Jerusalem at the Time of Lehi and Jeremiah

Lehi and his family fled a city headed for destruction. What was that Jerusalem like? Jeremiah paints a vivid picture of a land filled with wickedness.

Jerusalem at the Time of Lehi and Jeremiah

Lehi abandoned the doomed city of Jerusalem in the first year of Zedekiah’s eleven-year reign. That single year of adversity had seen three different kings rule the land of Judah.

First was Jehoiakim, who died shortly after he revolted against Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Next was his son Jehoiachin, who reigned three months before Nebuchadnezzar arrived to put down a rebellion Jehoiakim had started. Jehoiachin’s prompt submission to Nebuchadnezzar saved the city, but his father’s foolishness caused him, along with his queen, children, officials, artisans, and thousands of citizens—including Ezekiel and Daniel—to be carried into captivity in Babylonia. (See Jer. 29:2.) Last of the three kings was Zedekiah, who secured his throne by swearing an oath of allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar.

When Nebuchadnezzar disappeared northward, taking thousands of Jewish captives with him, those who remained yearned for release from the stress. Instead, prophets of God predicted that Jerusalem, so recently saved, was about to be destroyed unless its citizens repented. The recent deportation of thousands of citizens did not end the threat. It merely provided a taste of the terror and sorrow to come.

While true prophets cried of war and desolation, the citizens refused to take either them or their warnings seriously. Pacified by false prophets who chorused peace, they felt so secure that nine years later they pressed Zedekiah to break his oath of allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar. With that act, the countdown to the destruction of the city began.

A grinding year-and-a-half siege preceded Jerusalem’s fiery end. As Jeremiah had predicted, thousands of citizens died by famine, fire, and sword. Jerusalem and Solomon’s magnificent temple became rubble and ashes. Zedekiah, the proud monarch, saw his sons slain, before having his eyes put out. Contrary to promises made by false prophets, tens of thousands more of Jerusalem’s citizens became Babylonian captives. The few survivors eventually fled to Egypt for safety. (See Jer. 39:1–2, 6–9; Jer. 43:5–7; Jer. 52:6, 13. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent references are to the book of Jeremiah.)

What, exactly, led to the fiery destruction of Jerusalem? Jeremiah tells us that its inhabitants had become so sensual and materialistic that they had lost all sense of divine values: “They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.” (Jer. 4:22.)

“They be all adulterers,” Jeremiah said about the mores of that generation. (Jer. 9:2.) They “assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.” Like well-fed stallions, “every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.” (Jer. 5:7–8.)

He who delights “in the chastity of women,” to whom whoredoms are an abomination (Jacob 2:28), saw how the wickedness of adulterous husbands caused anguish to wives whose love and trust had been shattered. He beheld “the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of [his] people in the land of Jerusalem.” (Jacob 2:31.) Consequently, the Lord led Lehi’s group “out of the land of Jerusalem … that [he] might raise up … a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.” (Jacob 2:25.)

The people’s preoccupation with sensuality was matched by their covetousness and dishonesty. Jeremiah lamented, “From the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.” (Jer. 6:13; Jeremiah referred to false prophets simply as prophets, as the context makes clear.) He challenged anyone who doubted his words to search the streets and plazas of Jerusalem to see “if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth.” (Jer. 5:1.)

In Jerusalem, possessing things became all-important, and any means to possessing them seemed justified. Dishonesty replaced integrity, trust disappeared, and neighbors became treacherous. Jeremiah observed:

“They bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth. …”

Therefore he counseled, “Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbour will walk with slanders.” (Jer. 9:2–4.)

“One speaketh peaceably to his neighbour with his mouth, but in heart he layeth his wait.” (Jer. 9:8.)

As covetous, dishonest, and adulterous as that generation was, it carefully maintained its self-respect by rationalizing good into evil, and evil into good. Carefully, it called and anointed prophets who were made in its own mold. Because of these soothsayers’ perverse influence, Jeremiah said, “Mine heart within me is broken because of the prophets.” (Jer. 23:9.)

Of these false, immoral testators, the Lord said: “I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah.” (Jer. 23:14.)

How carefully such false prophets assured citizens that wickedness really was happiness! How well they insulated them from the pangs of conscience! How thoroughly they convinced them that sensual, materialistic lives were better than ones lived in the peace of the Spirit!

Though they claimed to have visions, their visions came from their own hearts. They promised those who walked after their own imaginations that no evil would come upon them. To those who despised the Lord, they blandly promised, “The Lord hath said, Ye shall have peace.” (See Jer. 23:16–17.) By contradicting and ridiculing the true prophets, they convinced that perverse generation not to repent.

Ironically, they could have been a great influence for good. The Lord told Jeremiah, “If they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.” (Jer. 23:22.)

In addition to paying prophets to say “Yea” to the desires of their own lustful, covetous hearts, citizens of Jerusalem also zealously worshipped idols. In their zeal, the people served as many gods as they had cities in Judah and erected as many altars to Baal as they had streets in Jerusalem. (See Jer. 11:13.) They built “high places of Tophet” in the Hinnom valley, where they burned “their sons and their daughters in the fire” to Baal and Molech, something God had never required of them, neither had it ever entered his heart to ask. (Jer. 7:31; see also Jer. 19:5; Jer. 32:35.) When the Canaanite predecessors to Israel had polluted the land by similar practices, the land had vomited them out. (See Lev. 18:21, 24–25.)

Worst of all, the people refused to change or even to recognize their iniquity. There was no introspection, no remorse. “No man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done?” (Jer. 8:6.)

“Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush.” (Jer. 6:15.)

In fact, the people even wondered, “Wherefore hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?” (Jer. 16:10.) Laman and Lemuel, as products of that society, shared those feelings. “We know,” said they, “that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people,” and they convinced themselves that their father Lehi had misjudged their friends and neighbors. (1 Ne. 17:22.) Prophets must always appear too judgmental to those who lose their ability to discriminate between good and evil.

Jeremiah, not willing that any should perish, was inspired to promise the citizens of Jerusalem that God would save them, their city, and their temple from destruction—if they would repent. More specifically, if they would simply keep the Sabbath day holy, God would spare them. (See Jer. 17:19–27.) Jeremiah’s warnings, however, went unheeded and failed to deter their rampant wickedness.

To an unrepentant people, divine prophets must have appeared to be harbingers of doom, while false prophets must have seemed to be angels of peace and mercy. Jeremiah, for example, wrote to the captives in Babylonia telling them to build homes, plant gardens, and marry off their children so that they would grow during the long years of captivity. The false prophet Hananiah, on the other hand, promised in the name of the Lord that within two years God would bring them all back to their homes in Palestine. (See Jer. 28:1–4; Jer. 29:1, 4–7.) When Jeremiah cried war—sword, spear, and fire—false prophets pacified the sinful people with “Peace, peace!” (See Jer. 6:13–14, 22–29.)

When the Babylonians finally came and surrounded the city, Jeremiah again counseled individuals that they could survive by surrendering to the Babylonians. Such advice weakened the hands of the defenders and made Jeremiah look as if he were a traitor. (Jer. 38:2–4.) Yet only God knew what was coming and could tell them how to survive.

In the final days of the siege, Zedekiah desperately asked Jeremiah for advice. Jeremiah promised him his life and the city’s salvation if he would give himself up to the Babylonians. Otherwise, the city would be destroyed. Yet Zedekiah kept the advice secret for fear of his own people, and Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled. (Jer. 38:17–27.)

The widespread hostility to and rejection of divine messages made it a hard time to be an authentic prophet. Even the priestly men of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown, repeatedly made attempts on Jeremiah’s life, saying, “Prophesy not in the name of the Lord, that thou die not by our hand.” (Jer. 11:21.) The plotters even involved his brothers and the house of his father. (See Jer. 12:6.)

Jeremiah was horrified at the variety of plots being made against him: “I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living.” (Jer. 11:19.)

Another time, when he had promised that the temple and city would fall, the priests and prophets brought him to trial before the princes and accused him of treason, demanding his death. But, like Abinadi, he replied, “I am in your hand: do with me as seemeth good and meet unto you.

“But know ye for certain, that if ye put me to death, ye shall surely bring innocent blood upon yourselves, and upon this city, and upon the inhabitants thereof: for of a truth the Lord hath sent me unto you to speak all these words in your ears.” (See Jer. 26:8–15.)

Once again, the Lord delivered Jeremiah out of their hands, as he had promised. (See Jer. 1:18–19; Jer. 26:24.) One of Jeremiah’s contemporaries, however, was not as fortunate. When Urijah “prophesied against this city and against this land,” Jehoiakim tried to kill him. Urijah fled to Egypt for safety, but the king extradited him and “slew him with the sword.” (Jer. 26:20–23.)

The constant harassment, mockery, and ridicule became at times a burden almost too heavy for Jeremiah to bear. He wondered aloud, “Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?” (Jer. 20:18.) On the other hand, he empathized with the suffering his people were about to experience: “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1.)

In such a prophet-killing environment, Lehi courageously took his stand on the side of the true prophets and prophesied of what he had seen and heard: the destruction of Jerusalem, the people’s wickedness and abomination, the coming of the Messiah, and the redemption of the world.

“When the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; … and they also sought his life, that they might take it away.” (1 Ne. 1:18–20.)

If we had no Old Testament into which to put his experience, the reaction to his message might seem melodramatic. But knowing the context, we understand more about the courage and willingness of this great prophet Lehi to stand with the other true prophets.

Lehi and Nephi knew that prophetic warnings are blessings that a compassionate God offers to his children. Nephi extends the message of Jeremiah: “The tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.” (1 Ne. 1:20; see also Jer. 7:3–7.) Lehi’s and Nephi’s testimony are the same as that of every other prophetic writer of scripture: salvation and deliverance are of God.

As Lehi was led toward the promised land prepared for him by the Lord, we can sense his excitement in looking ahead to a place where his family might seek the Lord and serve him in righteousness. Thus, while humbly acknowledging that he was a visionary man, he knew that his visions were responsible for his family being saved:

“If I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.

“But behold, I have obtained a land of promise, in the which things I do rejoice.” (1 Ne. 5:4–5.)

These stories of Jeremiah and Lehi are part of the ongoing story of God’s love. They show how the Lord strives continuously to save all of his children, how he warns the wicked of his impending judgments, and how he leads to safety those who listen to his counsel.

In our day, prophets are once again warning the world that God’s judgments will be poured out upon the wicked. The experiences of Jeremiah and Lehi encourage us to believe that, if we love the truth enough to follow the prophets and take the Holy Spirit for our guide, we will receive the promised blessings. (See D&C 45:57.)

[illustrations] Above: “The Flight of the Prisoners” by James J. Tissot. “He burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire.” (2 Kgs. 25:9.) Right: “Jeremiah” by James J. Tissot. “[Thou] shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again.” (Jer. 19:11.)

Keith Meservy, an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, teaches Gospel Doctrine in his Provo, Utah, ward.