Old Testament Survey - Lesson 21

Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon

Explore the profound shifts in the religious and social landscape of the Judean people following the Babylonian conquest and subsequent exile. The content spans from 586-539 BC, focusing on the distribution of the Judean population across Babylon, Egypt, and the remnants in Judah. You will learn about the dire circumstances that led to the total eclipse of the grace and glory of God, marked by economic hardship, political instability, and spiritual numbness among the survivors and exiles. Key biblical figures like Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide insights into the life and adaptations of the Jewish communities in exile, notably in Babylon, where despite the hardships, a new class of Jewish nobility emerged, maintaining traditional practices amidst a syncretic religious environment. 

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 21
Watching Now
Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon

I. Introduction to the Exilic Period

A. The Crisis of the Exile

1. Historical context of Jerusalem's fall to the Babylonians

2. The exile period (586 to 539 BC)

B. Geographical Dispersion of Jews

1. Remnant in Judah

2. Jewish settlements in Egypt

3. Exiles in Babylon

II. Devastation and Its Consequences

A. Destruction of Population Centers

1. Archaeological evidence of devastation

2. Economic and political effects

3. Spiritual numbness among survivors

B. Emergence of New Nobility

1. New upper class in Jerusalem

2. Lack of understanding and compassion

III. Jewish Life in Exile

A. Jewish Communities in Egypt

1. Settlements and their locations

2. Syncretism and religious practices

B. Babylonian Exile

1. Settlement policies of Babylonians

2. Social and economic integration

3. Continuation of Jewish identity

IV. Prophetic Ministries during the Exile

A. Jeremiah’s Ministry

1. Prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem

2. Forced move to Egypt and his life there

B. Ezekiel’s Ministry

1. Audience and context of his prophecies

2. Themes of idolatry and social justice

V. Theological Reflections on the Exile

A. Impact of Exile on Religious Beliefs

1. Challenges to the traditional understanding of Yahweh’s power

2. Preservation of religious and ethnic identity

B. Enduring Promises and Their Implications

1. Four pillars of orthodox divine promise

2. Psychological and spiritual impacts of Jerusalem’s fall

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon
Lesson Transcript


Before we move into specific texts of the First Testament, we need to pause to talk about the total eclipse of the grace and glory of God in the wake of or in the context of Jerusalem's fall to the Babylonians. By this I mean the crisis of the exile. During the exilic period, Jews, that is from 586 to 539 BC, Jews were to be found in three principal locations.

There was a remnant left in Judah, some were in Egypt, and the exiles were in Babylon. According to the biblical record, the Babylonians deported virtually all who remained in the population after the earlier exile in 597 when Nebuchadnezzar had taken Jehoiachin and 10,000 of the upper class. But after the devastations of 588 and 586 to 586, there were only some of the poorest of the land left to tend the vineyards and the olive groves, 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 52, 15.

The population was devastated. Of the few that were left, many fled to Egypt in the wake of the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor that Nebuchadnezzar had installed to administer this colony now. According to Jeremiah 42, Jeremiah was forced to go with them, and he ended his life in Egypt.

Archaeology confirms the complete devastation of the land, particularly the major population centers like Jerusalem and Lachish. In general, the people that remained suffered from severe depression expressed in economic poverty, political lethargy, and shall we say spiritual numbness. They were in a state of extreme shock.

What happened? However, inevitably, probably, a new class of nouveau noblesses, relatively new upper classes, new nobility emerged, even in Jerusalem. But they had the same proclivity toward arrogance and spiritual attitude as their predecessors. According to Ezekiel 11, 14 to 16, they had no understanding of their rich religious heritage and no sensitivity or pity for their deported country folk in Babylon.

According to Jeremiah 44, 1, Jewish settlements were established in Egypt in a series of sites, Pathros, Migdal, Techaniz, Memphis. But thanks to the discovery of numerous papyri, the best known is the military colony that existed on the island of Elephantine on the Nile River. How these people got there, we don't know.

Some may have arrived as early as the time of Manasseh, who was trying to be friendly with the Egyptians. These papyri reveal relative autonomy of this colony in internal social affairs, but the religious climate was syncretistic. They celebrated the Passover and the Sabbaths to Yahweh, and there was a temple for Yahweh there, but there were also many other deities that they were worshiping, Eshem, Bethel, Anat, Bethel, Sati, Nebo, Anat, Yahu, Hnuv.

They were totally syncretized in Egypt. Jeremiah ministered to Jerusalem to the very end in 586. He warned his fellow Judeans of the imminent fall of Jerusalem.

After his prophecies had been fulfilled, though, his countrymen dragged him off to Egypt against his will. That's Jeremiah. But then there's Ezekiel.

