boy’s grief at seeing his straying pet plunge to destruction off a treacherous path—“and they will be banished to darkness and there they will fall … ”
The crowd began drifting away. Again today, his message was nothing new.
Valiantly Jeremiah tried to pierce the armor of their ears with one last plea.
“Do not listen to what the prophets are saying to you. They fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. The Lord says, ‘They keep saying to those who despise Me, “The Lord says you will have peace.” And to those who follow the stubbornness of their own hearts they say, “No harm will come to you.”’”
The last of the hearers was wandering away. Jeremiah continued, ‘‘‘Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the Lord, ‘and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in a place I cannot see? Do I not fill heaven and earth?’”
Alone, he was about to turn in disgust and make his way homeward when a priest approached him, carrying a vellum scroll. Jeremiah recognized Zephaniah. This man had a sincere heart, Jeremiah believed. He was the successor to the banished Pashhur, and of a far more genuine temperament than Jeremiah’s old nemesis. The priest, with worry on his brow, hurried to the prophet.
A dispatch has come back to us from the elders of the exiles,” he said. “You are mentioned.” The priest unrolled the letter and began reading:
From Shemaiah the Nehelamite to Zephaniah, son of Maaseiah, chief officer of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem: greeting.
The Lord has appointed you priest after the manner of Jehoiada, who zealously strove against evildoers in the days of King Joash. Now therefore, why have you not punished this Jeremiah of Anathoth, who affects the manner of a prophet, and raves against the people of the Lord, saying, “Your exile will be long; plant gardens, settle down, marry and give your children in marriage … ”? Such a madman ought to be put in the stocks and neck irons.
There was more, but Zephaniah did not read it. He looked at Jeremiah. “Man of Anathoth, I know you are not mad. Troublesome, yes. Disturbing, certainly. Whatever else you may be, I can feel the temper of your spirit, and I know your sincerity, as certainly as I know my own. But are you certain it is wise to send such words as these to our kindred in the strange land; words which could be considered treasonous?”
Jeremiah peered deeply into the eyes of the chief officer.
“Good Zephaniah, I thank you for your kindness in showing me the charges uttered against me. But I cannot retract a single syllable of what I have said, for to do so would be treason against the Eternal. You do as you must, and I will do the same, for the time grows short.”
A long and intimate sorrow, inconsolable by human means, contorted the features of the prophet as he looked toward the walls of the Temple. He shook his head regretfully, turned, and walked away.
PHARAOH HOPHRA looked for the hundredth time at the chart of the lands between Egypt and Chaldea. There in the middle sat Judah, like a plum dangled between two outstretched hands. He strode away to his balcony. From here, in the upper terraces of his palace, he had a view of the Nile undulating away to the north.
He remembered the words of old Sakhri, now dead: “Go cautiously against the Chaldeans. Nebuchadrezzar is a crafty warrior. Take double the troops and triple the precaution when you take the field against him … “
But Hophra chafed against such warnings. Why was it always assumed he was limited by the shortcomings of Neco? Was he not Pharaoh in his own right? Might he not succeed where others had failed?
He paced back into his chamber. “Send in a scribe,” he commanded a servant. “I wish to send a letter to the king of Judah.”
“REPENT! THE DAY of the Lord’s wrath is soon to come!”
Those passing by glanced briefly at the tall, slightly stooped old man shouting in the Street of Bakers, then went on their way. It was near the time of the Passover feast, and they hurried to purchase the needed provisions before supplies were gone. This fellow had been roaming the streets of Jerusalem for as long as almost anyone could remember, delivering his dour message with monotonous persistence. But death and destruction would have to wait for another time—Passover was almost upon them.
Jeremiah watched them. Why the dogged fixation on Passover preparations? Of what use was the empty keeping of a ritual when God was bringing such complete destruction that not one stone here would be left upon another?
He considered how the good intentions of Josiah thirty years before had, in a perverse way, worsened the situation. Many who might otherwise be more attentive to the prophet’s message now congratulated themselves on their punctuality in keeping the feasts of the Covenant—while blithely ignoring its claim on their lives. They made no distinction in kind between the liturgies of the Law and those of the worthless gods they prayed to upon their rooftops, or the far more subtle gods of their appetites. Josiah had tried to do righteousness, but no king of men, Jeremiah realized, could abolish the darkness in the hearts of his people.
