No one is justified by the sins of others. This is the life lesson of the ancient empires. Six nations surrounding Israel gloated over its moral decline, believing that by reducing Israel to their level they would somehow make their immorality acceptable. Israel’s enemies said, “We are not guilty for they have sinned against the Lord” (Jer. 50:7). These nations succeeded in purposely introducing religions of relativistic morality into the cities of Judah, but to no one’s advantage. When Josiah died, the last good king of Judah, then it could finally be said that every nation was ruled by a tyrant who exercised arbitrary, abusive power over its people. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God explained his position to “all the kingdoms of the world that are on the face of the earth” (Jer. 25:26). He said, “I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name [Jerusalem], and shall you go unpunished?” (Jer. 25:29). The other nations would not go unpunished, because they were all guilty.
Tyranny is the abuse of power. The ancient world did not have national boundaries as we do today. The extent of empires was determined by military might. Only Israel had laws that forbade its kings from abusing their power. Other kings were free to plunder and kill according to their military strength. The prophet Habakkuk described them as “guilty men, whose own might is their god” (Hab. 1:11). God never approved of tyranny as normal or acceptable but showed patience and grace to the world for Israel’s sake. At the beginning of the sixth century BC, however, Judah sank to the level of the surrounding nations. Tyranny became so universal that God pressed the reset button.
The covenant that Jehovah made with Israel was anti-tyrannical because it was based on the character of God who is not a tyrant. The nations of Philistia, Phoenicia, Syria, Ammon, Moab, and Edom tempted Israel to abandon its covenant with Jehovah. Some of the kings of Judah were good and some were evil, but none of them were effective in leading the people to obey the directive, “Learn not the way of the nations,… for the customs of the peoples are vanity” (Jer. 10:2). It could finally be said, “as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah” (Jer. 2:28). Religious compromise went hand in hand with political tyranny and social injustice.
Israel adopted permissive religions into its culture from the surrounding nations, while giving lip service to its traditional values. The people suffered, for it was written of Jerusalem that “there is nothing but oppression within her” (Jer. 6:6). God asked, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name?” (Jer. 7:9,10). Tyranny, as abuse, was not merely the sin of kings; it permeated society from the streets of Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Justice was gone. The poor, the fatherless, orphans, foreigners, the innocent, in short, all those who were weak became prey to tricksters and the rich and powerful. God grieved for the weak who could not defend themselves. “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain;… everyone deals falsely” (Jer. 6:13). God grieved because people of integrity who were fair and kind could not be found. “Search her squares [Jerusalem’s] to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her.” (Jer. 5:1).
Plunder is stealing, which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Babylon, however, worshipped the god Bel or Merodach, who sanctioned stealing. Babylon, in fact, became a master at plundering other nations and taking their riches back to Babylon. When Jerusalem refused to judge itself, God used a tyrannical nation to exercise judgment over Jerusalem. In fact, God called Babylon his “servant” and “the hammer of the whole earth” (Jer. 50:23). Babylon was the greatest tyrant around, and God used one tyrant to punish all the others. Babylon plundered Egypt, then Jerusalem and all the surrounding nations. After all that, Babylon was plundered by Persia, never to rise again. In a few centuries, the world went from the prosperity of the days of Solomon to desolation and waste.
Historians, such as the Greeks and Romans, have long admired Babylon. The Bible is the only source that has been critical of Babylon. Rather than praising the Babylonians for their glorious military and economic success, the Bible shames them for their vain pride. “Though you rejoice, though you exult, O plunderers of my heritage,… your mother shall be utterly shamed, and she who bore you shall be disgraced.” (Jer. 50:11,12). Is it really so hard to understand that history is about Jehovah, the good God, and his humble nation. The facts of history have been established for everyone to examine. Even at the high point of their sin, God’s people spoke volumes about God’s justice and mercy to the nations around them. Today, as in the days of Jeremiah, few are willing to listen.