The primary audience of his junior contemporary, Ezekiel, was the community of Jews in Babylon. Undoubtedly, in 597, because he was of the priestly class and was in line for priestly office, he was among those exiled at that time. But there was, as we learned from the book of Ezekiel, a strong community of Jews in Babylon.

Unlike the Babylonians, unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians didn't scatter their captives all over the country. They allowed them to settle in their own colonies. Mesopotamia had long been the beneficiary of forced Israelite immigration.

According to Neo-Assyrian records, hundreds of thousands of citizens from the northern kingdom had been dispersed throughout the empire. We see this in the book Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, where there's a record of this from the Assyrian kings, but also see II Kings 17.6. Nebuchadnezzar continued the policy of exiling the population with the Judeans, bringing the cream of the population to Babylon and establishing settlements nearby instead of scattering them all over, which meant that by the time we get to the book of Ezekiel, we'll see this man living in a, now we can use the word, a Jewish community. The word Jew comes from the name Judah, and these are Judeans primarily.

They are living in Babylon, and Ezekiel himself is a Levite. He's in line for the priestly ministry, but he's working among this Jewish community. Now, there are several objectives that drove empires, or should we say emperors, policies in the way they handled captives.

They would capture them and deport them to another land to break down bonds of nationality and resistance. In fact, in the Assyrian records, we read repeatedly of the Assyrian kings saying, we made all these people of one mouth. They're deliberately breaking down national boundaries and nationality boundaries.

A second goal was to destroy political structures by removing civil and religious leaders. Third, to provide conscripts for the Babylonian or the Assyrian army in an earlier time. They would use captives as conscripts and send them out into battle on behalf of the conquerors.

And fourth, to bolster the economy of the victorious nation. In Babylon, we see that very quickly the Jewish settlers emerged as significant economic movers and shakers. Many questions remain about the exilic social scene, but we can piece together several certain features in Babylon.

Remember, there are a few Jews left in Jerusalem and Judah. There are colonies in Egypt, but the rest of Scripture is interested only or primarily to those who are in Babylon. What can we learn about the community of exiles in Babylon, which represent the future of the nation of Israel? Well first, although Jehoiakim lasted on the throne of David only three months after the initial humiliation of deportation because he resisted Nebuchadnezzar's rule, he was taken to Babylon, but he seems to have fared relatively well.

Babylonian inscriptions refer to him as the king of the land of Judah, and we have one little tablet which tells us that he and his sons received rations from the royal household or storehouses, which matches the picture we have at the end of the book of II Kings that tells us that Jehoiakim was elevated and invited to eat at the king of Babylon's table. Whether this was favorable treatment for good behavior or to keep the pressure on Zedekiah back home, whom Nebuchadnezzar had put in on the throne in place of Jehoiakim, or whether this was treatment common for all kings coming to Babylon, we don't exactly know. But storage jars probably dating from this period have been discovered in several Judean sites bearing the inscription, Belonging to Eliakim, Steward of Yauchin.

What? He's in Babylon. But apparently there are some people who are still loyal to him, even though Zedekiah was on the throne. Well, these inscriptions suggest either that the king continued to hold title to crown properties, or that people in Judah continued to look to him as the legitimate ruler, with Zedekiah being viewed merely as a puppet regent.

Ezekiel the prophet insulted Zedekiah by insisting on dating his oracles not after the date of Zedekiah's accession, but after the date of the exile of Jehoiakim and the exile of Ezekiel himself. He wouldn't honor Zedekiah by naming him as marking the beginning of a significant era. But we see evidence that the pride in the Davidic stock continued even after the exile by the identification of Sheshbazar as Prince of Judah in Ezra 1-8.

That's remarkable. They are still in exile, but there is this Prince of Judah, Sheshbazar. They remember that we still have some remnants of the Davidic house around here.

Despite Jeremiah's pronouncements against Jehoiakim, Jeremiah calls him Koniah, elsewhere also Jeconiah, in Jeremiah 22-24, the prophets never lost hope in the Davidic line, and Jehoiakim remained the critical link. Psalm 137 locates the Judean exiles generally by the rivers of Babylon. There we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.

That's where the exiles were settled. Ezekiel's ministry focused on one specific community at Tel Aviv by the Kibar Canal. This has nothing to do with the modern city of Tel Aviv.

It's on one of the canals southeast of Babylon. Although humiliated by the experience of deportation, there are no indications of economic hardships among the exiles. Daniel 1 indicates that some Judeans quickly distinguished themselves and rose to the top in the Babylonian court.

You remember Daniel and his three friends. But from outside the Bible, documents have been frowned from what was then called the village of Judah, Al Yehudah, south of Babylon. These documents date from the middle of the 6th century, Nebuchadnezzar's time, for a couple of decades afterwards.