For more than thirty years now he had stood in their streets and their marketplaces, pleading with them to turn. Among some he had seen the right response. He could remember most of them: his friend Baruch, Ezekiel the priest, Daniel the young prince, Shaphan, Ahikam, Elnathan, and a handful more. But they were a tiny scattering of sparks against the cold, dark ignorance of this nation.
Sadly, he left the marketplace. When he came to their room that night, he found Squint already asleep and Baruch copying a scroll by the light of the tallow lamp. Softly he closed the door, quietly he seated himself across from the scribe.
Baruch glanced across at him, quickly reading the attitude of the slumped shoulders, the bowed head. He returned to his writing. “You cannot force them to see,” he commented quietly, “if they wish to remain blind.”
Jeremiah stirred, looked up at his friend, then away. “They do not even realize their blindness. If they did, I might offer them light.”
Several moments passed with the scratching of Baruch’s stylus the only sound. “Why do you go on?” the scribe asked.
“Because I must!” returned the prophet immediately. “You, of all people, should know that!”
“I do.” said Baruch softly. “I asked for you, not for me.”
Jeremiah squinted his eyes at the studious form of his friend. A tiny smile teased at the prophet’s weary face. “What are you copying?”
Baruch tilted his grandfather’s old, faded scroll toward the light, adjusting the angle to accommodate his aging eyesight. Then he read:
What will you do on the day of your appointed feasts,
on the festival days of the Lord?
Even if they escape from destruction,
Egypt will gather them,
and Memphis will bury them.
Their treasures of silver will be taken over by briers,
and thorns will overrun their tents ...
Jeremiah thought again of the crowds hastening homeward to keep what, to them, was a quaint ritual, little more. He remembered the rest of the passage:
The days of punishment are coming,
the days of reckoning are at hand.
Let Israel know this.
Because your sins are so many, and your hostility is so great,
the prophet is considered a fool,
and the inspired man a maniac …
He stared away in thought until Baruch blew out the lamp.
THE SOLDIER JASIEL stood at his station in the Tower of Meah, watching the column marching through the Gate of Mustering as they left to reinforce Jericho. The day was overcast, unusual in the summer months, and a strangely cool breeze from the north swirled and eddied about the walls of Jerusalem. Jasiel, his watch station unsheltered from the sun, should have been glad of the shade and the breeze. But they only added to his vague restiveness.
Under King Zedekiah’s orders, the cities of Judah were being refortified. Jerusalem buzzed with speculation; some were apprehensive, some eagerly belligerent. Messengers from the Pharaoh’ s court were seen entering and leaving the palace almost weekly, and Jasiel had noted certain of the nobility affecting a new haughtiness.
Since the deportation of Jeconiah and many of his lords, the voices closest to the king’s ear were those most anxious to make a name for themselves, hoping to bolster their tenuous hold upon respect in Judah. And their advice had its effect, if the preparations of the last few weeks were any indication. But others—wiser heads in Jasiel’s opinion—advised caution.
The soldier had no illusions about who would do the earliest dying if war came. It was all well and good for kings and princes to boast of valor and the honor of Judah. But the common man would be the first to stare into the faces of Chaldean regiments when they came, and his belly the first to be gashed.
And this tower on which Jasiel was stationed—and others like them—would be among the first objects of the assault. These lofty fortifications were built during the reign of Uzziah, king in Jerusalem before the days of Hezekiah. They had withstood many assaults through the nearly two centuries of their existence—from the Moabites, the Syrians, the Amorites, even the Assyrians. All had come, had tested their mettle against the ramparts of the city of the Name—and left the towers intact.
Jasiel should have taken comfort in the rugged history of the walls of Jerusalem. But something was different this time—disturbingly so. Perhaps the preaching of that old man with the sad eyes had affected him more than he thought.
This chapter is from the novel Jeremiah: He Who Wept by Thom Lemmons, copyright © 2013 by Homing Pigeon Publishing. If you’d like to download a full version of this book for your smartphone or tablet, please visit www.homingpigeonpublishing.com.