And then there's another batch of tablets that were found. We call them the Murashu archive from the last half of the 5th century BC. 5th century, that would be about 425, perhaps.

They suggest these are largely economic documents, but there are lots of Jewish names on here, and we know they represent the descendants of those who had been taken into exile. But they suggest that very quickly, the Jewish exiles got involved in the merchant trades and in banking enterprises. They are recording transactions that they are having with clients and customers.

Within a couple of generations, the Murashu family, at least, must have become very wealthy. And according to Jeremiah 29, 5 to 7, the exiles seem to have engaged in agriculture. In fact, Jeremiah encourages them, settle down, build houses, plant your gardens, you'll be there for a while.

In fact, they flourished so well that when Cyrus issues his decree in 539, permitting the Judeans to return to Jerusalem, yes, there were 40,000 that went, but the majority preferred not to go. They stayed in Babylon. Even though the Judean exiles integrated quickly into the Babylonian economy, they managed to remain a distinct ethnic and social community.

References to Jehoiakim of the house of David and the existence of elders of the people of Israel, in Ezekiel especially, attest to their communal self-consciousness. This sense of ethnic cohesiveness was promoted or reflected in the careful keeping of family records. You see this in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 1, and continued communication with Jerusalem, especially before the fall of the city.

It's interesting that in Daniel chapter 9, he's having his devotions on one of Jeremiah's prophecies, the prophecy of the 70 weeks. Well, how did that get to Babylon? Apparently, conversation and communication are happening. Although we have no record of a temple for Yahweh in Babylon, it appears that externally, at least, Israelite religious institutions like circumcision and Sabbaths were being maintained.

We see this in Isaiah 56 and 58 and Ezekiel 44 to 46. From the prophecies of Ezekiel, however, and he prophesied, and his entire ministry was in Babylon. He gives us the clearest picture of what life was like for the exiles.

But from him, we learn that the underlying spiritual condition was much different than the economic status. They were doing well socially and economically. But spiritually, the people seem to have brought all their apostatizing baggage with them, including their tendencies toward idolatry and all kinds of social evils.

We see these catalogued in Ezekiel chapter 18. But in truth, the exile suffered from a condition of intense theological shock. Even though the prophets had justifiably denounced the people of Judah for their idolatrous and socially criminal ways, throughout the Babylonian crisis, the people maintained confidence in Yahweh's obligation to rescue the city, that is until 586.

And even after that, to bring them back home quickly, Yahweh was obligated to them. In keeping with standard ancient Near Eastern perspectives, this sense of security was based upon the conviction of an inseparable bond involving the national patron deity, Yahweh, a territory, the land of Canaan, and a people, the nation of Israel. This is reflected in the triangular nature of covenant relationship involving the God, the people, and the place where the God's temple lives.

More specifically, however, Israelite confidence in Yahweh was founded on an official orthodoxy. And even as they were sinking in their spiritual syncretism and paganism, they maintained four pillars of orthodox divine promise, four pillars. And even as Nebuchadnezzar's forces were knocking on the walls of Jerusalem, they were hanging on to every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line, all the blessings of his love divine, every promise in the book is mine, mine, mine.

Security is mine. There were four of these promises. First, the irrevocability of Yahweh's covenant with Israel.

At Sinai, Yahweh entered into a relationship with Israel from which there would be no divorce. Second, Yahweh's ownership of the land. To Abraham already, Yahweh had promised title to the land of Canaan.

That's part of an eternal covenant. Third, Yahweh's eternal covenant with David. He had told David in 2 Samuel 7 that you and your sons have eternal title to the throne.

And then fourth, Yahweh's residence in Jerusalem. In Psalm 132, we read that the Lord had chosen this as his dwelling place forever. All of these are forever promises, covenant promises.

And the nearer the forces of Nebuchadnezzar came, the more the people clung to the promises of God. These were the four pillars of their security. But Jerusalem fell.

The Davidic house was cut off. The temple was razed. The nation was exiled from the land.

And the spiritual fallout of all of this turned out to be much more difficult to deal with than the physical effect. Nebuchadnezzar's victory left the Judeans emotionally devastated, raising all sorts of questions about Yahweh, questions of divine impotence. Couldn't he save us? Betrayal, abandonment, based on appearances.

And of course, now we have to understand how the ancients understood warfare. If two armies ever went into battle against one another, national armies that is, the outcome of the battle would be determined by the gods in the heavens. Whoever had the stronger god would win.

Based on these appearances, Marduk, the god of Babylon, had prevailed. Marduk had defeated Yahweh, the god of Israel. Ezekiel faced an audience that was disillusioned, cynical, bitter, and angry.

The house of rebellion had collapsed and no one had rescued them. Where's God when you need him? This is the crisis of the exile. This is the crisis of the heart.

We'll see what happens in the prophetic books that come out of this period.